On unprized poems and why we write

Five years ago I got interested in corn.  I found out about maize, its history, breeding, and physiology, about Barbara McClintock’s work on maize genetics, leading to her Nobel Prize. I looked into corn’s many creation myths told by Indigenous tribes and cultures. I read about how genetically modified maize under the product name StarLink was sold in hundreds of different food products (for example, Taco Bell tacos) before it was recalled, not approved for human consumption by the FDA.

I was also interested at that time in giving objects voice in my poems, making objects subjects.

I spent some time reading, researching, and then writing a poem in which I envisioned a cob of corn speaking to a little girl at a Fourth of July picnic.  I wanted to express how food is sacred, it has its own history of being used, abused, loved, and narrated by humans. With a 7,000 year history, corn is an especially rich source of stories.

I entered the resulting poem in CBC’s poetry contest that year.  Of course I didn’t win.  David Martin deserved the prize for his ambitious poem, “Tar Swan.”

But not winning meant that I buried the poem deep in my computer’s archives and banished the thought of it.  It was, after all, “unprized.” But does that mean it’s not worth sharing?

I’ve been using Caroline Sharp’s A Writer’s Workbook to get my daily writing practice back on track. Today, I came across her inspiring words of encouragement:

 “Practice, practice, practice. Stretch your voice. Assert your talent and speak loudly because this is a short time we have here, to be alive, here and now, with this pen and this piece of paper.  This day matters and this word matters and your story matters.” (p. 34)

So take heart, writers.  Keep writing. Don’t permit not getting the prize stop you from setting words down and then sharing them. We write to communicate, and if we keep waiting for prizes and praise, we may never connect to readers.

 

Corn speaks

I

Alicia, before you eat me,
listen, child,
listen:

Teosinte is my wild cousin five genes distant,
her leafy bush concealed a few hard nuggets,
hardy ancestors to my lush abundant bumps.

Before your big white American teeth
crunch me, think of my long history.
How centuries ago, early farmers in what
we now call Mexico worked to breed,
selectively, the very best parts of me.

Native Americans mythed me into being.
I am sister to squash and beans, I am
Mother corn. I shake my thighs in secret to
birth my maize.  Sons and grandsons,
voyeurs, are dismayed, disgusted.

Are you amazed?  When you see an ear of corn
looks like a baby wrapped in silk blankets
you might pause.  But eventually you’ll see we are always
already cannibals, my dear.

I am Mondawmin, the sky-boy. I came
down to earth, surrendered my fight with Wunzh, was
buried bare and bronze in the earth, sprouted green with
silk-bright hair so hunters could stop
wandering and become farmers.

You eat pure history in my sweet starch.
Butter slides like sweat across the brown ribs
of the tiller of primordial fields.
Time throbs your tooth against the cob.
Alicia, stop girl and bless me!

You eat the creamy flesh of time,
you are connected to the calloused thumb of a
brown woman who seven centuries ago
culled the best and plumpest kernel from the plant
and bred me into being.

Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.

II

Okay Alicia, your corn is done,
spent cob lays on your plate,
dull remnant of a summer feast
beside the stub of a stale hotdog bun.

Has any other food been used, abused, so vigorously?
Kellogg’s, Karo, your will be done,
but those sly modifiers, those slick scientists
crept into my buttery insides and played with
my genes; those white coats took my soul when they called
their stuff Starlink and hid it in a taco shell.
Fool’s gold it was, fool’s gold.

I love to serve, to submit to your extractions of
sweet, of starch, of ethanol to run your
cars, but don’t mess with my soul.

Alicia, warn your people that I am not
just vegetable. I am woman, mother, sister, boy, god, goddess,
baby. The history of the Americas rests deep,
deep in my kernel.
Get back to basics, girl. Get back to sacred.
Third week of August, ancient tribes
worshipped me, my yellow more precious than gold.

Bless me girl,
Bless the starch, the flesh, the sweet
kin to your own silky meat.
Bless me.

IMG_0165

Inspired by “Corn Maiden” by Marti Fenton

 

 

 

Not getting there

What I wanted
was the walking, not the walking-to but
the not-getting-there, the every moment
starting out, the every moment
being lifted in an arc against the moment of arrival: the anticipation
is terrific, yet always nothing
happens when I’m there

From Cashion Bridge by Jan Zwicky

Last week I set myself a task—to write six “columns” over six weeks, each prompted by a line or lines from a poem I picked at random from a book of poems I picked at random from our bookshelves . . . .

It sounded so fun and inspirational at the time.

All week I struggled with you might call writer’s block, though the term seems inaccurate. It was more like writer’s doubt. I doubted everything I wrote and thought. First, I worried I might misrepresent the lines from Zwicky’s brilliant poem, even though I told myself the line I chose (“What I wanted/was the walking, not the walking-to but/ the not-getting-there”) was merely a diving board into other waters, my own waters.  Then I worried about the substance of what I was writing—it seemed superficial. An old question that regularly haunts me returned, “why does it even matter?”

I also had second thoughts about the idea of a column. What is a “column” anyway? How could I differentiate my regular personal essay blogposts from a series of columns? It turns out I couldn’t really find a distinction, so I wondered at my original purpose.  Perhaps I just wanted the discipline of writing a post a week for six weeks, and the poem prompts were a fun and beautiful way to provide a way to get going.  Well that just started to freak me out: How could I sustain this weekly posting? I am used to posting every once in a while, when the spirit moves me.

Michael’s meditation teacher has told him over and over again, “Don’t make a project out of it.” It can be anything—watching a TV series, taking up a cause, daily meditation, making art. Don’t make a project out of it.  And I was making a project out of the columns. I even called it “The Six Column Project.” When I make a project out something, it becomes difficult. It’s not fun anymore because it’s loaded with expectations and hidden pressures. Ultimately undoable.  As soon as I release the idea of a “project” and the timeline (why produce a post weekly when I am not actually a weekly columnist?), I am released into to the creative ether. I grow wings. So I will continue to write blogposts, probably not weekly, but when the spirit moves me. And I like the idea of using those lines from random poems as prompts—I may continue with that for awhile.

In the meantime, I squeezed out a couple of paragraphs this week inspired by Zwicky’s “not-getting-there.”

Walking meditation is all about not-getting-there. There is nowhere to get to.  When I was first taught this practice, our teacher told us to imagine the snow lion padding joyfully through the highland meadows.  He used his hand to show us the wavy motion of a soft heel/paw strike followed by the rest of the foot coming down on earth as if caressing the ground. We attend to our feet making contact with the floor as we circle the big bright shrine room, light tumbling through the tall windows. My foot slowly arches, each deliberate step on the wooden floors sending a flood of warm energy up my legs.  Measured paces around and around, like the snow lion treading lightly in the high mountain meadow, surrounded by wildflowers.

IMG_3473

Joy and Andy

The snow lion image puts me in mind of our two cats, who wander aimlessly around our house.  Sometimes they have purpose—food bowl or litter box—but mostly it’s a long ramble through the rooms, not getting anywhere in particular, stopping here, sleeping there. Joy, the smaller one, will occasionally stop and extend one of her front legs in an arabesque. She is a feline ballerina.  

*  *  *

It occurs to me that I did quite well at writing a column about not getting there because this post has been all about how I didn’t get there (“there” being the column project). So in failure I have succeeded.

IMG_0039

I wanted to master the column, but the column mastered me.

The six column project

By Madeline

As I get older I think of paths not taken. For example, in my twenties, I dreamed of writing a weekly column for a big paper. In the 1980s, I devoured film critic Liam Lacey’s articles in the Globe and Mail, loving his clever analysis and enormous vocabulary. Now I look forward to reading columns by Ian Brown and Elizabeth Renzetti in the same paper. To be a columnist means that not only do you write for eager readers, but also you are constrained—beautifully constrained because the deadline makes you work hard and generate ideas and heat up with fecund energy (at least this is my fantasy). None of the passive doodling that writing becomes when there is no real audience, no real deadline. Too much of that kind of writing and my creative spirit retreats and shrivels.

IMG_0033 2

My creative spirit when she goes into hiding…(image by Ugo Fontana)

So, I thought, why can’t I pretend I have my own column? You are reading this right now: Will you be my audience? I will set myself some constraints: six “columns” in six weeks. Then, lying in bed unable to sleep the other night, I wrestled with content. What will the columns be about? After mulling over this for some time and writing scraps of ideas on bits of paper in the pitch black so as not to wake Michael, I thought of poetry. I will take ten books of poetry off our shelves—no thinking, just the first ten I come across.  Shut my eyes and open each book and place a book mark in that page. Then I have a bit of choice; from each of those ten open pages, I will choose a lines or series of lines or a stanza (whatever makes sense).  Those lines then will become the pool I will choose from for the six columns. Those lines will be the titles that suggest ideas or themes for writing. I won’t necessarily write about the poem or poet or even poetry. . . the line or line will be a springboard for ideas, generating who knows what? That is the exciting part. Anything might come up!

Other constraints:  each column must be 500 to 750 words and accompanied by a sketch or image  created by me. My hope is that weekly deadlines will banish preciousness and perfectionism.

Playfulness comes in the midst of what feels like gruelling work: I am preparing to teach technical writing again in September. And I have taken on an editing contract. In the midst of preparing and planning, creativity bursts forth, a project is born. Something wants to be written, but it doesn’t know yet what it is.   Inspire me, poets.

Expect the first column in one week, based on these lines from Jan Zwicky’s “Cashion Bridge”:

janzwicky

Pamela gave me this precious book for my 60th birthday

 

“What I wanted
was the walking, not the walking-to but
the not-getting-there, the every moment
starting out, the every moment
being lifted in an arc against the moment of arrival: the anticipation
is terrific, yet always nothing
happens when I’m there”

 

 

P.S. Yesterday, when I heard that Toni Morrison had died, I felt both sadness and gratitude. Sadness that we have lost such a star and gratitude for her immeasurable contribution to American life and letters. She was a great artist, thinker, humanitarian, and activist. I had the privilege of teaching her novel Beloved more than once to undergraduate students (and it took me several reads to understand it—it is so rich). I can’t believe that at first I rejected it, saying “I don’t like ghost stories.” Whew–how ridiculously rigid I was! Thank goodness inspiring teachers helped open my mind.

I also chose to teach The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon, both amazing in very different ways.  Paradise is another gem, and her literary theory book, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1993) is insightful and startling, even today. Through her evocative, deeply-felt stories, I learned about endemic racism, the horror of slavery, and the African-American experience better than I ever could via history and non-fiction books.  Some lines from Beloved will always stay with me. At the end of the novel, Paul D. tries to explain to Sethe his feelings about her, so he recalls what Sixo said about the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” I just found out there is a documentary about Morrison titled “The Pieces I Am.” That line from Beloved, then, has clearly touched many hearts.  Good-bye beloved Toni Morrison (Chloe Wofford).

P.P.S. Thank you so much for all of your encouragement and comments on the travel blogposts that Michael and I wrote.  We loved hearing from you, and Michael enjoyed the experience so much, he is thinking of starting his own blog. I’ll let you know when he does. xoxox

Walking it back

Madeline: “I’d like to go that big yard sale tomorrow,”

Two heartbeats occur.

Madeline: “But maybe you’d rather not. I guess we have something else planned?”

Michael: “Don’t walk it back! If you want to go the sale, you should go to the sale.”

Michael has noted that I have a habit of “walking it back.” I put forward an idea, a desire, a need. Then I rapidly withdraw it, sometimes not completely, but I often pull it back at least partially in a sentence laden with doubt. I offer qualifications for the original ask, or I might revise it entirely, deciding I don’t want it after all if it 1) inconveniences another person or persons or 2) makes me appear to take up too much space in the world (literally andmetaphorically).

I’m glad he brought this to my attention—I often don’t see my practices and habits; they are so embedded in my “personality,” I don’t recognize them for what they are. I believe the “walking back” behaviour is linked to a primal fear of claiming my place in the world, filling up space—taking up room physically, emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically.

Looking back over old journals as I write my memoir has been painful and illuminating.  I started to think that perhaps “walking it back” is the trace of primal wounds that manifested in a different way in my teens and twenties. I saw my references in journals to bingeing and purging, and I could see my bulimia as the prototypical instance of “walking it back.”  According to the New Oxford American dictionary, bulimia is an “emotional disorder involving distortion of body image and obsessive desire to lose weight, in which bouts of extreme overeating are followed by self-induced vomiting, purging and fasting.”  One root of the word is from the Greek “ox hunger” (bous + limos).

That fits because there was a “black hole” inside me as big as the hunger of an ox, representing the need to be loved, accepted, to be seen, to be enough.  To fill it I would secretly eat and eat.  I remember secreting away a whole tin of homemade orange-flavoured cookies my grandmother sent one Christmas, hoping nobody would notice that most of them were gone when I replaced the tin in the morning.  The taste of my stomach acid laced with orange kept coming back up my burning throat and into my mouth for weeks.  The shame I felt every time I entered the bulimia triangle was debilitating, yet whenever I succumbed to this pattern, it felt inevitable, the only way to temporarily fill the unfillable hole.

Eating is a way of claiming something—Hey world, I am trying to fill up my cavernous need even though I know this won’t work for long, it never does. Almost immediately, I would feel terrible guilt and shame about claiming that space, the actual physical space of the fat person I might turn into. The fear of my fat body taking up space in the world, more space than was acceptable, sent me into the purging phase, trying to bring up as much food as I’d shoved down.  That is a way of walking it back. . . I regret claiming space, I need to undo that expression of desire. Maybe if I bring it all back up we can pretend it never happened.  Not only did the bingeing never happen, but I never had a need to be loved, there is no black hole. I am fine. Just fine. The performance of pretending I am okay, I am self-sufficient, I don’t need you: A hard role to play all day, every day.

Susan Bordo sees bulimia as a result of the double bind that modern society puts women in—we must perform as if we are always confident, self-sufficient, self-disciplined, and the price we pay is an inexorable letting go: “Many of us may find our lives vacillating between a daytime rigidly ruled by the “performance principle” while our nights and weekends capitulate to unconscious “letting go” . . . In this way the central contradiction of the system inscribes itself on our bodies, and bulimia emerges as a characteristic of modern personality construction” (477).

As I read Bordo and think about bulimia as a systemic problem, I wonder if thousands of other young women were doing what I was doing, are doing now what I was doing for over a decade.  The secrecy of it makes me so sad. Perhaps I left traces of my disorder, a smell of puke in the bathroom, missing cake, chocolate bar wrappers. . . but mostly I think it was hidden from everybody who loved me.  How sad I am now to think that I “performed” my life so much of the time.

Bingeing and purging are part of my distant past, but Michael’s urging me to not “walk it back” is a loving reminder that I still sometimes fear being a woman on the earth who has needs, desires, and preferences. A reminder that I can and should take up room in every way. I claim my right to be here. I speak my truth. Two of the ways I do that is by writing and drawing.BulimiaTriangle

(Thank you, M.)

Reference

Bordo, Susan. 1995. “Reading the Slender Body.” In Nancy Tuana and Rosemarie Tong   (eds.), Feminism and Philosophy: Essential Readings in Theory, Reinterpretation and Application. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 467-88.

A play date with poetry

Sometimes I like to plan whimsical dates with my husband, to plant an hour or two with small surprises. You never know what you’ll find, what tiny miracle may blossom before your eyes.

One weekend in March, I arranged such a date.  We headed downtown, and as we started to walk Victoria’s chilly streets, I pressed a five-dollar bill into Michael’s hand.

“We’re looking for street musicians and we’re going to give them money. If they’re good. Maybe even if they’re not.”

We found neither good nor bad musicians. Instead, we found a lone artist in front of Munro’s Books replicating famous paintings in jewel-coloured pastels, brightening up Government Street. That day he was drawing what looked like an Alphonse Mucha head of a woman juiced with lots of reds and oranges.

We admired his skill, and my husband placed his $5 bill in the hat. Next we headed up to Russell’s Books, second floor, poetry section.

“You have $10 to buy a book of poetry,” I told Michael.  We stood side by side, pulling out slim volumes, one after the other, reading lines, testing their merit. Did we feel something, see something? Was there language that lifted us out of ourselves?

We finally settled on our books and headed to Chapters, second floor, Starbucks. I bought us coffee and we sat perched on stools overlooking Douglas Street. We sliced apples and cheese and shared a little picnic there.

“Now,” I told him, “I’ll read my poem into your ear, and you’ll read yours into mine.” I can be very bossy. When I was 11, I used to corral the neighbourhood children into our basement and set up “school” where I could be the teacher, telling them what to do.  I am lucky that Michael is very tolerant and accommodating of my “play dates.”

Michael placed his mouth close to my ear and read Marilyn Bowering’s “Three Swans and an Owl”: “I remember three swans,/with black ribbons in their beaks,/that flew from the loch by the crags…” My favourite lines were “I remember the swans in the ache of winter,/ their crystal bones primed with light/ as they fly, black-mouthed with signs.”

I then leaned into Michael’s side, standing beside his stool as the cars zipped below us and all around us people jostled and chatted. I read to him a remarkable glosa by P.K. Page, from her book Hologram, and I was hooked. When we got home, I sat on the couch and read all 14 poems.

Published in 1994, Hologram comprises 14 glosas, a complex form dating back to the late 14th, early 15th century used in the Spanish court. First you take an opening quatrain written by another poet. You write four ten-line stanzas, the concluding lines taken consecutively from the quatrain. Each stanza’s sixth and ninth lines must rhyme with the borrowed tenth. Page explains in the foreword how she struggled to master this form. First the choice of lines from another poet is difficult. Lines cannot be enjambed; they must be or appear to be end-stopped. And then you must make everything run smoothly; the borrowed lines have to somehow match your own sensibility or run parallel to it in some way you can work with. She makes the distinction of doing this as an exercise—which anyone can do—and actually catching some light or brilliance in the borrowing and crafting anew.  She uses wonderful quatrains from Bishop, Rilke, Lawrence, Eliot, Serafis, and others as the basis of her glosas.  Here is a sample poem “Autumn,”her borrowing for this one from Rilke.

I was fascinated: I had to try this form. I finally found four lines, quite plain and domestic, from Denise Levertov, whom I love. Her poem “Invocation” is for a house that the speaker is leaving, but hopefully will return to. Using an old house and Levertov’s lines as the foundation, I wrote a poem ostensibly about an old man leaving his farm, but really about the “the art of losing,” as Elizabeth Bishop describes it in “One Art.”  All that we must lose as we grow old: homes, memories, strength, possessions, people…

“His life, a house” definitely falls into the category of exercise (quite a tortured exercise in trying to rhyme with serapes and thus an ignominious ending), but I’ve enjoyed heralding the beginning of poetry month with this attempt at a glosa.

 

First, here is the foundation of my “house”:

from Denise Levertov’s “Invocation”

Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

And here is my glosa:

His life, a house

Dusk breaks the glowering sky with
light as he ambles up the steps
now stooped and slow. One last check to see
the floors all swept, swallows looping
by the naked windows. Oh! phantom
shape in the pasture, lone sheep that roused
him late one night, his gentle hand tugged
at tiny hooves descending, a breech that Easter.
No more a farmer? His mind bargains like Faust.
Silent, about-to-be-parted-from house.

Upstairs he climbed to fathom forty years
of sleeping here. The bedroom’s quiet now,
silent but for sighs, his own, yet echoing her
pleasure. Sharply angled ceiling stained
from rain, but smoke and jazz used to fill
this space. This is what we meant
when we spoke of love: the low vibrating
line of deep contentment thrumming
underground, through a marriage spent.
Wood creaking, trying to sigh, impatient.

Placing pulsing hands upon the sill,
Looking past the sedgy pond to where
two horses graze, but only in his mind.
He strides along the edge and checks electric
fences, smells the turf, feels such a well
of joy throb here, welcome, automatic,
his response to being outdoors, to being
of use, to being a man. His palsied
hands fall to his side. The house is static.
Clicking of squirrel-teeth in the attic.

His life a house shorn of all goods.
Drapes once protected him from night, from
fears, from cold. Now curtains gone, the winter
sun burns in through gelid panes of glass
and touches wooden floors. No carpets here
to soak up all remembered laughs and happies,
his life an unprotected, wind-lashed house.
No cloth, no coverings but only he, Lear-like
upon the hearth, exposed from head to naked knees.
Denuded beds, couches stripped of serapes.

oldman

 

Week of Solitude (sort of)

 

IMG_2507

From December 27 to January 2, my husband M. was on a non-residential meditation retreat or “Weekthun” at our local Shambhala Centre from seven in the morning until six at night. I joined him for just one day. But for the remaining six days, I have conducted my own retreat, mostly at home, but really a retreat into myself, which is something I often crave.  I haven’t been entirely alone; I visited with two friends and I talked on the phone with people occasionally. I also went out into the world to do things. But there has been a lot of solitude.

Today is the last day of that week, and I discovered some things.  I am reminded that I mostly like being in my mind and my body. I am pretty friendly to myself these days. I am able to watch my mind get anxious or self-sabotaging and stop it before it goes roaring down into the slough of despond. So that’s good. More awareness means more equanimity.

I love being alone, but as each day comes to an end I am so happy to greet my husband coming in the door.

I like the mornings, when I have the most energy.  M. went off to his retreat at around 7 a.m. because he was assigned breakfast duty. Sometimes I stayed in bed for a little while and read a novel, which felt like a treat. I would get up and saunter around the house, which I had all to myself. Even our tenants have been away for the holidays. I liked the whoosh of the hot air coming up the registers in an otherwise quiet house. I liked watching the sunrise from my art/sewing room as I had a second cup of coffee.  Sometimes I switched locations and sat in the living room watching the traffic of hummingbirds at the feeder, needle-nosed flits of purple and turquoise.  What a beautiful thing, to have all of this time. To not have to rush or talk. I am so privileged.

My plan was to work on my memoir. I have been taking online courses at Sequential Art Workshop and now feel embedded in a friendly and supportive community of people from all over the world working on their graphic memoirs. The trick is to keep the conversation going without getting overwhelmed by the volume of sharing, recommendations, and seemingly endless threads in our Google Group. I have had to juggle all this social activity and responding to others (albeit online) with creating momentum to draw and write my own memoir.  I got some work done this week. I was about to add, “but not enough.” Hey, I did what I did, and it was enough.

IMG_2508Sometimes I felt discouraged.  But I just found something to motivate me and moved ahead. One step in front of the other. I like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way where she’s collected so many encouraging quotations in the margins. Today I opened the book to Jackson Pollock’s “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through.” I wrote it on a post-it note then crossed out “painting” and replaced it with “graphic memoir.”  I remember all of the times I wanted to quit writing my dissertation. But I kept talking myself out of quitting and into writing. I love what Lisa Hanawelt says: “Don’t worry about how good it’ll be. Just make it and do your best.”

After a couple of hours of working—drawing, writing, drawing—it was time to go out and do things. Sometimes I went for a hike or a run. Other times, shopping. We needed groceries and I was the one at home this week. And cooking—I made soup and Socca (a savoury pan bread made from chickpea flour and originating in Nice), black bean and tofu hash, Greek salad.  I did chores: the laundry, the garbage and recycling, changing sheets, cleaning, organizing.

Other kinds of outings.  I walked to the library and got out several graphic memoirs. I can usually read one in a couple of hours. Just soaking it all up—fascinating stories and all great reference material. I like to see how others draw, compose the page, handle text and lettering, build a story.  John Porcellino, Jennifer Hayden, Lucy Knisley, and Nicole Georges.

I took myself out to breakfast today on my way to buy more drawing supplies for the memoir. I was curious what it would be like as I haven’t been out to eat alone for a long time.  I went to a popular place that usually has line-ups.  But I got in right away, sitting at the bar.  I noticed the young guy next to me with a cell phone welded into his hand. He hardly took his eyes away from the phone display as he shovelled food into his mouth.

I looked around. The place was loud with noise and things.  Tons of old stuff hanging off the walls: books and mirrors, an ancient cash register, antique junque.  Waitresses carried plates with towers of food; the servings were enormous, so I just ordered eggs and toast off the “sides” menu.  I haven’t eaten toast since July when we started a new way of eating with few fast carbs.  I have lost 12 pounds and I feel really good. But I was curious to see if I could tolerate the occasional toast and jam experience, which in my opinion, when done well with excellent products, is akin to manna from heaven. I even devoted a section of my mandala IMG_2506to toast and jam, my desert island food. This “toast,” however, was really more like big fat slices of hot bread. I like thin slices of well-done crunchy toast.  Too bad. But the “jam” was delicious apple butter infused with cinnamon and cloves and nutmeg.  The waiter behind the bar asked other diners solicitously how they liked their food, but he never asked me. He called me “ma’am.” It’s interesting how lone older women are treated differently from other people. We are mostly invisible. But funnily, I don’t really mind. There are powers in being invisible, as sorcerers know.

When time and space expands, as it did this week, I can take up things I dropped before, for example the fleece hat pattern that didn’t work for me. I went back to it yesterday and figured out that there is nothing wrong with the pattern: I had cut and sewn the hat opposite the selvedge. It was too small because it didn’t stretch.  So I made another hat the right way, and it stretched and fit. I learn from making mistakes. I learn by slowing down.  Similarly, I got lots of good feedback from my teacher this morning about where I went wrong with my text and drawing on my comic panels. Time to redo them. Start over. Learn from mistakes. What’s the hurry? It takes time to learn a craft.

What a gift to have had this week in retreat, in solitude, with few obligations. To have had the time to do what I like, to think, to read, to not think. To rest, to do and redo, to not do. I feel grateful and ready to go back to work tomorrow. Happy new year everybody. May you find time to do what you love in 2018.

Sequential Art: the Snake Pit

I changed the tagline of my blog from “Reader, Writer” to “The work wants to be made,” an Elizabeth Gilbert quotation. The rest of that line is “and it wants to be made by you.” I feel like a vehicle for expression–sometimes I don’t even know where stuff is coming from–but the work wants to be made.

I will use the blog to feature not only my writing, but also my other forms of creative expression.

I am taking an amazing online course: “Going in for the Snakes” at the Sequential Art Workshop (Gainesville, Florida).

Our teacher, Tom, is getting us to dig deep to tell stories with pictures and words. This week, I got immersed in telling this crazy story that I thought I would share.  IMG_2166IMG_2167IMG_2168IMG_2169IMG_2170

And here’s another sequence from the previous week. . .

IMG_2131

Mother’s Day

A redhead named Janelle
is cleaning my teeth.
I feel the warmth of her
body through a blue glove
as she leans her tiny hand
against my chin to scale

She wields the Cavitron with
what might be called love
sonic pulse of water down
my deep pockets, she takes such
care. I count breaths, my jaw a
canyon for her small fingers

She intuits the tender spots,
knows where to swab
my gums with local,
knows when to suction, when
to spray, gently wipes spit from
my face like a mother cleans her child

She reads my body and
my pain, seeks to comfort me
Unspoken trust is here,
the intimacy of strangers
Yet is she so strange to me?

I’ve heard that Buddhists believe
every being has been our
mother innumerable times.

Suddenly, Janelle seems
beautiful, radiant.
I notice her kind responsive
hands, her bright crooked smile,
the way she studied a dark bloom on
my X-ray and broke
the news in a low solicitous voice

Imagine every person was once your
mother. Let affection blur the
critical gaze, meet every pair
of eyes with tenderness and
compassion

Imagine!

Notes on writing poetry

When my book of poems was published in 2014, I had mixed feelings. I knew they were rushed and rough, many more prosaic than poetic. I adopted the view that the process not the product was most important. I had gotten a surprise contract on the strength of a few poems, and a short deadline. I enjoyed waking up every day for most of that year with the challenge to write a new poem, 80 pages of poems in 8 months. But I knew they weren’t polished; they did not reflect long craftsmanship.

The book got scant attention when it came out. My mother-in-law, then 95 (RIP, Barbara), loved it and told me it was “so clever.” I thought, well I’m happy it pleased her. That’s enough. I have a few fans, mostly family members. There were two reviews. One was mostly positive, the other mostly negative. The negative review included the following: “Its text…makes shameless use of exclamation marks and ellipses—punctuation that I abhor.” Strong words—”shameless” and “abhor,” words that seem more appropriate collocations for rape and genocide than for punctuation. I felt the reviewer had missed the point that free use of “!” was part of the “birth of the uncool,” the shift from cool, critical academic to open, mushy, middle-aged explorer of the self.

The review said lots more, but I’ll stop there. I think I suffered from that review more than I let on. Ouch! It seemed so mean and tight and shaming. Though I actually agreed with many observations the reviewer made about my poems, her tone stung deeply. What I found curious to observe was how reading that review seemed to paralyze me. I didn’t want to write much poetry for almost two years.

I want to reclaim poetry again. It felt (defiantly) good to put that exclamation mark at the end of the poem. As Chesterton said, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.  img_1690.jpg

Thanks for reading, and happy mother’s day to all sentient beings.

The road not taken

IMG_1624

A few times a week, I ride my bicycle to the University where I work as a writing tutor. The end of the commute takes me along the west side of the Clearihue building, a three story, squat cement slab constructed in the 1960s that houses the English and French Departments. Every time I pass that way, like clockwork, an image floats into my mind.  I travel back 16 years. A spring day and I am walking to the University library wearing leather sandals, my skirt swishing around my legs, a pile of books comfortingly heavy in my arms. As I traverse the path behind Clearihue, I hear the click of an upper story window opening, capturing my attention. I look up and an arm appears—a wide open gesture—a kind of wave. Soon following, a youthful bronze head pops out: close cropped hair, glasses, rosy cheeks. “Madeline!”  It’s my professor, ten years my junior, the one who has just hired me as his research assistant, waving at me with joyful recognition.  “Hello!”

For some reason that chance encounter, my prof seeing me from his office window, opening it, flinging out his arm in a wave, then calling my name, always reminds me of a scene in George Orwell’s 1984 when Winston dreams of the Golden Country, a “rabbit-bitten pasture” where “the elm trees were swaying very faintly in the breeze, their leaves just stirring in dense masses like women’s hair.”  For some reason, this scene has always haunted me in a peculiar way. The passage is thus:

The girl with dark hair was coming towards them across the field. With what seemed a single movement she tore off her clothes and flung them disdainfully aside. Her body was white and smooth, but it aroused no desire in him, indeed he barely looked at it. What overwhelmed him in that instant was admiration for the gesture with which she had thrown her clothes aside. With its grace and carelessness it seemed to annihilate a whole culture, a whole system of thought, as though Big Brother and the Party and the Thought Police could all be swept into nothingness by a single splendid movement of the arm.

Our minds are very odd. Why should my professor’s wave have anything at all to do with Winston’s dream girl who flings off her clothes in a graceful, careless gesture symbolizing the annihilation of a whole culture?  I have thought about that over the years. I was a grad school ingénue, enjoying the exploration of my intellect after many years at home raising children.  I was 42, and I was waking up.  Noting that I was the one student in his graduate class who actually did all of the readings and came to class prepared, my professor offered me an RA position. He wasn’t naked as he leaned out of the window of course; nor was there a sexual frisson. It was an intellectual tremor we both felt—he had found a fresh RA who was dazzled with his intellectual prowess. A “single splendid movement of the arm” seemed to signal the sweeping away of what I had known so far, and to welcome me into the life of the university—A Golden Country of words and ideas, books and conversation, writing and learning. I was waking up to a new way of seeing the world.

Yet I actually first started graduate school at the University of Toronto when I was 27, a false start. I sat among other young people in a wood panelled seminar room, struggling with and ashamed by my incoherence. I tried to keep up with the others, but everything that came out of my mouth seemed sluggish and obvious. I was an outsider in this alien world. The theoretical readings were incomprehensible. After about five weeks, I quit the program.  And went on to have three children etc.

Sometimes I think about what my life might have been life “if.” This line of thinking has been stimulated by reading Paul Auster’s 4321—a magnificent weaving of four stories—four possible lives of one man. If this had happened slightly differently, the outcome might be this. A chance meeting with a young man at a movie theatre changes everything. A car accident and maimed hand shifts life completely. A parents’ divorce creates another path. As I read the novel, I start to think about how my life might have been different if I had stayed in graduate school the first time.  I come back to intense gratitude for the way things happened.

So what if I stuck with it and completed my MA the first time?  I tell myself a story about that alternate life. . . what might have happened. I finish the Masters, then get accepted at a PhD program at McGill. My husband leaves me because I drink too much.  In Montreal, I learn French, continue to drink and smoke cigarettes “to handle the stress,” and produce an award winning dissertation about French theorists’ influence on twentieth-century American women’s poetry and “jouissance.” After a brilliant defense of my thesis, I am offered a job at Princeton in New Jersey, and at the age of 36, I am an alcoholic assistant professor, preparing lecture notes in haze of smoke with a litre of white wine at my elbow. Continuing my research on female orgasm and American female poets, I live the life of an academic, focused on reading, research, writing, teaching, with occasional trips to conferences worldwide.  I live in a small book-lined apartment with a tortoiseshell cat named Denise (after Levertov), my only companion. My first book comes out. A series of flame-like affairs with married men and one lesbian professor leave me wary of love. When I get pregnant by accident, I quickly have an abortion. No babies for me—my primary relationship with alcohol means I won’t even consider it.

My career peaks at 40 when I become associate professor and my second book is published—about Kathy Acker and sexuality. The following year, I am invited to give a series of talks at Columbia University about gender and 20c poetry, but I am in trouble. My addiction to alcohol has become unforgiving.  Drinking during the day is the new normal.  After downing several shots of vodka in my hotel room, I stumble onto the stage for a public presentation on Elizabeth Bishop’s later poems. My body—lumpy from lack of exercise and bouts of hangover eating—is sheathed in a tight black dress covered with cat hair and ash, the hem sagging, my chignon unravelling. My ramblings are incoherent. What was the point I was trying to make? Audience members shift and whisper, looking at each other with embarrassment and pity. I am escorted off the stage. I wake up in a pit of shame the next day, head clanging, gluey lips stuck together. I don’t remember how I got back to the Roosevelt last night, but I am fully clothed, sprawled across the bed and surrounded by cigarette butts and striations of ash on the once-white sheets. I must have tipped the ashtray. The vodka bottle is empty.

Forty-one and childless, hopelessly addicted to booze, thirty pounds overweight, stinking of cigarettes, alone and hopeless, I take 100 sleeping pills that I’ve been hoarding. They were in my make-up kit—I was planning this opportunity. Before I take them, I write a brief note instructing whomever discovers my corpse to call my cat sitter at 609-543-6890 and to tell her to find another home for Denise. Poor sweet Denise, who has a trilling miaow and a deep purr. She loves to curl up next to me when I drink and read and smoke. My last memory as I slip into unconsciousness is of the thrilling vibration of her purr next to me. It’s early December 1999 and I am gone—a nice clean finish—gone before the turn of the century.

***

Of course this is all storytelling. And yet, the exercise makes me grateful I quit drinking at 27 and had three sons. I am glad I waited those 15 years to return to school, clean and sober. Grateful for family, friends, marriage, faith, a spiritual path. It’s a good one, this life.

The pleasures of writing memoir

In my job I tutor all kinds of students, but most of the writing they show me is academic writing and their questions are about how to do it, improve it, and understand it.  Last week I was surprised by two students who were working in a border genre of academic writing meets creative non-fiction. It was such a pleasure to listen to them and read bits of their work. I was motivated to open up a document I wrote in 2014, a short memoir. I was guided in my writing by a book on women’s memoir. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the title or author, but I do remember that her suggestion was to write using topics, not chronology as a guide. One chapter, for example, is on “birth and beginnings” in your life. Another one is on “body language.” And so on.  I liked this approach, and I produced around 80 pages in a few weeks. I tucked it away and forgot about it until recently. Here are the first few pages. img_1451-1

Prologue

A sunny protected courtyard with high whitewashed walls. The courtyard is scattered with easels, and small children wearing paint-splashed smocks stand before the easels, brushes in their hands, intent on making marks in bright colours on the cheap newsprint. Dave Brubeck’s jazz is floating over the scene. Branches of a mountain ash tree, resplendent with clusters of orange jewel-berries, hang over the edge of the courtyard wall. The feeling is one of serenity and innocence, yet zinging with the subtle undertone of jazzy, creative energy.  This memory is lodged deep inside my bones, and I don’t even know if it is a memory of something that really happened in my life, perhaps at nursery school, or a dream, or a scene I imagined in waking life. But it doesn’t really matter, in the end. It stands for the best of life to me—childlike open curiosity and freedom to create, the improvisation and airiness of jazz, sun on white walls, signalling the unlimited joy we can feel, the beckon of the blank slate that we mark with our spirit. I want this scene at the beginning of my life story, and I hope it passes before me as I die.

Chapter 1 – Births and beginnings

Birth—my story goes like this. My parents and two older sisters lived in Berkeley, but my mother arranged specially for me to be born at Kaiser Hospital in Walnut Creek because they had “rooming in,” a fresh new concept in 1958. Your baby could room in with you instead of being relegated to the big nursery of Plexiglas cribs filled with pink and blue swaddled bundles.  Rooming in would make it easier for mother and baby to breastfeed and bond.  But the plan was upended. My father took my two older sisters, 18 months and three years, trick or treating on a rainy evening, October 31, 1958, while my mother, lonely, I imagine, and feeling unwell, laboured and gave birth to me. I was whisked away from her and she didn’t see me for 24 hours as she recovered from some virus they didn’t want me—the newborn—exposed to.  So best laid plans of women often go awry (with apologies to Robbie Burns).

Perhaps I should take that as important information about my life—don’t make elaborate plans, as they are sure to fall apart at the last minute?  I look at that blurry old photo of me, tummy down, in that nursery crib of acrylic glass, my face squashed, and I imagine the suffering there. No skin to skin contact, no bonding or gazing into my mother’s eyes. No breast at all, not even one suck. I was bottle fed from birth. I would like to call my mother and ask for some details, but there is a bruised quality to our relationship right now. I imagine her getting very defensive, touchy about those details I would probe for: What illness did you have?  Were you terribly sad when you couldn’t see me, hold me?  Did you feel the loss?

So I imagine a lonely beginning to my life and loneliness for her as well…no soft breast to suckle me, only the discomfort of rock hard engorgement. A new birth marked by loss. But there were two other children to see to, and not much time or money. So not a time of abundance. Rather, of scarcity. I have never thought of my birth this way before, as a time of loss, but perhaps this inured me to getting less than expected, to ask for less, to settle for less, and to pretend it doesn’t matter.

Many people remark with curiosity that I was born on Halloween. “What was that like?”  Perhaps my propensity to feel bereft and envious grew from that first night of my birth. My sisters were out getting candy, trick or treating, other babies getting the breast…I was getting nothing. No candy, no colostrum. Poor me. The night in the Wiccan calendar when the veil between two worlds is at its thinnest…perhaps I feel closer to that mystery now, although my affinity for the metaphysical was well closeted for almost 50 years.

I had a turn toward the melancholy as a youngster. Photos show me looking sad or scowling, and perhaps I cultivated that persona. But why? When my smile was so brilliant and beautiful, and I could have plucked joy like plucking a low hanging fruit?  But it took me awhile to paste on that frown. It was not always so.

I love a photograph of me at the kitchen table in student housing in Berkeley, my first home.  I am sitting in one of those 1950s chrome and plastic high chairs—the simple kind you pull up to the table: no trays or gadgets or even straps.  The profile shot has me turning in the chair to face the camera, one hand grasping the side of my chair and my plump little leg and bare foot tucked under me. The other hand clenches the end of a piece of toast and brandishes it in the air, and the plate in front of me has a few crumbs of scrambled egg left. I have this big lovely open grin on my face. I look to be around one year old, my dark happy eyes gaze at the picture taker with love, my tongue is just at my lips which are slightly open and upturned. I have a thatch of glossy hair atop my square-ish head and my demeanor says I am joyful and ready for the day! I love to check out this picture of me to remind me that my sad-sack self that persisted through childhood and adolescence (and beyond) was a construction—that I am and was equally able to be joyful, present, happily alive in the moment, ready for anything, loving, accepting, energetic.