A Little Announcement

I promised myself a publication date of April 1, 2021. And I managed to pull it off … after what seems like so many years of just thinking about it.

This is the first and only time I will duplicate much of the content of my monthly newsletter in my blog posts. But since I have a whopping dozen on my list so far… I’m spreading the news thick as peanut butter today because I am proud, excited, and a little bit desperate to sell a few books despite my lack of marketing skills:

Mad Orphan Lit is a private publishing project for hand-bound multimedia poetry books, and broadsides (on handmade paper) by Ren Powell.

I realized this week that, although Mad Orphan Lit has been a long time in the planning, everything is a process and I have been working steadily toward this – at a slant.

When my first book was published in 1999, the original concept with the publisher was a coffee table book of light verse and photography on the theme of childbirth. For reasons I won’t go into, the book wound up a traditional paperback. Though, I was still both grateful and proud of my first book.

The next books were beautiful hardback, bilingual editions of not-so-light poetry with Wigestrand Publishing in Norway. I have also been fortunate to work with Beth Adams at Phoenicia Publishing in Canada on a selected poems book called Mercy Island. Still, all this time, I wanted to work more holistically with the presentation of the poetry.

I have always cared about how the words look on the page. And I have always had a drive to work with studio art – in college, I shifted my major back and forth from art twice.

I’ve wanted to literally be more “hands-on” with my poetry books. About ten years ago I took a book-binding course with the award-winning binder, and expert teacher Ingeir Djuvik. I made blank books at first. Then personal planners. Then I wrote a poetry book for my now-husband. A one-of-a-kind. And the idea for Mad Orphan has been brewing since then.

Who knows, maybe it was the physical isolation of the pandemic, the consequential need for touch, that pushed me onto the playing field finally?

Mad Orphan Lit’s first project is IMPERMANENCE

The project began with my daily meditation on the philosophical problem of impermanence, and the Noble Truth that our suffering is caused by our inability to accept (or even see) impermanence. The poems and the visual/physical presentation of the work evolved together.

The bust was made of plaster and paper mache (using my handwritten poems for the project ripped into strips). I photographed the bust in various locations in the Jæren landscape of Norway. If you read my blog, you already know the story of how I lost my head: it was supposed to break up slowly in the waterfall during filming. Instead, it was taken by the current and slipped under an old mill house - trapped by the torrent of water, the wooden beams, and the rocks.

That’s the way of things, isn’t it?


The process of writing, making, and destroying poetry objects.

Monoprints, handwriting, and sewing.


A Conceptual Multimedia Artwork:
42 Poems
Photography, Handwritten text
Acrylic Monoprints

Moroccan handmade paper (hardcover)
Double-Needle Coptic Stitching
(note: this intentionally loose stitch allows for an open-back and “lay flat” binding)
15 X 20 cm, 60 pages
Text block: 160gsm acid-free, ethically resourced paper

120 EURO Limited series of 10
April, 2021
Now on sale now at Mad Orphan Bookshop.

NB: Paperback facsimiles available here for 15 USD plus shipping.


“Ren Powell’s Impermanence acts as a reminder, both visual and visceral–in its physiological meaning (the heart, the gut)–that we live in and through the stories we tell. The cursive in her illustrations operates as one of several connectors that loop through her poems until these pictures and words combine to create, as she puts it, origami boxes: “your stories/ folding in on themselves.”
– Ann E. Michael, poet

“The delicate exquisiteness of this text, the stories Ren tells, via poems I whispered aloud, is added to, and enhanced, by the artworks created by Ren… I reach page 10, completely in love with the artwork. I turn the pages, as much to read the next poem, as to discover the next piece of art. The clarity of, ‘and we remember it/and we tell it/differently’.  The poem seems to float somewhere between the space that is Art, and the everyday reality of recognising a life truth… Reading this collection of poetry, I feel the presence of Ren … wise woman, teller of tales, wandering woman, warrior woman. A woman prepared to share her journeys, both real and imagined. A woman who makes a paper mache bust of her self and takes it out into the world to create images that further delight a mind already seduced by the power of her poetry. This book, IMPERMANENCE … I can only write that I found so much pleasure in its pages.
– Di Mackey, photographer and writer

“… you look up day after day surprised by the foreign landscapes of your own making” Ren Powell’s seventh poetry collection dissects the minutiae of life, and puts it back together in different unfamiliar shapes. Impermanence is what we are. In this collection of new poems, Ren Powell turns the human condition into a collage of words, drawings, and the blank spaces between breaths.
-Richard Pierce, poet/novelist/radio personality


Please consider signing up for my monthly newsletter that announces new books, broadsides, and other projects that I’m publishing all by my lonesome. And I promise not to turn my blog into a spammy series of adverts.

Oh, and if not for yourself, maybe buy a book as a gift for someone you love. (My upcoming project is designed as a gift book: a notebook with writing prompts for poets and yoga-enthusiasts.)

Thank you for your time!


The Emotion of Textures

I used to have a bag of clay in the corner of my atelier here at the house. Which didn’t make much sense since the room was set up for bookbinding. For a year maybe -as a form of meditation – I made tiny begging bowls that I would return to the bag of clay each day.

The bag of clay dried out before long.

wp-1467116767648.jpgI haven’t really worked with clay since I was 13. I had an art teacher then who let me use the kick-wheel during lunch breaks. Mr. Shannon didn’t teach or instruct me that year. He was my mentor.

Once he gave me a set of watercolors and a salt shaker and said, Get at it.

Once he made a blind so I couldn’t see the paper while I drew my own hand, and I have been fascinated by the tactile quality of lines ever since.

Later I learned that Edouard Manet said there are no lines in nature. That is because line is a language. And, like my grasp of Norwegian, here my comprehension far exceeds my composition skills.

Another time, Mr. Shannon asked me to describe all the colors I could see in a white hat – worn by a cowboy in a Marlboro ad in a Smithsonian magazine –  if I remember correctly.

Not even black and white are black & white.

At the end of that year, my life was uprooted (again), and I lost whatever I was connecting to then. But the desire remains even now.

When I experience nostalgia, it is like this: small moments of half-discoveries. And nostalgia’s inherent fear of the unmet potentials.

Still, everytime I hold a rough piece of ceramic I am flooded with a calming and full ambivalence. There are days I wonder why I’ve not thrown out all of the dishes and settled with a few scratchy, glazed bowls and a few wooden spoons.

I suppose this really is the very definition of nostalgia? If I ever won the lottery, I would have a second, tiny home made of roughly-hewn cedar – and I would fill it with wool and beeswax.

Cinder block frightens me.

But so does snow.

img_20161007_095640Paper can make me weep with grief.

Handling old books is cathartic. And I cannot – and don’t want to – explain it.

I trace marginalia with my finger.


Last year I asked E. to give me Play Doh for Christmas. Now I have a small plastic box on my desk. It smells like my childhood: plastic.


I suppose my experience is more associative than it is synaesthetic.

I hold the Play doh. I squeeze it like a stress ball.

I make ephemeral, unnaturally green begging bowls.

Truth be told: I am still too timid to leave a begging bowl – of any kind – in the world.






Tree of Life: Redux

Read The Body, A Tree yesterday. It was like having a conversation with another grown-up. A shameless matter-of-fact of the body and its history – its histories. Recognition and leaps of identification. “Not exactly, but”: I get it. The humor and the ease that comes with knowing that here are knots that will need to be patiently untangled, or negotiated around. Struggling is a youthful waste of energy. Tantrums.

img_20161125_095157Although this may not at all be what the poet intended. This step back, and this admiration for life itself. For the linear/non-linear branching of a tree that is the imprint of the body in the world, in time, in space.

This lover, that lover. I read that women might retain the DNA fragments of every man she has been with. Chimeras.

Would be nice to think our bodies might be redemptive of those who have done us wrong. Might renew what is good. A kind of homeopathic remedy for the species.

Our gradual dying is a gathering of life. We spill our seed in the earth eventually. We turn from lovers to mother our mothers. We turn to lovers. Late summer fruit* is the sweetest, the wettest.

*from Amy MacLennan‘s poem “Kintsukuroi” (follow link, scroll down)

Friday Morning through a Purple Filter

Dear Richard,

This week has been difficult. I believe I’m having a little emotional relapse. I’m having a difficult time accepting the world we live in. But I am going to leave that there for now.  Instead I’ll write about one of those moments you try to catch. Mental snapshots. Has poetry, and the drive to write poetry, always been just Instagram with words?

Only far less popular? (That is as profound as I am going to get this morning.)

Holly in the Headlight

The old lady is here again this week. Last night I took her for a walk around the block. My rain clothes are black, and there are sections of the neighborhood with very poor lighting. Strange how the rain allows asphalt to swallow all the light. I wear an LED headlamp on nights like this. And every time I exhale, I watch a cloud form in front of me. There are glimmers of blue and red in the light of the headlamp. It becomes very meditative: watching the cloud form again and again. Only, instead of thinking about peace and the effortlessness of a Buddhist life, I think about the Little Engine that Could and how it seems every moment is a struggle against stillness. Life itself a disruption, the workhorse of a universe that would much rather remain at rest.

No wonder I feel tired this morning.

Your friend is probably right. Maybe it is this time of year that we should be pulling out the pots and pans, and banging them  with wooden spoons like angry nisse? Lighting candles. It has been a rough week. I think I said that. But it has also been a week that demands that I put things in context. In a larger context. And be grateful.

A few years ago a colleague and I traveled abroad with the students. When we returned we talked about how difficult they had been. How they had complained the entire week, had been negative and demanding. Slowly, while we talked over a glass of wine, we came to the realization that it had been a single student – one of thirty – who had actually been difficult. We had just given him so much space in our awareness. We had allowed him to color the trip for us. And, as a consequence, and in turn, we had probably colored the trip for the other students.

I have been having to pull up that lesson this week. It’s like when I was 8 and ate a strawberry with a worm in it. It was years before I ate another strawberry. I used to love strawberries. I still approach them with caution. I have you ever eaten raw a worm? It tastes nothing like a strawberry. Should be easy really not to associate the two in my mind by now. To untangle it.

I suppose expectations matter, too, don’t they? When we expect people to be completely honest and we encounter lies of omission it’s all the more painful. I think those are the worst kinds of lies because the person on the receiving end is complicit. Who are we to assume the world is as we wish it to be? Especially when it comes to other people. At least at my age, I cannot say anyone has shaken my faith in human beings, or influenced the way I choose to interact with them. It’s more like one of those slow-motion scenes where you step where you knew you shouldn’t have, your foot goes through the ice and you realize, while it is plunging ankle-deep into the water, that you knew better and hadn’t been paying attention. You limp home, pushing down the  bile of self-reproach. (Oh my, that was purple).

So it’s a purple morning.

Funny this about lies of omission relates loosely to Bee Bones (which I finished last night). I won’t say more. I read an aquaintence’s novel (NYT Bestseller) and had wanted to write on facebook about how it is a contemporary version of Anna Karenina. That would have ruined it for many. I won’t ruin Bee Bones for anyone. I enjoyed it. Again. I suppose I could say it puts a real twist in the “road trip” genre. 

The old lady is lying here in the bibliotekette. Snoring softly. She hasn’t licked her paw this morning and I wonder if it will be already to let her be without the cone while I’m at work today. Last night she walked through the kitchen and knocked over several potted plants. Poor thing. I guess it isn’t really connected to her being so old. Puppies have a difficult time with plastic headgear, too, but I get the feeling that she is ashamed because she expects better of herself.

Rereading, I do believe all of that in the last paragraph was more an exercise in projection than an actual digression. Apropos self-analysis through an examination of one’s own writing (ie the subconscious at work) that we were talking about.

Switching gears: and back to your letter. Birthdays. I have this fear that I will forget my kids’ birthdays. In May, for example, I will get panicky that I have let something slip by (both were born in the fall). I actually get a jolt of electricity running through my arms at the thought. I have no idea if there is some psychological explanation for what is going on, but I harbor this fear as deeply as I do the fear of car accidents, or late night phone calls. And, now, what if I forget my wedding anniversary? E. Is such a romantic. He’d be hurt. Even with google calendar, I “misremembered” my doctor’s appointment this week. I scheduled simultaneous activities. I had to reschedule a chiropractor appointment three times this week because I forgot about work obligations.

I would worry, but this isn’t new.

You know when you have those perfect moments you wish could last forever? This has been such a weekend.

I think we should both write a short story about being caught in the perfect moment forever. I have a feeling it would be hell for me. Like being stuck in Sarte’s hotel room with no eyelids, no blinking, no respite. Wouldn’t it be like eating cake for breakfast, cake for luch and cake for dinner? We need our conflicts. Or I do.

I bet bacon is a good remedy for marispan overload.

Now sure what exactly is a remedy for purple prose, though.

I should get to work. Should write a poem or two.

Much love to you! (Thank you for Bee Bones.)


P.S. Have been having trouble sleeping the past weeks, so I thought I would sleep better if I skip the wine on weeknights. It seems to help. Damn it.

Richard’s Reply


This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.


Advent and Melancholy

Dear Richard,

I hope that this letter finds you recuperating from the dentistry work, and feeling better in general.

This time of year is so difficult  to push through isn’t it? I have to dig deep to find an energy source. I leave for my day job in the dark; head home in the dark. It’s no wonder I feel disconnected from the days, and time itself. I wonder if anyone is actually energized in the Advent season? Or is that why it was invented? A way to force us out of bed and complacency with an obligation to dig out the Christmas lights from the attic to put them in the windowsill (so the neighbors don’t think you’re a lazy Scrooge), and make gift lists, debating which trinket will make another person happy?

Our lights aren’t in the window yet. (Although the door wreath is up, and I have begun a mental list.) I’m also getting some work done: The latest podcast is up, and I’m making progress on other projects. (I’m shortlisted for a performance collaboration in London, so I hope you’ll keep your fingers crossed for me.)

Screenshot 2016-12-02 19.33.04.png
The train was delayed this morning. But that meant I saw the sunrise.

I’m having trouble concentrating. As I type this, I think about a conversation I had yesterday with a student who is struggling with the same thing.  I talked to her about recognizing when to push back at the world, and when to relax, gather strength; and to never beat oneself up for not being perfect. Now my own advice comes back to me with a wink. This seems to happen a lot. This kind of synchronicity can either strike me in completely narcissistic terms – believing everything in the universe is designed to be a personal message for me – or it can open me to the fact that I am in no way unique, and that I’m completely blind in terms of my own weaknesses… and wisdoms. I’m ashamed to say I often have to remind myself of the latter. I so easily slip into magical thinking. For comfort, really, not out of narcissm.

I hope.

And speaking of magical thinking: according to the podcast I was listening to, there have to be rules. Otherwise there would be no conflict: magic could potentially solve every situation. So, aside from dealing with time-travel paradoxes, there would be no drama if everything were possible. Each magic universe still needs consistent rules. No rules, no conflict. No conflict, no growth, I suspect.

It’s beginning to sound like I think that a tendency towards moral reasoning is built into our brain structure? Or maybe not. Maybe it just our need to rationalize (be rewarded for) suffering? Have you read much Eastern literature? From what I understand, there is no moral fine print to their stories. At least in terms of horror stories. In the West, the ghosts and demons target the corrupted or confused; but in the East, those hauntings are arbitrary. There is no reason for the haunting, it just is. They don’t rationalize evil.

I wonder if that is just their post-WW2 Absurdism? I wonder if that is where our stories will go now. Has the average person in the West finally, subconsciously,  given in to radical existentialism?

I wrote an article for a magazine a few years ago about how superheroes are no longer challenged morally. For example, when Toby Maguire’s Spiderman saves the day, he is also unmasked (accidently) and people on the subway see him. Fame. Reward. I always thought that the whole point with those superhero disguises was that it was proof that they were doing what was right because it was right, not because they would be rewarded. Spiderman even got the girl in that rendition of the story. Remember the Superman films of the 70s? He lost the girl. Sacrificed.  Because our basic story is still built on Christian mythologoy. Or was.

I am all for morally ambiguous characters and stories. But is that all we have now? And if it is all we have, have we lost the framework conflict? That is, have we lost sight of a moral norm? If so, there is not moral ambiguity, only moral irrelevance. It all is becomes Jean Genet’s game of: “I’ll play the bad guy, so you can play the good guy.” And then we lose the framework the dichotomy game all together. It is a lot like a magic universe with no rules: kind of pointless. No arc. No meaning.

Can you tell I have reached the time of year where I cover the 50s and 60s in Theater History? Every year I seem to circle back to another superficial look at the meaning of life.

You wrote about your “mild depression”: “But the last thing I want to do is to have the energy and the words cured away. Because, truthfully, that would be death.”

I’m always reluctant to define depression. But for me, there is a difference between melancholy and depression. I define it where it tips into what you describe as “death”: where the energy and words are gone. Depression (for me) isn’t an emotion, it is a lack of emotion. An emptiness. It isn’t sadness, anger or even despair. It is the point of numbness. Sometimes therapy has meant getting back in touch with the pain.

I remember when I was very little, lying in bed and thinking about the universe and trying to wrap my head around infinity. How the solar system was a shoe box, but then outside that shoe box was the universe, and a bigger shoe box. And another, even bigger shoe box. And it just continued, each box darker and emptier – until I was so far away from the light that I felt nothing. Nothing mattered. Untethered already at the age of 6.

That was depression, even then. Makes me melancholy to think about it.

“Writing as a quest for redemption”. I think you’re onto something there. Before one needs redemption, a quest for meaning, for wish-fullfilment? I am not sure about original sin, but yeah – I do think sometimes that I was born with shame. (Wait. Is that proof I’m not a narcissist? Or is that proof I’m not a sociopath?)

Is writing an attempt to create a parrallel life? I wrote a short story in high school (I remember because it won an award, and I was disappointed when my mother was utterly unimpressed). It was about woman who sought out her biological father, only to find him a lonely old man, working as a clown at a circus. It was only thirty or so years later that I realized the story was about my desire to track down my father. I swear that was not on my mind when I wrote it. Clearly, it was in it. Today, I find it sadly funny to think what my mother must have made of the story.

I had an ex-boyfriend who read a copy of mixed states and told me that it made his wife uncomfortable since so much of it was about my relationship with him. I was so confused. I have no idea which part of the book was about him. I wonder if, thirty years from now, I’ll see it, too? Maybe it is just the fact that we just repeat our mistakes so often everyone we know recognises us in them?

Do people’s readings of the “layers” of Dead Men cause you to ask yourself what is going on in your subconscious? Do you find yourself looking to your novels to understand yourself better?

Is Ice Child melancholy? Have you returned to it yet? Do you think it will be infused with political undertones because of what you are passionate about these days?

This weekend I’m reading Bee Bones again. E. and I talked about reading The Failed Assassin together. We are still considering what awkwardness might ensue were we to begin thinking too hard about who wrote it and all, though.

Yeah. That maybe shouldn’t be a sentence for public consumption. Then again, you wrote an erotic novel and put your name on it.

And I admire you for it.

E. has lit a fire downstairs and I’m heading down with wine and frozen grapes. We’ll try to find a film we can compromise on. You boys and your battles scenes. (You do know, though, that all women my age are really just into HP because of Snape, right?)

Much love to you and M. I hope the weekend is a lovely long luxurious birthday celebration for her.


ps. I have no idea when your birthday is, either.


Richard’s reply

This is one of a series of weekly open letters to friends – friends who write back to me on their own blogs. Please click through.  Category: Correspondence.

If you’d like to catch up, read the letters in chronological order here.