We’d like to share with you this loving tribute to the late Adrienne Rich by WVFC’s own Carol Muske-Dukes, Rich’s friend and former Poet Laureate of California. Below are some of the opening paragraphs of the piece that appears in today’s Los Angeles Times. -Ed.
It was a freezing night in March 1978 — and the small, determined woman climbing next to me up the icy incline to the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for women leaned on a cane. I wanted to take her arm, but because she was famously fiercely independent, I hesitated. Later, I thought that I was right to hold back: Adrienne Rich was that kind of standard-bearer, accustomed to her own “climb,” accustomed to a righteous loneliness in her ascent.
In 1978, Adrienne Rich was not an old woman, but the degenerative arthritis that eventually crippled her had already begun to compromise her free movement — hence the cane. I was a young poet and feminist, an ardent admirer of the writer beside me, whom I had invited (along with a few other distinguished authors) to appear “on site” in prisons throughout New York state, as part of a lecture series/writing program I had organized. Adrienne was one of the few writers who agreed to appear “inside.”
She spoke to a tough room that night — the Bedford Hills inmates were both victims and perpetrators of violence, impatient and curious. Adrienne’s book, “Of Woman Born,” had been recently published — and the uncompromising revisionist view of motherhood in its pages was the subject of her talk. Her eloquent ferocity startled and enthralled her audience that night — as we left, the women were still asking questions about her book as guards led them away and ushered us to the exit.
Click here to read the rest.
I went to an “all-girls” high school, a version of a convent school, called Our Lady of Peace High School, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The nuns were strict and exacting teachers—many rules, but exciting education! I became a writer in part because of the example of those toughminded nuns: independent, “intellectual,” outspoken. There were no boys around to distract us—we were inspired by the “sisters”—and inspired by Latin, French, Ancient History, the “new” Math, Creative Writing.
On Valentine’s Day, all the rules went out the window and a kind of holiday anarchy took over. We sent valentines to our teachers and our classmates in the form of singing telegrams, called Valegrams. Each Valegram cost a quarter or 50 cents and the money went to some school fund.
A student would purchase a blank yellow telegram-facsimile, with VALEGRAM typed in bright red letters at the top, then choose a melody from a “menu” of tunes, and then she would write her own “lyrics”—a billet-doux, a stupid joke, a sweet greeting—in the appropriate “gram” space (with STOPs). Then members of the Glee Club would take each Valegram, learn the lyrics at warp speed, then zip through the halls, knock on classroom doors, interrupting class (nothing got done on Valentine’s Day) and they (we) would sing the Valegram message to the “addressee.” The classmate to whom the Valegram was addressed would have to stand beside her desk and be “serenaded.” It was both embarrassing and exhilarating—”crushes” were revealed, praises were sung, puns abounded (in Latin and French too!) and romantic love and satire were in the air. The Valegram singers would receive their own “messages”—and would have to stand apart and be serenaded when the singing “gram” was for one of them.
I can’t remember a single line of a Valegram, but I remember the hilarity and wild spontaneity of making up on-the-spot lyrics, smart and smartass words to be sung by those perfect soprano and alto voices: female troubadours run amok. It was February, deep winter in Minnesota, but I remember sunlight on the red printed letters on the yellow paper Valegrams—and I remember those voices singing, I remember standing up by my desk and laughing: It was Valentine’s Day and someone had sent me a singing message, which I would return, again and again and again.
Longtime WVFC readers may remember contributor Alice Pettway for her elegant poems, for her just-published-chapbook Barbed Wire and Bedclothes, or her witty reflective essay Perspective 101. And you may remember that the last time we heard from Alice, she was just beginning a transformative journey with the Peace Corps in early 2010. That time grew too absorbing for her to share much with us: we’re delighted that now, as her time in Mozambique wraps up, ours was the community she thought of when she began writing.
My partner, a biologist, describes science as an intricate web of competing ideas. He says that the scientific process works because each idea is constantly being challenged, disproved and replaced with better ideas that are themselves demolished by other, even better ideas. Nothing is ever a fact in science. There are only hypotheses, theories. As a writer, I have always thought this system is well and good for science, but for literature?
A writer’s job is to decipher the code and to give her readers some sort of explanation for our absurd existence.
Then I arrived in Mozambique, where I didn’t even know how to use the restroom by myself. I mistook jokes for anger, greeted people with the wrong hand, insulted where I meant respect. I was adrift. I set my mind to figuring out this new world as quickly as possible, certain that all the parameters would fall into place and that, while I might never be a cultural expert on Mozambique, I would at least get the gist of it. The problem was, I was still thinking of the world as a place I could define, whose dark corners might be distant and difficult to reach, but attainable. Why be an explorer if you know you’ll never map the continent?
After two years of bumbling along in a startlingly and wonderfully unique culture, I have given up on finding those corners. Corners only exist where there are walls, and I am convinced that there are none. We may think we have the world figured out, but in reality we’re just sitting on one pixel of a larger photo. Humanity’s possibilities spread in an infinite wash of diversity. The spatial possibilities of the universe have barely begun to be tapped by scientists. In the simplest sense, I mean that we have never, as humans, defined an end to the life experiences we can have, barring death, of course.
Think of the universe as an enormous jigsaw puzzle. We don’t have the box and never will, so the picture is a mystery. The piece count is infinite. If we use our creativity, our intelligence, our curiosity, we can begin to join together the pieces in the small space around us. Sometimes, those who are exceptionally adventurous or unhinged, shift to the edge of their pieced-together patch and start adding to the edges, enlarging and illuminating our worldview.
But even then, what appears to us to be a stretch of ocean might actually be the hem of a woman’s dress. With each new piece, the image churns, morphs, each border existing only until another row of pieces is added. I feel certain that no matter how many of these pieces I hang together in my lifetime, they will be an insignificant glimpse into the whole puzzle. The obvious question then seems to be this: Why continue searching?
I didn’t join the Peace Corps thinking I would save the world. In fact, I feel it is unlikely I will drastically alter the course of even one person’s life. I also feel now that it is an act of insanity and pomposity to think that as I writer I can decipher the undercurrents of our existence. But I can illuminate them. I can take those shaky steps to the edge of my jigsawed life until I glimpse, in the distance, the nearest piece of yours. And if I stick with it, I can build a bridge of pieces between us. Maybe it’s not much. Probably not nearly enough. But the effort itself is something: a little more light shined on the strange shapes that connect us.
A Poet Eluded by Happiness
Stalked by illness (she wasn’t able to start school until age 9 because of her infirmities), plagued by depression, deeply loved by her friend Vachel Lindsay — the poet who preceded her in suicide by two years — Sara Teasdale was born on Aug. 8, 1884.
She was as prolific as she was tortured, publishing first at age 23 and going on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1918 for her volume of collected poems titled Love Songs. Would that her talent or the public’s admiration could have saved her. Here is a view of her world view and a tribute to her 78 years after her death.
Advice to a Girl
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed;
Lay that on your heart,
My young angry dear;
This truth, this hard and precious stone,
Lay it on your hot cheek,
Let it hide your tear.
Hold it like a crystal
When you are alone
And gaze in the depths of the icy stone.
Long, look long and you will be blessed:
No one worth possessing
Can be quite possessed.
I Have Loved Hours At Sea
I have loved hours at sea, gray cities,
The fragile secret of a flower,
Music, the making of a poem
That gave me heaven for an hour;
First stars above a snowy hill,
Voices of people kindly and wise,
And the great look of love, long hidden,
Found at last in meeting eyes.
I have loved much and been loved deeply —
Oh when my spirit’s fire burns low,
Leave me the darkness and the stillness,
I shall be tired and glad to go.
You are not alone if you have said, “I don’t understand poetry,” or “I can’t get into poetry,” or “I wish I liked to read poetry.”
In truth, the tradition from which modern poetry arises is the spoken tradition. One where meter was a guide to memory as troubadours traveled the countryside telling tales in verse.
It is still true today that the greatest pleasure in poetry comes when you hear it. And if you are not about to read poems aloud to yourself, there is no better time to engage in listening and seeing poets than now.
YouTube is a treasure chest of poets reading their own work. We can think of no better place to start our summer offerings from that site than with Linda Pastan’s reading at the Dodge Poetry Festival just after she celebrated her 55th wedding anniversary. This is a confident poet reading two poems that speak of innocence, maturity and competence. It is a gift from the poetry gods and a joy to behold.
The Amazing Elena Kras
Though completely deaf, Elena Kras speaks and “hears” without sign language. She is a recognized poet, author and journalist in Russian and Ukrainian and self taught in English, a necessity since she and her family moved to the United States 10 years ago.
She now writes both poems and novels in her adopted language.
She courageously sought us out as a vehicle for bringing her to a wider audience. The pleasure is all ours. Here is a new, beautiful and powerful voice in poetry from a woman whose understanding knows no bounds.
O R G A N I S T
If I always sleep
at the time of its calling,
If my heart goes on,
being thrown into the bend,
How would my hands
fall, like night is falling,
At this dead organ,
wishing for the music to end?
This is just the sounds
that make my lips thinner,
That dry up my soul,
distorting the Fate’s list…
I will answer for
being an unrepentant sinner,
Who still dares to bother
your hollow echo,
I didn’t hear you playing,
I’ve only been a jester,
Every pain is too aching,
this road of yours – too long…
Even if I have found
my ever-undying Esther,
I’m forgetting about
the places where I belong…
Reprinted with permission of the poet, Elena Kras, 2011.
when I was home sick from school. Of the nurse
bringing three babies into the ward and her praying
that hers wouldn’t be the ugly one in the middle.
And of how one moment can paint your portrait,
the only one you’ll ever have of yourself.
And now faced with this stunning stranger,
I imagine how she assembled herself with an eye
toward the pleasure she must always have given–
the way the white cat might curl on a green sofa
or a cardinal select the branch nearest the snowy
backdrop, with a right to be noticed, the necessity
of standing in this world as a pleasing antidote
to the despair of houses in a rundown neighborhood
where the lawns never prosper and women who
don’t realize they have the power of words, if nothing
else, might say on an incongruously sunny afternoon
something that will dye a future, no matter what pictures
are in the child’s coloring book or how hard she tries to keep
inside the lines using only the pastels and sometimes even
staying up late to get the sky just the right color blue
When we last graced you with poems from Tammy Nuzzo-Morgan, Suffolk County’s Poet Laureate for 2009-2011, is the author of the chapbooks The Bitter, The Sweet, One Woman’s Voice, and the Pulitzer-nominated Let Me Tell You Something, they were steaming hot, part of our Valentine’s month assortment. Some of you may have been at the gala on March 19 for Morgan’s Long Island Poetry Archival Center (Facebook photos here). We thank Tammy, the founder and president of The North Sea Poetry Scene, Inc. and The North Sea Poetry Scene Press and editor of Long Island Sounds Anthology, for the somber poems below, which let us in about that other truth about the month that ends tomorrow: that the sunshine can illuminate what’s hardest in our lives.
APRIL IS FINALLY HERE
Go back to your poodle-dog-cage-of-an-existence.
I release you to be leased and walked by your monkey mistress.
Go back to your don’t-dare-ask for-a blow-job life.
I expel you from my I-want-no-need-it-all world.
Go back to your veggie eating-and-cigarette-smoking ways.
I vomit you out of my juicy-bloody-medium-rare-steak belly.
Go, lick the piss off the bathroom floor she leaves for you to clean.
I wash my hands of you and your I-can’t-be-free fears.
Go, crawl on your belly, be her caddy, her driver, her lackey.
I see you in morning light & the view isn’t handsome.
You desire the stick across your back, plead for the dullness of your days.
I am throwing off secrets, dwarf-ness, need for you.
Little wart frog, hop on back to your muddy pond, bury yourself, dry season is coming.
I want this lake to myself and there just isn’t room for you here anymore.
for Michael Jason Nuzzo
I will not be among you tomorrow.
I will travel to Hades, to be with him, my son.
Like Odysseus I will visit, then return, if the gods allow.
I will begin tonight, descending deeper by the minute.
No other way can we be together again for a day.
I will not be among you tomorrow.
No sunlight will be upon my skin.
No other voice but his will I seek out.
No air will stir about my face.
I will not be among you tomorrow.
I do not wish to be among the living.
I do not care to fill my lungs.
No, I do not desire to hold my body up.
I will not be among you tomorrow.
No one possesses the balm to sooth away my pain.
No one has his familiar scent.
No one has the eyes of my son, so
I will not be among you tomorrow.
I will travel to Hades, to be with him.
Like Odysseus I will visit, then return, if the gods allow.
I will begin tonight, descending deeper by the minute.
No other way can we be together again for a day.
Keeping up with the news is a job. Keeping up with Twitter is a job. Keeping up with the pace of off-label Android development for the Barnes & Noble Nook Color is a job. Keeping up with work is a job. Basically, anything that easily takes up forty hours a week—whether you like it or get paid for it or not or not—is a job.
Cleaning the litter box is a chore. Cleaning the kitchen is a chore. Trimming my toenails is a chore. Anything that takes between two minutes and three hours and you don’t like it—partly because it interferes with your job, so you put it off as long as possible and then let it go for another week past that until it becomes an absolute necessity and then let it go a little longer until it’s on the verge of a health hazard—is a chore.
What’s left are sleep and hobbies. Anything you enjoy doing but never find the time for and can never seem to let yourself get away from your job to do is a hobby. This note is the product of a hobby. It’s called writing, and it’s taking time from sleep.
This Friday we bring you a cycle of poems that poet Carol A. Beane has forged of the particular and the universal. Her writing, so like quilting—meant to be seen in the individual patches and as a whole from a distance—is wonderfully appropriate for the season when night arrives early and our considerations are both of the present and past. We know you will read these three poems as we did—engrossed in their stories and carried to their deeper meanings—and are pleased to tell you more about this gifted and multi-dimensional poet after her work speaks for itself.
This first poem, Beane says, “Celebrates the consciousness of self and wholeness of being, attained or acknowledged, at whatever the age . . . the sweet with the bitter; the bitter mellowed by time and reflection.”
She was 92 years old
and 7 months when she decided
to sleep naked. The first time
was when she dreamt about
an old friend, a coulda been
lover but wasnt—just that
he was sick, poor fellow,
so nothing ever happened;
nothing was really possible,
Meditation on that which
had been done and that which had
been left undone.
It was the first night of
the full moon and the
moon bathed her in
faint noises of flowers
opening; mother of pearl
poppies on her cafe au lait
with a touch of cinnamon self;
her hair on the pillow was
moon glow and her moon
sign beauty marks were
suns in that deep night
which was her first
night of sleeping naked;
delighting in it, until
dawn came, tremulous
and delicate, almost
timid, and that was
only the first
She gave herself over
to the silence of the woods
at night and to the starlight;
joining laughing women
wild dancing trees;
with them, temptresses
for the while
he was sick, you know,
so it couldnt be,
but really, i liked
that fellow so much
so very very much
Now she divines
the time by
where sunlight falls
on her legs…
The doves’ murmurings
the new day.
she used to sleep
with her back to the dawn;
she used to sleep on a grate,
red high-heeled shoes neatly together at the head of
her cardboard-box-when-she-could-get-it bed;
she was a brown skinned woman,
the color of cloves,
thin as a winter’s day.
she used to wait for the bus;
gilded sandals of fine italian leather
over her shoulder, or by her side;
she would lean on a post
and wave all the buses by.
she grew thinner than stillness
on a razor’s edge;
she grew brighter than pain;
and when her bones got too weak
to bear the weight of flesh
grown meager and sad
and heavy beyond belief,
she put on her red high-heeled shoes
they made sculptures
with green long necked bottles,
setting them against the grey stone walls
where stale beer caught sunlight filled with refracted dreams
and drowned lost laughter and memories of
what would never be wrapped in silence and plastic bags.
there are screams that never dry in your throat;
scars that never leave your eyes;
the soul heals wounds with living—
fine sheer veils of grace.
Betsy Wing, reader, writer, translator, and WVFC contributor, offers these facts about Carol A. Beane:
Carol A. Beane is a Washington, D.C.-based poet and artist. She was awarded the 24th Larry Neal Poetry prize for Poetry (funded by the D.C. Commission for the Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts). Collaborating with Michael B. Platt, Beane has created widely exhibited artist’s books and broadsides of poetry and images that are represented in numerous public and private collections—among them, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, the John Hay Library of Brown University, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the Founder’s Library of Howard University, and the Rare Books and Special Collections of the Library of Congress. She received the 2009 National Museum of Women in the Arts Library Fellows Book award for the streets of used to be, done with artist Renée Stout, whose images images distill and resonate with the emotions of Beane’s poetry. About the streets of used to be, Beane says her inspiration came from the life she sees in and on the streets while walking in D.C.; from efforts to survive with some measure of dignity, from people biding time. Beane teaches Spanish and Simultaneous Interpretation at Howard University and is also a translator.
As witches, bats and jack-o-lanterns begin to appear in our neighborhoods, we reflect on the investigations of souls and saints that gave birth to this iconography. Molly Peacock, whose gift of five poems to Women’s Voices for Change has elevated this month to one of our most poetically celebratory ever, considers everyday holiness in these two poems. We once again rejoice in our good fortune at counting as a friend and sister this far-published winner of awards from the Danforth Foundation, Ingram Merrill Foundation, and Woodrow Wilson Foundationm as well as National Endowment for the Arts and New York State Council on the Arts Fellowships. It’s been an honor having her with us for these weeks and we look forward to more encounters and adventures together.
Forgiveness is not an abstraction for
it needs a body to feel its relief.
Knees, shoulders, spine are required to adore
the lightness of a burden removed. Grief,
like a journey over water completed,
slides its keel in the packed sand reef.
Forgiveness is contact with the belief
that your only life must now be lived. Knees
once sank into leather of the pew with all
the weight of created hell, of whom you did not ease,
or what you did not seize. Now the shortfall
that crippled your posture finds sudden peace
in the muscular, physical brightness
of a day alive: the felt lightness
of existence self-created, forgiveness.
Rain hisses off the bus and car and taxi tires,
hosing the almost gardened streets; blackened lanes
of traffic seem planned as garden paths;
buildings wired like cemented topiaries
lean into their baths, and it’s spring,
we’re alive, the city a human-made Eden,
so gray, not green, though there in the fruit stands
jonquils and hyacinths bow in tin buckets and
figures in slickers duck out to shop, a wet parade
of flower heads conveyed along below.
It occurs to me to pray.
In a little seizure, a prayer shudders up,
its spasm quick as a camera’s shutter:
Glad you exist to rise up, window.
Reprinted from ORIGINAL LOVE: Poems by Molly Peacock. Copyright (c) 1995 by Molly Peacock. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Last week, WVFC was graced with two poems by Lucia Perillo, who has published six books of poetry, most recently Inseminating the Elephant (Copper Canyon Press, 2009). A book of her essays, I’ve Heard the Vultures Singing, was published in 2007 by Trinity University Press. Her book of poems, Luck is Luck (Random House 2005), was a finalist for the L.A. Times Book Prize and won the Kingsley Tufts prize from Claremont University. A former MacArthur fellow, Perillo lives in Olympia, Washington. We are honored to continue her voice here.
The Crows Start Demanding Royalties
Of all the birds, they are the ones
who mind their being armless most:
witness how, when they walk, their heads jerk
back and forth like rifle bolts.
How they heave their shoulders into each stride
as if they hoped that by some chance
new bones there would come popping out
with a boxing glove on the end of each.
Little Elvises, the hairdo slicked
with too much grease: they convene on my lawn
to strategize for their class-action suit.
Flight they would trade in a New York minute
for a black muscle car and a fist on the shift
at any stale green light. But here in my yard
by the Jack in the Box dumpster
they can only fossick in the grass for remnants
of the world’s stale buns. And this
despite all the crow-poems that have been written
because men like to see themselves as crows
(the head-jerk performed in the rear-view mirror,
the dark brow commanding the rainy weather.)
So I think I know how they must feel:
ripped off, shook down, taken to the cleaners.
What they’d like to do now is smash a phone against a wall.
But they can’t, so each one flies to a bare branch and screams.
J. C. Todd has authored two chapbooks of poems, Nightshade (2000, 1995), and Entering Pisces (1985), both published by Pine Press. Her poems have appeared in such literary journals as The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review and Beloit Poetry Journal, and her translations of poems by the Ecuadorean writer Ivan Gordon Vailakis in Crab Orchard Review. She wrote the entries on Lucille Clifton and Etheridge Knight for The Oxford Companion to Twentieth Century Poetry in English. Todd has received a Fellowship in Poetry and professional development grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts as well as four Pushcart Prize nominations for poetry.
Recipient of a New Jersey Governor’s Award for Arts Education and a Distinguished Teaching Artist award for poetry workshops offered through the New Jersey Writers’ Project, Todd teaches in the Writing for College program at Bryn Mawr College and the poetry program of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. We’re happy to feature her poem below, which teaches us much about caretaking of all kinds.
Remember, Mother, when you were so ill
it hurt to move, hurt to lie still? Or
perhaps you don’t, having passed through flesh
into ether. I am the one who remembers,
remembers washing you and thinking,
Why don’t I remember you washing me?
As though to clear the soapy film that clouds
the water of the bath, a hand appears,
supporting my shoulders, flimsy neck,
the back of my still-soft head. Your hand,
released from cells that have transferred you
when you washed me onto me when I washed
you, our hands one hand now as I sponge
blood from my daughters skinned knuckle.
From J. C. Todd, What Space This Body (Wind Publications, 2008). Reprinted with permission of the author.
As we all hit the midpoint in our summer reading, we note—with pleasure or puzzlement—the encomiums written on the backs of the volumes we have carted to the beach or lake house. This Poetry Friday’s featured poet, Julianna Baggott, is well qualified to ruminate on how she wants her books’ covers to reflect her.
Julianna Baggott has the resume and energy of a village of writers. She is the author of sixteen books, including bestsellers Girl Talk and The Madam; novels for younger readers, notably The Prince of Fenway Park and The Anybodies trilogy (under the pen name N.E. Bode); three collections of poetry; and novels for women under the pen name Bridget Asher, most recently The Pretend Wife. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, and at NPR.org. She teaches at Florida State University and co-founded the Florida nonprofit Kids in Need – Books in Deed.
We admire her industry and salute her sense of humor. We hope to bring you more of her work in the coming months.
I don’t want to be a national treasure,
too old-codgery, something wheeled out
of a closet to cut ribbon. I prefer
resident genius, or for the genius
to be at least undeniable.
I’d like to steer away from the declaration
by far her best. Too easily I read,
the predecessors were weary immigrant stock.
The same goes for working at the height
of her powers, as if it’s obvious
I’m teetering on the edge of senility.
I don’t want to have to look things up:
lapidary style? I’d prefer not to be a talent;
as if my mother has dressed me
in a spangled leotard, tap shoes,
my hair in Bo-Peep pin curls.
But I like sexy, even if unearned.
I like elegance, bite. I want someone
to confess they’ve fallen in love with me
and another to say, No, she’s mine.
And a third to just come out with it:
she will go directly to heaven.
Millicent Borges Accardi has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council and the Barbara Deming Foundation. Her work has appeared in over 50 literary publications including Laurel Review, New Letters, Nimrod and the Wallace Stevens Journal. Among the anthologies in which you’ll find her work are Boomer Girls, Chopin with Cherries (Moonrise Press) and To Honor a Teacher.
Her newest collection, Woman on a Shaky Bridge, has just been released. We took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her philosophy and her process. Happily, we’ll be spotlighting her work in the coming months.
By way of introducing this stunning collection, you cite an experiment where men were interviewed by a woman after crossing a shaky bridge and others after crossing a solid bridge. Apparently the woman was asked out by more of the men who crossed the unsure path, leading to the conclusion that anxiety and sexual arousal are closely linked. Are you the woman or are you the observer of anxiety—or both?
I’d say I am the observer. Poets are witnesses, observers, the ones who write the history down so events will be remembered. I like the study because it associates sexual arousal with danger/anxiety, a notion that explains so much about how men and women interact in the world.
Now the obvious question: Did you always know you were a poet and that this would be your chosen path? How old were you when you first published?
In elementary school, I got walking pneumonia and was confined to bed, where I read TONS of books and got the bug in my brain that I might want to be a writer. In junior high, friends of my parents put together a chapbook of my poetry. After that I was an editor on a journal for young people, sponsored by the public library. Then, fast forward, I majored in English in college and was getting an MA in literature looking to apply for PhD programs when I did a 180 and decided to abandon my thesis and do a terminal writing degree (this was the Master of Professional Writing at University of Southern California—USC), deciding that I would rather piecemeal a life with writing. This took me on a path road of freelance technical writing, instructional design, reviews and articles for a local arts publication.
I’d say my poems started appearing regularly in journals in the early 1990s—No major markets like The New Yorker or Poetry, but nice university journals like Tampa Review, Seattle Review, Nimrod, New Letters. There is so much wonderful work in small presses and indie journals these days.
Do you write at a specific time of day? Do you make an appointment with your muse?
My husband gets up at 5 a.m. for work, and I usually start my day then too. When I lived in Venice, I used to write in the early morning nearly every day before my “day job” started. Now, I’d say I just keep the channels of inspiration open and am grateful when poems arrive. Some say they wait for the muse or “a ghost.”
I think I just have the good sense to stop and write down thoughts when they sound important to me. My writing time is more like my life, unplanned and free-flowing. Each day is a new experience, a new schedule.
It’s just part of my life, whether the poems show up in the middle of the night or after lunch. I try to listen to the muse rather than force or impose my will, although I do encourage her with reading, the use of prompts, and exchanging work with other writers. I founded a women’s writers group and we meet once a month to share work and literary news (as well as chit chat and lunch, which may or may not involve wine). I also exchange poems once a week with another writer.
Some of what I think is my best work has shown up after long periods of what people might call doing nothing. It’s creating a vessel for the work to happen and being open and willing to record the inspiration when it comes along. Often times, I will write about events years or months after the fact. I’m not so great at writing on command.
Our readers are women who are believers in life offering new opportunities at vitality after the burst that is youth. Do you have any advice for those who would like to start writing at this point in their lives?
I think writers who discover their voice later in life often have more to say and have a better sensibility about where they fit in the universe. Youth possesses a certainty, a misnamed sarcasm or cockiness that, when stripped away by life itself, often reveals wisdom. I think people who write later in life have more to say because they have a half a lifetime of built up memories with which to work. I don’t know what I would do if I could not write. It brings meaning to my life.
We assume you work as a technical writer in order to afford to be the poet you are and we see that you’ve had numerous artist residencies. Could you comment on how you bring those parts of yourself together?
In my life, time, especially time to write, is what I fight for. It is a priority, it is my focus. My “day job” as a technical writer/instructional designer not only buys me a roof over my head, it “buys” time.
My day job is primarily remote, so I get to stay home and, in between meetings and deadlines, I bake bread, garden or do yoga. Every day I am grateful for this lifestyle. The unpredictable pace is an asset. My days range from 12 hours to part-time. The variety and the flexibility allow me to spend more time making poems. No one seems to have time to sit still, to be grateful, and to just “be.” I feel as if I have gladly adopted a simpler, easier, more earth-bound way of life. My days are, for the most part, unscheduled. I make food from scratch and am always trying to find new ways to simplify, to save money, to do with less. Of course I worry about finances—but my goal is to buy as much time to write as I can. That’s what I work for.
Unless I am forced to because I cannot find a new project (for whatever reason), I truly aim for remote, freelance assignments. Of course, in the back of my head, I tell myself that if things really get bad, I can always go back to being a waitress or an artist model (the “careers” I had which put me through college).
Then, when I get lucky, every once in a while, like a blind squirrel I find an acorn! And, I am lucky enough to be offered a residency, which is a massive blessing. My NEA fellowship allowed me to take nearly a year off to write poetry! I was in Spain for a month in the fall of 2008 and last September, I was in Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic. I cannot thank these foundations enough for their support and belief in me and my work. It means everything.
You’ve put together a good strategy strategy for sustaining your creative life. By and large, though, you don’t see American women as being particularly well-situated these days. Why is that?
I think so many women won a battle and yet lost a war with the women’s movement. Sure, women have made inroads in a man’s world in the workplace (in a few areas) but they have also lost a lot. While I like the options I am afforded as a female, I am also in mourning for the losses. Women in the 1950s were expected to be housewives and mothers and that was it—unless you were outside the model of what was expected.
Then came the 1960s and everything changed. I think the idea was equality and freedom, but in actuality, woman got stuck with the short end of the stick.
Today, if a woman wants to be a stay-at-home mother, the workplace generally does not support this model due to the expected two-income households that especially in the US have become “the norm.”
Having “it all” does not mean having it all. It means working a full-time job while someone else raises your children and then ALSO maintaining a house (cleaning, cooking, etc.).
We women have not gained that much in return for a distinct loss of time and leisure. I chose not to have children, but I see my friends struggling. They deal with daycare and the expectations are still that they are housewives (responsible for the exact same chores that women have always been responsible for). In my own circle of friends I see very little has changed in the ways of men splitting household duties. Maybe a few men cook? Or maybe others pitch in once in a while to fold laundry, but, the bulk of the chores seem to rest on women’s shoulders. Sometimes I wonder just what we women HAVE gained?
That’s a provocative position! We’ll be interested to hear what WVFC readers think about that. Meanwhile, to close our conversation, here’s one final query: What question do you wish we’d asked you and how would you answer it?
Oh gosh. I guess I want to answer a question about the book cover for Woman on a Shaky Bridge. My husband is an artist and the painting (of me) is a large-scale oil that he painted. It was one of those moments—I was sitting on the couch and Charles had finished a series of nude self portraits, then, another series of fallen soldiers, and was about to launch onto a new pathway when he looked at me and said, There! I had just returned from yoga and had no makeup on and I was not all that engaged. But when it came time to choose a cover, I thought that painting was perfect.