Monday, May 16, 2011

La Muse: Labastide Onion Festival

See my wall on facebook where I've posted a video from this festival. Sheryl St. Germain

La Muse: Labastide Onion Festival: "buy onion plants, drink wine, eat saucisson and french fries, and listen to these crazy goatpipes"

Monday, July 12, 2010

Thinking about Form Part I

I'm at an artist's residency in the south of France (La Muse, which is quite lovely and a great place for writing. Although I've been writing poetry here, I found myself today thinking about form in both poetry and prose. Maybe it's because I'm in another country where the forms of politesse, of eating, of culture and just plain living are so different--

Because it's so hot during the day here, for example, it makes sense to take a long nap in the afternoon and eat late at night when it cools down, something I'd never do in America. In the Languedoc, where I am, duck fat is all the rage, and you can buy confit du canard (duck confit) everywhere, which is basically duck cooked and preserved in its own fat. It's delicious, but it's something you'd rarely find in the U.S. where we are so concerned about the role of fat in our diet. Instead of buying bottled water we walk through the village to the local spring where we fill up our bottles. Just that change in the structure of the day--a walk to a spring instead of a drive to a store where you purchase a bottle of water, I've found, influences the shape of the rest of the day.

So what does this have to do with the shape of poetry and prose narratives (and here I'm thinking specifically of the essay)? I guess the structural changes my days have taken while I'm here have made me think more intensely about structure in general. I have found myself impatient with the way poems in America, for example, are so dominated by left justification, how timid our poems are, in general, in terms of movement on the page. Of course there are exceptions, but 95% of the poems you will find in almost any American literary journal will be left-margin justified. Where we might be bold in voice, in imagery, in subject matter, we still seem to be subservient to that left-margin justification. Why can't we sweep poems across the page, using space as a tool the way we use line breaks and stanza breaks? Why must we always come back to the left-hand margin? No matter how wild or fragmented the subject of the poem, that return to the left-hand margin begins to feel to me like a giving up, a surrender, an announcement of a lack of spatial imagination.

Of course there are poets like the French Apollinaire, e.e. cummings, and more recently Mary Oliver and Brenda Hillman who have made interesting poetic investigations with spatial arrangement of words on the page, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

How can one write, for example, about the BP oil disaster in the Gulf using traditional line breaks and spacing, returning always to the left-hand margin? It makes no sense. A poem addressing that disaster needs to move like the oil has in the Gulf all over the page, devouring it, knowing no limits, maybe even falling off the page.

I'll share some thoughts on form in the essay in my next post.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Writing the Shadow

I have been overwhelmed with work these last two months. As a result I haven't been keeping up this blog, though I've been reading weekly 32 student blogs. It seems clear that if I assign so many student blogs that I need to (and enjoy) reading, there's no time left for my own!   

I have to prioritize other writing over the blog, though, and I have managed in the last two months to revise the manuscript I've been working on for several years and send out to three possible publishers.  I also took on the editing of an anthology of essays and gave myself a deadline of a year and a half to get that done, which means I've been reading lots of essays outside of the ones I read for classes these last two months as well.  So there are other reasons I've let the blog slide a bit. 

Blogs do help me to clear my mind, though, and, like journals, are great places to explore new ideas.  I just finished reading, again, Ai's Vice: New and Selected Poems, which I assigned to my poetry class.   The poems I find myself--still--most drawn to are the most violent poems, the ones from her early books, Cruelty and Killing Floor, the ones in the voices of child molesters, murderers, etc.  Although the later poems, written as dramatic monologues in the voices of actual persons, may be just as well written, I'm not as interested in them.

Why is that?  I think it's because, for lots of reasons I won't go into here,  I'm drawn to the shadow, and by that I mean the word in the sense that Jung would have meant it.  My favorite holidays are Mardi Gras and Halloween because you get to pretend to be all the horrible things you have repressed during the year, and it's all in fun.   I hate Thanksgiving because it's so earnest and good and moral, at least on the surface.  No one wants to talk about the shadow of our massacre of the natives, we just want to thank God for all the good stuff.  I want to think about the bad stuff.  This is probably also why I'm drawn to the figure of Medusa as well as some of the more terrifying and powerful ancient goddess figures.  Medusa represents for me, a shadow self.  

I would like to develop a poetry writing exercise for my students that gets them to think about their shadow selves and culminates in a persona poem or dramatic monologue written in the voice of the shadow.  Since we are discussing Ai tonight, this would be a good opportunity to do some shadow writing.  The exercise might look something like this:

Writing the Shadow:

 the Persona and Dramatic Monologue Poem

I.  Some Definitions:

Persona (from Merriam Webster)

            1 : a character assumed by an author in a written work

            2 a plural personas [New Latin, from Latin] : an individual's social facade or  front that especially in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects the role in  life the individual is playing

            b : the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public             (image).


Dramatic Monologue (from A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams)

--A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment […].

--This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.

 --The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character.


            a.  “The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know. “  Owning Your Own             Shadow:  Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, Robert Johnson

            b.  The shadow is “the personification of certain aspects of the unconscious personality… which…is the dark, unlived, and repressed side of the ego  complex.  Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, Marie-Louise Von Franz.

II.            Exploring your Shadow

            What is the nature of the face you project to the world?  What do you have to repress or hide in order to keep that face alive?  Imagine you are Dr. Jekyl  and Mr. Hyde.  What would your Mr. Hyde be like?  In the tale of Jekyl and  Hyde, Jekyl was a doctor who saved live, and Hyde was a murderer who took  lives. One could argue Hyde was Jekyl’s shadow. What might your shadow be?  Write a draft of a poem that is written in the voice of your shadow.  Do  not use the word shadow and do not refer to yourself.  This poem is writtenonly in the voice of the shadow.  Give it a title at the end that makes it a  person outside of yourself (see, for examples of titles, Ai and Christopher Davis persona poems).

In your poem make sure that you make clear the following:  What is the shadow’s world like?  What does it see and hear?  How does it speak?  Make sure the language sounds authentic. What does it know?  What does it do?  What does it feel or think?  What is the physical location of your shadow?  Give the shadow a strong sense of place that is more than just a setting (sights, smells, sounds with an eye toward showing the connection between the place and the shadow.  Remember that your shadow has been shaped by its place and culture. Yeats:   a poet's words have "to be wedded to the natural figures of his or her native landscape."

See this poem by Ai for an idea of how to work place and other  specific  details into a shadow poem such that the character is brought alive:

The Hitchhiker (from Vice:  New and Selected Poems, NY:  Norton, 1999)

The Arizona wind dries out my nostrils

and the head of the sidewalk burns my shoes,

as a woman drives up slowly.

I get in, grinning at a face I do not like,

but I slide my arm across the top of the seat

and rest it lightly against her shoulder.

We turn off into the desert,

then I reach inside my pocket and touch the switchblade.


We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,

but somehow, I get the blade into her chest.

I think a song:  “Everybody needs somebody,

everybody needs somebody to love,”

as the black numerals 35 roll our of her right eye

inside one small tear.

Laughing, I snap my fingers.  Rape, murder, I got you

in the sight of my gun.


I move off toward the street.

My feet press down in it,

familiar with the hot, soft asphalt

that caresses them.

The sun slips down into its cradle behind the mountains

and it is hot, hotter than ever

and I like it.



Tuesday, September 22, 2009


When we moved into our house four years ago there was already an established bed of fountain grass (Pennisetum, also known as Feathertop) growing close to the front porch.  I planted another clump of it closer to the sidewalk because I love it so much.  In late summer and into the fall  it blooms, carrying spikes of fuzzy and feathery flowers that can double the size of the plant. I suppose it's called "fountain grass" because its structure is that of a fountain; the clump grows from a central area and the grass falls in a lovely curve outside of the center. 

Fountain grasses are interesting for lots of reasons--they offer striking contrast to flowers and other shrubbery, they have these provocative and irresistible spikey fronds that come out in late summer/fall, and they turn a gorgeous orange/beige color in the fall.   I appreciate all these qualities of fountain grass, and I especially appreciate that once they are established they need almost no care at all.  Both of mine are thriving though I do nothing for them.

Mostly I like fountain grass, though, because it is a hardy grass.  When I lived in the midwest, Iowa and Illinois, I fell in love with the hardy prairie grasses that dominate what is left of the prairies there, and in general I have come to appreciate hardiness in a plant over traditional beauty (more about this when I talk about the swamp rose in my front yard).  There's also something almost subversive in planting a grass in your yard that you never intend to cut. OK, well, I do cut it back in Spring to give the new growth room, but there's none of this constant trimming that most people do with grass:  I am in charge you will never seed or flower, not on my watch.

I live in an urban neighborhood so my lawn is very small.  When we do cut the grass it's with a rusty push mower.  Everywhere there is fountain grass, I don't need the mower, which pleases me.  I admire how strong it is--deep rooted, almost impossible to pull up, resistant to disease, at home almost anywhere, and yet it has a graceful, arching shape that feels like a kind of sacred perfection.  They are the sturdy angels of the plant world, and they are everything I would like to be as woman.

Friday, September 11, 2009


The tree that I look out at every day from my porch, the tree that is mostly likely about 80 years old and shades both the porch and the house, is a Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis, family Platanacae).  It is one of the largest broadleaved trees in the state, and its massive trunk is wider than most other trees one finds in Pennsylvania.  It's also known as American Sycamore, American Plane Tree or Buttonball Tree (for the buttonball-like fruit)  There are 10 species of sycamore, and this is one of three that can be found in the U.S.   It's native to Pennsylvania, and it's said that there are sycamores here that date back to the days of William Penn.  They grow rapidly, and I have read that they can reach 70 feet in the first 20 years.

The leaves look something like the leaves of a Maple tree, triangular, triangular, prominent veins, but seem to me to be smaller than Maple leaves.  You find this tree planted a lot as a landscape or park tree; today my husband and I went to a fair in Mellon Park, and the first tree we saw was a sycamore.  What's most distinctive about them, though, is their peeling bark, which has a unique "camouflage" quality to it, as you can see a bit in the photo above.  I haven't been able to find out why the bark peels like this; it would seem logical that it is to discourage predators, insects or others, who might want to bore into the heart of tree or hide underneath its bark.  When I walk the dog each day, I often will stop at this tree as we get started and pull off a section of the bark that I'll carry with me during my walk, turning it over as I would a page, looking deep into its patterns as if they were poems.  

I'm interested not only in the natural history of trees, but in their mythology.  As I sit on my porch, mid-afternoon, on a cool fall day, I can feel a breeze, I can see the leaves of the tree moving in the wind, and I also hear the melody of the wind chimes that hang from the porch ceiling, and the motors of cars passing by a half a block away on Penn Avenue.  A small reminder of the ways in which nature and culture almost always exist in intimate relation.

I like to come out on this porch to think and to write when the weather is good, and my husband and I also come out after dinner to eat ice cream and do crossword puzzles in the evening.  When I really want to think or reflect, though,  I stop whatever it is I'm reading or writing, and look up at the tree as if it had some answers for me.  Or maybe just because it seems to be the wisest thing around, certainly the oldest.  

In Egyptian mythology sycamores were associated with the goddesses Nut, Hathor and Isis, each of whom carried the epithet "Lady of the Sycamore."  Trees are often considered sacred in ancient religions because they seem to be connectors between the underworld and the heavens:  their roots reached to the underworld while they branches brushed the heavens.  Those that lost their leaves in winter seemed to die and be reborn in spring, thus many trees are associated with birth and resurrection.  

Trees also provide nurturance. I love the Egypitan image above in which a tree is suckling a human.

I know that I feel nurtured and comforted by this tree.  When I'm sad, lonely or feeling hopeless, a strong, massive tree reminds me of longevity, of what it takes to survive--both roots and ambitious striving upward as well as a doggedness, a quality of not-giving-upness.

Soon this tree will lose its leaves, but its fruit will remain until spring when it will provide a feast for birds.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

My Front Porch

I've asked students in my Nature and Environmental Writing class to keep a blog about a special place, and I'm committed to doing that myself for the fall.  

The place I've chosen is my front porch, which looks out on my front lawn as well as has a view onto much of the rest of my neighborhood. I live in Bloomfield, a few houses off of Penn Avenue.  I can see, from my porch, the store/gas station we call the "ghetto store" because we used to think it was a haven for drug dealers (more about that in a later post), and my neighbor's homes and yards, (more about those later, too).  Most importantly, though, I see my front yard.  There is a large shade tree with very interesting peeling bark that is probably about 75 years old.  It keeps the house cool in summer.  I have looked up the name of this tree many times and I keep forgetting it, but I will look it up again for my next post, and maybe this time I'll remember it.  

In  my yard is also a wild swamp rose, which I planted two years ago.  It is a large, hardy rose bush that hardly looks like a rose bush because of its graceful, arching branches.  In summer it will bloom once, fragile small roses with a fragrance of sweet lemon and rose.  There are two large fountain grasses that are just getting ready to put out their beautiful feathery fans, three azalea bushes, two foxglove plants in bloom.  Poison ivy that I keep pulling, Boston Ivy that also threatens to take over.  A couple other plants I haven't identified yet, that my neighbor has planted.  I'd like to spend at least some of these posts lingering over each living thing in my yard, doing some research on each one and learning more about it.

Porches are really a Pittsburgh thing, and I love mine.  I have a wicker swing and a daybed on my porch so I can sit out here as often as I like.  Potted plants surround me on the porch, spider plants of different colors, an umbrella plant, a philodendron, begonias and some petunias.  I can hear the neighbors' dogs barking, can hear the girls on their cell phone next door, and a man waddles, maybe stoned, down the street.  We live in a mixed neighborhood, right on the edge between a "good" area an a "bad" area, and it makes for lots of interesting sites sometimes.

I can hear the bells of the church around the corner telling me it's time to stop for now.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Paying Attention

I've come to feel that almost everything we fail at we fail because of the quality of attention we have paid to the thing in our lives at which we are failing.  

Because there is a disconnect, sometimes, between what we say we want and the amount of attention we are willing to give to the thing we say we want, we find ourselves in a constant state of desiring and failing at achieving the thing we say we desire.  Losing weight, for example, and maintaining that weight loss takes an almost radical, obsessive and unending kind of attention to life style that few are able to muster.  So too, writing demands a special quality of attention.  It's not enough to say I want to write, and here's the few hours a week I'm going to write.  I think you have to create a lifestyle of writing; every choice you make has to contribute towards nurturing your life as a writer, and it has to be a priority--in the way that losing weight might have to be a priority if that's what you wanted--in order for it to happen regularly and successfully.

I recently visited Eden Hall Farms, the gorgeous 388 farm that Chatham University owns.  For years before Chatham took over the farm (last year) the area was not managed or attended to in any significant way with respect to animal populations.  For a while there was deer hunting, which meant the bucks in the herd were severely reduced.  Then the hunting stopped.  Because the farm is surrounded by suburban growth (including homes, a school and a golf course), the deer population is trapped in this relative island of wildness.  As a result they've become inbred and the population unbalanced.  It's estimated there's about 7 females for every male.  Because of the inbreeding the deer's antler presentations are sometimes odd; some have misshapen heads.  The coyote population is also huge because there's so many deer.  Attention needs to be paid to the deer in order to reach a more balanced situation.  I'm interested in the deer for lots of reasons, but in large part what draws me to this situation is that it is such a potent metaphor for what happens in any situation when you don't pay attention. 

In my darker moments I can see areas in my own life that I've let become unbalanced: the sick, uncontrolled deer are wandering around, wanting me to look at them, wanting me to take stock, look at them, really look at them,  give them my complete, utter, undivided attention.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

She dealt her pretty words like Blades

I'm working on some poems that relate to tarot imagery, specifically the suit of swords, and was struck by this Dickinson poem I just rediscovered for myself: 

She dealt her pretty words like Blades --
How glittering they shone -- 
And every One unbared a Nerve
Or wantoned with a Bone --  

She never deemed -- she hurt -- 
That -- is not Steel's Affair --
A vulgar grimace in the Flesh -- 
How ill the Creatures bear -- 

To Ache is human -- not polite -- 
The Film upon the eye 
Mortality's old Custom -- 
Just locking up -- to Die.

Lots of different ways of reading the poem, of course, but
I'm thinking about poetry as a blade, the words that cut
and slice, get to the bones of the matter, the painful
heart of things we often don't wish to see.  

She also articulates, in this poem, the essential duality of 
the sword as symbol, that it is both a weapon and a tool. 
An instrument of pain, but also a metaphor for analysis, 
the cutting necessary to see.

"She never deemed--she hurt--/That--is not Steel's 
affair--," swords are intellect, air, they are not useful
in the world of feelings, you don't use a sword, either
literally or metaphorically, if you're afraid you might
hurt someone. Something you have to put aside 
when you put on the costume of the queen of swords.

She seems to sympathize, if we read the poem with 
an ironic tone, with those hurt by word-blades; 
society, she suggests, has no tolerance for those 
who hurt and own their hurts in public. Better, 
in this society of swords, to lock ourselves up 
(in a real or imagined coffin?) and "die."

So interesting, too, though it has nothing to do 
with the poem, in which she uses the word
"blades" instead of "swords," how the word 
word is buried in the word sword.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Jim Harrison

Since I'm at a writer's retreat primarily to work on a new collection of poems, I've also been reading poetry as well.  Just finished Jim Harrison's In Search of Small Gods (Copper Canyon, 2009).  It's not a perfect book, but perfection is not what one looks for from Harrison. 
Sometimes it feels more like prose than poetry--there are quite a few very long prose poems in the book that I felt got more of their energy from prose than from poetry.  Too, sometimes he wanders very far afield and one loses a sense of where the poem is, as if he started with one thought then was interrupted and decided to go with the interruption.  It's always interesting, but some of the pieces feel like they could have done with another level of revisioning.  

Having said that, I LOVE this book.  There are some real gems in the midst of the prose stuff, and a gruff and tender and soul-searching, nature loving spirit underneath it all.  Here's an excerpt from the first poem, "I Believe":

I believe in steep drop-offs, the thunderstorm across the lake
in 1949, cold winds, empty swimming pools,
the overgrown path to the creek, raw garlic,
used tires, taverns, saloons, bars, gallons of red wine,
abandoned farmhouses, stunted lilac groves,
gravel roads that end, brush piles, thickets . . . .

What I love about Harrison is that he never takes himself too seriously, and he is generous and unpolitical about what he loves.  Too often 'nature poets' bore us with their serious and often sterile separation of nature from the wilds of the human spirit.  Not so Harrison, who loves used tires as well as thunderstorms, wounded things like stunted lilac groves as well as things that are not so good for the environment (used tires) or the spirit (gallons of red wine).  I love the ending to this poem as well; in typical Harrison fashion he reminds us of how he fits in with all this--nature is never just nature without us in it:

. . . the fluttering unknown gods that I nearly see
from the left corner of my blind eye, struggling
to stay alive in a world that grinds them underfoot.

Also see 'The Quarter" here, one of my very favorite poems from the book:

Emily Dickinson

I recently visited Emily Dickinson's home in Amherst as well as her grave, and have been rereading her work.  Aside from the very real chill I got, deep in my bones, at being in the place where she was born and died and spent much of her life, I was stunned to actually experience something of what her gardens would have been like.  I have always loved her poetry, but I hadn't realized how much of a gardener she was, and how much of her understanding of poetry and indeed the world outside of poetry was dominated by the flora and fauna of her gardens.   Rereading her poems I see flowers and insects and epiphanies based on flowers and insects everywhere!  And her excitement about the smallest member of her garden is infectious! Who cannot read 10 of her poems in a row and not start using exclamation marks!  I do not think I have ever read another poet who brings such intensity and ecstasy to flowers.  I just finished a book called Emily Dickinson's Gardens: A celebration of a poet and a gardener (Marta McDowell) that I highly recommend for those interested both in her poetry and her gardens.  There is enough information in this book, along with a nice selection of poems, for you to reconstruct an Emily Dickinson garden.

I also forked out over $100 for the Franklin The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, which contains all the variants of her poems, those she herself made as well as those later editors made.  It is endlessly fascinating to see how the change of just a word or two can transform the meanings of a line or indeed an entire poem.

Yesterday I visited the incredible Bridge of Flowers in Shelbourne Falls, MA.  It is a bridge across a river that has been planted with flowers for almost 80 years.  I will post photos later.  I was deeply moved, in an odd way, by this bridge, which is kept up by volunteers, and which is astonishingly beautiful, with over 500 kinds of flowers on it, and which is simply there, a gorgeous shock of color and richness spanning the distance between two towns.  It costs nothing to cross it, though donations are welcome. When I think of all the dark things our race is capable of, it's hopeful to find this little bridge of flowers, like a poem of brightness, an Emily Dickinson poem, maybe, a poem of love to the world of flowers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Osprey nest from the Atchafalaya Basin. These are huge nests that can survive the kinds of winds most houses in Louisiana cannot. There's a juvenile in the nest who apparently can't yet fly. The mother tried to lure us away whenever we got close by flying over the water and dragging her foot as if she were hurt. Osprey are widespread over the world and are also known as sea hawks. They eat primarily fish, and usually nest in a very high tree (or telephone pole . . . . ). We saw this osprey nest in summer 2009, but we also saw the same nest, same parent birds the last time we visited. My friend Greg (google him: Greg Guirard) usually takes me to see this nest everytime we visit.

I've spent so much time at the Atchafalya, and have hardly written any poems about it although I've written quite a lot in Swamp Songs. Maybe a book of poems focused on that area would be a good project for me now. Starting with osprey.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


My first serious romance as a young girl was with a guy named Loren (Chip) Kerr.  He was the only person I "went steady" with in high school, and we were also engaged for a short period when we both started college.  We grew apart, broke up, got back together, broke up again, and I have not seen him for over 30 years.  My mother would keep me up to date with him, though, as she sometimes saw him in the grocery store near her in New Orleans.  Once he was with two young children, his.  He had married, she said.  He was still doing roofing work, she said.  He looked good, she said.  Still had nice legs, she said.  

The last time I visited my mother we drove down West End Blvd where he used to live with his grandmother in a big Victorian home.  The house had been destroyed in Katrina and a new, smaller bungalow stood in its place.  I remembered the nights I'd throw pebbles at his window on the third floor for him to come out--we didn't want to wake his grandmother.  No more third story now.  A few blocks down on the same street, another house I'd lived in myself a few years later during my twenties,  also destroyed, gone.  

For some reason this morning I was thinking about Chip and googled him, wondering what he was doing after all these years.  The only thing I could find was a post from  his father September 15, 2005 saying that he was missing after Katrina.  Nothing else after that.  There was no email address or other contact information.

I remember him as a strong, darkly handsome guy with lots of spirit who took on ambitious projects:  rebuilding engines, working in the hot hot Louisiana sun on roofs with his uncle.  He helped me pick out my first car, a used Triumph, and when it threw a rod a week later he towed it to his grandmother's house, worked for months to save the money I'd spent to buy it, and finally  gave it to me, telling me he'd found a buyer for it.  It was much later that I got it out of him that the money was actually his. 

He was quiet and somehow not of this world despite his work with the physical world.  He attended the U.S. Naval Academy, but hated the authoritarianism of it, and left after a year.  He kept a photo of me in his hat, he said, but the seniors would ask to look at the photo and would say things like you think she's waiting for you?  Ha!  Chip was the first man I ever loved, the first man I ever slept with, the first I ever allowed to touch me.  It is disturbing to think he might have died in Katrina.  

I hope someone has found him.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Sage of Cups

The Sage or King of Cups in a tarot deck is an ambivalent figure, always hiding something.  He usually represents someone in Art or Law.  It is said that he is uncomfortable in his own suit--a water suit--because at base his soul is fiery.  But though he's become a master of the suit of cups, he is always pretending.  He could be a figure that has repressed his own dreams in order to succeed in the world materially.  He's very good at what he does:  advising others, healing disputes, directing others.  He is the consummate diplomat, a respected leader, although he also has a fiery temper that sometimes surfaces. 

I like to think of the Sage of Cups, which is what this figure is called in the World Spirit tarot deck,  as an artist who has taken on a larger role that involves administration--a poet who has become the Poet Laureate, a writer who directs the NEA (or serves as an MFA program head!), an artist who runs a press or nonprofit.  Maybe he's a teacher, a literary translator, an editor of an anthology:  the idea is that the essential, inner directed work of the writer or artist is turned outward to help others.

I understand the ambivalence of this figure only too well.  I am in love with the compassion he shows to others, his generosity, his willingness to share what he has learned.  But I fear his own creative fire has been reduced to a pilot light that burns, but not brightly enough to sustain the fire he needs to for his own spirit.  The image of the Sage of Cups invites us to think about the balance of fire and water we might need to find in our own lives.  

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Crawfish Boil at my sister's house in New Orleans, May 2009.  The cracking and peeling and sucking of the heads went on for hours.  Mmmmmm!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Finding Time and Strength to Write

Well, I lied about taking a break from the blog.  I'm thinking a lot these days about writing and how to structure my own life such that I nurture my writing life.  Since I've become a director of an MFA program (4 years ago), I've found it increasingly difficult to find the time I once was able to find for writing.  It's not just the time that the job takes, it's the fact that I can't leave it at the university.  It haunts me at home and in my dream life, and there's always something that needs to be done, or some small crisis that needs attending. 

Part of this is my own personality, of course.  I'm something of a perfectionist, and I really care about my program and students.  Building a program is not unlike writing a book, except that you are creating a space for others to flourish again and again, not just the one time they read the book.  These last four years have been rewarding in the sense that I feel I've been giving back some of what I've gotten from the world.   And I'm a pretty good administrator.

But positions like the one I have should be rotated, I think, especially if you want the writer who is in the position to stay alive.  I'm beginning to feel that I need to rotate out for a little while.  

Aside from the issues of free time  anyone might feel in a job that demands a lot of your energy, both intellectual and emotional, another issue for me is simple organization.  Sometimes the best way for me to get a poem or essay written is to put it on a To-Do list and make sure it finds a place in my calendar.  In fact, this is the best advice I could give to someone stuggling with finding the time to write:  put it in your calendar.  No matter how busy you are you, you can always find an hour to write, and if you schedule it when your body and mind are sharpest--for me it's the morning--you give yourself a better chance that you'll write something good.

Sharing your life with someone can also affect the kind of energy you bring to writing. When I lived alone it was easy to get up in the morning, grab my coffee, journal or laptop, and spend the first hour or so of the day writing before any other concerns infected the spirit of writing.  But now that I'm married to a journalist who likes to sit in bed with me in the morning and read his email and check out the international newspapers online, I find myself doing that--reading email and checking the news headlines--for about an hour instead of spending that time writing.   For my husband it's a shared time of bonding, and I feel that too and would hate to lose it--we do talk in the midst of sending emails and checking the news.  But it's also lost time for me because I do have to leave and go to the office to do administrative work, so I've lost that hour of creative work.  He's a freelancer and when I'm off to work he stays home and writes, and since he's a journalist, his searching of the newspapers is relevant.  Not always so for me.

Finally, there is the issue of what to write and what's worth writing about.  There can be times when you order yourself to write, when you write it on a calendar, you put it on your to-do list (Write that Brazil poem this Saturday!!!!) or when you negotiate hard-won space and time with your partner only to find that nothing comes, that nothing seems worth writing about, that nothing seems to inspire you. Then, I think, it's time to get at the root of the problem.  

People talk about "writer's block," but I think feeling stymied or paralyzed with writing is a side-effect of something else.  If you order yourself to write and you don't do it, well, it's like trying to stop drinking cold turkey without trying to understand the spiritual desires and other needs that drove you to drink in the first place.  

So an important step in trying to identify what's causing a slow-down in writing is to think about what's missing in your life.  If a poem or a story or essay is like a plant--let's make it a rose bush--what does it take to make it flourish?  Sun, just enough, water, just enough, good soil.  

When you are having trouble writing ask yourself about your sun, your water and your soil. And remember that we are all different and have different needs.  What are your needs?

For me it's time, space and the freedom and tools to explore what really matters in my life and the world.  And sometimes the news, email, facebook, it's all too much information, too much communication.  I still believe that the best writing gets done in a space of utter aloneness.

Maybe we don't need to "keep up" with everything--see Pico Iyer's comments on this in "The Joy of Less" :

Tuesday, June 16, 2009


I've decided to take a break from the blog for a bit in the summer to work on some poems.  I'm finding the need to work in the poetic form.  Although nonfiction is just as creative in many ways, there is something about the ability of poetry to incorporate wild or random elements that draws me to it.  There's also not the demand for literal truth that can seem oppressive after a while.  
Poetry has a smaller audience, but it has always seemed to me a great art form for spiritual growth and investigation.  

I've been working a little bit with a new tarot card deck (thus the previous post on the Eight of Swords) and have the idea to write some poems riffing off of certain cards and landscapes for a book. I'd also like to experiment with different voices in poems.  Next term I'm teaching a poetry workshop that will focus on persona poems and revisionist myth and fairytale poems, and it will be fun writing along with the students.  Maybe we'll use tarot cards as well!

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Eight of Swords

I am walking through an utterly destroyed landscape, a forest of trees and swords.  The trees are dead, and branches and swords lie on the ground.  Only an owl, a snake and a bat are alive.  If I could see them I would be happy, but I can' see anything.  Someone has blindfolded and bound me.  My feet hurt because I'm walking on swords.  I am aching all over, but I want to find my way out.  The moon seems full of energy but I cannot see it either.  I will have to listen to the snake, the bat  and the owl, creatures of the night, to find my way out.   I am determined that hurt, hurting, blind and bound, I will make my way out. 

It could be that a hurricane has come through this place.

Letting my Hair Go Gray

For the last year I have been letting my hair "grow out."  No more highlights, no more trying to hide the fact that my beautiful brown hair is turning gray.  While this decision has had a positive effect on my pocketbook (chemical hair treatments at a good salon can run $150 per treatment  if you get a cut and style as well), it's not been easy.

There's no getting around the fact that I look older with gray hair, even though I love the way it's streaked in the front, almost as though I'd been hit by lightening.  I would love for the gray to be utterly white, then I'd like like the bride of Frankenstein or at least Susan Sontag.   I look at photos of Terry Tempest Williams a lot for inspiration: she's let her hair go completely white, and she can't be much older than I am (54).  

And that's the point, really, to look older.  I don't want to be one of those women forever wanting to look younger than what they are, forgetting that we have a responsibility as the elders in our communities.  If we neglect mentoring younger women, if we want to be like them and not models for them, to whom will they turn when they begin to age and need to find positive role models? 

Still, when I recently traveled to Brazil with 10 beautiful young women about the age my son is, I felt keenly my age and how I had moved on to another country not only literally, but emotionally.

The translator who accompanied us on the trip is around my age, and we had lots of great conversations about aging.  She is Brazilian, but has chosen to live in the U.S. even though most of her family is still in Brazil.  She said this is because a woman past menopause is "nothing" in traditional Brazilian society.  People just don't look at you if you are older, she said.  Both she and Rita, the woman with the dreadlocks in the previous post (who is also around my age) dye their hair for this reason.  It's one thing for Rita, who is black and comes from a favela and still has the accent of someone who comes from a favela, to be discriminated against because of race and class, but it's quite another to be discriminated against because of age.  

It's inspiring to me that the situation is quite different in the Candemble religion as well as in the quilombo communities we visited in Brazil.  There, the oldest women in the village are honored and asked regularly for their blessings.  It is clearly a matriarchy, and I felt empowered to be among so many beautiful and wise older women.  I could see, from my students' journals that they perceived in very powerful ways, the beauty of these women (in the photos from my post yesterday).  

I am happy to be employed by a university that has a woman for a president, a woman for a vice president, and women in many of the powerful positions on campus.  Every day, when I walk our campus, I can feel that I am appreciated, that I matter, that every gray hair I earn will be respected here.  I just wish that I didn't  have to stay on my campus or go to a remote quilombo in Brazil to feel honored as an older woman in this culture.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Women with Gris Gris: Brazil

I recently returned from a trip to Salvador, Brazil with students. One of the things that struck me the most while there were the women we met, especially the older women.

While there we visited a quilombo, a rural village founded originally by runaway slaves and in the case of the community we visited, the Engenho de Ponte community, also the site of a Candomble house.   The woman to the left is a rezadeira, or healer for the community who demonstrated to us how she makes her various syrups and potions, and gave us a taste of her syrup.  She struck me as incredibly beautiful and wise, and I struggled to capture that beauty in this photo.  
Both shy and strong in her knowledge, she reminded me a bit of my now gone grandmother.  

The woman in the middle at the top was the mother and leader of one of the villages in the community.  She is 94.  We sat on her porch while she told us stories of how the village came to be, of dreams and visitations from spirits.  She is the keeper and teller of stories for the community.  Earlier, when we had gathered together with members of the community in a circle and asked for blessings from whatever god or spirit we cared to, the children and members of this woman's village asked for her blessings.  It was then I knew I was in a truly foreign country.  My own family and culture honors traditional youth and beauty so much that honoring and asking for blessings from an elder would never happen.

The woman at the top left was the "mother" of the Candomble house, Mama Giovani, and is responsible for the spiritual life of the members of her community.  I found her story to be inspirational as well: she left the village to become a teacher, but returned because she was needed and felt a call. She said it wasn't easy to return, but her large and generous presence and spirit filled every space she walked. 

Finally there was Rita, the director of the Bahia Street project we visited (top right, dreadlocks).  Born in a favela herself, a practioner of Candomble, she has risen to become the director of a non-profit organization that focuses on helping young girls escape the cycle of poverty and violence that awaits many of those born in favelas  in Salvador.

This post is mostly about getting these photos up--trying to figure out how to post photos.  I will write more about what struck a chord in me with respect to these women in my next post.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Oyster Po ' Boys

Such a warm and beautifully rare sunny day yesterday in Pittsburgh! 

I've been planning a trip to New Orleans to visit my mother, and my thoughts have turned to spring in Louisiana and the great spring feasts we have of crawfish and crab and shrimp and, of course, our beloved oyster.  I love oysters any way and all ways--raw, baked in the shell with or without topping, sauteed, chopped and mixed into dressing, cooked into a gumbo, but my favorite and most sinful way to have them is fried on a loaf of French bread, a few sprinkles of Tobasco and ketchup, shredded lettuce and fresh Creole tomato slices, sliced pickles, a cold beer to wash it all down.  We call this creation an oyster "po'boy."  The oysters are battered and fried so they're brown and crispy on the outside and hot but just barely cooked on the inside.  Louisiana French bread has a flaky crust and an airy center.  The crust is so flaky, in fact, that you cannot eat a po'boy without getting crumbs all over you and this is part of the joy of it.  If you order a po'boy you'll also be asked if you want it "dressed," which means do you want it with lettuce, tomato, pickle, mayo.  Be careful how you answer this question.    Don't say you'd prefer it naked if you don't want it dressed. Just say you want it plain or without anything.

My father, who often stayed out after work drinking and carousing, would sometimes buy my mother a po'boy on his way home.   He'd give it to her as he stumbled in, warm and wrapped in butcher paper, a sort of peace offering.  For the longest time I thought of this as  a unique and somewhat touching story about my family--my mother loved po'boys. But Jay Harlow, in his book The Art of the Sandwich, suggests that the etymology of  po'boy is from the French pour boire (peace offering),  and that men (lots of men, not just my father) would often come home from a night out bringing the po'boy as a peace offering.  So that it seems to be a cultural phenomenon, not something particular to my family.

There are lots of other speculations about where the expression po'boy  came from, including that it was a sandwich served to poor working men, but I like this explanation the best because it fits my family story so well.

I like to think of my mother sitting in the kitchen as a young wife and mother, her anger at my young, drunk father who is already in bed subsiding as she opens the butcher paper and finds a warm po'boy waiting for her, already cut in two.  I imagine her grabbing the tabasco bottle that was always on the kitchen table, sprinking some drops on the oysters, maybe some lemon and ketchup, her mouth salivating, and biting into it, the crumbs falling all over her nightgown, the glorious mixture of the crusty bread, the crisp fried oysters, the shredded lettuce and tomatoes and pickles blessing her throat, the hot sauce reminding her of my father, and maybe as she eats she thinks of him and how he'd sit outside the house during oyster season with a sack of them, naked from the waist up, using a knife to cut open their shells, so like a woman's sex, if a woman's sex could be petrified, stabbing the flesh and eating them off the tip of the knife cold and sweet and salty.  

Maybe she'd forgive him, maybe not, maybe the oysters worked their gris gris on her and she'd slide into bed next to him when she was done, full, pouty, but feeling just  a little bit sexy.  He'd be snoring, his back turned to her, but she'd lie next to him, press her now rounded, full of oyster po'boy stomach against his back and sleep.

The best oyster po'boy I ever had was at Salvos in Belle Chasse, Louisiana.  Hole in the wall working class deli and restaurant. Very noisy, very cheap:  heavenly.