Poetry Around Town

I’m a little late to the game, but April was National Poetry Month, which opened some wonderful opportunities to share my passion for poetry. I was honored to receive awards from The Poetry Society of Virginia and attend a reading in Williamsburg for the prize winners. There were so many inspiring voices there!

If you’d like to watch the reading of my poem “How To Handle a Heart” you can find it here at Virginia Poetry Online.

The event was emceed by my friend and poetry mentor, the brilliant Suzanne Rhodes!

Last month, I was also was invited back to my children’s school to talk about poetry with some fourth graders! I find that they are more intimidating to teach than adults, but they were good sports and natural poets.

I forced them to compose a list of images to use in future poems and they pleasantly surprised me with their attention to all the senses! Children have a natural knack for tuning into the world in fresh and unfiltered ways. I was sweating by the end of my time with them–they kept me on my toes for sure.

April was a full and wild month–any time I’m given an extra reason to share my love of poems, I’m a happy woman. I find it funny that poetry needs a month of its own. It seems that only things at the brink of extinction are given their own day or week or month…to try and force recognition or reawaken the public’s interest. I’m not sure that it works, but it’s a great gesture!

I’ve been reading Christian Wiman’s fantastic book of essays called Becoming A Poet: Ambition and Survival. In his essay “Poetry in a Visual Culture” he writes:

“But the greatest power of poetry for this particular country, at this particular moment in history, may be simply this act of preserving some aspect of truly individual consciousness in a culture bent on obliterating it. That is to say, poetry’s deepest value for our lives may consist precisely in how unlike life it is, at least unlike this welter of images and uniformity and busyness that we are now calling life.”

He ends the essay with the beautiful reflection that “in the end we go to poetry for one reason, so that we might more fully inhabit our lives and the world in which we live them, and that if we more fully inhabit these things, we might be less apt to destroy both.”

As May opens its bright doors and vivid colors to us, I find myself seeking more pockets to “live” a poem…inhabiting all aspects of my life authentically and intentionally. It is a work in progress, and I find that the daily practice of poetry continues to call me deeper into this journey.

If you are interested in digging into this journey for yourself…and if you live in the Hampton Roads area…I’m teaching a course this summer called “The Practice of Poetry” at The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk. You can register here. There are 5 seats left! The course will be offered on Saturday afternoons starting mid July.

I will leave you with a poem by William Stafford. Poetry is a practice which ushers us deeper into the human condition, a condition which holds the paradoxical truths that “straying feet find the great dance”… and “stumbling always leads home”…

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Sunday Quotation: Art as Suffering and Peace

“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet

The Landscape

I wandered out to the beach yesterday after getting groceries. I sat on the sea wall. The day was warm and calm. I could see a massive cargo ship in the distance and schools of dolphins popping up from the smooth surface. A few surfers were out in their wetsuits, along with a few desperate sunbathers. The moment was slow, like the clouds and the air, a bit stagnant, a bit warm, a bit cold.

As I drove home to get my kids off the bus, I felt a bit annoyed, looking at the lawns in our neighborhood. The splotchy grass, the weeds taking over, some trees bloomed, some still looking dead. It’s the dullness of winter mixed with the rapid multiplication of summer. We are in the in-between. Welcome to March.

This is why I have long struggled with spring. It can feel like purgatory. But perhaps my own cracks of annoyance are some sort of invitation?

I recently finished up teaching a poetry workshop. We talked a lot about tone, which is what a poem is saying between the lines. It reveals the attitude of the writer towards the subject and towards the self. Tone is most pronounced when something is at stake, when something is at odds. It’s most noticeable when it’s at an angle. My tone towards spring is one of annoyance. I feel the rest vs. activity, the death vs. birth, the cold vs. warmth, the safety vs. danger. I want to be outside but outside makes me sick (allergies)! Can we please be either/or?

But this isn’t life. Life is the tension, the in-between, whether it’s the weather or marriage or work or something else. Maybe spring is a lesson in making peace with that tension. I’ve been ruminating on Stephen Dunn’s collected poems. His poem “The Landscape” is exactly what I’m talking about. And the ocean: a shark for every pearl.

Coming to peace with the tension in our lives makes us feel more whole. When I find myself wishing something was more of this or more of that, I loose touch with what IS, and what IS–that’s where the power is–that’s where the poetry is. The sharks and the pearls. Give me all of it. Give me the cracks. I will break them open and fill them back in.

We should have known nothing’s safe.
That love is an ocean too.
That locks break if touched

just right. And so we live now
with doors open, the heart
learning about the fullness and ache

that comes from letting in.

–Stephen Dunn

Poetry Just Keeps Opening

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When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.

Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.

In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.

Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.

I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.

In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?

What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!

I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it?
I am making a way in the 
wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
-Isaiah 43:19

Ode to Hope

Today I woke at 5am to vote. All of my children are home from school today and I wanted to get to the polls before my husband left for work. I arrived at my precinct at 5:45am and the parking lot was already filling up. A line was wrapped around the church and the lawn was lined with political signs representing all sides. It was still dark out. We waited together wearing ball caps, sweats, and blue jeans, our coffee cups in hand. Promptly at 6am, a young man yelled out, The Polls Are Open!

When we got into the main room the energy was palpable. The vibe was phenomenal. I thought about how the media captures the division, the corruption, the negativity, and the games, but it doesn’t capture this: Americans coming together, amidst our differences, to take part in this incredible gift we have of voting, of choosing a leader. Whether we actually like those polarizing leaders or not is another issue, ha! But, putting my conspiracy theories and cynicism aside, I must admit that whoever wins this insane election, I do feel honored and blessed to be a part of this crazy, diverse, wild country.

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The church where I vote is right across the street from the ocean, so I walked down to watch the sunrise. The dolphins were skimming the water’s surface and the seagulls were camped out on the shore. I waited about ten minutes before the sun finally emerged from the horizon. We’ve been studying the poetic book of Ecclesiastes for the past few months and I thought of these verses:

“The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be
done again;
there is nothing new under
the sun.
–Ecclesiastes 1:5,7-9

I suppose these verses sound a bit dim, but I find them grounding and refreshing amidst the catastrophic media messages. There is nothing new under the sun. Patterns repeat in history and humanity just as they repeat in nature. What is happening in our country at this point in time is new, and it’s not. I feel like the only really secure thing to fall back on is faith, which is so apolitical.

Here’s a gorgeous Pablo Neruda poem to close with, which reminded me of the ocean this morning. We men, touch the water, struggling and hoping…the waves tell the firm coast: Everything will be fulfilled.

ODE TO HOPE by Pablo Neruda

Oceanic dawn
at the center
of my life,
waves like grapes,
the sky’s solitude,
you fill me
and flood
the complete sea,
the undiminished sky,
tempo
and space,
sea foam’s white
battalions,
the orange earth,
the sun’s
fiery waist
in agony,
so many
gifts and talents,
birds soaring into their dreams,
and the sea, the sea,
suspended
aroma,
chorus of rich, resonant salt,
and meanwhile,
we men,
touch the water,
struggling,
and hoping,
we touch the sea,
hoping.

And the waves tell the firm coast:
‘Everything will be fulfilled.’

HAPPY ELECTION DAY.

Recent Publication

My poem “In Flight” was a finalist in the Bermuda Triangle Poetry Contest at The Poet’s Billow, a wonderful poetry site for established and emerging poets. The poems of the winners/finalists are published here!

In Flight

I am just a woman
on a plane–

all other associations
have dissolved
in the recycled air,

in the thousands of
open feet between me
and solid ground.

If you could be anything
what would you be?
is the question I considered
as a child,

long before I learned
to stack my ambitions
side by side like books
displayed on a shelf,

long before I learned
to compile volumes
of self worth and titles
to label myself by.

And now here I am
paused in space

as I brush forearms
with the people
to my right and to my left,

wondering in silence
what they are moving towards.

For not all that matters is
whether to choose
tomato or cranberry juice,

whether we will get
peanuts or pretzels or
anything at all.

For now I can
sit back and fly
like a weightless shell,

hollow-boned and free
like the bird I wanted to be
as a child.

     The Poet’s Billow, 2015

lists

My life is measured in lists. To-do lists, grocery lists, wish lists, lists of goals, lists to keep the anxiety of life at bay. I even pray in lists. When I wake in the morning, lists race through my head: take shower, pack lunches, feed dog, unload dishwasher, make dentist appointment, etc, etc. It’s these unglamorous details of life that end up written in my journal, in lieu of more substantial, reflective entries.

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The turn of the new year is typically a time to reflect and pursue a more “balanced life.” Perhaps all of my list-making is an attempt to strike that balance–to keep the balls in the air–to keep things from tipping into one extreme or another. However, the deeper I get into this parenthood gig, the more I question whether a balanced life is a reality that any of us actually achieve. I wonder if striving to attain it is, ironically, an exhausting and futile endeavor?

I am reminded of one of my favorite poems by Linda Pastan, called “Lists”, which begins:

I made a list of things I have
to remember and a list
of things I want to forget,
but I see they are the same list.

I suppose it’s a bit sad how much I rely on lists to order my little world, but as I leaf back through my journal entries of lists, I realize how much life exists between the bullet points. As Pastan’s poem continues…

My mother makes lists on tiny
scraps of paper, leaving them
on chairs or the seats of the bus
the way she drops a handkerchief
for someone to find, a clue
a kind of commerce between her
and the world.

A kind of commerce between her and the world. I love that.

Last night we celebrated my husband’s fortieth birthday. Somewhere between the “buy ice for cooler” and “make salsa” and “clean bathrooms” and “pick up house,” the meaningful moments took place.

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I suppose I am coming to appreciate my lists more and more because I realize they are the scaffolding of life. They may not be the heart of life, but they are the skeleton. Our most significant moments can’t be deduced to bullet points, but I think the bullet points provide the framework for the good stuff to happen.

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What lists do you keep?
How do they serve as the “commerce between you and your world”?

the last days of summer

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Nectarines
acrylic on canvas; 10×10

I painted this two years ago. Each year, around this time, I come back to this painting and remember how life felt when I painted it.

It was the end of August. I had to hurry to finish the painting because the nectarines, my models, were beginning to rot in the bowl. Each time we passed the bowl on our dining room table we could smell their sweet scent.

About a month prior to painting this, we had returned to the States with our son from China. Life was raw and unfamiliar for all of us, trying to settle into one another and find our new normal. I remember sitting down during late afternoons to work on my painting, the angles of the August sun beating through the dining room window, my son upstairs napping in his crib.

For me, this painting captures the tension of August–the tension between the end of summer and the start of a new season. It reflects the sweetness of life and the impending rot of death. In this life, we cannot taste one without the other.

One of my favorite poems is “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. I don’t think anyone has said it better. Here’s an excerpt:

“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.”

The Double Identity

“You are a citizen of the world, that’s all you are.” –Carrie Fountain

Well, I graduated. Six years is what it took, amidst a plethora of self-doubt, several military moves, a spouse’s deployment, childbirth, an international adoption, and the nitty gritty of daily living. I am very grateful to have attended my commencement ceremony in San Diego last week. I am grateful for the many people who have made this possible, the support of my husband, parents, professors, my thesis mentor, and my friends who cheered me on along the way.

Over the past couple months, I’ve been ruminating over the big question that haunts most graduates’ minds: Now What? Part of the pressure I felt as a new MFA graduate was that in order to feed my writing, I also needed to teach writing, or do some sort of job in the publishing/editing world. I think this pressure started to emerge as a result of reading the bios of other published poets, as it seemed that a vast majority of them taught creative writing in universities. I suppose it’s easy to deduce that in order to be a successful writer, one must also have a job in academia.

Then I came across an informative interview with poet and attorney, Amy Woolard, which was published in The Atlantic. The interview explores what the writing life might look for someone who chooses a day job unrelated to the writing world, and it freed me up to start thinking outside of the box.

One of my favorite contemporary poets, Carrie Fountain, also gave a fantastic interview with The New Orleans Review, in which she discusses a lot of these issues. It’s as though she plucked the thoughts right out of my head:

It’s very hard after you graduate, figuring out who you are, who you were, who you want to be. I think that many of us are still figuring that out, outside the universities where theoretically we would be teaching poetry, teaching writing for the rest of our careers, and publishing books. I’m still trying to figure out what I am. What I am during the day…and what I am at night? Then there are all these other complications–such as, what I am is a mom. And a wife…

So, in some ways it’s easier to define oneself in a creative writing program. But I think what Charles Wright is trying to say is that what really matters is what you do after the reality of things settles in. Because that’s what you gotta do. You gotta keep writing. Wallace Stevens. William Carlos Williams. They weren’t teaching poetry. Their daytime lives belied their identities as master poets…

And that can be valuable. And it doesn’t take away. Your identity as the development person at a nonprofit does not take away from your identity as a poet. It only enriches it. You’re a citizen of the world, that’s all you are. It doesn’t make you any less of a poet that you’re not teaching poetry…What matters is that you sit down and you keep writing. That’s all that matters. 

Over the past month, I’ve been looking for jobs, applying, and interviewing. It’s been a challenging process, mentally and emotionally, to make myself vulnerable to the scrutiny of the real world after camping out under the umbrella of “stay-at-home-mom” and “grad student” for the past six years. How on earth can I market myself? Am I still even an actual human being? (I have actually thought that.) Nothing had knocked the confidence out of me quite like staying home to raise my family, I am sad to say.

Long story short, after much prayer, deliberating, seeking the counsel of friends and family, I decided to return to work as an RN, and I am very thankful to share that I was offered and accepted a job as an operating room nurse at a surgery center close to my home and my children’s schools. I am very excited for what this next chapter will bring as I transition from mom/student to mom/nurse/writer. It’s a double identity, or maybe a triple identity, and I’m learning to live with that in-betweenness.

I have struggled with the belief that in order to be successful at one thing, you need to dedicate every morsel of your energy to just that one thing–to put your eggs in one basket, so to speak–to form and uphold one identity. But we are many things, many selves, and it seems that the relationship between the roles we play exist in a realm beyond our own understanding, or at least, beyond my understanding. What I do know is that my roles as wife, mom, nurse, and writer are all connected, just as all of life is connected, just as the world speaks a common truth through a variety of means and measures. In the end, I am just a citizen of the world, and perhaps it is that simple.

Do you have multiple identities? What are they? How do they relate or connect to each other?