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

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

Monoprints, handwriting, and sewing.

THE BOOK

IMPERMANENCE by Ren Powell
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.

THE GOSSIP

“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

THE PLEA

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!

MAD ORPHAN LIT. BOOKSHOP

I don’t usually write on Mondays, so I am not feeling that guilty for spending the morning painting and the afternoon sewing signatures.

This is a dream that has been on the back burner for years. Fifteen years, at least. So it is both exhilarating and terrifying to be following through. I have so many plans.

And weirdly, I think that actually doing this instead of dreaming about it, will free me up to relax more, read more, be more generous in general.

Eh, could just be the medication kicking in.

Either way, this is me: warts and all – and I can accept the world, too – warts and all, because this is real life and this is what we get and it is … wonderful, really.


Please consider signing up for my monthly newsletter, so I can let you know what I’m up to with Mad Orphan Lit.?

Subscription received!

Please check your email to confirm your newsletter subscription.

I have an odd pile of books on my desk this morning. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Inconspicuous Consumption: The environmental impact you don’t know you have. How to Love a Country. Langston Hughes – Selected Poems. The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Diary.

There are nine other books and a rhyming dictionary also piled on. I need to sort through my shelves again. And I seriously need to stop buying books for a while. All the things I would love to do with my time. More reading. Perhaps reviewing. Certainly celebrating the poets I love. Deciding what projects to take on can be overwhelming. And there is fitting it into a life with a day job that can suck the joy right from the source at times.

Books make me feel less alone. Less peculiar. I have noticed that when I feel isolated and lonely, I go on book-buying sprees. Every book is a potential: this one will save me. I blame it on my religious upbringing: The Word is God. The answers are in the scripture. When every adult around you is an idiot, there is a near-ancient authority that has left riddles to be untangled.

There is hope, here: on the page. In the verses that sing.

I’m taking a course on visual poetry right now and am fascinated by asemic poetry. I am surprisingly drawn to it. Moved by it. After spending years studying formal poetry and analyzing poems with a chair and a rubber hose (despite Billy Collin’s objections), I am finding an instinctive satisfaction in holding the handwriting up to the light. Acknowledging the humanity, the creative mind present. The philosopher Denis Dutton said that one of the universal criteria for art is evidence of individual expression. Another is craftsmanship. Another is that the work is somehow imbued with emotion.

And in my mind poetry is the leap we make between the poet’s material expression and the poet’s subjective experience that demanded expression. In other words, all poetry is itself a meta-metaphor: the poem is the vehicle and the poet’s subjective experience is the tenor. And it seems to me that if we recognize this vehicle/tenor without putting it into words (creating new metaphors), then we are perhaps communicating in a more directly visceral way.

People have worked for years trying to decipher the Voynich manuscript because we recognize the human hand. We have this feeling that there is something important here. If someone were to ever unlock the code (if there is one) it would no doubt be anti-climatic. Our intellectual evaluation of the work would suck the joy right out of the visceral experience. We would lose the emotional connection with the artist by creating an intellectual one. One step removed.

Let’s not know. Let’s let the mystery be.

E.’s mother tongue is not English, and often when he reads my poetry he says: It sings so beautifully. Sometimes he has no idea what the ten-letter words mean. Sometimes I have leaped too far between vehicle and tenor the metaphor is lost. But it sings.

That matters.

I am, however, not convinced that I can unlearn everything I have worked so hard to more-or-less master. I have been thinking that surely someone has already studied this with regard to the modernists. I am sure there are books on my shelf now that I would better understand were I to dive in now and read them again.

But I’m not going to. I’m going to stay here with the visceral, practical work. I’m going to move my hand over paper and play. And look at all the beautiful evidence of humanity on display.

A circle with lines
radiating from a center
and I understand
she feels the sun on her skin
and knows how to tell me this

Rarely is my day so turned on its head. I should be in bed now, not typing. And technically, I shouldn’t be having a glass of wine. But here I am. And the day has been… tolerable-to-good. And lately, that means very good.

I didn’t write this weekend because I was working on the manuscript. Finishing, proofreading, formatting. It is incredibly satisfying. I still have moments of insecurity – of full-on panic – and then moments of resting in a kind of contentment.

“I made this.”

How do we hold on to that feeling and resist showing the work to someone for that (for me anyway) inevitable disappointment when someone says, “it’s good”. Like it’s a fallen souffle. Or at least it leaves me feeling very much like a fallen souffle. I always ask myself: What do you expect? Fireworks? I don’t know.

You would think at my age, I could just relish the helium-my-chest feeling and not need verification.

Memories flood back to me. My family of origin expected very little of me. Didn’t hide their surprise when I did something well. When the school asked to put me in the gifted class, my mother said I was too lazy.

Okay. So now I have slipped from personal to private in this diary. And from relatable to – well, not. That is why I should write in the morning with a cup of coffee on the desk, not a glass of whine.

Confidence is a slippery fish, isn’t it? Good to have. But if you carry it around too long, you stink.

Promising, they said.
I have caught up with myself –
middle of the road –
where I can walk fearlessly
into an unknown future

(Not much this Monday, but it is a commitment met.)

Every year I forget what a lapwing sounds like. Last night, walking Leonard after sunset I heard a familiar voice literally circling me. I spun around, following the direction of each call, to try to get a glimpse of the bird flying low to the ground: lapwing?

But I slowly realized it was an oystercatcher. They’re back.

The lapwing won’t be far behind.

This morning the sky is such a convincing blue, you’d swear there’d never be another day of white winds and sleet.

I am ready for a change of season. Even if it means clearing out the greenhouses and beginning again.

Not going in to the school to work these weeks has been slightly disorienting. I lose track of the days. The months, even. But I have managed to pack all of those concerns into a box and stick it in the corner of my headspace. I’ll get back to it. But for now, all is quiet. There’s no kicking from inside the box. No noise. I am hoping when I open it again all the drama will have sorted itself out. When I am ready to open it, I will dig around and pull out Hope first. And let her sit beside me while I sort through the rest.

I’ve been waiting for a nudge from the gut. A little sense of lack, a desire to “get back to it”. I should be missing my students by now. But not yet. A cup of tea, the tapping of the keyboard’s keys, the squawk of the crow out the window is enough for today. Again.

Leonard drops onto the rug in this tiny library and sighs. This is enough.

I am easing back into my old routines with yoga and meditation before writing. It’s still not easy. I keep thinking of Sisyphus getting that rock going. And of Jack and Jill and the frightening joy of tumbling down. When was the last time I lay in the grass and rolled down a hill?

Spun until I fell down?
Chewed on a dandelion?
Let an ant crawl on the back of my hand?
Shook sand out of my hair?

Yeah, all this “forest bathing” I do, and I am still just observing.

I watch and listen
as though being separate
from the world this way
were the safest thing to do
– this way to preserve a life