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How we need this week’s poem, with its voice that calls for grace and saviors. Lucille Clifton, the Lilly Poetry Prizewinner and HoCoPoLitSo’s artistic advisor for decades, wrote “blake” and put it in her collection The Terrible Stories. But she didn’t read it to audiences very often, and HoCoPoLitSo recorded the only video of her reading this piece.
In the midst of the poems in The Terrible Stories, which address cancer, mastectomy, Biblical lust, and rage and despair over a history of slavery, this poem calls for a plume of hope.
Clifton said the poem was conceived after she had been living in the South for a while, remembering and living with its history of slavery and racist violence. She was being driven to her home in Columbia, watching out the car windows at the trees flashed by, and remembering William Blake and his visions.
Blake, a poet and artist who lived in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, wrote that when he was 9, he saw angels in the trees. In fact, Blake said he had visions almost daily, and angels figured heavily in those mystical experiences. He often painted angels, especially in his illustrated Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Celestial beings fluttered through his poems, guarding him, surveying the world, watching over children. The world has made famous his line: “Cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door.”
While Clifton didn’t often write about angels or visions directly, she always had her eyes open. In the same collection, Clifton writes about the female fox that often sat by her window, how they watched each other through the glass and acknowledged each others’ power.
“child I tell you now it was not/ the animal blood I was hiding from,/ it was the poet in her, the poet and /the terrible stories she could tell.”
“blake” is not an inspirational poem to be put on a flowery background and posted to Instagram. There are terrible stories in it, in the leaden way Clifton writes “the face/ of what we have become” and “this hunger entering our loneliness.”
But she ends the poem by coming home, “back north,” and searching the branches for poems.
Tonight, HoCoPoLitSo will host its tenth annual Lucille Clifton Reading on Friday, Oct. 2, featuring Joseph Ross reading his work based on the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s good to remember Clifton’s work this week and always. Her short lines and direct language could evoke whole other worlds, and her words both challenged and inspired readers.
Clifton’s line from “blake” about “the flutter that can save us” lingers with me. I’m watching the trees, waiting for poems or angels. Perhaps they are similar things.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The Writing Life producer
The Agony in the Garden is a small painting by William Blake, completed as part of his 1799–1800 series of Bible illustrations commissioned by his patron and friend Thomas Butts. The work illustrates a passage from the Gospel of Luke which describes Christ’s turmoil in the Garden of Gethsemane before his arrest and Crucifixion following Judas’s betrayal. In Blake’s painting a brilliantly coloured and majestic angel breaks through the surrounding darkness and descends from a cloud to aid and physically support Jesus in his hour of agony. The work is dominated by vertical lines, formed both from the trees and from the two arms of the angel. Two inner lines converge on Christ’s palms, evoking the nails driven through him during his crucifixion.
The Agony in the Garden was bequeathed by Blake collector Graham Robertson to the National Trust in 1948. It was acquired by the Tate Gallery the following year.
Joseph Ross launches his new book of poems, Raising King, introduced by E. Ethelbert Miller in a virtual presentation.
Now available to watch online:
The 2020 Lucille Clifton Reading Series provides an opportunity to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves as Ross explores through verse the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ross based his poems on King’s own writing in Stride Toward Freedom, Why We Can’t Wait, and Where do We Go from Here. Ross will read and discuss his work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in a virtual presentation.
Ross says Raising King “invites readers to journey with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Montgomery to Memphis. These poems, some in Dr. King’s voice, some in other voices from his time, offer the reader a new way to understand the compassionate and prophetic life of Dr. King.” Joseph Peniel, author of The Sword and the Shield: Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. writes: “Raising King is a groundbreaking poetry collection that helps to rescue the radically compassionate legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Joseph Ross brilliantly reminds us that King’s power derived from the way in which he forced American and global citizens to confront uncomfortable truths about race, poverty, citizenship, war. A must read.”
Ross is the author of three books of poetry: Meeting Bone Man (2012), Gospel of Dust (2013) and Ache (2017). His poetry has appeared in a wide variety of publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Southern Quarterly, Xavier Review, Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and Sojourners. His work appears in many anthologies including What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump, edited by Martín Espada. He served as the HoCoPoLitSo’s 23rd writer-in-residence and teaches high school English is Washington, D.C. He is a six-time Pushcart Prize nominee and his poem “If Mamie Till Was the Mother of God” won the 2012 Pratt Library/Little Patuxent Review Poetry Prize. Raising King will be available from Willow Books in mid-September.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and author of two memoirs and several poetry collections. He hosts the WPFW morning radio show On the Margin with E. Ethelbert Miller and hosts and produces The Scholars on UDC-TV which received a 2020 Telly Award. Miller’s latest book If God Invented Baseball (City Point Press) was awarded the 2019 Literary Award for poetry by the American Library Association’s Black Caucus. Click here to view the E. Ethebert Miller Collection at GWU.
Zoom attendance is limited to the first hundred registrants. Additional virtual attendance will be available through live streaming on Facebook.
Donate to HoCoPoLitSo to help make this and other events like this important discussion happen.
HoCoPoLitSo was founded to celebrate diverse literary heritages and to foster literary appreciation in diverse populations, including varying gender, ethnic and cultural identities, age groups, and income levels. We believe that opening a book, reading a poem, or attending a literary event can be a powerful humanistic journey of exploration, education, and enlightenment. We all benefit when we seek to deepen and extend our understanding of the experiences of others and ourselves.
We are profoundly sad and outraged by the violence perpetuated against black lives and by the ongoing systemic lack of accountability. We believe black lives matter, and we stand in solidarity with all those seeking to effectuate long-lasting change in our communities.
In an effort to do our part, we offer something new — HoCoPoLitSo’s Poetry Moment — as a way to address, extend, and deepen these crucial conversations. Starting today, we will be showcasing poems written and read aloud by black authors hosted by HoCoPoLitSo over our forty-five years, whose art examines and illuminates our American experience.
The HoCoPoLitSo Board and Staff
Poetry Moment: Lucille Clifton reads “good times”
#BlackLivesMatter #HoCoPoLitSoPoetryMoment #PoetryMoment
HoCoPoLitSo opens its literary season October 26 with “Ordinary Wonder: Three Poets on Writing and Reality,” featuring Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi. The 2018 Lucille Clifton Reading Series highlights three Maryland poets with new, acclaimed collections. Collier, Spires and Yezzi will read and discuss their work beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the Monteabaro Recital Hall of the Horowitz Center for the Performing and Visual Arts on the campus of Howard Community College. Join us in celebration of HoCoPoLitSo’s forty-five years of literary programming at this year’s Lucille Clifton Reading Series. A book signing and wine and cheese reception will follow. The suggested donation for this event is $5.
The three poets, in their own ways, hold up the ordinary world to the light of poetry and examine everyday mysteries, both beautiful and horrible.
Michael Collier’s most recent collection is My Bishop and Other Poems (2018). Poet and professor A. Van Jordan wrote, “My Bishop and Other Poems reminds us of the power of the observant in an age when, too often, we move too quickly to notice the world unfolding around us. These poems bring a passion, an empathy, and a way of seeing I had forgotten was possible.” Collier’s other collections include An Individual History, a finalist for the Poet’s Prize, and The Ledge, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is the director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Maryland, a director emeritus of the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences, and a former Maryland Poet Laureate.
Elizabeth Spires‘ most recent poetry collection, A Memory of The Future (2018), was influenced by Zen and Asian art. The New York Times wrote of the work, “In these lyrical verses, Spires questions the quotidian, elevating the everyday to a meditational art form.” Spires’ other collections include Worldling, Now the Green Blade Rises, and The Wave-Maker. The author of six books for children, Spires lives in Baltimore and is a professor of English at Goucher College.
David Yezzi’s newest collection of poems is Black Sea (2018). Other collections include Birds of the Air, Azores, and The Hidden Model. Reviewing Birds of the Air (2013), Farisa Khalid noted the poem Orts “does something that many poems strive for but don’t quite get at, and that’s conveying with clarity the otherness of our world—the strange beauty of what we experience and the mystery of what we can’t always understand.” Yezzi has contributed poems and criticism to The New York Times Book Review, The Times Literary Supplement, The Wall Street Journal, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Poetry, The Yale Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. Yezzi, who lives in Baltimore, is the editor of The Hopkins Review and poetry editor of The New Criterion, and chair of the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Three Poets On Writing and Reality
Michael Collier, Elizabeth Spires, and David Yezzi
Friday, October 26, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.
Monteabaro Recital Hall at the
Horowitz Center for the Performing Arts
Howard Community College
HoCoPoLitSo, a private, nonprofit literary organization, receives funding from the Maryland State Arts Council, an agency funded by the state of Maryland and the National Endowment for the Arts; Howard County Arts Council through a grant from Howard County government; The Columbia Film Society; Community Foundation of Howard County; and individual contributors.
On October 30th at 4 pm, HoCoPoLitSo hosts Carolyn Forche for the Annual Lucille Clifton Reading.
Here is a reflection by Sama Bellomo who is a rehabilitation technologist who writes accessible curricula to help individuals with disabilities gain employable skills on their way into the workforce. Sama has previously contributed to this blog with a letter to HoCoPoLitSo after attending the 2014 Lucille Clifton Reading event with Michael Glaser.
When it is not possible to stop the suffering of others the decent thing to do is listen and bear witness. When we validate someone by hearing and retelling their story we help them carry the heaviest bricks of the human condition to a new space where their suffering can be built into something meaningful.
By devoting years of her life to the protection of human dignity in war-torn places Carolyn Forché gives people’s pain a way to connect, to rest. First she collects the writings of devastated people. She listens, empathizes, and surely cries. Next, she connects the works with those of others who endure similar horrors, breaking their isolation by organizing and cataloguing their grief. Perhaps she reunites neighbours, lovers, or siblings among the pages. Maybe the loneliest are finally in good company. Wars ruin lives – but poets like Forche give that tremendous sense of loss a new purpose, a community, a voice.
I’ve been revisiting my studies of Carolyn Forché, whose book, “Against Forgetting,” has a permanent spot in my living room. I keep it in plain sight so that it’s a ready tool when I need to share an example of ordinary people who do extraordinary things on the worst and last days of their lives. The book is so thick and yet it was pared down from thousands of poems for whose inclusion Forché fought individually. Forché wrote an introduction to every single author, giving their poetry context, finding what the poem needed to say and clearing space for it in the reader’s mind. I flip through it to remind myself to keep ownership of my responsibility to improve the human condition where I can. I use the dog-eared pages to empower budding self-advocates. I harvest the hope and earnestness that Forché writes into each author’s leading biography to play my part in suicide prevention, which I spend a great deal of time doing, with no regrets, and with great thanks to http://www.IMAlive.org for training me to do without fear.
I gratefully tip my hat to Professor Jean Sonntag at Howard Community College who had a profound impact on the way I view myself and the world around me, through the lens of others’ written voices. She supported my investigation into the Japanese Internment further by giving me an Incomplete grade at the end of the semester which gave me time to catch up on the coursework I’d set aside. She was teaching me that I could and should make time to grow as a decent human being when there was something I really needed to understand. Because she taught me that making time was possible I got my first good look at how delicate we are, at how quickly we will treat each other poorly if we are not careful. The work I did to assimilate E.O. 9066 into my prior knowledge of “Great Man History” changed my sense of what it means to be proud of American History. But even then, the most gruesome inhumanities had yet to hit me because there are so few first-hand accounts and even fewer images from the Japanese Internment Camps. First-hand accounts have a unique way of haunting a reader’s conscience about what cruel acts people can commit against each other in deeply evil times, when just yesterday they had been neighbours.
Also at Howard Community College, Professor Lee Hartman first introduced me to Carolyn Forché. In a Creative Writing class Professor Hartman played a video where Forché spoke with HoCoPoLitSo. Forché told me in that recording what it was going to take for me to become a force to ease human suffering: I would have to listen, and it was going to hurt.
Of course I’d known what the Holocaust was, and of course I was sorry about it – for as sorry as a then-twenty-something could be about what public high school had said about it. Forché told me through her talk that I knew too little and could not be sorry if I did not truly know how the Holocaust had undone an entire people.
Fanni Radnoti published “The Borscht Notebook,” a posthumous final volume of her late husband, the Hungarian poet and writer Miklos Radnoti. To get the book she had sifted through a mass grave, through more than twenty bodies’ worth of human remains. Hoping and dreading that one of those bodies belonged to her beloved, whom she had not seen in more than two years since they had been separated by the Nazis, she found him. The book was in his pocket. Forché dutifully told these details to my Creative Writing class through her video recording session with HoCoPoLitSo and I was no longer just sorry. Sorry was no longer enough, and it never will be again.
My two neighbours at the time had been Holocaust survivors from Poland, who had been devoting their lives to recovering artifacts and human remains for proper burial, remains that had been turned into decorations such as tattooed skin lampshades and shrunken, sand-packed heads. After I saw Forché speak in that video I knocked on my neighbours’ door and asked them humbly about their experiences. They spent the next six hours showing me what they had recovered, articles and letters they had written, denials they had gotten from museums and private collections for items that had no hallowed ground.
It puts a strain on their marriage. They lose sleep. Their basement is a fully devoted workshop of recovery. They write home. They live modestly. They carry themselves happily despite the torture that continues in their histories, in their daily life. I was able to provide some technical support, a modest kindness to help their heroic efforts. We have lost touch but not a day passes that they are not in my heart, a part of who I am now, determined to help with activism, closure, and rehabilitation, using any skills I have.
As a member of the LGBTQ. community I am still trying to assimilate the confusing and overwhelming truth that I myself would not have survived the Holocaust, nor would much of my community, had I lived in Eastern Europe, where part of my family is from the former Yugoslavia. Forché’s works brought up the question in me: what do I have yet to learn about LGBTQ history, what should I be against forgetting? I have grown to raise awareness of genocide and to resist cultural eliminativism, be the acts overt or covert.
Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better, and then-twenty-something me was learning that in my college years. Somewhere in the world starvation, murder, and torture have happened today. They happened yesterday. They have happened since time immemorial. They have never happened to me, and they likely never will. That means I am in a position to do something about it. Knowing better leaves no excuse for not doing better: what can I do for my part to move the world forward?
Forché is featured in “Voices in Wartime,” another anthology volume that portrays exactly what one would imagine it does. A video documentary bearing the same title accompanies the book on my shelf and bears witness to the fact that Forché is not alone in her work. There are others concerned with trying to put words on the unspeakable, to educate, an appeal for peace, a chorus of humanitarian voices.
Regretfully, I’ve read comparatively little of Forché’s own poetry. Am I worried about what else she is going to teach me? Am I afraid my own conscience will become too heavy a boulder, that I won’t have the strength or won’t summon the will, to push it up the mountain? Am I afraid she will have a lighter side, and I’ll then have to find my own ways to lighten up?
Forché is so big a force in my life that it is not possible to count all the places in which her efforts have propped me up when I have stood up for myself or others, and my legs wobbled. Lest we forget, Carolyn Forché chronicles what we need to know about human suffering if we truly wish to end it.
To reserve your ticket for the Lucille Clifton Reading to hear Carolyn Forche and her Poetry of Witness at Monteabaro Hall at Howard Community College, please visit: http://brownpapertickets.com/event/2568971
The Friday Professional Development Day for Howard County’s English and language arts middle and high school teachers was cold and damp, there was a car fire on Route 29 that jammed traffic for an hour, and teachers were rushing in late and texting their supervisors.
Steven Leyva had one hour to convince those teachers that poetry was worth teaching.
Leyva faced the auditorium of 220 educators and cleared his throat.
The power point he had prepared flashed the question: “Why Poetry?”
Leyva, sponsored by HoCoPoLitSo to give the teachers a poetry pep talk, passed around two sheets of paper, asking the teachers to write two collective poems. The first lines? “I know that poetry is not” and “Poetry has power.”
At first, some of the teachers were imitating their students — coughing, checking their phones, shuffling papers. But as Leyva explained that he edited the Little Patuxent Review, taught in the Baltimore City schools for years (a round of applause for that one), and was now a professor at the University of Baltimore, they quieted down.
Then a quote from Richard Howard appeared on the screen: “Verse reverses, prose proceeds.” Leyva started to talk about the “magical” things poetry can do: act as a force for healing, open up a student who is closed down, make connections between people, create empathy.
But everyone has to start as a novice, he says, even teachers.
“This is vital when we’re trying to engage students who may not be interested or receptive to poetry,” Leyva said. “It’s OK to be a beginner. You’re don’t have to be good at this right away.”
He read Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese,” and talked about letting the language wash over you as you read, about how meeting a poem is like meeting a new person because it’s both intimidating and exciting.
“It’s demanding, it’s hard, but that’s the beauty of it,” he said. “Some of them may have past negative experiences with poetry, they may have anxiety over misinterpreting.”
Too many classrooms treat poetry as a riddle to be solved, he said, “it must be an experience,” and then quoted one of his professors, “Art doesn’t need our judgment, it needs our attention.”
He asked for volunteers, and four teachers trooped up to the stage to read “Memory from Childhood” by Antonio Machado. The first teacher read the words of the poem. The second vocalized each piece of punctuation, “Comma!” or “Colon,” he boomed. The third said “line break” at each line break, and the fourth said “stanza break,” when the poem reached that point. If they messed up, as they did several times, they had to start again at the beginning, which drew hoots and laughter from their fellow teachers. The audience, he explained, had to recite the title and be the silence in the poem. That exercise, Leyva said, showed students that everything in the poem, even its white space, is put there on purpose, and needs a reader’s attention. “Everything matters,” he said.
By the time he had the teachers yelling out each personal pronoun (“Me!” and “My,” they chorused) in Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate with Me,” they were leaning forward in their chairs, more than interested.
And when a YouTube clip of “Direct Orders” by Anis Majgani wasn’t loud enough because of a sound system glitch, someone called out, “Read one of your poems!” Leyva did, reciting a poem about New Orleans, his hometown.
He went on to talk about form, rhyming (“you’re saying these two things belong together — “there’s a reason why wife, life and knife all rhyme,” he said), resources, and the skills that reading poetry can develop (qualitative judgment, empathy and imagination).
Teachers asked him about web sites and Split This Rock, stayed after to talk to him about submitting poetry to the Little Patuxent Review, and wrote down the TED talks and books he suggested. And a few gave him a standing ovation.
Jocelyn Hieatzman, a teacher at Oakland Mills High School, wrote afterward about the program, “I spend the next hour listening, and interacting, and awkwardly jumping onto the stage, and feeling chills and tears and ideas flow through me. I shout ‘N’Awleans’ and listen to spoken word from the Seattle Grand Slam poetry championship; I listen to Stephen Leyva recite his own poetry from memory like his life depended on it; I read through poems that touch on complex ideas and sadness and culture and race and identity and beauty. Suddenly, everything is important, everything has weight. I think of our students and their big emotions and secrets and ideas and gifts.
“There’s still a car fire snarling traffic on Rt. 29, and we are are still distracted and cold and worried about all the the things that middle and high school teachers worry about. But ‘we’ have become a ‘we’ and share a collective experience, and we dig deep, and we remember why we love to teach what we teach, and we carry this on. And we carry this on. And suddenly … everything is important, everything has weight.”
And those community poems? The ones Leyva asked the teachers to write, with each contributing a line? The paper filled up fast. The writing is tough to read, but the poems are published here, and like most poems, they’re worth reading.
— Susan Thornton Hobby
HoCoPoLitSo recording secretary
The latest installment in our occasional series of blog posts from friends of HoCoPoLitSo. Today, we spend a few moments with Amanda Fiore, a professor/fiction writer/occasional poet, who spent a day, recently, in our midst. Here is her telling of that story:
I was sitting at my desk, scrolling through junk mail and emptying my inbox at Howard Community College, when, to my immense pleasure and surprise, I came across a mouth-dropping subject line: Michael Glaser was coming to HCC’s campus to honor the late poet, Lucille Clifton, and conduct a free poetry workshop, Telling Our Stories — Michael S.
Glaser Celebrates Lucille Clifton and Poetry Teaching! Unable to believe my eyes, I scanned the email and saw that it was being put on by an organization I had never even heard of before, HoCoPoLitSo, and was amazed when after looking into it I found out it was an arts council on which Lucille Clifton had served for many years, and that it was right here, in my own back yard!
Having been a former student of both Lucille and Michael at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, I knew immediately that the event HoCoPoLitSo was planning would be close to my heart. Michael Glaser was the first person to truly encourage me as a writer, and Lucille Clifton was a woman whose spirit and no-nonsense critiques had made me laugh, cry, and embrace my poetry with an honesty that had stayed with me the rest of my life. I immediately wrote to Michael, who returned my astonishment and excitement at being reunited after all these years, and started going through all my old journals until found the one I had kept twelve years ago in workshop with Lucille. I even found the very poem I once read in class, to which she had looked me in the eye and told me, with words I’ll never forget, “you’re hiding behind your words.” It was the hardest and most important thing I had ever heard about my poetry, and I ran out of that room hating her, sitting dramatically in the dark and crying over how mean she was until about three hours later, when I realized she had been right all along. I rewrote the poem. The result was, perhaps, the first honest poem I’d ever had the courage to write, and I never questioned her again.
Though I had thought about contacting her often over the years, by the time she passed I had still never had the chance to tell her how much she meant to me, and so the thought of sitting around a workshop table with Michael again and being given a forum through which to honor Lucille was just too perfect to seem real! But low and behold, a few weeks later there we were, sitting in a circle of tables in Duncan Hall on a cool Fall afternoon. We started off by remembering the lessons Lucille’s poems teach us all and thinking about how we could incorporate those into our own work.
Micheal was just as I remembered him — so much heart and creative energy we couldn’t help but be inspired. We read and talked and each composed a poem of our own, every one written with words that either calmed or stung the air.
Later that evening, some of us went to the reading to celebrate Lucille and were graced by a beautiful evening of poems, stories, and heartfelt emotion. By the end I not only had the opportunity to read what I had composed that day in the light of Lucille’s memory, but to meet her daughter, buy a book, and discover a group of like-minded people through HoCoPoLitSo whose energy and love for the arts mirrored my own. Afterwards, I was stunned at how satisfying and invigorating it was, with just one question repeating in my mind: how did I not know about this organization before, and why wasn’t I more involved?
One thing I know is that I will come to each of these annual Lucille events in the future, and that I will be attending many other HoCoPoLitSo events as well . . . as many as they can put on! But most of all, I am so thankful to Lucille who, even after she has passed, is still managing to connect me to poems. Thank you Lucille, I owe you so much.
Now available for worldwide viewing on HoCoPoLitSo’s YouTube Channel, Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer talking about writing.
Lucille Clifton and Carolyn Kizer:
In this first ever edition of HoCoPoLitSo’s “The Writing Life,” taped in 1985, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Carolyn Kizer and National Book Award-winning poet Lucille Clifton interview each other and read their work. Clifton, who died in 2010, and Kizer speak about the way a place affects writing poetry, about the death of Clifton’s husband from cancer, about the restrictions on women and women poets. Clifton reads “Atlantic is a sea of bones,” a poem about the women of South Africa called “there,” and “sorrow song,” about violence and responsibility in the world. Clifton also reads “blooming,” “I’m going back to my true identity,” and “album.” Kizer reads “Bitch,” “To an Unknown Poet,” “Exodus” and talks about the structure and form of poetry, especially in her poem “Afternoon Happiness.”
“All of our writing is a trying to say,” Clifton says. “We make a mistake if we start saying that our writing is a saying, because it is at best a trying to say.”
These fragments I have shored against my ruins.
T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
by Tara Hart
If nothing else, I am a reader. Perhaps because I always had my face in a book, my parents logically wondered when I would finally write one. As much as I love reading novels (the longer the better), I have also always been aware that I am not driven to create them. Characters do not haunt me, demanding I write their stories, as in Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. Extended, magical narratives do not spring into my mind on the train. My few hesitant attempts at starting a story and seeing where it would go led . . . nowhere.
And then our first child died, our Tessa. And that experience was too large to hold, and I was helpless to know where to put it. I only wanted poems. I had always loved poetry, but in the casually passionate way we love favorite foods. Now I came to poems in a state of complete surrender, starving to know I was not alone, that the world is not all just a darkling plain. Lucille Clifton. Mark Doty. W. S. Merwin. Sharon Olds. They said many things that helped. They said some things that called to other things inside me. Slowly, I found relief in getting a few words down: a line, an image, a phrase. Sometimes I could write a whole page, breaking the lines like twigs wherever they were weakest, and create what might look like poems from arm’s length, but they had no music. I kept writing a little at a time, though, grateful for tiny shards of light, and I’d throw the scraps in a box. Or I’d think of something at work – like a new fear of crocuses – and type it into a document called “bits.”
I wondered if I would ever be able to find sustained time to shore the fragments, and after a few years, the answers were all, suddenly, yes. My angriest, saddest lines, after thirteen discordant tries, flew into place like a blackbird and won a Pushcart Prize. I applied for a sabbatical, and received it. A friend taking a graduate course in design asked if she could work with me to produce a chapbook. And so in the spring of 2012, when Tessa would have been eight, I filled our birdfeeder, said a prayer of thanks, shook out the pieces, printed the drafts, and spread everything out on a table. I looked at my notes in the margins of great poets. In the softly silent house, for six hours a day, I listened to what I remembered. I followed those fragments, my breadcrumbs, my torches, planchettes. They were tickets, too, to a prize I was finally able to claim – the gift of understanding how I and my whole here and absent family are connected to a much, much larger story of love and loss, and what comes after. So I guess I do have that blessed clamoring that leads to the work, the words, and the release. It is one of my daughter’s many gifts, to turn me into a writer, after all.
Tara Hart co-chairs the board of HoCoPoLitSo and chairs the Howard Community College Division of English and World Languages, where she teaches creative writing and literature. Her chapbook, The Colors of Absence, is available at http://www.tarajhart.com/purchase.html
On a tight budget? You have no idea.
Here’s how Frank McCourt’s family’s budget – funded by the Irish dole — is tallied by his mother.
“Nineteen shillings for the six of us? That’s less than four dollars in American money and how are we supposed to live on that? What are we to do when we have to pay rent in a fortnight? If the rent for this room is five shillings a week we’ll have fourteen shillings for food and clothes and coal to boil the water for tea.”
That’s from McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his amazing memoir of a miserable Irish Catholic childhood, from which he read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 2009 Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
Which is all to say that the Irish have a history of thrifty.
My great-grandmother, who grew up in the Irish and African-American section of Georgetown when it was more the country than the city, could put a meal on the kitchen table for her five children and hungry husband for an amazingly small amount of money. That meal, of course, required hours of her bent-back labor in a small patch of garden, sweating over Ball jars of stewed tomatoes in August and kneading bread until her forearms were as cut as Jillian Michaels’ (almost).
Those around here who want to hear a good Irish story don’t need to sweat or scrape to save a little bit. On Feb. 1, the price of an Irish Evening of Music and Poetry ticket goes from $30 to $35. A small rise, grant you, but a rise nonetheless that my great-grandmother would cluck over, and one that could feed all those little McCourts for a week.
Buy a ticket today and make Frank proud. Save five bucks and here’s what you receive on March 1: Colum McCann, that swashbuckling former reporter who spins yarns that win National Book Awards and lift readers high over Manhattan (Let the Great World Spin) and lower them deep into the tunnels under New York (This Side of Brightness). At the Irish Evening, McCann will read from his work, Narrowbacks will play their sprite Irish tunes, stepdancers from the Culkin School will fling their feet higher than their heads. Bartenders are cooking up a signature Irish drink to go with the Irish coffee and Guinness. Win raffle baskets of Irish books and music and food. Bid on signed Seamus Heaney broadsides and custom-made jewelery. Go on, have a scone.
For tickets, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/287811 or call 443-518-4568.
Susan Thornton Hobby