Sunday, November 24, 2019

SUDDENLY QUESTIONING HOW I WRITE POETRY

I was hit by a lightning bolt this week.  Figuratively, not literally. Generally when people talk about making changes because they've been hit by a lightning bolt, they are usually speaking of a change for the better. But my lightning bolt seemed to strike all the way down to my roots, to the foundation of how I write poetry and what I have come to think of as my "voice." It is the process of years of work on poetry, since I wrote my first structured abab verses early in grade school. 
In eighth grade, I wrote a poem for our English class, "The Roaring Sea," which was a complete departure from my previous work, with no rhymes whatsoever. It did have a structure: each verse was five lines, with the first line being "The sea roars," and the last line "the roaring sea" with the previous line enjambed into the fifth.
I think this had been sparked by our teacher, a young man with whom I quickly became infatuated. His teaching style was far-ranging, as if he were constantly opening more and more doors into areas of learning that I had never imagined.  He taught science and history as well as English. I wish I could remember what poem it was that caused my volte-face at that young age. The only poem I remember studying in eighth grade was Emily Dickinson's "Train," which has plenty of enjambment as well as slant rhymes which became an important part of my poet's toolbox. But it does still have a four line mostly iambic structure with slant rhymes at lines 2 and 4.
In high school, I experimented with free verse, but still wrote some poems with iambic lines and rhymes. I wrote a few in Spanish, and when I spent an entire semester in college studying T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," I started sprinkling Spanish into my English poetry. When I took a poetry workshop from poet Colette Inez at the New School in New York City the year before I was married, I was introduced to so many new ways to write poetry that, like Casey who waltzed with the girl with the strawberry curls, my brain nearly exploded.  I did a great deal of experimenting that year, and at the end of the class, Colette told me I could send her a few poems from time to time and she would critique them.  I took her up on her offer, and for 40 years, until she died, our correspondence and friendship flourished and my poetry matured. I didn't take every suggestion she made about my writing, but I thought each one through, and her interest and comments made me realize that poetry was my forte, although as a young writer my goal was to write the Great American Novel. I remember an evening when I hosted a dinner for my employer (who was from Ireland), his wife, and his youngest brother, who was a writer. He had already had a book of short stories published. I was fascinated talking to him, but I wish now that I had asked him if Irish writers dream of writing the Great Irish Novel--or if they think that James Joyce has already written it.
Over those 40 years when Colette was cheering me on, I tried many forms of poetry, but seldom used formal verse. I wrote one sonnet (though I think I could call it a sonnet only because it had 14 lines) and one pantoum, which was not very successful. Yet, I believed Robert Frost's comment that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. Though I am a rebel at heart, I did see that playing tennis without a net would be some other game.
I gradually realized that the poetry that for me sounded right was usually iambic pentameter, and that every line ended with a word that would rhyme (or be a slant rhyme) with a word at the end of another line somewhere else in the poem, but that it would seldom fit into the confines of a formal structure. The process of finding rhymes would open up new avenues of expressing myself, but I wouldn't feel fenced in. I was talking to my business partner about the work I'm doing on my chapbook, "Portal of Light," and she expressed concern that I have to work so hard at it. I tried to explain that I love the energy of the process, and she indicated that it seemed very convoluted to her, but that it did seem to emerge from the kind of person I am. Of course, she was a journalist who ran her own publishing company in Vienna before coming to the United States, and I said that was a very different sort of writing. She said she always told a story rather than just reporting on the bare facts. I wouldn't have been affected by what she said except that to show her how much better my poetry was after I worked on it, I read her a couple of lines from the chapbook as it is currently and then read the lines from the original poem. She told me that she prefers the original, that it is more straightforward and can be more easily understood. To be fair, the lines I read to her may not be the final version, but as I reflected on what she was saying over the next couple of days, I felt as if a thunderbolt were slowly electrifying my spine and sending charged pulses up to my brain.  I'd like to read her the original version of one of the poems that has been published and see what she says about the difference between the two, but it has been a very unnerving couple of days as I have been asking myself if I need to look more profoundly into how I write.  I feel almost as if I were questioning who I am, as if tectonic plates beneath my feet were suddenly starting to shift radically, leaving me off balance and deeply anxious.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

THE GARDEN OF THE ANGELS

This was a sad week in our family. Our fourth daughter, Catherine, miscarried her baby, the one we'd been praying for her to have for nearly five years.  She had found out she was pregnant on the anniversary of my husband's death, and lost the baby at about six or seven weeks. She told me,
We’ve decided to name our baby Julian. Julian of Norwich is a special figure for English Catholics/Anglicans especially, so we liked that connection. Her name probably wasn’t actually Julian - she was likely named for the church of St. Julian where she lived, which seems to make the name appropriate for a boy or girl. And then I keep thinking of her famous quote, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” 
I asked her if she would like me to get a stone for the Garden of the Angels at our church, and she said she would.   Our previous pastor, who was consecrated a Bishop two years after coming to our parish, had worked with a small group of us who had lost children who were miscarried or stillborn or died young. He had chosen a place in the garden just outside the church and arranged to have it become our Garden of the Angels.  Two beautiful angel statues from inside the church office were moved there, and one of the gardeners clipped a plant into the shape of an angel. Anyone who would like a stone engraved with the name of a child whom they've lost can place it there. We have gotten quite a little collection for our family. It began with Scholastica, the name I chose for the baby we lost after our son was born, named for St. Benedict's twin sister, also a saint. Our second daughter has two stones, our third daughter has one, and our fifth daughter has one. And now we'll have one for little Julian. I seldom leave daily Mass without seeing someone praying in the Garden, and I think that those of us who have lost babies have a sense of solidarity with everyone whom we see there. I am so grateful for the kindness and empathy of our pastor, who listened to our stories of loss and immediately acted to find a place where we can remember those babies whom we didn't know but entrust to the loving arms of those who have gone before us.
I remember that some time after my beloved husband died, my oldest daughter's husband had a dream about my husband in which a child's voice was saying, "Don't worry; we're here and we're fine." We thought it was odd that it would be my son-in-law that would have this dream rather than one of my children, and Elizabeth asked if the child was a boy or girl (since we hadn't known the sex of the child we lost), but her husband said he didn't know, it was just a child's voice. I guess there are small mysteries that we have to wait to unravel as well as all the larger ones.  But although it was only a dream, it was as reassuring and comforting as a hug from heaven.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

CREATION AND LOSS

I went back and watched the recording of our coaching call from last week since for some reason Zoom had not let me in until about 10 minutes into the call, even though I had signed in 10 minutes before it started. It turned out that I hadn't missed very much but by rewatching the rest of the call, I picked up a lot more of the talk on limits and boundaries. These are things that perfectionists have trouble with so it was good to look at these concepts and ponder their more positive aspects.
What was most interesting to me was listening to the question I posed about how to approach a section of the chapbook I have been working on for months. I want it to be the poem that really makes my husband come alive at the beginning of the poem. Right now, it is three versions of the poem, tentatively called "Midsummer Night Fantasy." I started writing it at some point after we had been to a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" that was the result of 20 years of preparatory creation. It was the most magical theater I have ever seen, appealing to all five senses and often overloading them. You literally couldn't see and hear everything that was happening on or off or above the stage at any point in the play. I think even Shakespeare would have been stunned and fascinated and carried beyond himself. It was like living in several alternate universes at once. The fact that a musician I know played the French horn in this production--and that her playing is almost mystical--made it even more enrapturing. 
One of the opening scenes shows the human bride being fitted with a petticoat that is very like a cage. In the back of my mind I probably recognized some cultural critique of marriage in Shakespeare's time or currently, but as I sat there with my beloved husband I knew that for me marriage had unleashed me to be my best and most liberated self, that the love poured out on me enabled me to soar to heights I had never imagined I'd reach, to becoming a loving mother of six children (I had been a terrible babysitter) and a writer whose work was seen as valuable and beautiful, and the wife in a couple who became a true team who accepted each other's weaknesses, often with humor, and leaned into each other's strengths. 
I originally said that what I was afraid of losing if I attempted to bring these three versions into one poem was the whole experience of the play, but when I thought about it today, I realized that what I am really afraid of is losing my husband all over again, that by, in a sense, making him live again, I will also have to plunge into the grief that has been my companion the past seven years, seeing again the magnitude of my loss. 
However, even as I wrote those words, I know now that although his loss is always present, there is also another whose love is even greater and more profound, whose love has wrapped my beloved's love in his and who embraces me with both a finite and infinite passion that is healing and sustaining. 
So. I am no longer afraid.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

DIAMONDS IN MY BACK YARD

"Acres of Diamonds" is a story about an Indian farmer who sells his farm and searches the world for wealth, and after he dies penniless, the man who bought his farm finds diamonds there. I was reminded of this story when my second daughter came over to spend the afternoon with me on the seventh anniversary of my husband's death. I had given her a copy of the chapbook I've been working on which is now called "Portal of Light" after several earlier iterations, since she was an English and History major at UCSD and started working on a PhD in English at UCLA.  She frequently had asked me to edit some of her papers, and I was struck by how insightful her critiques were.  I expected her to make a few comments on word choice or perhaps the order in which I include poems that had already been published in what will probably be a 20 to 25 page chapbook.
Instead, when she offered to go over some of her comments, I discovered that she had filled two pages with an analysis of the structure of the whole and with suggestions for areas that needed to be expanded, things that could be taken out, sections that could be moved, and a place where she thought another poem should go. I was almost dumbstruck that she had taken so much time and effort with my work when she has six children, three of whom are taking horn lessons, five of whom are playing soccer, and the youngest is only two.  
I worked on the chapbook in the following week, and gave her a revised copy the next time she was over. I also asked her about some of her notes, which we hadn't had the chance to look at when she was here before.  We went over the whole poem, moving sections about and noting where I still need to add more, taking some of the poems out that I had thought of including, but adding another one and finding the right section for it. I had put a few lines in about the next youngest sister, Theresa, and how she brought about an amazing experience at the Grand Canyon, and she insisted that I needed to expand that so that the poem would really reveal Theresa's unique gifts.  
This daughter, Mary, was the one about whom my husband had said that he couldn't wait for her to go to college because when she was in high school she seemed to push my buttons, my mother's buttons, and often even my husband's buttons, creating stress and drama in our family. But now, the fact that she and I are so similar in some ways has brought us closer and made me very thankful that she lives close enough that I usually get together with her once or twice a week.
Also, because we were both English majors (although, as I said before, I was only an English major for one year), I had assumed that our gifts were similar. When I thanked her for taking so much time to go over my poem, she told me that this is what she loves to do, and it was obvious from her extended critique that it was a work of love.  I, on the other hand, was always more about creating and synthesis than analysis. Since the death of my mentor, I haven't really had anyone to comment on my poetry, but now I have found someone--a daughter who is not only knowledgeable as a critic but who also is part of the family about which I'm writing so that her deft touch with my poetry also shines with the light of love.