Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Elliott Bay Books: New Poets of the American West - "On the Way to Mirror Lake" by Photographer and Writer, Logan Jenott

Poets reading 7:00 PM, this Thursday, September 2nd include: Kathleen Flenniken, Peter Pereira, Allen Braden, Sharon Hashimoto, Marj Manwaring, Michael Spence, and Derrick Sheffield. I think I can  promise that each poet will read clearly and most importantly, quickly. Kathleen Flenniken is our organizer and she knows how to keep a reading moving. It will be a night to revel in being a northwest poet. I can't think of a better kind of poet to be ...

Celebrate the variety of western U.S. poetic voices tonight as over two dozen local and regional poet/contributors to New Poets of the American West (Many Voices Press) take turns reading from their work. The evening's emcee is anthology editor Lowell Jaegar, visiting from Kalispell, where he teaches creative writing at Flathead Valley Community College. "In New Poets of the American West we hear from Native American and first-generation immigrants, from ranchlanders and megaopolites, from poet-teachers and street-poets, and more. In fact, the West is so big, and home to such diversity that the deeper one reads in this anthology, the more voices and world views one encounters, the more textures of thought, emotion, and language one discovers, the less we may find ourselves able to speak of a single, stable something called the American West." - Brady Harrison, University of Montana.

The Elliott Bay Book Company
1521 Tenth Avenue
Seattle, Washington 98122

Monday, August 30, 2010

Today's New York Times: Does Language Shape Thought?

When I was growing up in the Boston area, "Braintree" was the last stop on the Red Line. When a friend came from England to visit, she asked why anyone would name a town after such a horrible image. I was 24 and it had never occurred to me to break apart Braintree into brain tree. When I learned that the word for skyscraper in Spanish translates to "sky scratcher" I thought it such a poetical language - again - never thinking that our buildings were scraping the edge of the summer sky. Perhaps this explains a little of  why I am in love with the article Does Your Language Shape How You Think? excerpted below on the ways the language we speak can shape our perception of the world. Guy Deutscher begins with a summary of why scientists have been reticent to study this and then provides superb examples of the ways different languages create assumptions about the world. His overview of feminine and masculine in German, Spanish and French is told with a wry humor. One of my (several)favorite passages is:

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life?

The ideas of how spacial relationships are "egocentric" or "geographic" I love --- although it's clear English is "egocentric" in that we usually give directions as to where the person's right or left wil be, I can remember moving to Oregon where people often directed me to turn "East" expecting that I had a compass in my head. It makes sense in a landscape of open spaces to not rely on going right at the Citgo Station. In any case, I love the ideas here.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Mohamud at the Mosque on the Air and On the Internet

Thanks to Elizabeth Austen for resurrecting the recording of this poem at Elliott Bay Books four years ago; it will air today, Saturday and be repeated on Monday on KUOW, Seattle's NPR station. May it do some good to remind people of our collective humanity.Thank you, Elizabeth.

You can listen here 

To read "Mohamud at the Mosque" or repost it  --- click here

Susan Rich And 'Mohamud At The Mosque'

08/28/2010 ShareThis
Susan Rich's poems often draw on things she witnessed as a Peace Corps volunteer and human rights activist in faraway countries. In September 2001, however, one of her students at Highline Community College had an experience in Tukwila, Washington, that led Susan to write today's poem, "Mohamud at the Mosque." The poem appears in her 2006 collection, "Cures Include Travel" from White Pine Press.
Susan is the author of two other collections of poetry, "The Cartographer's Tongue: Poems of the World" (White Pine Press, 2000) and "The Alchemist's Kitchen" (White Pine Press, 2010). She teaches literature and film studies at Highline Community College. She was recorded at Elliott Bay Books September 7, 2006. The reading was a co–production with Hedgebrook.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A few thoughts on grieving - day one

Here they are in no particular order:

1. Hasn't there been enough pain? Now the Thanksgiving feast, the Christmas dinner, the Chinese multi-course sit down meal of grief really begins. This amount of crying should at least burn a hell of a lot of calories. Has anyone studied this? In other words: now the real loss begins.

2. Stay in bed as long as you need to. So what if it's a gorgeous summer day? Fuck the sunlight and the bright blue skies. Fuck the dental receptionist who rings up and wants to schedule a cleaning. Is this a good time? No. When would be a good time? in that chipper, clueless voice.

3. Don't eat; feel the physical sensation of an empty stomach. The least you can do is feel some physical pain. Your heart is suffering, why not let the body suffer, too?

4. Donations. Although you despise everyone and everything today, try to do some good in the world. Something. My good friend Midge made a donation to an animal shelter in Otis's name today. Bless her. She is an amazing friend. This gave me the idea that I could make a donation to Friends of the Animals Foundation in West Seattle --- the rescue organization where I adopted Otis and Sarajevo ten years ago. It felt really good to give back to the people that made it possible for me to give Otis a home.

5. Let others know about the selfless individuals that run Friends of the Animals Foundations. The organization is 100% volunteer. They adopt out kittens and cats through a local pet store in West Seattle and on the web; they capture feral cats and after neutering them, release them back into their colony. In my mind, they are absolutely heroic. And yes, they have a Facebook page.

6. Eat whatever you want. Eat in bed. Eat things that don't go together and are bad for you. Today I have  had: a bowl of cereal, fruit, ice cream, crackers, more fruit. Some of the fruit was in a smoothie.

7. Stay away from people who love you and mean well. I spent much of the day feeling rage (the anger stage) and anyone could have set me off with just one "wrong" word. I felt lucky that I did not have to go to work and try and teach today. Know when you are not fit for human company.

8. Look at photographs, lots of photographs. I think I've looked at almost every picture I have of Otis today. I figured out that I could zoom in on his photos on my iphone and create close ups to look at. I was much more interested in his older, healthy photos than the more recent ones. It felt good to look back over his life. I usually take very few photos -- I'm very glad for what I took. Note to self: take more photos.

9. Realize animals grieve. Yes, they do. My veterinarian verified this --- as if I needed verification.
It's been a very quiet day today. Sarajevo is clearly depressed. Even Duende is sniffing around trying to figure out where Otis has gone. It feels good to know they care, too.

10. Think about some kind of memorial. Sometime next week I will pick-up Otis's remains. I think I want him to be out on the porch where he most loved to be. I'm fantasizing what kind of big plant I will plant him under. It feels very strange, slightly sick, and somewhat comforting to think about this.

In truth, grief sucks. I have made this sound much more light-hearted than I feel at the moment. There is of course no right way to grieve and no wrong way. One thing I've learned in life --- skipping the grieving process just catches up with you later. It's important to live through the pain, the crazy thoughts, the anger, the bad food, the sleepless nights. I wish I had more wisdom on this subject. I don't.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Only for Cat Lovers - All About Otis (Oct 1999 - August 2010)

I've just come home from four hours at the veterinarian's. Much of that time was spent trying to decide if this was Otis's "time." It's been three weeks since he was diagnosed with liver cancer, but probably three months since I first saw some out of the ordinary signs from him. One day when I came home from work he was in the exact same position on a slim window sill that I had left him 6 hours earlier. He'd lost some weight then, but then rallied and came back for a few months. At that time, the blood work showed nothing out of the ordinary. Looking back, that was the beginning of his malaise. But that's not where I want to put my energy tonight.

Forgive my indulgence, but he was the best cat ever. He was wildly intelligent, soulful, and calm. No matter what was happening in my life, I could lean my head into his warm fur and feel better. He actually liked leaning his head into the curve of my neck, front paws on my shoulders. Here are the ways I know he was my most beloved creature:

1. It was love at first sight. Okay -- I don't believe in that for romantic human to human love -- but I do know it's true for human to animal connections. I found him through the rescue organization, Friends of the Animals, housed at Next to Nature in West Seattle. Not only did I know that we were meant for each other from that first look, but so did the woman in the shop. I was the first person he had responded to in all the time he'd been there.

2. His trust in me was not automatic, but hard won. For our first two weeks together, Otis ran under my bed whenever he heard me come home. He would eat while I was at work and disappear in the far corner of the bed against the wall as soon as he heard me enter. It was one night (the only time) after he had tried to use a houseplant as a litter box and ended up somehow on sofa cushions instead (this  was after midnight on a school night) and after I had cleaned up the sofa cushions, the dirt from the house plant and the broken pot, that he decided I was okay and it was that night that he slept on my bed.

3. He was a one woman cat. As my friend Elizabeth says, I was his human. I can count on two hands the number of people that actually ever saw Otis. He was an ultra shy cat and would hide on the top shelf of my closet as soon as he heard anyone's footfall on the porch. He disliked having his picture taken and merely hid out whenever there were overnight guests. He was affectionate and loving with me and clearly that was all he wanted.

4. Otis had a good amount of dog in him. He'd always be at the door to greet me when I came home (except in those early days). His preferred spot was right next to me -- often he wanted to occupy the same seat I did or spread out right next to the computer. He was almost always in the same room with me and wouldn't go to bed until I did.

5. The ineffable was there. You know that look when someone "gets you"? How you know what they are saying by their very glance? In the best relationships I've had, there is a sense that you are in sync with the other --- communication is easy, you're made of the same raw material.

It is so strange to be using the past tense when i write about him. Even an hour after he got his injections from the vet, his body was still warm. No one ever tells you about this part of pet ownership. An older friend once told me I was brave when I told her I had two cats; I had no idea what she was talking about until much later. For those of you reading this with pets (I suspect most of you) give them a hug right now. You think you have another 5, 10, 15 years. It's very likely you don't. Given that I had lost another cat to a freak accident, I always appreciated Otis and felt very aware of his mortality. Still, I had let him know that he was supposed to live until at least 18, if not 20. 10 years together was just not enough.

What I'm Reading - Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Wonders

Reading is one of the great pleasures of the moment. I am savoring the first half of Lost in Wonder by Colette Brooks. Colette read at Elliott Bay Book Company this summer and although I only occasionally read creative non-fiction - this is one of those happy occasions. Brooks made it clear that she's writing for the non scientist --- the English major (perhaps) that took "Botany for Poets" as an undergraduate. It's hard to explain this book as it is both a history of great scientific moments, an explanation of flight, and something Brooks calls "thought experiments."  Here is a brief excerpt on the discovery of the X-ray.

"Accordingly, against her better judgement, Frau Roentgen allows her husband to shoot a beam of high-powered particles into her body, where they move through her skin and flesh at unimaginable velocities until they hit bone. The resulting image is unlike anything that she has seen before: In place of her hand, there are now five skeletal fingers joined to a skeletal wrist. One of the fingers bears Frau Roentgen's wedding ring, which like the bones, has blocked the rays. Were it not for the ring, which she recognizes, she could almost hope that her husband had tricked her. But she cannot deny the truth: He has peered almost indecently into a living human body, exposing to view that which is better left to the imagination."

from Lost in Wonder: Imagining Science and Other Mysteries by Collette Brooks, Counterpoint Press, 2010.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Local News @ Alki Arts - Artists in the Neighborhood Make Me Happy

I usually walk the beach each morning --- well that was the idea before Otis got sick. Tonight I caught the sunset --- all soft shades of pink and bright gold. The beauty pageant of clouds came straight from a children's book. Does this really happen each evening? Every time I take this walk I try to find something memorable --- last week it was a baby seal on the beach moving 20 ft over sand to reach the Sound. Tonight, my discovery was more urban.

A beautiful art gallery, Alki Arts, has opened along Alki, on the same block as the Urban Market and Cactus. I met co-owner Diane Venti who runs the co-op with her partner, Tom Wyrick ~ both artists. Most  of the artists --- painters, sculptors, glass and metal artists are from the region ---  with one Chinese artist as the exception to the rule. According to the all-informative, West Seattle blog, the gallery is on a trial basis and wants to see how the summer goes before committing for the winter months. I spoke with Diane about partnering with the literary artists in the area and she was enthusiastic. It's a gorgeous gallery with many pieces I would buy in a heart beat if I were to come into some serious money. But the price range is set around $200 - $2,000 --- which seems very reasonable for the quality of the work. Between new restaurants, coffee houses, and now an art gallery --- West Seattle seems to be in the middle of an arts renaissance

Friday, August 20, 2010

My Response: Mohamud at the Mosque

Maybe because I've been spending more time at the veterinarian's than listening to the news, but I don't understand in any way how a mosque, a place of peace, is anything other than healing. A number of years ago, when I worked in Palestine for Amnesty International --- a trip to teach human rights education to teachers and lawyers --- I left my hometown the same day a Christian man had entered two Planned Parenthood clinics (in Jewish neighborhoods) then shot and killed everyone in the waiting rooms. He is not the only one to murder in the name of Christianity in this country; yet, it would be wrong (I believe) to blame his religion for this derangement. What I want to say this poem says much better than I can at the moment. This poem was written after September 11th. Mohamud is now finishing his Masters degree in agro-economics. He will begin a PhD program next year. He is a religious Muslim.

Mohamud at the Mosque
for my student upon his graduation
And some time later in the lingering
blaze of summer, in the first days
after September 11 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

I hear you say. And as you parallel
park across from the Tukwila
mosque, a young woman cries out--

her fears unfurling beside your battered car--
Go back where you came from!
You stand, both of you, dazzling there

in the mid-day light, her pavement
facing off along your parking strip.
You tell me she is only trying

to protect her lawn, her trees,
her untended heart--already
alarmed by its directive.

And when the neighborhood
policeman appears, asks
you, asks her, asks all the others--

So what seems to be the problem?
He actually expects an answer,
as if any of us could name it--

as if perhaps your prayers
chanted as this cop stands guard
watching over your windshield

during the entire service
might hold back the world
we did not want to know.

from Cures Include Travel, White Pine Press, 2006

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Thankful for Compassion, Creativity, and Drugs: Lien Animal Clinic

I am now in a daily relationship with my vet, Dr. Kraabel, at the Lien Animal Clinic. And while I wouldn't wish this experience of caring for a dying pet on anyone -- if you do have to do it --- these are the people who can accompany you on the journey. No, they can't cure liver cancer -- but they can offer all sorts of drugs --- and they can say when drugs are not the way to go. While chemo is possible in some cases -- and surgery in some cases, Dr. Kraabel was honest with me concerning Otis's profile. (His wife, Dr. Fritzler, also wonderful, works at the clinic but she not Otis's doc - she sees El Duende). Here's what I like most about Dr. Kraabel whom I've come to know much better over  the last two weeks.

1. He is a storyteller. I've learned about other cats he's cared for, about his experiences putting down his own pets, his philosophy on end of life issues. When I'm sitting in his office with tears covering my face, he talks to me in a way I understand and this allows me to remember and reflect on his words once I'm back home and calmer.

2. He is courageous enough to say "I don't know" when he doesn't. Which of the several drugs that he gave Otis yesterday is responsible for making Otis more responsive and happier than he's been in weeks? Dr. Kraabel gives me his best guess -- but admits that there is a lot of guesswork involved at this point. My doctor is human and willing to try several treatments to see what works for my particular cat.

3. He does know how to listen and let me talk. Science was never my best subject (although now I find some sciences fascinating) but I do know my cat. As writers, we are trained to observe every detail. I first noticed changes in Otis before the blood work verified what was wrong. What I don't know is which of my observations may be of use. Dr. Kraabel lets me talk and tell him whatever I need to. He makes me feel heard and not like a crazy cat lady -- not that there is anything wrong with crazy cat ladies ... I just don't want that to be my profile.

4. Honesty in the face of hard facts. Things look pretty bad for Otis; in fact, they suck. And yet, knowing statistically how much time he has left and that he is now on hospice care -- well, there is a minuscule amount of comfort in knowing what you're facing. A modicum of control - or false control.

5. Respect and compassion. Yes, I'd love someone to blame for Otis's condition. Can't the doctor just wave his stethoscope and make the disease disappear? Surely, there's more Western medicine can do? But this is liver cancer. If Dr. Kraabel had a cure he wouldn't be running my neighborhood animal clinic - he'd be world famous because there is no cure for this. And instead of his dismissing Otis and seeing my beloved pet as one of the ones he can't save, Dr. Kraabel does everything he can to make certain Otis has what he needs in his last weeks. 

There is not much I'm thankful for these days when it comes to watching my most beloved pet getting sicker and sicker, but having a doctor that treats both of us with understanding and dare I say love - is one thing that makes this journey a little bit easier.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Going - W.S. Merwin


Only humans believe
there is a word for goodbye
we have one in every language
one of the first words we learn
it is made out of greeting
but they are going away
the raised hand waiving
the face the person the place
the animal the day
leaving the word behind
and what it was meant to say

from The Shadow of Sirius, Copper Canyon Press

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Helpful Hints for Hard Times : What You Can Do

I am getting tired of hearing myself freak out. Yes, my beloved Otis is in his last weeks / days, but nothing I do or say can change this. He's got more love than he knows what to do with and a thousand different food items to try and tempt him to eat again. Still, most of the time he's resting - not really asleep and I need something to do besides worry. Writing poetry is not an option for me at the moment. It's hard to keep still.

Here are some things I've learned that seem to help; if you are in a similar lose-lose situation maybe one of these can be of some use.

1. Take baths. Bubble baths make everything better. They change the whole gestalt of the body. They are practically free (minus bubbles and water bills).

2. Escape into novels. Yes, The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge was superb! I escaped into Brazil, into the love life of Elizabeth Bishop and felt transported. A safe drug.

3. Window boxes or: fixing things that are in your control to fix. For the last two years I've wanted to have window boxes on my writing studio but the task seemed onerous. What kind of boxes? What type of shelves? And the flowers! In one day I made it all happen --- and so it seems I do have a modicum of control over my life.

4. Feel good movies. Last night I went to see a true chick flick, "Eat, Pray, Love." I am a film snob and would usually have given this a pass. Instead, I sat in an air-conditioned theater, a bag of popcorn for dinner, and sobbed in the dark. It was a superb evening. 

5. Be kind to others. I've made it a point to be as gentle as possible with the people I encounter in my day. The world is a rough place; everyone needs to be treated with love. In some messed up way, I believe that the energy I put into the world might allow for a better day for Otis.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Poem for Monday - The Naturalist's Last Love Poem

I found this poem on Verse Daily today. It speaks to me so clearly. At the moment I am nursing a dying cat --- my best animal friend for 11 years. Only last week he was himself ~ and now by increments he is becoming less and less himself, sleeping for most of the day and no longer eating like a teenage boy. He retains an interest in squirrels and hummingbirds --- this is for Otis.

The Naturalist's Last Love Poem

Nothing on earth
can last forever.
It's become an art:
rain and the river

cut cliffs. Cold swings;
leaves fall with fervor.
Birds molt: their wings
lost feather by feather.
By increments,
tides slink like fever
from shore. Immense,
they drift out further.
So, when she leaves,
the world's small favor:
I'll forget, by degrees—
if over and over.

Ashley Anna McHugh is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Arkansas and is a senior editor of Linebreak. Her book, Into These Knots (lvan R. Uee), and chapbook, Become All Flame (LATR) are forthcoming. She won the 2009 Morton Marr Poetry Prize and has received scholarships from the Sewanee Writer's Conference and the West Chester University Poetry Conference.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Happy Hour - Writing at the Bar

If you know me at all, you know that I am not much of a drinker.  Tonight I've nursed one fluted glass of prosecco for a few hours. Usually I write at coffeeshops, but tonight I needed something more festive. My favorite restaurant, bar, all around place to spend an afternoon or evening near my house is Fresh Bistro -- celebrating it's first year this month.

The bartender was kind enough to let me use the extra plug next to his espresso machine. I've been here three hours and had one drink, but still he is a gentleman, coming to check on me every so often. There's something about this place that makes me feel that this is my idea of heaven. Bamboo tables with soft light - the best creme brulee in the land.

I should mention that I'm not writing poems -- although why not -- but trying to finish an article due to the editor by Monday. It's comforting to smell good food, hear the hum of animated voices, and be cared for by a caring bar tender.

This all makes me think I should try writing in different venues more often. I feel comforted with the company of my lap top. My brain feels less tired, happy to be thinking somewhere new. 

Do you write in different venues? Bars? Cafes? Parks? I would love some new places to check out. And if you are in West Seattle - I can't recommend Fresh enough.


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Coming Attraction - Underlife by January O'Neil

OK. So this is perhaps not a summer read at the beach --- unless you're looking for sustenance for life rather than leisure. January O'Neil, poet extraordinaire and author of Underlife will be appearing here soon for an interview. In the meantime, here is one of her amazing poems from Underlife, published by CavanKerry Press, 2010.

True Story #2: Missing

First a foot, then the whole body
found wedged upside-down behind
a tall bookcase,

a young woman missing in a home
she shared with her family
most of her life.

Eleven days misplaced, 
the police surmised she simply fell 
adjusting a TV plug behind the shelves—

simply, as if she disappeared
to that land of lost socks and
missing keys

and could be retrieved
simply by believing it so.
Her sister passed her bedroom

without stopping to look
but could not put her finger
on that unfamiliar odor

soaking the house in loss.
It doesn’t matter, at this point,
if they believed it was a kidnapping,

or death or escape.
Only the following remains:
a little thing miscalculated, collapsed,

and gave way. What new fear
will guide their silent house at night—
her absence pinned against a plaster wall.

In the end, it wasn’t enough
to see her every day
to love her silence and her shaky grace.

They seem convinced of
a quiet so deep
even common sense can’t intrude on it.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Summer Novels ~ The More I Owe You

Elizabeth Bishop was already in her forties when she set sail for South America. First stop was a visit to her old friend Mary and Mary's Brazilian partner, Lota. Often Bishop's allergic reaction to a cashew is tied to how she became Lota's partner and lived the next 17 or so years in Brazil. If you're a Bishop fan (as I clearly am) you've probably read the collected letters, poems, stories, and critical accounts of her life and work. If so, you'll enjoy The More I Owe You by Michael Sledge all the more. Sledge has clearly done his homework --- visiting Brazil as well as all of Bishop's books and letters -- and those of her friends. I love how he drops words like "pellucid" and "binoculars" and "Mrs. Breen" into the text. It gives me a sense that his novel comes from the same fabric as Bishop's work -- if not quite the same caliber. I'm just under halfway through this 328 page paperback and I don't want it to end.  Although it is decidedly odd to have Bishop's lovemaking appear on the page (she would not have approved!) I do enjoy getting a nuanced view of Lota de Macedo Soares. The descriptions of Brazil indeed push me towards purchasing an airplane ticket and re-tracing Bishop's residences from Rio de Janero to Samambaia to Ouero Preto. In the meantime, I'm happy curling up with this delightful novel. I didn't expect to like it. Therefore the pleasure is all the more pronounced.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Life Intrudes - Please Keep Otis in Your Thoughts

I know my focus is on poetry, travel, and the creative life --- but sometimes life intrudes. Otis is the cute guy on the right with his paw around his sister, Sarajevo. Please keep him in your thoughts tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Thank you for asking - "Do you have the image in front of you"?

Thank you, Maureen, for asking the question on whether I was able to spend time with Myra Albert Wiggins photographs before I wrote about them. Yes and no. I took two trips to the Portland Art Museum to see Wiggins' work. Although there are other museums with Wiggins photographs and paintings, PAM in Portland, OR houses the vast majority of her photographs, papers, and magazines. While I took notes while at the museum, most of the writing was done using the images I found on line or from Carole Glauber's definitive book on Wiggins: Witch of Kodakery.

What I'm realizing as I work on my article about how I wrote these poems, is that I begin with the image and then moved fairly quickly to what isn't visible. It is this balance between the seen and the unseen that I'm drawn to in writing ekphrastic poems. For example, in the photograph above, "Polishing Brass," we see the back of this woman's beautiful neck, her long arm, but we don't see even the outline of her legs buried under the folds of fabric; we don't know that this unnamed woman is Alma Schmidt, maidservant to Myra Albert Wiggins. In fact, Schmidt appears in several of Wiggins pictoral work. I found myself wondering how this young woman felt about dressing up in a variety of costumes so that her mistress could photograph her. Perhaps it was easier work than scrubbing floors -- but did she receive a copy of the print for her trouble? Did she have a choice in the matter? Did she like Myra or simply tolerate her?

When Mark Doty was in Seattle this year for Seattle Arts and Lectures, he said something to the effect that you don't need a poem to show you a work of art. That's how not to write an ekphrastic poem. Instead, he said, and I am paraphrasing here, we write ekphrastic poems to focus on and examine our own experience from that visual anchor. The visual is a vessel for our own emotional context. It carries our own obsessions. A good ekphrastic poem both acknowledges its source and moves away from it. 

I like this explanation -- perhaps because it captures what I have tried to do in all my pieces on Wiggin's work and her life. I begin with what we know and move into what we don't know. Perhaps that's what all artistic endeavor does ...

The poem "Polishing Brass" was born out of this photograph, but it is rather long and so I will only post the first two sections here. Well, maybe three.

Polishing Brass

 Myra Wiggins used her housekeeper, Alma Schmidt, as a subject in several of her pictorial photographs of Dutch domestic life. Schmidt wore costumes and posed in a  variety of theatrical scenes. No further record of their relationship exists.

No, more a holy meditation
on surface and stain:

Madonna with Vessel.

The inland
glow of white shoulders

rivulet of vertebrae

vestige of one breath-
takingly long

and sexual arm
which grasps

the ledge
of the cauldron

as she curves onward.


Remember form:

nothing more

than potent omen ~

pyramid of saucepan top,

of water bucket,
angle of the invisible skin ~

dimpled underneath her arranged garment ~

A light-stroked body,
conflicted as rosewater, as clotted cream.

  (to be continued in the collection, The Alchemist's Kitchen, White Pine Press, 2010

Monday, August 2, 2010

The Writing Life: Myra Albert Wiggins

Many years ago I believed that writing prose was easier than poetry. It was the hubris of a newly minted MFA that had me believing this. What a great misconception to hold onto. My ignorance allowed me to write an article on the coming of the trains to the Northwest, "Train Time", which was included in Best Essays  Northwest. Now I'm working on an article about Myra Albert Wiggins (pictured on the right) and finding it  rough going. I've written over a dozen poems about Wiggins, her husband, her grandmother and her art work. And yet my essay is resisting being written. Maybe this is one of the steps in writing that I tend to forget about. How even when you know your subject intimately (I've been writing about Wiggins for several years now) it is never "easy".

My yet-to-be-completed article focuses not only on Myra's unconventional life, but also on the process of writing poems from photographs and historical documents. One thing I love about writing (after the fact) is that I learn things I wouldn't have been able to articulate without the writing. If anyone has questions on writing poems inspired by visual art, please feel free to email me or leave a comment below.

Oh yes, the photograph? That's Myra in costume while on her "Cruise of the Christians" en route to the 4th World Sunday School Convention in Jerusalem with her friend, Mrs. Park. The women are in costume and Wiggins is the photographer as well as the woman on the right.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Writing Life: Another Andy Warhol Connection

Every month my friend Kelli Russell Agodon and I meet for a day of poetry, food, and creativity. Sometimes we visit museums --- as we did yesterday. The Andy Warhol exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum includes a photomaton. Museum goers are encouraged to have their photo taken and add it to the exhibit. Every week the museum will add the photos to their on-line collection posted on Facebook. The exhibit (in fact, the museum) employs many large screen videos --- and also has an "Italian Room" with porcelain and glass --- complete with a guide of "How to Enjoy the Italian Room." It's a museum with a little something for everyone --- a bit postmodern, a bit fun. It's a good place to write.

I picked Kelli up from the ferry at 9:20 AM (early for us for a Saturday) and dropped her off at the same dock in time for her 10:00 PM boat. In-between we shared poems we were working on at the Cherry Street Coffee House, wandered the art museum with our pencils and iphones for inspiration, ate an amazing meal at Fresh and brainstormed ideas for how to caretake our new books into the world. Eventually, we made our way through West Seattle's best bakeries and then back to my house to write in the House of Sky for a few hours. 12 hours flashed by.

A few things I love about our writing dates ~ which we have been doing for several years.

A great deal of fun is involved. We laugh a good deal and talk about 100 different topics from our favorite poets to chocolate to the best foundation.

We give ourselves lots and lots of time. This is such a luxury when we both have busy lives. It makes me feel as if our writing dates exist out of time.

A little preparation goes a long ways. A few days before we meet we email about what is most on our minds. Do we need help with a poem in progress? Are we in need of a new poet to discover? Can we come with new writing prompts?

The main thing is friendship. Yes, we write, we eat, we play with Duende and Sarajevo, but most essential is how much we like each other. I always leave our days energized and happy.

We mix-it up. (I've just learned Kelli does not like the word "up"). Sometimes it's a visit to a museum, sometimes it's a long walk along the Sound. Mexican chicken salad or homemade humus. Although our days always start with coffee, we alternate the other elements -- always fitting in writing and eating -- usually not in that order.