Velcro, Cottonballs, Muse

EMC over Boston

Okay, so I know I have written before about my yoga teacher, Erica Magro Cahill, and how she says things that get stuck in my mind like a cotton ball clinging to Velcro, which then leads to a poem. Or ten. Usually about yoga, because, duh, yoga teacher. But not always. One turned out to be about Odysseus and two are meta, being about the ways in which the things she says end up with me writing and/or changing. Here is the beginning of a sestina; note the end words, which come from something she said back in December:

In the crash and tumult of the year’s end, hearing the heart’s

Voice is difficult, especially if it is a shy, halting voice

Unused to asserting itself. So many other things are louder:

Car engines, sirens, the mind insisting it’s more important than

Everything else. As in an echo chamber reverberating, the mind’s

Insidious messages bounce back and forth against the bony walls

Of the skull.

And here is part of the Odyssey poem based on her phrase: “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…” The phrase “muscle hugging to bone” also comes from her.

The percussion of the human heart, its calm

And agitation, how it pushes blood through

The body, emotions through the mind. Just as

The x-ray bypassed skin to show muscle hugging

Bone, to introduce me to my trembling heart,

So too, sometimes, do the songs we sing

Bypass the outer shell, however beautiful,

To speak quiet comfort to the fearful, feral

Cornered self within another body contained

In skin, the reverse of Siren song.

And this, which I wrote last week:

Because of You, I Carry the Sky Everywhere with Me

for EMC

your phrases like cirrus clouds

belie the true weather

grey, it may be, and

cold or raw or wet

and roaring

but inside my head the weather is

clear, the sky robin’s egg

blue, traced with fragile willow

buds and yellow and

clean, like early summer

almost a year I have listened to

your wisdom, your poetry

scudding across my wide blue

mind, chased by gulls

who also desire

outside, everything vibrates, frantic,

tidal: few sail through serene,

sails up, prow unwavering

few speak of these things

clearly, or at all

I have tried to learn to speak of that

particular wind that drives me

how to sail through

the roar, not

your way, but mine

to offer the wisdom and passion

I have for this one

thing: the words

and the heart facing

sky, our only ship’s compass

Process: Notes on Competing Priorities


Okay, so yesterday I wrote a poem for which I am using the working title Odyssey, because it ended up being about Odysseus and Penelope. Let me unpack my process.

Inspiration: Something my yoga teacher said, because, duh, Erica Magro Cahill. “The intimacy of a beating heart inside your beautiful skin…”

Part 1. The image of my heart peeking out from behind my sternum on an x-ray of my esophagus and larynx.

Problem: The point I want to make is about the heart but suddenly my larynx is involved.

Solution: When we sing, we don’t think about the bits of our body we are singing with, we think about the heart and what it does and wants. This leads to the idea of singing comfort to a “fearful, feral/cornered self within another body contained in skin, the reverse of Siren song.”

Part 2. The image of the skin as a map, marked by scars, wrinkles and ink. Using the concept I got from two separate students last semester that it helps when you suffer from depression to tattoo a message or symbol on your body to remind you that life is doable. This allowed me to use the line that Sir Terry Pratchett quotes in his recent nonfiction book, A Blink of the Screen, which he attributes to G.K. Chesterton, “Fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist, for they already know dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be killed.” But of course, this is wordy and I already have the map, so:

Application: “Even tied to the mast, straining against our good sense,/We remember: Here be dragons. Reading our skin,/We recall, relieved: Dragons may be slain.”

Part 3. I need to get from Odysseus tied to the mast back to Penelope waiting on Ithaca, fending off suitors with her ten-year-long craft project. I start with the sail as a reminder of our fate as it is woven by the maiden, matron and crone: “We weave what they give us/Into something of use…” I transition to Penelope’s weaving. In the original, she tells the suitors that she cannot marry anyone until she finishes weaving her father-in-law’s shroud.

Feminist Revisionist Mythmaking: (Okay, here is the fun part!) I turn the shroud instead into a 1) tapestry of 2) Penelope herself as the matron Fate weaving and unweaving a tapestry of 3) Odysseus’s ship. “She turns its prow repeatedly/Back toward Ithaca. With each reweaving,/She brings the hero that much sooner home.” With this I take the power of the Fates and the Gods who are pissed off at Odysseus and give it to Penelope, making her thwart all of them and get her husband back sooner. Very meta.

Part 4. Now the first three parts have had relatively even stanza sizes: 1) 3 stanzas of 6 lines, 2) 4 stanzas of 4 lines, and 3) 4 stanzas of 5 lines. That is just the way that it worked out. When I started Part 4 I had a big long stanza that I did not know how to break. I had two ideas when I started the section: that all of us are all of the things I have discussed: “ship, map, compass, sail;/…the perilous waters and the sweet,/ Populous shores of home… ” But I also wanted to talk about fate and choices and somehow get some closure back to the x-ray. Further, although I did not hew the line, I was pulled in the first three sections toward blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, I suspect because the topic is Classical Antiquity and Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” (the Latin name for Odysseus) is in blank verse. But when I broke that first stanza of this section in half, I found that both of them started with a middle length line, followed by lines that got longer, followed by lines that got shorter: kind of like waves going in and out of shore! Nice… Then I noticed that the first was six lines and the second fifth: kind of like my verses were ebbing….

Solution: ALWAYS FOLLOW ARTISTIC SERENDIPITY. (Repeat after me: I meant to do that!) All I needed then were two more stanzas with a similar tidal/ebbing structure, so I ended with:

“How hardy this tremulous heart

Peeking around the mast, not deaf to these

Lyric-less singers, the waves assembling,

Disassembling, dissembling…

How impotent the gods

Who made us like themselves: willful,

Changeable, immortal.”


Waterhouse, John. Ulysses and the Sirens, 1891. Penelope and the Suitors, 1912.

The Eternal Treasure Hunt


Let me tell you about one of my yoga sestinas and how it illustrates something about me as a writer and, to an extent, writers in general. I started out knowing that I wanted to write about pigeon pose, in part because it is a good way to stretch out your hips, in part because kapotanasana is just fun to say, and in part because I had watched a YouTube video of my yoga teacher performing a song about going away to find yourself. She spent a month in Italy. I spent two years in Japan, so I knew what she was talking about. Also, I had recently gone to my college reunion in Middlebury, Vermont and had felt very much as if I had rediscovered my tribe: goofy people who speak multiple languages and have broadened themselves through travel.

For my six end words, I started with every heart finds its true north. Then I turned to Wikipedia to find out shtuffs about carrier pigeons. I learned a bunch of cool trivia; for example:

The PDSA Dickin Medal was instituted in 1943 in the United Kingdom by Maria Dickin to honour the work of animals in war. It is a bronze medallion, bearing the words “For Gallantry” and “We Also Serve” within a laurel wreath, carried on a ribbon of striped green, dark brown, and pale blue.[1] It is awarded to animals that have displayed “conspicuous gallantry or devotion to duty while serving or associated with any branch of the Armed Forces or Civil Defence Units.” The award is commonly referred to as “the animals’ Victoria Cross.” (Dickin Medal)

But I also found something I could use for the poem, that scientists have found that pigeons have large numbers of iron particles on their beaks, which allow them to sense the magnetic pole. Eureka!

This is, I think, one of the cool things about being a writer. I know there is going to be something out there, that I can find serendipitously, and that I can somehow use. The world can be a fascinating place after all, or, as a Japanese T shirt told me twenty years ago, The world is so full of things.

Yes, it is indeed. You just have to look. Writers, I believe, are people who constantly look. Here is the start of the poem:

The Earth’s white-hot iron center pulls every

magnet’s needle around to point to the heart

of the north, not so different from how a pigeon finds

her way home. They say pigeons have iron on their

beaks, tiny particles that act as a magnetic

guide, helping the birds discern south from north.

It is different for everyone, our magnetic north,

the paths and people who pull us. Not every

bird nests in the same tree or coop. What’s magnetic

to you may not be the thing that pulls my heart

around to face it, eagerly.

Dickin Medal. Wikipedia. 12 Jan. 2015. Web. Mar. 17, 2015

Yoga Lessons for the Working Poet #1


Today, I am taking this as the opportunity to talk more about yoga, my latest obsession/Important Excitement. As I think I have said before, I have always believed that the other arts–visual, musical, physical and spiritual–have much to teach the working writer, and in particular the working poet. I sing a lot (often at the top of my lungs) although I am a poor musician, and I have been a martial artist for more than half my life now, so I am always noticing how these practices apply to my practice of writing. Doing yoga now for almost eight months has brought similar insights.

It’s funny. I have several women friends who each have two brothers, the one they get along well with, who is always named, and the one they don’t, who is always called “my brother” or “my other brother,” even if the first is not named. Similarly, my gym has several yoga instructors, most of them very good, one who is a drill sargeant, and Erica Magro, who I consider My Yoga Teacher. Because what I learn from her isn’t just about turning my body into a pretzel or seeing how long I can hold a particular pose; it’s about learning a new way to live.

I think writing is like that. There are lessons to be learned from the constant, daily practice of writing. Some of those lessons are similar to the lessons I learn in yoga. Erica often says, “Get there how you get there. If it doesn’t feel right, back off.” This is not the sort of thing we get taught in our hypercompetitive culture, and it is a lesson I frequently need to pass on to the writers I work with, especially the scientists and engineers at MIT, who didn’t get to the top of their profession by going easy on themselves, and sometimes find themselves tied up in figurative knots because of it when it comes to their writing.

This may sound like a contradiction to the things I say about discipline and not waiting for a muse before you get down to the work that is writing. It isn’t really. The word discipline doesn’t inherently mean being hard on yourself. It is more akin to the word disciple, and means teaching and learning. So for me, self-discipline involves learning how I do things, what is the best environment for me, the best medium for getting my ideas on paper, and then taking advantage of my strengths. And it means, when I hit a wall in whatever I am working on, I back off for a while. I do something else. Let the back of my brain mull over the problem while I use the front for other things. Then, when I go back to my wall, I am more apt to see possible doors and windows or tunnels or even ramrods.

And when I see how useful this practice of backing off and returning is in my writing, when I have proof that it works, I am much more likely to bring it to the rest of my life. And I live with a little less stress as a result.

My Yoga Sestinas

fly-fishing-flies-lures-for-salmon-royalty-free-stock-photo-1200x801When writing sestinas, most people choose their six words fairly randomly, but I like to make a phrase that I can unpack and repack as I go through, as I did with the example last time: how I love those six lines. I think this is why, when writing an essay about my yoga teacher, Erica Magro, didn’t work, and free verse didn’t work, I instinctively started writing sestinas. Those little things that she said were often between five and seven words. Like fly-fishing lures, they caught my wandering mind and hooked it and would not let go until I had worked it out through a poem. Here are just a few:

“The Writing Teacher at Yoga Class”: letting go after all that work.

“Tadasana: Mountain Pose”: now return to mountain stand tall

“The Yoga Teacher” (v 2.0): breathe space into bodies so patient

“Utthika Trikonasana: Extended Triangle Pose”: lifting your heart open to sky

“Shavasana: Corpse Pose”: wholeheartedly resting by means of shavasana

You start talking about one thing and then halfway through, if (when?) the magic happens, you find you are saying True Things. For example, here is an excerpt from “Utthika Trikonasana: Extended Triangle Pose.”

The heart

Wants free flight through the cerulean blue of open sky,

The terrifying free-fall of loving and being loved. To open

Up such an opportunity is incalculable risk. You trust lifting

Forces will hold you up, but the hard ground is a fact you

Can’t ignore, below you, waiting more patiently than sky to

Gather you up and keep you. Sky can’t keep you, only help to

Keep you standing straight, tall, with your beautiful heart

Practicing being open. I think of this in triangle pose, your

Legs a perfect V, one hand on the floor, one reaching for sky,

Your heart radically open. With the rest, I imitate you, lifting

My eyes to open up my chest, my heart, and keep it open.

It’s an odd way to see things, sideways, from below, open

To the world.

ERICA triangle

And of course that is the risk of poetry as well, opening heart and mind and keeping them open in a world that doesn’t make that easy. But I think that most disciplines teach the same lessons, whether it is poetry or yoga or martial arts or music. If you keep on seeing the world from an unusual angle, eventually, if you let it, it will change you.

Also, let’s face it: utthika trikonasana is just a whole lot of fun to say.

Ma, Kelvin. Erica Magro, Yoga Instructor. 2012. Kelvin Ma Photography. Web. 7 Aug. 2014. JPEG file.

Muses I Have Known and Written…


Okay, yes, I have asserted most forthrightly (if that is a word, which I am pretty sure it is) that There Is No Muse. And that is mostly true. At least 98% of the time, there is no gowned goddess who will descend upon your writing table To Inspire You.

Except…when there is.

I am not saying it happens often. But, for example, back at the end of May, my friend Amanda and I made a pact to take one or two exercise classes at our gyms. I dove in headlong. I took a Zumba class, which was frustrating, exhausting, confusing, loud and sort of fun, in a where-is-my-inhaler kind of way. Then I took a “spinning” class and found out why padded bike shorts are a Really Good Idea. (“Stationary bikes,” Elaine, the instructor, confided in me afterwards, “really weren’t made for girl parts.”) Then I took my first yoga class. Enter Erica.

The classroom was maybe thirty feet long, with a mirror along one side. A student showed me where to get a purple mat and two big blue foam blocks. Then this small woman came in wearing a black tank top and black yoga pants. She adjusted the frigid air conditioning, connected her iPod to the room’s sound system and took a block to sit on at the front, quietly greeting the people she knew and introducing herself to the rest of us. She opened the practice with seated meditation and then we began.

The names of the yoga postures are interesting. Some are very old, like shavasana, Corpse pose, and katasana, Chair pose. Others, like Happy Baby and Airplane, must be new interpretations of ancient postures. Some are obvious, like Tree, and others not, like Half Pigeon. (I still don’t know if there is a full pigeon.) We moved from one posture to another to gradually stretch, bend and wake up the entire body, all the muscles, all the joints. And because yoga is meditative, we paid close attention to our breathing. (“Take a deep breath in, and a long breath out. Good job.”) I haven’t always been good at meditation, so I’d feared the yoga my friends raved about would be tedious. It was anything but. And though we only held each pose for five seconds, when the hour was up, I had stretched every muscle in my body. Such a simple set of exercises, yet my sweat dripped onto the purple mat. And Erica did them all with us, modeling the right alignment as she explained how to do each one and what to avoid.

My balance was not very good at the start and I frequently mixed up my left and right. But Erica’s voice was a golden thread calmly guiding us, saying things like, “This back stretch is a good counter-posture to too much texting” or “It’s nice to stretch your beautiful feet.” Or, towards the end, when she had us stretch out in shavasana (and I was thinking, “Sure, lie here like a corpse, that’s positive!”), she said, “Let your feet splay out and let your hands face palm-up, in a gesture of receiving. And relax, without needing to do anything, by means of shavasana.” That is when I realized there was more going on there than I imagined.

I took other classes with other yoga teachers (including one who kept us in postures for a long time but did not do them herself), but I kept returning to Erica’s class. She would say things like, “Gently stretch your forearms. So good! So healthy!” or “Let your heart open to the sky.” She could have said, “Open your chest up” or even “Open your heart to the ceiling,” but she didn’t. The idea that good posture could mean that my heart and the sky could have a connection is, to me, astonishing. I don’t think I have ever before met anyone who speaks poetry in real life, sincerely and without irony, to communicate to ordinary people about the beauty of their feet, their lives, their world. For me, that is a good portion of what poetry is for.


Ma, Kelvin. Erica Magro, Yoga Instructor. 2012. Kelvin Ma Photography. Web. 7 Aug. 2014. JPEG file.