Tales Told by Poets

 

The Sisters by Ralph Peacock (1900)
The Sisters by Ralph Peacock (1900)

Poetry is maligned by many, beloved by its avid readers, and ignored by, perhaps, the majority of people except for a couple of their favorites. It’s so visual in formation on a page, but is it too complicated, with lines where you pause at the end, only to have to continue to another line or two to get the whole picture? It can be obscure: how can we know exactly what the poet means when borrowing content from one image to mean yet another (metaphors)? But it also can be terribly frank, even indelicate, igniting a flame of truth some would rather hide in safer language.

What if we lift a poem from the page and give it a different, perhaps more animated, chance with an audible voice? Poetry, it seems to me, begs to be read aloud, listened to within a space of ease and safety, shared between partners and friends, welcomed by strangers who care to know more deeply the insides of others, the alchemy of words. Who are willing to see you reflected within the poetics of imagination and even come to know themselves better.

I have enjoyed attending readings of all sorts but for one reason or another, I took a hiatus for a bit. Last night I started right up again and went to a poetry reading at a bookstore. I wondered over the number of people who came: perhaps twenty-five in addition to those whom we came to hear. Someone noted that was a decent showing. The small room above the bookstore was full; a couple more sat on the stairs. There were six poets on the billing, each with numerous publications and experiences teaching, editing and coaching. Their knowledge of poetry was apparent. A variety of offerings commenced and it is true that I did not appreciate all as much as I wanted to. Many did speak to me, even struck me in the center, others didn’t reach me but floated off to another listener. That is the way of poems just as it is with prose–we are drawn to what matters to us. Still, it was important I listened.

Sitting among other poets and writers, I was energized. The readers stood before us, some at the podium, some moving away from it, their orations enlivened by gestures. Some were natural speakers; others less so. They first shared a few poems that had changed them. Then they chose one or two of their own and the recitations were more intense, voices full of the intimacy of the work, each word a footprint of their living and doings.

Always one to carry a notebook and pen, I was scribbling away, noting titles and poets I had to explore further. I thought how much had gone into the creation of those poems. What had been sacrificed in the time-consuming efforts of the craft, what words were chosen and discarded, what feelings re-charged or discovered? How many ideas expanded or compressed? I know the temperamental process of poem making. I write them, too. Or do the poems target, then dissemble and redesign us? It is a mystery poets do not care to unravel. The words fling themselves at us or we pluck them from  greater, amorphous beings or we cry out and they oddly arise. Then we shape each word, render it visible.

I was content– until it came closer to my turn. It was the “open mic” part of the readings, when anyone brave enough can sign up to share a poem or two with a captive audience. Adrenalin trumps all in those moments when you lean toward the poet before you and try not to think of yourself. It is not easy to stand in front of people you may not know at all and place your life before them, this amalgamation of letters that became an entire work of love. It is a glimpse of who you are without reasonable defenses erected. A poem is a thing that is at its most tender, prone to bruising, when shared; it sheds the weight of craftsmanship and is unimpeded by explanations.

I started writing as a child and the first things were poems. I wrote poetry for decades and have published some. But there have been times in my life when I wrote no poems. It was too raw a thing; nothing that came wanted to be shown in the light. Or they felt too daunting to wrestle with, the work of it tedious, unfriendly, filling me with a humility that left me, finally, discouraged. Now I write them as they are needed to be written. I have a poetry blog and those small ones come and go happily, not perhaps so elegant or stirring. They are enough to tease me, make me hungry for more. I know truly respectable poems take much longer, as well as rigorous discipline. I write fiction and non-fiction as well. How much time can I, will I, give a fledgling poem that might dissipate before it finds itself written?

But let’s go back to that public poetry reading. Now I stood in the front of the room. I had published a poem about a man who is on a liver transplant list, an alcoholic I knew when working in the mental health and addictions treatment field. I read it aloud and he sat before me again, his Irish brogue rumbling. I recalled his yellowed eyes, painfully smiling. Such bravado he had, and such grief. A client, a man who moved me. I wanted to make known a snippet of his story and so, this poem. My legs trembled a bit because I hadn’t read in public for a few years, but my voice felt strong. I was bearing the poem forward.

The second poem, also published, was one given wholly to me, one that came upon me during a walk as though whispered in my ear. I had recorded the words on my phone as I strode along in my neighborhood. A psalm, a chant, an instruction from above, an incantation. It made (and still makes) me remember I am not alone but tethered to God. This one was the one I lay before the audience with a hope that they understood its meaning.

And then, I was done. Another poet shared his efforts, his experience. Then a farewell to two well-known poets who read and I am friendly with. It was a night that left me lighter yet fuller, something one can’t always claim. I am going to make this a habit once more–reading aloud and listening to my fellow poets.

All last night and throughout today I have thought about how human beings have historically gathered together for storytelling, to pray and carry out healings, to sing songs and expose what was on their hearts. To be heard and to listen well. Telling tales, creating poems–these are crucial to our living even if we want to think not. How else to declare love in its most rapturous form? How else to commemorate an event, to send off a friend or family member when their days are done? To rally when one’s burdens of life seem unique? We harbor private thoughts, but there are times speaking aloud is better. And making poems to read to others.

How far we have ranged from fire pits under a sky so star-flung that it is not ever quite dark. There are tribal cultures today who adhere to these traditions but one of the things I must do is attend poetry readings and open mics. It is important to me to support other writers. It is important for me to release my poems to the air and see if they sail a little. We are each just a person first, shaped by our longings and desires, exultations and travails. Our poems and stories wait to be given their few moments. And poems can elicit laughter, too. We need to pull up a chair more often.  Bring your own.  Be prepared to hear the human heart.

Nurse reading to a Little Girl by Mary Cassatt (1895) Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
Nurse reading to a Little Girl by Mary Cassatt (1895) Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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(NOTE: If you are interested in the poems I read, you can find “Getting on the Liver Transplant List in Spark: a Creative Anthology, and “Whatever is This” can be found at http://www.thebluehourmagazine.com. My poetry blog, Poetry for the Living, can be accessed from this blog. Thank you kindly for your support!)

Wonderstruck by Odds and Ends

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I am surprised by how many sources of inspiration for writing exist. They are endless, in fact. My brain is like a Pavlovian dog: when the figurative bell of an idea rings, I have to write. I post many stories that are jump-started with a photo prompt. I see it and a story comes in full force. I write quickly; time vanishes. But there are other things that release words. Inspiration does its job, whether or not the outcome is acceptable or not.

I decided to share some of this process with you, kind reader. Here are some examples of inspiration, each of which has given rise to a sentence, paragraph or whole story or poem:

1-a client (I counseled folks) talking about his advanced cirrhosis
2-awakening to saws whirring and garbage trucks clunking
3-an aged woman with a black headscarf studying a bag of chili peppers
4-a stranger’s hands that looked like my deceased father’s
5-a photo of an Italian alley with laundry hanging outside a window
6-the various erratic rhythms of my heart
7-a mouse giving my calico cat an evening of comical chase
8-my cello, cracked and silent
9-the scents of daphne, moss, Shalimar
10-a rose gold ring in the gutter

Anything can be an excuse to write. Rain at three in the morning. A daughter’s wild hair. Ghosts felt in a hotel. A beetle; I am fascinated by bugs. Music, any. No matter the nudges, words choose me more often than I choose them. When I revise what has been written, I am conscientious about my choices, scrupulous enough to re-write many hours more than it took to first write a piece. But when I pick up my pen or pencil or pound away on a keyboard, something has struck me–moved, confounded, delighted, disturbed me. I might not be able to identify the sense or sensibility of it at first, but there it is. It is requiring presence of mind and response. I take its essence into me, examine its depths and breadth. Look for its wily ways. Seek the mystical moment. Feel shocked by dangerous emotions. Compelled by strangeness. But I rarely am empty of a desire to open myself to life, then to liberate language to speak of it.

I am in love. Stories beguile me.

My husband, Marc, and I both enjoy language that performs in many ways. When watching t.v. we sometimes entertain ourselves with deconstruction of a commercial message. Or we recreate them so they seem more interesting (to us) and have a laugh. I once wished I had gone into advertising; I am fascinated how words and images incite us to think and react–or not. Last night when we were watching television, an ad came on about medication. It was not remarkable. It was for pain relief. A colorful image flashed onto the screen that seemed to depict a cross section of a nerve but, then, maybe not.

“What was that supposed to be?” I asked Marc.

“Hmm, maybe a hip joint? Looked like sinew that felt really bad.”

“Maybe the inside of pain? Red and yellow. What were those cylindrical things? Rods or tunnels of pain? Darts bleeding pain…”

Marc nodded. “Someone standing on her pain? Creature of pain?”

“How about: You follow me right into my pain. Or, I can’t get away from you inside my pain. Gosh, sounding like a country song…”

“A little more ‘singer-songwriter’ to me… I like it.”

“Hmm, maybe something else.”

I grabbed my red notebook and started to write.

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So, in the interest of sharing that writing foray, I have included what resulted. It’s the first page of a poem with few self-edits.This is what happened after a commercial for pain medication that targeted people with chronic pain. Is it about physical or emotional pain, the body or a relationship? It is just an exercise; it may lead to something good, at least a few sentences. It was fun and took a simple idea to an extreme, which can lead to a mess of nothing worth keeping. Still, writing anything at all counts; it is practice. I wrote about fifteen minutes, non-stop. It was not what I might have predicted. I am a writer and we first write without restraint, hoping a phrase or two sings. You never know until you set it down on paper (of one sort or another).

You follow me to the inside of my pain.
I cannot lose you, not even in
the darkest well of this hurt.
My pain is damaged by your hands and face,
your thieving words  a terrible echo.
My pain is papered with your name.
You are the cruel architect of a refuge
my pain has sought for only rest. 
But it is inhabited by your acts of unkindness.
I know now you cannot find your way

back to the hallowed ground,
that small dominion of the humble
where the loving become beloved.
What will be the apex of your life
as you leave this place where
you once lay down your weaknesses?
Perhaps you are sinking into
the vortex of a soul that’s forgotten
its function, its blameless shape.

What is left you, in this ending?
The pain you make has left a
widening wake and still, you float.
You cannot even be a stone;
a stone has a history
of a life lived long and well.
No, you somehow slip the bonds
of devotion like a leaf abandons the branch,
then goes where it will.

You come here where there is no room.

I breathe an incendiary pain,
mind creased with memories,
hands full of ash,
my heart flattened to the wall
when once it filled the sky.
This is a point of no return, and
in a blink of power who I was
is gone and I become someone with
no good name. Senseless. Transparent.
Riven with grief,
inside the bone and blood of me,
undefended and indefensible.

But now with your stamp upon it,
this pain is no longer recognized,
no longer welcome;
I will not claim it if you  must
set the seal of your denial here.
Then it becomes yours to ruin,
to own or upend.
Take as you take, without guilt.
I leave this rich ache of pain
for another, a greater world.

I am moving my heart into the universe:
you cannot find me in your state.
In the interior of my living
pain will not want to speak of you,
I will travel past the vastness of it.
There will not be one corner
left for you.

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A letter of thanks (and fixing a glitch)

DSCF3728Dear readers:

I so appreciate each of you as you follow and read “Tales for Life” posts. There are untold numbers of excellent bloggers, scads of fascinating information and ideas to ingest. I know you all live demanding, at times tiring, lives. And I remain faithful to my weekly posts not only because I am passionate about writing but because you come back for more. It is humbling to see the “like” button clicked. I encourage you to leave a comment so I know what struck you and what you’d like to share otherwise. I follow many of your great blogs, as well.

But writing hurdles certainly occur for me, generally related to the computer. The post just published on 1/2/14 had many formatting glitches–my computer was having a fit, or the site was. It was a very lengthy process to get it posted, and even then, imperfectly. I’m not sure what happened to its title but now it’s in place: “Afternoons at the Ice Palace”.

This short story is based in part on my lifelong love of ice skating. It was one of the saving graces of my childhood and youth and continues to bring me pleasure and fitness. Although I have lost some figure skating skills, the ice still calls me. I plan on going to my local indoor rink soon. I do miss wintry blasts of wind and snow swirling around the rink. But joy will embrace me as soon as I hit that slick surface and pick up speed. It takes  my breath away.

Well being is more important each passing year–spiritual, emotional, and physical. My coronary artery disease is being managed well overall even as I accept my life will likely be shortened by its presence. So please don’t put off any concerns you have about your own health; early interventions can save us from much suffering.

I care about people, their struggles and breakthroughs, the complex questions and epiphanies that arouse wonder. Seeing and encouraging Divine Love in others is a priority. The most important thing to me is the knowledge of God being here, now, close to each of us. We are never abandoned; we digress and move away of our own accord. I have wandered down some twisty, tangled paths of my own and made unwise decisions.

I notice that atheism is getting more press. And there continues to be violent verbal and actual attacks on various religions. The world never wearies of dissent. I am Christian although my writing is about many topics and imaginings. My beliefs may not match yours or yours, mine. But we each can vow to improve our work or play, carry out actions enlivened by healthy risk and extra effort if they are informed by a faith that grants us stamina, inspiration and peace. May your own spirits and minds be so strengthened.

So may your coming days and weeks of 2014 be fruitful and active, buoyed by contentment and love. Thank you for making my past year one of good steps forward. I have gained more readers weekly, in large part to being Freshly Pressed. You have kindly supported my efforts. It makes a difference as I scribble away, seeking the words that convey a few worthy tales about living a life on earth.

Tell me: what tales do you want to design and live today?

Regards,
Cynthia

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Being “Freshly Pressed” and Lifeblood of the Pen

This week my email contained a message from WordPress.com. It noted I had been “Freshly Pressed”. There was a moment of confusion as the editor that informed me was Cheri Lucas Rowlands, whose blog I appreciate and follow. I thought, how wonderful that she is communicating via email, and promptly re-read it. Ah, “Featured by Freshly Pressed”, those writings I so enjoy sampling and savoring! Chosen was the story “Pastime”, one written just this week when I felt uncertain about a much longer short story being revised for possible submission to a literary magazine. It was one item on my daily writing schedule. And it brought this great surprise! Far better than flowers at the door.

I had been working hard. I hadn’t yet pinpointed a good market for the 5000 word “Jasper and a Night of Thievery.”  I was puzzling over its subject matter, if a punch line near the end was too real for some. Meaning, a sock-to-the-stomach sort of reality ensconced inside gentle opening pages with swift bits of suspense. Then wham! The tough stuff. My career and life have perhaps unfolded like that too often. A challenge for me as a writer is to clarify the truth within a sturdy structure that is upheld by compassion, empathy and respect for our human journey. I also encourage the Divine to come forward in my characters. Truth-telling in writing has been something I can lose sleep over; my hopes and the mysterious writer’s way don’t always align powerfully or even well.

So I engage in many kinds of writing, creating pieces that are less perplexing, at times more uplifting. Briefer and perhaps occasionally even a lark. It all matters. They are gratifying to give shape and heft to, good tasks to support the greater body of work. And I write these without any fear, as opposed to longer fiction and non-fiction or poems that weave their way in and out of my psyche. Or sometimes harrass me until I relent. For reasons unknown to me, I can sit at a keyboard and words are freed as though water from a faucet. The immediacy of this writing on impulse thrills me. I just need to give it all permission to unfurl. It pulls me along until the period at the end, then fix a few things and head down again, nose to grindstone.

So being “Featured on Freshly Pressed” is a lovely honor. I am happy and grateful as I write this. “Pastime” was one of those brief stories that came quickly in entirety and gave me pleasure to share. This particular photo from the fifties came from a writer’s blog that I admire, Patricia Ann McNair’s as she offers daily writing prompts. I utilize my own photos as well as public domain art and photos.

Due to this blog I write a larger volume of pieces and my skills improve in the process. I am satisfied more often because I have the Tales for Life blog to supply. When I started this I was a neophyte in the blogosphere. It was a motivating force at a time I was lagging in many aspects of my life. It has become another potent avenue of creativity. A way to cull and offer what matters most to me as a writer-person as well as avail myself of other bloggers’ brave, beautiful and funny words. We are connected by an adoration of language, wherever we live or whatever we aspire to with our work. I am nourished by life–people and nature, God and my own tender, temperamental muse.

So here we are, each of us writing, making known our minds and hearts. What a way to live, make use of our time! It’s an endeavor of blessings. Thanks again, WordPress, for choosing my small story. And readers, I am profoundly loyal to the world of art-making–and so glad to have your company to keep along the way. Take your own risks. Speak your truth and I’ll keep speaking mine and so we keep the lifeblood of the pen (and laptop) astir.

Tryon hike

Heart Chronicles #18: Risking Our Lives, Part 1

Lilac Farm in WA. 5-10 032For over a year–no, let me be honest, a couple years–I had been struggling through a too small entryway into each new day, legs becoming more unreliable, arms and hands slower to respond, balance off enough to make me shake my head. I had to avert falling over when stepping out of  bed and reaching for my hoodie. The hallway seemed to have contracted, leaving little room for me so that a shoulder grazed, then hit, the wall. I splashed chill water on my haggard face. Put in my contacts and blinked. Stared at myself and frowned. Another morning, another day of something… interesting. Maybe an experience gratifying in some small way at the least and at best, invigorating and even shot through with a brief mystical moment. But where was the get up and go, my genetically-derived indomitable spirit? Come on, I urged myself. Go forward. Complete shower, eat food, get organized.

And so I did. I learned from the onset of life that to fully activate one’s mind and body meant activating one’s will as well. It is the historically American way, anyway. And there was so much to learn, accomplish, and puzzle and even laugh over. Whatever the days and nights brought, a primary rule that powered my living was getting up and going despite days feeling ill or blue or just plain distracted by multiple options. I tell you this so you have the stage well set. I naturally have some less than sterling characteristics, but not sloth. A modicum of eccentricity, yes; a lack of motivation, no. A loquacious complainer at times but not a self-pitying bore when life gets bumpy. And for those of you new to my blog, it is important you know I was diagnosed with aggressive coronary artery disease at age 51. There were nearly zero risk factors for early onset of any heart issue. It seemed a mystery. (See  other “Heart Chronicles” personal essays if that diagnosis resonates.)

Anyway, by the start of 2012 I simply “acted as if”–as if I felt energetic, well, able as ever. Unworried. I addressed all tasks at hand and attended to others’ needs. After I quit my job eleven months  later (I was done with that situation; I wanted to write), I luxuriated in newfound freedom from twelve hour days as a counselor. Still, I had expected to feel better than this, to fairly leap from bed after soothing hours of sleep. I’d imagined a garden pathway that took me to–well, how cared?  Stress levels had finally decreased which was great–less cortisol production equaled less inflammation in the arteries. If I was in a quandary about my life at moments it seemed reasonable: what came after the paycheck that afforded us some nice bonuses? What came after years of assisting others because it fit me well and I, it?

Crystal Springs 1-2012 053

Maybe I was depressed and didn’t realize it. (I was a counselor–didn’t I know the signs by now?) But the fog that inhabited my brain increasingly harbored a voice echoing from an unknown frontier. This isn’t right! I heard, and told it to pipe down. Be calm. That was the way to do it, do anything. Patience, calmness, and thorough assessment of a problem were excellent tools, especially if intuition did not quite cover it. Brainstorming would help but it could wait a bit. Prayer was a necessary ritual. I daily clarified inner and external vision:  Dear God, most Loving Light, walk with me and guide me on the path hewn of compassion; keep me humbly grounded in Your power.

I reached for my teal mug but missed it, hand sliding by with just enough velocity to knock it over. I said a bad word. How did that happen? I stood firmly and snatched the tea towel to mop hot liquid off me, the book pile, The Writer and Architectural Digest and my daily list of goals and priorities. The damp pages and pulsing spot on my leg brought a sting of tears. I got up with empty plate for the kitchen counter: made it. I headed to the washer to start laundry. Each armload of clothing felt heavier; my arms began to ache. I turned to the dryer and the effect was forgetting where my feet were. Catching myself as I fell sideways, my hands hit the wall. Steady now.

Another day under the Big Top of life, where the show limped on. I was getting aggravated by it all, chastised myself for not overcoming this trial. It had to be an old vertigo resurfacing as it did occasionally. I took some OTC motion sickness medication a few times a week. It helped but not enough.

I had already injured my shoulder from a fall earlier in the new year. Climbing rocks around Pacific Ocean tide pools, jumping carefully from spot to spot, I had mis-stepped, slipped on a mossy area and could not catch myself. My arms and hands heroically rallied to stop the slide down toward the sea but too slowly. The right shoulder took it hardest. I had been stunned. Not by the pain but by the fact that this was the second time in six months I had fallen at the beach. The other time left extensive bruises that hurt for a couple weeks and a testy scrape. I should have been able to avoid both. There was a reason why I loved the outdoors, had been a figure skater as a youth, loved to dance. I had trusted the strength and agility of my body even as the decades slid by. But now nothing was paying attention to the automatic cues of my biological systems.

A shiver of anxiety, then again the thought was tucked away to ponder another time. I had a life to live and live well.

But no matter how much good rest, exercise and nutrition I got, the symptoms continued. Why was writing checks harder? I had stopped enjoying handwriting cards to friends and family. The pen would not cooperate; the letters were unpredictable, sometimes loping away from me. My daily walk habit–for my heart, for peace of mind–had become more than small adventures. It became a challenge to see how long I could go without stumbling over a tiny buckle of sidewalk, tripping on a twig, stubbing my sneaker toe and nearly falling once forward movement began. Gravity was not a reliable friend. I felt like a barely contained drunk on the loose some days, when I hadn’t had a drink in well over twenty years. I was chagrined.

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Marc, my spouse, noted the changes more often and asked me what I thought was going on. I laughed it off. See? I have great reactions ultimately so I don’t splatter all over the pavement! But he wasn’t too impressed.

“You stumble over your words more, too,” he said softly.

“Well, I don’t talk as much as I used to every day. I am not any longer addressing groups, presenting material. I write in solitude so I get out of practice, you know? Besides, I was actually in a coma for a bit there in 1986, remember? I lost some fluidity in all faculties. Took awhile to reset my nervous system.” I half-laughed. It was long ago, something I can mention without horror, anymore.

“Yeah, but you almost entirely recovered. You’ve always had a very fast mouth and a quick brain…” he noted fondly, then fell silent.

I married a bright man. He likes to create his own Sudoku puzzles, design labyrinths, solve logic puzzles. I caught him taking a Mensa quiz; I know it wasn’t that tough. He reads about statistics for fun, which strikes me as arduous pleasure. He is paid to be an expert problem solver. But I didn’t feel like consulting him one bit. He likes to think of me as in overall glowing health, for one thing. I need to stick around. I just did not want him to know the whole scenario. So we kept walking daily and hiking on week-ends. I did my exercises. And danced when alone, wheeling about the living room, feeling a bit like a top out of control. I pushed myself. When things are challenging, overcome them–that’s how human beings do it. I more often slept in later,  ate better and less, felt more relaxed than I had in years of working in the non-profit sector.

It had to be because of aging; small changes occur and then voila! you are older than you ever imagined. White hair was finally worming its way into the brown strands, making it a bit curly. Plus, as a woman with a tricky heart I knew I was already enjoying extra years. I decided to take extra care of myself and keep going. Maybe call my cardio guy if my chest started to flash me any warnings.

I embraced writing daily which feeds my entirety, every inch. I stuck to my goals, and soon my poetry began to be accepted once more for publication.

I had been adapting, I realized, to the symptoms for a long time. Rallying human that I am, I adjust a little here and there and fix my attitude. It often works well. Great health had never been a given, anyway, with one chronic ailment with me since childhood. I was writing, learning, discovering. I got to be outdoors any time I chose. I could read all day if desired, listen to music I had long missed. There were people I loved and who loved me.

I had gotten on a boat to a potentially sweeter way of living–perhaps it was “semi-retirement” or maybe a lovely detour–so I wasn’t going to turn around any time soon, no matter the obstacles or risks. I settled in. Then one day I was going up the stairs with a grocery bag in one arm. My legs felt both wavy-boneless and heavy. With a twist of terror I felt myself falling backwards, my hand catching the rail just in time as the bag tumbled down. I started to see the future. It was not looking all that kind.

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(Please come back next week for Part 2 of this post.)