Friday, November 7, 2014

Poetry Friday: Small Packages

It's Poetry Friday, and I want to offer up a song. The link to it was posted on Facebook by my friend Daphne Kalmar. The fact that I don't know what the words of the song mean - don't even know the alphabet in which the words of this song are written - makes me hesitate, but it's not really the meaning I'm attracted to. It's the smile on the singer's face. I can hardly describe how much I love the delight this woman feels as she sings her song.

(If the embedded video won't play, just click this link.)

Look at the way that woman's body moves - her arms, her hands, the way she makes that little "crazy" sign up by her head! Maybe she remembers something while she sings her song. Is it all joy, what she remembers? Maybe there's a little sorrow? I might be imagining it. For all I know, the song could be about a lost hat. But no, you can see it from time to time, the wrinkled brow, the catch in the voice, right?

What is she saying? Do I want to know? I imagine the woman is Russian, I imagine a long history of suffering, life under Stalin, Russian soldiers during the winter of 1942-43. But I have a huge imagination when it comes to sorrow.

While in Oaxaca this September, my husband and I walked past a thin young boy every day who played the accordion and hoped for spare change. He sometimes had an even younger sister with him, in charge of holding out her hand. We gave them whatever coins we had, sometimes more, on the way out from our apartment in the morning and on the way back in the late afternoon. He was always there. He couldn't play well; in fact, he didn't really play a tune, just a note here, a note there, while the accordion itself - pulled out, pushed in - did the job of wheezing and begging. Now I'm home in Seattle in my comfy house, but there's no doubt the boy is still there each day, his back up against the stone wall surrounding the Santo Domingo church. His song and the poverty and heartbreak it represents are there, but also here now, with me.

The woman in the video - her pleasure is as much a poem as the lyrics of her song, isn't it? The boy and his sister in Oaxaca - small as sighs - those sighs are poems. And when it comes right down to it, who can say what a poem is or how it comes to us?  I look at the woman while she sings - her hand slapping the table is a poem, her smile is a poem. And the melody drifting out into the Oaxaca air - I could hear the music before I could see the boy - that was a poem.   Delight, joy, suffering, songs, musical notes floating in the air, a teacup on a table, Mickey Mouse on a Russian apron, a hand held out for spare change - all poems. Sometimes they come in small packages.
This week's Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted by Diane over at Random Noodling. Head over there to see what other people have posted.

Friday, October 17, 2014

POETRY FRIDAY: A Wandering Scotsman

I've recently been researching the life, prose and poetry of the Scottish writer Alastair Reid for an essay soon to be published in Numero Cinq as part of my Undersung series.  Reid, who died a few weeks ago at the age of 88, was a wonderful poet in his own right but was probably best known as a translator of Pablo Neruda and Jorge Luis Borges and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker. Reid also wrote a children's book that is a favorite of friends of mine (maybe it's reached cult status?)  The title (previously out of print but now back back in print via The New York Review Children's Collection) is OUNCE DICE TRICE; with pictures by the graphic artist and illustrator Ben Shahn.

The book includes, among other delights, several imaginative counting systems (from one to ten - a journey that Reid proves can be fun.) Two examples I particularly like:

Ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim


Instant, distant, tryst, catalyst, quest, sycamore, sophomore, oculist, novelist, dentist.

In the book, Reid collects relatively unknown words and offers them up to us in all their strangeness, the way a talented chef would reveal the secret ingredients of a favorite dish:

You can hear one of his best poems for adults, "Curiosity," by clicking here. The poem is a dog's and cat's (but mostly human's) view of the old adage "Curiosity killed the cat," with Reid coming down hard in favor of being curious.

That link can serve as my poetry contribution today to Poetry Friday, but here's what I'd really like to share - a description of childhood that Reid wrote:

“The principal difference between childhood and the stages of life into which it invariably dissolves is that as children we occupy a limitless present. The past has scarcely room to exist, since, if it means anything at all, it means only the previous day. Similarly, the future is in abeyance; we are not meant to do anything at all until we reach a suitable size. Correspondingly, the present is enormous, mainly because it is all there is.... Walks are dizzying adventures; the days tingle with unknowns, waiting to be made into wonders. Living so utterly in the present, children have an infinite power to transform; they are able to make the world into anything they wish, and they do so, with alacrity. There are no preconceptions, which is why, when a child tells us he is Napoleon, we had better behave with the respect due to a small emperor."

Like Maurice Sendak, Alastair Reid took children seriously while taking language playfully. I encourage you all to read more of his work. You can listen to the poet, with his slight Scottish burr, read several of his own poems for adults over at The Poetry Archive and at the Scottish Poetry Library

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by Michelle at Today's Little Ditty. Head over there to see what other people have posted. And if you want to read my most recent post at Books Around the Table, click here.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Poetry Friday: Ahhhhhh....Home!

I am back from a long trip to Oaxaca - the entire month of September spent there, speaking Spanish, hearing Spanish, wandering through the city markets, wandering through the churches and plazas, wandering in general. I posted on August 29th, over at Books Around the Table, in anticipation of the trip, wondering whether Oaxaca would inspire me to write. After all, the stimulation of "all six senses" (taste, touch, smell, sight, sound - and wonder) is usually a good nudge toward creativity. Oaxaca certainly doesn't disappoint in terms of sensory excitement: Senses were stimulated. I think three photos (the tablecloth in our dining room, a pile of small rugs for sale in the market, a stack of tamales) say everything that needs to be said about textures, tastes and colors.

We heard the church bells ring every morning and afternoon, calling people to mass. We heard oompahs coming from tubas in parades going down our street. We watched giant puppets spinning and dancing at a church where a wedding party was just arriving, and we spent an evening watching and listening to danzon: couples swaying - with a surprising mix of formality and sensuality - to Cuban music. Wonderful.

Oddly, I did no writing at all - other than postcards to family. Having prepped all the sensory receptors, maybe I overloaded on stimulation. And maybe I just wanted to live in the moment, not processing everything through the greedy How-Can-I-Use-This side of my brain. It's not that I was feeling blocked. I just didn't want to write. I wanted to buy chiles and plantains and sesame seeds and grapes up at the market, and I wanted to toast them and grind them up with chocolate into  a delicious mole without thinking, "I'll write a poem about delicious mole."

I wanted to laugh with Teresa, the woman who worked cleaning up the Airbnb garden apartment we rented - she gave me mole-making and tamale-making lessons. I wanted to look at the power in her arms as she stirred and stirred and stirred the mole, and just luxuriate in that strength and be amazed by it, without putting my amazement to practical use in a poem.

But two weeks into the vacation, I found myself wanting to come home. I began to read G. K. Chesterton, whose writing is quintessentially English - precise prose about the chalk hills of Sussex. I began to fantasize about my green garden, with the leaves on the cherry and apple trees beginning to turn gold; as I walked in the Oaxacan sunshine - 80 degrees year-round -  I thought about the way Seattle's air would now be filled with an autumn chill. I wondered what was the matter with me - why couldn't I stay in the moment?

Missing home has a powerful, powerful pull on people. Or maybe I should just say "on me." It's part and parcel of any wanderlust drama I create. It sits just off stage, smiling at me, ready to interrupt any poetic soliloquy I conjure up. "Home," it whispers. Or, after thirty days, "Home," it shouts - I can't control the volume. The longer I stay away, the louder it gets.

I heard recently that a poem I submitted to Seattle's On the Bus series was accepted and will appear on buses (or maybe just one bus?) around town. The title? "Home."

There's a good chance I'm more creative when life is slightly less stimulating. A nice walk around the block might be all I need from time to time - a chance to reflect, but not time to take in more and more and more. Maybe a few months from now, I'll write something inspired by Oaxaca. But one thing I've been reminded of: The life of a wanderer is not for me. I do like a bit of adventure, short, sweet, and temporary. And I do like to drift - you know that feeling in a rowboat, when you put the oars down and the current takes you for awhile? Drifting like that is lovely. But when I drift, I like to stay within sight of the shore. I like to know that with a few strong strokes, I can turn the boat shoreward, and I love the sound of the boat's hull scraping slightly along the pebbles as it comes back to rest on the beach.

My trip to Oaxaca helped me remember that I am at my most creative not while rowing, not while traveling, not while taking in what is new and strange - but while leaning with my back up against a log on a rocky Northwest beach. My gaze and my thoughts might eventually turn outward, but my body - the real, physical me  - needs the taste, smell, touch, sight, sound and wonder of home. Cherry trees turning gold, cold air, sturdy evergreens, a rocky cove, saltwater and logs and a shore - definitely a shore - to pull into.

Here is a poem by Nelson Bentley about a Pacific Northwest beach. To some of you who read The Drift Record, it will be familiar - I've posted it twice before - maybe I'll post it each time I come home from a long trip to Somewhere Else.

Zero Tide 

I walked from our cabin into the wet dawn
To see the white caps modulating in,
The slow wash of the word in the beginning:
Wind on the bowing sedge seemed from Japan.
A cloud of sandpipers wavered above the dune,
Where surf spoke the permanence of sun.
Back inside, I sat on my son's bed
Where he sweetly slept, guarded by saints and poets,
Oceanic sunrise on his eyelids;
I whispered, "Sean, get up! It's a clamming tide,"
And thought of chill sand fresh from lowering waters,
Foam-bubbled frets across the hard-packed ridges.
"Sean, it's a zero tide!" From a still second,
He came out of the covers like a hummingbird.
"Don't wake up Julian." In the pale blue light
He dressed in whirring silence, all intent.
Along the empty coast the combers hummed:
Sleepy gulls mewled in the clearing mist.
My wife and baby slept folded in singing calm,
Involuted by love as rose or shell.

                                             - Nelson Bentley

Be sure to follow the links (here and here) to read more poems by Bentley - he was a generous teacher and mentor, and an undersung poet; he's not afraid (as I am) to use the word "sweetly,"; it makes me happy to think I can introduce his work to more of you. If you teach English to young adults, his beach-centered poems are the perfect way in to poetry - direct and heartfelt, with a story-telling voice that doesn't put kids off.

Just look at that water - deep emerald green - brrrrr....wonderful!
Poetry Friday was going to be hosted today by Monica at Cartwheels (previously The Poem Trail) - but she is unable to host due to an illness in the family. Instead, head over to Tricia Stohr-Hunt's blog, The Miss Rumphius Effect, for the round-up. Thanks, Tricia. And Monica, hope all is well soon.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Poetry Friday: Josephine Jacobsen, A Poet's Poet.

[Quick note: Don't miss Sylvia Vardell's wonderful article w/ teacher resources about poetry and social justice.]

For my Poetry Friday contribution, I hope you'll head over to Numero Cinq, which has just published my essay about the marvelous and woefully undersung poet, Josephine Jacobsen. In the essay I take a close look at three of her poems, and I consider the fate -in general - of "a poet's poet," which Jacobsen was.  To entice you over to Numero Cinq, I offer here the first two stanzas from her beautiful poem, "Of Pairs" :

The mockingbirds, that pair, arrive
one, and the other; glossily perch
respond, respond, branch to branch.
One stops and flies. The other flies.
Arrives, dips, in a blur of wings,
lights, is joined. Sings. Sings.

Actually, there are birds galore:
bowlegged blackbirds, brassy as crows;
elegant ibises with inelegant cows;
hummingbirds' stutter on air;
tilted over the sea, a man-of-war
in a long arc without a feather's stir.

[read the rest over at Numero Cinq.]
For the Poetry Friday round-up, head over to lovely Renee La Tulippe's NO WATER RIVER.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Poetry Friday: Using All Six Senses in Oaxaca

It's my turn to post over at Books Around the Table, the blog I co-write with my critique group (Laura Kvasnosky, Julie Paschkis, Margaret Chodos-Irvine, and Bonny Becker) so I'm sharing some thoughts about my upcoming trip to Oaxaca and about using all the senses to write. You can use this link to head there and read the whole post. Here on the Drift Record, I'll just show you some of the photos, and in honor of Poetry Friday I'll toss in a small poem of mine that Jama Rattigan once shared with readers over Alphabet Soup. It was written about the market in a town called Tepoztlan. Oaxacan markets have a charm all their own. Don't miss the link at the bottom to a very special church organ in the little village of Tlacochahuaya.


Black avocados, yellow mangos,
bowls of menudo to start the day.
Tall, cold glass of fresh horchata,
green papayas, pink mamey,
pork pozole, pumpkin seeds,
chiltepines, round and red,
coconut juice and golden guavas,
then the different names for bread:
little shell and little piglet,
little ear and little horn,
now a cup of spiced hot chocolate,
sweet tamal with cream and corn,
lime paletas, piloncillo,
guava jelly, caramel flan,
herbal tisanes, magic powders:
Market Day in Tepoztlan.

 To hear the wonderful antique organ of the Templo in Tlacochahuaya, click here.


The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today by Jone at Check It Out. Head over there to see what other people have posted. 
And don't miss the latest installment of Sylvia Vardell's Poet to Poet series - this time around, I get to ask the questions, and Skila Brown answers.