January 31st, 2018

I didn’t blog last week. I was thinking.

About Neruda. And that was because I was thinking about Burns.

I was not thinking about their poetry. 

When I met my partner just a few years ago, one of the first things he gave me was a book of Neruda’s love poems. Since his reading (at the time) was largely restricted to non-fiction and Dan Brown, it meant a great deal to me. He’d done his homework. But just a few months later I saw an article about newly uncovered letters, in which Neruda boasted about raping a woman.

The Neruda poems just sit there on my shelf now. And every few months, I notice them, and consider tossing the book in the trash. When we were looking for poems for our wedding ceremony, he suggested we look through the volume of Neruda’s love poems.

Hell no.

In the end, my best friend chose a read a poem for the ceremony: Naomi Shihab Nye’s “So Much Happiness”.

The following year, a group of our friends threw us a wonderful anniversary dinner party in a communal garden. The evening was filled with poetry. One of the highlights was our Scottish friend reciting “A Red, Red Rose” with his beautiful, softly percussive accent.

This month our Scottish friend and his wife hosted a Burns Supper. Such a cool thing to do: bagpipes, haggis and poetry. Great company. I was thrilled to get the invitation, and I brushed up on my Burns.

And regretted it.

At the dinner, our hostess was amazing. She is savvy and elegant, and she managed to bring up the dilemma of celebrating Burns in the atmosphere of our #MeToo culture, without ruining the evening.

Still.

In case you haven’t seen the articles circulating last week: Burns also left a letter — in which he boasted about raping his pregnant wife on a bed of horseshit in the barn.

Over the years, I have been quick to say that I can separate the person from the artwork. Once they are dead. (I will watch Woody Allen’s films after he is dead.) Both these letter-writers are dead. Have been dead for a while. So it shouldn’t matter.

But I can’t shake this feeling.

And I have had a little epiphany: the realization that this feeling I can’t shake is shame, actually. Somehow, somewhere along the way, my body has conflated feelings of anger and shame into one monster emotion that lurks in the closet.

And in the shared — then ignored — stories that are shared on social media.

Part of my personal definition of art is that an art object conveys the experience of being human, in a recognizable way. That’s it.

But then there is that other idea: that artworks are ennobling. When biographical facts color and contextualize the experience that is being conveyed through a work of art in a way that is exceedingly human, but not ennobling, do we toss the bibliographical context (and does that falsify the content?).  Or do we toss the work of art?

Burns and Neruda are still on my shelf. And when I glance at them, my body still vibrates with a conflated emotional state — that is being human.

 

 

 

 

January 19th, 2018.

… Then, there is the wisdom of old women.

I tried to wrap myself with that once, and my 21 year-old son said, “Mom, you’re not that old yet.”

*

It’s the weekend, and after meditation this morning I pull Words Under the Words from the bookshelf and settle onto the couch with a cup of tea. Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Grandfather’s Heaven” ends with these two stanzas:

I think Grandpa liked me too
though he wasn’t sure what to do with it.
Just before he died, he wrote me a letter.

“I hear you’re studying religion,” he said.
“That’s how people get confused.
Keep it simple. Down or up.”

I once wrote about my Grandfather telling me, “Stay away from philosophy. There’s nothing of God in it.” (I must have shoe-horned that into a poem, because I can’t remember the rest of the poem.)

When I try to remember if my Grandmother ever gave me this kind of straight-up advice, I remember, “Don’t slouch.”

And, “Don’t tell your mother. She is going through a lot, and can’t handle this right now.”

Looking back, I try to understand how people make simple rules, and routes of least resistance.  I remember asking my Grandmother if she saw Goodnight and Good Luck when it came out. She said, “I don’t have to watch it, I lived through it.”

But she didn’t want to talk about it with me.

I’m sure she knew I thought I had something to “contribute to the discussion“. I really was young then. I hadn’t learned to listen — even if I ‘d known the right questions — the way in. It would have been a waste of time.

If she had opened up about the complexities of her experience,  I might well have tried to solve them, simplify them with labels and analysis. I’d gone to college, after all. I would have made absurd parallels in an attempt to empathise.

I must have been an ass. If she hadn’t loved me, she wouldn’t have liked me. Looking back, I don’t like me.

*

When I look back at that woman I was, not that long ago, I love/h– no, not hate. Is there a word for that tender but oh-so-indescribably-annoyed feeling one has for the foolish people we love? Ourselves?

Maybe that is love/love.

*

How do you pass on the wisdom of knowing that you only know of fraction of all that you don’t know — and nothing else?

How can you teach that the decision not to put a dog in the fight isn’t apathy, but perspective?

Not every route of least resistance is the foolish choice.

*

When I do the math, I see my grandfather must have been about 60 when he told me to stay away from Sartre. And at 80, he stopped going to church. The thirty-something preacher kept preaching about women obeying their husbands, and Grandpa called, “Bullshit.”

I didn’t ask him how he squared that with God’s rules.

*

When my Grandmother was 89 she stopped referring to African-American men as coloured boys. She voted for Obama. She laughed when I told her that her grandson was gay, and said that she “used to give a fig” about things like that.

*

I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.

*

I am afraid time will move backward and reveal that wisdom itself is an illusion. It’s just a matter of the “right” answers, according to the prevailing opinion.

*

Or maybe it’s all about learning not to give a fig.

*

I read poetry. Poetry that asks questions, and never offers answers. Poems that aren’t tied up with bows. Plays that don’t have “messages”.

*

I was making the rounds on the blog revival this morning, and the concept of empathy in poetry popped up twice. I was thinking about the links between empathy and sympathy.

About the impossibility of the surety of empathy. The narcissism of surety of knowledge. The quagmire of identity politics and reading, writing, theater-making.

And does all this empathy lead to catharsis? And it catharsis really a valuable experience? Does bypassing empathy — pure intellectual understanding — lead to social activism? Does unfettered narcissistic immersion in “feelings” lead to personal growth that contributes to a greater good?

(Forgive me, I have been teaching Brecht and Artaud again this term.)

Or does it all simply lead to self-satisfying, simple answers?20180120_182901

Maybe: “I just don’t know” is one of those.

*

Or maybe “I don’t know” is the wisdom of knowing when no one is listening for the questions.

The negative capability of wisdom.

The recognition of the ego-driven nature of persuasion.

*

Maybe all poetry is love/love poetry.

*

So I read. And I learn that I don’t/can’t know. (Like all the implications of Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem.)

And I write. And I feel misunderstood, and overlooked.

But I’ve grown up. At least grown up enough to drink. So now, I drink when I get rejection letters. Or when my writing is met with shrugs.

After a glass of wine, my inner critic no longer tells me I need to get the answers right for anyone.

After a glass of wine, she actually sounds a lot like Dorothy Parker — ’cause when she’s tipsy she sides with me, and turns on everyone else. She love/loves me. And I, her.

*

Like I said. I am afraid I’ll die before I become wise.

So, in the meantime. I’m going to go write a list of questions. Maybe if I leave enough questions in the world, someone will wrap my corpse in the mantle of old women’s wisdom.


Dave Bonta and Jennifer Saunders have some nice resumes of what they enjoyed from the revival last week. And Eric M.R. Webb lets us know Treehouse is up and running again.

And I am still ruminating over Jim Brock’s post about Virginia Woolf’s writing. And, oh, yeah – there’s that word again: empathy.

 

January 14, 2018.

Playwrights are poets who get lonely. –  Joy Gregory

I’ve written poetry as long as I can remember writing. And early on, I never saw a distinction between poetry-as-genre and the poetry found in a text of any genre. I intuitively understood poetry as a way to communicate something that transcends the specific, by means of the specific.

Yes, I’m aware that my definition is by no means universal. And I’m not trying to convince anyone to agree with me. I’m aware of the debate between the timely vs. timeless aspects of art, the universal vs. the specific. I respect that debate. But I’m not participating.

Neither am I precious about poetry. I don’t say that it is something I have to do, or I would die. I wouldn’t die. Though I suppose I’d be even more messed up than I am.

I aways return to it – even after having sworn if off more than a few times. I can’t avoid it – writing or reading whatever genre I stumble into.

When I ask myself what a poetry community might mean to me, I’m at a loss. When I was a child, we moved so frequently, and carried with us so many secrets, I found companionship in books. Dr. Seuss and A.A. Milne. Judy Bloom and Stephen King. Dickinson and Millay. It was a diverse community. Millay wrote plays. Helen Hayes wrote a memoir-cum-anthology-cum-love letter to the dead authors who wrote for her.

There was Shakespeare.

It’s always been about writing to the dead, I think. Even when addressing the living, I looked over their shoulder, with the faith that the people who spoke to me – I could speak back to, just as clearly. Eventually. With practice. Even if I’d landed on the wrong planet, at the wrong time to fit in. It is a comforting delusion that is difficult to walk away from.

I am the imaginative version of Emilie Dickinson – shouting from the top of the stairs. Genuinely happy for any company, desperately suspicious. Scared.

I am a Norwegian citizen. But not a Norwegian writer. I am not an American writer. A few years ago, I was excited when an American colleague wrote to tell me one of her students wrote about one of poems in her term paper. It turned out she mentioned the poem to criticise my use of formalist terminology.

Yay.

What is a writing community? Am I looking for the salon, or the table where the powerful people sit and write each other into the history books? Am I looking for commiserators, or competitors by which to gauge my progress and commitment?

Am I listening with an ear to conform or with the intention to empathise and learn? Learning to what end? Why do I need/want to be seen, and why do I fear it?

I question my own decision to return to playwrighting. All this time, all these years in a chosen self-exile, comfortably writing to the dead.

And what do I want from the living? Is it that, now, at mid-life (when so little about death is theoretical) I need someone to breathe life into the words while I’m still here?

Am I losing faith?

Am I lonely?


I’ve been considering the spring reboot of This Choice.

I’ve been thinking about what I wanted when I started, what I found fulfilling, and what I didn’t.

I’d wanted conversations. And I did have some really lovely conversations. (One left me in tears!) But when I did get involved in the discussion, I would edit it out – concerned that any listener would think the project was about self-promotion.

As a result, my original idea of podcast “conversations” quickly evolved into straight interviews, in which people talked about themselves, promoted their work. When people asked me my opinion or about my experience, I’d say, “Oh, but we are talking about you” and I’d edit it out.

Several times, when saying goodbye, people thanked me for the “service” I was doing for the community.

Funny that a project I began as a way to reach out and find a sense of kinship became even more isolating for me as a writer.

Something happened lying in the hospital bed this summer. I learned it is important that I am honest with myself about how I spend my time – and why.

IMG_20171121_093440_587I want to try again.

It was never my intension to provide “a service to the community”. As crappy as that sounds – I just wanted to talk with writers I admired.

So. I am the imaginative Emilie Dickinson.

I just might suck it up–and come
down the stairs to meet you-

January 12, 2018.

This morning I logged my exercise on the Dailymile.com site, reading through the feed, commenting on other people’s workouts. One man wrote that he and his wife have started eating steel cuts oats for breakfast. He uploaded a photo of the oatmeal in the ceramic cooker.

Comfort Food.

I haven’t eaten oats for years, but I vividly remember a single morning – in a cold kitchen, wearing wool socks and stirring oatmeal with a wooden spoon. I remember looking out the window at the bright light reflecting from the ice on the clothesline in the garden. I remember the sound of the bird: a great tit, whose song is like rusty bed springs. 

When I think of this morning, it is never about eating the oatmeal. It’s about the sensual details of a single moment, of an average morning. The heat on my face, the light weight of the spoon pressing against the burping mass. It’s what oatmeal means to me. So, for a moment this morning in my quiet little library, it all came back to me: rusty bed springs, wool socks, and all.  The experience of comfort is reliant on the experience of discomfort. Wool socks provide comfort when pressed against a hard, cold floor. Birdsong is heightened when its squeaks and pauses sound contrast to the constant whoosh of the hair dryer minutes before, resonating against bathroom tiles.

Remembering all this, I think I shared this guy’s post-run oatmeal happiness this morning.

*
This afternoon I saw that a poet I admire posted a beautiful painting by Harry Clifford Pilsbury on Facebook. It’s captioned “Reading is

My cup of tea.

26731726_164853274244461_1424927367534521135_n
Harry Clifford Pilsbury (1870-1925)

*
This evening I sit with “my cup of tea”. It’s white tea with a bit of orange rind. And I finish reading the play Emilie: La Marquise Du Chätelet Defends her Life Tonight by Lauren Gunderson.

I haven’t decided if it is my cup of tea. I love the subject matter – the imaginative take on the story of a historical woman. But there are a lot of big words in here:

Emilie: There must be a trigger in women that sways us to forget the bruises of certain activities like childbirth, men, and other dangerous sports. It’s either madness, or martyrdom, … or hope.

Emilie’s former lover hears of her pregnancy by another man:

Voltaire: I’ve decided that I’m happy.

Emilie: Good to hear it.

Voltaire: For you.

Emilie: Oh. Thank you.

Voltaire: Do you love him?

Emilie: I do. V, he’s effortless. Passionate and gentle, and his poetry’s not bad at all, and he makes me want to… (she jumps in place…)

All clichés are rooted in a sensual truth, so there is a fine line when using them is simply indicating a truth, rather than conveying one. I guess that’s why I admire it all the more when writers dare to rub up so close against them-

*

-or get behind them as Katie Ford does with The Soul:

It disappeared.
It reappeared
as chimney smoke
that burnt through carcasses
of swallows stilled,
and that it portrayed no will
was why I followed that smoke
with this pair of eyes. (…)

*

Thursday evening I went to the theater. So I had to reschedule the poet bloggers revival tour for Saturday morning. I hope it’s cold outside. I don’t eat oatmeal these days, but I will make something to that will require using a wooden spoon. I will pull on a pair of wool socks, and take a cup of tea to the library to tune into all the singing out there.

 

Week two of a new year, and still settling into a new routine. Putting every-little-thing into the google calendar, with the repeat option turned on.

I’ve been enjoying reading the posts on the poetry blog revival tour. I’ll be setting aside Thursday evenings to focus on taking part in the “conversation”.  From here–from this little desk in this little library (bibliotekette) in Norway’s little breadbasket. Perhaps it will be a way to celebrate solitude, but feel less lonely?

This week they are draining the silos. The sharp, sick-sweet smell of fermented hay cuts through the morning cold as we run past the farms. I miss the cows. We are running so early now, I miss the mornings’ convention of crows, too. I have to admit a self-congratulatory pride in beating the proverbial early bird to the trailhead. Having the chance to relish the quiet feels like a personal achievement. I hear E. breathing next to me. My own breath. And our footfalls, slightly out of sync – but pleasantly so. Like a deliberate  syncopation. It is too dark to see the lake, but I know it is there.

20180106_145518It is the inky-blackness beyond the dead rushes. Absent, and present.

I long to hear the lake sing again. It’s been nearly three years since it was frozen as far as one could see, twisting and thwanging in the dark like some goddess let loose in the dark to play her unique harp. Or to skate over the rings of ice, playing them like a warped LP.

I guess things don’t always come as cleanly as the seasons on the calendar. The goddesses keep their own schedules. Rhythms. Deliberately syncopated.


Sharing a bit of Steve Mueske‘s poem “Skating Lessons” from his book A Mnemontic for Desire. Ghost Road Press, 2006.

She is young, someone’s
mercy, bundled in the brittle cold.

She has come a long way across the ice, cutting
her own story in the intaglio

of curves and lines there. […]


Thanks for reading!

Poetry is the Unknown Guest in the House
 – according to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in Poetry as Insurgent Art

“Stash your sell-phone” 

20180101_121700569138754.jpgIn 2017 I used an app to delete all my contacts from my Facebook account, and decided to begin blogging again. I was concerned about what social media was doing to my reading comprehension, about what it was doing to my psyche.

I have read somewhere that we humans sort the world into discrete categories as best we can, so that we can make quick (and life-saving) decisions: a creature in the shadows whose breathing is audible, whose breath smells like copper is a Predator.

(It could be a deer, but better safe than sorry in the moment.)

It seems to me that this kind of quick judgement is the norm in a social media jungle. The immediacy. The rush. People (myself included) read a headline, write a quick opinion, and move on. It began to feel more like a cut-throat game of tag than a conversation.

Am I alone in feeling as though I’ve been continually on red alert? Watching, and defending myself against threats? Trolls. People whose politics differ from mine. The 10 things I am doing wrong in regard to my toaster oven – or my pentameter.

I was thinking about The Giver last night. And Brave New World. And wondering if anyone out there has written a dystopic novel in which the People in Power had managed to invent a kind of drug that entailed no manufacturing expenses, no distribution expenses, and one which the masses self-administered – eagerly – making people’s very minds bio-billboards for products (and non-products) for sale. One-click purchases for the dopamine junkies.

Possible titles? Likes. Or Attention Economy.

I feel as though I have fallen into a post-Absurdist rabbit hole of inclusion addiction.  The thought of being irrelevant and untethered in this international, intercultural, intergenerational buzz of avatars is terrifying.

“Great poets are the antennae of the race, with more than rabbit ears.” (L.F.)

What is it to be a poet in this world? International, intercultural, intergenerational. Virtual.

My social-media life was the opposite of poetry. Since 2016, I’ve experienced it as divisive. I am tired of labels.  Even the silly ones. What kind of pizza are you? Which French philosopher? I understand that categories are useful. Scientists find use in them. But poets shouldn’t. Poets are occupied with the truth. And the truth is always a platypus.

I crave the deep work. The work of sincere attention necessary for poetry. I want to close my eyes and rediscover my senses. I want to fight against the stenciled concepts I’ve adopted.

I was surprised, and pleased to see Donna Vorreyer’s tweet about a poetry blog revival last week.

“Poetry assuages our absolute loneliness in the lonely universe.” (L.F.)

I feel less alone in my longings, though still anxious. How can I participate in a poetry community in a healthy way?

Gertrude Stein said she wrote for strangers and herself. Last year I wrote open letters to specific people, as an attempt to ground myself in virtual relationships. This year, I will write open letters on the subject of poetry – to myself.  I will be working on my relationship with poetry.

“A poem is still a knock on the door of the unknown.” (L.F.) 

They say if a writer has a website or blog, we are obligated to consider that the reader is asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

If you have read this far, then I suppose you are the stranger to whom I’m writing: the unknown guest. I don’t know what’s in it for you. Maybe if a word here somehow opens a door to your own deep work, we are a poetry community in this immediate virtual space.

And maybe you will write back to this stranger, and show me a bit of your unknown?

Poetry is not a “product”, it is an elementary particle. […] The poet pieces the wild beast together. (L.F.)

Thank you for reading. 

(p.s. The poetry blog revival blogs can be reached via the links page.)