Ekphrasis

Writing to an image, especially a painting, helps me find inspiration. Ekphrasis, from ancient Greek, is a description of a visual work of art. Usually, ekphrastic poetry describes a painting, but some poems might enter a film or a sculpture.

Recent MacArthur Genius grant winner Terrance Hayes has a 20-part poem titled “Arbor for Butch,” written to a sculpture series by Martin Puryear. Hayes also experiments with form in this poem, as it is a pecha kucha.

The surreal paintings of Mexican artists Remedios Varo and Leonora Carrington have sparked my creativity. My most recent ekphrastic poem, “The Women Have Gathered to Welcome Him Back to Himself,” explores a painting by Leonora Carrington titled The Temptation of St. Anthony. 

I’m pleased and honored that the journal Ekphrasis chose to publish this poem in their Fall/Winter 2014 issue, and that they have nominated it for a Pushcart Prize. St. Anthony  lives on through poetry!

Temptation of St. Anthony by Leonora Carrington

Praying for Peace

Today at my house we’ve been talking about the many horrifying events that are occurring around the globe, and more specifically, the brutal killing of journalist Steven Sotloff in the wake of James’s Foley’s murder. The question is, how do we stay positive? How can we keep ourselves from falling into despair? How do we continue to enjoy our lives when so many are suffering?

Violence begets violence. We can trace the causes of war by jumping from one act of aggression to another. Whose fault is it? Who’s to blame? The people who are using the deaths of these journalists to goad the president into war are irresponsible. As Martin Luther King preached, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into friend.”

The answer is compassion. And focusing on the breath. I mean that on a very personal level. There are no slogans that will save us. We have this present moment to cultivate love and compassion for ourselves and each other. I’m committed to remaining faithful to gratitude for each breath, for each opportunity to grow in awareness and compassion.

If we learn to respect the abiding source of love within ourselves, we will never want to harm another creature, because all sentient beings are made of the same stuff of life, the same love. We can’t control others, let alone world events. So we need to focus on cultivating love for ourselves and the people with whom we have contact on a daily basis. If each of us does this work, we will evolve and the world will be at peace.

As Robert Thurman says in the introduction to  his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, “in order to create something, we have to imagine it first.” The work of creating peace begins in our individual minds, and it spreads as each of us grows in awareness, clarity, and peace.

Peace to James Foley and his family. Peace to journalist Steven Sotloff and all those who love him. Peace to Michael Brown, his family, and all the young people of color who have lost their lives due to discrimination.

(Free!) Online Poetry Class

The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program is offering a free, online poetry class, otherwise known as a MOOC. Each week we will listen to two video lessons and write poems based on suggested exercises.

Former poet laureate Robert Hass opened up the lecture series with a talk about writing poetry 1, 2, 3, and 4-line sketches. Rather than explain everything he says in the video, which was wonderful and inspiring, I will direct you to the blog of one of my classmates, Minal Hajratwala, a very accomplished writer in her own right. She has outlined the entire lesson and found links to the many poems Robert Hass cites (often from memory)–thank you, Minal!

The part of the lesson that inspired me the most has to do with “Bantu combinations.” According to Hass, while Bantu men were working together, one would call out a line.

The example he gives is: “An elephant was killed by a small arrow.” 

The second person calls out: “A lake dries up at the edges.”

The idea is to find a similarity between the two images, but a surprising one. Here the connection is that the edges of a dried up lake resemble the elephant’s skin. 

Some of these Bantu combinations, which previously existed only as spoken word, have been collected by Jerome Rothenberg in Technicians of the Sacred: A Range of Poetries from Africa, America, Asia, Europe and Oceania. 

Here’s the four-line sketch I wrote for the exercise:

Hiking up Pigeon Hill on Little Kennesaw Mountain

Profiles of ancient women line the boulders

Where, in blues and grays, Missourians shot each other

Behind earthen battlements, a yellow-petaled cactus.

Hiking up Pigeon Hill on Little Kennesaw Mountain

 

Review: Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne

Wolf Skin by Mary McMyne (Dancing Girl Press, 2014) creates a world where fairytale characters return to us, claiming their stories for themselves.

In “Fur,” Red Riding Hood’s single mother tells her, “Be not girl…but wolf,” and in “Rotkappchen” the girl begs the hunstman to leave her and the grandmother “in the wolf’s belly, without memory.”

The title poem, “Wolf Skin,” shows us the hunter who, after saving the grandmother and the girl, wraps himself in the slain wolf’s skin and calls himself a hero, while inwardly admitting he doesn’t understand the mystery of cutting them out of the jaws of death.

While McMyne retells several different Grimm’s fairy tales, often using the German words for characters or titles, at the same time she explores themes such as death, rebirth, pain, cessation of pain, and entrapment within the confines of societal norms.

McMyne’s language and imagery evoke a world that is close to the pulse and marrow of life. The poems are alive to the unspoken urges and forces that only reveal themselves to us in dreams and ancient stories.

#readwomen2014

Image

Summer Reading: Swift Hour by Megan Sexton

Swift Hour by Megan Sexton is the 2013 winner of Mercer University’s  Adrienne Rich Bond Award for poetry. This first collection contains many delicate gems. These poems are tender and powerful in their precise and restrained expression of the human condition.

One of my favorite poems is “Lastoshki,” about a man writing down Anna Akhmatova’s verses on cigarette paper as she says “the words that came to her/ like sparrows falling on snow.” Megan Sexton’s first collection is lovely and refreshing. I’m sure to read it a second and third time.
Image

Peony Moon wins 2014 Saboteur Award

Michelle McGrane and Sophie Mayer’s Against Rape poetry and art anthology won a 2014 Saboteur Award for “Best One Off.” 

In 2013, reacting to rape culture and the tendency for victims of rape to be silenced, McGrane and Mayers created an online anthology of poems from around the globe. An international chorus of poets speak out about personal experiences: survival, anger, grief, and fear.

Even though the poems can be painful to read, as a whole they give courage to others who may have gone through similar experiences. Art can heal. As an older woman once said to me, “Honey, telling our stories eases the burden by half.”

If you haven’t had a chance, do go to Peony Moon to read the poignant, powerful, and persuasive poems that McGrane and Mayer have gathered. Keep in mind that the poems come from honesty and pain and may be triggering.

Michelle McGrane included my poem, “Hippocratic Oath,” which will be in my poetry collection, Swimming This, due to be published in Summer 2015 by FutureCycle Press.

Swimming This grew out of a desire to express my pain and to understand what I had suffered after experiencing abuse from a therapist. I sought therapy to recover from severe post-partum depression, but instead I was manipulated by a predator.

Eventually, through poetry, mediation, and love I recovered. My book shows the path toward healing. I will no longer remain silent about what I went through. If I can do anything to empower others, I will.

Blue bonnets near Austin, Texas, a place where the healing began.

Blue Bonnets in Austin Texas, a place where the healing began.

Hike: A Noiseless Patient Spider With Turkey Buzzards

Today’s hike was Pigeon Hill trail in Kennesaw. I only did half the hike today because I got a late start. To the visitor’s center from Burnt Hickory Road is 2.5 miles (five miles there and back), but I stopped at Little Kennesaw and turned around so that I would have time to meet my friends for a poetry reading.

Today is Walt Whitman’s 195th birthday, and to honor his poetry some Poetry Atlanta folks have organized a non-stop reading of all 52 songs from Song of Myself.

I was thinking of Whitman as I picked my way across boulders and rocks toward the summit. When I sat on a lichen-covered ledge to take a rest in the shade, a tiny red spider floated in the air next to me, spinning an invisible thread that helped it move up and down, and I remembered Whitman’s poem, “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.

***

I wish I could experience the same confidence Whitman exudes in the capability of his soul. That’s why I go hiking and meditate, swim in open bodies of water, practice yoga. It’s a path outward that circles inward. Today I felt like most at peace watching the turkey buzzards circling the tree tops, until one swooped close, it’s red face angled toward some dead creature.

 

Gentle Hike to Cascade Falls

Over Memorial Day weekend I went on a four mile hike on the Pine Mountain trail at Roosevelt State Park, land that is connected to F.D.R.’s Little White House.

F.D.R. chose Warm Springs, GA as a getaway from Washington and the world stage because of the curative properties of thermal springs there. Polio had rendered him paralyzed from the waist down at the age of 39, and bathing in the springs helped him regain some of his strength.

He bought the land surrounding the springs in 1927 and converted the area into a rehabilitation center that is still thriving today. The waters are not available to the general public, but people in need still receive the benefits of the warm springs.

The Pine Mountain trail covers twenty-three miles of easy to moderate hiking through a gentle mountain range, hills mostly, south of Atlanta. The four miles we hiked took us from a radio tower and picnic area off a two-lane highway to a meandering creek-side path under the cover of oaks, pines, and rhododendron. Tiny waterfalls spilled over brown and gold rocks along the way.

We crossed the creek several times until we reached our destination, Cascade Falls. We took our boots off, waded into the cool water, and later watched a millipede crawl across the sand while we dried our feet in a patch of sunlight.

I scrambled up a twenty-five- or thirty-foot overhang just because it was there. I started climbing what seemed like a stone stairway, but about halfway up I realized I would have to pull myself up part of the way, which was a little scary. I should have taken the trail to the top. But I made it, and was relieved once I flopped myself over the ledge.

 

 

Grateful May, Day 1

Satya and Kaspa have started a new writing theme for the month of May–gratitude. Each day on their website, Writing Our Way Home, they share the small and big aspects of their lives for which they are grateful, and they invite others to do the same.

I signed up for their inspirational emails to keep me going; I’ll admit, I tend to let my mind run along some very slippery, downward slopes.  Having a bright note in my inbox reminding me to look up at the blue sky encourages me to pay attention to what brings me joy and happiness.

May 1: After a long drive in rush hour traffic and teaching a three-hour writing class at the community college, I came home to a sink full of dirty dishes, the counters littered with dishrags, coffee spills, and crumbs. The dogs were whining to be let out. I was feeling tired  from the work day and disappointed that no one in the house had cleaned up the kitchen mess.

But when I took the dogs out to the back yard, I looked up at the canopy of tulip poplars and hickory trees hovering over the house, shifting in the twilight breeze. I was still tired, still disappointed that I would have to go in and clean, but for that moment when I stopped at the fence and looked up, I felt the peace that comes with pausing and paying attention to what is good.

Wordsworth writes in his poem Tintern Abbey,

                                    These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet… .

Just as the poet’s memories of nature help to restore him when he is alone in his rooms, even my small moment of looking into the veil of leaves at dusk helps smooth the rough edges of anxiety and sadness, emotions that have built up in me over the years.

The trick is to pay attention, and to be grateful. I’m grateful for the sea of trees that sways in my backyard, for the birdsong that wakes me each morning in May.

Tree

 

 

Notes from the Palm Beach Poetry Festival

This past January I had the good fortune of attending a poetry workshop with Linda Gregg at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in Delray Beach, Florida. 

I was excited to attend a workshop with Linda Gregg; before it began, I had a kind of expectation that something magical would happen. Of course, the reality of an event usually does not meet our preconceived notions.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving.” –Lao Tzu

The magic has only recently begun to work in me, and it hasn’t been in the form of new poems. I have had to allow a bad cold and some low spirits to churn their way through my body and mind, but now, as I write these words, I’m beginning to feel like I can return to poetry and the magic I am experiencing in hindsight from Linda Gregg.

In an effort to share everything, to refrain from hoarding, I am giving you these notes I took during the workshop with Linda Gregg and also from the craft talks, interviews, and readings I attended. I haven’t framed these notes with any kind of commentary or explanations. If I have made a mistake in conveying Ms. Gregg’s ideas, these mistakes are my own.

***

Notes from Linda Gregg’s Workshop and the Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Some of the concerns of Jack Gilbert’s poems: Serious, delight, dearness, God, nature, spirit, sacred. Most of what LG says about craft and aesthetics comes from Jack Gilbert.

Some exercises:

  1. Read “Danse Russe” by William Carlos Williams in class and have the students answer the question “Is he happy?”
  2.  The building you’re in is on fire, and you won’t survive. You have fifteen minutes to write. You won’t survive, but somehow your writing will. Either give the time or act as if the person has only fifteen minutes. With this exercise you can’t be cute or funny. You have to take it seriously.
  3.  Cross-gender. Write a poem from the point of view of the opposite sex. Don’t use this poem as revenge. Imagine a situation and go deeply into it from the inside out.
  4.  “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” It’s about thirteen ways the mind can see a single object. Every time you look at the thing you have to re-create what it is. LG gave the example of her art teacher telling her to paint the same lemons over and over, but every time she painted them she should re-invent what art is.
  5.  Archilocus: Look up some of the fragmentary poetry by Archilocus translated by Guy Davenport and finish the poems.
  6. Seeing six things. Make a list of six things that you see for a week. Then choose two and write a poem. See if the things have resonance. One might ask, why does it have resonance? Why does it matter? Think of Hopkins’ “God’s Grandeur.” You wake up to your life.  We need to care how the reader experiences the poem–J. Gilbert did. The poem intuits how the reader will believe. Like “Danse Russe,” we believe in the images of the poem. Read “The Art of Finding.” http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19260
  7. Write a poem as an animal. She read her poem “The copperhead.” It’s not a Disney cartoon. Inhabit the animal from the inside. As Jack Gilbert said, “Dig deeper. Go deeper.”
  8.  Write about a question you can’t possibly answer, like “What is the face of God?” Write a poem you can’t write. Take on the impossible.
  9.  Live with a tarot card with a week and then write a poem about it.
  10.  Find a scene like a German matchbook toy and then read her poem “The Beckett Kit.” In this poem the speaker describes placing the objects in the toy kit on a table. Then the poem turns on her observations of the things she has heard outside the window. Describe the toy and then make observations.

Image

Image

***

Let the words mean what they mean, don’t turn them into plays on words. It gets to be too clever, distances the poem from what it wants to say. Stepping from stone to stone can be an adventure. Strategy can be fine, but use intuition also.  Try to stay in the poem, not talk about the poem. She suggested reading Keats’s last poem to Fanny Brawne as an example of staying in the poem.

This Living Hand

This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb,

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights

That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood

So in my veins red life might stream again,

And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is—

I hold it towards you.

–John Keats

Linda Gregg: “I sit down at night around 10:00 and ask the gods if they will help me with this. Or I walk up my father’s mountain if the poem doesn’t come. The brain doesn’t get to run the show, even though it’s there in the background.

Dismount: this is where the poem discovers something, usually at the end. If the poem is good, it knows where and when to end.

Read Selected DH Lawrence, edited by Kenneth Rex Reed. JG loved Lawrence and Thoreau. “The White Horse” by DH Lawrence. Lawrence didn’t revise his poems. He re-wrote them instead.

The youth walks up to the white horse, to put its halter on

and the horse looks at him in silence.

They are so silent, they are in another world. –DH Lawrence

LG comes to the page in a prayerful state. Looks for the shapeliness of things. She told a story of Ezra Pound, about a cloth, a magnet, and metal shavings. If you put a cloth over a magnet and then sprinkle metal shavings on the cloth, the shavings will come together in the form of a rose.

The secret that no one knows about old people is that they are angry.

You have to be willing to give up your darlings.

Poems work on both horizontal and vertical planes. We have to be wiling to go deeper.

After you’ve written the poem, the poem has rights. Pay attention to what the poem says to you.

Keep the poem taut, like Ariadne’s thread.

Be careful with similes. We can let the image speak for itself.

LG is more intuitive, archetypal.  She gets the poem on the page all in one move. Jack Gilbert was more strategic. He would walk around all week with them poem in his head and then use strategy when he wrote it.

The poem is not the dream. It’s the relationship between the poet and the dream. She told us a dream she had once of her mother. In the dream, LG is outside the room where her mother is, and she hears terrible screams. Either the mother is being attacked by a terrible beast, and LG needs to save her, or the mother has turned into a beast and if Gregg goes in the room the mother will tear her apart. Her poem “There She Is” came out of this dream.

If there’s no magic in a poem it’s probably not a poem. Magic changes one thing into something else. Think of Wakan Tanka. Doing the impossible. Take on a large subject. The brain will start to stutter [the mind will get out of the way and the self will rise].

“All the tired horses in the sun. How am I supposed to get any ridin’ done?” Bob Dylan song.

Messages are not poems. The magic is in the oblique telling. It can’t be done mechanically.

Writing is like a dreamcatcher: catching what is inside of you and putting it on the page. What does the poem want us to believe?

LG: “ I write plain because I want my poetry to live as long as Sappho’s”

Don’t make the reader do too much guesswork.

She compares her poems to Michelangelo’s sculpture. He wanted to make sculptures that could roll down a flight of stairs and nothing would break off.

What we need to do is find our poetry and just write it.

A poem is a boat and it’s only supposed to carry what can fit in one boat. Use economy of language.

Essays by Jack Gilbert, From 19 New American Poets of the Golden Gate: “Real Nouns” and “The Craft of the Invisible.”

***

Notes from interview with Natasha Trethewey

Turning hurt into poetry.

“Calling”: I have to have a particular vision for what I want to write. Social Justice is important. Biblical verses that hold secular meaning.

Let the seams show in the poem, leave the meta-poetic in the poem, the why I am writing the poem.

Our quarrel with others is rhetoric. Our quarrel with ourselves is poetry–Yeats.

It’s not just about what literally happened but what we make of it.

To write is to re-create the truth, to establish it. What is true is the mind at this moment needing to make sense of the past. Mark Doty suggests that we begin to describe before making figurative sense of what we make of the description (she’s talking about her ekphrastic poems in Thrall).

Going back to a past that never really existed at all.

Flannery O’Connor: You can’t go home again because you have changed.

Language in the service of social justice: Josephine Jacobson, Jeff Brown–poetry dealing with social issues.

***

Notes from Tim Siebles’s craft talk:

Nobody writes poetry so that no one will listen.

Poetry and metaphor create the kind of life that pushes back the shadows of distraction. Poetry allows us to see magic in action. It wakes us up out of our stupor.