Kirsten Neff’s Online Writing Retreat

May 11 – May 17

 

Kirsten Jones Neff is a poet, filmmaker, gardening teacher, writing teacher, mother of three, and MPC Board Member.

 

 

 

Day 63:  Elizabeth Bishop –  a guest post by Jim Pellegrin

May 17

After a 45-year career in medicine, Point Reyes Station resident Jim Pellegrin, stepfather of Kirsten Neff, is retired and able to focus full-time on some of his favorite things, including poetry, his garden and a flock of self-satisfied chickens.

Under the Window: Ouro Preto

by Elizabeth Bishop

The conversations are simple: about food,
or, “When my mother combs my hair it hurts.”
“Women.”  “Women!”  Women in red dresses
and plastic sandals, carrying their almost
invisible babies – – muffled to the eyes
in all the heat – – unwrap them, lower them,
and give them drinks of water lovingly
from dirty hands, here where there used to be
a fountain, here where all the world still stops.
The water used to run out of the mouths
of three green soapstone faces.  (one face laughed
and one face cried; the idle one just looked.
Patched up with plaster, they’re in the museum.)
It runs now from a single iron pipe,
a strong and ropy stream.  “Cold.”  “Cold as ice,”
All have agreed for several centuries.
Donkeys agree, and dogs, and the neat little
bottle-green swallows dare to dip and taste.
Here comes that old man with the stick and sack,
meandering again.  He stops and fumbles.
He finally gets out his enameled mug.
Here comes some laundry tied up in a sheet,
all on its own, three feet above the ground.
Oh, no – – a small black boy is underneath.
Six donkeys come behind their “godmother”
– – the one who wears a fringe of orange wool
with wooly balls above her eyes, and bells.
They veer toward the water as a matter
Of course, until the drover’s mare trots up,
her whiplash-blinded eye on the off side.
A big new truck, Mercedes-Benz, arrives
to overawe them all.  The body’s painted
with throbbing rosebuds and the bumper says
HERE AM I FOR WHOM YOU HAVE BEEN WAITING
The driver and assistant driver wash
their faces, necks, and chests.  They wash their feet,
their shoes, and put them back together again.
Meanwhile, another, older truck grinds up
in a blue cloud of burning oil.  It has
a syphilitic nose.  Nevertheless,
its gallant driver tells the passersby
NOT MUCH MONEY BUT IT IS AMUSING.
“She’s been in labor now two days.”  “Transistors
cost much too much.”  “For lunch we took advantage
of the poor duck the dog decapitated.”
The seven ages of man are talkative
and soiled and thirsty.
Oil has seeped into
the margins of the ditch of standing water
And flashes or looks upward brokenly,
like bits of mirror – – no,  more blue than that:
like tatters of the Morpho butterfly.

Craft:

I have to confess, at the outset, that I love Elizabeth Bishop, and this poem in particular, probably more than I should.   So besotted was I years ago that I dragged my bewildered young family to the tiny colonial town of Ouro Preto in the interior of Brazil where we stood beside Elizabeth’s ancient fountain and watched the entire poem unfold, from muffled babies, to swallows dipping and sipping, to syphilitic trucks, and finally even a horse trotting up, with a great flourish, for a cold drink!

The poem is exquisite, obviously; Ms. Bishop was a perfectionist, working on some poems for years, and allowing only a handful to be published in her long life.  You can feel her delicately trying to find the right image in the last stanza, which of course she does in the blue morpho butterfly’s tattered wings.  If you’ve ever been to the tropics, you know there is nothing more blue than a blue morpho butterfly, and nothing more beautifully tattered than Brazil.

You’ll notice that Ms. Bishop is not a presence in the poem.  It’s as if she were taking a picture from a window, looking out, so of course, she is not in the picture.  Most, if not all, of her poems are like that; they are about what she sees when she looks outward, and not about her.

Many of her contemporaries were what was known as ‘confessional’ poets, who wrote mostly about themselves and who looked mostly inward.  I this, I that.  Think of John Berryman, such a brilliant stylist and such a keen mind, but so self-absorbed and narcissistic, so self-pitying, really.  And bound for ruin, from the get-go.

Not that Bishop’s life was any picnic.  Her childhood and her personal life were harrowing, to say the least, a horrendous series of losses and traumas.  But all that was her business, and she kept it to herself, while most of her contemporaries howled the outrageous unfairness of it all at the moon.

So if you’re sick of your COVID-19 era shrunken world, sick of the same walls and the same people, sick of yourself, really, then Elizabeth Bishop might be for you.  Get ahold of her “Complete Poems”, and read ‘The Moose,’ and ‘Crusoe in England.’  and ‘The Fish.”  They’ll take you somewhere else, somewhere that will hold your gaze as it held hers.

For an illuminating essay about Ms. Bishop:  Elizabeth Bishop’s Art of Losing, The New Yorker, March 6, 2017.

Prompt:

Imagine your father had left you a small inheritance, as happened to Elizabeth Bishop.  Not enough to buy your own airplane, but enough so you didn’t have to spend your time working for a living, enough to be completely free.  What would you do?

Well, you might travel, right?  Ms. Bishop lived all over the world, spent years in Brazil on a hilltop near Rio.  You might fall in love with interesting, strong, beautiful men and women, sometimes the right ones, sometimes the wrong ones.  You might write exquisite poems and send them off to your friends who would send you back their own exquisite poems.

And of course, you just might smoke a million cigarettes and drink yourself to death, which Bishop nearly did, more than once.

In the end, you might live a life plagued by child abuse, mental and physical illness, and difficult, tumultuous relationships, but you might have the grace to spare your readers all that and leave them instead with a feeling of awe and wonder at the luminous rainbow world you saw when, thank God, you looked out the window.

Recipe:  Brazilian Fish Stew Recipe, courtesy of NY Times and master-chef Sally Jones

Morpho Butterfly. Photo by Suz Lipman.

 

Elizabeth Bishop

 

Day 62:  Writing Outside of the Box

May 16

The landscape around us – economic, social, political, physical – is unsettled.  Many are wondering what the world will look like after this pandemic. This moment, when all is up in the air, might offer an opportunity to expand our approach to poetry and to integrate new art forms.  For inspiration, I will start with two examples of powerful multi-media poetry.

The first is a visual poem comprised of narrative language and archival daguerreotype photos of African slaves in the South from the 1850’s. It was created by the artist Carrie Mae Meems.

From Here I Saw What Happened and Cried

Meems’ work makes a statement about biases that shape ongoing racism and injustice in the U.S., including the role of the photographer in perpetuating lasting stereotypes

The next piece is a striking video poem by a young woman named Eva Hoffman.

Watch here:

A Small Particle Invisible to the Eye

Eva was sent home from her college in California and returned to Minnesota due to the pandemic. This visual poem allows us to understand the layers of heartbreak – from the loss of a classmate to drugs before she left campus, to the loneliness of her own life interrupted, to weight of understanding environmental catastrophe.  Through Eva’s elegant eye, we also understand her profound appreciation of life and of the natural world around her, so the poem, in video form, generates tension between the weight of the moment and the delicate beauty of the pleasures and blessings of being alive.

Stuck at home, vacations, reunions, and birthday parties canceled, no new vistas to be seen, no trailblazing adventures to be had, maybe we can try to take ourselves out of our artistic comfort zones into new territory. After World War I, when European society was unstable and/or in shambles, an avant-garde artistic movement called Dada arose, rejecting the traditional parameters around art. Why should a poem look or sound a certain way?

In 2016, the New York Times publish a piece about the 100-year anniversary of DaDa-ism, articulating its relevance:  On July 14, 1916, the poet Hugo Ball proclaimed the manifesto for a new movement. Its name: Dada. Its aim: to “get rid of everything that smacks of journalism, worms, everything nice and right, blinkered, moralistic, europeanised, enervated.” This aim could be achieved simply by saying: “Dada”  … However short-lived, Dada constitutes something like the Big Bang of Modernism. 

In this article, Dada is described as “the autoimmune response to the cancer that was World War 1.” This creative response inspired some of the foundational modern poets, including Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore and Gertrude Stein.

What is our creative response to the Covid virus that has remade our world?  How can we be brave and experimental, maybe even absurdist and irreverent, as we write poems?  The process of swerving out of bounds and making unusual or radical art might be cathartic and energizing, forging new pathways in the brain.  At the very least, it might be fun.

Some Inspiration:

Kansuke Yamamoto a Japanese surrealist poet and photographer who referred to his visual pieces as poems.  Here is a piece called I’d Like to Think While Inside the Body of a Horse

Also, take a look at this array of Visual Poetry on Pinterest

Prompts: 

  1. Find a photograph that you find powerful – it may be beautiful, it may be upsetting, or confusing. Speak to this photograph.  Have a conversation with it in your poem.  Ask questions, make guesses, describe emotional responses.  Finish the story of the photograph.
  2. Search for Poetry in Prose in this “Blackout” exercise, you redact text to create a poem.  The results, as evidence by the poems in the NYTimes  link above, are surprisingly powerful
  3. Find an existing poem you have written and use photographs and/or video to add dimension to it (Eva Hoffman used photos and video in the poem shared above). Alternatively, create a collage with found images and superimpose poem or integrate your poem into the collage.
I’d Like to Think While Inside the Body of a Horse by Kansuke Yamamoto

 

Recipe: The Stew  (otherwise known as Spiced Chickpea Stew With Coconut and Tumeric, “the recipe that broke the internet”)

I found this recipe when I was experimenting with plant-based meals, attempting to wean my family off of nightly meat-based dishes.  It was the first plant-based dish that everyone in my family found 100% satisfying.  It is SO good.  You will not be disappointed.

SPICED CHICKPEA STEW WITH COCONUT AND TURMERIC

Serves four to six. Cooking time 55 minutes

This is #thestew, Alison Roman’s internet-famous recipe, as delicious as it is beautiful. Spiced chickpeas are crisped in olive oil, then simmered in a garlicky coconut milk for an incredibly creamy, basically-good-for-you dinner that evokes South Indian chickpea stews and some stews found in parts of the Caribbean. While the chickpeas alone would be good as a side dish, they are further simmered with stock, bolstered with dark, leafy greens of your choosing and finished with a handful of fresh mint.

Ingredients

4 Tbsp olive oil, plus more for serving
4 garlic cloves, chopped
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, finely chopped
Salt and black pepper
1½ tsp ground turmeric, plus more for serving
1 tsp mild chilli flakes, plus more for serving
2 tins chickpeas, drained and rinsed
2 tins full-fat coconut milk
270ml vegetable or chicken stock
1 bunch Swiss chard, kale or collard greens, stems removed, torn into bite-size pieces
1 small bunch mint leaves, for serving
Yogurt, for serving (optional)
Toasted pita, lavash or other flatbread, for serving (optional)

Method

  1. Heat 4 Tbsp oil in a large pot over medium. Add garlic, onion and ginger. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring occasionally until onion is translucent and starts to brown a little at the edges, three to five minutes.
  2. Add 1½ teaspoons turmeric, one teaspoon mild chilli flakes, and the chickpeas, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, so the chickpeas sizzle and fry a bit in the spices and oil, until they’ve started to break down and get a little browned and crisp, eight to 10 minutes. Remove about a cup of chickpeas and set aside for garnish.
  3. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, further crush the remaining chickpeas slightly to release their starchy insides. (This will help thicken the stew.) Add coconut milk and stock, and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Bring to a simmer, scraping up any bits that have formed on the bottom of the pot. Cook, stirring occasionally, until stew has thickened, 30 to 35 minutes. (Taste a chickpea or two, not just the liquid, to make sure they have simmered long enough to be as delicious as possible.) If after 30 to 35 minutes, you want the stew a bit thicker, keep simmering until you’ve reached your desired consistency. Determining perfect stew thickness is a personal journey!
  5. Add greens and stir, making sure they’re submerged in the liquid. Cook until they wilt and soften, three to seven minutes, depending on what you’re using. (Swiss chard and spinach will wilt and soften much faster than kale or collard greens.) Season again with salt and pepper.
  6. Divide among bowls and top with mint, reserved chickpeas, a sprinkle of chilli flakes and a good drizzle of olive oil. Serve alongside yogurt and toasted pita if using; dust the yogurt with turmeric if you’d like.

 

Day 61: Writing the Domestic and Familial

May 15

In the early 1970s, when Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critic Award-winning poet Sharon Olds was a young mother and submitted her work about her home and family to respected literary magazine, it was suggested to her that Ladies Home Journal might be a better fit. This article in The Guardian about Olds  and her well-received material about her divorce tells the story. In it, Olds says, “There is an expression – the devil is in the detail,” she says. “I think the earth is in the detail. I am quite myopic. I wear glasses. I am not good at big abstracts. I focus on things up close to me. Some poets have better imaginations than I have. They write about ideas that come out of experience, not ordinary life itself.”

As a young mother, I had stepped out of a journalism career to stay home with my children, and I turned to poets like Olds for permission and inspiration as I wrote poetry about the everyday experiences and details of my domestic life, children and marriage.  I would write before the kids woke up, or after they fell asleep, and thus, the collection that arose from that time is entitled When the House is Quiet.

For many of us, this Covid quarantine means we are spending an inordinate amount of time in our homes with our family members and pets, and while this is most certainly wonderful in many ways, there are also likely times when it is trying, or, at the very least, disruptive to our life as we knew it. Today, we will explore poetry of the home and family.  Below are four wonderful examples of poems that are observations of familial love and domestic life.  Again, when writing poetry, observation is everything, as beauty and pathos are dependent upon careful attention to and recounting of physical and emotional details.

We Collect Gull Feathers by Timothy Young

As the evening dies over Pepin,
we collect gull feather, black and white ones,
and pretend they were dropped by the eagle
whose track and wing marked
the gray Mississippi sandbar.

Jesse remarked as we arrived,
“If I point at hawks they fly away,
but if I don’t they stay in their trees.”

The river moves heavily, south,
and the sun drops beyond the bluffs.
The air chills me.
I want to keep my fingers in my pocket,
because everything moves on here,
except that sweet pain of love that knows
he’s growing up to leave me.

Girl in the Doorway by Dorianne Laux

She is twelve now, the door to her room
closed, telephone cord trailing the hallway
in tight curls. I stand at the dryer, listening
through the thin wall between us, her voice
rising and falling as she describes her new life.
Static flies in brief blue stars from her socks,
her hairbrush in the morning. Her silver braces
shine inside the velvet case of her mouth.
Her grades rise and fall, her friends call
or they don’t, her dog chews her new shoes
to a canvas pulp. Some days she opens her door
and musk rises from the long crease in her bed,
fills the dim hall. She grabs a denim coat
and drags the floor. Dust swirls in gold eddies
behind her. She walks through the house, a goddess,
each window pulsing with summer. Outside,
the boys wait for her teeth to straighten.
They have a vibrant patience.
When she steps onto the front porch, sun shimmies
through the tips of her hair, the V of her legs,
fans out like wings under her arms
as she raises them and waves. Goodbye, Goodbye.
Then she turns to go, folds up
all that light in her arms like a blanket
and takes it with her.

Why I Love Being Married to a Chemist by Barbara Crooker

Because he can still cause a reaction in me
when he talks about SN2 displacements,
amines and esters looking for receptor sites
at the base of their ketones. Because he lugs
home serious tomes like The Journal of the American
Chemical Society or The Proceedings of the Society
of the Plastics Industry, the opposite of the slim volumes
of poetry with colorful covers that fill my bookshelves.
Because once, years ago, on a Saturday before our
raucous son rang in the dawn, he was just
standing there in the bathroom, out of the shower.
I said Honey, what’s wrong? and he said Oh,
I was just thinking about a molecule.

 

Because he taught me about sublimation, how
a solid, like ice, can change straight to a gas
without becoming liquid first. Because even
after all this time together, he can still
make me melt.

And finally, a link to this heart-achingly beautiful poem by MPC’s own Rebecca Foust:   Abeyance

In a 2012 NPR piece entitled It’s A Genre! The Overdue Poetry of Parenthood

by critic David Orr (the very same who, as mentioned in a previous post, does not love Mary Oliver’s work), Orr heralds the arrival of the “Genre” – writing about parenthood that is.  He writes:  Yet while the new poetry of birth is largely being written by women, it would be unfortunate if it were only being written by women. After all, men do have a role to play in these matters. So it’s good to see poems like Paul Muldoon’s “Sonogram” and books like Devin Johnston’s Traveler that confidently take up the rituals and worries of early parenthood. Perhaps it’s appropriate that the same volume of the Best American Poetry series that includes Baggott’s poem about breast-feeding concludes with Kevin Young’s “Expecting,” in which Young describes his wife’s ultrasound as “The doctor trying again to find you, fragile / fern, snowflake.” All snowflakes are unique, yet look nearly identical — like embryos, babies and even birth itself. This is the kind of paradox that new parents understand, and that poets at last seem ready to embrace.

 

The respect that poetic work about the art of nurturing has achieved corresponds with the respect women have gained in society at large.  As women stepped up to lead institutions, including publishing houses, and, simultaneously, men became more involved with domestic life, a wider range of work made it into the canon. I often think about Sylvia Plath, and what her life might have looked like if she were born today.  I also credit the extraordinary Adrienne Rich as someone who trail-blazed the way for women (and men) to rightfully own and write their truths.

Prompt: 

Observe a person or a room in your home.  Take the time to note every little detail, the way we did in the writing about nature prompt.  Observe, and then observe even more deeply.  After you have written the details of what you see, consider the emotions those details evoke.  Again, the themes this week are Don’t Judge and Be Real.  Let’s say you observe your young adult child leaving crumbs across the kitchen, leaving dishes on the counter, and feel rage…write that rage, whether your child deserves it or not.  Maybe that rage is connected to a sense of failure as a parent, or a greater sense of failure in society or by our government.  Maybe it is emblematic of your sense of disorder in the universe, or a need for care yourself.  Write it all.  And, if you feel tremendous love, maybe for your dog who unfailingly gives you that wag when everyone else glares miserably, or your husband who is the only person able to make you laugh, observe the exact details of how these co-inhabitants bring cheer.  If you live alone and make phone calls or Zoom calls, you may observe the sound of the person on the phone or computer, the tenor of their conversation.  Or, you may choose to describe your kitchen or bedroom or back porch.

Consider how Timothy Young expands his poem We Collect Gull Feathers (above) and in just a few last lines infuses it with the emotional surge of movement, unstoppable time and the loss that carries with it.  Talk about gut-punch!

Recipe: 

My all-time most domestic (and beloved by many in my family) recipe for Chicken Pot Pie from the queen of domesticity, Ina Garten

Chicken Pot Pie

Ingredients:

3 whole (6 split) chicken breasts, bone-in, skin-on
3 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher saltFreshly ground black pepper
5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 chicken bouillon cubes
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 cups yellow onions, chopped (2 onions)
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups medium-diced carrots, blanched for 2 minutes
1 (10-ounce) package frozen peas (2 cups)
1 1/2 cups frozen small whole onions
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley leaves

For the pastry:

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 pound cold unsalted butter, diced
1/2 to 2/3 cup ice water
1 egg beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Flaked sea salt and cracked black pepper

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the chicken breasts on a baking sheet and rub them with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, or until cooked through. Set aside until cool enough to handle, then remove the meat from the bones and discard the skin. Cut the chicken into large dice. You will have 4 to 6 cups of cubed chicken.

In a small saucepan, heat the chicken stock and dissolve the bouillon cubes in the stock. In a large pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the onions over medium-low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until translucent. Add the flour and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Add the hot chicken stock to the sauce. Simmer over low heat for 1 more minute, stirring, until thick. Add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and heavy cream. Add the cubed chicken, carrots, peas, onions and parsley. Mix well.

For the pastry, mix the flour, salt, and baking powder in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade. Add the shortening and butter and mix quickly with your fingers until each piece is coated with flour. Pulse 10 times, or until the fat is the size of peas. With the motor running, add the ice water; process only enough to moisten the dough and have it just come together. Dump the dough out onto a floured board and knead quickly into a ball. Wrap the dough in plastic and allow it to rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Divide the filling equally among 4 ovenproof bowls. Divide the dough into quarters and roll each piece into an 8-inch circle. Brush the outside edges of each bowl with the egg wash, then place the dough on top. Trim the circle to 1/2-inch larger than the top of the bowl. Crimp the dough to fold over the side, pressing it to make it stick. Brush the dough with egg wash and make 3 slits in the top. Sprinkle with sea salt and cracked pepper. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, or until the top is golden brown and the filling is bubbling hot.

 

After the Bath by Mary Cassatt

 

Day 60:  Walt Whitman

May 14

A guest post by my step-father Jim Pellegrin, a “Whitmaniac”:

After a 45-year career in medicine, Point Reyes Station resident Jim Pellegrin is now retired and is able to focus full-time on some of his favorite things, including poetry, his garden and a flock of self-satisfied chickens.

From Pent-Up Aching Rivers  by Walt Whitman

From pent-up aching rivers,
From that of myself without which I were nothing,
From what I am determin’d to make illustrious, even if I stand sole among men,
From my own voice resonant, singing the phallus,
Singing the song of procreation,
Singing the need of superb children and therein superb grown people. . .
From the hungry gnaw that eats me night and day
From native moments, from bashful pains, singing them,
Seeking something yet unfound though I have diligently sought it many a long year,
Singing the true song of the soul fitful at random . . .
From the act-poems of eyes, hands, hips and bosoms,
From the cling of the trembling arm. . .
From the one so unwilling to have me leave, and me just as unwilling to leave,
(Yet a moment O tender waiter, and I return,)
From the hour of shining stars and dropping dews,
From the night a moment I emerging flitting out,
Celebrate you act divine and you children prepared for,
And you stalwart loins.

*   *   *

from I Sing the Body Electric

The sprawl and fullness of babes, the bosoms and heads of women,
The folds of their dress, their style as we pass in the street,
The contour of their shape downwards, . .
The bending forward and backward of rowers in row-boats,
The horseman in his saddle, . . .
The female soothing a child, the farmer’s daughter in the garden or cow-yard,
The young fellow hoeing corn, the sleigh-driver driving his six horses through the crowd,
The wrestle of wrestlers, two apprentice-boys, quite grown, lusty, good-natured, native-born, out on the vacant lot at sundown after work, . . .
The march of firemen in their own costumes, the play of masculine muscle and the listening on the alert,
The natural, perfect, varied attitudes, the bent head, the curv’d neck and the counting;
Such-like I love – – I loosen myself, pass freely, am at the mother’s breast with the little child,
Swim with the swimmers, wrestle with wrestlers, march in line with the firemen, and pause, listen, count.

Craft:

The first poem is Walt at his manic, overly-familiar best.  Notice how he is the master of the one-liner, and how the music of the writing comes across as a sort of karmic chant, building and building to, logically, a climax.  Somehow it’s all too much for us, for Walt, for anyone, yet still we know exactly what he means, and he touches a wild, deep part of us that most writers, before and after, turn away from.

The second section is one of Walt’s ‘divine lists.’  He took inventory of the whole universe, and savored every story, every vegetable, every sound, as if his job were to name everything, to ‘sing’ everything and everyone on this earth.

So, when you’re reading Leaves of Grass, keep going!  You’ll whiz through Song of Myself (the first section) at one or two sittings, but don’t stop there.  The next group of poems, Children of Adam, is wonderful (the fragments above are taken from it.)  The Sleepers section later on is unforgettably spooky and poignant, Crossing Brooklyn Ferry is like having old Walt whisper directly into your ear, Drum Taps is as sad as the Civil War itself.  Whitman was a huge blabber who left little in this world unsaid, so don’t miss any of it!

Many writers and poets were Whitmaniacs.  Alan Ginsberg was an obvious re-incarnation of Walt Whitman in our century, and he knew it.  Read Ginsberg’s ‘A Supermarket in California’ and ‘America’, and you’ll see that they embody the same great spirit, the same biblical, angelic voice addressing an unbelieving, stubborn America.

For real Whitman criticism (whatever that is) read Harold Bloom, a huge academic snob who considers Whitman a literary god and the best poet on the planet.  Randall Jarrell loved him, and wrote a fun review that turned out to be simply a collection of Whitman one-liners.  Michael Cunningham, who wrote ‘The Hours’ (which was made into a terrific movie, incidentally), also wrote a novel specifically about Walt Whitman.  The list goes on and on.  Mostly ignored in his own lifetime in spite of his tireless self-promotion, Whitman is loved by many in our day, just as he knew he would be.

Prompt: Imagine you’re having a dinner party and you invite Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, hoping they might hit it off.  (These two bizarre characters were actually contemporaries, as it happens.)  So here you have prim, reserved, repressed Emily who never left the house she was born in and the backyard behind it, sitting across from crazy, manic Walt who is careening around the entire universe, zooming through space and time, and all the while groping poor Emily, and anyone else within reach, under the table!

Make your own divine list.  Start at the supermarket and write down everything and everyone you see or hear or smell. Be ecstatic.  Nothing is too insignificant or ugly or grand or beautiful for your list!  You are madly in love with the world, and no object or person or feeling can escape your embrace!

Potatoes, babies, tomatoes, little kids getting ice cream cones, old folks lost in the canned goods, beautiful, proud women, and strong, quiet men on break from the firehouse, etc.

p.s.  Walt Whitman lived his whole life in and around New York City, and he would be devastated by the suffering going on there at this moment.  I am absolutely certain that were he alive now, he would be spending his days and nights in the hospitals, getting in the way and talking too much and comforting the sickest patients as best he could, just as he crawled into bed beside the dying soldiers in the field hospitals of the civil war.  ‘Agonies,’ he said, ‘are one of my changes of garments.’

Poem Recipe:  

What follows is a recipe poem about my mother’s cooking.  Try it if you dare, and you’ll feel like you’re back in the ‘50’s!

Betty Pellegrin’s Ten-Minute Chicken* Flambe   by Jim Pellegrin

Preset all spiral electric burners  to high, very high,
so that coils have a volcanic, molten-metal orange glow.
Preheat oven to broil.
Boil one medium pan of water and heat 1/4 inch of oil in iron skillet.
Slam broiler chicken onto cutting board,
split down middle with cleaver and spread-eagle,
place on foil-covered broiler pan and slide into base of oven,
leaving broiler door half-ajar and clearing non-walking infants from the area.
Peel and chop into cubes two large Idaho russet potatoes and one small onion.
When oil is smoking and about to ignite
toss mixture of potato cubes and onion bits into iron skillet.
Put one plastic bag of Jolly Green Giant corn in pot of violently boiling water.
Per package instructions,
DO NOT REMOVE CORN FROM PLASTIC BAG!
Maintaining stovetop coils at red-hot,
pull broiler door open, standing to the side,
flip chicken with large pancake turner,
push broiler door closed with foot.
Ignore explosion.
Flip potatoes.
Ignore explosion.
Slam head of iceberg lettuce onto counter top,
shattering it into small pieces while muttering
“Goddamned Jack, where is that son-of-a-bitch?”
Throw lettuce fragments and bottle of dressing into bowl.
Poke potatoes;
when onion bits blackened cinders,
potatoes singed on outside, hard and cold inside,
transfer entire mass to waiting bowl.
Same with boiled corn bag,
can slit open later at table.
Finally, flip  charred chicken out of broiler and onto cutting board,
chop into pieces at joints, ignoring obvious bleeding
and/or quivering of uncooked, still-living inner muscle.
Seat and serve six rowdy, yelling children,
the loud squealing of guinea pigs in the background,
wait for husband to arrive, much too late by now,
having stopped off  at calm 2-kid neighbor house after work,
and announce “Betty, the chicken is bloody again.”
Repeat.

*May substitute pound of bacon or 3 steaks or 12 hot dogs

Day 59: Writing the Spiritual


Burning the Small Dead
by Gary Snyder

Burning the small dead
branches
broke from beneath
thick spreading
whitebark pine.
a hundred summers
snowmelt        rock        and air
hiss in a twisted bough.
sierra granite;
Mt. Ritter—
black rock twice as old.
Deneb, Altair
windy fire

As we move from writing about the natural world to writing about the spiritual, the poet Gary Snyder (who, now in his early 90’s recently made a trek down from the mountains to the Mill Valley Library for a reading – if you weren’t there, it looked like the Rolling Stones had come to town, with lines down the street) offers a powerful bridge from the grounded natural world to metaphysical and spiritual.

This New Yorker piece from 2008 gives us greater insight into Snyder’s life and evolution from Beat poet to “Zen Master” and “hermit” ensconced in the Sierra foothills.  And the Poetry Foundation gives us this (excerpted below), on Snyder’s integration of religious themes:

In American Poetry since 1960: Some Critical Perspectives, Alan Williamson wrote that Snyder’s canon “suggests a process of meditation or spiritual exercise, clearing the path from temporal life to the moment of Enlightenment—the sudden dropping-away of the phenomenal world in the contemplation of the infinite and eternal, All and Nothingness.” … Snyder sees the poet as a shaman who acts as a medium for songs and chants springing from the earth. It is not surprising, therefore, that Snyder draws on the traditions of oral literature—chants, incantations, and songs—to communicate his experiences.

Another poet whose work has resonated on a spiritual level is Mary Oliver, winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award, who passed away last year.  Although she had many critics (the critic David Orr wrote of her work “one can only say that no animals appear to have been harmed in the making of it.”) and was at times dismissed as a “self-help poet” by literati, leading people to apologize for loving her work, the truth is that Mary Oliver was perhaps America’s most popular modern poet because she reached people.  Her poems did and do help people, but should that make us think less of them?  Like Snyder, Oliver used simple language, often in observation of nature, as a way to access greater spiritual themes.  She never belonged to a specific church, but the Buddhist Tricyle Magazine published a loving obituary and America Magazine: The Jesuit Review described her as a “devotional poet.”

Praying by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

Craft:  Again, I turn to local poet Jane Hirshfield.  Here she helps us to understand spiritual poetry.  In this piece she offers a sampling of 22 poems, ancient and modern, with analysis.  She calls these poems “gates”, an entrance point into spiritual life.  Perhaps the best way to access the spiritual in poetry is to read these poems, and the poetry of Rumi, Hafiz, Tagore, Rilke, Whitman, W.S. Merwin, Snyder, Oliver, David Whyte, Hirshfield herself, and so many others.

Prompt:  Write a prayer.  You may know well the God to which you pray, or you may be seeking a greater understanding of your god or gods. If you are naturally agnostic, consider this a trust exercise; make yourself very small, suspend disbelief and embrace a faith in a higher power for the sake of this writing experience.  Consider what you are most concerned about, what you most hope for in the world, and what you are grateful for, and put those thoughts on paper.

Recipe:  I have found making sourdough bread to be a spiritual experience that includes devotion and ritual, and often great faith. I feel small and utterly dependent upon the mysteries of my starter.  After many not-so-good loaves, I have come to depend on this recipe, that I find to be full of grace: Sourdough Artisan Bread

Day 58:  Writing About Nature

May 12

Let’s dive back into emotion today. Specifically, we will look at nature in poems as a way to describe a greater emotional state.

Often poems set in nature offer comfort. When I ask myself to think of poetry that makes me feel calm, cared for, held, at peace, the poet whose work comes to mind is Linda Gregg.

Here is one example:

Being   by Linda Gregg

The woman walks up the mountain
and then down. She wades into the sea
and out. Walks to the well,
pulls up a bucket of water
and goes back into the house.
She hangs wet clothes.
Takes clothes back to fold them.
Every evening she crochets
from six until dark.
Birds, flowers, stars. Her rabbit lives
in an empty donkey pen. The sea is out
there are far as the stars.
Always quiet.
No one there. She may not believe
in anything. Not know
what she is doing. Every morning
she waters the geranium plant.
And the leaves smell like lemons.

And here is another by Linda Gregg:

Fishing In The Keep of Silence by Linda Gregg

There is a hush now while the hills rise up
and God is going to sleep. He trusts the ship
of Heaven to take over and proceed beautifully
as he lies dreaming in the lap of the world.
He knows the owls will guard the sweetness
of the soul in their massive keep of silence,
looking out with eyes open or closed over
the length of Tomales Bay that the herons
conform to, whitely broad in flight, white
and slim in standing. God, who thinks about
poetry all the time, breathes happily as He
repeats to Himself: There are fish in the net,
lots of fish this time in the net of the heart.

Another poet who uses place and the natural world tenderly and powerfully is Li-Young Lee.

Here is a favorite:

From Blossoms by Li-Young Lee

From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.
From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Read what one of the great modern environmental writers Terry Tempest Williams in the LA Times, says she has learned from other great nature writers, including W.S. Merwin and Wallace Stegner :

Look at what I’ve learned from these great minds and teachers. When you look at the words of Merwin, when he said we’ll have to learn a forgotten language. To me, this is what writing is, to retrieve this forgotten language that is inherent in the land. When I think of Wallace Stegner, working about a society to match the scenery, this is what we’re in the midst of. I remember Wally always saying to me, “It’s never about one book. It’s about a life.”  …I feel it’s about love. It’s always about love. That’s what allows us to continue and to not despair but to realize, really, all we have to do is look at where we are. In California, you’ve got the Pacific Ocean, you’ve got Yosemite. You have all these extraordinary landscapes, the big trees. It’s so magnificent. So I think, again, it’s this forgotten language that we have to keep remembering. That’s the job of the writer — that’s the work of the writer — every day we face the blank page with gratitude, with outrage, with anger, and with love…

 

CRAFT: Let’s look at what these the three poems above do, the forgotten language or reverence they unveil.  They start by placing us in nature – on a Greek mountainside above the sea, looking across Tomales Bay, under a peach tree at a bend in the road.  The sweet, simple, sensual aspects of nature captivate and transport us.  They write “with love,” as Terry Tempest Williams says. These poets give us space to experience beauty in our minds, to feel it and long for it in our bodies.

Then, after we are firmly rooted in a physical space, they move out into a wider view of the great universe to remind us that we are alive, and that we could be dead.  They are simultaneously offering worldly comfort and a reminder of the existential, which makes the comfort only sweeter and more poignant.

PROMPT:  Write a poem as you observe nature.  Sit someplace where you are in nature or have a view of nature (it can be as simple as a tree out your window).  Observe, quietly and carefully, for a period of time (at least 10 minutes…ideally longer). Write what you see.  Look for the small details, anything that would not be noticed by a passer-by.  Include anything that unfolds…it can be simple (a bird landing on a branch to preen, the wind bending a stem, a spider swinging from a thread of silk etc)  It is the observation that matters.  Write what you observe, and then observe what you have written.  Does it relate to a larger theme or emotional state?  If so, write some line to relate the natural world to this larger concept or feeling.

Bonus Reading:  From the Atlantic, a review of a book  exploring what happened when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge “spend a grueling year in nature.”

Recipe:  Green Smoothie, to get as much nature as possible into your beverage. Here’s a favorite – Super Detox Green Juice – from Skinnyms.com

MOUNT TAMALPAIS, CIRCA 1871 William Keith

 

Day 57:  Writing in Response

May 11

As we enter a third month of sheltering-in-place, this week’s retreat will focus on emotion, and poetry’s role in helping us to understand and accept our feelings.  Without distractions, we have no choice but to encounter and, as much as possible, embrace our emotions.  During this unsettled, time, emotions may run wild – they may make us feel angry and corralled as a wild mustang, despondent as an exhausted firefly trapped in a jar. We may feel irreverent, agitated, lonesome, needy, sorrowful, grateful, helpless, loving, broken … Our emotions may be all over the place, “in hiding” one day, “in your face” the next.

Poetry is a remedy… a salve.  Poetry sings the song of our souls, recounting the deeper story of our being.  Like song, poetry reflects back to us the utterly exquisite and equally fragile mystery that is being alive.  Humans turn to certain poets in times of hardship. I am interested in poems that resonate with non-poets. I believe we can examine and seek to understand the power and resonance of popular language.  It may be raw and direct, or can tend toward allegory.  Often popular poems are lyrical and sensual – visual storytelling that meets the collective emotional need for a narrative in the most complicated and confusing times.

What an exciting moment it is when a previously unknown (beyond poetry circles) poet offers comfort to the world.  Polish poet Adam Zagajewski’s Try to Praise the Mutilated World appeared in The New Yorker on 9/24/2001, in the days following 9/11, has now been shared hundreds of thousands of times, and has offered solace to people across the nation.

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

by Adam Zagajewski

Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

(Translated, from the Polish, by Clare Cavanagh.)

There are several places to read/hear COVID-19 pandemic poetic responses online at the moment.  Below are a few examples:

First, although this moving poem/song by Kate Tempest Hold Your Own was written and performed pre-pandemic, its power is amplified, a balm for this moment.

Rattle Readers Respond  (look for MPC member Francesca Bell’s Love in the Time of COVID-19 )

Califragile (featuring a poem by wonderful East Bay poet Connie Post)

Indolent Books What Rough Beast COVID 19 Edition  (you will notice MPC Board member Meryl Natchez’s poem Shelter in Place )

CRAFT:  It is difficult to know where to enter the craft of writing honestly about emotion, but this exchange, an inquiry from a 7th grader named Janet to poet Jane Hirshfield, and Hirshfield’s letter of response to Janet, offers a wonderful overview of writing with emotional honesty, and of writing a poem in general. In one stanza Hirshfield writes:  “Art is often a way for us to notice the things we tend not to pay attention to—the sheen of light on a table, the speckled skin of a pear. But when we are reminded to notice, they are not only the things that occupy our lives most of the time, they are the real sustenance for everything else. How much richer a life is when the small-bodied moments are felt and seen and tasted, not just rushed through in between the large things. That is, as you call it, “the real you,” the real life: all those unnameable moments.”  Many have said the craft of poetry lies in the noticing.

 

PROMPT:  During this epidemic we are often keeping our own company, and thus it is a perfect time to pay attention to our deepest emotions – to notice and identify what we are feeling, and then to look at those feeling carefully, the way we might hold a geodesic stone or exotic moth in our palm, examining with reverence and without judgement.  Then we may write what it is we notice.  Sit down in a quiet space and take a long moment to identify what you are feeling. Is it fear?  Angst?  Sorrow?  Maybe you are feeling hope because the sun has risen over the garden out your window? Or gratitude because you are at home with the person you most cherish in the world? Don’t judge your emotions, good or bad, and don’t judge what you put on the page.  This is an exercise in understanding and observation.  You may connect your emotions to physical objects or nature. You may employ simile and metaphor – they are helpful in describing emotion in a unique way.  Perhaps you will write a prose poem.  I would recommend writing free verse, at least for your initial drafts, and to avoid rhyme because attempting rhyme will trigger your left brain, and move you further from the direct experience and observation of your emotion.

An Emotionally Charged Recipe:  I love chili peppers and find that whether the weather is warm or cold, whether my mood is bright or low, poblano or pasilla peppers satisfy.  Chiles are somehow comforting and energizing.  I have searched far and wide and finally found a perfect (and simple) Roasted Poblano Soup recipe, one I have returned to again and again (and have made several times during quarantine).