A Poetic Encounter with Naomi Shihab Nye

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She loves mixtures of people.  She loves children and the way words weave themselves together, almost without effort.  She is a storyteller poet and a real-life, warm and wonderful human being.  She came to visit, and I was there in the room with my notebook and pencil, writing along with a master.  It was a cool spring day and I had been invited by a dear friend and mentor to sit in on a limited capacity workshop with Naomi Shihab Nye.

Most of what she shared for the writers in the room related to practice methods and approaches, and these ideas affirmed what I am already doing: living my life, writing in the spaces between the action of life.  In another suggestion, she offered, “Write three questions at the end of the day for a month, and then look at them.  You will discover that while you could have been concentrating and straining so hard for your “big idea” to arrive, the themes of your questions wove themselves together while you weren’t looking.”

She read a poem written by a class of preschoolers, and one by her mentor William Stafford.  Both had stunning imagery and emotional pivots.  Both were rich in meaning and lovely to consider.  Poetry is for everyone, she said.

For Everyone.  For little tiny children and for you and for me.

Here’s a link to another one of my favorites:

The Small Vases from Hebron

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178324

Poetry, according to Georgia Heard and Ralph Fletcher is three things:  Images, feeling and rhythm.  And it’s more.

It’s people and their relationship with life.  It’s magic and surprise.  It’s a voice speaking in a different way than we talk in our ordinary exchanges.  And in the case of Naomi Shihab Nye, it is love and it is the power to move different people closer to one another.

Consider Gate A4, her signature piece:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/gate-4

 

At the Q & A session after her evening reading event, I requested one of my favorites and she generously read it at the closing finale.

Supple Cord

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179544

 

What inspires me about Nye is her positive encouragement  for writers. She calls us to keep writing, to keep sharing work.  Enter contests, form writer exchange groups.  Reach out across miles and difference.

One person asked if she felt like she ever had to sacrifice or give anything up for her art.  To which she said, “I knew by the time I was seven years old, I was going to be a poet.  So no, I never felt like I gave anything up.”

She said that literature “gives us space to understand our lives better.”  And that “life moves so fast, we must move through it very slow.”

Here’s the short poem I wrote in response to her prompts during the workshop.  I’m stunned at how it seems to solve my main writing problem.

(Untitled)

Why do I avoid returning to the longer project as if I am afraid of it and what it says about me?

I remember being afraid of the black bears in the Shenandoah but I don’t remember the weight of the backpack while I walked carefully by.

 

A final reminder and a gift for all of us who are struggling in the midst of the process:

“Nothing is wasted.”

Thank you Naomi Shihab Nye, for all you are giving.

 

This is The Story of You Book Review

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Books are often an oasis in the midst of trauma, loss and struggle. This week I needed an oasis, a rock of a story to stand on amid the blowing, uncontrolled winds of change. Appropriately, the rock turned out to be a story of community and personal disaster. Yet it carried me home to a place of gratitude.  The best stories do this.  They fill you with thanks for your own life, lifting our gaze to notice how resilient we can be when everything is torn apart, as characters rise above the most devastating circumstances.

This is the Story of You by Beth Kephart collects the shards and fragments of a beach community nearly obliterated by a massive hurricane, and arranges the pieces in a beautiful mosaic. Filled with sentence fragments that are in one way the speech pattern of the teen- woman at its center, and another way a poem by a master storyteller.  Read this book, and walk the recovering ocean shore with Kephart as she collects the remains, carefully arranging memory fragments in a glittering, light-filled and emotionally rich world.

The structure of This is the Story of You is built upon the fragments of the aftermath of a massive hurricane, not unlike Hurricane Sandy.  Kephart must have noticed in her perceptive and thoughtful way, that the rest of the world misses something deeper when they watch the news coverage of reported natural disasters.  That we, far away, passively observing the wreckage on our screens, miss experiencing the personal stories of loss, and also the stories of healing, restoration and survival.

Here lies the power and importance of fiction as a bridge that connects our imaginations (and our hearts) to the lives of people who either lived through the devastation, or died without a voice. Through Kephart’s fiction, we are given ideas that get lost in the sea of news media.  Like the idea that our youth are a valuable asset in times of crisis, perfectly capable of organizing searches, capable of being dependable citizens who contribute to the safety and care of survivors. A young person’s voice is never heard among the clamor of dominant voices when people in fear look to appointed, adult figures to solve big, messy problems.  Through the main character Mira Banul, Kephart reveals how committed and reliable young people are in a time of great need.

This is the Story of You is layered with meaning and multiple storylines to add complexity and variation within the mosaic.  There are sibling relationships that give a new definition to the meaning of family.  I particularly loved the relationship between Mira and her younger brother, Jasper Lee, who has a rare genetic disease.  Mira’s love for Jasper Lee is one that motivates her to be strong and to live bravely.  Her kindness to him reminds me to call my younger brothers more often.  The quality of love and support that exists between them defies the old stereotype of rivalry.  Not all relationships between siblings involve conflict.  But Kephart doesn’t ignore that sometimes rivalries do impact families in profound ways, with surprising results.

If you are a lover of lyrical, imagery-packed language, you will be surprised and delighted by Kephart’s craft.  My favorite line of the book:

 

“We die backward.”

 

In a flashback to nine year old Mira, drowning in the ocean, Kephart connects her main character to another beloved character who is found on the sand, and also to anyone who has ever contemplated their own impending death.  In this context, “we die backward” becomes a metaphor for all of memoir writing.  The reason we write memoir (or fiction that feels like memoir) is to make art of that process we all experience, living forward but dying backward—and in so doing, give back a form of life to the dead. This is one of the results of art making, as we reach out to live beyond the boundaries of our limited, physical and temporal selves.  People died when Sandy hit.  Do we remember them still? Maybe not collectively as a society in our news.  Maybe only if we knew them personally.  But maybe it helps those of us from far away to remember who they might have been, and to remember what their loved ones survived.

As we live in a forward motion heading to somewhere that cannot yet be described or used as wisdom for decision making, we tend to look back, to hold in our beings the memories as evidence of life.  None of us go forward without pausing to look back, or at least subconsciously carrying lived experiences with us.  Contemplating the past lights up the dark, unknowable future and projects those vibrant memory clips of our fragile and beautiful lives, in images rich with light, or sharp with pain, or comforting in peace, onto the future screen that formerly looked like a blank and terrifying void. Think of death, think of your life obliterated, and all you can see is the life you lived.

My first night sleeping in a tiny backpacking tent in the wilderness of bear country brought me to seriously contemplate the possibility of being mauled to death in my sleep.  Fixated and certain of my demise, in order not to get up and scramble out into the midnight woods, alive with swishy sounds to cry out my fear, I lay in the cocoon-like tent with a memory of my most perfect experience in life— being a child playing house in my blanket fort on the green lawn.  In that memory, the grass was greener than all of Ireland, and my brothers were there, kicking a ball and laughing.  I wanted to go home to that memory so fiercely that all kinds of details came into view; the pink metal doll trunk inside the make-shift fort, with a yellow baby doll blanket that my grandmother had embroidered with flowers.  The blue of the sky in the opening where the sheets sagged between clothespins.  The knowledge that my mother was inside, baking cookies. It was bliss.  Thinking of death, I looked back to my life.

 

“We die backward.”  Indeed.

 

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if people knew the deeper, more intimate and tender story of you?  Not only you, personally, but this poetic and detailed work of art.

 

Earlier I mentioned that Kephart has written a story that feels like a poem. Like a great story, it is filled with edge of your seat mystery and anticipation, yet tenderly woven into a sensory-filled, speak it out loud, read it out loud, language song. And though a mere stringing together of beautiful words does not make a poem, a story artfully told that reveals a universal truth we all recognize may make this book leap across multiple genres.  Is it poetry?  Is it fiction?  Is it memoir?  Is it mystery?  While playing with language, Kephart accomplishes all.  Like a poet, she uses fewer words to describe a mass of complex feeling in response to an event in history with overwhelming impact.  Her prose/poetry expands our understanding of unmeasuable, deeply significant experiences to inspire the reader, carefully building one image on another.  This is what gives This is the Story of You a sense of tangible reality, placing us directly in the path of a massive storm, so that when the chaos happens, we are disoriented and later changed by the expanded understanding of what survivors faced.

There are so many beautiful passages, I could dive into each page and bring up a treasure.

Here’s one of those treasures:

 

“I heard that strange song on the sticky keys.  I lifted my head and squinted into the flickery dark.  I could see the armchair that had been dragged across the sand and left by the piano.  I could see the outline of a person sitting there, hands like light rags at the end of dark sleeves.  The song sounded like boots walking through rain, like no song I’d ever heard.”
This is the Story of You is available in April of 2016.  Please visit Beth Kephart on her blog for this title and many more of her great works. (I especially recommend Handling the Truth, but that is only one of many that I love.)

 http://beth-kephart.blogspot.com/p/this-is-story-of-you.html

BethKephart

Impressions

 

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Impressions

The sky gauze filtered a sun that wanted to be seen,

but just a little, not to burn us with harshness

or blind us in brilliance.

The way God speaks so quietly we think no answers come from our pleading.

The gauze is a gentle cover, letting air in, making the light scattered and white,

keeping the air cool. This is the answer.

Keep it light.

He sang this song to the very young, which at that time was me:

Will you carry the words of love with you?

And another asked me to notice

plants and birds and rocks and things.

I am in this lament and longing for those years before I was born,

when there was a movement going on for the earth

and for love.

In Which Robin Williams Posthumously Declares My Work to Be a Dud.

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Today I greeted the hour before dawn with an alarming wake up call, fresh from a dream.  In this dream, Robin Williams had just finished reading my manuscript.

He was totally and completely bored of my story and dismissed me with a toss of the papers and an eye roll.

I can still see him sitting in the arm chair, annoyed that I wasted his time.

How shameful to be rejected this way by such an important and beloved man, who was not only deeply funny but compassionate and kind.  My friend recently suggested that I journal about what he represents for me.  I can only say that he represents all the emotions, from joy to deepest, darkest pain.  I thought people who suffered would understand.

I felt so diminished by this dream that I woke up certain that my memoir was a terrible, redundant, morose, self-indulgent piece of trash.  I should throw it all away, the sooner the better. So I could get going on something really worthwhile.  Like making folks laugh and feel uplifted.

The thing is, how to get there?  To that jubilant place?  I often find that the proximity of tears and laughter is closer than we know. But in my intense focus on trying to figure it all out, I miss the punch lines.

It has been said of Shakespeare that the difference between his comedies and his tragedies are only the structure; a comedy starts off sad and ends in joy, a tragedy starts off happy and ends in pain.  Both are the same, containing the same range of emotion, just ordered in a different way.

So then I wondered, what if I were to revise it in a way that reads like a tragic comedy of errors, the entertaining life of a fool so blind that everyone around her recognized the illusions that caused her to fall. Flat on her face. Over and over.

When will we get to the part when she realizes that only the stark, unsugared truth gets her out of trouble.

No more denials. No more rosy glasses.  No more wishing for something to be real and pretending it is.

And then I get back to the revising and I can’t bear to laugh at myself.  And I want so much to laugh.  To belly chuckle.  To peal like bells on Sunday.  To laugh so hard I snort. To laugh and gasp for air.

But I still don’t remember it like that, fool that I was.

Now that my first rejection is behind me, and a great big celebrity level rejection at that, maybe I can stop being afraid of the future rejection slips to come later.  First cuts being the deepest…

Put the Inner Critic Out

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Here’s a fun little experiment for those who struggle with the inner critic.  Try kicking her out and letting her sit on your desk.  Then you can talk back to her when the writing is happening.

My little hag is named Finnola, inspired by a character in Catherine Cooper’s The Golden Acorn.  I made her for a children’s book club gathering in the woods.  Once all the children found her hiding place, I took her home.  In between moon time, where she might sit on my nightstand…she works in my writing space.  I wonder how chatty she will be when I sit back down to work?

White Noise

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White Noise

Ever notice that white noise

generating machines never include the sound

of snow falling?

Rainfall and river over rocks,

but no quietly falling flakes?

Ha! You laugh,

Of course not, there isn’t such a thing

as the sound of snow falling,

like zero is the absence of a whole number.

It’s completely silent and therefore

unrecordable.

The problem lies in creating the kind of silence

caused by falling snow.

The pure white noise of nothing–

the insulation of everything,

the way it falls early on a Sunday morning

while everyone sleeps in

and the roads are empty of traffic.

The way it sounds to be out in the yard

in the dark

under the stars

while all of nature and all of mankind’s achievements

are buried.

Perhaps I should be more specific, for in the north

where people have snowmobiles

to break the silence

In the south in the morning

when it snows there are no machines

like snowblowers and high powered craft

for joy-riding.

The sound of snowfall here is a return to a time

before small engines and trucks with

scraping blades and salt to exfoliate that which

deadens and muffles and encases.

A time when people celebrate with

logs in the fireplace burning

and soup on the stove or tea from the kettle

and send children out to play.

Ah, the silent house of simmering broth

and flames aglow.

Of course there is also a need for some to go to work,

but since most everything here is cancelled,

the city rests.

Much later, crawling out from under blankets,

neighbors come out with cups of coffee

while kids in snowpants have been making

a day of sledding on the barest covering

until the few inches of white vanish in the

three o’clock sun.

For a moment nothing but the whitest of white noise

is heard,

not a noise but an absence

of sound loud enough to wake me up

to the pause it brings.

A moment of quiet awareness to recognize

myself in the midst of a busy, noisy life

suspended,

breathing in cold air and exhaling clouds,

awake in the midst of falling silent snow,

awake.

 

Home, Where the Books Are

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Today I read a beautiful article by one of my favorite writers, Beth Kephart.  You can find it here:

http://www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/ct-prj-home-in-literature-20160108-story.html

The title and the illustration drew me in:  Home, Where the Art Is.  The colorful illustration depicts a woman tucked into a bookshelf bed with her white cat in a library room, while her companion stands at the stacks, considering a title to bring to bed.  This image is so much like my fantasy bedroom.  Imagine sleeping in a library complete with a fireplace, a lovely cat and a mate who also loves to read.  Heaven, I say.

Perhaps because I’ve worked in libraries, first as an ESL tutor for immigrants, second on staff at the desk, and third as a housekeeper at my beloved college, I experience a library to be another home.  The one place in my community where I’m not asked to purchase anything to participate in a shared or solitary activity.  A place that is as quiet and comforting as the little cemetery I visited in my childhood, where the dead waited for me to listen to their stories.  Where sitting in the tall grass and weeds, I imagined the children who sleep now under the stone lamb, once skipping in petticoats, playing with a ball.  I particularly love historic libraries for this reason. Long dead writers give me new and yet familiar journeys to experience from the yellow pages, where their voices can be dusted off, where a ray of light from a tall window captures the motes as they climb to the vaulted ceiling, whispering, whispering into cinematic form, an old world now awakened and visible on the screen of the mind.

Two days ago, I wrote a complaint on social media.  I was annoyed because at the end of the day, having just come from the library with a book I had been waiting for, the dryer buzzed loud and long, disturbing the silence, messing up my plans.  I lamented that I hadn’t yet learned to fold laundry and read at the same time.  How maybe I could learn how to fold towels with my feet.  The shirts, however, would be wrinkled.

The responses showed how I hadn’t yet made the leap into the now, using an electronic device for reading, or an audio book.  One friend knew me enough to understand my disappointment with these mediums, calling me a die hard page turner.  What Louise Erdrich would call “people of the book.”  I am, indeed, a person of the book.

In a book I have found the ultimate comfort.  A way to be joyfully in our home while avoiding the expense and discomfort of travelling the world.  Paper bound books are a way to experience soul-calming silence, an event so rare as to be my new preferred currency. (Sale in the esty shop? Can you pay in coupons of solitude and peace? Where I can escape the nagging irritations in my head related to unnecessary family drama?)

There’s something so completely restorative as a quiet nap on the couch with my son and our two cats, while the fire slowly dies and glows red.  Home, with real books, we sink into in our own pages, days after Christmas.  I’m still remembering the balm and healing of that afternoon peace.

Home, a place to read quietly next to the ones we love. With cats and cups of tea. A place that in this post holiday season is not brimming with activity. Our home classroom has been abandoned during the holidays and during the flu. We wander into the kitchen for a whiff of my terribly bland chicken soup that if is sadly unappealing, at least helps us helps us breathe in the now humidified kitchen.

Home, a place to quietly fold the laundry and anticipate the new book.  A place where in Kephart’s words, “we allow ourselves to be ourselves and allow others to be cared for.”

I love that she writes this.  This line encompasses more than just a single family building with a roof and a little kitchen garden in the back.  It can mean an entire country, like ours, where through the centuries people have come to be themselves, without the fear of persecution and harm.

And so, slow learner and even slower responder that I am, the one who loves to escape the current world event by diving into the past, where things get lined up in neat words, where stories lift me into hope on the final pages, I’m newly and freshly aware of how important home is for millions and millions without one safe place to be.

I sit here now in comfort and consider that there are such things as private prisons where women and children are being held in cold cells with thin sheets, where they are also raped and mistreated.  That we as a nation are so afraid, so terrorized by news events that we are turning our faces away from refugees, or locking them and their babies in freezing concrete cells.

It’s a pesky bothersome and irritating thing to consider, like a dryer buzzer marking that my time is about to be interrupted.

Because it takes me to the screen on my desk to write letters to people who are doing things to bring people home.  To discover if there is something for me to do, outside of my comfy home.  To a place where I am not known, to learning what I don’t yet know.