Monday, October 16, 2017
Will you still need me, will you still feed me
when I’m sixty-four…
In 1967, the Beatles released When I’m Sixty-Four. I was about to be 14, my mother was pregnant and due in the late fall. I was the oldest of then four, I had just entered 9th grade at Levy Junior High School. Turmoil was rampant in the world but my personal world was wonderful. I had my radio full of music, some good girlfriends, I had become serious about this poetry thing, and the whole of my life lay before me like a dream. Someday I would fall in love and sing the McCartney/Lennon song to the man who would be by my side until I was old.
That was 50 years ago.
Three weeks after my birthday, my sister Erica was born. Three days later, my mother died. I blurred into 1968, when the outer turmoil clashed with my inner ache. The world was angry and I was adrift in a world I was not emotionally ready for; however, concerning the daily things, I was prepared. My mother had taught me a great deal and I was already comfortable in the kitchen, eager to create. The best lesson Betty Ann taught me was how to make a meal out of a perceived lack of food in the house. It has served me well ever since.
I have reflected on this time a great deal in the past 2 years, often sharing with friends that I feel like I have political PTSD. This is not glib. I am a duck-n-cover kid who cowered at night when I heard planes overhead. I ate dinner like the rest of the nation, with the newsreels from Viet Nam, the daily death counts for both sides. There were riots in American neighborhoods, returning troops who were no more responsible for the war than anyone else were shunned and shamed. There was clash and simmering hatred among all sectors of the nation. And there were people standing, marching, dying in opposition to a damaged system.
The brand of that time period has not lost its definition and here we are again. For me, I have been trying to set my life straight once again, still reeling from the impact that the economic crash had on my career path. But I remind myself daily that I am blessed that all my work is directly related to my identity and my purpose. Now to maximize my profit margin.
My riches are in the moments with those who choose me. The riches are in my work, the ways I strive to provide opportunity for others. And I am rich in language. In June, the fifth book on which I have placed my name was released. That is sort of remarkable to me, all of a sudden. The first book was life-changing. The second was an indicator that I really was a poet. The third was an intentional success and satisfaction in the craft I was developing. The fourth was collaborative and gave information and inspiration to others who engage with poetry and education. The fifth was an editing collaboration that honored an icon, Gwendolyn Brooks, and permitted me to honor the voices of many noted writers as they paid tribute. In reviewing my publishing history, to date these works have been finalists in several competitions, two for the Central New York Book Awards, one for the national NAACP Image Award, and a nod from the Chicago Review of Books. This was sobering to recognize in myself. I have accomplished this. And I have so much more to do.
There have been countless lessons and this past year is no different. I am not going to rehash any of it. But I am going to share that, in the lessons, I have come to a confidence in my own capacity and strengths that feels honest, well-founded, stable. I am ever a work in progress but I have looked deeply at my intentions. I have discovered what I had hoped; I operate from pure intention. I stumble at times but I am in earnest in my efforts in being a human being.
I also see that I have learned a great deal about the realm of poetry and language. I crave fuller and fuller immersion. I am 75 pages into the next collection of poetry and, having met another goal of a book project, I have only my creative work to concern myself with right now. I am tingly with what this next book is going to be, what it is already promising. And the book after that is already unfolding. And I am working on my personal memoir, a food memoir, a collaborative collection of essays with another poet I admire. I am stashing essays on the craft of writing for that eventual book.
There is so much I want to explore and share. Yet it all feels urgent, being in my mid-60s now. There used to be decades ahead of me to make up for error or missed opportunities. There is a deadline ahead that is not clearly defined but is insistent. I have work to do. But, as I tell my students when they proclaim, “Writing is hard work,”
Yes, it is work, but it is joyous work.
It is my work and I love it. Now I want to continue to develop a practice of editing and book coaching. I want portable work and work that supports others meeting their own dreams and objectives with their writing.
I want to see my work interpreted by others so I am embarking on bringing poems to the stage in the near future. I want to discover how the work imprints on others, how they hear it and see it.
I plan to learn more about what I am capable of discovering and achieving in the construction and manipulation of language, how it communicates with others and how it depicts my unique concept of this world.
I hope to travel and be more of a global citizen. I want to continue my work in community and I want to further strengthen my empathy and cultural dexterity in the hopes of being a part of the world in lighted ways. I want to project this as my truth always and I pray others are able to see me through that lens. Sometimes this is not the case and I have come to recognize that one person’s mis-view of me and my intention is not my responsibility. But I will continue to check myself always. I hope to always grow. Complacency is the path to an unsatisfying death.
To each who receives this, my annual birthday missive, I thank you for the ways you contribute to my life. To my publishers, thank you for investing in me. To those who choose to sit in classrooms where I facilitate, thank you for your open and willing hearts and the ways you are choosing to give to yourselves in writing. To my beloveds, you continue to choose me for your circle. It is an honor. I will always try to do my best in the moment.
This year, I will close by saying I’m okay. No need to worry. I feel that a shift to the more stable is in process. I am pleased with my work, my home, and especially my dear Enza, who came to live with me 4 years ago yesterday. She is the light I so needed and we make each other laugh. Who knew I would be a dog person?! But this being has taught me much and keeps me light. We have fun. And I know I am not alone when I close my eyes at night, hear her snoring from her bed on the floor at the end of my own.
Thank you all! My life has its value because of each of you and I have made it through another year on the strength of your trust and support. I hope to never fail you and your confidence in me. Keep thriving in your own lives and being inspiration to me. I am so blessed with abundance and love due to you all. Please let me know when you need me. Let me feed you. Let’s dance. Please remember always: you are cherished, admired, and adored.
Peace, power, & poetry…
Friday, May 12, 2017
For the fifth year, I have attended the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and returned home filled with inspiration and joy. This is my favorite poetry event, year after year, and I encourage friends and colleagues to attend! I am never disappointed, always enriched.
This year, I presented a round table discussion with my dear sisters Antoinette Brim and Demetrice A. Worley titled "Story Retold: Women Retelling History." As we talked with the participants of how the literary and academic patriarchy cast heavy shadows on women writers that manifest in countless ways, we chose to create an action item list that would help us all in creating work, breaking our own silences, and generating space and opportunity for our extensive community of women writers. Thanks to those who offered suggestions: Judy, Donna, Sherry, Meg, Caroline, Gail, Susan, Christine, Alisha, and Lois. Here is the list and feel free to help yourself or another move forward and be fully present in our work:
- Subscribe to listserves and social media pages/sites that support women writers, where you can find readings, workshops, and calls for publication/submission, announce achievements, and generally network with the vast community of women who write. Two of the countless examples are the Binders Facebook group (this is a closed group and you must query to be included) and the daily CRWROPPS listserve curated by Allison Joseph (although this is for all writers, it is a priceless resource and a labor of love for the national writing community).
- Host home salons, master classes, readings: much like the house concerts of the folk music community that have been integral in many careers, most of us have a community of writers who would benefit from a poet who may have a new book out, may be touring, etc. The format can be very simple or can be a full retreat day but charging a fee to offer to the guest and selling books may not only share that writer's work but help her pay a bill. I will write on this more soon.
- Add women writers into our teaching practice. Many writers are also teachers. Rely on the work of poets you admire as examples of great poetry.
- Be sure to be inclusive in the circles we create for ourselves; gather like-minded people of all ages and backgrounds in circles to create and be artists together.
- Make time to write as a personal priority or commitment. We readily give our time away and our writing may be the last priority.
- Additionally, if you teach, particularly at the college level, work active writing time into the class schedule and write with them.
- In active writing exercises, encourage students to take turns in supplying the prompt for the day, which frees the teacher to write spontaneously as well, possibly discovering new viable work that would not otherwise be written.
- When teaching, be conscious of how we respond to women students and encourage their voices and for them to recognize themselves. Do not defer to male students; make it an open classroom in which women may often speak first.
- Be vocal in our gratitude for those who support and instruct us and be supportive of each other in any way we can.
- Make safe, productive space for regular, consistent gatherings, such as monthly workshops or generative meetings to create and critique new work. These spaces can be in homes or public places.
- Plan opportunities to generate new work with colleagues and friends to refocus, motivate, encourage and empower each other.
- Focus on the work and do not make food the focus. Allow people to bring snacks if they like but it is not necessary to provide food if you host a gathering. The power of not sharing food can enhance the focus as participants share without diversion to the menu and conversation that takes away from the work.
- Search for outlets for work that addresses current issues, such as Rattle's weekly Poets Respond.
- Consider local public libraries as spaces to not only gather for workshopping but for readings and other poetry events.
- Study with colleagues and sister writers, sharing insights and the results that manifest as new work.
- Encourage local radio stations to feature poetry. Use opportunities such as National Poetry Month as a likely reason why it will be of value to the listeners.
- Track your progress. One suggestion was simple: for every 15+ minutes that you sit to write, put a sticker on the calendar to tag the effort. It worked when we were kids and it works now as affirmation and encouragement.
- Know yourself and your own motivations and cycles. Be aware of your patterns, habits, and ways that you do or do not prioritize yourself and your need to create. Also, be gentle with yourself but know when it is time to push.
- Dismiss the notion of writer's block. The myth is that we are not writers if we are not actively creating new work, which then gives us plenty of opportunity to judge and denigrate ourselves. Our identity as writer/poet is much more than the action of writing. When we are in a quiet time, we are still processing and relating to the world in metaphoric, imagistic ways. We are reading, we are meeting deadlines, caring for family and friends, working, vacationing, we are living life. We will come out of the quiet time to produce and we must trust it.
- Own your identity as a poet/writer. There is power in claiming the title first before all other titles and responsibilities. Give yourself the gift.
- Trust yourself and that there is value in your work, no matter what level of "achievement" you may have at the current moment.
On behalf of my dear sisters and colleagues, Demetrice and Antoinette, thank you to all those who chose to attend our session. In our vibrant conversation, which was limited by the hour time frame, we chose to focus on positive actions we can take rather than a session to rant of the injustices and slights that we all encounter. We know the stories that history has provided all too well, and we know the obstacles of being a woman in the literary world, the realm of academia and public education, and of society in general. Proceed and be bold. And remember: the matriarchy is on the rise and we are taking our planet back...