Friday, March 31, 2006

Anna's Last January

My copy of In Pieces: An Anthology of Fragmentary Writing edited by Olivia Dresher (Impassio Press) came today. I'm delighted to be between its pages with so many fine writers, including Kim and Bill Stafford and William Pitt Root. My piece, Anna's Last January, is a series of diary entries pertaining to my mother's death.

"In Pieces celebrates the diversity of contemporary fragmentary writing by offering a sampling of fragments written by 37 different writers—those who are known as well as new voices. Selections from diaries, notebooks, and letters; aphorisms; short prose pieces and vignettes... These are some of the fragmentary forms represented in this unique collection, the first of its kind to present a wide range of fragmentary writing as its own genre."
- from the back cover

“We learn in school that literature has a hierarchy: poem, play, novel, essay. All else—diary, journal, aphorism, letters—are secondary, jottings, ephemera. Reading tells us a different story. The engaging and memorable are found everywhere. In books like In Pieces we are ‘49ers panning for gold and finding nuggets.”
William Corbett, author of Philip Guston’s Late Work: A Memoir

I love being in an anthology, feels like a pot luck Thanksgiving, everybody sitting around playing music, telling stories, singing, just being themselves.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Importance of Diary Keeping

This NPR piece is an important example of discussing personal issues publicly. First, I read it and then I listened. Stewart and Rebecca's openness and desire to be heard and understood lifts me above my own care giving issues. That 48 year old Stewart kept a diary of his year of dying from a brain tumor is a gift, as is his wife Rebecca's response. Mary Beth Kirchner moderated. Her interaction with the material is gentle, her presentation soothing, hopeful. I love NPR. How could anyone want to get rid of it!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Lisel Mueller's Love Like Salt

This is the poem we used in last week's Thurs and Fri classes, plus today's (Tues) class. I'll post a new one Thurs.

Love Like Salt

It lies in our hands in crystals
too intricate to decipher

It goes into the skillet
without being given a second thought

It spills on the floor so fine
we step all over it

We carry a pinch behind each eyeball

It breaks out on our foreheads

We store it inside our bodies
in secret wineskins

At supper, we pass it around the table
talking of holidays and the sea.

Lisel Mueller

Reprinted from "Alive Together: New and Selected Poems" (LSU Press, 1996) by permission of the author. Poem copyright © 1996 by Lisel Mueller.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Alzheimer's Need Not Be A Death Sentence

I've decided not to believe in doctors

social workers either,
those who would squirrel him away
in an Alzheimer's wing. Wrap him in a cocoon,
a locked ward where resident captives
drown in respiridone and haldol.
Pace. Mumble to relatives of sixty years ago.

An old woman makes bread for her dead children.
She opens an oven door,
pushes them in.
A man who used to be removes his clothes.
A sock here, a shirt there
and then comes his underpants.
In the hall, a low hum, the Devil's breath,
you wouldn't believe.

I sobbed the two hours we were there
and then I brought him home.
That was last October.
Now it's Spring. We plant our primroses.
Read each other poems: Jorie Graham, Bill Stafford.
Even me. We brush the dog, eat out.
Neighbors wave. At shul,
he schmoozes and prays.
A grandchild climbs
in his lap.

-Esther Altshul Helfgott

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Next Step

John Fox led two three-hour workshops at Cancer Lifeline this week. He's absolutely terrific. If you get a chance to go to the one he's giving with Merna Hecht and Andy Himes tomorrow night, grab it. Titled Poems of Witness: Living with Heart in a Conflicted World, the interactive workshop will be at the University Friends Center from 7-9 pm. That's Wed night, the 15th.

One of the exercises we did today: "Commit your next step to what you love most dearly." After discussion, a free write. Here's mine:

The next step

is continuing on
with what has been --
holding you in the night,
watching your days
not surround your breath
with medical

The next step
is more of the same --
figuring out ways
to bypass
the lack of hope
that permeates
a field of vision
that doesn’t

John put together a useful booklet for us filled with Mary TallMountain, Rumi, Mary Oliver (Is there anyone who doesn't use Mary Oliver these days?, Mark Doty, Milosz, Hirsch, Walcott, Stafford and others. He also showed a marvelous and important film, Medicine and Poetry, one he helped develop with John Graham-Pole, a pediatric oncologyst from Shands Hospital at the University of Florida. Thanks John!

Monday, March 13, 2006

Being interviewed

When I was asked to do this interview, I didn't feel like it, felt like an invasion of my time, and I don't quite understand interviews where you write the answers yourself. I'm still accustomed to the old fashioned kind where they question you over the phone and then when they go to record, get a good bit of it wrong. So I can't complain; if anyone screwed up here, it was me. I mean I.
An interview with Esther Altshul Helfgott:

Q: You said your husband has Alzheimer’s and that you are his caregiver. Did you begin writing after he contracted the disease?

A: No, I’ve been writing all my life, not just to survive a particularly traumatic time but in order to know what I am thinking and feeling, to know who I am. Writing has always been my way of figuring out how environment and familial context, say, work for me. When I’m stuck on a problem, I dialogue with myself; record my dreams, dialogue with others on the page, and record my interaction with other writers’ words on the page. I respond to my reading in my journal. I love that; it helps me know the author better and myself in relation to what I’m reading. I complain on the page, I complain a lot but nobody sees that part of me. Not that I don’t complain off the page, in real life, but not as much. I get my complaints and anger out in my journal/diary, whatever you want to call it.

In the case of my husband’s illness, my writing saves me, probably both of us, because it calms me down, centers me to do the hard stuff I have to do, whether I like it or not. You have to take care of someone you love and the tasks are not always easy or fun. So in order to do them, to get some release from the mean stuff that life divvies out, I write write write and write some more. It’s all I know to do. Perhaps if I could sing or dance I’d be doing that but writing is all that comes naturally to me, so that’s what I do. I really wanted to learn to play the piano and to tap dance but I don’t have the patience anymore than I have the patience to cook or sew. I have patience to write and read, that’s all, and more patience to write than to read.

My writing about my husband’s illness has taken the poem form, as it often does, because in poem I am able to write out my fears and sadness. The Alzheimer’s poems are very sad but as I told someone in one of the writing groups I’m in, if I couldn’t write my sadness out in poems, I probably wouldn’t be able to laugh when I’m not writing. I do my crying in the poems, then I can move on, do what I have to do.

Q: What type of writing do you do?

Read the rest of the interview here

Thursday, March 09, 2006

On Submitting Your Work

from Mickey Jim's blog

Advice for writers on submissions from Salmon Poetry

A d v i c e f o r W r i t e r s
O n S u b m i s s i o n s

Salmon's editor, Jessie Lendennie, answers your Frequently Asked Questions

Some people despise what they see as the pretentious, insincere literary world. It certainly is desirable to have a critical sense, but not to confuse the context with the content. In other words, while any arts discipline (indeed, almost anything!) can seem corrupt from outside, unless one examines and participates in the give and take of it all (importantly adding your own experience) you are writing in a vacuum. Creativity feeds on experience - it's important to discriminate but not to block experience. It is useful to remember that what we despise and reject will haunt us; hampering creative development.

There's no getting away from the fact that it's necessary to have experience and exposure for your work by publishing individual poems before trying book publication. The reasons for this are many and varied: From establishing a reputation to honing your craft. There is a necessary period of apprenticeship for any art form which demands focus and dedication. The writing of poetry
unfortunately comes with a stock of misconceptions. Writing is a major part of communication, and we do it from an early age. Writing our feelings can come quite naturally, and we can lose sight of the fact that poetry is also an art form which demands that one is able to strike an intelligent balance between deeply felt experience and the rational, critical ability necessary to craft the experience into Poetry.

As with any art, there are people who derive great pleasure from their creativity for its own sake. There are people who make poetry for their own pleasure and don't want to go further. This is all part of what poetry means to us. However, if one aims to become professional and be taken seriously as a poet, one must go beyond the emotional high of creating. Insight is wonderful and necessary for a full life, but in poetry it has to blend with craft and originality.

We must all be very honest with ourselves about what we want for our poetry, our creativity. Above all never assume that your inner life is the only Truth. Catharsis is liberating, yes; then the work begins. Take the necessary steps to finely tune your writing - shaping it into an original piece.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006

This Week: Jane Kenyon's Who


These lines are written
by an animal, an angel,
a stranger sitting in my chair;
by someone who already knows
how to live without trouble
among books, and pots and pans.

Who is it who asks me to find
language for the sound
a sheep's hoof makes when it strikes
a stone? And who speaks
the words which are my food?

- Jane Kenyon

My father, Iser

cigarette in one hand
treat for Queenie in the other