100% life from concentrate
You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
You can scroll the shelf using ← and → keys
What I like best about poems, beyond their sheer aesthetic pleasures, is the way that the intimacy of a single voice speaking across time and space can become a call to empathy. In this poem, the close and particular focus invites a kind of mindfulness — a way to recognize ourselves in others, linked by our common need.
The Word That Is a Prayer
One thing you know when you say it:
all over the earth people are saying it with you;
a child blurting it out as the seizures take her,
a woman reciting it on a cot in a hospital.
What if you take a cab through the Tenderloin:
at a street light, a man in a wool cap,
yarn unraveling across his face, knocks at the window;
he says, Please.
By the time you hear what he’s saying,
the light changes, the cab pulls away,
and you don’t go back, though you know
someone just prayed to you the way you pray.
Please: a word so short
it could get lost in the air
as it floats up to God like the feather it is,
knocking and knocking, and finally
falling back to earth as rain,
as pellets of ice, soaking a black branch,
collecting in drains, leaching into the ground,
and you walk in that weather every day.
“There is something about poverty that smells like death. Dead dreams dropping off the heart like leaves in a dry season and rotting around the feet; impulses smothered too long in the fetid air of underground caves. The soul lives in a sickly air. People can be slave-ships in shoes.”
this illustration by dotunfolded captures the late night/early mornings that push your snooze button to the limit. the drawings translated:
No no no no no
No no no no no no no
No no no okay
The act of putting our losses into words and letting the world eavesdrop seems some sort of consolation, or at least an acknowledgement that we all suffer such losses.
in the poem below, lloyd schwartz lets the world eavesdrop on him losing a friend (note how he does it in a way that’s unique/personal to him yet still relatable to others). share your reactions to the poem + similar experiences in the comments. via poets.org:
To My Oldest Friend, Whose Silence Is Like a Death
by Lloyd Schwartz
In today’s paper, a story about our high school drama
teacher evicted from his Carnegie Hall rooftop apartment
made me ache to call you–the only person I know
who’d still remember his talent, his good looks, his self-
absorption. We’d laugh (at what haven’t we laughed?), then
not laugh, wondering what became of him. But I can’t call,
because I don’t know what became of you.
–After sixty years, with no explanation, you’re suddenly
not there. Gone. Phone disconnected. I was afraid
you might be dead. But you’re not dead.
You’ve left, your landlord says. He has your new unlisted
number but insists on “respecting your privacy.” I located
your oldest son, who refuses to tell me anything except that
you’re alive and not ill. Your ex-wife ignores my letters.
What’s happened? Are you in trouble? Something
you’ve done? Something I’ve done?
We used to tell each other everything: our automatic
reference points to childhood pranks, secret codes,
and sexual experiments. How many decades since we started
singing each other “Happy Birthday” every birthday?
(Your last uninhibited rendition is still on my voice mail.)
How often have we exchanged our mutual gratitude–the easy
unthinking kindnesses of long friendship.
This mysterious silence isn’t kind. It keeps me
up at night, bewildered, at some “stage” of grief.
Would your actual death be easier to bear?
I crave your laugh, your quirky takes, your latest
comedy of errors. “When one’s friends hate each other,”
Pound wrote near the end of his life, “how can there be
peace in the world?” We loved each other. Why why why
am I dead to you?
Our birthdays are looming. The older I get, the less and less
I understand this world,
and the people in it.
a.) “we learn
as a child
to feel the wind
and exist in consciousness,
b.) “we learn
as a child
to feel the wind
and exist in consciousness
remembering our lost moments”
c.) something else…
My Grandmother Washes Her Feet in the Sink of the Bathroom at Sears
by Mohja Kahf
to wash them in the ritual washing for prayer,
because she has to pray in the store or miss
the mandatory prayer time for Muslims
She does it with great poise, balancing
herself with one plump matronly arm
against the automated hot-air hand dryer,
after having removed her support knee-highs
and laid them aside, folded in thirds,
and given me her purse and her packages to hold
so she can accomplish this august ritual
and get back to the ritual of shopping for housewares
Respectable Sears matrons shake their heads and frown
as they notice what my grandmother is doing,
an affront to American porcelain,
a contamination of American Standards
by something foreign and unhygienic
requiring civic action and possible use of disinfectant spray
They fluster about and flutter their hands and I can see
a clash of civilizations brewing in the Sears bathroom
My grandmother, though she speaks no English,
catches their meaning and her look in the mirror says,
I have washed my feet over Iznik tile in Istanbul
with water from the world’s ancient irrigation systems
I have washed my feet in the bathhouses of Damascus
over painted bowls imported from China
among the best families of Aleppo
And if you Americans knew anything
about civilization and cleanliness,
you’d make wider washbins, anyway
My grandmother knows one culture—the right one,
as do these matrons of the Middle West. For them,
my grandmother might as well have been squatting
in the mud over a rusty tin in vaguely tropical squalor,
Mexican or Middle Eastern, it doesn’t matter which,
when she lifts her well-groomed foot and puts it over the edge.
“You can’t do that,” one of the women protests,
turning to me, “Tell her she can’t do that.”
“We wash our feet five times a day,”
my grandmother declares hotly in Arabic.
“My feet are cleaner than their sink.
Worried about their sink, are they? I
should worry about my feet!”
My grandmother nudges me, “Go on, tell them.”
Standing between the door and the mirror, I can see
at multiple angles, my grandmother and the other shoppers,
all of them decent and goodhearted women, diligent
in cleanliness, grooming, and decorum
Even now my grandmother, not to be rushed,
is delicately drying her pumps with tissues from her purse
For my grandmother always wears well-turned pumps
that match her purse, I think in case someone
from one of the best families of Aleppo
should run into her—here, in front of the Kenmore display
I smile at the midwestern women
as if my grandmother has just said something lovely about them
and shrug at my grandmother as if they
had just apologized through me
No one is fooled, but I
hold the door open for everyone
and we all emerge on the sales floor
and lose ourselves in the great common ground
of housewares on markdown.
wrapping up life rewind 2013 with a list of must-reads. a combination of articles, essays, poetry & quotes all worth your time. check them out in the links below.
Writers who have day jobs outside the literature industry aren’t a new thing. Oscar Wilde wrote, “The best work in literature is always done by those who do not depend on it for their daily bread and the highest form of literature, Poetry, brings no wealth to the singer.” Essays at The Millions, Ploughshares, and elsewhere feature stories of folks who have made the double life of writer and Joe or Jane Worker fruitful and rewarding. Short story writer Lorrie Moore wrote, “First, try to be something, anything, else,” in her essay “How to Be a Writer.”
Poet Amy Woolard, named one of the 50 Best News Poets of 2013 by Best New Poets editor Brenda Shaughnessy, has tried “something, anything, else”—including, most recently, working as a child-welfare lawyer. But she has also kept writing. I spoke with her about what it’s like to maintain a career in poetry while also maintaining a demanding, white-collar day job. A condensed, edited version of that email conversation follows.
When did you first consider yourself a “poet,” and what was your job at the time?
This is one of those moments that kids face in a spelling bee when they’re unfamiliar with a word, right, and they furrow their brows and ask, “Poet. Can you use it in a sentence?” It’s a title I’ve never really taken on or have been comfortable with, but it has been used on me in different contexts. For example, at Iowa, we were often called poets but only really to distinguish us from the fiction writers, viz.—“The poets are going to the Foxhead for drinks, and I think some of the fiction writers will be there, too.”
Shorter story—I don’t think I’ve every really considered myself a poet, just someone who writes poems, I suppose.
One moment that stands out, though, as a moment when I thought the writing of poems would certainly come to define me in some significant way: as an undergrad at the University of Virginia, when I’d applied, via portfolio submission, for Charles Wright’s Advanced Poetry Workshop. Charles is someone who came to mean a great deal to me and still does. I’ve often called him my “poetry dad” because of the way he took an interest in me and supported my work early on. But in this moment, the first day of that workshop, nearly 30 or 40 students filled the room—we did not yet know if we’d been accepted into the class. And Charles came in, welcomed everyone briefly, and then without another word began writing names on a chalkboard: the 12 or 15 students he’d admitted. And when he wrote out my name, mid-list or so, it was one of those rare occasions when you know something will stay with you forever. That class was also the true beginning of a writing community that I’ve been tied to ever since—other students in the class included Mary Szybist, Heather Derr-Smith, Rebecca Dunham, John Casteen, Jen Scappettone, and I think Sam Witt might’ve been in there too. It was a great crew, many of whom went on to join the crew I was lucky to be among at Iowa.
Tell me about some of the jobs you’ve held while writing poems between that time and today.
Oh, lord. Well, I’ve always considered Shakespeare’s Henry IV to be one of my favorite plays—most specifically Hal’s dilemma between life at the Tavern and the Court. My own years have played out similarly (sometimes quasi-literally), with an overindulgence of grad school thrown in. During and since my undergrad years, I’ve bartended and managed restaurants a lot—probably a total of seven or eight years’ worth of that time. I love that life, but it definitely takes a physical and mental toll that just became unsustainable. I’m definitely drawn back to that scene again and again, though. I do love a good bourbon.
In between and amongst those jobs, I went to grad school for advertising/copywriting, worked as a writer and editor for a San Francisco dot-com (during the boom and just before the bust), did a financial journalism gig, taught online English Composition courses, did some project-based freelance writing and editing for a few organizations (including a company in SF who gave me “naming gigs,” where I had to come up with names and URLs for new companies. There were all these rules to watch out for. You had to make sure a phrase-based URL didn’t end up unintentionally reading as unsavory—like, oh I don’t know, if you’re doing a site for a therapist named John Smith, you don’t want a URL that’s http://www.therapistJohnSmith.com, that kind of Arrested Development-type humor). This was years ago, however, when the internet was really starting to multiply, and quickly. People are much more savvy about those things now (I hope).
And of course, law school. I’ve been a lawyer/policy wonk for about five or six years now, and it seems like (especially given my financial investment in it) that this is the one that will stick.
Tell me about your current job.
Right now I’m a policy attorney for a statewide non-profit research and advocacy group called Voices for Virginia’s Children. I’ve been there for a few years, and before that was a legal aid attorney representing kids with education and school discipline issues. The subject areas I cover now include child welfare and foster care, juvenile justice, child homelessness and some general child poverty issues—most recently child hunger. Essentially, I write, research, analyze data, advocate, lobby, and attend a hell of a lot of meetings in order to bring to Virginia good laws/policies and fight bad laws/policies around children’s issues. I absolutely love it. It lets me tap into my journalism background to write articles and op-eds, use my legal background to actually write laws and regulations at times—and I totally thrive off of the lobbying part. A lot of people find lobbying for social justice issues, especially at the Virginia General Assembly, to be frustrating, annoying, and painful—which it is—but it’s an amazing study in human behavior and the power of persuasion—my favorite part of the job, by far.
How does your current work affect your writing?
I’d like to say that it doesn’t, but I think whenever you have to perform a couple of different identities within your life, each is affected by the other in some way. My job provides a nice counter-balance to the anything-goes world of poems—it’s still a persuasion-based job, but definitely in a rational, intellectual, responsible, real-world sort of way. This may sound terrible, but in my day job, I have to be a good person—and don’t get me wrong: I want to be and like being a good person, but poems give me a path to wrestle with the terrifying, difficult, absurd, imperfect, uncontrollable parts of the world in a much different but incredibly important way. As an attorney and a policy advocate, I can focus on actual change for the better. In poems, I can kind of tear a hole in that continuum and play around more with the scaffolding of it all. In policy, “good” is always the desired outcome. In poems, “good” rarely has anything to do with my goals—and sometimes it’s just desire itself that I want.
What do your co-workers think about your writing?
They don’t. I mean, for whatever reason, I just don’t tend to share much about that side of my life at work. The two versions of me–work self and writing self–seem like such different entities that it almost feels too vulnerable to share that part of my life in an environment where I need to have a kind of commanding presence, you know? Or else, it plays into my superstition that the more you talk about something, the less likely it will go the way you want it to. I know—it’s the least rational thing about me, but I think I’ve always been that way. I remember not even telling any family that I’d applied to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop until I knew I’d gotten in. Ditto with law school (control issues much?) And aside from that, I just think that there’s something a little too incongruous between law and poetry. In the legal world, it tends to make sense to others that someone would be a fiction writer, but no one really knows what to do with a poet (although that’s probably true everywhere outside the writing community/academia).
When do you do most of your writing?
I’ve persistently had a terrible writing schedule. By which I mean, for the most part, I have no schedule. I’ve never been a “write every day, even if it’s crap” kind of writer, and I’m a slow producer—ridiculously slow. Part of this, I think, is because I used to think about writing the way you’re supposed to think about credit card debt: Pick the highest interest rate card, and pay it down until it’s done. Then move on to the next. But in writing, that strategy was leading me to a kind of paralysis—getting hung up on the most challenging, wrenching piece was keeping me in a persistent stall mode. Finally finding a way to allow myself to move between projects was completely liberating—it was the best thing for my overall process to learn how to jump between work-writing, lighter poems, other essay ideas, and those heart-sucking poems that won’t ever leave you alone. Once I did that, it felt less excruciating to make time to sit down and write, and I stopped creating all the procrastination traps to keep me from the hard work of it.
I actually stopped writing altogether for about 10 years, for various reasons, beginning with the unexpected, sudden death of my closest friend, which led into the creative purgatory that is law school—a place that can kill both time and any adventure the mind might want to wander into. I’ve only picked it up again in the last two or three years—which, I think I knew I’d always come back to it, but needed to feel ready and able. Luckily, I think it’s been worth the wait—I feel much more confident in what I’m doing now than I ever have.
And now that I’m writing seriously again, with an eye toward a cohesive collection, I do some kind of writing work every day, whether it’s reading or dreaming or just chiseling away at a piece that’s in progress—I give myself more permission to see different kinds of work as writing. I usually write early in the morning, which is also kind of a revelation, because before my decade hiatus, I was mostly doing night shifts at restaurants, which meant I never really experienced mornings for the productive times they can be. I also write a lot on weekends, at all times of day, depending on my energy level and how close I am to finishing something.
Have you ever written at work? (I won’t tell anyone.)
Well, as long as it stays a secret just between us… Sure, I have, but only in the sense of jotting down a line or word or image I want to work on later. The paid job I do and the job of writing poems require me to be in two totally different brains, so it really only happens when my neurons slip a gear every now and then and something will stick with me enough that I just have to type it out so that I can get it out of my head for a while and get back to doing my job. And since I have an hour commute to work and back most days, sometimes I’ll turn on Siri on my iPhone and just talk some ideas out in the car as they happen. And sometimes it turns out Siri is a better writer than I am.
What would be your ideal job while writing poems?
I’m nearly there, I think—or else it doesn’t actually exist. Someone asked me this question recently, and I think my answer took the form of something like: having six months out of the year to just write, say April to September, with no other work obligations, and then the remaining six months to work on policy campaigns during the legislative session (which in Virginia runs from January through March). I’m not sure there’s a joint-advocacy/poetry foundation out there who would fund that, though. Is there? Call me.
one thing i love about warsan shire is her ability to tap into thoughts/emotions in a way that’s simultaneously fresh and familiar. get a glimpse of what i mean in her poem below, directed at women who are “difficult to love.” for more from the kenya born-uk raised poet, check out her book teaching my mother how to give birth:
for women who are difficult to love
you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him traveling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love
bonus: here’s a video inspired by warsan’s poem, made by andrea cortes-juarbe & christine mehr (via mona).