NEW POEM DRAFT: “Darkless Prayer for the Longful”

Posted On June 30th, 2014

Terrible news of the struggles of a friend’s infant son to survive prompted this poem recently, which ends up being (as T. S. Eliot would say ALL poems do) about the act of writing itself. Keep tiny Graham in your prayers!

Darkless Prayer for the Longful

Some people have more guts
than they will ever need.
I wish that were the reason

some babies are born
with their intestines
on the outsides of their bodies

in a small sac, as they were
with your son, born
already willing and able to give.

I wish this in the same way
I wish sometimes
certain words existed that do not,

words like darkless, to be utterly
and completely without
darkness. I wish I had more darkless news,

you wrote of tiny Graham, who has died
so many times
and been brought back that he has become

a miracle modern medicine
can perform again and again
but never heal. Once, years ago, feeling longful,

needy, and sad, I searched online
for longful, just to see
if it was a real word I had permission to use.

But all I could find were people, hundreds,
all searching and asking
the same questions—Is longful a word
 
I can use? To be filled with longing?—
which was just
the permission I was looking for.

Last night, I went to the “open mic night” at The Jalopy Theater . . .

Posted On June 11th, 2014

. . . and no one knew who I was, an unremarkable fact that I nevertheless found refreshing and humbling at the same time. I arrived too late to sign up myself, as I have witnessed other people do countless times at the poetry slam series I help run, and in a moment of integrity and maturity, I acted the way I always hope they will act in such situations, which is to sit down and enjoy the show. We were in Brooklyn, after all, the beloved home of Walt Whitman, who once famously wrote that great poetry requires “great audiences.” The world needs more people willing to listen.

The Jalopy Theater is a curious little gem of a space at the entrance to the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel a short bike ride from my house. It’s not quite Red Hook, I think, and too low and west to be part of Cobble Hill or Carroll Gardens, a typical Brooklyn neighborhood in that it is easier to say where it is not. It’s the ground floor performance space of an adult “roots” music school, and indeed many of the performers had just finished their evening classes. That’s right, it was an “open” mic where every single person called to the stage was a musician. I asked the organizer on the way out “Do you ever have poets?” and he said that it was a truly open mike, “so you can do whatever you want.” I resisted the urge to tell him that was not an answer to the question I asked, and just inferred that he meant “No, not in a long time.”

These were not word people, which was fun. One bearded dude sat down at the mic and said, “I’ve got a couple songs to play for you, and I hope you like it.” I smiled and looked around, hoping to make eye contact with the owner of another pair of smug and captious ears like mine—a half-dozen of which I could have found at my own venue—and found . . . nothing. No other grammar nerd looking around for corroboration and confirmation of his or her own superiority. These were singers, songwriters, and musicians: they have other skills and other concerns. And so they played. And they were good! Shaky, sure, and tentative at first, but everyone blooming a little under the nurturing rays of public scrutiny.

It was Tuesday night, June 10. And I was only there because the regular Tuesday poetry slam that I help curate in Manhattan—Urbana—happens to be on one of its two monthlong summer breaks. If I am ever to be found at The Jalopy Theater on a Tuesday night, it must be June or August. That’s the one downside of running your own series: that night of the week is simply unavailable to you; since I almost ALWAYS have something to do on Tuesdays, I can rarely do ANYTHING (else). It was great to be out of the house on a Tuesday and NOT to be doing anything other than listening to others play music.

I performed poems at a singer-songwriter open mic once before, and it was wonderful because they so rarely saw anyone like me in their circles. It was there that I met Jennifer Marks, maybe 15 years ago (a quick search turned up this gem from her website: “Hey there everyone. I hope that 2005 brings you everything you hope and wish for. I don’t make New Years resolutions but if I were to make one it would be to update my site more often.”) Jennifer said to me (and I’m paraphrasing now), “Musicians never get to see anyone like you! We tend to hide behind our instruments. No one here tonight could imagine standing in front of an audience armed with nothing but our words. You reminded us that words alone have incredible power if you know how to use them.”

So I’ll be going to the Jalopy Theater next Tuesday night, June 17th. But this time, I’ll get there by 8:45 pm in time to sign up. I’ll do my two “songs” like everyone else, and spend the rest of the time listening.

More than an anthology of poetry, a TROVE of inspiration and reserve

Posted On May 31st, 2014

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I’m happy to report that a book I wrote the introduction for is finally out and available. It’s called Teaching with Heart: Poetry that Speaks to the Courage to Teach, and it was edited by Sam Intrator and Megan Scribner, who have edited similar anthologies (and they’re all beautiful). They asked teachers to choose one poem that sustains them or reminds them why they chose to teach in the first place, and those poems are reprinted along with the teachers’s testimonials (which are often quite poetic as well). I remember exulting in poems I had never read or even heard of! The book is available everywhere now and makes a great end-of-the-year gift to a favorite teacher.

If you can’t beat them . . . MEET them!

Posted On May 13th, 2014

I’m developing a new lesson plan for middle school poetry workshops. For years, I have virtually OUTLAWED intentional rhyming in my workshops with early teens (usually to the effusive gratitude of the regular classroom teachers). I try to emphasize other things like honesty, originality, description, beauty, and risking looking like a fool (“When I was four Timothy told me that it was unhealthy to poop more than once every other day.” Yes! Go on! Everyone is listening!) Disappointed middle school MCs would often ask if it was okay if they rhymed “accidentally,” and I would always say “Sure.” After all, that pretty much describes the way I use rhyme: not with the sacred precision of an elegant choir—more like the bumbling of wet sneakers in a drier. But what usually followed was NO ACCIDENT! They were disingenuously claiming it was an accident so they could do what they wanted to do in the first place: work on their MC skillz. So I’m trying a new approach. I’m developing a lesson that will help middle school students write in rhyme that is less OBVIOUS. Where the rhymes are arranged so that they follow the narrative, instead of drive it. Stay tuned!

Read a NEW poem here every day in April!

Posted On April 2nd, 2014

(Poem 21 of 30)

The Secret Sisterhood of the Sneezy Feeling

for Rachel

When my father gave me the talk about sex
I was six, and we sat before the embers of a fire
from the night before, a party I don’t remember.

He spoke best when he had something to do
besides speaking, let love happen while we work—
morning, men, and the tools of the fire.

Everything I learned about sex and love and making
babies, I learned while conjuring a steady flame
from the ashes of last night’s laughter and song.

I love him for calling orgasm “the sneezy feeling,”
as much for its accuracy as for its understanding.
But then he exhaled a heavy sadness, and said

As wonderful as it is, the sneezy feeling—and it truly is—
there are some women who love it so much that they—

and that’s where our talk about sex ended!

Either because we were interrupted, or else
he thought his son too young for the truth
about some women, the ones who love orgasm so much

that they . . . I don’t know! Wear certain kinds of hats!?
Or smile in a special way? Like they have a song on their lips?
Or maybe a secret kind of fire in their eyes?

To this day I have no idea. And I blame my father
for my ignorance. As well for the tears of every woman
I have ever loved insufficiently. My father never

finished telling me about what you crave,
about your Secret Sisterhood of the Sneezy Feeling
and the things desire has driven you to do.

My father and his son, spellbound by the fire
before them, the fire we built together,
the one I see even now in your eyes.

A poem I wrote yesterday while writing together with a friend

Posted On March 25th, 2014

During the month of April, I’ll be posting a poem here (if I can) every day. But here’s one I wrote yesterday while sitting with the amazing Karen Grace trading writing prompts:

 

Snakes, the Dark, and Heights

I completely understand the human fear of heights
for I have looked over the edge of hotel balconies,
overlooks, and roadside precipices and fallen
half in love with falling, or at least jumping, feared
I might be halfway down before I fully understood
what I had done; the revulsion of the vision
at the bottom kept me here.

And also can I understand the snakes,
though it not be fair, perhaps, to condemn the species
based on the poison of a few, even if nature
doesn’t make mistakes; the hatred she put inside
us there must be part of how we’ve lasted so long.

But fear of darkness I don’t understand,
which even now I say the words out loud
is not exactly right, but rather how it is
we cannot find some place within ourselves
to overcome such fear, turn it maybe even into
a minor strain of love as I have done with silence,
which once I was afraid to wrap myself into
but now seek almost daily like a prayer.

Nightly comes the dark, and whosoever needs it
takes it in despite its many hands.

Greetings from Beijing, specifically . . .

Posted On March 10th, 2014

. . . the exact same hotel where all the families of the passengers on Malaysian Flight 370 are being put up, which means that the lobby is filled with reporters and TV news crews hoping to get interviews with desperate people in tears. Today I started teaching at the American International School of Beijing, and I’m jet lagged beyond belief. Combine that with the dystopian haze that hangs in the air daily in Beijing, and I feel strangely dislocated. I would have tweeted this or posted it to Facebook, but of course both of those sites are blocked here.

AWP 2014 ends with a bang!

Posted On March 2nd, 2014

And that bang was Page Meets Stage with Rachel McKibbens (pictured), Tara Hardy, Jamaal May, and Nick Flynn! I changed up the format this year and made it more of a free-flowing round robin, which shifted the emphasis from poets to poems. But still, no poet ever did more than one poem in a row so the show hurtled forward.

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New shirt from my Valentine!

Posted On February 18th, 2014

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I’m posting this from my phone, so I’m not sure how well it will work, but I’m wearing a new shirt for the first time, which is one of my favorite pleasures!

What I learned this morning teaching in Bucharest, Romania

Posted On February 4th, 2014

I’m still overseas, so don’t buy anything from my website and expect to get it in a hurry, because I’m still fulfilling orders myself Anyone want a part-time job?). Just finished teaching a couple days at an international school in Bucharest where the mascot is a Vampire; they gave me a shirt. And this morning, instead of doing what I have usually done, which is talk a little about poetry, freeing your mind, syntax, and being creative in general before moving on to more specific writing prompts, I decided to jump into the writing exercises almost immediately. I asked the students (10th graders from all over the world, sophisticated, but still sheltered, albeit in a more worldly shelter) what the danger is when a teenager aims at writing something beautiful? They answered–correctly, in my experience–that cliché, angst, and melodrama are the common risks when a teen aims for something beautiful. I asked how many MIGHT have mentioned “the golden sun” if I asked them to write a beautiful sentence? Many played along and raised their hands sheepishly. By the end of the period, “golden sun” had become a code word for not working hard enough to create original beauty!

But there was a more important lesson I learned that had to do with WHAT TO TEACH WHEN YOU TEACH A POETRY WORKSHOP. I should have realized this years ago, but the more ADVANCED YOU ARE (the more you already consider yourself a poet) the more interested you will be in different techniques for HOW to write what you feel. Obviously, that’s my first instinct, too. That’s what excites me. “Let’s talk about how SYNTAX can influence CONNOTATION!” But what if it’s not a class that the students signed up for willingly? What if I’m the visiting writer from New York City and I have THE ENTIRE 10th GRADE whether they like it or not? What is the kid in the front row does NOT consider himself a poet at all? In fact, he considers himself little more than . . . a basketball player . . . with a little sister? That kid will benefit much more from a discussion of WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT than how to write about it. Why has it taken so long for me to understand this and EMBRACE it? All those years when I told students, “I’m not really here to tell you WHAT to write about,” I should have told them that I was too lazy to meet them where they were, and I needed them to somehow, magically, to get to where I was. Sorry about that.