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!
Here’s today’s NaPoWriMo post (still playing catch-up!):
I can taste it: the airy mouthfeel of eh
the whisper plosive of pē
how the round liquidity of ol fills
the back of my throat like thick honey
and then the crisp wafer of trēē
breaks between the teeth.
It is my secret delight
my hidden pleasure
that I take out in solitary hours
and eat gluttonously
fondling the buttery syllables.
 epeolatry: the worship of words
I see the word epeolatry and I feel obliged to confess: I’m a total word nerd. I was that kid you hated in 4th grade, who begged for spelling words, and won the spelling bee, and had her nose in a book so often that even my grandmother – an old teacher – yelled at me: Girl! Get your nose out of that book! I didn’t invite you to read all weekend!
Recently I learned a new word: ‘squeg.’ It means to ‘oscillate between max and zero, as in an electronic current.’ But the student who brought the word to class (she had it played against her in Scrabble) thought it meant the apogee of a conversation. I thought when I heard her definition: hmmm… who knew conversations had apogees?
Still, it’s a new word, however discordant it sounds. It’s hard to make melody from a ‘q’. I used to love the word queer, until it began to be used to beat up dear friends and family. I liked the way the mouth pursed to make the qu dipthong, and then almost smiled to make the ee. It’s noticing (and caring about) things like this that confirm my complete word nerdiness.
All of this makes me quite odd, if you think about it: ‘squeg’ is an unlikeable word. Says me. But how can you like or dislike a word, you ask? Now a sentence – that’s different. It may be poorly written, unclear, etc. We all remember THOSE classes. But an orphan word? Unattached to its parents subject and predicate? Naked of modifiers? Ungendered in its lack of pronouns? What’s to hate about that??
I give you… music. There is no music in ‘squeg.’ It even lacks the onomatopoiea of ‘squelch.’ Or the whispery dead finality of ‘squish.’ It’s the ‘g.’ The whole word becomes guttural. And for word nerds? That’s enough.
Except actually, according to this Venn diagram, it’s word ‘geek’: if you’re obsessed w/ words (guilty), and reasonably intelligent (debatable), then you’re a word geek. No rhyme, unfortunately, but accurate. Which should be worth at least as much as rhyme, even if it doesn’t sound as good.
Which leads us (oh so meanderingly) to National Poetry Month. And my charge to you this month to post a poem to social media. Maybe even daily! It should be one that’s somehow special, or at least one you have strong feelings about (I may post one I HATE!).
Today’s poem from me to you is one that’s as awesomely ridiculous as possible: Ogden Nash’s The Tale of Custard the Dragon. He’s one of my favourite poets — there’s not a pretentious bone in his devilishly funny body of work. I just remembered this one, so here it is. Enjoy! And remember: a worship of words is a necessary evil in a world that values poetry!
 The worship of words.
So much poetry! So little time! I have a couple of links for you to start off National Poetry Month, and an assignment (😏). First, here’s a short post I did recently for the wonderful literary journal Nimrod. It looks at the differences between poets & prose writers. And maybe, too, the differences between the readers of each. The post is this poet’s own experiences, bolstered by a few comments from far more famous writers, who agree: the two are very different. Duh, huh?
The second link is in the same vein — it’s a more researched look at those differences (there’s that word again) — between reading poetry and even ‘literary’ prose. And you know what? It’s even better for writers to read poetry — even if they write prose! (Which may be why some of the better prose writers in my creative writing program were the poets…)
Finally? Your assignment: find a poem you love & post it to social media — FB, Twitter, Reddit, whatever. I’ll start you off w/ a couple of mine, beginning with one I used as a model for a ‘golden shovel poem’ that was published recently in an online residency. (Thanks, Soft Cartel!) The poem is an old one, and possibly the first poem that really made me think HARD about social justice. It was 1972. It was Watergate. It was Việt Nam. And here came Ishmael Reed, a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra. Every word was a knife, a blade, white-hot & searing with a fierce beauty. It wouldn’t matter that he said crazy-ass things later. It would only matter that he wrote that poem at that time, and I read it.
So find a poem you can’t live without, and post it. Share it. Someone out there needs your poem. I guarantee it.
So, I have this friend… Seriously — I do have friends! We’ve been friends for more than 20 years…21? 22? A long time, in other words. And we’ve done a lot of cool things together, and seen each other through job shifts, illnesses, promotions, and all the daily events that close friends share. At one point, we were even in a writing group together. Friendship, in other words.
But we live nowhere near each other these days, and haven’t spent quality time together in years. Because she lived where I worked, I didn’t have strategies in place that would remind me I had to make more of an effort when I retired. Sure — she came to the annual Girlfriends Holiday Tea. And I tried to see her when she came to town. But it wasn’t like before, when we dropped in on each other’s office.
She’s one of those friends that somehow manages to encourage you to move forward. I have a couple of those — it’s great. This one seems to always know the right book for the right moment. The right joke when you’re ready to slit your wrists. The right lunch when you can’t face another day of writing. Mostly, though? She’s funny, and smart, and kind, and just my very dear girlfriend.
But like I said, we haven’t had much contact in a while. So she messages me on FB, and asks for my address. Okay, I figure: maybe she has a new book? Or just a card...? Then the mail comes, and it’s… The Poet Tarot!! How cool is THAT?? And how the heck did she know I’ve been returning to my old hippie roots, and had bought several tarot decks as I try to find out which one suits me in this very different chapter of my life…? And that the one she sent me — where e.e.cummings is the Fool, and William Carlos Williams the Magician, and Denise Levertov the World — would be so totally perfect??
That’s the power of real friendship, folks: the ability to listen to someone you love, and give them not only what they want or need, but what will help them grow. As I make time to pick up grandsons, cook for family, clean this beautiful new house, plant seeds to grow into 4 o’clocks my mother loved, water birds, and DO THINGS, I haven’t been writing. You noticed, right?
But this way, with these beautiful new cards (Lucille Clifton, Marianne Moore, Langston Hughes, Emerson…), I can think of writing completely differently. More like what I used to tell students: a kind of practice. Meaning, I don’t have to worry so much about getting it ‘right.’ Much less perfect!
The sheer diversity of writers — Emily Dickinson & Edgar Allen Poe! — is freeing. If all of these wonderful, amazing poets can overcome slavery (Phyllis Wheatley), insanity (Poe), depression (Robert Lowell), and more, I can find my way home to writing. I can do this!
Thanks, Becky. Once again, you nailed it. And I’m so very happy you did!