One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet: Part IV

one of the cimaloresThe Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the third in a series. Read the first installment here and the second here and the third here.

PART IV: Revelations

Caron warned we’d be busy at first. Then we’d wait through a cold spring that delivered day after day of rain and biting winds, days with no word from Halifax, PA, where my book waited for the editors to put out the next issue of their literary magazine. I write no new poems. I send out old ones and have them back home with me immediately. The only one that gets accepted is titled Aftermath.

Caron sends me two choices for the cover. I choose the one with a photo of my siblings, Easter 1958. I marvel that my mother, raising four children on a waitress’ salary after her first husband left, could have purchased these clothes: matching coats, white gloves, patent leather purses. My brother wears a suit.

The moment captures not just what they wore, but who they came to be: Barbara Ann, the oldest, worried, serious. As if she understood even then she’d be the one to take responsibility when something terrible happened. When Uncle Duke died, Uncle Joe, Patty’s husband, it was Barbara Ann who made the phone calls and summoned the family.

Jeannie beamed. Before her stood the house her father had deserted, behind her the house where our grandmother lived with her abusive husband, but here was something Jeannie could control: what she looked like, how she presented herself to the world, and on this day, she looked especially good.

We don’t have a picture of my brother as a kid where he is being serious. He makes faces, seems to be in motion, as if he can’t stand still long enough, can’t wait to be done with the costume, the pose, the day. And he would keep moving for many years, from apartment to apartment, from woman to woman, restless, impatient, searching.

Patty tips her head, toes in, as uncomfortable being front and center, being told to smile, at five years old as she will always be. As unsure of her beauty even then.

I’ve told your story, I say to them. I wrote it down for strangers.

 

Mid-August my children, brown and bored by the beach, whine. They want a pool. They want friends over. They want me to examine every mosquito bite they have and console them when they have to scratch. I am reminded of the lure of a book tour, hotels — even cheap ones — in another city. Caron had told me in that congratulatory phone call that I’d be touring in October and November. Shouldn’t I be blocking dates off on my calendar? Packing all my new clothes? Finding someone to help Dennis get the girls off to school? I email Caron asking for an update and get no reply.

Two weeks later, I fire off another. Nothing.

In my final email I say, I can plan some of my own readings if necessary.

The reply comes quickly: Yes, by all means, do.

 

Robert Wynne, Caron’s co-editor, sends final edits on several poems for my approval. Then the book is ready for the printer. I am at my mother’s house for the last long weekend of summer. Downstairs, she refills chocolate milk for the girls and digs around in her drawers until she finds a third pair of scissors. She’s made eggplant for supper, hung their beach towels on the line.

Do I get to dedicate the book? I say in an email to Caron.

She says yes, but to hurry.

I type: For my mother, Mary Cimalore Panciera. Hit send.

But I don’t ask, inexplicably, regretfully, May I add an acknowledgements paragraph? No one asks for one, either. And then the book is done.

 

In slow starts, poetry returns. I find a piece of paper with someone’s name and number scribbled on it left in the bathroom of the YMCA where the girls take swimming lessons. Pansy, it says, in big, cursive loops. Someone left it behind, after this woman, Pansy, dug around in her purse to find a pen. Gave away something vital: Here’s how to reach me; I’ll be waiting. I stare at the paper so long, Justina, my four year old, figures out how to turn the shower on and howls beneath the cold water. I return to my day job, adjusting temperature, refereeing between my daughters over who goes first, but I know I can go home and write a poem. I’ve felt a certain heartbreak.

 

August 28th Caron writes: The book is here! It’s beautiful. Robert and I just need to decide how many copies to send you.

 

September imparts day after day of sun, mild temperatures. We pick apples, ride bikes. We walk to school though the bus ride hasn’t lost its novelty yet. If we must drive anywhere, we put the windows all the way down, tie our hair off our faces. It’s as if, suddenly, we live in southern California. We make plans for outdoor activities and never have to change them. I neglect the house. We run out of clean socks. No one cares. We’re outside. We’re happy.

Except that when we return home, I check the front steps, but The Box doesn’t arrive. What exactly, I wonder, must the editors decide before sending me one copy? One glossy copy with my name on it?

 

My family has not seen the cover. Though it appears on-line, I’ve kept it secret. I have a plan to surprise my siblings, especially, with their photo. I’ll wrap the books up, let them unwrap them at the same time.

Driving to Westerly on Labor Day weekend with the books wouldn’t be bad. We could leave Saturday to avoid traffic.

But the books don’t come.

Well, we have nothing planned the weekend of the tenth. I’ll meet my family halfway, just over the Massachusetts border. We’ll have a celebratory lunch.

No books arrive.

The next weekend, we host a huge party for Dennis’ fiftieth birthday. A great time, since my family is coming, to gather them all together and show them the book — that doesn’t appear.

Friends stalk small bookstores where they’ve been buying books for years. They ask the owners if they’d be interested in having me read, in selling my books. Everyone says the same thing: Can I see a copy first? Other friends try buying it on-line and call me: I can’t get through the PayPal system.

My book sits in Texas. Sits and sits in Texas. All of the Cimalores in Texas.

 

The week after Dennis’ birthday, Patty calls. “Why didn’t you TELL us our picture is on the cover?!” she screams.

I ask her how she knows this and she tells me she looked on the press’s website to see if there was any news about the book’s release.

“Did you tell anyone else?” I ask.

“I called Barbara Ann,” she said. “Jeannie’s out of town.”

I hang up the phone and cry a little putting groceries away. I’d feel silly complaining to Caron about this latest disappointment. I have a book. I’ve published a book. I can cross the oldest, biggest item off my list. And now I’m upset because my little surprise party is ruined?

Though this is how it has always been in my family. We spring good news on one another, reveal it to an enormous coming out party.

But the book is not just ours, and it’s in a bigger world than my mother’s kitchen. It’s in Texas.

 

Friday, September 23, my daughters invite a friend over. The girls play upstairs. They boss Barbie around. The costume box opens. The mail truck flashes by the front window. I’m cleaning up from lunch. One dog finds a sunbeam and reclines. The other follows me in case I sweep any crumbs her way. When I look up from the counter, the truck is still there, paused at my mailbox. It takes me a second to wonder why, and then I know.

Our front door opens with a skeleton key. A not-often-used skeleton key that requires a specifically choreographed shoulder shove and jiggle before it yields. By the time I wrench the old door open, the mail carrier staggers up the lawn with a box. I leap off the doorstep and hold out my arms.

“It’s heavy,” he says. “Maybe I should set it down for you.”

But I am already carrying it back into the house, propelled by the kind of adrenaline that allows people to toss automobiles off trapped loved ones.

 

No graduate writing courses explain how to promote books. I decide to start with a reading at the closest library.

“Sure, you can read,” the library director says. “Whenever you want.”

I trot out a few dates and she says, “Like I said, whenever.”

I choose one date, then suggest 7 PM. “Oh, wait,” I say. “The library closes at 8. What if the reading goes over a bit?”

“No problem,” she says. “We’ll leave you the key and show you how to lock up on your way out.”

“What about refreshments?” I say.

“Bring anything you like.”

 

I call newspapers and ask for a feature on me, modest little me, or a piece on local writers who balance work, family and writing. I suggest several people who might be interviewed. No editor returns my calls.

My friend, Brian, one of the people whose names I would have given for above article, works for a local artist rag. He offers to interview me and arrives one morning with a notebook.

No matter what I say, I think, he’ll make me sound good.

“I don’t feel comfortable being called a poet,” I say.

He asks why, pen poised.

“I don’t feel smart enough.”

He writes, most likely, about my wit and modesty. Thus fortified, I elaborate: “In fact, I feel too ordinary to be a poet.”

“Don’t take this wrong, because it’s one of the reasons I like you,” he says, still scribbling, “but that’s how I’ve always seen you. You are quite ordinary.”

 

My neighbor, Anne, buys the first copy. She stands in my driveway holding out fifteen dollars as I scrounge around under my car mats for change.

“Don’t worry about it,” she says. But I do. I have already paid for the case of books. Now, the responsibility for making any profit rests solely with me. A person who has not balanced her check book in ten years. Who frequently closes one checking account when things get too hairy and opens another vowing to keep things straight.

When I see Anne a few days later walking her dog, I stop my car and hand her two dollars.

“Listen,” she says. “I love the book. It’s so revealing.”

I’m still basking in the love part. It isn’t until I drive away that I remember the second part of what she said.

 

Except for my mother, my family has never read my poetry. My family, as is the case with most families in the world, are not poetry readers. When the book comes out, I sit at my dining room table and inscribe one for each of my siblings and for each of their children. I present them to my sisters and my mother at the lunch I envisioned on the Massachusetts/Rhode Island border.

“We’ll read it all the way home,” Jeannie promises.

“Well, someone has to drive,” Patty says. It’s always her.

“We’ll read it aloud then,” Barbara Ann says. And they do, all the way home.

 

Jeannie calls me later in the week to tell me she’s on her second reading.

“I told Mariann,” she says, her older daughter, “That this is how it goes with poetry. The more you read it, the more you get out of it.”

My mother tells me Mariann called her because her husband wants to know if there is such a thing as Oak Street Cowboys. “They were reading the book in bed,” my mother said, as if this always happened, couples in our family huddled together over a book of poems. “They couldn’t wait to find out the story.”

 

When Jason, Mariann’s brother calls, he says, “I finally got to sit down with it.” He has twins who stay up much later than their great aunt. “Poured myself a glass of Mickey Murano’s bourbon (Mickey is a long deceased neighbor of Jason’s parents who must have inherited Mickey’s stash and whose liquor cabinet Jason frequently raids) and read it cover to cover. I want to tell you, Auntie Carla, (Jason reached six feet three inches by the time he turned fourteen. Lifts me off the ground when he feels like it), I could have read those farm poems forever.”

He worked with my father the last years of the farm, the hardest years when the buildings collapsed, when my father’s health deteriorated, when no one else came around to help.

“But I do have a question for you.”

“Anything,” I say, remembering when I wondered how I would love my own children as much as I have loved my sisters’ and brother’s.

“Do you have a problem with prescription drugs?”

The poem to which he refers sprung from a fantasy about happy pills. From a friend who took antidepressants and detailed for me how her moods lifted, how the light changed. A poem that, in fact, revealed no more than a desire to discover a quick fix, an immediate change in the weather.

Now I had an idea what revelations my neighbors might be buzzing about.

 

Caron travels to Manhattan and promises to check out venues for me. When she returns, I ask twice how it went but my inbox remains empty. I try scheduling readings at bigger bookstores but they want sales numbers, more data I ask for but do not receive from the publisher. They want reviews which I don’t have. They want to be able to get the book via their distributors which is impossible since the book has no distributor.

I call my mother and complain.

“It’s not how I imagined it,” I say.

She gives me a list of people who need books signed. Books she sells out of her kitchen. That my sisters sell from their desks in the Town Hall, in the school department.

“It’s going like hot cakes down here,” she says.

“Okay, but . . .”

Before I can finish, she says: “You’re missing the most important thing.”

I wait. I can hear her soap opera in the background, the volume high, the commercials hawking floor cleaners and dryer sheets.

“People are not just buying your book,” she says. “They’re reading it.”

 

I learned recently that every thirty seconds somewhere in the world a book is published. Many places in the world — mud huts and country manors, sprawling ranches, filthy tenements — then, must be cluttered as my living room is with stacks of pristine copies, sleek spine to sleek spine.

I read to small groups of mostly friends and family members thankful I have enough people to fill the few seats I usually unfold myself. Miriam brings flowers and a tablecloth, struggles to make change so at least I don’t have to sell the books, put the money away and pick up a pen to autograph the purchase. Dennis comes and I am grateful for the opportunity to thank him publicly, for saying what should have been said in the acknowledgements page. That he’s the one who wakes me up at dawn every day. That he’s the one who listens when I say, “I can’t write.” He has to figure out something to say when I cry about things he might not understand. He brings the girls who sit alone in the front row where they pay attention even though Justina admits my poems bore her. When I glance up from the page and see them, they smile. Sometimes, they wear lipstick. My throat closes so tightly, I can barely read the next line.

 

The week before my Westerly reading, articles about me appear in three different newspapers. My sister Barbara Ann leaves me a message: “I don’t know if you return your own calls these days or if you have a press secretary, but just wanted to tell you the Westerly Sun article is beautiful.” Patty mails me copies of everything. Jeannie hides the newspaper so her husband, a chronic re-cycler, doesn’t cart it off before she gets a chance to cut the stories out. My mother’s phone rings and rings, Cimalores phoning in from all over the place.

 

For the Westerly reading, I wear jeans and a blouse.

“You always wear that shirt for your poetry,” Justina says.

She’s right. It feels good. It’s dark purple, heavy silk. I chose it myself during the shopping month, thinking as I did so: I never wear anything like this in my real life.

We cut through the park towards the side door of the Westerly Library. Jeannie and her family carry trays of cookies, jugs of cider. Patty totes the cigar box for money. Her son Carl lugs the box of books. Barbara Ann reminds me of several people I will see so I will remember their names. My daughters dash ahead to the fountain, illuminated by a red spotlight. My mother and I come last, her hand on my arm. She lost most of her vision the same year we moved off the farm. I point out the shallow steps, the uneven flagstones.

We take the main stairs to the auditorium, not the metal ones to the glass floored stacks of novels. In the open doorway, I stop. So many empty chairs!! It’s as if I’m about to be married again. The room has enormous windows, arched at the top. Portraits of wealthy (non-Italian) library patrons hang on the dark walls as if we’ve stumbled into a manor’s library and not the library of a town built on the backs of immigrants in the quarries. The library has always felt like this to me: as a mansion or as a cathedral. A place that demands reverence.

We’re still setting up when people arrive: a friend who used to live up the street from the farm that is now a Home Depot. Where her house sat is a liquor store. The woman who sewed my prom dress. A friend of Barbara Ann’s who crocheted matching blankets, one for me, one for Beatrice’s foster mother, when we traveled to Guatemala to bring Beatrice home. My aunts come. “That’s my niece,” Aunt Nanny says, cutting the line. She brings a friend who also worked at the summer houses of people like Mrs. Jacobs. My mother’s best friend for sixty years, the reporters who’ve already done stories, a teacher from my high school, the father of my best friend growing up, Jeannie’s friends who sit with us on the Town Beach every summer, my Panciera cousins, my great-nieces and nephews, people who even Barbara Ann can’t name for me.

The library director stands at the podium. She says, “It must be a writer’s dream to return to her hometown to read from her first book.”

The world gets perfectly small and attainable. No New York. No million dollars. Just an audience of people I mostly recognize, my book in their laps.

I look out at them and they return my smile, or sit back to listen, or tilt their heads and wait to hear what I have to say. This person they’ve come to hear, this woman they knew once or heard about, who has now, it seems, become a poet.

“I’ve told your story,” I say.

I read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet:Part II

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The Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the second in a series. Read the first installment here.

Part II: What Poetry Can Do

Sometime over that next year, Dennis heard that wet bread taped over a splinter would draw the wood out. He tried it when a wedge of pine lodged itself into the heel of his palm, tearing electrical tape from the roll with his teeth to bind the poultice together. We were three seasons behind on Six Feet Under and, having finally figured out how to work our DVD player, given to us by a friend impatient with our lack of technology. We looked forward to a Friday night catching up on several episodes. From upstairs, requests for water, for hallway lights turned on or off, for one or another person to stop singing, quieted. The dogs came in from prowling, cold air swirling off their coats, and collapsed by the wood stove. How many times had we heard it was the coldest January on record? But it would end tonight in one burst of Canadian air streaming over us, festooning the snug houses of our neighborhood.

When the phone rang, we let the answering machine get it. We only called for the message because no one called us this late. 9:30. No one but an old college buddy of Dennis’ who tormented us because we go to bed so early. What if it’s an emergency, we thought.

Dennis held the receiver in his good hand, listened, then said: “Caron Andregg? Cider Press Review?”

I threw off the afghan and grabbed the phone.

“What?” he said. “What?”

He had no idea I’d submitted a manuscript to a book award contest. Or he had forgotten. Or he hadn’t connected that manuscript to this phone call. I couldn’t listen to Caron’s message, her voice deep and whispery, as if in her house, wherever it was, someone slept lightly, and explain.

“I have good news,” Caron’s message said.

I dialed her back quickly and just as I got to the final digit, to the second where I could turn to Dennis and say, “I think I won a book contest. I think someone is going to publish my book,” he peeled off the tape and shouted (though our house was full of light sleepers): “It worked!”, the splinter slipping out of his flesh as easily as if it had passed through water.

My mother goes to bed earlier than I do, in deepest winter by 6 PM. I called my sister Patty instead. Patty who once listened to the poem the manuscript is named for and said, “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand poetry.” But she received news of the book with the hysteria that marks celebrations in my family. We like noise and champagne and effusive displays of affection. We remember fight songs from high school and sing them boisterously as we set the Thanksgiving tables.

“I cried when she told me,” I said. “I had to hang up the phone and call back for details. They’re sending me on a book tour! New York and Boston!”

Boston was 40 minutes away. But New York! New York is where real writers go! New York was what got everyone whooping the next day when I made the rest of my calls. The night before, Caron promised to promote this book, the first book award Cider Press sponsored, with low-budget, but no less romantic, trips to the Big Apple. “We may have to share a room,” she said, “but if you’re willing, we’ll go.”

Though Caron and I might have to share a room, my sisters, my mother, Dennis, my daughters, my nieces, my friends flying in from Florida, driving down from NH, leaving babies behind with husbands, coming specifically to make sure I dress right and wear make-up, would take up the remaining rooms on our floor.

I hung up the phone at last and turned to Dennis who worked at the kitchen table on a memoir about a fainting-in-church phase he endured, and burst into tears.

“What?” he said. He said this often and with the same what-did-I-miss-this-time exasperation. “Isn’t everyone happy for you? I can hear them screaming through the receiver.”

“It’s not who is here,” I said. “It’s all the people who aren’t.”

My father, first of all, who wouldn’t have cared that this book wouldn’t make that million dollars we needed to save the farm, my grandmothers, grandfathers, aunts, uncles, whose lives I’d included in those poems. The book is titled One of the Cimalores after my mother’s people whose stories I’ve told. It’s Mrs. Jacobs, eighty years old and nearly blind, who summered in Watch Hill when I was a college student. She hired me to read aloud to her as she watered her gardens and to take her shopping for hand-packed ice cream, lobsters, fresh fruit, then sent me off every afternoon for several hours so I could write.

It was also a general feeling of indebtedness: to my mother for her stories, to Mekeel for writing, just once, the line: You’ve got talent, kid, across the bottom of my work, for my friend Lauren who lived with me during my year at BU when I couldn’t imagine writing one line that wouldn’t inspire criticism, sarcasm, ostracism, for Teresa who called me her friend the poet through all the years I didn’t feel worthy of the title, for Dennis who rose every morning at dawn and wrote and inspired me to do the same, for the poets who had read my drafts and offered feedback, for my students who sat around workshop tables and coaxed me back to poetry. An endless list of people who had a hand in this book that, in the end, would feature only my name on the cover.

In March, I returned to the high school where I’d taught for ten years before leaving to raise our daughters. This time, I visited as a poet-slash-teacher, hired to lead a teacher workshop on discussing poetry with teenagers. I spread a few dozen books of poetry across the conference table and urged people to read quietly.

“Later,” I said, “we’ll hear some favorites and discuss them if you’d like.”

Of course, these are English teachers: They discuss. They said why they chose the poems they did, what it felt like to find a fear voiced, a love described as they wish they could have described it.

Look what poetry can do, I wanted to say. It’s what I would have said as a teacher in a classroom full of high school students.

But I didn’t say it that day because I would also be saying: Look what poets can do. Look what I can do. Who used to be a teacher. Who still felt like a teacher. Who didn’t feel like a poet. Who didn’t feel, yet, as though she’d earned that mantle.

One of the Cimalores Might Be a Poet: Part I

one of the cimaloresThe Cider Press Review has recently announced the winner of its 2015 Book Award. More than ten years ago, my book, One of the Cimalores, won their inaugural prize. I wish Julia Bouwsma success with her award winning manuscript and the kind of dream-come-true stuff that happened to me all those years ago.

This entry is the first in a series.

PART I: A POET? REALLY?

In the Westerly Public Library, fiction shelves sat on a glass floor accessed by a metal staircase that broadcast footsteps. As my friends chattered below, chemistry notebooks, encyclopedias fanned before them, I browsed the dull-spined books. Slats of fluorescent lights glowing from the reference desk shone through the cubes at my feet. I trolled the P’s. P, Pa, Pan, until I found it: the place my book would rest someday. I pushed aside its neighbors, reserved a slit wide as my finger. Then I returned to my friends who thought I’d been scouting titles for our report on catalysts.

What do you want to be when you grow up? people asked. New people in my life, people just passing through my mother’s kitchen, adults who knew little else to ask small children. Some days I told them I wanted to be a dairy farmer like my father.

“Pick something easier,” my mother said.

“Pick something where you’ll make some money,” my father said.

So, other days, I said a writer. Then the person bending towards me trying to get me to speak, (I would have been called, then coaxed, then ordered, out of my room to meet guests) would wonder what I would write.

“Books,” I’d tell them. Meaning: novels.

“Now that’s a good idea,” my father said. “You write a book, make a million dollars and we can sell this place. Then your Daddy can take a rest.”

This appealed to me: making money. Also, having my father in the house on cold nights, snow pinging off the windows, wind shearing shingles off the barns, instead of outside soldering busted pipes or delivering still born calves into a bitter season. I liked the idea, too, of becoming famous, signing my autograph, having my picture taken for newspapers. She used to be so shy, people would say.

In college, I struggled with fiction classes, agonized over stories that weren’t stories at all but pages and pages of description. Finally, a friend who witnessed me jamming yet another page one into my typewriter and kneading my forehead as I stared at it, suggested I try a poetry course.

“For fun,” he said. “Enjoy yourself a little.”

When Mekeel McBride walked, bells on her cloth bag jangled. She entered the room in broom skirt, poncho, crimped hair frizzing around her face. In the margins of our drafts, she printed encouragements with purple markers, letters as fancy as artwork. We sat around a large table and read drafts aloud, Mekeel leaning forward, beaming, no matter what garbage we produced.

Though it turns out, I could write poetry. I had no idea how to do it and Mekeel offered little or no instruction, only praise and encouragement, but my friend was right, I enjoyed class. I felt free. And something was working. Even the crusty graduate students in our workshop offered praise. It didn’t matter, though, I thought. This isn’t really what I do.

After several of my poems appeared in the campus literary journal, someone referred to me as a poet. I studied myself in the mirror: my hair short as a boy’s, my earrings garnet studs I’d had since my eleventh birthday. My wardrobe consisted of Levi jeans and button down oxford shirts, sneakers and one pair of LL Bean duck boots. I didn’t carry a purse, just a wallet flat as a man’s in my back pocket. I desired nothing more than to blend in, to walk from one part of campus to another without anyone glancing my way. The way it was, say, with fiction writers.

Three years later, in graduate school, the creative writing students gathered at The Castle, a gloomy basement bar off Boston’s Commonwealth Ave. My fellow poets crammed chairs around two tables, ordered wine and recited poems, dropped literary allusions, compared one person’s translation of Ovid to another. I’d spent a month listening to these kinds of conversations. Conversations in which I was not smart enough to participate. I’d made a mistake both in coming to Boston University and in pursuing poetry. Poets were either free spirits draped in tinkling bells or erudite scholars who communed regularly with the dead.

I felt nauseous, homesick, though I lived a half hour away and could leave any time. I moved to the bar and ordered a beer.

A fiction writer named Otto introduced himself. “What are they doing over there?” he asked.

“Talking Ovid,” I said, shrugged, vowing not to cry.

Otto pulled the stool out beside him and I sat. We clinked glasses. “Fuck Ovid,” he said.

I finished graduate school, completing an embarrassing collection of poetry, and refused to fool around anymore. I courted solely the fiction muse, except when I got a teaching job and wrote with my high school students. Only then did I sit in the discussion circle and play along with them, trying out in-class exercises to produce poems.

“Stay loose,” I told them, “have fun with words.” As if I believed it possible.

After ten years, though I loved my profession, I left my classroom to stay home with our first daughter. I missed teaching, but I reasoned that, if I couldn’t teach right now, I should write. Every day. Something I’d never been able to do. I used my daughter’s nap time, rose at dawn before she awoke. I hung posters in local libraries inviting fiction writers to form a group. As I toiled away at my true love, I sent off the poems I’d written with my students. Two got accepted one day, two more the next.

“I guess it’s not a fluke,” my husband Dennis said, staring at the second editor’s letter.

I had no choice but to return to poetry, but only as a diversion when I needed a break from fiction. We had a second daughter and a third. We lived in an old farmhouse, much like the one I’d grown up in, a fixer-upper with a huge lawn to tend. Dennis and I traded books; my writing group met weekly; I published poetry, memoirs about the farm, even a few short stories.

For my fortieth birthday, we celebrated with a small group of friends around our table, lit candles and drank wine. A lot of wine. Our daughters watched a movie, came in for cake before Dennis put them to bed. Upstairs they brushed teeth, sang Good Night, Irene loud enough for my mother to hear them a hundred plus miles away. Candlelight softened the faces of the people to whom I felt closest.

Here is my life so far, I thought. A good life.

Forgetting, the way I mostly forgot, that what I had wanted longer than I had wanted anything else was to write a book.

Weekend Write-In: Poetry by Request

100826-helix-asperaOnce upon a time, I saw a periwinkle making its way back to the ocean as the tide rapidly retreated. I had no idea these creatures left such lovely signatures behind. This is how poems began for me, with an image that would not let me rest.

Then, my students and I started the Poetry Stand (see my blog entry Free Poetry, Really ) for further information, and, for the first time in my career as a writer who teaches writing, I asked these young people to do something I had not done before: to take an order for a poem and to write the poem on the spot. For free.

To be fair, I decided to make myself take the kind of risk I’d asked them to. I started by sending out a few emails to close friends (okay, so maybe I cheated a little) telling them I’d like to write a poem for them and asking them to request something — anything. I widened the circle to other friends, book club people, blog readers, etc. To date, I have written poems about sheep, about dementia, about the fall from innocence and swingsets, about forgiveness and the possibility that, someday, we might be able to have movies made of our dreams and many other topics I would never have chosen myself.

Suddenly, poems did not begin with an image. Instead, they began with research. I found Bible passages on what it means to forgive, specialized words that had to do with what happens in our brains when we dream, photographs of brain cells transformed by Alzheimer’s, and really creepy facts about sheep.

Where previously an image had held me hostage, now research set me free. How fun it was to become a student first, poet second; to wallow around in facts and new words until I found something that felt like a beginning to me.

Sometimes, when we write, we sound too much like ourselves. Again and again, we tap the usual reserves, but other people’s ideas and a commitment to attempting to use them, helped me try things I had never considered.

These days, I do a little of both: my own inspiration from those haunting images, and the requests of people who, in most cases, have never had a poem written exclusively for them. I hope you’ll try it.

 

This is the poem I wrote that began with the image of the periwinkle’s trail.

Plum Island and Back

You come here expecting things in pieces:

the fractured, fleshless shells of mussels,

crab-backs abandoned by soft bellies, a claw.

 

You come expecting flight over dunes, terns

diving, the confetti of aerialists mad for sky, herons

lifting from the marsh, trailing legs, trailing ropes of water.

 

You don’t come expecting poetry, nor love, either,

things you feel you’ve had enough of.  You expect —

no, you hope — for nothing grander than relief.

 

But the periwinkle lays out a path to the sea, a ribbon

in the sand his thin tribute. He has this house to move,

this exaggeration of spine, the only bone he knows.

 

It helps, it must, to have nothing to compare oneself to.

He can’t know the work ahead, but you do. You wish

the tide back in for him, you wish the moon on his side.

 

The second is a link to a poem that was requested by my good friend and fellow writer, Holly Robinson. Holly wanted a poem about Plum Island with an emphasis on the way it’s currently eroding. As a bonus, she published it in her novel, Beach Plum Island. You can read that poem and a preview of Holly’s novel, here.

Free Poetry. Really.

Stand Poets, Class of 2014.

When a group of four walks into the Ipswich Art Show, I am sitting behind the Poetry Stand stand. They glance at me and then quickly look away, afraid to make eye contact with an offer they intend to reject.

“Free poetry,” I say anyway. “My students will write you a poem on any subject. You can have it written as you browse.”

A chorus of embarrassed no thank-you’s as they hurry away. The fourth person also starts to walk past and then stops. “Free poems did you say?”

I nod. “We don’t even accept donations.”

He studies me for a moment, maybe to make sure this isn’t some invitation to join a cult thinly disguised as some free love come-on and then he says, “Then what’s the point?”

We get this a lot at the Poetry Stand.

The stand is not my idea. It came from an article in American Scholar by a poet-slash-teacher named Doug Goetsch who set out with a group of students to write poems for strangers (http://theamericanscholar.org/poetry-stand/#.VDFOtkvxUxc) . At the time I came across this article, I was home raising our daughters but I tucked the idea away with the same kind of someday-sigh that I reserve for real estate ads of cottages along the Sakonnet River in Tiverton, RI. Fantastic dream, but you’d have to hit the equivalent of the lottery to make it a reality.

And then, a few years after I started teaching again, I met Abbie. She was a poet, an actor, the kind of generous person who only knows how to include everyone no matter the task or the adventure. During her sophomore year, I told her about the stand and she said, “I’d love to do that.” Okay, I thought, then it’d be Abbie and me. But one voice had at least sounded in the universe.

Two years later, Abbie and fifteen other kids signed up for my first ever senior poetry class (I admit it: I am a lucky bastard) and this time when I mentioned the poetry stand, Abbie said: “You keep saying it. Why don’t we do it already?” Maybe I was my tentative, dbuious, fall-back, cautiously optimistic, borderline pessimistic self, but one Saturday in April, six of us set up shop in Newburyport and thirty or so poems later, the poetry stand became The Poetry Stand. Four years and hundreds of poems later . . . people still want to know: what’s the point?

Well, here are some of the millions of points that I can think of to get us started:

  1. A man says, “I’ve been watching what you guys are doing for a while and now I’ve come up with a poem. I just moved her from the midwest and would like an existential poem about it.” Abbie says: “I got this. We read The Stranger in French with Dr. Ladd.”
  2. Another woman wants a sonnet from the perspective of a brick. Abbie writes that one, too.
  3. A woman with a baby carriage hugs me and says, “You know how sometimes you find something you didn’t even know you were looking for? That’s what happened to me when Lisa wrote me this poem today.”
  4. A man decides to post Olivia’s brewmaster poem on the labels of his homebrew.
  5. Anna can’t make the Sunday night stand and arranges a Saturday night one, instead.
  6. Maddie writes a poem for a busker and he reciprocates.
  7. “Can you throw some German expressions into a poem about antiques?” she asks, and Hannah says yes.
  8. Alumni perform cameo requests.
  9. After her poem on friendship, Liz gets a hug from a woman who says, “How did you know exactly how I was feeling?”
  10. Julia says, “How does this work?” and I say, “You’ll get at least one grandchild and one cat poem,” and she does. And she really loves cats, so . . .
  11. Jeremy does a multi-stanza rhyming epic starring the Incredible Hulk with a four year old leaning against his leg.
  12. Tom, Abbie, and Tara take the stand all by themselves to Salem.
  13. Alli, Emily, Maddie, Britta, Olivia, Erin don’t take a poetry course and sign up anyway and in this way, year two unfolds.
  14. Jazmine, Devin, and Shannon set up a satellite office by the waterfront in Newburyport and business is great!
  15. Colin writes a poem for a group of fourth graders and when one of them says, “Now can you read it in French?” he does!!
  16. Ryan says: “I didn’t want to do this at first, but it’s been a great day.”
  17. Kyle needs a little help with One Direction info but makes the most of the brainstorm session.
  18. Sometimes, we get pizza; sometimes, cider donuts.
  19. Ink freezes when it’s 12 degrees, but Gus writes with no gloves, Austin doesn’t have a hat, and the girls hunker down inside Zumi’s to collaborate on pony poems.
  20. People cry.
  21. People beg us to take their money (we don’t, though one person stuck money in Gus’s empty coffee mug anyway).
  22. Every time I make an announcement: Anyone interested in working The Poetry Stand, kids show up (Sophie first).

So far over seventy kids have written for The Poetry Stand: sonnets, haiku, pastorals, poems about dying loved ones and video games, plain old elusive joy; they have written about teddy bear hamsters and Lego Star Wars, about the empty nest syndrome and sibling devotion; they have written so that a girl might fall in love with the stranger before them; they have written about the blues and sailing, about a child with Down’s Syndrome, about Tyrannosaurus Rex; they have written from a line someone hands them. They are always ready to write the next thing.

The point is poetry and the way in which it connects us to the world. The point is there will never be any strings attached. The point is that, this weekend, at the very last minute, kids walked in out of the rain on Saturday night or sat beneath a streetlight Sunday night and grabbed clipboards to start writing. The point is, whenever The Poetry Stand is open for business, another one of my dreams comes true.