{pf: p7 revisits the villanelle}

HAPPY NOVEMBER…! I always love to see this Auden quote, because truly – we’ve got mixed feelings this month, and I think autumn is a great time for that. Ah, November – the month wherein we can give up on hosting summer and urge it gently, but firmly, out the door. Of course, Utah and Colorado have already been doing the ushering, but a rather presumptuous winter is trying to shove in early… I blame the people putting up winter decorations in October. It, like everything else inharmonious, is the fault of Christmas lights…

Happy autumn to those of you, who, like me, are recovering from smoky air and a sense of helplessness as once again, the whole state burns, and to those of you sick to death of politics, which should cover just about everyone else from two nations (Hi, Britain!) visiting this blog. May this month bring something brighter to us all – even if it’s just a few minutes going outside and looking at the stars in silence. Monterey Bay Aquarium 05While it’s not star-gazing, I’ve been grateful to to the aquarium recently. Autumn is the perfect time to visit, when it’s not blistering hot and people aren’t diving into any air-conditioned room to escape the heat. The Poetry Sisters’ villanelles this month celebrate an escape from heat, as I challenged us to embrace a wintry topic, including a pair of words (or homonyms thereof) from the following: bleak, draft, gutter, chill, chime, glitter, gust, harsh, rime, nip, thaw.

The villanelle remains a tricky poem of couplets, and my first attempts were a little grim – these aren’t light, cheery words necessarily, and somehow, I got stuck in the death part of the end of the season… but then, I tried to turn that around. Certainly, as the liturgy says, “in the midst of life, we are in death” – all the time, really, as human beings are constantly dying on even a cellular level… and for me, the dying has been closer to home with catastrophically ill relatives and the fires statewide reminding us of all endings rather forcibly. However, there must be opposites in order for things to be seen – light in dark, life in death, beginnings in endings. I look forward to seeing how my fellow poets shaped these ideas into their own art.

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Laura shot to the head of the class and turned her poem in early. (The rest of us are super envious of this organization.) Tricia powered ahead with hers next. Proving that poetry happens anywhere, Sara slipped hers in at a conference. Liz’s is delightful, despite her frustration. Rebecca’s may yet turn up. Kelly and Andi are hopefully feeling better today.

Reading back over years worth of Poetry Seven poems of mine, I note in the past I’ve had a tendency to be… maudlin. Grim. And then, about a year or two ago, the trend changed and my poems became grimly… hopeful. Honestly, it makes for a strange change. I’m not a Pollyanna, and I refuse to play the glad game, but, somehow, I have learned that it is a strength of mine that is sometimes required, to be able to find the shining bit of steel reflecting the light at the bottom of the pile of crud. Not everyone can find that glint of steel – sometimes I can’t either. But, when I can, that steel stiffens my own sinew so I can hold onto others scrambling out of the hole. Sometimes. It’s not a sure thing. But, it’s a gift that I hold dear – becoming less dramatically emotional and cynical and more solidly pragmatic, and even in trouble, able to move. I’ll take it.

Beauty in the Bleak

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Seek beauty in the bleak, solace in pain,
While sun veiled black as wreaths of flame ignite –
Sing harsh from strangled throat this brave refrain.

On stubbled hills abandoned by the rain
Where arid landscapes glitter with frostbite
Stirs beauty. In the bleak, in spite of pain

Deniers fail to see in their disdain
That beauty is the human soul’s birthright:
Sing harsh from strangled throat this brave refrain.

Drink deep of beauty – let others abstain.
Look! See the art lent to mere parasites!
Sift beauty from the bleak – so soothe the pain.

To comprehend a loss, to triumph sane
Wait – with your focus ever on the bright.
Harsh songs from stinging throat, brave you remain.

Will comfort in the dark, will peace maintain
As hands outstretched you fumble toward the light.
Seek beauty in the bleak. Solace in pain,
Sing harsh from strangled throat this brave refrain.

Poetry Friday is hosted today by Tabatha Yeats at The Opposite of Indifference. There you’ll find more beauty for the taking – may you be able to reach for it despite blistered hands, breathe it in despite a stinging throat, and live within it all month long. Happy November.

“People are like stained – glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.” – Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

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My favorite stained glass window… in a grocery store. Why not?
Glow bravely wherever you are, friends.

{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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

{p7 takes on the ekphrastic}

Happy August!

Today’s Frost quote reminded me of the poem “Mending Wall,” and the repeated thought, “Something there is that does not love a wall, and wants it down.” Just now I’m working on the season ticket brochure for the chorus in which Himself and I sing, and our first concert next season focuses on Central and South America – and the hope of creating a bridge beyond our experiences rather than celebrating a wall between us and what is unfamiliar and new, thus intimidating. Something there is that does not love a wall…

This month, we’ve Sara Lewis Holmes’ gorgeous photographic eye to thank for the image accompanying today’s poem. Sara took pictures of her trip to Israel and selected three from which we were to create a poem in any form. Look for Sara’s gorgeous open-hearted paean here. Here Laura turns a bowl skyward, while Liz explores our common humanity. Tricia surprises us – and herself, while Kelly crows a bit. Andi adds airy caverns here, and we may find Rebecca later.

The location in this picture is the wall surrounding what is known as the Temple Mount, where the old, old, old temple was destroyed by the Roman Empire in something like 700 C.E. The remaining wall, where traditionally Jewish people came to pray after a pilgrimage to the temple, is commonly known as The Western Wall.

This is a wall that is disputed territory, as are so many things which are divided by lifeless barricades and blocks of stone. Something there is that does not love a wall, and wants it down. A holy place for the Muslim faith as well, Islamic peoples call it the Buraq Wall, and for many years kept it for themselves. Jewish people know the wall as Kotel ha-Ma’aravi, and while some believe it is a place of prayer for all faiths, some in the ultra-orthodox community believe women shouldn’t be praying there at all. Despite all the controversy, united in fervency and purpose are the pray-ers, those individuals who write out an anonymous request and shove it between the cracks in the stone for safekeeping, taking their hearts in hand and mutely appealling to the power of miracles.

Jews, Gentiles, Israelis, Americans – people from all over, and of all faiths come to pray, wish, and hope in a place of perceived holiness. In a world of walls and conflict and confusion, may they find what they’re looking for.

Poetry Friday is hosted by Heidi Mordhorst at Heidi’s Juicy Little Universe.