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Upcoming HoCoPoLitSo Events

  • Blackbird Poetry Festival with Ilya Kaminsky April 29, 2021 ONLINE SAVE THE DATE: Thursday, April 29th, 2021The Blackbird Poetry Festival will return with a day of virtual events dedicated to (Re)Imagining Poetry featuring Ilya Kaminsky and Teri Ellen Cross Davis.  Please mark your calendars now for the virtual events below and check back soon for updated details. If you have any questions in the meantime,…
  • HoCoPoLitSo Staff Meeting May 7, 2021 at 11:00 am – 12:00 pm Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, MD 21044, USA
  • HoCoPoLitSo Monthly Board Meeting May 8, 2021 at 10:00 am – 12:00 pm Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Columbia, MD 21044, USA

Joseph O’Neill headlines HoCoPoLitSo’s First Virtual Irish Evening

Click here to view the evening’s program.

HoCoPoLitSo’s 43rd annual Irish Evening on February 19, 2021 is a creatively conceived virtual event. Featuring award-winning author Joseph O’Neill, the evening includes an introduction by Daniel Mulhall, Ireland’s Ambassador to the U.S., author Belinda McKeon serving as emcee, an Irish dance lesson with Maureen Berry of the Teelin School and musical performances by Jared Denhard, former MD. Governor Martin O’Malley, Laura Byrne and Sean McComiskey. Tickets, books, signature cocktail box available www.howardcc.edu/IrishEvening. If you need help with your order, the Horowitz Center Box Office has limited phone hours to answer your questions.

Joseph O’Neill has written four novels, most recently The Dog (longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize) and Netherland, which received the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction and the Kerry Fiction Prize. Born in Cork to an Irish father and a Turkish mother, O’Neill was raised in Mozambique, Turkey, Iran, and Holland before studying law at Cambridge. He emigrated to New York City more than twenty years ago. He is also the author of a book of short stories, Good Trouble (2016), and of a family history, Blood-Dark Track (2001). O’Neill’s stories have appeared in the New Yorker and Harper’s. He writes political essays for the New York Review of Books. “I’ve moved around so much and lived in so many different places that I don’t really belong to a particular place, and so I have little option but to seek out dramatic situations that I might have a chance of understanding,” he told the Paris Review.

The evening program, hosted on Zoom, begins with a pre-show at 7:20 p.m. Presented in a pub-like variety show format, the readings will be interspersed with music, Irish art, a dance lesson, an audience question and answer session, and a rousing sing-along. A link to the online event is $20 and several options are available. A signature cocktail kit, An Irishman in Istanbul (Jameson, cardamom, apricot and citrus), is available for pick up. Cocktail kits provide the ingredients for two drinks and must be ordered by 6 p.m. February 12 and will be available for pickup at The Wine Bin, 8390 Main Street, Ellicott City between noon February 18th through noon February 19th. Limited quantities of three of O’Neill’s books (The Dog, Netherland, and Good Trouble) are also available for purchase.

O’Neill joins the long list of illustrious Irish authors HoCoPoLitSo has brought to Howard County audiences, including Frank McCourt, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Colum McCann, and Emma Donoghue. For more than 40 years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has celebrated the substantial impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.

Poetry Moment: Taylor Mali’s dose of humor

To the usual five stages of grief, poet Taylor Mali adds a sixth–humor.

These days, many of us are progressing through the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler-Ross named: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Sure, Shakespeare wrote, “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.” But what about laughter? With his poem “My Deepest Condiments,” Mali poses that humor can help one endure grief.

A four-time National Poetry Slam champion who studied at Oxford with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Mali hit it big with his poem “What Teachers Make.”

The New York Times called him “a ranting comic showman and literary provocateur.”

In his Writing Life interview, Mali cited Latin poet Horace, and his declaration that the task of the poet was to either instruct or to delight. The greatest praise, Horace said, should be reserved for those who can do both.
“I try to delight and I try to instruct. If I can’t do both of those, let me be merely delightful,” Mali explained. “The truth is that people are going to listen to the beauty of your words, and your words will find a deeper place and stay there if people can enjoy them on the way down.”

“My Deepest Condiments,” recited during his interview on The Writing Life, lingers on the small reprieves in grief that can sometimes arise.

The poem’s language–like “condiments” rhyming with “sentiments”–is playful, but the subject is serious, Mali’s father’s death. A friend’s letter of condolence arrives at Mali’s home, sending her “deepest condiments.” No one knows what to write in a sympathy card, but “deepest condiments” is probably not the best choice.
To Mali, riffing on the found poem of the card’s mistake, the gesture was “sweet relief.”

Laughter is the best medicine, so the saying goes, and this poem brings the funny, but in a bittersweet way. Because by the end, after the laughter, Mali returns to cry just a bit more.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Poems of beauty and terror
 with Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Rachel Eliza Griffiths is obsessed with beauty. Not in the way that Vanity Fair or Hollywood are fixated on the way a person’s body or face looks.

Instead, she says, her relationship with beauty is “complicated.”

One of her favorite quotes is from Bohemian-Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke: “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror that we are still able to bear, and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains to destroy us.”
Griffiths’s poetry, her photography, even her film-making and visual art circles around the idea of beauty warily, both drawn to it, and shy of its terror.

“For me, beautiful things involve asymmetrical words and language,” Griffiths said. “I interrogate [beauty], I ask questions. Particularly as a photographer, I’m quite adamant and vigilant about constant questioning and revising and expanding of what it means to invoke the word, and also the practice of it, and the way that it works in language and visuals will be a lifelong trial, I think.”

This Poetry Moment features an excerpt from her longer poem, “According to Beauty.” The poem is dotted with imagery not usually associated with the beautiful, and with words such as “crawled and staggered,” “shattered,” and “splattered.” Pretty is not the same as beautiful. And in Griffiths’ poem, the beautiful is equally terrifying and gorgeous.

Her poem even interrogates the random distribution of beauty: “Luck fell silently/ through the earth. / Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.”

With her line, “the burden of the I within/ a flawless landscape,” the poet questions even the validity of beauty.

Featured in a fashion shoot for O Magazine in 2011, Griffiths wore a canary yellow ruffled blouse and salmon-colored pencil skirt and smiled while she mimed painting words on a wall with a javelin-sized brush.

“Gazelle you are mine. Your corpse pounds into me like music,” the words on the wall read, from her poem “Ode to a Gazelle While I Bathe on Sunday Evenings.” Beautiful and terrible, just like Rilke said.


Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life


For Reference only:

According to Beauty
 
 
Under midnights you came, a hunter through memory.
It was memory that could please and betray. It was memory
that crawled and staggered, staging the deaths of beautiful words.
It was memory, distressed as a mirror, which shattered smoke.  Face.
It was memory that bewildered the alchemy of the real.
 
I could never escape midnights or the remembering.
 
It was memory, a voice said. The voice belonged to everyone,
which made it into thunder. It was memory waiting in a corner
like a riff of selves in the dark. I am an outlaw woman
shadow-dancing. My life too quick to bruise. What is the name for those who collect the beautiful.

Later version:
My life too fast to burn.  It was memory
that killed my loves, my children, shamed the old country.
 
The moon was involved wherever wolves hunted.
 
Stars were gathered. Arrows piercing my shoulder.  Luck fell silently
through the earth. Luck crawled wherever beautiful things lived.
 
Through fields of water I wandered. Ishmael,
as I fled the whale-skull.  What salt gave me at dawn.
There were colors, textures. Under the hood of irreparable delight,
adorned in moths, I arrived. What is the name
for those who collect the beautiful?
 
The word for the gesture of seeing
but not possessing eyes? Sight ghosted or exorcised. An eye
that blurs as the selves, the burden of the I within
a flawless landscape.
 
Starlings, from a dark cluster.
 
I stare at the way bars lengthen in moonlight
upon my bedroom floor where I danced in a wind
for your lungs.  You held solace, a small yellow bird,
to my cheek until it stopped breathing.
 
Whispers uttered between memorize and believe.
 
It was memory that gave me faith then unleashed termites
in my house, my body. It was memory that held
the faces quiet. It was memory that marched and saluted
my useless authority, mocking my splattered skin.
It was memory that cried for blood
and vengeance. Against the midnights
where the shutters of the law remained latched.
 
And it was impossible to know whether God was
sleeping inside.
 
I told you once about the woman
I met, huddled by a river. Stained yet polished
by rain and music.  I always wondered why
she waited for the moonlight to disappear
 
before she revealed her face,
pronouncing our name.

Miracle Arrhythmia, 2010.
https://youtu.be/Qsm4gG6cy1k

Poetry Moment: Stanley Kunitz sets us adrift from 2020

Stanley Kunitz, the lauded poet who read and wrote and gardened until he was 100 years old, spoke truth about the world—that while we’re in the midst of being alive, we’re also on the path to our graves.

“The deepest thing I know is that I am living and dying at once, and my conviction is to report that self-dialogue,” Kunitz wrote.

This week’s Poetry Moment captures Kunitz, at age 88, reading “The Long Boat,” his poem about a Viking funeral ritual of setting the dead on a boat and sending it adrift. He visited HoCoPoLitSo audiences during the term of his second national poet laureate appointment and recorded an interview and reading.

In Norse mythology, boats represented the Vikings’ life at sea, so the dead were sometimes placed on ships and sent out to sea, or buried in grave mounds shaped like ships, outlined in stones.

At the end of a year replete with mourning, this poem seems apropos.

“The Long Boat” hovers on the perimeter between life and death, touching on what is precious about life and also what is inevitable, even peaceful, about death. By beginning with the boat leaving the shore, and speaking in the voice of the dead man, the poem allows readers to feel great nostalgia and reluctance on leaving the world of the living, but also the contentment of slipping into death. The Viking’s burial ship is also his cradle, rocked by the waves.

Kunitz, who won the Pulitzer at age 54 and a National Book Award for work published when he was 90, said he believed the secrets to his longevity were writing poetry, being curious, digging in his garden, and drinking martinis. But it’s through his writing that readers understand the deep beliefs he held about the importance of poetry, but also the sacred nature of life.

“The poem comes in the form of a blessing—‘like rapture breaking on the mind,’ as I tried to phrase it in my youth,” Kunitz wrote in his preface to Through: Later Poems, New and Selected. “Through the years I have found this gift of poetry to be life-sustaining, life-enhancing, and absolutely unpredictable. Does one live, therefore, for the sake of poetry? No, the reverse is true: poetry is for the sake of the life.”


Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

For reference only:
The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

From Passing Through, 1995.

Photo credit:
“Oseberg Ship III” by A.Davey
Caption: In 1904, just a year before poet Stanley Kunitz was born, this Viking burial ship was discovered in a burial mound with two female skeletons and ritual funeral goods on board. It dates from before the year 800. The oak ship is displayed at the Viking Ship Museum in Norway.
Art credit:
“On Stanley Kunitz” by ChrisL_AK is licensed under Creative Commons.

Poetry Moment: Eavan Boland commiserates with Ceres

Whenever winter shakes itself awake and sheds the first snowflakes, the myth of Persephone comes to mind.
Kidnapped by Hades and imprisoned in hell, Persephone is pursued by her mother, who searches ceaselessly until she finally finds her daughter.

Though she has tried to refuse, the hungry Persephone has eaten six seeds of the pomegranate Hades has given her. The rules of hell say that if you eat or drink of the underworld’s produce, you must remain underground. But Persephone’s mother, called Demeter or Ceres, negotiates with Hades so that for half the year, her daughter emerges to stroll through the fields of flowers with her mom on Earth, and spends six months as Hades’ wife below ground, when nature sleeps and the Earth is cold. And that Greek myth explains the seasons.

But who could blame Persephone? Who could resist the gift of a pomegranate? Assertively red and juicy, almost the antithesis of winter, a pomegranate stores up all that delicious summer into a beautiful package. Greeks still hold pomegranates in high esteem, hanging them above their doors for the twelve days of Christmas, and cut the fruit for the Christmas feast table.

Eavan Boland’s poem, “The Pomegranate,” is built on the heart-breaking myth of Persephone and her mother, and the choices that teenage girls make that their mothers have to stand by and watch.

“This poem is just to register my surprise at having a child who turned into a teenager,” Boland said during the full interview with Linda Pastan.

At first, Boland’s speaker in the poem enters the myth as a daughter, but when she becomes a mother and loses a daughter at twilight, her frantic search recalls Ceres’ hunt for Persephone. “When she came running I was ready/ to make any bargain to keep her” the poem explains.

Then, when her daughter grows into a teenager, Boland’s speaker focuses on how the daughter will enter a different world as an adult, just as her mother did. These “rifts in time” allow a woman to remember what it was like to be both a daughter and a mother, gripped by the ineffable love and fear for a daughter. And by the end of the poem, readers understand what the mother has grown to know, that she cannot protect her daughter with bargains or gifts, or even words.

Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

Photo Credits:
Girl with a Pomegranate, By William-Adolphe Bouguereau, in Wikimedia Commons
An Opened Pomegranate: by Fir0002, in Wikimedia Commons

HoCoPoLitSo recommends – best books we read in 2020

[from left to right] Be Recorder, The Book of Delights, Obit, The Understudy’s Handbook, Friday Black, The Boy The Mole The Fox and The Horse, Raising King

During all the quarantines, lockdowns, stay-home orders, and socially distanced holidays of 2020, many of us have been busy reading. Here are some recommendations from the board members of Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. Look for these books at our local bookstores in Maryland or visit www.bookshop.org to support independent bookstores across the country.

Tara recommends Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell.

“I loved this informed, insightful journey of imagination, underpinned by a respect for historical fact, into the intimate, inner life of the Bard as seen by those closest to him. This 360 degree family perspective is a fresh, masterfully designed, and moving vehicle to further our delight in and fascination with Shakespeare.”

Pam recommends The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott.

“The story reminded me of the role/value religious play(ed) in our community, that no one is immune from ethical decisions and our actions can have long-lasting ripple effects. The ‘best’ action(s) is not always the ‘approved’ action.”

Kathy L. recommends Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

“Along with an analysis of how often we make wrong assumptions about people due to unacknowledged biases, it includes a good discussion on effective policing.”

Susan recommends The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.

The book “‘starts with a pair of light-skinned Black twins growing up in a tiny Louisiana town. They run away from home, are separated, and one of the sisters ‘passes’ as white. Their daughters’ lives eventually intersect. This novel explores the idea of recreating a self different from the one you’re born into – changing genders, races, social classes – in really interesting ways. Bennett’s book makes you think about who we are, and what defines the self, as well as leads us through forty years of American history.”

Kathy S. recommends 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak.

“A captivating exploration of the beauty and brutality of Istanbul through the last thoughts of a murdered woman and the response from her small community of outcast friends.”

Laura recommends The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim.

“This collection of short stories skillfully manages to be specific to Korean and Korean-American experience/perspective and at the same time universal in its exploration of love, loss, family, resilience, belonging, and crossing borders/boundaries.”

MORE RECOMMENDATIONS

Fiction

  • Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah (Howard County Book Connection Book)
  • A Particular Kind of Black Man by Tope Folarin
  • If I Had Your Face by Frances Ha
  • The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  • The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Nonfiction

  • The Book of Delights by Ross Gay
  • Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe
  • The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy
  • Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch
  • Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong

Poetry

  • Obit by Victoria Chang
  • Be Recorder: Poems by Carmen Gimenez Smith
  • Deaf Republic: Poems by Ilya Kaminsky (The Blackbird Poetry Festival poet 2021)
  • The Understudy’s Handbook by Steven Leyva (Current HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2020-2021)
  • Raising King by Joseph Ross (Former HoCoPoLitSo Writer-in-Residence 2014-2015)

 

Poetry Moment: Forché and poetry of witness

Poets write a particular kind of history. While they might cite dates and names, as normal history books do, what poets record is an essence, their personal and political stories distilled into lines that evoke eras.

Poet Carolyn Forché, known for her own poems about civil war atrocities in El Salvador, spent more than thirteen years collecting work from poets around the world who had endured imprisonment, exile, repression, censorship, war.

In the 816 pages of Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, Forché anthologized more than 140 poets from five continents, spanning history from the Armenian genocide to the massacre in Tiananmen Square. And when it was published in 1993, she coined the term poetry of witness, to denote the method of describing history that poets under extreme conditions developed.

“I was interested in what these experiences had done to the poets’ imaginations and to their language,” Forché explained. “And whether or not, regardless of the subject matter, whether one could feel this suffering and the extremity in the poems.”

The work in this week’s Poetry Moment is a tiny excerpt of a longer poem, “Requiem,” read by Forché, but penned by Anna Akhmatova. Forché remembers being captured by this poem as a student, she says, it is perhaps the reason that her anthology exists.

Akhmatova was a Russian poet and translator who survived the Great Purge and Stalinist terror, more than fifteen years of her books being banned and suppressed, grinding poverty, harassment, and threats from the state police.

While the government restricted her, Akhmatova composed her poem “Requiem.” Subject to constant danger of search and arrest, Akhmatova told the long narrative poem, line by line, to her closest friends to memorize, then burned in an ashtray the scraps of paper on which she had written her poetry.

She conceived of the poem while standing in line with hundreds of other women outside Leningrad’s prison. All carrying baskets of food they hoped to smuggle or bribe their way into their beloved prisoners, the women were waiting, like Akhmatova, to hear news of their families. One day, another woman heard that she was a poet, and asked her to get out the news about their vigil.

Akhmatova began writing. Her son was dragged from home in the middle of the night by state police because Akhmatova and his father, another subversive poet, spoke against the government. His father died in prison. Akhmatova waited outside the Leningrad prison for the seventeen months he was imprisoned there, and then at home when he was sent to a forced-labor camp. For decades she wrote in secret and hoped to see again her son, who after twenty years was eventually released and became a historian and translator.

Akhmatova chose not to emigrate, instead staying in the Soviet Union to act as a witness to the horrors around her. Because of its criticism of the purges, “Requiem” was not published in the USSR until 1987.

The Antioch Review wrote that the poems of Akhmatova, as well as the other poets that Forché collected, provide “irrefutable and copious evidence of the human ability to record, to write, to speak in the face of those atrocities.”

Forché said her anthology takes its impulse from the words of Bertolt Brecht: “In the dark times, will there be singing? /Yes, there will be singing./About the dark times.”

Especially in dark times, poets must sing.

Susan Thornton Hobby
Producer, The Writing Life

Credits:
Portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (The painting is located in the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16605586)
This repression order by the Soviet government condemned those speaking against the government. People placed into Category I were executed by shooting, people placed in Category II were sent to gulag forced-labor camps.

Poetry Moment: Sekou Sundiata hangs out in Harlem

The weather is turning. We can wear layers and hats, but it’s stretching the limits of our cold tolerance to socialize outside. Considering the Covid-19 infection rates, though, that’s the only safe way.

Consequently, we’re all desperately missing hanging out with our friends. This week’s Poetry Moment offers a tiny shot of remembered happiness, a slice of summer. Sekou Sundiata wrote “Longstoryshort,” a portion of which he reads in this week’s Poetry Moment, about a scene that used to be normal: gathering with buddies in a park, sharing a drink, listening to poetry and music.

Sundiata, a poet, playwright, and musician who died too young, was born in the projects in Harlem and taught at New York’s New School University. This poem evokes the pleasures of hanging out with friends in one of those parks ubiquitous in New York City. In these lines we can smell the weed, taste the sweet wine, feel people we love slapping our shoulders or hands, hear the laughter and music.

Though Sundiata toured with his band and other musicians, performing his poetry around and between and over their beats, he did not consider himself a musician. He was simply a poet, he said, who could never ignore music.

“It’s damn near impossible to understand what contemporary Black poets are doing without understanding what’s going on with Black music and its relationship to Black speech and Black literature,” he told Poets.org.
Interviewed by E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet steeped in Black music and poetry, Sundiata explained that he began writing poetry in the late 1960s with a group of people who would hang out, listen to music, and write.
“The poem is really addressing the idea that here we were, outside of school, discovering this poetry on our own and exploring the idea of writing poetry ourselves,” Sundiata explains in the full Writing Life interview. “Looking for voice and sound and rhythms, and having an actual space in a park that we just named Mecca, where we would have these al fresco poetry workshops. It was a hip scene.”

In “Longstoryshort,” poetry and music and friendship surged through these young people’s bodies, invading “the membranes of our hearts,” as the line in Sundiata’s poem reads.

Sundiata didn’t have an easy life. He overcame heroin addiction, cancer, a broken neck, pneumonia, kidney failure and a subsequent transplant. One of his friends donated that kidney. I like to think that friendship saved his life in multiple ways.

Listen to a few of his poems over music and perhaps it will transport you to a place where, without fear, you can shake a friend’s hand, hug them, share a drink and a laugh

We’ll gather again, it will just take some patience. In the meanwhile, put on some mittens and head to the park.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

Poetry Moment: Linda Pastan and Letting Go

Linda Pastan is a quiet poet. Her poems don’t shriek, they don’t yell. But they still hit hard.

This week’s poem, “Elegy,” comes from her book Imperfect Paradise, 1988, which was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. 

An elegy, a poem of lament for the dead, seems called for right now. Everyone, it seems, now knows someone who has died of Covid-19. In fact, last week, we again hit the mark of the death of one American every minute, echoing the same height of pandemic death from July. Every sixty seconds, someone’s mother, father, grandparent, brother, sister, or child dies of this disease that we can’t yet cure or prevent.

Pastan’s poem recalls a moment when her mother was in a hospital, dying, and Pastan watched her struggle for life. This poem repeats the idea of movement, up and down. Snow falls, flowers struggle up their stalks, the moon rises and sets, and the speaker hoists herself from bed and slides into sleep again. A mother’s hospital gown, propelled by raggedy breath, lifts and falls with jagged respiration. 

The poem’s sound is a rising and falling, too, with the breath of the reader. And the last line, with “newly shoveled earth, settling” is a finality, even the sound of the word “settling” sinking down into the belly when you say it, like a coffin lowered into a grave. 

Poetry magazine’s Ben Howard wrote, in a review of Imperfect Paradise, “At their most searching, [these poems] also examine the intersections of dailiness and mystery, the quotidian and the unconscious, as they seek to illumine those ‘depths/ whose measure we only guess.’ ”

We all are just guessing the measure of death, along with Pastan, long an examiner of grief. In fact, in the full interview with her friend and fellow poet Lucille Clifton, she says that people often ask her for a poem to commemorate a funeral or a wedding. She doesn’t have many poems for weddings, she laughs ruefully. 

In her senior year at Radcliffe, Pastan won the Mademoiselle magazine poetry prize. Sylvia Plath came in second. After graduating, Pastan moved to Maryland and has lived here ever since. For ten years, Pastan gave up writing poems while she raised a family, then at her husband’s urging, she picked up her pen again. She has won the Ruth Lily Poetry Prize, a Pushcart, awards from Poetry magazine and the Poetry Society of America. Pastan is the author of more than fifteen books of poetry and essays. 

Death, in this poem, and in our world today, is both pedestrian and monumental. Every person who dies of Covid-19–now more than 1.3 million worldwide—ends with breath as ragged as Pastan’s mother’s, their chests pushing up and down by laboring lungs. 

Poetry magazine wrote of those lines, “here the minimal style … heightens the speech of the faithful witness.” 

Pastan was a witness to her mother’s death. Many say that being with a loved one at the time of death is a particular privilege. During these contagious times, loved ones can’t be with those who are dying. Medical staff are the only witnesses, and are suffering that burden. 

Take care, be safe. And find solace in poetry. 

 

–Susan Thornton Hobby

  The Writing Life producer 

Poetry Moment: Edgar Gabriel Silex gives thanks for poetry

Besides the turkey, the pies, and the Norman Rockwell sentimentality of the Thanksgiving meal, Americans love the story of that first friendly meal between Indigenous people and the pilgrims in 1621.

For decades, kids have carefully cut construction paper pilgrim hats and Native headdresses and reenacted the message of harmony that the holiday is meant to convey.

Sadly, the story just isn’t true. It’s mostly sad for the Native Americans whose land was stolen and whose treaties were broken by the American government. The myth of the first Thanksgiving was embroidered and invented during the Civil War by President Lincoln to promote unity. This video from the National Museum of the American Indian is a clever take on informing America about the creation of Thanksgiving, and the devastation to the tribes on whose land we now live.

Today’s and yesterday’s politics aside, harmony at the Thanksgiving table is just not historical. But the Thanksgiving story does prompt Americans to think about the Indigenous people who lived here when European colonists arrived. President George H. W. Bush declared November to be Native American Heritage Month in 1990, after almost seventy-five years of advocacy by Seneca and Arapahoe and Blackfoot people.

This week, we’re featuring a poem by Edgar Gabriel Silex, who was HoCoPoLitSo’s writer-in-residence and visited students in Howard County schools during the 1999-2000 academic year. With Native American, Chicano, and European ancestry, Silex grew up in a small reservation on the Texas-Mexico border. Author of four books of poetry and recipient of fellowships from the National Endowments for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities, Silex now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.

His poem “For Chris” springs from his memory of teaching poetry on a Diné reservation in Arizona, of meeting a young boy who confessed that his father had thrown him through a window. He bared his chest to show Silex the scars. Though the encounter between Silex and Chris took place on the reservation, the issue is not exclusive to Native Americans. Silex’s words address the universal ideas of family, abuse, anger, and love.

The evening after he met Chris, Silex said, he was so enraged that he couldn’t sleep. He tried to write about the boy and his abuse, but couldn’t at first. But as he thought about the boy, and about his own childhood peppered with violence, he began to see beyond “half the story,” as he says in his poem, and toward the idea that love can still exist inside abuse.

Most of his poetry is found, Silex told poet and interviewer Michael Collier: “all of us experience things as we go through life. The poets tend to be the ones who are more like witnesses. They capture and encapsulate the emotive experience of the event. … I found the poem or the poem found me, it was just a matter of getting the most experience per line down.

Poetry’s density sometimes frightens people; the compressing of so much life and feeling into such a small space sometimes feels like a thicket readers are fighting through. But that’s poetry’s magic trick—creating the links in the readers’ minds, sharing experiences that are universal, and letting that meaning bloom on the page for the reader.

Silex’s author’s statement for his book Acts of Love, addresses so many reasons for writing (and for reading) poetry: “a state of grace is our ultimate human condition, forgiveness is our highest form of love, awe is our only muse, suffering is our path to salvation, beauty is our only reward, displacement is our human inheritance, passion is our only freedom, restraint is our act of kindness, solitude is our wisest friend, simplicity is our most complex desire, reverence is our highest achievement, and poetry is our most constant state.”

Happy Thanksgiving.

Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer

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