And in Honor of Amelia Earhart’s Birthday Last Week


So I wrote this admittedly brilliant little poem in a white heat on the train in to my summer job many years ago. It is one of the few poems that I only sent out once before it got published. Sometimes the magic just happens. I originally wrote it as a prose poem and that is how it was originally published. In the coming book it will appear as free verse. I like it better this way. There is more nuance with real line breaks. It is rare that I get chills reading something I wrote, but this one is special.


Flying Lessons with Amelia


I met her the day of her first crash.

The stars in my eyes reflected the flash

of the cameras, the sun kissing her

silver pocket compact. The photos,

shades of grey, didn’t do her justice.

Storm clouds only capture spring

by reversing its leaves, tearing them

away. At all altitudes she eluded capture.

In her plane, the cockpit hot with her

concentration, she parsed the spectrum for me.

You will be flying through

the chandelier of heaven. The crystal is blinding.

You must fly with eyes open. You must

be prepared for any hue. We began

with asphalt, the grey of landings and rebirths,

aged embracing arm of the runway,

creased by time, that cumulus indigo

umbrella holding us down.

Someday I will fly right through.


I was not her navigator. I did not drink.

I did not charm or exude animal scents

the pink of tongues and inner ears. I did not

read the stars for her. I read only the lessons

she gave me: airship lessons, the silk grey

skin of a winged beast she knew intimately,

silk white lessons of sky. But white had to wait.

Green followed grey, kelly pine jasper,

the mustard green tips of leaves

pawing at our uplift, the midnight green of dusk

landings, verdancy so gloomed there was no telling

landing strip from the shadow of the ship,

our wings jet branches gathering darkness in.

Ebony comes later, she laughed at my awe

as my mouth opened on this night,

whalecub learning to swallow sea.

First you must finger gold.


I never fathomed the depths of my avarice

until we flew into sun, the goggles she despised

shielding us only from its molten grasp,

not from its flames licking the edges

of things, our gauges and leather gauntlets,

the straying lock of her hair peering out

from the leather helmet. Both our noses shone,

two bloodhounds following bullioned muzzles

to the end, flying west, into noonday, solarium

studded with citrine, topaz, blinking Midas tears.

The sun veered off our wingtip, my voracity

seeping away into the stratified marble, in

to its aquamarine veins. Her wrists

when the sleeves of her leather jacket rode up.

The struts of this plane when the ivory spider

sky wove us new, a web for wind to climb

all the way into the center. Sometimes

we flew into cloud, that turbulent nothing

clawing at our wings, hissing hushed threats

to fling us down against the serrated curve of earth

She was never afraid of falling.

Another kind of flight. Another airstream

leading to another place.

Some days the clouds refused to end, pure

immortality billowing about us

like anger. But purity is illusion, she said,

a wall of water you could pierce. Open your eyes

wide. Wider. Fly right through.


Blue was her forté, azure stones

seen from distances, purple mountaintops

from above. But purple is imprecise.

Say rather, the ache that seeps into everything

unbendable. Clouds and grass lose hue

and youth as they lose the sun, growing brittle,

vanishing. When each lesson ended, she too

vanished, after paying me a smile and a slap

on the back. Alone in the hangar, I rested

my hands like wings on the Electra’s wings,

imagined myself wind, the ever-present

hand of air flinging her through space. I became

the airship singing, “I am her destiny, spinning

propeller pulling her forward. If she moves

too slowly, she will break upon my invisible blades.

If she is quick enough however—

O if she is quick—she will fly right through.”


Each time she crossed an ocean, I prayed

in glasses of water, gulping down waves, dreaming

desert. I prayed by inhaling headlines, whole

paragraphs of storm. I prayed the grey

asphalt arm reaching out to catch her.

Shallow sea. Fair winds. Safe landing.

I told her my desert dreams, the cracked argent

lips of summer singing unspeakable endings.

What does it mean, O my master?

You have not known silver until you’ve soared

between desert and a full moon. Tongue falls silent.

Music falls in sheets to the dunes, arpeggios of sand.


Nightflight was the last lesson,

a leisurely voyage down corridors of unlit coal

rubbing itself off on our wings. To become night,

you must let go of everything. Every time

you embrace it, you must empty your pockets

and hands. Plunging into cold volcanic depths of

sky requires valor, resolute defiance of the grip

of blindness pressed against your eyes, of the lure

of the stars you cannot fly to. Nothing.

Nothing can save you here, nothing

but the Electra beneath her tan hands

with their raised blue veins, nothing but

the changing tint of grey in the curtained cloud,

penumbra lightening in blinks of tired dark eyes.

Night was not time but distance, an endless road

winding through itself and more of itself,

narrowing as I nodded and fought to wake.

You sleep from fear, but someday you will keep

this vigil too, in the long tunnel toward morning.


Never in her lifetime could I keep that vigil

whole, a faithful watchman, never

until her last flight, without me,

when she slammed into sea

the way I always slammed into quartz white

day, facetted and sparking seed-suns to burn

and stab our eyes. There is a place called horizon

where gold and deep blue lie down together, fuse.

The nose of my Electra aims to be a point

upon that line. When I fly now, years later

without her, I am always flying right through.


Spilecki, Susan. “Flying Lessons with Amelia,” Quarter After Eight 5. Fall 1998.

Icons & Action Figures


Every once in a while, I remember what this blog was supposed to be about: poetry. How to make it, how to fix it, how to think about words and lines and tropes and all that stuff. Somewhere along the way, my recent obsession with American popular culture has kicked in, in part because, duh, Joss Whedon, but also because I am fascinated with how we construct identity and community through interacting with symbols, whether the symbols be our clothes, as my friends Meredith and Amy have recently discussed in their blogs, or music, interior decoration, or their particular fandom.

It’s not just the Greek Orthodox Church that uses icons. We all carry around in our heads the picture of a grandparent, a teacher, a college friend, a movie star, and in different ways we refer back to them at different times. Whenever I write a long piece of nonfiction, I remember my high school English teacher, Sr. Kevin White, talking about conciseness.

In my first book, which is coming along eventually, I have poems about Barbie and Ken, Raggedy Ann and Dapper Dan, Amelia Earhart, Wonder Woman, Lucy Lawless, Sam Spade, and my friends at GreenFaith. In our modern world icons and action figures are increasingly interchangeable, for better or for worse. So I don’t have to write my poetry about some incredibly high culture narrative like Paradise Lost or the Ancient Mariner. Shakespeare was popular culture once; hence all the bawdy jokes even in the tragedies. And I’m not alone in writing about women warriors: Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene uses the character of Britomart, the virgin knight, to stand in for Queen Elizabeth I and British might (painting by Walter Crane). This reminds me of a folk singer who came to Middlebury College a million years ago. I still remember one of her original songs (in addition to the one about the Shrewsbury Moose):

A doll is someone who loves you,

Someone who hugs you when you cry.

I know a doll when I see one

And Rambo could be one

If he would only try!

So tell me peoples, who are your icons and action figures?CIMG1675

The Relationship between Emotion and Poetry

So a couple of days ago, a reader gave me this prompt for the blog: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1782 to 1822) wrote, “Poetry is the record of the best and happiest moments of the happiest and best minds.” Discuss!

Okay, Mr. Shelley, here goes. After reflecting on your thought, I respectfully have to disagree. While it may be true that some poetry by some poets comes out of happiness, I do not feel that the majority of my poetry does, and there is a lot of evidence that a lot of creative people, poets among them, write to handle their less positive emotions. In fact Kay Redfield Jamison has written a book about it, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. Given that Jamison is an experienced psychiatrist with bipolar disorder herself, and a gifted writer and researcher, I think that we should listen to what she has to say. (And for those of you who like memoirs, her book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, will widen your mind on the struggles of major mental illness. Eloquent and a little scary.)

Rather than beginning with emotions, even the negative ones, I think I more often begin with a phrase or an idea. Looking at the poetry coming in my first two books, one to be published later this year and the other next year, these are some of the patterns I see.


Didactic/Political Poetry, Serious or Funny: Because I read a lot of women poets, and poets who came to age during the Civil Rights/Anti War/Feminist Movements, I have never had a problem with political poetry, as long as it is good poetry. Neither singsong nor screeching will bring opponents around to be allies, nor potential allies to be activists. But beauty, good imagery, sometimes humor: those are the things that can turn hearts. So yes, I write about body image, domestic violence and war. Having traveled to both Hiroshima and Nagasaki while I lived in Japan, and having done so as an Obvious (Default) American (blonde and blue), I had to consider the damage my country had done to a people I respected and liked. Such reflections can lead to poetry, but it is unlikely to be happy poetry.

Popular Culture, both Appreciative and Satirical: Again, as a woman, I am constantly aware how the things around me, good and bad, affect my perception of myself and other women, and vice versa. And pop culture plays a huge role in that. So yes, I will write about Ken coming out of the closet, Raggedy Ann getting a heart transplant (from I Love You to Hotchacha) and changing into a different type of gal, Amelia Earhart, Lucy Lawless and other real women being general badasses: to me it is all fair game. I do not know that happiness per se is a part of it.


Environmental Poetry: Here I am probably lumping one strand of didactic poetry with the more general subject of nature poetry. Maybe I could keep them separate 20 years ago, but now? We are killing the planet, and I cannot ignore this, even when I am celebrating the beauty, generosity and wildness of Earth and Nature. So even when I am talking about bright yellow daffodils, there are likely to be other, darker colors lurking in the background.

Art/Zen Poetry: This is not the best name, but certainly when I look at a static piece of visual art, often in the quiet of my home or a museum, there is the feeling of movement in the people moving in the landscape, the dynamism of their stories, but also a sense, at the end of the poem I am using to capture that, of completeness and serenity.


Occasional Poetry: Something happens, to me or friends and I write a poem to commemorate it. Once, a friend had a month of big trouble from a roommate, including a restraining order. After the judge threw the case out, and the roommate moved out, my friend had an Exorcism Party, and I wrote a series of poems for that, to create a ritual of getting the bad energy out and laying down the foundation for forgiveness and forgetfulness. Important work, I think, but not particularly happy.

There is undoubtedly more, Mr. Percy, but this is all just off the top of my head. Overall, I would say that happiness is necessary to the healthy person but it is not necessary to the working poet. Hopefully, we can be both.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Every Rant Deserves an Exception: Muses I Have Known and Written…

Even before I finish my title, I have to start this blog entry because I can’t choose which preposition to use: for? to? about? All of the above? Over the years, I have had several people who have inspired me to write poetry. I don’t really count the men as muses, because to my mind love poetry is a different kettle of gummy bears. Knowing that people have been writing love poetry for 4,000 years or more is a lot of pressure, and I most often handle it by being a bit self-deprecating or funny. I see a lot of humor in romance. Let’s face it, being in love is a lot like being a little insane, and as Buffy the Vampire Slayer would say, “Love makes you do the wacky.” I am not talking about poetry like that, although it is a good idea for a future post.

I am talking about normal people in my life, friends, teachers, whose way of being in the world or the way they talk just triggers either imagery or juxtaposed ideas or a desire to unpack why they are unique to me. This is more like what poet Maggie Anderson calls “important excitements”: the (usually) short-term artistic obsessions writers and artists indulge in. Think of Monet’s 250 paintings of that lily pond. Like that.

greatwave This happens to me a lot. Usually I get excited about things, rather than people. At some point I will write a post about why I so adore the ukiyo-e woodblock artists from Japan, especially Hokusai and Hiroshige. Or my obsession with writing about characters from popular culture, such as Raggedy Ann, Barbie, Xena, or Amelia Earhart. Or the two months I spent writing incredibly long poems about Jack of the Beanstalk.


Sometimes, though, I meet someone who snags my attention. Take one of my flamenco teachers, Malena. I started to study flamenco dance out of curiosity and stayed out of fascination. It should be said that at no time in those three years did any actual talent for dance on my part ever appear. I learned a lot about rhythm and can now clap in time, even when the time is complex, and I can twirl my hands elegantly (big life skill, that). I appreciate Spanish food and rough guitar music and I can still do a little of the footwork (it helps pass the time waiting in subway stations).

cotton-ruffle-tank-dress_7-hot-dresses-from-marc-jacobsBut more than anything, what I saw was a way women could be both feminine and strong. I normally always associated femininity with pink dresses, a lot of skin, some dumb chick simpering up to a man. Bleah. The women who took flamenco class weren’t like that, and Malena herself was (and is) one tough chick in command of her own body. Flamenco is a fiercely passionate kind of dance, noisy, and in some way very feminine. Empowering. So when I wrote more than a dozen poems about flamenco, whether or not Malena was the topic, she was in many ways the trigger, the inspiration. The following is an excerpt from “The Flamenco Teacher” (for Malena, who is “just a florist”):

Petal, pistil, stamen, stem and root:

beneath your hands, these blossoms toss

heads, moody, beautiful, game for anything.

When you dance, your wrists become veined stems.

Your hands,

like yellow irises,




The key challenge was to express the visual images and the strong emotions with beautiful words, while also keeping with the kind of ropy uneven rhythm of the different dances, most of which are in 12, not 4/4.

I will leave you with a video of the legendary Carmen Amaya (1913 to 1963) dancing awesome flamenco.