Friday, February 24, 2012

Poetry Friday: Julia Kasdorf

I discovered Julia Kasdorf this week. My initial introduction came through the online class I'm taking. One of the assignments was to read Julia's poem, "What I Learned From My Mother." I liked the poem so much, I went in search of the poet, who teaches creative writing and women's studies at Pennsylvania State University.

Julia's parents grew up Mennonite, but left the community. Her first book of poetry, "Sleeping Preacher," explores the tension of living in two worlds. She was, in a sense "working out the implications of that departure in her writing."  (See her interview with Mennonot here.) The book won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. She has since won other awards, including a Pushcart Prize in 2004.

Read this interview with the poet, then listen to her read "Bat Boy, Break A Leg."

One of the things that appealed to me in her interview with Mennonot was this explanation of the relationship between pain and beauty.

Mennonot: What do you do with other people's stories of pain that they've experienced at the hands of the community, and your own stories? There's a sense in which I want the people who have caused that pain to be accountable for it, in the sense that I want them to know they either collectively or individually were part of causing that pain. But how do you do that in a way that's, I guess, loving? That's been a struggle for me. I don't want what I'm writing or doing to be about bitterness.

KasdorfI was really influenced in college and beyond by modernism. H.D. (the American poet Hilda Doolittle) especially. For a long time I just wanted to make beautiful objects, crystal clear. I believed you could find the right word. I sort of trivialize it now, but it was really good discipline to believe in all that. There's still a lot of that in me. I want to make beautiful things. So for me, the answer to your question is to take that pain and to make it beautiful. That's what transforms it into poetry.

So now, back to the class assignment.We were to read  "What I Learned From My Mother" and then free write, pen not leaving paper for twenty minutes using this as the jump off line: I learned from my mother how to...

This was a tough assignment for me. Many of you know that my relationship with my mother has not been an easy one. And in November she went into a nursing home for permanent care. The adjustment period has been difficult, to say the least. One of the things the online class has allowed me to do is use my writing to wrestle through the rising tension in my own struggle with this. 

Here is Julia's beautiful poem.

What I Learned From My Mother 

Julia Kasdorf 

I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewing even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.

And here is what came from my free write, my own attempt to make something beautiful from a painful relationship.

What My Mother Taught Me

She taught me gin rummy and badminton,
to make Chef Boyardee Pizza
with a crust ten-cent thin.
She taught me to make my bed before
I was out of it, to clean my room,
that homework came first.
She taught me to cook. I taught her to sew.
She taught me to practice
piano, to listen, and not get caught talking.

She taught me justice, but without
mercy that makes it redemptive.
She taught me to be truthful, but
she meant her version, and it was seldom spoken
in love. She taught me that getting
your own way hurts
the ones close to you. She taught me
silence is not golden when it shuts
people out. She taught me that touch
is tender and sweet, not tenuous. She taught me
family comes first. Mine. Not hers.
She taught me to give, but gifts without
grace make one feel bought.
She taught me that kindness is more
important than the appearance
of kindness. She taught me when bitterness
takes root, you can lose your best friend.
She taught me God’s love--
 without it I may not  have survived hers.
She taught me to be a mother. Sometimes knowing
what not to do is the best lesson.

Today I sat beside her bed and read.
I held her withered hand in mine and kissed
her wrinkled brow, because I know
what it means to need those things.
She taught me that.
© Doraine Bennett

Jone hosts the Roundup at Check It Out  where you'll find lots of beautiful poetry to enjoy. 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Poetry Friday: A Love Poem

Valentines Day is past, but I'm still enjoying the flowers my sweet man brought me. I hope you found lots of love to celebrate this week. 

What the Light Would Say
Dale Ritterbusch

In the language of the Dakota
um pa o wasta we
means beautiful daybreak woman.
I imagine a Dakota warrior
returning from the hunt
to a woman lying in the light
of early morning, and the warrior
slips in next to her, touches her face
and says the words
that tighten her arms around him.
When I touch your face
in the half-light of early morning
I have nothing to bring you—
no talisman or wild boar, no stories,
nothing but the fall of my hand
upon your shoulders brushing away
stray threads of raven hair
making way for a small kiss
in the breath of a light breeze.
And my breath speaks in a language
I no longer understand,
where any word I might say
in the most inarticulate resonance
of a touch breaks and burns
like a covey of birds rising to the sun,
rising until their feathers become light
and every wingbeat sings
as I reach my arms around you
O beautiful daybreak woman.

From Far From the Temple of Heaven (Black Moss Press, 2005)

Poetry Friday roundup is over at Gathering Books.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Never Ignore the Muse

I'm three weeks into my writing class that began the end of January--40 Days and 40 Nights: Deepening our Practice. It turns out that four assignments a week, in my week at least, has been a challenge. Last week, I had my piece figured out in my head, but I procrastinated getting it on paper, got wrapped up in email and dinner plans, and decided I needed sleep more than I needed to write. The next day my mental plan had vanished.

It's not a good thing to ignore the urge to write, that moment when the idea is clear, even if the words aren't. Never let something as urgent as sleep crowd it out. Never put it off until the dinner is cooked or the kids are in bed or the invoice is posted. At least jot down some fragments that can later be formed into rational thought.

Because if you don't, something else intrudes, the next task is imminent, the demands of the day are right there in your face, and they have to be done. The moment is lost. Sometimes you can't even remember the idea. It dissipates into the air like steam rising from a boiling pan of spaghetti. Then getting words on paper is impossible. The impetus is gone, the momentum lost, the spark that drives the pen flickers out.

You try again the next day, but you can't remember the feeling that came the moment you looked out the kitchen door and saw the blue heron standing on the rock. You can't remember the color of the sky or the strange combination of smells that assaulted your nose when the door opened.

And there's still the assignment that must be done, still a commitment requiring words on a page, the longing for a tone of voice that only thoughtful words will capture. The process demands time and discipline. Time to think, to re-see, to craft words and sentences and paragraphs that one day you hope someone other than your husband or your mother will read. Words that a reader somewhere will think about, identify with, perhaps even change for. Powerful words that speak to a desire, a longing, deeper than the paragraphs on the page.

But it starts with the urge to write, and the posterior in the chair, and pen to pad or fingers to keys.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Poetry Friday: Black History Month

I want to celebrate the first Poetry Friday in National Black History month with one of my favorite historical figures--George Washington Carver. On my list of "people I'd like to talk to when I get to heaven," this sweet man is in my top ten. In my county, students study Carver in the first grade and again in the fifth grade. Last year I wrote a first grade level biography of him for State Standards Publishing, but I loved him long before that. I think he must have captured my imagination when I was in elementary school. Maybe it was the flower in his lapel or the kindness in his eyes or the fact that I love boiled peanuts and parched peanuts and peanut butter. Or maybe it was simply the genius of the man.

I recently discovered Marilyn Nelson's book, Carver: A Life in Poems. It is a beautiful tribute to marvelous life. I know I came to this book late. It was a Newberry Honor book and a Coretta Scott King Honor book in 2002, but somehow I missed it back then. I was back in school that year and busy writing papers and being a good non-traditional student. Nelson's poems capture the essence of Carver's life.

Here are a few excerpts I especially liked:

from "Watkins Laundry and Apothecary"

He was the child the good Lord gave
and took away before I got more
than the twinkle of a glimpse at the man he was going to be.
It happened one Saturday afternoon.
George was holding a black-eyed Susan,
talking about how the see
this flower grew from
carried a message from a flower
that bloomed a million years ago,
and how this flower
would send the message on
to a flower that was going to bloom
in a million more years.
Praise Jesus, I'll never forget it.
He left to find a teacher that knew
more than he knew.

from "Chemistry 101"

A canvas apron over his street clothes,
Carver leads his chemistry class into
the college dump. The students follow, a claque
of ducklings hatched by hens.

from "Coincidence"

He looks down at the brown road map
printed in his yellow palms.
Your life may be the only Bible
some people will know.

from "Mineralogy"

He showed Ford his phosphate pebble,
found in an Iowa creek bed,
his microcline feldspar, found
in the Alabama woods, his smoky quartz,
kicked up by his boot toe
in a Kansas wheat field, his fluorite,
sent by a Kentucky spelunker, his
marcasite, sent by an English mineralogist
in exchange for a piece of information,
and here it was, his diamond, the gift
of his dear friend, Henry.

Pages before the book ended I was wondering how she would manage it, how she would close the door on  this remarkable life. In the final poem, entitled "Moton Field," Carver is still living. His "palseyed right hand/stutters answers to letters heaped beside his bed" while pilots of the Tuskeegee Airmen train--"a P-40 zooms in at five o'clock/ high as a Negro has ever been./.../and makes a sky-roaring victory roll." It was perfect. Absolutely perfect. I wanted to write her a letter and say thank you for her work, for the way she captured his heart, for showing how much his life counted.For ending with that victory.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen has been told over and over. Made into movies over and over. It's been made into movies over and over. It's just such a great story, people will keep on telling it over and over. I went with my dad last wee to see "Red Tails." We both loved it.If you haven't seen the new George Lucas version yet, it's worth seeing.

I live about an hour and a half from Tuskegee on the Georgia side of the Chattahoochee River. It's been a few years since we drove over and went through the museum. My hubby was cleaning out some drawers in is office this weekend and brought me a pamphlet he had picked up while we were there. It's called "How to Grow the Tomato and 115 Ways to Prepare it for the Table." by George Washington Carver. Maybe if I followed his advice I could actually grow a tomato. See my post "No More Veggies" for my history with tomato growing.

Stop by The Iris Chronicles for more Poetry Friday.