A black bear is wandering our small city. Braving the busy main roads, trotting down quiet side streets and into little backyards, finding temporary refuge in the marshes and sparse woods. Two days ago, he was across from my mother’s house, … Continue reading
This funny thing keeps happening. I begin writing a post, and it veers into a new essay, or yesterday, a poem. I pluck it from the post and open a Word doc, and then never manage to return here. Most … Continue reading
My dear writer-readers, I know so many of us have been struggling to write through the election fallout as we continue to witness the incomprehensible at our nation’s highest level. We’re coping with fears for the future. Real fears. The loss of civil liberties, healthcare, and medicare, a rise in hate crimes, the possible dismantling of public education, total disregard for the environment and the health of the planet, and on and on. How do we recover our voices? How do we continue to hold hope? Ultimately the answer is to show up to the page, that transformative, thoughtful place that allows us to access the deepest parts of ourselves. One of the most inspiring reads I’ve come across recently is NTOZAKE SHANGE: ON A BRILLIANT BALANCE OF ANGER AND POETRY, which also speaks to sharing, community, and collaboration.
Zaki always knew who she was talking to and who she was singing for: her peers, her sisters, her community. She always understood that creative writing is enmeshed in a community. Her mind was not focused on literary critics or the commercial publishing establishment. To say that she did not see writing as a professional career is not quite right; rather she always thought poetry was like making music, something you did with your friends to celebrate being alive.
So from the beginning Zaki’s efforts were almost always in collaboration—with other writers, with musicians, with artists, with dancers, with actors. Her body of work is more collaborative than any other writer I know. It’s the community again, a community of artists and friends that grounds and surrounds her work and locates it in its historical specificity. And that specificity in Zaki’s case meant being a woman and being Black in the America of the 1960s, a situation that demanded political involvement. The women’s movement had already taught us that the personal is political—and if you happened to be a woman, if you happened to be black in this society at this time, the personal was intensely political and politics, the politics of oppression and resistance was inescapable. And oppression generates anger, or more precisely outrage, which is anger at injustice, which can be a great danger to the poet or artist. For, while outrage can be an enormously powerful motivator of political action, it holds the danger of corroding the creative spirit.
But anger was required if you were a black woman poet who found herself in a deeply racist and misogynist society, and in the 1950s and 60s that was pretty much the case with America. And anger is hard for the poet who, as Auden says, sings songs of praise of what is. It’s hard to sing if you’re angry.
What always impressed me about Zaki’s work was that she was able to keep that just anger hot and alive, but she also knew how to keep it properly focused, to keep it in check and not to let it consume her entire being. “Combat breath” she calls it in one of her essays. Mastering the anger rather than being mastered by it, she could go on being essentially—even quintessentially—a poet, one who celebrates the impact of the live moment as it bursts into language and song.
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I was going to tell you about the perfect summer evening. Of the cerulean sky. And how I feel dead honest when I write cerulean, entitled to that word because I was a painter, and if I had my tubes … Continue reading
Don’t miss these three new poems by Nick Flynn featured on Buzzfeed. What a world, right? A well-known poet and author releasing new work on Buzzfeed. I love everything about this.
When I studied with Gustaf Sobin, he said you should feel like you’re free-falling through the poem. That’s exactly how I feel when I read Nick Flynn.
Poetry. Hold it close. Hand copy it on lined notebook paper like it’s 1988. Read it out loud to yourself in the cool evening air.
Let it chisel a crack in the dam of your writer’s block.
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My inspiring writer friend Rachel turned my attention to May Sarton this morning and started this first day of summer on the perfect note. A poem to keep like a prayer, rote, repeated, known. The Work of Happiness By May Sarton I thought of … Continue reading
At art school in France twenty years ago, I studied with the poet Gustaf Sobin. I still have the slim red composition book from that class. He was the first writing mentor who inspired me; the first writer I’d encountered … Continue reading
Tonight a poem, well known and beloved. Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. I keep this one on the side of my fridge. I love poetry. I love to hand copy poems, slow it down, become intimate with each word. There’s something sacred about it.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the
My whole body exhales. Relief. Guilt runs deep and thick in my Irish Catholic family. I feel it in the marrow of my bones. Just recently I realized that part of what this project is is claiming myself. Maybe that’s what the whole thing is about. And as I claim myself, I release guilt.
You only have to let the soft animal of
love what it loves.
Yes. Motherhood has taught me that.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will
tell you mine.
This is why we write. And why we read. And how we love.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear
pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the
clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh
and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Doesn’t she just leave you breathless and peaceful?
Coffee. Below zero February morning. The truth.
The truth is my last few posts have been a struggle. You can hear it, right? No wind in my sails. The truth is we were sick and sleepless for two weeks with racking coughs. I don’t go to the doctor unless it’s dire, like broken bones or stitches. It’s all lemon water homeopathic cough syrup tumeric cinnamon bone broth humidifier wet sock treatment herbal tea around here. Between the sick and the snow, I’m feeling housebound and a little stir-crazy. We make our little outings… Yale Peabody Museum to see the dinos on Thursday afternoons when admission is free. The library. The grocery store, always multiple trips as I can only ever seem to buy two days worth of food. We made it to the playground those few warm days before the temperature plunged to subzero. But Lordy, being home in the winter with a little one requires creativity and imagination. Play dough and books and dress-up and hide-and-seek and dining room table forts. Little 25 month old nursling commands, “Sit on the couch, mama. I need milky!” I give in, and while she nurses, she flings her toddler feet into my face and says, “My socks are orange!” and I say, “Yes, your socks are orange.” And she says, “My socks are orange. It’s like red. But it’s not yellow.” And I think, she’s a color genius! I go on a brief hunt for my watercolor paper, which has to be somewhere in this house, because if I can’t get my writing done, then I ought to add some painting to the heap of unfinished projects. My sneakers look like a dog chewed the heels out. (We don’t have a dog.) I don’t buy anything for myself. Minimalism is good for you. Deciphering between necessity and luxury is good for you. Not buying into our culture’s compulsive over-consumption is good for you. Last week I binge-read The Chronology of Water and had a reading hangover. The writing entrances while the content guts you. And how did she write a book of short stories and a novel during her child’s first year of life? C’mon Lidia, please tell me you had a nanny. Things like that make me feel hopelessly inadequate. Like how am I not getting more done? (If you’ve read that book, you’re thinking, seriously, that’s your takeaway?) But even this paragraph, I’ve been writing it in five minute spurts for four hours, and I ask myself, is it even worth it? That’s how things happen with a toddler, in five minute spurts. Nine minutes if you’re lucky. Sometimes I think I would like another baby. I wonder if my sweet girl is missing a companion. And then I think everything is perfect just as it is. I think about my body going through pregnancy and postpartum again and my brain shouts, NO WAY! And then I remember it’s not up to me anyway. The universe waves its magic wand. Or it doesn’t. I want to write a novel. I want to write and illustrate a children’s book. I want to finish one damn essay. I think about homeschooling and veer off into Waldorf curriculums. I want to raise backyard chickens. What else having I been meaning to say? That Anne Lamott talk from a few posts back. She quantifies writing time and it makes perfect sense. She says if you’ve got three hours, that’s two hours and ten minutes of writing time. Ah, so true! Little light bulb moment. I would like to quantify writing time + toddler. After I painted that Phoebe Wahl valentine I listened to an interview with her on the podcast While She Naps, and while the conversation is mostly around running a small creative business, it drifts into feminism and motherhood and miscarriage and homemaking. It struck a chord deep in my heart, the love of homemaking and childrearing and creative project making and being there for ordinary moments. And I was surprised to hear Phoebe, this young RISD grad, declare, “To say that domesticity is synonymous with submission is to dishonor the thousands of years worth of strong and independent women who have acted as homemaker, and the men and women who continue to passionately fill this role of their own volition.”
Now, instead of getting self-conscious and editing the heck out of this post, I’m going to hit publish and go look for that watercolor paper again.