Local Laureate

So last Tuesday, one of my lesbian friends, who teaches 5th grade science at a nearby school, texted me for a poem that she could read at the school assembly. They have been doing a poem a week, and she had asked if she could do something for Pride, which has just kicked off in Boston. I said sure.

I spent two days writing, working on a sestina, my favorite form, since it would give me a way to look at the idea of pride over the years, which would be educational and supportive for the kids, and also reflect some things I’ve been learning from my friends and other queer role models from over the years.

So this is what I wrote.

What We Mean, Now, By Pride

a sestina

 

Years ago, people always said that pride

Was bad, that it and humility were night and day,

That proud people thought only of themselves.

Being proud meant being vain, and that was a no-no.

It meant that you loved only the person in the mirror.

For centuries, folks used “pride” in that sense.

 

And if you think about it, that probably made sense.

Ancient Greek playwrights warned of the perils of pride,

How heroes saw themselves as gods in their mirrors

And overestimated themselves on the day

Of battle. That’s a good way to get killed, no

Doubt about it. Heroes need to know themselves

 

Accurately, what they can do and be. Knowing yourself

Can be difficult. We change as we grow, gaining a sense

Of who we are and who we might become. To know

Who you are is wisdom. To accept who you are is pride,

The good kind of pride, the one that says, “Today

I will be myself in earnest! When I look in the mirror

 

I will see the good I can do, and those who see me will mirror

That goodness back.” Sometimes we change one self

For another, learning to be better and love better every day.

And it’s true: there will be dark, rainy days. There’s no sense

Denying that. There will always be days it’s hard to feel pride

Or joy or accomplishment: this is a fact we know.

 

So we must stand up, let the rain run off us, take no

Notice of those who cannot see us as we see ourselves mirrored

Back. We stand tall, proud of our good selves and our good pride,

Proud to be who we are, love who we love, and accept the self

That God or the universe gave us, with a clear sense

That we will give our gifts to the world, now and someday

 

In the future, when we’ve dreamed and worked our way to a day

When everyone is accepted for who they are, with no

Exceptions. This is not a utopian dream in any sense.

Change happens; the world expands, and then mirrors

Become kinder to those who look at themselves

And smile because they finally know this pride.

 

Let us begin this work today, start by looking in the mirror

Accepting what we know, accepting our truest self

And our sense, finally, of deep and lasting pride.

 

I sent it to my friend and she expressed shock that I had written the poem. She had expected me to send her some good gay poem I knew about or found online. But because I knew that she had read my poetry in the past, it never occurred to me that she had meant anything other than that I should write one.

Today was the assembly. Afterwards she sent me a text saying, “I want to thank you for putting the time in and writing that beautiful poem about Pride. It was a huge success….! I even heard there were some tears.”

Success.

Happy Pride Month!

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The Power of Collaboration

I often tell my writing students that we all write alone but we shouldn’t always write alone. What I usually mean by this that nobody can adequately read their own writing much of the time, so we need someone else—or better yet, a few someone elses—to give us feedback.

But recently I got the opportunity to work with a new friend on a new creative endeavor. Although we are both teachers, we are also artists: she, a photographer, and me, a poet. I have frequently caught my breath when seeing her photographs of the city. Sometimes they are simply (“simply”) from an unusual angle—from the ground looking down the trolley tracks, or from the top of a spiraling stairway. Sometimes it’s the filter she uses: a street corner with all the colors but blue drained away, for example. It reminds me of M.C. Escher or Georgia O’Keeffe. And of course, that’s what artists do: find some lens that stops us in our tracks and forces us to look, to actually see what is in front of us.

We were discussing this over sushi and beer on St. Patrick’s Day (because, duh, sushi on St. Patrick’s Day) and decided to set up on Instagram account to present pairs of our work. She would send me a photo and I would write a poem.

So we set it up. (Okay, TBH she set it up and I nodded and gave opinions when she asked me about choices. I did mention that I’m the poet here.) Over the second beer, we came up with the description of the project @vertexekphrases:

“Our project: creating common endpoints of two rays, where lines meet and act as a rhetorical device where one medium of art works to relate to another.”

We liked the image of the vertex, since the two rays are always at the same angle to each other, no matter how far out the rays go, so even when our two art forms are very different, we can still be in conversation with each other, or the art we make can be.

I’ve engage in ekphrasis for years, usually writing poetry about Japanese woodblock art, as I have written about here before, but also writing about the works of artists such as Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. But now, I get to write into the works of a contemporary artist. Yay me!

From the Ashes, a Fire Shall Rise

Spring has arrived. It took about 123 weeks, but it happened. The snowbells are blooming, the sun is shining, the Democrats took back the House, and I think I may be able to write again.

Until the last presidential election here in the US, I had not clearly seen what an act of hope writing is: we hope we figure out our thinking, we hope someone publishes it, we hope someone reads it, we hope it makes a difference. And when your hopes for a better world, or a good world, or at least a world not currently ablaze and flooding at the same time, at a time, I say, when those hopes are dashed not just in the course of an evening as the map of your nation turns red with what isn’t currently blood but could be, but also over the course of day after day, week after week, month after month—

I think you see where I’m going with this. Circumstances like that make it hard to have enough hope to write.

I’ve tried. I’ve started things, short and long, but they never seem to lead anywhere and I can’t see the way forward. So I stopped.

It reminds me a bit of that moment in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets when Harry is up in Dumbledore’s office and he sees his professor’s old, sick bird burst into flames and turn into a pile of ash. “Your bird,” says Harry frantically when Dumbledore returns to his office. “I couldn’t do anything—he just caught fire—”

Dumbledore explains, “Phoenixes burst into flame when it is time for them to die and are reborn from the ashes.”

I was thinking of this because of a project I got starting with a friend and the thought that our conversations these past few days got the ashes sparking again. I will be writing about that soon, and hopefully (feathers crossed) often in the coming days. And weeks. And months.

Image: “Phoenix Rising” by Michael Balchan0316-phoenix-rising

How to Choose a Future, Line by Line: A Work in Progress

Inspired by the painting that Wikipedia used yesterday on its homepage, on President Barack Obama’s last day.

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“Hope” George Frederic Watts, 1886

 

There have always been moments

Like this: the whole world a weeping

Woman, half-collapsed, up to her knees

In tears for our unborn futures.

 

There/like/woman/in: blah

Moments/weeping/knees/future: so-so

good enough start; carry on.

In 1886, my great-grandparents chose

 

(or turned?) (Look this up; give context;

History is personal and political:

The sweat of a single brow, the blood

Of thousands soaking a nation’s fields)

 

Since then, the vote and indoor plumbing:

Yes, all that. But also, a nuclear arsenal

In the small idle hands of a man

With neither conscience nor safeguards.

 

And so, this lyre–all strings but one long since

Broken, washed away in these salt waves,

The tears of my people, my tears–

And all the air above this musician

 

Awaiting the quiet note still to come perhaps

From this final trembling audacious

String and the transformation

That may yet follow its music.

Thank You, Meryl & Co.

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So there I am on Facebook during my office hours, because of course that is what I do when I should be reading student papers or writing the great American novel or some such thing. And I see people I knew in Catholic school, people I would normally think of as “good Christians” if I ever thought of such things, complaining about Meryl Streep using her Golden Globes acceptance speech as a platform to condemn Voldemort’s bullying ways and call the press to hold his administration accountable for their words and actions.

And all I could think of was if Jesus had the opportunity to get millions of people to recognize a dangerous, disrespectful bully and call out people to hold him accountable, wouldn’t he?

Hell, isn’t that basically what the Sermon on the Mount was?

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If Meryl Streep had not taken the opportunity to use her freedom of speech to speak truth to power, it would have been a dereliction of duty. When people with conviction are silent, the people without conviction take our silence as consent and agreement.

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When a reader asked J.K. Rowling, “…when the bullies actually win[, ] How do we even move forward from here?” Rowling answered, “We stand together. We stick up for the vulnerable. We challenge bigots. We don’t let hate speech become normalized. We hold the line.”

And that is one of many things writing is for: using our words to hold the line.

An Open Letter to Women — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

More wise and exhausted but necessary words from our buddy Dina Honour over at Wine and Cheese (Doodles). Dina, I’m #WithYou!

Dear Women: I didn’t choose this fight. This fight chose me the moment I was born and the doctor announced “It’s a girl!” Trust me, my life would have been a lot easier, my voice less hoarse, my husband less harassed if the damn ERA had passed the first time and we were done with […]

via An Open Letter to Women — Wine and Cheese (Doodles)

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When You Are Feeling Outnumbered

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Today is Veteran’s Day, commemorating the end of the War to End All Wars. If you don’t know much about World War I, I strongly recommend two books: Barbara Tuchman’s Guns of August, nonfiction about how we got from the end of 1910 through the first 30 days of the war; and Jeffrey Shaara’s, To the Last Man, a fictional account that shows how people from the bottom to the top of the military and political establishments throughout Europe on both sides made the devastating and heroic and deadly decisions that the war forced on them

War is a bizarre human endeavor that brings out the worst and the best of the people engaged in it on both sides. And our poets help us make sense of it. So in the troubled days ahead of us now (please, God, not including war), when you feel embattled and outnumbered, remember what Shakespeare gave us in Henry V, Act IV Scene III: 18-67.

 

WESTMORELAND. O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
.
KING. What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin, Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.

.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.

.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.

.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.

.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”

.
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.

.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered–
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.