Not a Poet After All

No Telling
via Little Yellow Birds

I don’t think I’ll write poems anymore. Making poems used to be easy as breathing and just as involuntary, but for the past few years it doesn’t seem to be so urgent. In fact, after spending almost a whole life making poems, deciding to stop doesn’t make me sad at all.

It’s a little like looking at your own baby pictures. Who’s that child? I remember her and I remember being her, but it’s easy to shut the family album and go on about my business. Same thing with the poems.

Maybe I’m just too tired to feel so lovely and terrible and gut-wrenched. Maybe some menopausal mechanism has clicked over to make me scribble stories with voices rather than take word snapshots. Maybe I burst a poetic blood vessel writing 50,000 words in a month and my circulatory system has rerouted around the wound.

It’s possible all that metaphor wafting in the world doesn’t have to be announced by me. I’m fine with that.

I don’t hate poetry. In fact, I’m one of its biggest fans. And those young ones who still understand poetry as the subversive underground and foreground to their life landscapes? I love them even more. Shout the f-bomb into the crowd, I say, raise your articulated fists into the air! The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes! Love hurts!

Nothing wrong with being a spectator. Everyone needs an audience. It’s even better when the audience isn’t (even in secret) competing with the poet on some level. Ask any writing major or MFA candidate, they’ll know exactly what I mean. Teaching public school again has reminded me just how valuable an open audience can be.

While cheerleading those poems, I think I might finally fall in love with The Sentence. If I’m still enough, I can feel Story tattooing itself on my DNA. Double helix typewriter ribbons of text.

Much better.

Note on the Fridge: Mea Culpa

No Telling

Dear Friends,

Now that I think about it, it might have been a better idea to leave a note on the fridge a couple of years ago when I stopped posting Just Like That.

But the thing is I always meant to get back here for a scribble. Here I am teaching writing all day long and somehow managing not to write one single word myself. I tell my students to be fearless on the page, to write every single day, to spit in the Muse’s eye, to make a voice and let others hear it.

And then I put down my own pen.

I don’t have to tell you that sometimes life gets in the way. You already know that. It gets in your way, too. That’s not a reason for much of anything because I understand full well that writing is the gift of sanity in such times. It is, in fact, the antidote to most every ailment real or imagined.

The writing stopped, then couldn’t get restarted, so I berated myself for waving my hands in the air like some midnight televangelist faking miracles for cash. Since hypocrisy is exhausting, I self-medicated by knitting really large shawls. This was either an act of penance or procrastination. Maybe both, since I gave every last one of them away.

Enough. It’s time to get back to the page and re-acquainted with you.

All You Do Is Blink

No Telling

Nothing makes you feel older and younger like standing in front of teenagers all day. I teach in the very high school I graduated from thirty years ago, and while the physical building has changed very little, I am reminded every minute that everything else has changed a great deal.

It seems like just weeks ago I was stomping the halls of this high school in platform shoes and bell bottoms, peasant blouse flapping.

At the same time, the wild-eyed possibility of these teenagers is catching. Makes me feel like the world is round again, that the orbits are infinite and the end is not near. That’s a lovely bonus.

The mad pace is eating into my writing time right now, although I can see a time soon when I’ll be caught up and – with luck – trot a little ahead. Just not in wooden platform shoes.

A Last Minute Change of Plans

No Telling

Today I finished packing up book boxes and moved out of my university office. With four more days until the students flood in, I’m going back to public school teaching. Yes I am.

I left high school teaching five years ago for this academic adventure, and now it’s time to go back. I miss the students who aren’t there because they want to be. I miss the feeling that every day I might say or do the very thing that sets a young person on course. I miss gut-wrenching teen angst poetry. I even miss the frustration of staying up late at night to find one more way to make the magic happen for students who don’t believe it matters.

So last Monday when I discovered a last minute opening/chance to go back, I applied and was hired in a day. That was that. My Ivory Tower career didn’t turn out to be a career anyway, just a job. There are important things I’ll miss there as well. My heart hurts when I think about the literary magazine staff I’m leaving behind. These students are grown-ups, though, seniors in college standing at the edge of the jumping-off place, capable and in control. I’m going to miss their triumphs.

To be honest, there wasn’t a day during those five university years that I didn’t look around and wonder which students weren’t there. The students who didn’t make it to the show always haunted me.

Because I know I made the right decision, it was surprising to find I was more than a little jangled as I loaded the last box in my car this afternoon. Resignation and keys turned in, I let the front door of Thompson Hall close behind me and the world spun a bit. Maybe all this moving was too fast, maybe it was simply too damn hot out to be lugging heavy boxes across fiery asphalt.

Maybe it was that I’d spent most of my life on that campus, sneaking cigarettes and listening in on medieval lit night classes when I was supposed to be in the library. My mom was a dorm mother and my daddy coached football there on that campus. It was my home and the school where I later earned two degrees. I remember the odd vacancy of the whole campus leaving for Christmas or summer break, the ghost-town silence the  university left behind at such times. It was like someone had sucked all of air out of my walking-around world and left me dangling there alone. Can you hear me Major Tom?

It felt like that again today. A Sunday afternoon between terms, empty parking lots and still buildings. Maybe it was that this time, I left too. That’s a lot of history to walk away from.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be in workshops and dragging furniture around my classroom. On Thursday, the halls will be filled with nervous and swaggering teenagers. It makes me smile to imagine them, all possibility and emotion, filing into rooms unaware that these rooms are too small to hold them long.

I can’t wait to begin.

photo, George Eastman House via Flickr Commons

Gathering Audience: Blackbird Academy’s Coffeehouse Reading

No Telling

In the beginning is the word, and we write for ourselves. Secret notebooks stashed in backpacks, odd scribbles on napkins or the back of a shopping list. Sometimes a string of words so bright we repeat and repeat them hoping the glamor of it won’t fly off before we can net the wild thing on paper. That’s how it begins.

Then we gather large stories in small rooms, tentatively sharing what we’ve written. That’s the next step, and the one that binds us to each other as writers. We grow into our voices and become fearless on the page.

Finally, we go out into the world. This time, family and friends in a familiar place so all this bravery has elbow-room and a soft place to land. There’s a certain alchemy in hearing your voice read aloud the words you’ve written, and to see an audience rapt. For you.

Next time, we’ll fling poems and stories even wider, because we can.

Top, left to right: Jennie Strange – Blackbird Academy executive director, Amy Ness – art instructor. Middle, left to right: Laura Craig, Hannah Laws, Mary Margaret Hambuchen. Bottom, left to right: Amy Ness, Tara Walls – dance instructor, Jennie Strange, Pam James.

Special thanks to Something Brewing for welcoming us and for having iced coffee on such a hot evening.

Singing in the Dead of Night

No Telling

I spend my Monday nights at Blackbird Academy. It’s a non-profit arts school here in town dreamed up by Jennie McNulty Strange offering dance, music, visual art, theater, and creative writing. I teach creative writing workshops to high school students and adults there.

It’s magical, really. all that creative energy in one place. Week after week I’m audience to these amazing writers who, having found a safe haven, literally pour the words out each week.

Next week my two classes will meet at the local coffee shop to give a public reading. What does this mean? Group poems as well as individual readings of poetry and prose. They are everyone of them nervous and excited because we’re moving a few blocks out of our nest and into the world. Writing does that. It makes us brave in increments until we’re standing on top of some picnic table shouting fresh poems scribbled on paper napkins.

While all of my students are trying their hands at online public writing right now, the high school folk are the most eager to find an audience. They’re fearless, I tell you. At their request, you are cordially invited to read their summer scribblings. You all know the importance of encouragement, so do please drop by their blogs, enjoy a read, and leave an inspirational note here and there.

Just imagine – they’re launching their writing lives and you’re here to watch. It’s like the moon landing, only more important. Enjoy!

Growing a Writer

No Telling

The Perfect Grandson loves a good story. Always has. And it’s a good thing, because he’s surrounded by women who write and love to tell tales. Until recently, he’s been an appreciative audience when he could sit still long enough to hear the end of something. But that’s all changed now. The Perfect Grandson has learned the power of telling, and now we are the audience.

That picture, for example, is not an errant scribble. It’s an epic story of good versus evil, the treachery of power, of fighting snakes and roly pollies. The insects win, of course, because they are balled up and patient while the snakes ultimately turn on each other. There is no love interest in The Perfect Grandson’s story, but there is a great deal of grimacing and growling. I took this picture quickly, since his stories (much like his block-towers) are made to be erased/wadded up/knocked down. The MagnaDoodle is a perfect medium for such a writer.

Two days ago a bunny wandered into our yard and he spent the better part of five minutes talking to it from the window in a very personal way. The next five minutes, and until the bunny was frightened off, he made a story of how the rabbit came to be there, what he was planning, and where he was going after bounding off into the azaleas.

He’s figured out that everyone has a story. Some of these begin as nonfiction, take a left at creative non, eventually throttling full-down into the fictional straightaway. The Perfect Grandson went to the zoo yesterday, where he saw a few impressive snakes. Later, he and I poked around in our small garden where more than a few roly pollies scattered from under the clay pots. Voila.

I haven’t heard a serpent vs. rabbit story yet, but I will. I can count on it.

His mama started out this way, though not with erasable, bloody epics. Em sang her stories, playing fearlessly with sound and word combinations. Sometimes she’d stop suddenly, then begin again singing the song with alterations both verbal and melodic. I spent hours in the yard scribbling down her Singing on a Swing creations, knowing she was in full experimental/editing mode. One afternoon she slid triumphantly out of the swing, looked at me, and lisped “Princesses don’t have days like these.” Em pushed her hair out of her eyes and fell back into song. I understood completely.

Now she follows The Perfect Grandson around, taking notes because it’s her turn. Not long ago he came home from preschool crushing on a new girl. “I love Lilly,” he said, “She’s pretty like butterflies.” Em always seems a little gut-punched by his casual poetry, although some of that is an irrational fear concerning garage bands and hidden tattoos. He’s not yet three. God knows what he’ll do to break her heart by the time he’s sixteen, but I’m sure it will be something ridiculous she never saw coming. Better to relax while you can, I say.

When he’s not busy trying to put a baseball through my china cabinet, The Perfect Grandson and I spend time at my desk, writing. Already he has an eye for fine pens and reams of unlined paper. All he needs now is power over the alphabet and a some hand-eye coordination. A few days ago I was labeling his latest art story as he sat in my lap. Scads of carefully constructed diagonal lines.

“Put a name here, Mimi.”

“Okay, what’s this one about?”

“Snakes inna Rain.”

So I wrote down the title in big capital letters. He looked at one and pointed.

“Whas dat, Mimi?”

“That’s an ‘S’, punkin. It goes ‘sssssssssssssss'”

“Like a snake.”

“Exactly,” I said. And so it begins.

Waiting for the Tsunami

No Telling

It’s a funny thing, all this science predicting natural occurrences. Historically, acts of God came on suddenly, randomly. Now we can watch numbers bounce off of carefully placed buoys bobbing about in the ocean, those numbers singing to satellites which turn them into warnings, a chance to gather supplies, find higher ground. There is time, now, to evade the Great Wave.

On Tuesday, my friend Olive Hilliard did not hear the singing. She died the next day from the massive stroke that never bothered to give her warning. Olive was 52, a mother, a sister, a teacher, a light.

For three years, Olive and I shared a windowless office and our lives. We nursed each other’s wounds, bragged, cursed, ate chocolate and dieted. We traded the secrets of teaching and wept over our children. Two women talking in an enclosed space, we decided, could eventually repair all the broken things in the world. I still believe that’s true.

The fact that she is gone now feels like a lie. Her beautiful children, the reflection of her goodness and bottomless love, had no chance to gather reserves, find higher ground before losing their mother. Their lives now are split into two chapters, and they have to figure out how to live in this new story. I ache for them.

The rest of us, her friends and women of a certain age, are hugging our children more closely. Whether we talk about it or not, we’re suddenly listening to our internals for signs of the singing, hoping we’ll be able to predict The Wave where Olive could not. And we grieve.

What the Moon Is

No Telling

“The moon is not luminous in itself, but it is well fitted to take the characteristics of light after the manner of the mirror or of water or any other shining body; and it grows larger in the east and in the west like the sun and the other planets, and the reason of this is that every luminous body grows larger as it becomes more remote.” ~ from The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci.

DaVinci did a great deal of scribbling. I love to sift through his notebooks now and then – my fat copy is always on the bedside table – just to find a piece of truth to carry around with me. I try to imagine a mind so recursive and fearless, so mathematically poetic, dipping quill after quill into ink. Who did he imagine might read all these random thoughts?

DaVinci’s moon is the simple metaphor of teaching and parenting and grandparenting, always reflecting some brighter light. I think of the students I run into at the grocery store or the bank, those who never said much when they sat in my classes, but who gush and say the loveliest things now that classes are years over.

My Grandma Monda, who died when I was nine but has become for me the largest definition of love – there’s a moon.

Old sweethearts we immortalize and who sanctify us – there’s another.

In his mad scribbling, I suspect our man Leo couldn’t help himself. The scientist’s observation and the poet’s metaphor were clearly simultaneous for him. His mind processed like a synaptic pinball machine. What a gift.

Don’t Count Your Snow Days Before Checking Outside

No Telling

It’s been a while since we had one of these ice storms, so I guess we’re due. The weather map is all over pink with it right now I can hear it falling on the metal chimney top. Not like hail at all, which always sounds like a great fist is hurling it. Sleet is skittery and indifferent.

School is already closed for tomorrow because that’s how we do things. The closing was announced long before the first drop fell and while the temperature was certainly above freezing. It was a good call this time. No one needs to be driving around in the Armageddon we’ll have tomorrow morning, especially since no one around here knows how to drive in winter weather. We’re generally experts at driving muddy dirt roads, though. We also think we’re experts at driving on ice, but it’s never true.

In college, we used to put on golf shoes and walk to the corner of Donaghey and Bruce, lugging green-and-white folding lawn chairs. We found that if we positioned ourselves carefully, we could see two, maybe three fender-benders an hour as we nipped judiciously at a shared bottle of peppermint schnapps. Occasionally we’d hold up signs to “score” each driver’s attempt or failure. If I remember correctly, it took a good 360-degree spin to earn anything higher than an “8”.

No one was ever hurt, by the way. Cars had real metal fenders back then and didn’t crush like cheap Coke cans.

But that’s not my favorite winter-weather story. The best one I heard second-hand at a year-end teacher party some years ago when I was still teaching high school English. Many of the schoolmarms I taught with had been my teachers back in the 70s, and they told a Snow-Day Cautionary Tale to end all tales.

No one remembered exactly what year it happened, but seems the weathermen were all convinced the entire state would be buried under 12-18 inches of snow by the next morning. it had been an especially tense and arduous school year, so a good number of teachers plotted to ride the snow storm out at one house – the plan was a dusk to dawn Snow Day celebration.

At the final bell, everyone scurried to gather food and liquor. These were the lean years, mind you, when a good teacher might have made $9,000 a year or so. Add that to the insult of living in a dry county, and it was no wonder these otherwise staid educators needed a throw-down.

And throw-down they did. As the marms told it, the liquor and food held out until dawn when one young teacher stumbled out to retrieve the morning paper and found it hadn’t snowed at all.

No snow, no Snow Day. No one had slept a minute all night, most were still under the influence, and they were now due in their classrooms in a little over an hour.

They all made it in, by the way, mainlining coffee and propping each other up for the duration. I can tell this story only because all the suspects have since retired, but I do wonder if I might have been a student sitting in one of their classrooms that hangover day. If I was, I never suspected a thing and none of my friends did either. None of us would ever have dreamed such a thing could happen, really. Teachers partying all night? Naw.

So even though I hear the sleet beating hearty rumba on the neighbor lady’s wind chimes right now, I’m setting an alarm. You never know.