I'm pretty good at starting things: beginning poems; heating oil in a pan; making a to-do list. And I'm pretty good at finishing things off, as well. In spite of the song, "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do," I've found it pretty easy to end relationships, walk off jobs, burn bridges, and jump off the page when the poem takes a downturn. Globalizing this thought process, I didn't do much of anything to be born, and I won't have to figure out how to die. But it's the time in between that I have to work at.
I love Suzanne Buffam's "Little Commentaries" that populate the middle section of her second book, The Irrationalist (Canarium Books, 2010). Here are three to my point:
ON FIRST LINES The first line should pry up A little corner of the soul As the first ray of daylight Pries open the sleeper's lids. ON LAST LINES The last line should strike like a lover's complaint. You should never see it coming. And you should never hear the end of it.
And then as if it were an enactment of these two poems, she offers this longer one:
ON LOVE POEMS A friend says relationships Are only good for two poems: One at the beginning And one at the end. Stevens says better to peddle Pineapples than write love poems Unless you happen to be In love, that is. When your lover shows up With a basket of fruit Thank him in advance For the poem you will one day receive.
After reading the first two poems as a prompt, I'm conceited enough to think I could have written the first stanza (or something like it) to "On Love Poems." And, although the third stanza is quite clever (Buffam does have a penchant for "subverting the reader's expectations"), I might have been able to cobble together something similar if I'd spent about ten years on a deserted island.
But that turn in the middle stanza from the friend's lines to Stevens' about pineapples—how it connects the first and the last in such a satisfying way—I never could have written. And, after reading it, nothing else will do.
That kind of middle is what I'm talking about—the sweet flesh between the skin and the core, in the shape of something already begun, but yet unfinished, without assurance of what its final outcome will be—as in the middle of a life, a poem, a year—all of the places where we're well on the road, but still working toward something yet undefined.
That's what this issue of Marin Poetry Center Newsletter is about: continuing what we have already begun. Paula Weinberger reminds us that after the board has been on hiatus for the summer, we need to gear up for the fall with our Third Thursday Readings beginning again in September, and the launch of our 2015 MPC Anthology in October, as well as Lit-Crawl San Rafael. She also stresses the volunteer opportunities available at MPC because people are rotating out of positions of responsibility that need to be filled.
Prartho Sereno, our Poet Laureate of Marin, has written an excellent article entitled "Poetry's Space: First (and Final) Frontier." In it she states: "…from the very beginning, it was the airiness of the page [that called her to poetry]—all that feral, fallow space. I was in it for the breathing room, the breezeways between thoughts, the rest a poem offered a word-weary soul."
Kathryn Ridall has written a thought-provoking review of Connie Post's Floodwater (Glass Lyre Press, 2015). Ridall reminds us that Post "for twenty years…has shown unwavering passion and energy for poetry," serving as Poet Laureate of Livermore, California, and hosting two significant reading series during that time period—all the while without a first book. Ridall focuses on Post's "themes of chaos, loss, and emotional disintegration" with quotes such as "the concrete was poured too soon / the foundation set wrong" causing the poet to "listen for frailties"—those cracks that develop as a structure settles into the ground upon which it was erected.
In "Recalling Third Thursdays at Falkirk," Barbara Brooks sums up, among others, the April readings by Maria Hummel and Chana Bloch. Brooks zeros in on Hummel's willingness to tell the story of staying the course with her young son's acute auto-immune disorder, and Bloch's dealing with her own cancer—how illness informs the work of both of these terrific poets.
So what to do in the middle? Perhaps the answer lies in Stevens' wisdom channeled through Buffam: the only problem with writing love poems arises when you're not in love—then they're cloying, trite, redundant. Anything else—even selling prickly pineapples—would be better. But not when you're in love. When you're in love, all things are new. So the lesson? Turn the middle into another beginning.
As we move forward in the middle of this year, we would do well to read and consider what Suzanne Buffam and the contributors to this issue of the Marin Poetry Center Newsletter have to say. We might just fall in love with poetry, and with our writing lives, all over again.
We hope that everyone had a healthy and productive summer. Although the Marin Poetry Center Board has been on hiatus from June through August, summer is one of MPC's busiest times, with 28 member readings throughout the Bay Area. From May 28 through August 27, the MPC Summer Traveling Show, coordinated by Michael Beebe, provides a unique opportunity to hear the many diverse and wonderful poetic voices of our members.
Gearing up for fall
Third Thursday Readings begin on September 17 with poets Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet and Robert Thomas. Lisa's book, The Greenhouse, won the Frost Place Prize in 2014, and Robert is a National Endowment of the Arts fellow and Pushcart Prize winner.
Note: The launch of the 2015 MPC Anthology and poet reading will be held on October 15 this year.
Volunteers are our heart and soul
MPC is a totally volunteer-run organization. While we encourage the rotation of board members and other volunteer positions, we also depend on your help to keep MPC running smoothly. We've attempted to divide each board project into discrete responsibilities under a single chair in order to better distribute the workload. However, the success of this approach depends on recruiting enough volunteers.
Volunteer opportunities will be listed in this Newsletter, on the MPC website, and in the monthly email blast. We look forward to hearing from you.
Here's to another productive year together.
By my best reckoning, what first called me to poetry (somewhere in my early teens) was not the words. Not the rhythms or rhymes. Not even the imagery or the metaphoric chicanery I later came to love. No, truth be told, from the very beginning, it was the airiness of the page—all that feral, fallow space. I was in it for the breathing room, the breezeways between thoughts, the rest a poem offered a word-weary soul.
Opening a book of poems was like stumbling upon a clandestine hideaway where idleness was the ideal—a retreat not only from the hurry and flurry, but also from the superhighway of words themselves. But then, holed up in that quietest of places, what was one to do but nibble away at the ditties offered there—word by curious word, line by evocative line?
I heard things in the poems of T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Carlos Williams, ee cummings, that I'd been longing to hear, things at once hauntingly familiar and startlingly new. Whereas prose seemed to move as a mob—a rush-hour traffic of words elbowing one another across the page, poetry drifted in like a song. It held me in its lyrical patience until Time came to the door and asked to come in. All the Time in the World… for the first time since childhood summers at the lake… was mine again.
As writers of poems, doesn't it still happen that way? We come to a well-swept page with high ceilings and generous windows. We invite Time to sit with us and start with what we know: teacups and moonlight, a bag of apricots, the family of raccoons clanging about in the trash. But then the skylight of the page opens and stars fall in. Or the floor drops out and instead of falling we float, weightless astronauts inside our own bodies.
How does a poem pull off such conjures? I'd like to posit that it's the empty space the poem preserves around itself, and, by benevolent contagion, inside us.
The Japanese seem to understand the power of negative space better than any culture. We see it in their ikebana flower arrangements, where a single willow branch curls into a room and holds out its entire space for us to imbibe. And we see it in their haiku poetry—17 syllables afloat (or submerged!) in a pond of silence, which only serve to deepen it:
Ancient pond frog jumps in Plop! ~ Basho
So bent we have been as a species on filling things up, it's hard for us to imagine space serving as anything but storage! We have waged all our bets on the stuff that inhabits space… on what can be measured, counted, and weighed. We are comforted by the weight of things in our hands. And because of our fondness for weight, we worship at the altar of gravity. It is the indisputable law of the land. "What goes up must come down," we say. We never hear, "What goes down must inevitably rise."
But perhaps space is gravity's equal and opposite force, its purpose to lift. Maybe emptiness is our floatation device on the word-battered seas of life. Maybe what we thought was poetry's packaging turns out to be the gift!
Floodwater, by Connie Post. Glass Lyre Press, LLC., 2015
In Floodwater, Connie Post's newest book, we find a poet drawn to short, honed lines and structural sparseness. As in her earlier work, this clear formatting is paired with a profusion of lyrical, dreamlike imagery. The clarity of form offers welcome scaffolding in a universe lying close to the poet's unconscious and to our collective sorrows.Opening with the title poem, Floodwater quickly inducts us into a world gone awry:
All the rooms in the house are flooding but there is no water all of the people are drowning but the lifeguard is in an irreversible coma
These themes of chaos, loss, and emotional disintegration are unfolded throughout the book. In "Structurally Sound," the narrator describes her shabbily constructed home: "the concrete was poured too soon / the foundation set wrong" and she must walk carefully, "listening for frailties." "Service Call at 4 p.m." also speaks to crumbling and collapse in the domestic sphere: "the water heater is screaming / and the pilot light / has crashed / there is no warm water / left in this century." In "Self Exam," the poet explores the anxiety of a modern woman searching "changes in topography" for cancer: "each moment becomes a mother, aunt, sister / a mastectomy, a passing worry / an unhealed incision / an unborn regret."
Post's sensitivity to suffering in the personal sphere extends into the wider world or perhaps more accurately, the suffering of the larger world seems to pour into this poet who metabolizes it in poems. In "Jaycee Lee Dugard Bore Children of Kidnapper Lived in Backyard," the poet repeats the media's exuberant mantra, "She is alive." However, she looks squarely at the damage caused by such trauma and refuses to be seduced by fairytale exuberance:
She is alive She will vomit the tar of night each morning She will kneel at dawn like a sacrament she can't swallow She is alive She will stack her limbs like dry wood before she leaves a room the termites already feasting on her bones She is alive
In "To Iraq," she avoids the rant of many anti-war poems and offers a sleepless narrator who begs Kyrie eleison (Lord Have Mercy) as she is haunted by the image of a boy reaching out from the rubble of war:
but I cannot grab the hand for it is the shape of a country and each finger is broken I find small sticks, frantically glue them together but am told in ancient languages, there is no splint for remorse
Although Floodwater looks unflinchingly at sorrow, there is also redemption and solace. "If" poses an essential question: "if everything fell the wrong way / backwards and into the sky / how would the clouds / hold their shape / would we know / how to patch the sky?" This collection provides a look at what some of these patches might be. In "After Dinner," an adopted stray brings unanticipated blessings:
and when he looks at me before I remove his leash I wonder how he has so easily found his way beneath the fences the gates I thought I had closed how forgiveness finds a small edge a thin slat to glide through
In "Just After Seven," the narrator steps into a room shared with a beloved and remembers "all the hours we've spent here / lying in half-curled positions," and acknowledges the gift of his steadiness: "but the blackness knows / stares at me / tells me / all I have is your / steady breath."
There are also poems where comfort is taken in making things. Patterns are followed and curtain seams stitched. A grieving narrator searches through a craft store for materials to shape into some form of consolation. In "The Man in Front of the Pharmacy," a guitarist plays Spanish ballads that touch the narrator. After she places money in his guitar case, she reflects, "I should have also put / my bones inside / maybe he could sing them unbroken / maybe he sees in me / the marrow of songs I have / swallowed since birth." In these poems of creativity and handwork, we can see a woman poet, carefully stitching her lines and stanzas. Like the guitarist, she offers songs that penetrate us and offer nourishment.
For twenty years, Connie Post has shown unwavering passion and energy for poetry. A wife, mother of two children, and for many years a full-time business manager, she has made time to serve two terms as Poet Laureate of Livermore, California and to begin two popular reading series during that tenure. When her responsibilities as Poet Laureate ended, she was tapped to host the Valona Deli Reading Series, a popular Bay Area poetry venue. In addition to her formal commitments, she has supported her fellow poets at countless readings.
Post's own stream of work has been as steady as her devotion to serving the work of others. She is the author of six chapbooks including Letting Go, poems about her relationship with her autistic son. This chapbook has sold hundreds of copies and is a staple for families with an autistic family member. Now her commitment to poetry has given us Floodwater, her first full-length collection and winner of the 2014 Lyrebird Award.
First published in CALYX, Spring 2015
In April, Maria Hummel and Chana Bloch shared the podium for an evening of remarkable poetry. Maria Hummel began with poems from her recent book, House and Fire, winner of the 2013 APR/Honickman First Book Prize. She told how the book was written in response to the long and serious illness of her very young son, and shared with us how the poems developed while she grappled with this difficult situation. "Art is meant to evoke suffering, but also to transcend it," Hummel proclaimed. She gave us a behind-the-scene look at how she turned to structure and form in order to manage the poems' heavy material and make it bearable. The resulting poems were gorgeous and haunting. Maria teaches at Stanford, and captured our attention by willingly deconstructing her poems. We learned as we listened.
Chana Bloch, Professor Emerita of English at Mills College, and well known for her award-winning poetry, read from her recent collection of new and selected poems, Swimming in the Rain. The author of four previous poetry collections, her many honors include the 2012 Meringoff Poetry Award, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, plus many other awards. The poems she read also dealt, in part, with serious illness, chronicling her recent cancer treatments. She was at times both searing and humorous, and spoke of being willing, as a poet, "to alter the facts in pursuit of the truth." In one of her poems she pondered whether she wished to have the last word or the last silence.
In May a ceremony for the Marin County Poet Laureates was held prior to the 7:30 reading, thanking Joe Zaccardi for his past two years of tenure, and welcoming Prartho Sereno as our new Poet Laureate. Both poets read from their work, with Prartho promising to take poetry to the streets with dancers, magicians and more. We celebrated with delicious lemon cake and champagne.
Then the two poets from St. Louis, Lee Rossi and Richard Newman, took the stage. It was an evening not to be missed. Though both have a shared history in St. Louis, Rossi is now a San Francisco resident. He read poems from Wheelchair Samurai and Ghost Dance that were often about a life lived roughly. We heard fascinating stories about his bartender father…a poem called "Lip Service" took place outside the "Tattletale Room," where he was in the "serious business of pouring sorrows". Rossi's work can be funny, biting and political, and he did not disappoint.
Richard Newman read from his third book of poetry, All the Wasted Beauty of the World, which is really a book-length ode to the world, in all its strange, ugly, ravishing glory. Newman is that rare bird: a formalist who writes about very informal subjects, such as his "Three Triolets on Lines from Public Places" which includes an airport, Busch Stadium, and Craigslist. "Ode to the Urban Mulberry" describes a "junk tree…weed grown thick as an old man's wrist." His poems made us laugh, but there was sadness, too. Newman taught a workshop while he was in town, during which he offered a glimpse into his work as editor of River Styx, advice for submitting work, as well as thoughtful and insightful critiques on poetry written by workshop participants.
Sunday, October 11, 2015 is Lit-Crawl San Rafael
Sponsored by Litquake San Francisco, Marin Poetry Center and the San Rafael Business Improvement District, once again, Marin residents and neighbors will be treated to an exciting potpourri of readings ranging from travel to science fiction; erotica to games including a rich offering of poetic voices. Of interest to MPC members:
Two Open Mic Sessions: 12:30 to 1:30
Sign-up at the door to read. Refreshments are available for purchase.
1:45 to 2:45 – a rare chance to hear all four Marin Poet Laureates (past and current) at Open Secret Bookstore, 923 C St.
4:30 to 5:45 – Sixteen Rivers Press authors at West End Café, 1340 Fourth St.
2:00 to 4:30 – City Plaza, Courthouse Square
Get the Details
Join the fun. Don't forget to mark Oct 11th on your calendars.