Thursday, December 27, 2007

Library Cats

Ok, I'm cheating ... posting pictures instead of writing. So what? I'm taking a [short] break from writing, and the kitties so cute!



15 Ways To Annoy Friends Who Love Harry Potter

Harry never goes out of season! I'm a big fan, which is why I find these so amusing. This list was written by my friend and fellow poet, Mike Biegner of Easthampton.

15 Ways To Annoy Your Friends Who Love Harry Potter

-1- Call Professor Dumbledor "Professor Dum Dum".

-2- Suggest that in a duel, Samantha Stevens from "Bewitched" would kick Harry's ass.

-3- Confuse the Lord of the Rings Trilogy details with those of the Harry Potter series of books repeatedly by saying things like: "Remember when Gandalf and Voldemort were fighting and the Orcs took over the Hogwartz School of Wizzardry in the Town of Rivendale?"

-4- Wonder out loud to your friends if Harry Potter was not in fact the secret love child of Colonel Sherman Potter and Hot Lips Houlihan from the TV series M.A.S.H.

-5- Suggest to your friends that Harry should consider a line of Prada eyewear instead of those horrid round glasses.

-6- Tell your friends that if Weezie Jefferson married Ron Weasly her name would have been "Weezie Weasly".

-7- Inform your friends that "muggles" are what Fraggles drink beer from.

-8- Whenever speaking about Harry, refer to him as "Mr. Pot-Tare" the way Freddie "Boom Boom" Washington did in the TV Series "Welcome Back Kotter".

-9- Suggest that Andi McDowell would have made a better Voldemort than Ray Fiennes.

-10- Refer to the author, J K Rowling as "J J Walker" and tell people you think she is "Dyno-Mite!"

-11- Repeat every 15 minutes to your friends that "Hermione rhymes with 'hiney'."

-12- Insist to your friends that you saw the actor who plays Professor Dumbldor on a TV infomercial for Viagra, talking about his "limp wand" problem.

-13- Tell your friends that Quiddich is not a real sport, like golf, NASCAR, horse racing, bowling and poker.

-14- Wonder out loud to your friends where Harry takes his invisibility cloak to be dry cleaned.

-15- Order the last Harry Potter book UPS ground and then when it finally DOES arrive, read only a few pages per day.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Yeah, Sagittarius!

I am on break from school & my brain has downshifted to first gear. Hence the lack of posting here. I've been enjoying my couch, television, and movies. Creativity is an ebb and flow, and I am ebbing. Dry sand. Low tide. Silent metaphorical walks on the beach.

Here's my list of recent movie/video consumption: Into the Wild (beautiful, and I cried - plus it includes my favorite poem by Sharon Olds!), Lars and the Real Girl (I laughed AND cried), Waitress (hilarious and delectable), Toy Story (can you believe I'd never seen it?), some Six Feet Under, The Closet (French comedy), and V for Vendetta (I also cried during this one, but the philosophical implications were more troubling. I felt simultaneously grateful for my freedoms in this country - the state of Massachusetts in particular, and disgusted by the reminder of how our federal government supports and perpetrates torture).

When my creativity is ebbing I still turn to the Writer's Almanac for tidbits of the writing life. They give short bios of well-known writers who are having birthdays on any given day. Have you noticed that many cool people in your life are having birthdays this time of year (yours truly included)? The same goes for writers! November 29th was a particularly rich day, celebrating CS Lewis, Louisa May Alcott, and Madeleine L'Engle, all of whom had profound effects on my childhood - and those of many others. There must be something wild, creative, and inspiring about being a Sagittarius!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

My Lovely Assistants



... hard at work reading submissions for Pitkin Review, the student-run lit mag of my MFA program ...

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The World in a Beet

We’ve all heard the phrase, “The best way to learn something is to teach it.” Well, now that I’m teaching poetry writing I’m learning all sorts of new things. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to work with the poets in my nature poetry workshop at the Hitchcock Center. Every writer has such a unique voice and perspective on things. Many of the writing prompts start everyone out in the same place, but where they go with it is always a surprise.

One of the prompts I gave, on the day we focused on questions as a way of encountering subjects, was why are question marks shaped the way they are? There were several answers: it is a bowl tipped up; it is a hand; it is an ear. Lovely ideas.

Last night I brought in beets as a prompt—not whole beets, but thin, horizontal slices of a larger beet, showing concentric circles resembling tree rings. The places people went! One person saw a third eye, another saw a geode. I saw the seven circles of hell and walked down them and back up again with Persephone—and yes, I know I’m mixing metaphors. I’m allowed!

It’s been said by several of my favorite teachers that the best way into writing a poem is to start with something concrete—an image, or better yet, an actual object. It’s easier for me to find these things when I’m charged with bringing them in to the group each week. I am finding that the poems I’ve been wanting to write, poems dealing with the ancient Greek gods and their timeless stories, come much more easily when I start with a natural object. The gods are, after all, manifestations of natural forces, so it makes sense to approach them through elements of nature—although I wouldn’t have figured that out so soon without the help of this workshop I’ve been teaching. I’ve been trying for a year now to write these poems, and as it turns out, the roundabout way was the way in, at least the way into the hellish world of a beet.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

You Are Not Alone

I've decided to start a collection of my favorite quotes about poetry. Feel free to comment and add your own!

you are not alone,
the poem said
in the dark tunnel.
- Louise Gluck, "October"

The words loved me and I loved them in return.
- Sonia Sanchez

Use what talents you possess;
The woods would be very silent
if no birds sang there except those that sang best.
- William Blake

I have nothing to say
and I am saying it
and that is poetry
as I need it
- John Cage, "Lecture on Nothing"

Read these poems to yourself in the middle of the night. Turn on a single lamp and read them while you're alone in an otherwise dark room or while someone else sleeps next to you ... Say them over to yourself in a place where silence reigns and the din of the culture- the constant buzzing noise that surrounds us- has momentarily stopped. These poems have come from a great distance to find you.
- Edward Hirsh, How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry

Monday, September 10, 2007

Rilke's Classic Advice for Poets

I have owned my copy of Letters to a Young Poet for about thirteen years. It is the sort of wise book that has something new to say to me every time I pick it up. The volume has become such a classic that it’s hard sometimes to remember that it wasn’t written as a book, that it is but half a conversation. This time around, reading it for school, I also read the “Chronicle” written by translator M.D. Herter Norton, which describes where Rilke was in his own life—physically and psychically—when he wrote the Letters. It presents a more complex picture of the timid, tortured soul who was as much in need of his own advice as his reader.

The Letters cover a variety of topics, including love, solitude, depression, and inspiration. Together they comprise a volume that’s less of a book about how to write than about how to live—at least, how to go about living if one is a sensitive, perceptive, solitary, creative, and questioning person. The ultimate message I take from the Letters is to trust oneself and one’s own process, however difficult and fruitless that may sometimes seem.

At 15 years old, I underlined this passage: “Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write” (18). That challenging question was important to me then. Now that I have discovered it is essential for me to write, the passage immediately preceding that one shone out from the page:

"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now … I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself."

This passage is good medicine for a grad student with a few published poems under her belt who fervently wants to continue wooing and impressing her slowly growing readership. It’s not that acknowledgement by the outside world doesn’t matter, but the material for creativity must always come from within and cannot be helped by adhering to current fashion. I am reminded of the indispensable advice of writer and teacher Pat Schneider in her book, Writing Alone and with Others: “When you ask someone else for a critical opinion, take suggestions for change only if they meet with an answering Yes! in your own mind” (113). Rilke’s words encourage poets to seek out and trust our most intimate instincts.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Meet Your Fear in a Dark Alley

Today the Writer's Almanac told a very interesting story about Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones. She had a traumatic experience that haunted her life for many years until she was able to confront it and give it voice in her writing. Her novel became a success and she was quoted as saying, "It's very weird to succeed at 39 years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted."

A few days ago (August 22), it was Annie Proulx's birthday. Proulx got me to love & appreciate the short story. Nobody does grunge better than she. The Writer's Almanac said, "She was virtually unknown until the early 1990s, when she burst onto the literary scene, publishing her first novels, Postcards (1992) and The Shipping News (1993), in her late 50s ... she doesn't regret becoming a writer later than most people because, she said, she knows a lot more about life than she did 30 years ago."

Slowly building the life you want isn't always pretty and easy, and rarely feels like it's got any sort of meaningful direction. But as Tolkien wrote and bumper stickers have adopted, "Not all who wander are lost."

Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, advises writers to plumb the depths of our own lives, especially those bits that seem mean or inconsequential. It takes time and determination, but we have to go through the sh*t to get to the art.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Harry Lost in Translation

Since I'm busy with packing, moving, and setting up my teaching practicum for Goddard, I am again relying on my brilliant outside sources for content. I found this amusing collection in the New York Times today- book jacket summaries and excerpts of unauthorized translations of Harry Potter, translated from the Chinese.

From Harry Potter and the Showdown: "When Harry confronts Voldemort at Azkaban, the Dark Lord tries to win Harry over as a fellow descendant of Slytherin. Harry refuses, and together with Ron and Hermione, kills Voldemort instead. Now what will Harry do about his two girlfriends?"

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Moving to Easthampton

Breaking Good-Schiff news ... we decided to move out of West Street -- it was going to become a lot more expensive (new landlords changing things up), and it was also starting to feel cramped with two of us using it as office space as well as living space. We've had a crazy few days of apartment hunting, but we ended up getting our first choice apartment! It's a beautiful two bedroom, renovated & painted nice colors, on two levels (2nd & 3rd floors) in Easthampton, so not too far away. We signed the lease yesterday. We have the place on August 15th. Phew! Now things will start to get really hectic ... but when it's over, it will be over, and we'll have a guest room/study, and a dishwasher, and a bathroom that holds more than one person at a time.

What I will miss most about Hadley: walking by the Connecticut River, puttering in the garden, watching my sunflowers grow tall, grilling out in the yard, walking on the bike path, playing glow-in-the-dark frisbee.

Please send peaceful, transitional energy my way. Thanks. And if you're up for helping us move on Saturday, Aug 18th, by all means let me know!

"We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole."
Mark Strand

Monday, July 30, 2007

Unprepared, with a case of asparagus

Last week I finally watched my dad’s favorite movie, which he’s been referencing for years: Never Cry Wolf. It’s based on the memoir of a naturalist who gets dropped off in the Arctic (alone with a canoe, a bassoon, and cases of beer and asparagus) with the purpose of studying wolf behavior. At the time (the early ‘80s), wolves were believed to be killing off the caribou herds. With the help of the wolf pack he observes, and the Inuit who saves his life more than once, he learns that the wolves live on mice during the winter, and that they actually keep the caribou herds healthy by hunting down the sick and weak.

We know all this now, but I think it’s interesting to look back to a time when facts that are taken for granted were unknown to modern science. Also, though the movie depicts actual events, I couldn’t help seeing it as a fable. The hero sets out on an adventure, at first idealistic but soon apprehensive of what will occur. He almost dies several times. He meets people along the way, and some who seem friendly turn out not to be, while others who might be discounted as old-fashioned are really wise. Many of his assumptions and expectations are turned upside down, most significantly that the wolf finds and observes him before he has any idea where the wolf is. Ultimately, he finds new definitions of peace and home.

Will wolves become my new obsession? Probably not, although I was really taken with the wolf pack in this movie—their social structure, their struggles and loyalties. Two years ago, around this time of year, I read two YA books, Julie of the Wolves, and its sequel, Julie, by Jean Craighead George. Though aimed at a young audience, these books are based on true observations of wolf behavior, relationships, and communication. The animal parts of me recognized and loved the human parts of the wolves.

Friday, July 6, 2007

The Idea Store

I love the MFA program at Goddard College. I just returned from my third residency there (it’s the start of my third and next-to-last semester). This time I am working with Rachel Pollack, a brilliant cross between rabbi, shaman, and favorite English teacher.

We were blessed by a visit from octogenarian poet Marie Ponsot. I was not familiar with her work, and while I enjoyed her reading, it was in her workshop that I really learned. Marie stated that she believes the sentence is the “keystone in the arch of literature,” and that all forms of writing have the sentence as their origin. The exercise she had us do was to take a sentence (we used William Blake’s “Proverbs of Hell”) and rewrite it five times. There are no rules- you can be literal and grammatical, or you can immediately spin out into figurative language. Then, once you have five new sentences, pick one of them and rewrite it five times. She didn’t put a limit on the process, but I did a series of three rewrites.

Marie said, “Students always ask me, where can I get an idea? Well- you can’t send someone to the idea store. But- you can have them do this exercise.” By the third rewrite (we went around the room and each read ours), most people’s sentences were miles away from the original. The process was fascinating and rich. I started out with, “The cistern contains, the fountain overflows.” I ended up with things like, “Rain changes everything,” and “Water will flow uphill.”

One of the assignments I had from Rachel was to tell a story (beginning, middle, and end) in five sentences. After I wrote my first draft, I used Marie’s approach of rewriting one sentence at a time. I actually hand wrote each sentence by itself on a piece of paper and rewrote it five times, dealing with it individually before trying to rework it in the context of all five sentences. When I slowed down and took my prose poem apart so meticulously, each sentence became a doorway to a more complex meaning. Pushing myself to do five rewrites for each component also helped me see multiple possibilities for the piece. Now I have one more trick in my writer’s toolbox!

Friday, June 8, 2007

Join me in creating the Republic of Poetry

I am so proud to be a Hampshire College alum. The college is exemplary in so many ways and continually allies itself with people I admire. The speaker at my commencement in 2004 (chosen by a student vote) was brave and pioneering journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now. This year's speaker, also chosen by students, was brave and pioneering poet Martin Espada. His inspirational speech advocates justice and love as strongly as it does resistance and determination.

Espada wrote: "In the Republic of Poetry there is no war, because phrases like 'weapons of mass destruction,' 'shock and awe,' 'collateral damage' and 'surge' are nothing but clich├ęs, bad poetry by bad poets, and no one believes them. They bleed language of its meaning, drain the blood from words. You, the next generation, must reconcile language with meaning, restore the blood to words, and end this war."

Read the whole speech.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Small Poems in No Room

It would be great if I had a room of my own, with a door I could shut, a comfy armchair in the corner, and a desk by the window. I would write there for long hours, noises filtering in faintly from outside. Alas, I have no such room, and neither do many other writers who do their best to scrape together words as hastily as I grab my breakfast before running down the stairs on my way to work.

So, Virginia Woolf said a woman deserves a room of her own. Well—deserves and has are two different things. Sandra Cisneros said (and I paraphrase) that poetry is the particular art form of the poor, busy, working woman without a room of her own. It can be written on scraps. It can be written at the reception desk between calls. It can be written on lunch breaks—I take mine by a fountain, which sometimes splatters my page when the wind blows.

Poetry is often at its most powerful when it is most condensed. Think of how the haiku is revered. Think of Emily Dickinson and her four-line landscapes. This is different than the epic, grandiose work of Whitman or Ginsberg. I realized the other day that in my writing goals for grad school I’d written that I wanted to write longer, more complex poems. Do my poems have p*nis envy? Or too much American super-sized pride? Why not hope to write shorter, more complex poems?

Part of me (the scared part) is still searching for the ONE answer to how to write well…. I guess that scared part is the same part that looks to blend in with the American monoculture. But the diversity of the world, of art and nature continually throw monkey wrenches into the gears of those creaky assumptions. I am grateful for that. I am grateful for the challenge of juggling work, school, relationship, self, and writing in a corner of the living room early in the morning when I’m the only human awake, when I almost have a room of my own.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Gotta love New England

I'm so excited! I've been avoiding the news this week because I got overloaded on tragedy, so I missed the good news that New Hampshire has legalized civil unions for same-sex couples! Yay! It's one more step in the direction of the acknowledgement, respect, and dignity that everyone deserves.

Since I grew up in the Episcopal church, this article was particularly wonderful.

Talk about efficiency

I am in love with most things Indian. It's been over six years since I returned from visiting my aunt's family in Mumbai, and while the detailed memories are fading, my feelings of fascinated affection and appreciation remain.

I am really busy these days planning my lovely lesbian wedding, AND taking some time off from school (having fun & relaxing takes time, too).

So, instead of sharing my own random thoughts, I want to share this article.

I wish I could get lunch this way!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Unusual Beauty

If I had kids, this is one of those stories I'd tell them dozens of times, until they rolled their eyes: I had an art teacher and he changed my life. He turned my ideas of color inside out, and my ideas of subject matter upside down. He took my art history class on a field trip to a junkyard. He showed slides of graffiti he'd found inside abandoned buildings. He taught at my small private school for four years, long enough to shock some parents and just long enough to affect me forever....

Read the full story on Minds Island.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Irony In Experience

I have yet to explicate here the theory I developed after reading John Cage’s lectures: that reading a published text to oneself is a performance that can never be replicated because the environment is continually acting upon the reader, thus influencing the reader’s experience of the text in that moment…. Well, now I have. That’s basically the theory. I’ll give you some examples from my own life later.

The point is, I just had a very ironic experience of said theory. I was sitting at my work computer during my lunch break, reading an essay about Language Poetry (or, writing in “Open Forms”). The argument goes that Open Forms invite readers to create the meaning of the text along with the author. The author ceases to be an absolute authority in the making of meaning. Personally, I love this idea, even though some people shirk at “experimental” art, calling it the most elitist of all forms. But initially hard to understand in a traditional way isn’t the same as elitist.

Anyway, here I am reading about how to write in ways that don’t constrict readers, and in walks a woman who wants me to hang some posters for her festival. She says, “Ok, how many posters do you guys want?” I say, “I think two would be enough.” “Well,” she tells me, “you usually take three, two for the door and one for somewhere else.” “Well,” I reply, “I guess we’ll take three!”

I couldn’t help laughing to myself. She asked the most closed question possible! The universe is snickering.

Friday, April 6, 2007

A Voice for Peace


Wednesday night I heard a wonderfully life-affirming poetry reading by Naomi Shihab Nye... If you haven't read anything by her, you should. What a beautiful and caring person. She's the type who can have everyone waiting at an airport gate start talking to each other. She goes up to soldiers and engages them in warm conversation, then writes empassioned anti-war poems with the conviction of a mother who cares for the world so much it hurts.

Read more at Western MA Poetry Reviews.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Bowl with Gold Teeth

Craving quiet and beauty, I walked up to the Smith College Art Museum this afternoon. I found there an exhibit of Japanese tea wares that spanned 500 years of history. The room was dimly lit and the tea bowls held silence in their curves. I remembered attending tea ceremonies in my adolescence (once at a neighbor’s house and once on a field trip). The care and precision involved were too much for this tall, awkward American. I still can’t imagine enjoying the bitter, frothy tea and turning the bowl just right—but as an outsider in a museum looking at the arrangements of dishes and effects, I could better appreciate the meticulous beauty of ritual.

With the little I know of Japanese culture, craft, and art, I expect all of it to be delicate and nearly perfect. So I was intrigued by an asymmetrical bowl displayed on one wall of the gallery. Brick-colored and rough as cement, its circular form squashed towards oval, it looked— frankly, ugly. The card on the wall said the bowl was about 400 years old and beloved for its imperfections. Some of its defects were intentional; others were an effect of time. The rough texture occurred because the potter decided not to refine the clay thoroughly, so grit rose to the surface when it was fired. Centuries of use resulted in a chipped rim that had been repaired in several places with gold lacquer. These shiny spots, the card said, made the bowl especially prized. I thought: it’s a bowl with gold teeth!

Now, what’s the poetic equivalent of not completely refining my words so that distinctive grit will rise to the surface?

And I Said To My Demons…

I love adjectives! I will use them as much as I want to! I will describe everything! My images will not speak for themselves, I will speak for them! I will not be an invisible author! I will show my hand! I will be known for my passionate and excitable adjectives, for my rich and deep associations, and for my heady and determined descriptions! I will also joyfully throw in some adverbs! And as for those zesty exclamation points, I will employ them liberally as well! So there!

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Writer's Block

It's not a block exactly, more like fear of what will come up.

"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." - Robert Frost

It sure is hard to go there sometimes.

Last night this poem came to me at the perfect moment, from Alice Walker's "I Said to Poetry."

I said to Poetry: 'I'm finished
with you.'
Having to almost die
before some weird light
comes creeping through
is no fun.

True, it's not always fun... but the fear is much worse than what happens when I take a deep breath, let go, and see what happens. Natalie Goldberg said, when all else fails, just "keep the hand moving." I get up every morning and scratch my pen across lined paper until something happens. It's as hard as meditating, this getting up with the alarm when I want to stay cozy under the blanket... and as rewarding.

Today I'll give the last word to Audre Lorde, from her poem, "A Litany for Survival."

... and when we speak we are afraid
our words will not be heard
nor welcomed
but when we are silent
we are still afraid.

So it is better to speak
remembering
we were never meant to survive.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Jamaica Kincaid's Courageous Voice


“I never thought of myself as courageous,” said Jamaica Kincaid as she took to the stage in John M. Greene Hall. “I just knew that I was going to write what I wanted to write.” Kincaid’s appearance opened a Pan-Africa conference organized by the Smith African and Caribbean Student Association. The conference program listed Kincaid as the Keynote Speaker. She jokingly said that had she seen the program before she agreed to read, she would have been too nervous to make her appearance. This nod to humility was ironic coming from a writer who has made a career of saying what “should not be said.”

Kincaid warned the audience that what she was about to read would not follow the rules that teachers like to emphasize. “I begin many sentences with And.” She read from her first book, At the Bottom of the River, describing with lush, surreal details the contentious interactions of a mother and daughter who occupy the two lowest rungs in a Colonial society. Growing up as an illegitimate child in Antigua, her “station in life was meant to be not far from the ground.”

Kincaid challenges readers with more than grammar. She said, “When I sit down to write, it is always in opposition to something.” Her novels, short stories, and essays have always addressed messy topics such as the mother/daughter relationship, Colonialism/globalization, and poverty.

When an audience member inquired, “Did you ever doubt yourself as a writer?” Kincaid replied, “When I write, I don’t believe anyone will read it—but you have to do it anyway. If you’re a writer, you must be arrogant and ruthless. Save being nice for when you’re not writing.” What great advice!

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Last Word?

Apparently there's disagreement over who is really THE "preeminent scholar of Emily Dickinson." I went to Amherst Books today in search of her Complete Poems and found several volumes, some edited by Thomas Johnson, some by Ralph Franklin. Each book jacket named its editor the "foremost scholar of Dickinson's manuscripts." (It was funny in Little Miss Sunshine that the uncle character was so attached to his identity as the #1 Proust scholar, and this quibble seems equally silly.) They even disagree about HOW MANY poems Emily actually wrote: 1,775 or 1,789? Either way, I will probably read less than a thousand of them this week, although I did choose Johnson's "Complete Poems" because I appreciate his work on behalf of Dickinson (he was the first to restore her famous dashes after her neice and other publishers took them out)-- and, it came in a more affordable paperback version.

The Poets.org guide to Emily Dickinson says that study of her work is "bound to a discussion of how her poems have been edited, and how her handwritten manuscripts have been interpreted in contemporary editions." In other words, since she never published her work or lived to see it in print, the act of printing her poems has become an act of interpretation. The early publishers grossly misinterpreted and changed her poems, removing all her signature dashes and even changing words! If anyone changes my clearly printed words after I am dead, my dispersed ashes will reassemble and blow blindingly into their eyes.

Another book I did not purchase today was Johnson's "Final Harvest," a selection of Dickinson's poems. I was amused and appalled at the title. FINAL harvest? As if his is the last, most authoritative version and selection there will be? The jacket even bore a review describing it as "the end of a long road of scholarship." How presumptuous!

Resistance is Fertile

Last Friday I went to the latest offering of Culture Shock, a most wonderful dance party put on semiannually by folks from UMass' Social Justice Program. They throw a great party while also communicating a heavy social message. This time the theme was Masquerade, in honor of Carnival, New Orleans, and Black History Month. "This is the month when we get to narrate the fucking story!" cried Julius from the stage. "Now, when I say go, I want to you all to yell out the name of a Black individual who has influenced you." We yelled. "Ok," he said, "now that we have gotten some spirits in the room, let's get on with it...."

The name I called out was Langston Hughes. There are plenty more current Black poets and writers who've inspired me (Patricia Smith's performance last year at Smith College was one, and hearing Tracie Morris do her "sound based poems" at Goddard in January was amazing), but Hughes was the first to influence me. The list of questions in "A Dream Deferred" are so potent, and challenge the reader more than simple statements would.

This past Martin Luther King Day, I was supposed to go to work. We didn't get it as a day off because they had "traded" it for the Friday after Thanksgiving so that we could have a long weekend. I did appreciate that long weekend, but it bothered me that Martin Luther King Day is forced to be the most flexible, the most disposable holiday. It would have been inconceivable to "trade" away President's Day. So, as my act of observance, I chose a poem by Hughes, "I , Too, Sing America," and put it on my desk by the front door for eveyone to see. I was glad, in a way, that I'd been challenged by the situation to mark the day in my own way, because if I had gotten the day off, as most people do, I would not have made so public a display of that poem.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

"I Don't Understand Poetry"

I’ve been thinking about people who say they don’t understand poetry. That’s like saying you don’t understand music. It's such a diverse genre, there is no one definition for it, and besides, you don't have to understand it in order to have an experience. The mystery itself is something to love, and in living the questions, surprises can occur.

I want to tell people, when you’re reading a poem and you come across something you don’t “get,” stay with that feeling and see what it tells you about your experience of the poem. Don’t interpret obscurity as a “Do not enter sign,” but rather as an invitation to let go of control and step into something larger than you.

Poetry makes sense the way dreams and symbols make sense… or don’t. The willing suspension of disbelief is essential. Be aware that you are entering a fun house and expect to be disoriented. After a while, you will see that the poem makes its own sense.

Poems don’t require the same kind of linear reading as novels or stories that have plot. To read a poem, you must first soften—not sharpen—your mind. Reading a poem is less like waking and more like falling asleep.

When I questioned him further, the man who recently told me he can't understand poetry revised his statement. "Actually, what I mean is, there are certain poems that I love, but I don't know how to critique them intelligently." Start with a poem you love. Love will teach you more than any book or lecture. Love is more enjoyable, more sensual, more essential. If you follow your love of the poem into its depths, you will begin to "understand" in a way that you can apply to other poems.

A poem is not a locked box waiting for you to pry off its lid. It's a city where you can learn the language if you stick around long enough.