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!

The Fall Is Here, and Winter is Coming

I know that I have not written much on my blog since December. But a few things have happened in the last few days that have changed my thinking.

First, on Saturday, I went to the protest on Boston Common, where people rallied in front of the State House to support DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and reject 44-and-a-quarter’s ending of the dreams of the Dreamers, children brought to America by their immigrant parents. It is not their fault that they are undocumented. Obama’s administration knew that. The current administration does not.

I marched because I interact with international students on a daily basis at Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (and, years ago, at Emerson College). I have worked at all these places with the children of immigrants. Were they legal? I have always assumed so, but the odds are that a few weren’t or aren’t. They are, as a rule, smart, motivated students who want to make the world a better place, and an American higher education will help them do that. They need us and we need them.

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So I marched and chanted with friends and strangers. I took pictures of the signs I saw, and as we marched, a lot of shoppers and tourists took pictures of us. Were we entertainment? Were we an inspiration? Were we an annoyance, cutting off the road for half an hour? I don’t know.

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Two days later I got a letter from an old friend, someone who has always, since I met her when she was a college freshman, wanted to have a positive impact on the world. She has always hoped to do it through her creative writing, as I have, and for several years she was very active in the movement for food justice. But the last ten months have been hard on her too.

She asked, “What does it mean to live a life of historical relevance?

What does it mean to live a life of political relevance?

What does it mean to consciously participate in this particular moment in history, in this particular time and to fall on the right side of history?

Who has done that? Who is doing it now?

And how do I fit my own existence into this particular time and place and make it as potent and transformative as possible?…

And how do ideals and pragmatic strategic viewpoints find equilibrium instead of tangling in conflict and negating one another?”

These are powerful question, to which I have no answers.

But, as I have often found, when the brain has no mooring space and cannot offer guidance, the body leads the way. After reading her ten-page letter through, I found myself rearranging the books on the shelves in my living room. I have over 900 books (not counting cartoon books and cookbooks), largely arranged by categories that can fit in a single bookcase:

Science (small)

Theology (three shelves)

Writing about Writing

Books about Books.

Cartoons

Poetry (two shelves)

Topics I Am Writing About

(My television and space for my cat to stare at me)

Popular Culture/TV

Architecture

Fiction (several shelves)

Intellectual History

Church History

Turn of the 19th/20th century History

History of World War II

Holocaust Studies

Mythology (Norse/Egyptian/Japanese)

More Theology

Medieval European History

Asian Martial Arts

Cats/Business/Classic books

Philosophy, Mainly Asian

There’s other stuff, but these are the subjects that get whole shelves in my small apartment. These are the subjects that have survived my annual cull and sell. These are the subjects that will guide you to the bits of my mind that are mappable.

I always have at least one shelf that contains books that will inform me on the current topic I am writing about or at least thinking about. Last year at this time, it included such titles as:

Bell, Quentin. On Human Finery.

Boyer, G. Bruce. True Style: The History & Principles of Classic Menswear.

Mason, Philip: The English Gentlemen: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal.

On Sunday night, I pulled out the old and replaced them with titles from other shelves:

 

Dorff, Elliot, N. The Way into Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World).

Gossett, Thomas F, Race: The History of an Idea.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. The Anatomy of Power.

 

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure.

Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.

Mandelbaum, Seymour J. Open Moral Communities.

 

Meinecke, Friedrich. The German Catastrophe: The Social and Historical Influences which Led to the Rise and Ruin of Hitler and Germany.

Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems.

Scarry, Elaine. Thinking in an Emergency.

 

Snyder, Timothy. On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

Wallace, Max. The American Axis: Henry Ford, Charles Lindbergh, and the Rise of the Third Reich.

Zimbardo, Philip. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

 

Bit of a change, but difficult times lead to difficult reading, especially when contemplating having to do some difficult writing. More than half of these books are new; I got them during or after my MA in Theological Studies. But one I’ve had for a long time, and it is also the oldest. Meinecke’s book was published in 1950; I bought it in 2005. I’ve always cared about World War II and the Holocaust, although in retrospect I thought that understanding how people could come to do such horrible things was an exercise in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, not because I ever thought I would have to fight Nazism here on American soil. But as the white supremacy boiling under the surface of American national life has reared its ugly head lately, I find myself instead remembering that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it.

And as God is my witness, we are not going there again. Not here.

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All of these books that now march across my Current Passion Shelf will inform the things I talk about here in the next few months. So, if you’re up for that, stick with me. If you don’t want to hear about it, that’s okay too. I will still talk about poetry, of course, and that is one reason why Mary Oliver is in a list with Galbraith, Lakoff, and Zimbardo. In the 1960s, during the fight for civil rights, feminism and an end to the war in Vietnam, protesters always sang and recited poetry. Art keeps us going when the road ahead is dark and dangerous.

All I know is that I am sick of feeling like Hamlet did in the beginning of Shakespeare’s play, when he lays out how awful things have been happening and he dare not speak of it.

He says, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue” (I.ii.160).

Well, fuck that.

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in the year I was born, “Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak.”

 

King, Martin Luther, Jr. “Beyond Vietnam.” Riverside Churh, New York. 4 April 1967. Lecture. http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/kingweb/publications/speeches/Beyond_Vietnam.pdf. Accessed 19 Sept. 2017.

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.

Writing Prompt #1: Challenge Accepted

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The Legend of Sir Chester Nutt

(or, Thank God for Karma, She’s Less of a Bitch than We Thought)

 

One day in your car for a whirl,

You swerved to avoid a squirrel.

He swore on his life

That he’d make it right,

Then he went off to train with the girls.

 

Xena taught him to use a sword,

And Wonder Woman her golden cord.

And he trained his might

To become overnight

The squirrel who quite loudly roared.

 

Then one night you are held up with knives

And you rightfully fear for your life.

You squirm and you struggle

With this frightful big muggle

And then suddenly, that squirrel arrives.

 

He’s a great sight for you where you cower

Defeating your foe with great power!

With a whack and a thrust,

He’s the hero to trust,

Defending you in your dark hour.

Sh*t, Robert, You’ve Done it Again

Human Distance 1 Apart from edges, and into deeper darkness, our scars crawl, remaining aloof. 2 Open windows frame the ache in motion, the displaced notes between two wavering spaces. 3 Absent light, absent voice. What is the longitude of grace? Consider errors and their remnants. 4 Navigators measured lunar distance and the height of […]

via Human Distance — O at the Edges

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Part Two for Jane

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What the Pillow Said

 

All my life since the factory

I have lain on this one bed,

Cushioning the dreaming night

Visions of this one young man’s head

As they wandered through

The dizzy saturation of pictures–

Friends, storybook monsters–all blue

With memory. My job was clear

And without significant interest:

Make a soft place, put up here

And there with drool or even

The occasional murmur or snore.

 

So when he moved out of the dorm

I saw my chance and, leaping

From atop the laundry basket

Of despair, I fell. Keeping

Company with a telephone pole

For the last three nights and days

Has been eye-opening (or would have,

If I had eyes). Cars drive through haze

Into a future I could not imagine

Back then, before their journey showed

Me possibilities for adventure,

Before today began my life on the road.