Travelogues, Steinbeck, and Identity

I only like to read travelogues when I am planning a trip myself, otherwise I wish I were the one taking the journey and I become impatient to hit the road.

I can relate to John Steinbeck’s brand of wanderlust, which he describes in the first chapter of Travels with Charley as an “ancient shudder” brought on by  “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping sound of hooves on pavement… .”

Travels with Charley begins with Steinbeck’s explanation of a secret impetus for his cross-country road trip at the age of 58–a heart attack he suffered the year before. He did not want to succumb to what he calls “a second childhood” of being treated like “an elderly baby.”

He goes on to describe the kind of man he has always been up until the heart attack:

For I have always lived violently, drunk hugely, eaten too much or not at all, slept around the clock or missed two nights of sleeping, worked too hard and too long in glory, or slowed for a time in utter laziness. I’ve lifted, pulled, chopped, climbed, made love with joy and taken my hangovers as a consequence, not as a punishment. I did not want to surrender fierceness for a small gain in yardage. My wife married a man; I saw no reason why she should inherit a baby.

He never told his wife about this aspect of his journey, assuming that she intuited his unspoken reason for going. I suppose, after the heart attack, he had to curtail some of his rowdy behavior while still indulging what he refers to as his violent male nature, hence the road trip.  How much of this so-called violence is inherent in a man, and how much of it is learned as an idealized version of what a man should be?

I’ll be honest, one of my reasons for hiking the Camino de Santiago is to be outdoors  for two months with no chores or housework to do. Yes, I’d rather walk 20 miles a day with 20 pounds on my back than clean up after others.

Unlike Steinbeck, I am not taking this trip to regain my sense of identity; I’m leaving my home to lose my old identity of good mother, good wife, good teacher, good daughter, good sister, even if it’s only for the time I spend on the trail. I want to go beyond skin-deep  reality where I play my roles, where I am a shadow of myself bending from the weight of skin-deep rules. Maybe I am regaining my identity, but it’s the one I was born with, the one we all share in common.

The Spirit Hawk, my pack

The Spirit Hawk, my pack

Pilgrimage, From Kennesaw Mountain to Santiago de Compostelas

When you decide you’re going to make a pilgrimage, you’ve already begun it. Every step you take is a preparation for the day when you take that first step on the desired path; mentally, in your heart and mind, you’re already there. It’s not that your mind is elsewhere, but that you have invited the pilgrimage into your daily life. Not only that, when you decide to go on this path, you make it that much easier for someone else to begin. We raise consciousness together, one person at a time.

In 2015, I’m planning to hike 500 plus miles across the north of Spain, from St. Jean Pied Port to Santiago de Compostelas. Emilio Estevez’s film “The Way,” starring his father, Martin Sheen, has recently popularized this ancient pilgrimage. Called el Camino de Santiago in Spanish, or el Camino Francés, in English it translates as the Way of St. James.

My reasons for making this pilgrimage vary. I was raised in a traditional, Catholic family, although I am not a practicing Catholic. Maybe because I spent so much time in candle-lit churches, I feel a strong connection to the poetry of Catholic mystics St. Teresa de Avila and St. John of the Cross.

But a long time ago I became disenchanted with what I perceived as the dogma and rigidity of Catholicism. And I have some wounds related to my upbringing that keep me from embracing this faith. I also disagree with some of the basic church policies about women’s reproductive health and the ordination of women.

Today, my spiritual life centers around mindfulness meditation, long walks in nature, and cultivating peace and love in the world. But my hope is that by walking 15- to 20-miles a day, from cathedral to cathedral, I will reclaim my childhood religion in my own way, on my own terms. No man-made set of rules can or should prevent me from experiencing the divine as I walk across Spain or as I hike up Kennesaw Mountain, the place where my pilgrimage has started.

Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

True to my word, I have eked out a bit of time during the holidays to try some of the craft tips and writing prompts in The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward.

If I feel reluctant to put my thoughts on paper, I sometimes take refuge in a received form. Traditional forms are puzzles to work out. Formal verse is a constraint that forces me to look for le mot juste.

To learn about how to write a sonnenizio, a term Kim Addonizio coined to name her variation on a sonnet, go to page 61 in The Crafty Poet.

Lockward includes Addonizio’s sonnenizio in the sound section of her book. In this form, Addonizio borrows a line from an existing sonnet. She then chooses a word from that line to repeat in the subsequent 13 lines.

The reason Lockward shares this prompt is to encourage the poet to see how repetition of a word or words in a poem can influence the poem’s music. In my poem, I chose a line from Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to García Lorca,” translated into English by Donald D. Walsh.

Even though Neruda’s poem is not a sonnet, the line I chose contains 10 syllables in English, and so I worked it into this sonnet variation.

Walsh has translated the line in English “when to sing you shake arteries and teeth”; Neruda’s original line is “cuando para cantar sacudes las arterias y los dientes.”

Sonnenizio after a Line from Neruda

When to sing you rattle doors from their frames,
your singing jolts the marrow in my bones.
When to sing you shake arteries and teeth,
your singing fells the glass from my windows.
A draft hisses through my rooms. An owl’s song
fibrillates the night with an odd birdsong,
songs of darkness, songs of a single note.

When you open your throat to sing, starlings
singsong their shadows across the gray sky.
A chorus of poplars sing their dried leaves
over a blues-singing sunset. Boulders,
their lichen mouths split wide, appear to sing
as they gasp for air, a thin winter song,
a song-fraught December, a solstice psalm.

Writing this poem was a lot harder than I thought it would be. I kept thinking of García Lorca, who was assassinated by the Spanish Civil Guard during the Spanish Civil War. And it was during the solstice when I was writing, the skies gloomy and quick to turn dark.  But the hardest part was repeating variations of “to sing.”

The other reservation I have with this poetic form as I applied it in my poem is that, apparently, a sonnenizio is a parody of the sonnet in the same way that Billy Collins’ paradelle is a parody of the villanelle. By keeping García Lorca in mind, there was no way I would be writing ironically.

December Sky, by Christine Swint

December Sky, by Christine Swint

Review: The Crafty Poet By Diane Lockward

Most artists worry at one point or another that they will lose their creative spark, that if they are not working actively at their chosen art, they will find themselves alienated from whatever impetus that caused them to create art in the first place.

In The Crafty Poet by Diane Lockward, poet Michelle Biting writes, “I worry I will slip out of the creative zone I’ve worked so hard to tap–ideas will fade, metaphors atrophy–I’ll wake up an exile from my own poetry country” (19). Biting then suggests that the poet who finds herself in this poetic desert try the practice of scratching, to write down snippets on the fly: images, overheard conversations, random thoughts.

Theodore Roethke kept a practice similar to scratching. He would write down disparate lines in his notebook until he had gathered enough of them to create a poem. This practice is what my own writing has turned into lately while teaching four sections of English Composition. I’ve been writing down fleeting images and thoughts while my students do a free-write warm up at the beginning of class.

Scratching is one of many craft tips Diane Lockward has collected in her volume, The Crafty Poet, A Portable Workshop (Wind Publications, 2013). As she explains in her introduction, the book grew out of a monthly newsletter she writes through her well-known poetry blog, Blogalicious. Each of the ten chapters revolves around a different aspect of poetic craft: generating material, diction, sound, voice, imagery and figurative language, going deep/adding layers, syntax, line/stanza, revision, and writer’s block/revision.

The craft tips included in each chapter come from highly regarded, nationally known poets. The book includes 27 craft tips followed by a poem, also from accomplished, well-known poets, many of whom are or have been their state’s poet laureate. After the poem comes a writing prompt. Besides the poems by established poets, Lockward has included sample poems written by readers of her monthly newsletter who followed the suggested prompts.

Because there are so many poems by innovative, contemporary poets, The Crafty Poet is more than a portable workshop; it is an anthology of poems written in the kind of fresh, rich, and lively language we writers want to emulate.

Now that I have a break from a semester of teaching English Composition I, I have my eye on several of the prompts in this book. I’m thinking of starting with Kim Addonizio’s “Sonnenizio on a Line From Drayton.” Lockward explains, “a sonnenizio is a form invented by Kim Addonizio. As it’s name suggests, its form is a spin-off of the sonnet” (61).

Now the fun begins–to look for a line from a sonnet to jumpstart my poem. I intend to spend my winter break mining the many craft tips in The Crafty Poet. With Lockward’s guidebook by my side, there’s no way I’ll find myself “in exile from my own poetry country.”

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

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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.
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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.