Saturday, October 22, 2016

Pomegranate, Radio On - for Madeline DeFrees - What Do You Think

Here's my poem for Madeline DeFrees made into a short film. I have mixed feelings about it. While I am thankful to Helen Magazine for publishing this poem set to images and music, the blatant ignoring of all line breaks feels like a kind of violence has been done to the poem. This is a poem dedicated to my most important poetry teacher, Madeline DeFrees who mentored me when I was a young poet in Massachusetts and who, a few decades later, connected with me in Seattle.

Pomegranate, Radio On

for madeline defrees

Begin with the fruit in your hands—
hold the weight of its rough skin,
its nested, cell interior.

Take your time.

Choose a lilac
blue bowl; pull your sharpest knife
from the cutlery drawer.

This has become your life, not the headlines

but the fine print
of the back pages. Read
slowly the small, good stories—

each seed another worldly

exchange. You’re here
at the sink caressing—
there’s no other word—

until the dazzling light lets go.

Until surreal tomorrows extend—
beyond sustenance, beyond juice,
stained fingers, stained news.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

My Foray into Journalism: The Seattle Review of Books

I've always harbored the fantasy of working as a private detective. I love the idea of interviewing people and fitting the pieces of a psychological puzzle together. Conducting radio interviews was my favorite task as curator for the Jack Straw Writers Program. Jack Straw invites one curator to lead a team of a dozen writers for a year. Writers learn how to give readings, create community, and at the end of the year celebrate with an anthology and a reading series around the city. Jack Straw applications are being accepted now!

So when the Seattle Review of Books asked me to write an article about the controversial requirements of the Washington Book Awards (authors born in the state are eligible even if they no longer live in the state. Authors who live in the state must have lived here for three years.) This year, three of the five poets nominated live out of state and have for several years --- if not since birth.

I loved writing this piece but what I learned in the process is that journalism (unless its interviewing poets on their work) is not for me. While I received an enormous amount of support and thanks from many people who had felt hurt and helpless in the light of this year's announcement of nominees (no winner announced until October 8th) I also received some pointed backlash. Who knew people in the literary community could be so mean?

The Seattle Review of Books asked me to write about this birth right rule and my hope is that by pointing out the injustice implicit in how we choose nominees, there might be a reexamining of such requirements in the future. Since the Washington Book Awards began nearly 50 years ago as the Governor's Awards, I suspect there was a clear bias towards Washington natives, a subtle (or not so subtle) way to keep newcomers at a disadvantage.

We aren't wearing the same fashions as 50 years ago nor do we live in the same way (think no home computers, no cell phones, no same sex marriage, no American Disabilities Act) so why not review the rules surrounding eligibility for this important prize?

If you care about this issue please consider writing a brief email to the Seattle Library Foundation.
Emails can be found at the end of the page.

Here is the opening to my article:

Why does Carl Phillips need the Washington State Book Award?

The truth is, he doesn’t. In fact, Carl Phillips is confused about the controversy his nomination is causing among Washington state poets. When I spoke with Phillips this morning he mentioned his total surprise and delight when informed by his publisher that his book Renaissance was nominated for this year’s Washington State Book Award. He went on to say that the book was submitted by his publisher, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. “It wouldn’t have occurred to me,” to send the book, he said, and followed up with how honored he felt. And why would Carl Phillips believe he was eligible? Phillips left the state a little less than a year after his birth and has returned exactly twice – once for the recent AWP in Seattle and once to board a cruise ship. He doesn’t think he will be able to attend the October 8th award ceremonies.

The real problem is not his nomination — Phillips is a lovely man and an extraordinarily gifted lyric poet, he deserves many awards. But for this year’s Washington State Book Award in Poetry, three out of the five finalists do not live in Washington State. They are residents of Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah.

 To continue reading, click here!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thank you to the Saturday Poem - As Things Ought To Be

I studiously avoided thinking about the 15th anniversary of September 11th. 

Instead I co-lead, along with Kelli Russell Agodon, Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. This year, my September 11th was filled up by thirty women poets writing, laughing, and learning together. 

I did such a good job focusing on women poets and not past horrors that I was surprised when "Mohamud at the Mosque" was chosen for the Saturday poem, As It Ought To Be

I began this poem 6 months after September 11th 2001 and finished it more than a year later. When I sent the poem out to magazines for publication, no one wanted it. Eventually, I was honored to have Poetry International choose to publish "Mohamud at the Mosque"  and a few years later it appeared in my second book, Cures Include Travel. 

So more than ten years after its first publication, here it is again.

By Susan Rich

          ~ for my student upon his graduation

And some time later in the lingering
blaze of summer, in the first days
after September 11th you phoned –

if I don’t tell anyone my name I’ll
pass for an African American.
And suddenly, this seemed a sensible solution –

the best protection: to be a black man
born in America, more invisible than
Somali, Muslim, asylum seeker –

Others stayed away that first Friday
but your uncle insisted that you pray.
How fortunes change so swiftly

                    to continue reading, click here

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Who is your dead mentor poet? Mine is Elizabeth Bishop

From the Documentary, "Welcome to This House"

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is a poet I have admired for several decades, ever since I read her poem, "The Map" and then went in search of Questions of Travel and Geography III.

Here are poems of equal parts music, feeling, and meaning. Here are poems that could break your heart. "Awful but cheerful" are the words engraved on Bishop's tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop's childhood has been well documented as "awful" and her later life often ruled by her dual demons of drugs and alcohol. But these facts do little to explain her extraordinary genius with words. In fact, I fell in love with her poems, not her biography. She would be pleased by this. Of the Confessional poets of her generation she once said, "Sometimes, I'd rather they kept it to themselves."

But there are stories that make me feel I would have loved her and been exasperated by her as a friend. She certainly was not easy. Perhaps I loved the fact that when she began teaching at the University of Washington, she told anyone who would listen that she had taken the job just to get the funds she needed to fix the roof of her Brazilian home. Her honesty --- and her coyness. I loved that she and Marianne Moore kept a lifetime friendship going from trips to the zoo (when they were in the same area) to long letters (when they weren't).

And like any good magic--- it's the poems themselves that have lived long inside of me. The poems that first made me want to become a poet. To try and get it right. What Bishop admired most in a poem (she said -- but she said many things) was to watch the mind in motion. That is but one of the beauties of this villanelle.

One Art

The art of loosing isn't hard to master,

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.

Then practice loosing farther, loosing faster:

places and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or

next-to-the last, of three loved houses went.

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent

I missed them but it wasn't a disaster.

Even loosing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, September 5, 2016

Michelle Obama - The Poem I Keep Thinking About - January O'Neil - And a Prompt

First Lady Michelle Obama lifting some intense weight

I first read this poem a few weeks ago when it appeared on the Academy of American Poets website and I've been thinking about it ever since. In this short piece, the speaker is clearly seen as "other," albeit Michelle Obama other. How can one not be charmed to be compared to the most outstanding First Lady of our lifetime?

Although it is unstated, we can assume that the compliment comes from a white man who is perhaps "interested" in the speaker ("all night he catches sight of me") and that the speaker is a black woman.

Just past the center of the poem comes the line, that for me, the entire piece pivots on: You’re working your muscles to the point of failure. The muscles of the speaker's forced smile meet the physical muscle work of the First Lady's weight training. In both cases, the work of the day is to make body and mind unassailable - to become stronger by hovering in the place of hurt and pain.

Many years ago when I first moved to the Eugene, Oregon, from Boston, Massachusetts, I met several people who wanted to tell me about the wonderful Passover Seders they once attended. I remember being genuinely confused as to why everyone wanted to discuss Passover in September? It took me a long while before I realized that this was how these well meaning Oregonians were trying to tell me they were okay with my Jewishness. That they, too, had eaten matzo.

So what is the correct response? To feel relieved that one is not with an anti-Semite (hey, it's okay that I'm not Christian -- great) or to acknowledge that for many of us, talking about cultural difference is a clumsy business. Or to immediately feel like an outcast, an other, a person whose personhood is in question.

It's a complicated and as O'Neil states, an awkward business to respond to such a "compliment". The speaker doesn't mean to insult --- quite the opposite --- and yet the sting of not being seen for who one actually is remains in high relief.

"On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014," allows for that negative capability to thrive in a way that I have not ever seen so deftly handled before. And in today's political climate, I can only hope that many English classes will feature this poem as we head back to school.

On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014

Deep in my biceps I know it’s a complement, just as
I know this is an all-black-people-look-alike moment.
So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.
All night he catches sight of me, or someone like me, standing
next to deconstructed cannoli and empty bottles of Prosecco.
And in that moment, I understand how little right any of us have
to be whoever we are—the constant tension
of making our way in this world on hope and change.
You’re working your muscles to the point of failure,
Michelle Obama once said about her workout regimen,
but she knows we wear our history in our darkness, in our patience.
A compliment is a complement—this I know, just as the clock
will always strike midnight and history repeats. This is how
I can wake up the next morning and love the world again.

January Gill O'Neil on the poem:

“It is a flattering comparison, but I'm keenly aware that I live in a part of the country that’s less diverse. So when people say I look like Michelle Obama, I know they are trying to make a connection with me. This poem is a recognition of the awkwardness, the effort, and the patience it takes to let the moment unfold.”
—January Gill O’Neil

Poetry Prompt: 

So if you're still reading, here's the prompt: think of a time when you've been "otherized" in some way. Perhaps it was due to your religion, race, class background or simply because of the fact that you didn't know how to swim. Begin with the incident itself and try to enter it without any sense of judgement --- be more compassionate in the poem than you might have felt in real life. Feel free to invent what you don't remember. What large idea can you end with as O'Neil does with the hard won last line of her poem.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Poem For the Final Days of Summer

Perhaps I let go of summer too quickly. There are still peaches and plums to come. In my garden the heirloom tomatoes and sun gold are still giving up their fruits each day. Here is a poem that says all I cannot say about summer. Here is a poem that has accompanied me for decades and hopefully for more decades to come...

From Blossoms

Li-Young Lee, 1957

From blossoms comes 
this brown paper bag of peaches 
we bought from the boy 
at the bend in the road where we turned toward 
signs painted Peaches. 

From laden boughs, from hands, 
from sweet fellowship in the bins, 
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent 
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all, 
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat. 

O, to take what we love inside, 
to carry within us an orchard, to eat 
not only the skin, but the shade, 
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold 
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
 the round jubilance of peach. 

There are days we live 
as if death were nowhere 
in the background; from joy to 
joy to joy, from wing to wing, 
from blossom to blossom to 
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Feeling the Fall Upon Us

'Autumn' by Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,

as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the heavy earth is falling

away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Recommended Books I've Read This Summer - Yay!

This summer I planned to read and read and read. My suitcase to Barcelona filled with books of poetry and novels. And yet. Most of my time has been spent traveling, seeing friends, gardening, writing, and even indulging in a bit of exercise. Perhaps this is what summer is for.

I do want to let you know I'm not a complete slacker so here are a few books I've read and enjoyed. Perhaps you might like them, too.

Minding the Muse, A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers and Other Creators by Priscilla Long is hot off the press! I bought it at Seattle's poetry bookstore, Open Books, last weekend. The store hosted three nights of consecutive good-bye / hello parties as Christine Deavel and John Marshall passed the bookstore laurel to new owner, Billie Swift. But I digress. (It was fun!)

Long's book caught my attention with its focus on several creative arts. The  quotes from Jean Miro made me take a deeper look at this slim volume of wisdom and practical ideas.

Miro's Majorca studio - NYT photo credit

"I think of my studio as a vegetable garden. Here are the artichokes, over there are the potatoes. The leaves have to be cut so the vegetables can grow. At a certain moment, you must prune." JM

I am a huge fan of Miro, of gardening, and of artists' quotes but even if you're not, Minding the Muse offers guidance on how to be a literary citizen / artist in the world. The chapters are both personal and practical in nature.

It's as if Priscilla Long has sat down on the couch beside me, offering all she knows garnered from a long life as a working artist. This is the kind of book I want to put into the hands of all my poet friends and students. It's a book I believe I'll be using in my teaching and in my own contemplation about my role as an artist for a long time to come.

And since I've mentioned my students, my next book, winner of the Claudia Emerson Chapbook Award is Drought, by M.L. Brown. Mary was a stellar student in the Antioch University, Low-Residency MFA Program where I once taught.

From the letterpress cover to the gorgeous poems inside, this is a book of the highest quality. These are spare, smart poems written out of the interior world. Poems of the mind. Elizabeth Bishop said what she wanted from a poem was to see the mind in action.

Backache: A Love Song

Lie down with me on the hard wood floor for relief---
my spine a dried bone a child could split on a wish.

Discover the dust beneath the couch---
treasure of our skin and desert duff.

Stay long enough. Let the honeysuckle take
the cellar window, crawl the gap between the door

and threshold, that through-space where wind
broadcasts leaves and seeds, lizards skitter in, out.

Let the vines reclaim us
as a leaning fence or a creaking barn---

you and I on the floor reposed,
our hard-won clearing repossessed.

                   M.L. Brown

I so admire the way this poem moves from the intensity of back pain to discovery of the dirt under the couch --- all in the service to keeping the unnamed lover beside her. As one of the final poems in this chapbook, there's a sense of hard-won relationship here. The couple will remain together "let the vines reclaim us / as a leaning fence or creaking barn" as a landscape continues on, weeds and all.

The judge for this award was well known poet and essayist Sandra Beasley. Let's hope that she can bring the wide attention to this book that it so clearly deserves. I say, you want this one in your collection. Just look at that cover!