Sunday, September 18, 2016

Thank you to the Saturday Poem - As Things Ought To Be




I studiously avoided thinking about the 15th anniversary of September 11th. 

Instead I co-lead, along with Kelli Russell Agodon, Poets on the Coast: A Weekend Writing Retreat for Women. This year, my September 11th was filled up by thirty women poets writing, laughing, and learning together. 

I did such a good job focusing on women poets and not past horrors that I was surprised when "Mohamud at the Mosque" was chosen for the Saturday poem, As It Ought To Be

I began this poem 6 months after September 11th 2001 and finished it more than a year later. When I sent the poem out to magazines for publication, no one wanted it. Eventually, I was honored to have Poetry International choose to publish "Mohamud at the Mosque"  and a few years later it appeared in my second book, Cures Include Travel. 

So more than ten years after its first publication, here it is again.

MOHAMUD AT THE MOSQUE
By Susan Rich

          ~ for my student upon his graduation

And some time later in the lingering
blaze of summer, in the first days
after September 11th you phoned –

if I don’t tell anyone my name I’ll
pass for an African American.
And suddenly, this seemed a sensible solution –

the best protection: to be a black man
born in America, more invisible than
Somali, Muslim, asylum seeker –

Others stayed away that first Friday
but your uncle insisted that you pray.
How fortunes change so swiftly

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Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Who is your dead mentor poet? Mine is Elizabeth Bishop







From the Documentary, "Welcome to This House"


Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) is a poet I have admired for several decades, ever since I read her poem, "The Map" and then went in search of Questions of Travel and Geography III.



Here are poems of equal parts music, feeling, and meaning. Here are poems that could break your heart. "Awful but cheerful" are the words engraved on Bishop's tombstone in Worcester, Massachusetts. Bishop's childhood has been well documented as "awful" and her later life often ruled by her dual demons of drugs and alcohol. But these facts do little to explain her extraordinary genius with words. In fact, I fell in love with her poems, not her biography. She would be pleased by this. Of the Confessional poets of her generation she once said, "Sometimes, I'd rather they kept it to themselves."



But there are stories that make me feel I would have loved her and been exasperated by her as a friend. She certainly was not easy. Perhaps I loved the fact that when she began teaching at the University of Washington, she told anyone who would listen that she had taken the job just to get the funds she needed to fix the roof of her Brazilian home. Her honesty --- and her coyness. I loved that she and Marianne Moore kept a lifetime friendship going from trips to the zoo (when they were in the same area) to long letters (when they weren't).


And like any good magic--- it's the poems themselves that have lived long inside of me. The poems that first made me want to become a poet. To try and get it right. What Bishop admired most in a poem (she said -- but she said many things) was to watch the mind in motion. That is but one of the beauties of this villanelle.



One Art


The art of loosing isn't hard to master,

so many things seem filled with the intent

to be lost that their loss is no disaster.



Lose something every day. Accept the fluster

of lost door keys, the hour badly spent

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.



Then practice loosing farther, loosing faster:

places and names, and where it was you meant

to travel. None of these will bring disaster.



I lost my mother's watch. And look! My last, or

next-to-the last, of three loved houses went.

The art of loosing isn't hard to master.



I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,

some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent

I missed them but it wasn't a disaster.



Even loosing you (the joking voice, a gesture

I love) I shan't have lied. It's evident

the art of losing's not too hard to master

though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


Elizabeth Bishop



Monday, September 5, 2016

Michelle Obama - The Poem I Keep Thinking About - January O'Neil - And a Prompt


First Lady Michelle Obama lifting some intense weight

I first read this poem a few weeks ago when it appeared on the Academy of American Poets website and I've been thinking about it ever since. In this short piece, the speaker is clearly seen as "other," albeit Michelle Obama other. How can one not be charmed to be compared to the most outstanding First Lady of our lifetime?

Although it is unstated, we can assume that the compliment comes from a white man who is perhaps "interested" in the speaker ("all night he catches sight of me") and that the speaker is a black woman.

Just past the center of the poem comes the line, that for me, the entire piece pivots on: You’re working your muscles to the point of failure. The muscles of the speaker's forced smile meet the physical muscle work of the First Lady's weight training. In both cases, the work of the day is to make body and mind unassailable - to become stronger by hovering in the place of hurt and pain.

Many years ago when I first moved to the Eugene, Oregon, from Boston, Massachusetts, I met several people who wanted to tell me about the wonderful Passover Seders they once attended. I remember being genuinely confused as to why everyone wanted to discuss Passover in September? It took me a long while before I realized that this was how these well meaning Oregonians were trying to tell me they were okay with my Jewishness. That they, too, had eaten matzo.

So what is the correct response? To feel relieved that one is not with an anti-Semite (hey, it's okay that I'm not Christian -- great) or to acknowledge that for many of us, talking about cultural difference is a clumsy business. Or to immediately feel like an outcast, an other, a person whose personhood is in question.

It's a complicated and as O'Neil states, an awkward business to respond to such a "compliment". The speaker doesn't mean to insult --- quite the opposite --- and yet the sting of not being seen for who one actually is remains in high relief.

"On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014," allows for that negative capability to thrive in a way that I have not ever seen so deftly handled before. And in today's political climate, I can only hope that many English classes will feature this poem as we head back to school.


On Being Told I Look Like FLOTUS, New Year’s Eve Party 2014

Deep in my biceps I know it’s a complement, just as
I know this is an all-black-people-look-alike moment.
So I use the minimal amount of muscles to crack a smile.
All night he catches sight of me, or someone like me, standing
next to deconstructed cannoli and empty bottles of Prosecco.
And in that moment, I understand how little right any of us have
to be whoever we are—the constant tension
of making our way in this world on hope and change.
You’re working your muscles to the point of failure,
Michelle Obama once said about her workout regimen,
but she knows we wear our history in our darkness, in our patience.
A compliment is a complement—this I know, just as the clock
will always strike midnight and history repeats. This is how
I can wake up the next morning and love the world again.


January Gill O'Neil on the poem:

“It is a flattering comparison, but I'm keenly aware that I live in a part of the country that’s less diverse. So when people say I look like Michelle Obama, I know they are trying to make a connection with me. This poem is a recognition of the awkwardness, the effort, and the patience it takes to let the moment unfold.”
—January Gill O’Neil

Poetry Prompt: 

So if you're still reading, here's the prompt: think of a time when you've been "otherized" in some way. Perhaps it was due to your religion, race, class background or simply because of the fact that you didn't know how to swim. Begin with the incident itself and try to enter it without any sense of judgement --- be more compassionate in the poem than you might have felt in real life. Feel free to invent what you don't remember. What large idea can you end with as O'Neil does with the hard won last line of her poem.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Poem For the Final Days of Summer


Perhaps I let go of summer too quickly. There are still peaches and plums to come. In my garden the heirloom tomatoes and sun gold are still giving up their fruits each day. Here is a poem that says all I cannot say about summer. Here is a poem that has accompanied me for decades and hopefully for more decades to come...


From Blossoms

Li-Young Lee, 1957

From blossoms comes 
this brown paper bag of peaches 
we bought from the boy 
at the bend in the road where we turned toward 
signs painted Peaches. 

From laden boughs, from hands, 
from sweet fellowship in the bins, 
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent 
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all, 
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat. 

O, to take what we love inside, 
to carry within us an orchard, to eat 
not only the skin, but the shade, 
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold 
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
 the round jubilance of peach. 

There are days we live 
as if death were nowhere 
in the background; from joy to 
joy to joy, from wing to wing, 
from blossom to blossom to 
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Feeling the Fall Upon Us





'Autumn' by Rainer Maria Rilke


The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,

as if orchards were dying high in space.

Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the heavy earth is falling

away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.

And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands

infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.