I’ve told you the success story of the poetry book club I belong to, right? How we grew fond of the more authentic conversations we had, bracketed by poems each of us brought to the monthly meeting. How I ~ a complete newbie in town ~ found a community of like-minded readers & lovers of words.
Much of what we share is hard reading. Not difficult to understand, but sometimes difficult in its content, how it hurts to be brought in to such a tragic situation, landscape, life… This past meeting I brought in poems b;y Jericho Brown, from his first book, Please. They were not easy to live with, dealing as they do with the dark ambivalence Brown felt/feels for his sometimes-violent father, and the mother who stayed with him.
But we read them, and we talked about domestic violence. And about writing what is hard, but true. And the conversation shifted then to another poem, offered by another member — Emily Dickinson’s ‘#314: hope is the thing with feathers…” Talk moved from Dickinson in general (and the movie about her life) to hope, to reading poetry overall.
That’s the beauty of poetry, right there: it starts conversations that matter. Or at least it seems to. I’ve never met anyone — even those who claim to dislike it — who didn’t light up when asked about childhood favourites. Something a grandparent read, or a parent. A nursery rhyme, possibly.
Somewhere along the line, we lose that. More accurately, school often beats it out of us. As a friend of mine (another English teacher!) once said, it takes an English teacher to make you hate poetry. Billy Collins is right: too many people want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it.// They begin beating it with a hose/ to find out what it really means.”
We don’t do that at Poetry Book Club. We just share & visit. You don’t always have to “know” what a poem “means” to enjoy it. Just like you don’t have to sugarcoat the ugliness of grief. Which leads to another poetry book review, courtesy of my beloved Nimrod International Journal. It’s a conversation about Colin Pope’s heart-wrenching collection Why I Didn’t Go to Your Funeral. I highly recommend it, even if it’s ‘depressing.’ It’s also gorgeous, beautifully crafted, and just amazing. Enjoy!
I’ve never belonged to a book club before. Many (if not most) of my friends do, and sing their praises. But my own reading has always been so eclectic that I never believed anyone else would want to read what I like.
Then I gave a ‘class’ in reading poetry. We read poetry weekly, from 2 different anthologies, but we also brought in poems we ‘found’. Or poems we already loved. A couple of times, even poems we DISliked. It was WONDERFUL! There were poems of love and death; there were playful witticisms; there were social manifestos. There was Shakespeare and Auden and Mary Oliver and Natasha Trethewey and so many less famous life changers.
Six of the 10 people who were in that continuing education class wanted to keep reading poetry together, and two more wanted to join us. Because something happened when we shared poems — conversations deepened, voices became a kind of music, much like the various poetic voices we discussed.
This is a piece on that book club I wrote for much-loved journal, Nimrod International Journal. You can read about the journal (with which I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with for DECADES) at the Nimrod website. And the nudge to begin your own poetry book club is here. You’ll see more from the poetry book club, I’m sure, in the months to follow. As well as book reviews I’m doing for Nimrod. It’s the best way I know to stay prepared for poetry book club. And it’s the breath part of Tea & Breath ~
Meanwhile, let us have a sip of tea. The afternoon glow is brightening the bamboos, the fountains are bubbling with delight, the soughing of the pines is heard in our kettle. Let us dream of evanescence, and linger in the beautiful foolishness of things. ~ Okakura Kakuzō in his Book of Tea
It’s tea time — that golden hour of slant afternoon sun that warms tables & fills rooms with light. My elderly cat (18!) sprawls on the table runner, basking in the sun. It’s the time when water burbles happily in a kettle — glass, if you’re lucky, so you can see the bubbles! — and you find a mug, or a cup & saucer, and maybe a cookie. Or two…or three…
Today’s tea is brought to you by poetry, and Okakura Kakuzo, practically a poet of tea. See the above quote if you doubt. One of the lovely moments in life is to read poetry you love (or write drafts you probably don’t! — while you sip tea.
My favourite tea used to be a china black, a nice serviceableKeemun. It’s still the house tea, and the fav. But as my tea time moved later in the day (winter nights come early), I found myself drinking more herbal teas, fruit teas, and occasionally a small pot of matcha when I really need some energy. My favourite is peach matcha. It allows me the ritual I seem to need, to calm down & refocus my dissipated attention. I indulged myself in a little matcha scoop, as well as a small bamboo matcha whisk. To brew it, I use a small (2-cup) glass pot, when I want more than just one gai wan.
There IS a fair amount of caffeine in matcha, but nothing like what there is in two (or more!) large cups of black tea. And theine is significantly smoother to process than caffeine.
Yesterday, however, I made masala chai, as I have often these cold winter days. The gentle spice is warming, and the addition of milk & sugar make it a bit more substantial than the jasmine I tend to drink in summer. Today it’s Hao Ya A, an extravagant holiday treat from my beloved. It’s a glamourous uptick on the usual Keemun, this one even more assertive. And while it sounds almost sacrilegious, I like it with milk & Demerara sugar, as I do most afternoon tea. Again, it just feels more comforting. And while milk & sugar may not seem poetic, a hot cup of afternoon tea — lightly sweetened & with milk to the colour winter grass — is the best kind of material poetry. You can feel the magic grow with each peaceful sip.
So heat up your kettle, if you have one. Or microwave a mug of water. Add a tea sachet (they’re much better quality tea than teabags, if you can afford the little bit extra!). Even an Oreo goes well, and you can have a lovely respite mid-afternoon, when work & all the rest of the world can recede to less importance. I promise: it’s the best moment of the day. And immeasurably poetic, isn’t it, Okakura Kakuzō-san?
This post is courtesy of my blogging for Nimrod Literary Journal — a wonderful journal of poetry, fiction, non-fiction, photography, & more. I’ve been associated with Nimrod almost all my writing life, with short hiatuses when I moved away from Tulsa. I adore it. This post began as I tried to get some input from numerous academics, poets, writers, and other literati types on my FB page about what makes a poem great, and who gets to decide. From there, it went to a spirited discussion of the whole literary canon. So here you go, a confusing discussion of an exceptionally confusing topic ~
I watched the most amazing half-hour series yesterday — Poetry in America’s 1st episode in this spring’s offerings. Centred on the iconic Emily Dickinson, and her poem “I cannot dance upon my toes,” it’s one of the few poetry specials I remember to make manifest the links poetry has to other fine arts. Specifically, music & dance.
Yo-Yo Ma ably represents the music side of things, playing the cello as if it was a voice reading. His incredible fingering & bowing turn the simplest rill of notes into something astonishing, much as Dickinson takes ordinary words & creates an image that stuns.
Dancer Jill Johnson, poet Marie Howe, and actress Cynthia Nixon (who plays Emily Dickinson in film) join host Elisa New in unfolding the layered origami of Dickinson’s poetry. It’s astonishing, and so worth watching!
In other poetic business, NaPoWriMo’s prompt today is magick! Seriously — use magic(k) in your poem. It’s good practice! And here’s mine — a fusion of yesterday’s prompt (which I missed!) & today’s:
She finds herself dividing like a cell
Is it mitosis or meiosis ~ she doesn’t
quite remember. Perhaps the brain
is what does not cross over.
Perhaps the cells cannot communicate.
It was never easy.
This cell this one she lives in now
neatly divided borders clean-edged
is the mother the wife the sister/daughter
she from whom the other cells draw energy
That cell the one of brilliant colours
as formless as internal music
pleochroic emerald ruby citrine
is who she might have been
who she is sometimes
in her dreams. Messily bordered
without shape or form.
And somewhere in the middle
is the space that neither one inhabits
that void of becoming
before the words begin.
Today’s the 6th day of one of my favorite months — National Poetry Month. Which is also National Poetry WRITING Month, NaPoWriMo. AND…my birthday month! How filled w/ great stuff can a month get?
The NaPoWriMo prompt for today is about the line — about changing it up, about playing with it. But since I didn’t write yesterday, or do yesterday’s prompt, I’m combining them. A word in a language not my own — riffing on what it looks & sounds like it means — and line change-ups. You can let me know how that works for you. Here you go:
how our frantic panic
burned like a torch
incinerated any good
whatever we once knew
of any middle path
how lust too was a torch
an incandescent inferno
in which both our bodies
burned to cinders
the cooling of lava
the way the embers bank
how they glow
beneath the black ash
of what we lost
 Torschlusspanik is a combination of three German words, and literally translated means “gate-shut-panic.” Apparently the term dates back to the Middle Ages in reference to the panic medieval peasants might have experienced as they rushed to make it back inside the city gates before they closed at nightfall.
I also want to offer another poem I love, one I read at my first public reading (where I was asked to choose a poem to read). It’s by one of my favourite mentor poets — Denise Levertov. An anti-war poem, it looks at the people of my childhood home, ViệtNam. And the ways in which we forget that the real victims of real wars are real people.
I hope that’s not too much food for poetic thought!