I am writing this editorial for the holiday issue of our MPC newsletter during a seeming upswing in violence, racism, and discrimination throughout the world. Although tragedy is always somewhere in the backdrop against which artists create (the maxim "it's not art unless it breaks your heart" comes to mind), these past few days and weeks have seemed to me to be a time when we as members of the world community of writers must grapple most intensely and most comprehensively with our feelings of sorrow for the pain that so many are experiencing.
And even though we must honor that sorrow which seemingly has no end in sight, as poets, there is always an and in sight, if we are willing to do the hard work of looking to language to provide it. That "and" can be found in many poems. I found it in a poem by Ross Gay, recent finalist for the National Book Award. The poem is "To the Fig Tree on 9th and Christian." (Not being able to contact the author to receive permission to reprint it here, I direct you to https://www.aprweb.org/poems/to-the-fig-tree-on-9th-and-christian to read the entire poem.)
The narrator begins the poem with a page and a half of "tumbling through the / city…. / a lonely place" until encountering "the sound of sweeping / and a woman / yes with a / broom beneath / which you are now / too the canopy / of a fig [tree]." The fig tree serves as a gathering place for a disparate group of people, so different in their backgrounds, and so alike in their hunger. At this point the following lyrical narrative takes place:
…and soon there were eight or nine people gathered beneath the tree looking into it like a constellation pointing do you see it and I am tall and so good for these things and a bald man even told me so when I grabbed three or four for him reaching into the giddy throngs of wasps sugar stoned which he only pointed to smiling and rubbing his stomach I mean he was really rubbing his stomach it was hot his head shone while he offered recipes to the group using words which I couldn't understand and besides I was a little tipsy on the dance of the velvety hearth rolling in my mouth pulling me down and down into the oldest countries of my body where I ate my first fig from the hand of a man who escaped his country by swimming through the night and maybe never said more than five words to me at once but gave me figs and a man on his way to work hops twice to reach at last his fig which he smiles at and calls baby, c'mere baby, he says and blows a kiss to the tree which everyone knows cannot grow this far north being Mediterranean and favoring the rocky, sun-baked soils of Jordan and Sicily but no one told the fig tree or the immigrants there is a way the fig tree grows in groves it wants, it seems, to hold us, yes I am anthropomorphizing goddammit I have twice in the last thirty seconds rubbed my sweaty forearm into someone else's sweaty shoulder gleeful eating out of each other's hands on Christian St. in Philadelphia a city like most which has murdered its own people this is true we are feeding each other from a tree at the corner of Christian and 9th strangers maybe never again.
What tremendous hope for finding a common source of sustenance for what humanity is hungry for is found in the lines "no one told the fig tree / or the immigrants / there is a way / the fig tree grows / in groves it wants." Meaning that any group of strangers can find their own fig tree to feed each other on any corner, not just from the tree "at the corner of Christian and 9th," and that just maybe that act can transform them from being strangers to something more.
Our final issue of the MPC Newsletter for 2015 is full of opportunities to find transformative experiences during the holiday season in in the upcoming year that can bring us all together under the big tent of poetry. In Paula's Board Update can be found opportunities for building community through participation and service in the holiday season and beyond. In Barbara's summary of Third Thursday Readings can be found inspiration to attend more readings in 2016. In Joel Eis's report of Litquake can be found the motivation to get involved in your own way in next year's Litquake San Rafael. In Prartho's article can be found some valuable tips to help make the next poem you write wander into your personal unknown territory. In the announcements section are some current places to submit your work and some calendar events to build community with other poets in Marin Poetry Center and beyond.
Happy Holidays and Wishes for your Best Writing Year Ever in 2016!
MPC is delighted to be introducing new Board members Meryl Natchez, replacing Laurel Feigenbaum as Membership Chair, and Catlyn Fendler, replacing Alyse Rall Benjamin as editor of the MPC Anthology. A warm thank you to Laurel and Alyse for their dedication and contribution to MPC.
HAVE YOU RENEWED YOUR MPC MEMBERSHIP?
As we begin MPC's annual renewal campaign, we are pleased to announce that membership, hovering around 300, has finally hit the target. Hopefully, we can maintain and even exceed that number in the coming year. We'll be sending our usual renewal letter, but you can help us conserve paper and postage by going to the MPC website and downloading a membership form or renewing online with PayPal. Whatever method you choose, we value and appreciate your continued support.
Another Successful Anthology Launch
Alyse Rall Benjamin, who recently moved to Merced, hosted the festive launch of the beautiful 2015 MPC Anthology. Contributors, who did not receive their complimentary copies at the launch reading, can pick them up at any MPC event. Copies can also be purchased for $15.
The 1st Annual Multi-High School Art and Literary Exhibit
Member ideas and suggestions welcome
Please let us hear from you. And remember, the most complete source of information about MPC programs can be found at www.marinpoetrycenter.org
Joel Eis reports on Litquake San Rafael 2015
Now that the structure and the value of the event has been confirmed, we look forward to putting it on again next year with MPC involved in the planning and participation again. Rebound Bookstore and the downtown Business Improvement District, co -sponsors of the event, with Litquake San Francisco, cannot thank MPC members enough for their support of the event.
In September, we were delighted to have Oakland poets, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet and Robert Thomas, as our featured readers. Lisa's first book, Tulip, Water, Ash, was selected for the Morse Poetry Prize, and her recent book, The Greenhouse, was awarded the 2014 Frost Place Chapbook Prize. Her poems have been anthologized in Best New Poets 2005 and 2006, and have appeared in many literary journals. Gluskin Stonestreet read a selection from both books, plus newer, unpublished work. The audience was especially moved by her piercing poems about the joys of motherhood as well as its grinding, bone-crushing repetitions of duty and task. She shared how three years of sleep deprivation following the birth of her son altered her writing style and methods. She described her brain as "mixed-up as spaghetti noodles loose in a colander" with her poetry no longer concise and careful. Suddenly, her lines were longer and wide-ranging. During the Q and A, she named both Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman as influences, explaining that they are like a mother and father to all of us American poets.
Robert Thomas is the author of Dragging the Lake and Door to Door, which won the Poets Out Loud Prize. He has received an NEA poetry fellowship and won a Pushcart Prize. He read several sections from his newest (2014) book, Bridge, recent winner of the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. Although our audience consisted mostly of poets, we were captivated by this reading and by the story told in the voice of Alice, the sometimes suicidal, sometimes homicidal female protagonist. We laughed in the places that were funny and gasped in the places that were not. Many of its sections read like poems, and the style feels more compact that that of typical novels. He kept us on the edge of our seats. We learned during the Q and A about how the plot grew from a case he encountered years ago in his work as a legal secretary, to the finished and much developed and altered novella.
The October Third Thursday event focused on our much-anticipated Marin Poetry Center Anthology, Lines. The editor, Alyse Rall Benjamin was in attendance, and thanked all those who assisted her, including her co-editor, Casey Fitz Simons, and advisory editor, Cathy Shea, Wordsworth Printers, the readers who screened poems, plus all of the poets who submitted poems. The book is beautifully produced, and features a cover by local artist Tom Killion. It was a packed house, with poets in attendance reading their published poem, and each poet and donor received a complimentary copy of the anthology. Our new Poet Laureate, Prartho Sereno, spoke and announced a special event she is producing for Litquake. Sales of the 2015 MPC Anthology were brisk, and books can be purchased at MPC events for $15. (Copies of prior years are now discounted for sale at $5.) A luscious cake and champagne reception preceded the reading.
November's Third Thursday event featured Malachi Black and Gary Dop. Malachi is the author of Storm Toward Morning, a finalist for the Poetry Society of America's First Book Award. The recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, he has since received fellowships and awards from Bread Loaf Writer's Conference, Yaddo, the McDowell Colony and many others.
Gary Dop, a poet, playwright and performer, lives in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills of Virginia. His first book, Father, Child, Water is already in its second printing. He has been recognized with a Pushcart Prize Special Mention and the 2013 Great Plains Emerging Writer Prize.
For a little break in our notoriously hectic holiday season, let's consider the difference between a To Do List and a Poem.
It seems to me, a To Do List is where we go to make a few hurried, holding-it-together stitches in the ever-fraying fabric of our lives. Whereas poetry—both reading and writing it—is where we go for UN-doing. To cut the strings on our bundled-up aspirations and worries and let them fly. To loosen our wraps.
Perhaps this is because Poetry itself defies wrapping. In this Wild-Walt-inspired age of free verse, the more we try to pin down exactly what a poem is, the more enigmatic it becomes. Yes, we can cite a few essential ingredients: rhythm and image for a good start. But then there's that "something else," isn't there? What the French call a certain Je ne sais quoi. When we get inside a poem, a good poem anyway, the rug of our certainty is pulled out from under us, and we fall down the rabbit hole of wonder.
In other words, when we wander into a good poem, we almost always "wonder" our way out. We fall from our heads into our hearts, and if the poem is really good, someplace still deeper. Somehow, good poems make us smaller… and (in the best way) dumber. We are reduced; we know less. To participate as reader or writer in a good poem is like standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon or under a desert night sky. We and our troubles are brought back to scale, returned to what Chinese painters seem to have always known: how tiny we are in this great immensity.
I am reminded of the poem Tree by one of our local treasures, Jane Hirshfield. The poem opens by subtly teasing us with glimpses of our foolishness, our clutter. But in a few short strokes, our laughter dissolves into awe as the speaker delivers her last line: Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
As in any good poem, Hirshfield does not try to name or answer that immensity. We are not only left without conclusions, but also briefly shown the ridiculousness of making any. I would dare say we are pushed even beyond "living the questions," as Rilke advised his young poet correspondent. The poem pushes us, for a moment, beyond questioning and even the quest itself. We've been, for a moment, emptied.
Another difference between Poems and To Do Lists: Where content, length, and complexity of a To Do List make a big difference in the days they're meant to fit, the kind of poem we go to doesn't really matter. It can be long or short, free or formal, tangled or simple. Yeats' Lake Isle of Innisfree can mysteriously transport us to the same place of wonder as Ginsberg's Howl. On a walk along Mary Oliver's Blackwater Pond we might catch a strain of Kevin Young's jazz-infused Jelly Roll. And Basho seems to inexplicably deliver us to wonder in seventeen syllables.
In the end, what might be most important is the way we walk through these different genres. The writer/film & theatre director Peter Brook has said that any drama worth making (or watching) must have one foot in the Known and one in the Unknown. Obviously, our To Do Lists are created to navigate the known world, or at least the knowable one. We may not know where we are going to find a certain item on our shopping list, but we are relatively certain it's findable. A good To Do List, after all, is doable.
A good poem, however, walks the two worlds that Brook suggests. It finds its initial footing in the world we know, and thereby may very well have items in common with the To Do List. It might include a dozen brown eggs, a loaf of olive bread, and 2 grapefruits. It might take note of doctor's appointments, leaks to fix, gifts to buy and post. But we can also hear, sometimes nearly imperceptibly, the footsteps of something in us pulled toward the Unknown, and even beyond, toward the Unknowable—an unpredictable, foolhardy soul we can't control but can't help loving. A spirit in us with that certain, undeniable je ne sais quoi. You know the one, the neighbors call her/ him a little loosely wrapped!