{poetry peeps challenge: what the ___knows}

It’s STILL the month of August, simultaneously the longest and shortest month of the year! This month, the Poetry Peeps are writing after the style of Jane Yolen’s eight line, unrhymed poem, “What the Bear Knows,” a poem written in honor of her 400th book, Bear Outside. Poet Joyce Sidman, who started it all, gave us some neat guidelines for thinking and writing through this poem: a.) Choose your subject, b.) think about the overarching Truths relating to your subject, c.) state six of the strongest truths into two stanzas, and d.) find an end rhyme – but you don’t have to. This sounds straightforward, but why do I have a feeling we’re all going to have so many good ideas we’ll trip over at least four of them???


There’s still time! We’re sharing our pieces August 27th on blogs and social media with the tag #PoetryPals. Hope you join the fun!

{#npm: 29 – dissatisfied}

Though I am heartened by the Sheenagh Pugh poem to which I linked yesterday, I acknowledge that Ms. Pugh wishes… she could divorce it. She feels she didn’t write it well enough, since some people read it as a piece of joyous and unalloyed optimism. She meant it more as “a good deal of the time things are catastrophically bad, but if only people put in a bit of effort, that can generally change,” but … we human beings can be rather black-and-white, with no shades of gray. And, as writers we know: we don’t get to decide how people read our work. So, let the words gladden you – sometimes nothing goes wrong. Or, let them remind you – usually, everything goes wrong, and we should acknowledge the bare few times they don’t. Words, once you find them, are yours alone… poets or no.

through daily battles
poets aim fearsome weapons
used as paper weights

    

…just don’t forget we make cement out of gravel.

{national poetry month: solus}

Irvington 283

{2020}

a windy Spring day
flings scent of dryer sheets and
last month’s first hindsight

It’s NPM, wherein we celebrate having our way with words. March lasted forever, but someday we’ll look back at it with longing for how good it was, I’m afraid. I’m definitely sticking to haiku this week, as I search for something to say that isn’t… what everyone is saying. I don’t want to make yet another journal of a plague month – but neither do I want to forget everything that’s going on. Instead of chronicling what I’m feeling – which is the same thing everyone is feeling, existential dread – I’m instead going to try very hard to finding something new to see – or a new way to see it – every day. There’s no point promising not to be morose or sad, but I’m encouraging all of us to try and really see things just now – things we should remember.

Something I wrote for a virtual concert our choir is having: It is a paradox that as the pandemic forces us as the world into our separate corners, it highlights the ways in which we are all interconnected. We have all become woven into a tapestry called ‘society’ without even really noticing how our threads cross… and it’s painfully evident how broken we become when we abandon that interdependence and try to live without it. Homeless or homed, rich or poor, infected or well, are all in the same leaking boat. We need to see what it is that put us here, critically examine the leadership that kept it going, and look for a way out – together. Tall order, but, I think, doable.


People have always been walkers in this neighborhood – we have a lot of families who walk as a group – and now they’re circling all hours of the day. Sometimes they chat, and always, we wave, but it’s both uplifting, and heart-twinging. When they’re out of sight, sometimes their voices float back. How we stretch to listen to conversations not our own! I feel like we’ve all turned to ghosts; only our voice carrying proof of life…

Irvington 310

masked

can you see a smile
obscured by a folded mask?
look: my eyes smile back


Poetry Sister Liz is also doing her annual haiku project this month, as is Sister Tricia, Sister Laura, and Poetry Cousin Mary Lee. Don’t miss their original poetry this month.

{sensitivity, cultural portrayal, and revisions}

A morning near the end of the last gasp of my revision:

It’s been an interesting process to me with my newest work in progress to use a sensitivity reader in conjunction with a publishing company. While I have used one before – a previous manuscript included me hiring someone from The National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) to check out a black character with albinism – I’ve never had one paid for by someone other than me, nor have I ever dipped into trying to portray a culture wholly other than my own. My other character was black – I can write a black person of at least similar class and education as my own. Writing someone from an Asian culture with which I thought I was familiar has been a revelation. My reader was positive – I hadn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but I hadn’t been more than not disappointing.

Balboa Park 63

Cultural representation is …tricky.

What we may think of as just… tchotchkes in someone’s house, for instance, might be a representation of cultural pride. What we might assume is just a stereotype of ‘everyone from this place eats this food,’ may be, in fact, another touchstone that connects a people to a place of importance to them, their parents, their grandparents, and generations back. Shoes left outside? That’s what people do. Also what I found out? What I thought was going to be a slam dunk… isn’t.

I’m grateful for my reader’s direct words. She was straightforward and helpful – but I find I’m smarting a bit that I’m not as smart about this as I thought I’d be. I’ve never served as a sensitivity reader – the potential for emotional labor and the recoil from a bad rep and a tone deaf author is REAL – but someone bravely and graciously stepped up to the plate for me, and I’m so grateful to this person I want to send them flowers. Reading for cultural representation is a difficult job.

Balboa Park 62

Because what is cultural representation, really, but a collection of… little details that are nearly imperceptible to outsiders? It’s hard to put a finger on, hard to define, hard to say “THIS” is cultural rep done right, and “THIS” is not… because everyone’s personal culture, expectations, educational levels, class and aspirational class is wildly variant. For instance: I grew up in a home with the Ten Commandments on the wall – and a framed copy of “Amazing Grace,” while other black Americans grew up with photographs on the wall of Martin Luther King, Jr., “black Jesus,” the Lord’s Prayer, and during the holidays, “black Santa.” We were vegetarian in the 80’s when few people were, and my parents were vegan off and on in our lives – so while I’ve never had fried chicken, have no particular opinions on potato salad, baked mac and cheese and dislike bbq sauce, I’ve had tofu and vegetarian gumbo my whole life. We were discouraged from using slang or swearing, but had a family… shorthand dialect of things probably only we said. I have some family members who can fall into African American Vernacular English with ease, and some who have no intuitive understanding of its rules.

Balboa Park 17

I know that some people – and I’ve seen sweeping statements like this routinely on social media – don’t believe that a black character can be correctly portrayed if they do not eat the “right” foods, use AAVE, and have none of the “right” pictures. And yet… not only were those images not in my house, they were absent in the home of my maternal grandmother as well. (My paternal grandmother, on the other hand, had… hundreds of porcelain roosters, a prayer card Jesus looking kind of emaciated, and sad clowns on velvet in the bathroom… her cultural aesthetic being another blog post ENTIRELY.)

Writing a cultural representation which would feel “normal” to me would have walls crammed with bad family photos and a couple of religious touchstones, but nothing representative of “black America,” exactly, except… a washboard. My great-grandmother’s washboard, which she still used well into the time when people had washers, hangs as a reminder of the extreme poverty of the past, but the assurance that one can manage. At least, that’s what I take it to be – a reminder that Miss Emily made do with her own two hands. Is that properly “black?” Is that Americana? Cultural representation is personal – and specific. And honestly? There is no way to get it right for everyone. NONE. There is nothing that will protect the writer from criticism and disappointing someone.

That is quite a thing to sit with, friends.

Balboa Park 54

So, we sit with it.

And then, we take the word of the lived experiences of others and spoon in generous helpings of their good sense, and … leap alone into the ether from there.

Now all of my own nitpicky little revisions have been laid to rest, and today I embark on the most difficult ones of all… And yet? Looking more closely and trying to see through a cultural lens just provides opportunity to lean in… and open my eyes wider. I am grateful to my reader for another chance to get it (closer to, in the neighborhood of, adjacent to) right.

{“…after the watermelon thing.”}

I told you! I told Jackie she was going to win. And I said that if she won, I would tell all of you something I learned this summer, which is that Jackie Woodson is allergic to watermelon. Just let that sink in your mind.

And I said you have to put that in a book. And she said, you put that in a book. And I said I am only writing a book about a black girl who is allergic to watermelon if I get a blurb from you, Cornell West, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama saying,”This guy’s okay. This guy’s fine.”

Yeah, remember that? 2014, the National Book Award, televised on C-SPAN and elsewhere. People are so heartened to see African Americans on the National Book Award finalist list. Poets and writers and people of letters are tuning in. In the children’s lit community, we’re thrilled that Jacqueline Woodson, one of our steady bright lights in YA literature, has won. She’s earned that BIG award, one which will thrust her outside the quieter waters of children’s lit, and… in that moment, the professional crowning pinnacle of her success thus far, the presenter makes …a watermelon joke.

“In a few short words, the audience and I were asked to take a step back from everything I’ve ever written, a step back from the power and meaning of the National Book Award, lest we forget, lest I forget, where I came from.” – Jacqueline Woodson, quoted in the New York Times.

He had an hundred million reasons why, later, he had remarked so disparagingly on the poets who were nominated, why he had told jokes and tried to wrest the attention of the crowd from the nominees onto his vast and hungry ego. But, it wasn’t personal; he cried no foul, she’s my friend! a thousand times, and yet, that moment, those sly, knowing words sliced thousands of us to ribbons, as the audience laughed, and a tall, serene woman had to stand – and yet again, endure. Endure. Endure, with her face at peace, as if the buffoonery of the man before her didn’t reach her.

I don’t support hate, and yet, in that moment, that dizzyingly visceral emotion shivered in my sight. Gut-punched, I wanted to both hiss and claw, scream and spit. As far as I was concerned, that man was finished, and I was done with him and all his works, forever. I never bought, reviewed, read, or talked of anything else he said or did. It made no difference to his life, I am sure, but it seemed right, to me, to simply use my internal Wite-Out and blot him from my notice for the rest of forever. I was fully over this “problematic” favorite.

It’s clear that I’m still sitting with our current moment in the children’s lit industry, trying to work through it, and thinking about the last time that so many voices came together to exclaim in disgust. It was for our Ms. Woodson, and rightly so. The commentary was sharp, and loud – and ultimately… was placated by the huge monetary donation Handler gave to We Need Diverse Books. And then, most of the voices were hushed, pressing their hands against the shoulders of those who still rose up, and their hands over the mouths of those still bitterly protesting. He apologized. He made it right. You can’t judge people on what they say.

But, yesterday, after Handler wandered flat-footedly into the pages of children’s lit history again, this time into the earnest signatories of the #ustoo pledge, wherein members of the children’s lit industry pledged to hold accountable conferences and gatherings, and not attend those which have no clear sexual harassment policy, people took him to task for his very clear participation IN the harassment. The very innuendo-laden jokes, in front of children and adults. The demeaning sexual talk. But — he apologized. He made it right. You can’t judge people on what they say.

It seems clear that you can, unless what you say is racist.

In my small and petty way, I blocked Daniel Handler from my sight years ago – but he’s still been doing things, writing, being invited places, feted within the industry, and I’m the doofus who didn’t realize that his “little faux pas” on Ms. Woodson’s big night had long been forgotten.

But, as Heidi so succinctly asked, didn’t we figure out this guy was trash after the watermelon thing? What are we doing still courting that kind of person to be a speaker and to visit classrooms? Why don’t we seem to take the humiliation, shame, and harm of racism as seriously as we’re all endeavoring to take the #metoo harassment thing?

In all seriousness – is a #metoo movement going to actually succeed if, once again, racism is instructed to take a seat at the back of the bus?

1897. “The day before the inauguration of the nation’s 28th president the Congressional Committee of NAWSA hosted a large parade on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. The idea behind this was to maximize onlookers who happened to be in town to attend the inauguration. Woodrow Wilson expected a crowd at the train station to greet him; however, very few people actually showed up to greet the president, the largest part of the crowd was his staff. The parade was led by the beautiful lawyer Inez Milholland Bouissevain upon a white horse. This image of her as a warrior atop a horse is what made her an iconic image in the fight for womens’ right to vote. This massive parade consisted of no less than nine bands. It also included four brigades on horseback and close to eight thousand marchers. The parade was cut into sections: working women, state delegates, male suffragists, and finally African-American women.

The point of the parade was “to march in the spirit of protest against the present political organization of society, from which women are excluded.”

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, the journalist who led an anti-lynching campaign in the late nineteenth century, organized the Alpha Suffrage Club among Black women in Chicago and brought members with her to participate in the 1913 suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. The organizers of the march asked that they walk at the end of the parade. She tried to get the White Illinois delegation to support her opposition of this segregation, but found few supporters. They either would march at the end or not at all. Ida refused to march, but as the parade progressed, Ida emerged from the crowd and joined the White Illinois delegation, marching between two White supporters. She refused to comply with the segregation.”

– Excerpts taken from One of Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black and White Women by Midge Wilson & Kathy Russell, Anchor, 1996, and PBS.org.

I think I’ve been naive, and pretty quiet – but it’s clear the time for my naive assumptions is way over.

{december lights: you are here. do your thing}

Newark 33

O Me! O Life!

~ by Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892

O Me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me;
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

                                    Answer.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

You will contribute that verse, no matter what. Curtain’s rising. Time to shine.

{december lights: see & keep looking}

Fremont 76

“There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of god.

And it can keep you busy as anything else, and happier.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.”

― Mary Oliver

Arise. Shine. LOOK.

{december lights: small & pinned down}

Oakland Museum of California 114

From A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard: “Thomas Merton wrote, “there is always a temptation to diddle around in the contemplative life, making itsy-bitsy statues.” There is always an enormous temptation in all of life to diddle around making itsy-bitsy friends and meals and journeys for itsy-bitsy years on end. It is so self-conscious, so apparently moral, simply to step aside from the gaps where the creeks and winds pour down, saying, I never merited this grace, quite rightly, and then to sulk along the rest of your days on the edge of rage.

I won’t have it. The world is wilder than that in all directions, more dangerous and bitter, more extravagant and bright. We are making hay when we should be making whoopee; we are raising tomatoes when we should be raising Cain, or Lazarus.

Go up into the gaps. If you can find them; they shift and vanish too. Stalk the gaps. Squeak into a gap in the soil, turn, and unlock-more than a maple- a universe. This is how you spend this afternoon, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon. Spend the afternoon. You can’t take it with you.”

May you live all the days of your life.
Arise. Shine.

{december lights: sing your song}

“…When you do not sing, you keep the rest of us from getting to know you—know your voice, a voice that has never been heard ever before in the immeasurably vast history of the cosmos and will never be heard again after you die, which could be any day, any moment. How can we love you fully unless we know you, know your voice? If you choose not to sing, we are left with your silence. We have to do the work of filling in the gaps, guessing at what you’re song might’ve been if you’d chosen to sing. Who are you, all of you? We want to know, those of us who recognize the tragedy for what it is.

There’s more, so much more. When your song goes unsung, you keep yourself from knowing yourself—knowing how your voice can sound, what it can do. You become a stranger to certain parts of yourself, certain sounds and the emotions those sounds can carry.

When you abort your soul’s longing to sing, you are choosing to distrust us, the ones surrounding you, distrust that we will love you and accept you and be grateful for whatever your song turns out to be. You are living as if we wouldn’t honor you and celebrate you exactly as you are. You are choosing to believe that we are not capable of holding you in the way that you deserve. Please, give us the chance.When you believe that you cannot sing, you are hoarding yourself. You are not giving your songs away, freely, unconditionally, those songs which only you can give, those songs which someone might be desperately needing right now. Creation needs your songs just as much as you need the air, the water, the earth and all its bounty. Creation does not deprive you of that which you need to survive. Why do you deprive creation of your songs? Why were you given a voice if not to sing yourself back to that which gave it to you?

– Andrew Forsthoefel, “The Tragedy of Believing You Can’t Sing.”


One of my favorite songs Jules introduced me to from Lost in the Trees is “Artist Song” from the 2012 album A Church That Fits Our Needs. In the song, there’s this poignant, repeated phrase which reminds me of this essay.

A fearful song
Played by trumpets for our heart
Oh, oh — I have a fear of darkness.
So sing
Your hymn of faith cause I have none
Oh, oh — Your song is my fortress.

What would we do if we needed to hear your song, but you’d decided not to sing it? Don’t worry that it’s not good enough for anyone else to hear… The song you have may indeed be whetstone for a sword, armor for a battle, faith, and fortitude, and fuel for a lamp. A song. A fortress. So, sing out.

Arise. Shine.