The Leaves Begin to Fall

I was talking to an MIT senior the other day about her application for a scholarship. In it, she said that life doesn’t have a prescribed arc. Agreeing that this was true, I pointed out that an individual life tends to move in spirals, that the things that were minor interests might a decade or two later become an obsession (a larger loop), and obsessions from one age might become minor background noise many years later (a smaller loop). But we are likely to continue to care about the same or at least similar subjects throughout our lives.


For example, I have always been more or less religious. I came “this” close to becoming a Roman Catholic nun thirty-some years ago. With friends, I co-founded Middlebury College’s Interfaith Council. After I left the Roman Church and became Episcopalian, I got a Master of Arts in Christian theology. This all happened across twenty-five years.

I have always been a martial artist. I started out in high school doing Aikido, went to college and did Japanese karate. Thirty years later, I practice Chinese kung fu. Although years of therapy have taught me that not all interactions are inherently competitive or combative, I still tend to face the world prepared to do battle. So sue me.

I am a poet, have been since high school. I’ve published in professional journals, was nominated once for the Pushcart Prize, and have taught in university night school. I write (sorta! sometimes!) this blog. I see the world in pictures and turns of phrase.

I have in other places described these patterns as being my watermark: the Battling Bard of Boston, who wrestles with God and man. Yeah, it’s a little over the top, but it works for me.

The point is that these pieces of my identity are always going to be the first I will draw on when I am faced with troubling times.

And, let’s face it, children: these are troubling times indeed.

When tiki torches are not being used to lend a quiet glow to gatherings of families and friends, but to lend the element of fire to make an American Nazi rally more terrifying, we’re doing something wrong.


When a disturbed young man drives an SUV into a crowd at a peaceful protest that he disagrees with, killing a woman, and state legislatures contemplate legislation that will legalize “accidental” death when a car hits people in a road, we’re doing something wrong.

When we see two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks–with more on the way–and dozens of our legislators, who ought to have the education to know better, still deny the existence and increasing power of climate change, we’re doing something wrong.


So yes, I am deeply troubled, but I am done being troubled and silent about it. I don’t want to spread pain around. That never goes well. But I do want to question power structures that support unegalitarian regimes of social interaction:

  • Confederate statues that lionize the losers of an attack on US unity, for the purpose of making people of color feel attacked;
  • gerrymandering that prioritizes white communities over communities of color in voting–just as they are in environmental and educational justice;
  • and the lag in money for infrastructure in communities of color, compared with affluent white communities.

And don’t even get me started on the whole GOP attack on Obamacare. God knows that American healthcare, while having the potential to be the best in the world, lags sorely in people’s ability to access and pay for it.

Troubling times, in a country whose founding principles call us to do much, much better.


In 1775, Patrick Henry encouraged the convention in Virginia to allow him to organize a company of volunteer cavalry in every county in Virginia to protect themselves from the attack that he saw soon to come from the British. He said:

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country….  Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it….

“Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne….

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

I am not quite ready to say the same thing, and I hope I never have to. But at times like these, we need to remember that the people of this country have endured times like these before, and like them, we will overcome them if we, like they, stand up.


Source: Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World’s Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.

Thoughts for a Doodle Do…

So my pal Mike Allegra over at heylookawriterfellow is doing his semi-annual Doodle Contest. So here are my words: panther, dapper, samurai, flying pig, poetry. Because the Middlebury College mascot is a panther (and let’s face it, my cat Musashi is kind of like a very formal, tuxedoed panther), Musashi is dapper, I studied Japanese fencing, I had a coaching company with a flying pig logo, and um, er, uh, can’t remember the reason for the last one, might have to think about it more…


To get your name in the drawing, leave a list of five words in the comments section below. They can be any words at all, but – and this is important – the words cannot be completely random. Each word must be connected to you in some way.

For example, here are my five words:





Chip ‘n’ Putt

The connection between you and the words doesn’t need to be deep or profound, it just needs to exist.


Want me to stuff the ballot box in your favor? Fiiine. I’ll add two more ballots if you announce this contest on your blog and link back to this page. That’s three chances to win!

Don’t have a blog? No problem. I’ll give you one extra ballot if you announce this contest on your Facebook page or Twitter feed. (Be sure to post links in the comments.)


As I mentioned, the winner of the drawing will get a custom made, one-of-a-kind, Mike Allegra doodle suitable for framing! Woo!

But the winner will also get something else:

An original, one-of-a-kind, Mike Allegra-penned story! This story will contain all five of the words you supplied to enter this contest. I can’t promise you a good story, but I will do my best.

So do me a favor and choose fun words, OK?


Your entry is due on or before Tuesday, April 5. The winner of the drawing will be announced on Wednesday, April 6.

That’s it! Give me five words and get going!


Constructing Identity


Well, it is hard to believe it but the MIT Writing Center has been in its “new” location in Kendall Square in Cambridge for more than a year: a hot summer, followed by an interminable grey fall, followed by nine frigging feet of snow, a fair spring and a mild summer. The welcome difference between our current digs and the old grey bullpen in the late and not lamented Building 12 is that we all have our very own desk and computer and file cabinet With Wheels (and I know this because I personally put on all the wheels myself). This may not sound terribly impressive to folks who A. only have one job and B. have had their Very Own Space for like always, but when you are functionally somewhat itinerant having your own space is, scientifically speaking, way cooler.

Even back in the bullpen you could tell who was working at which desk based on whether the books on it were about nuclear proliferation, environmental ethics, Percy Shelley or opera, but now that we can accessorize a bit more, the differences are much clearer. My office mate (Shelley) has a Sherlock Holmes calendar and other Holmsian pictures, bookmarks, etc. I have a painting of red bamboo, a GreenPeace poster, a Fu dog bookend and, on my file cabinet, a maneki-neko clock amid a miniature Stonehenge that I bought while at an alumni reunion at Middlebury College. Layers upon layers.

It’s a bit like the way, back in Catholic school, although encased in plaid uniform and everybody wearing the same shoes, we found exciting shoelaces, with hearts or whales or rainbows, to assert our individuality.

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

Tribal Connections


Somewhat appropriately for Mother’s Day, I was going back to something Writer Chick wrote in her blog a while back that interested me. She said:

“The idea here is that a writer or otherwise creative entrepreneur type person needs a tribe. A group of people so dedicated to them that they spread the word. Offer support. Pledge undying loyalty to the person, their products and/or their brand. Now aside from family, which I think is actually a tribe of sorts, isn’t this a little bit weird? Even your group of friends could be a tribe, I guess. Or your co-workers. But like total strangers?”

To my mind what she describes here is not a tribe. It is a fanbase. A tribe does not promote you; it supports and protects you, perhaps, or shares your particular brand of weirdness, or loves what you love or speaks a shared language. So Middlebury College alumni, who speak at least two languages and have traveled abroad and let it change them, broaden their minds, etc., are one of my tribes. Whedonistas (lovers of Joss Whedon’s prolific oeuvre) tend to be one of my tribes. Peaceful martial artists are one of my tribes.

For my money, your tribe is not there to promote you like a rock star. They are there to understand you when no one else does, to finish your sentences even when you think you are not communicating clearly, and to love you for your oddities, not despite them. Anyway, that’s what I think. What do you think?

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

A Poem about Food

Thinking about what I said last week about writing about food, I came across an example from a long way back that is also a good example of concrete poetry, a poem that is written in the shape of its subject. I do not use this style often (and in the digital age, issues of formatting for audiences on a variety of platforms can be tricky), but I think this is a great example of form following function, since I am trying to say something not only about a piece of fruit but also about women and body image. This was published in Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies. The title comes from a line of a poem by Robert Pack (with whom I studied at Middlebury College), “Guardians” from his book Keeping Watch: “What can the half-grown pears say? ”

 What the Pear Says


Now you see

me: chartreuse skin,

ample convexities of

hip, abdomen, buttocks

curving, tapering, as I sit

regarding your twitching

fingers, watering mouth, and

indecisive eyes. Am I heavy?

Not at all. A mere handful. I have hips,

yes, but then so do love’s roses. Oh, I know.

This is not a shape you’ve been taught to desire.

No matter. Slide your hand around me,

pull me close. To taste me

is to love me.


Spilecki, Susan. “What the Pear Says.” Frontiers (1997) 18:1.