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Archive for February, 2009

We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.

We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.

The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light,
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.

To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.

Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.

I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say goodnight.

Why does that evening’s memory
Return with this night’s storm —
A party twenty years ago,
Its disappointments warm?

There are so many might have beens,
What ifs that won’t stay buried,
Other cities, other jobs,
Strangers we might have married.

And memory insists on pining
For places it never went,
As if life would be happier
Just by being different.

Dana Gioia
Interrogations at Noon (2001)

Commentary: My friend Melody told me that this was the poem that made her fall in love with poetry. Melody knows why. As for me, when she told me that it was a Dana Gioia poem that made her fall, I was delighted because I remembered meeting him once in California.

He came to give a poetry reading at UC Davis. He recites all of his poems from memory. His performance is beautiful to behold. He recited one of Shakespeare’s love sonnets, too, to my friend Jen Hoofard, which delighted her. But the poem I remember best from that reading was the one about his little boy who died and is buried under a redwood tree.

Later I went out to coffee with him and a few others at a little place called Mishka’s. I think it was Mishka’s. We talked about Washington, DC and Dante’s Florence in Italy, among other things.

When he said goodbye, he kissed me on the cheek, a good Italian arrivederci. Utterly charming. I seriously doubt he would remember this, given that he became the director of the NEA afterwards, and was consequently quite busy. But I remember it.

That’s what counts.

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On Friday, February 13th, I went to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference at the Hilton in Chicago. I attended four sessions: The Pedagogy Forum: Poetry; Shameless Promotion: Get the Book to the Readers; Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics; and The Poetry of Resilience. I learned valuable poetry lessons from my experience.

The Pedagogy Forum: Poetry

I went to this session because I wanted to get more ideas for teaching creative writing and poetry courses.

The ideas I gleaned from this session will be woven into ideas for teaching presented in the sidebar (look right!), especially “opening exercises in poetry.” But what were the most important things we thought about together? Revision. Cumulative projects in introductory creative writing and poetry courses. The poetry of witness and the ethical responsibility of the poet.

I really enjoyed the session and a small group I was in with Michael Rerick, Kristi Maxwell, and Caki Wilkinson, all graduate students from the University of Cincinnati, Ohio, Shenandoah Sowash, a graduate student from the University of Maryland, and Kathy Whitson, a Professor from Eureka College, Illinois.

Shameless Promotion: Get the Book to the Readers

I went to this session because I wanted ideas for how to share “Sanctuary,” my newly published chapbook, with as many readers as possible in the future. I’m a poet, not a publicist. I don’t really know how to do the business side of poetry (and even find it a little distressing that there IS a business side), but I know I need to learn.

This turned out to be a great session on how to promote a newly published book coordinated by writers Marisha Chamberlain, Margaret Hesse, Todd Boss, and John Spayde. The four of them have helpfully put together a webpage explaining best practices for promoting and publicizing a new book: squad365.blogspot.com.

Todd’s points about giving particularly resonated with me. Promotion and publicity can seem like very selfish, unnatural acts, especially for a Christian poet (with her mother’s proverbial wisdom always ringing in her ears, “Let others praise you; never do it yourself!”). But since I view poetry as ministry, as the opportunity to encourage other people’s hearts, minds, and souls, sharing the good news about one’s own poetry can be a gift.

Writing Your Passions: Forbidden Topics

I went to this session because I want to write a memoir about my relationship with my best friend, but I want to do it in a way that both honors the truth and honors the living members of her family, especially her children, her mother, and her sisters.

The main question: Are there any forbidden topics in literature these days? There are! Sometimes we, as writers, forbid ourselves to write on certain topics.

I especially appreciated the highlighted books Seven Laurels by Laura Busby Parker and 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton. The authors of these books invented characters very, very different from themselves … in order to write about race relations in the American South in the first case … and about traumatic violence and the importance of recognizing the humanity of perpetrators in the second case.

In the authors and their works, I saw the redemptive power of choosing to write what others might forbid us to write … and what we might forbid ourselves to express.

The Poetry of Resiliance

I went to the session because I believe in the spiritual importance of resilience, the ability to keep living after trauma, to come back and keep going despite loss. As an overcomer of childhood sexual assault, I was interested in how other poets honored the truth of their own traumatic experience, bore witness to it through poetry, and brought words of healing to their listeners.

The session began with a clip from the documentary, “The Poetry of Resilience,” now being filmed by Katja Esson.

Then three amazing poets read their work: Valzhyna Mort, Brian Turner, and Kwame Dawes.

I bought Kwame’s new collection, Gomer’s Song. The poems are rooted in the story of Hosea. Some are quite brutal, others beautiful.

the opening lines from “On Me and Men”

“Here is the calculus of desire —
I have studied its insides

like I have studied the language
of the sky … ”

Kwame Dawes
Gomer’s Song (2007)

The Book Fair

The real reason to go to a conference, as any poet or scholar knows, is for the books: hence, my trip to the book fair.

Once there, I was delighted to meet Gregory Wolfe, the editor of Image, in person at last. I learned about the Glen Workshop: “Fully Human: Art in the Religious Sense.”

I spent some time with Finishing Line Press, where I met my editor Leah Maines, and with Mayapple Press, where I met the poets Andrew Christ (Michigan), author of Philip and the Poet, and Johanny Vázquez Paz (Chicago), author of Poemas Callejeros/Streetwise Poems.

All in all, a good experience. I value what I learned. I think I will go again next year.

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The moon, grown full now over the sea,
Brightening the whole of heaven,
Brings to separated hearts
The long thoughtfulness of night.
It is no darker though I blow out my candle.
It is no warmer though I put on my coat.
So I leave my message with the moon
And turn to my bed, hoping for dreams.

Chang Chiu-Ling
675-740 AD

Commentary: I love the poems that come to me as part of my everyday life. Only a few days ago, a friend recited this poem to me over tofu soup and potstickers. Poems are gifts.

Moon poems, like this one, remind me that all of humanity does look up and see what is in the starry heavens … the reflected light from the sun shines down on Earth from the moon … and generations have seen it, have watched the moon’s changes, across vast geographical regions.

What is eclipsing in our lives now? What is shining? What grows full? What is hidden by darkness until only a sliver of light is left? What is waxing in our hearts? What is waning in our souls? What is changing?

Renaissance poets in England and Europe complained about the inconstancy of the moon and, inevitably, compared women’s changes to moon changes. They used the moon as a metaphor for faithlessness and inconstancy in love.

But the moon’s changes are not inconstant. They are constant. You can look at a full moon and know that it will decrease; you can look at a crescent moon and know it will increase.

Sometimes, I believe, change is an act of faithfulness.

Here is another poem by Chang Chiu-Ling for readers on this St. Valentine’s Day:

“The Willow-Leaf”

I am in love with a child dreaming at the window.

Not for her elaborate house
On the banks of the Yellow River;

But for a willow-leaf she has let fall
Into the water.

I am in love with the east breeze.

Not that he brings the scent of the flowering of peaches
White on Eastern Hill;

But that he has drifted the willow-leaf
Against my boat.

I am in love with the willow-leaf.

Not that he speaks of green spring
Coming to us again;

But that the dreaming girl
Pricked there a name with her embroidery needle,
And the name is mine.

Chang Chiu Ling
675-740 AD

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Today is the first day of spring for me. It has sprung at last! It’s 60° outside for the first time in months, the snow is melting, and the spell is breaking over my own little Narnia. My heart rejoices!

To celebrate, my friend Wendy and I took my dog Joyful and went for a walk outside. The snow-covered hills that the children were sledding on yesterday are no longer white, but green! There are puddles everywhere. Wendy was puddle jumping — the water splashed up, and the droplets shone out! Joyful trotted along, her tail wagging, her little miniature dachshund body thrilled with delight at the warmth and light.

Our simple adventure reminded me of a gospel song we both knew from church, pretty much an old-school song, but it captured the moment:

He has made me glad!
He has made me glad!
He has made me glad!
I will rejoice for He has made me glad!

I will enter His gates with Thanksgiving in my heart!
I will enter his courts with praise!
I will say this is the day that the Lord has made!
I will rejoice for he has made me glad!

Do you know how that one goes? 😉

When we came home, we opened all the windows, and the fresh air blew through the house. I turned on Josh Groban’s CD “Awake,” and music and Italian lyrics filled the house. I gave serious thought to the possibility of French pedicure and sandals for the rest of the day!

There are poems for this kind of happiness, like this one:

To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time

I cannot hold my peace, John Keats;
There never was a spring like this;
It is an echo, that repeats
My last year’s song and next year’s bliss.
I know, in spite of all men say
Of Beauty, you have felt her most.
Yea, even in your grave her way
Is laid. Poor, troubled, lyric ghost,
Spring never was so fair and dear
As Beauty makes her seem this year.

I cannot hold my peace, John Keats,
I am as helpless in the toil
Of Spring as any lamb that bleats
To feel the solid earth recoil
Beneath his puny legs. Spring beats
her tocsin call to those who love her,
And lo! the dogwood petals cover
Her breast with drifts of snow, and sleek
White gulls fly screaming to her, and hover
About her shoulders, and kiss her cheek,
While white and purple lilacs muster
A strength that bears them to a cluster
Of color and odor; for her sake
All things that slept are now awake.

And you and I, shall we lie still,
John Keats, while Beauty summons us?
Somehow I feel your sensitive will
Is pulsing up some tremulous
Sap road of a maple tree, whose leaves
Grow music as they grow, since your
Wild voice is in them, a harp that grieves
For life that opens death’s dark door.

Though dust, your fingers still can push
The Vision Splendid to a birth,
Though now they work as grass in the hush
Of the night on the broad sweet page of the earth.

“John Keats is dead,” they say, but I
Who hear your full insistent cry
In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,
Know John Keats still writes poetry.
And while my head is earthward bowed
To read new life sprung from your shroud,
Folks seeing me must think it strange
That merely spring should so derange
My mind. They do not know that you,
John Keats, keep revel with me, too.

Countee Cullen

Isn’t that a beautiful one? I love it because it pays honor to a poet, to beauty, to spring … to life! L’chaim!!!

There are songs for this kind of happiness too, like Vivaldi’s “Spring.

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It can’t take a joke,
find a star, make a bridge.
It knows nothing about weaving, mining, farming,
building ships, or baking cakes.

In our planning for tomorrow,
it has the final word,
which is always beside the point.

It can’t even get the things done
that are part of its trade:
dig a grave,
make a coffin,
clean up after itself.

Preoccupied with killing,
it does the job awkwardly,
without system or skill.
As though each of us were its first kill.

Oh, it has its triumphs,
but look at its countless defeats,
missed blows,
and repeat attempts!

Sometimes it isn’t strong enough
to swat a fly from the air.
Many are the caterpillars
that have outcrawled it.

All those bulbs, pods,
tentacles, fins, tracheae,
nuptial plumage, and winter fur
show that it has fallen behind
with its halfhearted work.

Ill will won’t help
and even our lending a hand with wars and coups d’etat
is so far not enough.

Hearts beat inside eggs.
Babies’ skeletons grow.
Seeds, hard at work, sprout their first tiny pair of leaves
and sometimes even tall trees fall away.

Whoever claims that it’s omnipotent
is himself living proof
that it’s not.

There’s no life
that couldn’t be immortal
if only for a moment.

Death
always arrives by that very moment too late.

In vain it tugs at the knob
of the invisible door.
As far as you’ve come
can’t be undone.

Wislawa Szymborska

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Les sanglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte.

Paul Verlaine
1844-1896

(For an English translation, see TRANSLATING VERLAINE I.)

Commentary: I’ve been thinking about my goddaughter, Sage, who is teaching herself French and plays the violin. I think this poem would be easy enough for her to translate if she wanted to. In it, Paul Verlaine expresses sadness about the past… and things that are lost… and the ways that our souls can become like dry leaves dying on a tree. I’m thankful that the fall, which is actually a beautiful season, is only one of four. Seasons change.

This past fall, on November 7th, Sage’s mother, Jennifer, wrote on the same theme as Verlaine does in this chanson. She wrote: “This is a time of good-byes, a time of loss and change. The trees and the flowers and the insects go inward, the toads retreat into the earth. Some things cannot survive until spring. But truly there has never been a good-bye that was not a hello to something else. It is impossible.” Yes, Jennifer wrote on the same theme, but she stepped forward in her thinking toward what comes after the fall … toward the light that awakens sleeping seeds.

My heart finds comfort in this.

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