Conferencing, distance

Rather at the last minute, I found out that West Chester University’s Poetry Center was hosting a virtual conference during National Poetry Month. Previous WCU poetry conferences have been in person, and often in June; I used to attend when I had the time and money, since I can drive to West Chester in about an hour. For years, my full-time job has interfered. This time, the fee was low and the panelists and readers were people whose work I enjoy. While I could not attend all of the sessions or enroll in a 3-day workshop, I could at least “zoom in” to many of the events.

I’m glad I did. But before I write about this year’s conference, a brief history of my experience at past WCU Poetry conferences.

Initially, the conference poets focused on formal poetry: writing in forms, meters, and employing rhyme at a time when the major forces in U.S. poetry leaned more toward free verse. Dana Gioia was one of the co-founders, and the conference brought in such writers as Anthony Hecht, David Mason, Rachel Hadas, Marilyn Nelson, Richard Wilbur, Molly Peacock, and Timothy Steele…to name just a few (I haven’t forgotten the others, I just cannot list them all!). If you’re not familiar with them, Google their names and locate some of their poems; their work is considered “formal.” By some. The term itself is rather fraught. I’ll skip that argument for now.

It took considerable bravery on my part to participate in the conference the first time I attended, because I was writing mostly free verse, was not an academic, and was more or less acclimated to being a not-very-ambitious stay-at-home mother. I’d started my MFA program, however, and told my advisor that I wanted to learn the things I’d missed concerning historical patterns of poetry. I loved and grew up with rhymed and metered poems but had no idea how to create them. Hence: the WCU conference, which happened to be near enough that I could get away and back for four days and not have to do too much re-scheduling to accommodate my kids, pets, garden, and spouse.

Frankly, I was intimidated. The poets were all so…accomplished. Most were college professors, many were critics, lots of them had written books–lots of books–and even many of the people attending had won prizes and had significant publications. They were keenly and frighteningly “smart” folks, well-read and well-traveled. But after awhile, I felt more at ease. Sam Gwynn, Molly Peacock, and David Mason were hilarious. Rachel Hadas demonstrated intense and generous listening, and was so kind. And I learned so much (and bought so many books…) that I attended at least four more WCU conferences. Then I got too busy.

The Poetry Center and the conference have changed directorship a few times. For awhile, the late (and wonderful) Kim Bridgford, who later established the Poetry by the Sea Conference, was at the helm; currently, the Center’s guided by Cherise Pollard, who came up with the theme that drove this year’s panels and workshops: The Healing Power of Empathy. Healing and empathy are qualities we need when times are hard and seas are rough. It’s important to remember that healing requires change. It’s a change-state verb. Sometimes those changes feel uncomfortable, painful–and empathy can help, as long as we employ it in an active way (empathy as a change-state).

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.

Traditions

My dad liked to fly a kite on Good Friday.

I’m not certain how the tradition got started, but I remember as far back as first grade–maybe earlier–his taking us out to a park on Good Friday and sending a kite into the early spring winds. Maybe it was a sort of metaphor for hope, as was the Resurrection, according to his beliefs. Maybe just something to do with the kids when we had the day off from school.

Some years we had more success than others getting the kite aloft. There may be a metaphor in that, as well. What happens when what’s perching on the soul just huddles, dodging the weather and predators? Guano on the ground of the spirit? As a person who gardens, I could really overstretch the symbolism here: fertilization and renewal, so on.

But I haven’t been in the garden for a couple of days–we are having our blackberry frost and it has been chilly. Instead I am thinking about my absent dad and the significance of the holiday in my growing-up years. In church, the purple vestments were switched for white with gold trim on Easter; and my father, in his clerical robe and stole, looked important and shiny behind the pulpit. White flowers, especially lilies, showed up; everyone wore their best spring outfits. I feel nostalgia around these rituals, but they did not settle into my heart and create a believer of me. To my dad’s sorrow. I know my decision to leave the Church grieved him, but he accepted me and loved me all the same. He believed he’d see us in heaven, though he’d admit he had no idea what the afterlife would hold.

Rejoicing in the world’s beauty, the sharing of fellow humans’ suffering, and the way words can express the things that matter–the Biblical poetry–those things have settled into my heart. My consciousness. Hence metaphor and symbol and rhythm, songs of grief and praise.

They rise.

Like the hyacinths and daffodils rising from the half-rotted leaves of previous autumns. Like the flicker rising from the grass after scoring a grub. Like the early morning fog rising as high as the nearby hilltop, then merging into clouds. Like the sprouting kale seeds, the new pea leaves.

Like the thing with feathers. Or a kite.

~

I listened, this afternoon, to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion and remembered Good Fridays with my father. That’s all the poetry I have to share today.

The last time my dad flew a kite was 2016, I think. And it was October, oceanside.

Dad (using the walker, far right) keeps a kite in the air above the Atlantic.

Moderately good intentions

We had some mild, sunny days around the equinox, days that lured me to the yard and garden. The neighbors’ pussywillow pushed its fuzzy catkins out in the warmth, and the sight of daffodil and hyacinth leaves making their way upward was cheering. A rather sluggish field vole ran out from under some mulch, much to my annoyance–the voles have really torn up the ornamental beds and the lawn under the cover of the snow. There’s a large meadow behind my house; why don’t the voles stay out there? At any rate, I wanted this one away from the garden. I figured I could catch it and let it go in the hedgerow where the grasses are dry and thick.

Field Vole (Microtus agrestis) from Warren Photographic

I was wearing garden gloves and the vole was a bit startled by sunlight but too fast for me. Because I had a hose in my right hand, I aimed it at the vole. I figured the wetting would confuse it enough that I could sweep down fast and scoop it up with some thatch, then release it. Or really, I wasn’t thinking much. But it did work: the vole, suddenly damp, froze for a moment. I snatched it and cradled it in my gloved hands (they bite!) and let it go along the edge of the meadow.

My compassionate spouse admonished me, though. He said it was cruel to spritz the vole. I realized he was correct. In the moment, I was considering my good intentions to remove the creature to a “better” place to forage; but that in itself was not a very kind thing–it was my wish, certainly not the vole’s! And I am positive I frightened it terribly.

The episode made me reflect on how often we privilege our own desires as being motivated by good intentions. We reason our way out of thoughtless behavior by saying “But I didn’t mean…” I have done so far too often. I think this is what props up microagressions and passive acceptance of egregious social behaviors like racism. Today I stumbled across an article by Shayla Love that suggests our much-vaunted concept of our true moral selves is illusion. She cites an article by psychologists that concludes that “[t]he true self is posited rather than observed. It is a hopeful phantasm.” Strominger, Knobe, & Newman’s article on the true self is here.

“Though we all believe in a morally good true self, our definition of what’s moral varies—and we define the ‘morally good’ part of our true selves based on our own values.” (from: https://www.vice.com/en/article/v7mwa3/why-your-true-self-is-an-illusion) ~Shayla Love.

~~

Meanwhile, this week marks one year since my latest chapbook launched into print–right at the start of US pandemic lockdowns. Find it here: https://prolificpress.com/bookstore/chapbook-series-c-14/barefoot-girls-by-ann-e-michael-p-317.html

So I am celebrating in a very small way, hooray for the little things! For the fact that my 88 year old mother has had her vaccine, and so have I, and now we can visit in person and appreciate little joys like cranberry, raisin, almond, and dark chocolate trail mix, floral bouquets, slow walks through the garden starting to green up and–soon–bloom. Maybe I will even be able to take her out for a beer (at an outdoor restaurant) in a month or two. I can read her some of the poems I’ve written about my dad. We can just sit and watch the birds.

For the fact that my students are slogging away, enduringly hopeful that by the time they graduate the USA will somehow be better. Maybe it will. With their help.

For the fact that my siblings and I have friendly relationships with one another–and honest ones.

Hooray for my spouse, mowing the meadow with his 1947 John Deere Model M tractor! For a new manuscript of old poems that I’m finally spending some genuine, careful, critical time revising.

For this poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/58762/catalog-of-unabashed-gratitude

and thank you, friends, when last spring
the hyacinth bells rang
and the crocuses flaunted
their upturned skirts, and a quiet roved
the beehive

And for this one (RIP, Mr. Zagajewski) https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57095/try-to-praise-the-mutilated-world-56d23a3f28187

Praise the mutilated world
and the gray feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
and returns.

Emergent

emergent (adj.) late 14c., “rising from what surrounds it, coming into view,” from Latin emergentem (nominative emergens), present participle of emergere “to rise out or up” (see emerge).

etymologyonline: etymonline.com

~

Spring equinox.

Very soon–perhaps days from now–the vernal ephemerals will appear. The vernal ephemerals are early spring flowers that thrive low to earth before the trees leaf out: spring beauties, dogtooth violet, squirrel corn, bloodroot, hepatica, and others that look delicate but are, in fact, tough little survivors who have found their ecological niche in the cool days and weak sunlight just post-equinox. We could consider their resilience an inspiration.

Vernal ephemerals sounds to me like a term for sprites, will o’ the wisps, or angels, but it’s a scientific term. I learned it from Tom Wessels (here’s one of his videos on coevolution https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hCAvBmY7ZgA),* but I have been fascinated by these plants for decades. I have always been the sort of person who walked around with my head either facing the clouds or scanning the earth beneath my feet. Hence, a reason so much of my poetry uses images from nature even when I am not writing about the garden, the meadow, the woods, the sea. My clumsiness a byproduct of my peculiar need to observe the natural environment.

Anyway, hepatica is about as close to a sprite as any blossom I know of.

They aren’t common where I now live. Here, the vernal ephemerals I see most often are trout lily, bloodroot, spring beauty, violets, coltsfoot, trillium. Probably a few others that I’m forgetting because the ephemerals haven’t popped up yet. Still far too cold and a bit dry after a month of snow cover. The emergent greens in my gardens consist mainly of winter weeds, and I’m happy even to see those. Because: green.

“Just a little green like the color when the spring is born” says a line in Joni Mitchell’s song. The green things rise up or out of what surrounds them, coming into view.

I have been keeping under the standing snow, leaf litter, and dross for three months, processing (as the jargon terms it) my father’s death and a new manuscript and a backlog of poem drafts and covid-19 with its attendant disruptions, limitations, and opportunities. But the snow has subsided from all but a few gullies on the north sides of hills; iris reticulata and snowdrops are in bloom, along with the winter-blooming witch hazel. There’s work to do in the garden. Poems to revise. National Poetry Month ahead (April!). It’s the 25th year for this literary celebration.

Time for me, like the skunks and the skunk cabbage and the little ephemerals, to rise out of my surroundings. And take up this blog again? It’s a start. A little green shoot emerging in the chilly sunlight. Hello.

* Thanks to Dave Bonta for the video recommendation

Until…

We are at the end of an arbitrary, chronological year but still in the midst of a pandemic that will not be going away miraculously when the new calendar begins.

To what must we devote ourselves? I think, for now, just getting by and living through; we can learn much from solving the everyday puzzles life pitches at us. A friend counsels that having a project to do can help–something a bit thorny that offers a challenge but that is not a priority. For now, I am cutting vines–the ones that threaten to strangle the remaining trees in the windbreaks on either side of our narrow property.

Trees that have been weakened by too little and then too much rain, by warmer temperatures and crown die-back that encourage lichen, by insects and the viruses they carry, and by a lack of native undergrowth. The ash trees that ringed the meadow are all dead now, victims of fungus and stress-related illnesses caused by infestations of emerald ash borers.

It’s an ongoing effort for which there won’t be much reward, but it feels a bit like tending something in the dead of winter.

I will cease tending this blog for awhile. My deeper concerns lie elsewhere at the moment. If my next collection is indeed published this year as originally intended (covid protocols have affected almost every endeavor, even publishing, and certainly book launches), then I will likely resume a more noticeable social media presence! Maybe I will have resupplied my energy reserves that have been depleted during the past few months.

Until we meet again, and hoping that we can meet in person down the road…

photo by David Sloan

Evolution

Evolution

The chickens mill and scratch;
what do they know of their theropod ancestry,
how many millennia it took
to evolve a brain, without neocortex,
capable of amodal completion
immediately upon hatching, a brain
that supplies all they need for survival
until the hatchet, predatory snag, parasite, virus?
Hens in the garden stride through scythed weeds,
make an unhurried ambit of the dead
and dying remainders—
Stumps of stalks, twisted beige grasses
the color of birds’ tail and breast feathers,
brown-speckled hens, rumps dun, red combs.
They cluster in a fence corner,
step on each other’s heads,
snap up bees and beetles during autumn’s
short-limbed days. The clawed foot
extends, grasps, clings to roost.
A Jurassic hinge, rusting, its vitality immured
in the muttered musing of hens.
Dry leaves, blooms gone to seed.
How the mighty have fallen.

~

This is an older poem, going back at least ten years. It seemed suitable for the end of autumn and the looming solstice today. I love that I could use the terms amodal and neocortex in a poem. That kind of poetic vocabulary isn’t everybody’s “jam,” but the thwarted scientist in me enjoys playing around with this sort of fact-meets-art interdisciplinary terminology. And yes, there’s an opportunity for metaphor here, in the virus and in the chances evolution randomly develops as to who’s on top or who thinks they are on top. A lesson for us all.

Relevance

The virus year has left me questioning the relevance of my poetry practice to the world of literature, such as it is. I have not been sending work to journals. I have not spent much time on revisions nor on going through my work in order to assemble another manuscript (or two).

My father suffered awhile, then died–what can I say? It has been hard to write, especially given the mental challenges of learning a host of new technological platforms and completely redoing my syllabus to adapt to the changed methods of college classroom instruction and tutoring. How does the saying go? “I ain’t as young as I usta be.”

Given that the year has been even more of a media frenzy and social norms chaos than the years preceding it, the word unprecedented has been overtaxed into meaningless syllables; and the word relevance has taken on a sort of socially-annointed value that leaves me certain I have nothing to contribute except more noise. Why bother to write poems? It may be that there are more useful ways I can spend my “senior years.” Reinvent myself as an advocate or mentor in some other field: gardening/environmentalism, education, literacy, hospice care…

Maybe I could just go back to hobbies. Photography, embroidery, sketching and painting, flower arranging, hiking. Or take up some new craft or endeavor. Maybe birding. And am I then somehow engaging in more or less relevant processes?

Garth Greenwell has an essay in a recent Harper‘s, “Making Meaning,” in which he poses questions about the concept of relevance as it relates to art and concludes that he disagrees with “relevance” as a critique criterion, one “that feels entirely foreign…to the real motivations of art.”

If I had a question like that on my mind as I tried to make art, I would never write another word.

Greenwell

These words, to me, are encouraging; while I may not buy into every point of Greenwell’s essay, the fact that someone other than myself (and a better writer than I) wrestles with aspects of relevance confirms my discomfiture as–well, valid? In his case, critics suggesting the less-than-relevance of his fiction are those who think stories about gay men and their sexualities and their stories are too “niche” to be relevant to readers of literature. A far cry from my own form of irrelevance, which is that my poetry is too tame and nature-oriented and dissociated from the suffering, disoriented, unequal, unjust world of human society to be truly relevant to readers. I am no performer, but a writer:

When I consider the subject matter of a work of art, I want to talk; when I consider its form, I want to contemplate.

~

…I do believe in the universal, that some commonness in human experience can be communicated across gulfs of difference, and I believe that art can give us access to it.

Greenwell

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, as some of its assertions deserve discussion. Especially noteworthy is Greenwell’s anecdote about reading and loving Augustine’s Confessions, a text I re-read and still love for many reasons, not one of which is due to religious beliefs. Greenwell says Confessions is still relevant today because of Augustine’s creative and relentless questioning and the ways he expresses his own confusion, “making bewilderment itself a tool for inquiry.” Yes! Among, of course, many other things.

Why do we make art? Maybe just for the challenges it presents, the inward puzzles we invent for ourselves and must solve for ourselves or leave unsolved. I’m looking out my window at snow coming down just now, a wet snow that sits heavily on the pine branches and lends a “clean” look to the surrounding fields and lawns. Relevant takes a prepositional phrase: the snow, the meadows, the hedgerows are relevant to my experience, if to no one else’s; if so, I suppose I compose/make art for myself…and if others find resonance there, the work is done by the reader, or on the reader’s part.

A good definition of art, it seems to me, might be the science of making meaning-making tools.

Greenwell

Root

We do not always have words.

Even if language assists in the emergence of consciousness-as-we-know-it, even if the naming of things as sign or metaphor is, as most human beings believe, “uniquely human,” there are the inexpressibles. The things semiotics does not quite register.

Perhaps this obstacle–the obstacle of words themselves–is what made reading David Hinton’s China Root: Taoism, Ch’an, and Original Zen so difficult for me.

~

Vincent Van Gogh, “Tree Roots” Van Gogh Museum: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0195V1962

~

The core practice of Tao seems simple enough, except that our self-identity-based brains do not want to work in that way: not to think of self as “I” at all, but to live in the real world as emergent and ever-changing cosmos watching itself, absent while present, non-being while being, receptive to all change as part of how the cosmos operates, experiencing the hinge of Tao, everything and no-thing. No you or I.

Can I put the concept into words? No. Can David Hinton? Well, sort of (while repeatedly telling his readers that it isn’t possible to put Ch’an into words).

Hinton takes an approach that is partly etymological–based on early and later Han characters in their logograph forms–and partly cultural, namely the influence that Indian Buddhism exerted on existing Tao concepts as Buddhism moved into China during the later Han dynasty. Thus, he divides the text into chapters, each illustrating a significant Ch’an component, practice, or idea.

The logic makes sense, and I have gained a lot of background on culture and Chinese characters in the process; but I cannot call this book an easy read. The blurb says it is “thoroughly gripping” and cites the author’s elegance and clarity. The blurb writer is, however, a Roshi, and thus much more familiar with Zen and writings on Zen than I am. I love the metaphor of the root for many reasons, and that aspect of the book works for me.

~

Another part of the book that resonates with me is the chapter “Rivers-and-Mountains.” After reading Hinton’s explication of the calligraphy and painting meditation practice of long-ago Chinese artists and intellectuals, I have a fuller understanding of Zen as landscape, Zen as poetry, at least as [Hinton theorizes] it was practiced in ancient China. I have always felt drawn into such artworks, and now I have better insight as to why that is.

~

I will have to re-read China Root again and again if I am to understand it, though. Or perhaps just work with more ordinary diligence on landscape meditation made present through poetry.

Even though enlightened awareness–among other things–cannot really be expressed in words. 😉

Expanding universe

I just finished reading Lisa Randall’s book about the Large Hadron Collider, which I read because…well, I knew it would be over my head as far as the applicable physics experiments go; but I was curious about what exactly the Higgs boson particle is and how it fits into the Standard Model of physics. And now I know. Sort of.

It is difficult not to feel a bit awed by the strides made in science as a result of rapid technological advances. On the sociological and personal level, I am not a big fan of rapid tech updates; they lead to planned or unplanned obsolescence and hence to constant capital expenditures and to waste (trash waste and time waste). The technology leads to experimental possibilities we would not have had otherwise, however.

At the close of the book, where the author wraps up the way engineering tech has dovetailed with abstract and speculative physics theories to show evidence for the Big Bang and the existence of quarks (among other things), there’s an illustration of the “ballooniverse,” an analogy physicists use to explain the expanding universe. I felt a rush of memory flooding me:

Freshman year in a seminar college. The class was Astronomical Physics and Cosmology. For context, Hubble had discovered red shift galaxies in 1929; cosmic microwave background was detected in 1964; Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize–three years after my freshman year–for their work, which led to confirmation of an expanding universe. The term “black holes” was relatively new, coined during the mid-60s; and a theoretical explanation of them had not yet been determined. Oh, and because desk calculators were large and prohibitively expensive, my fellow students and I were using slide rules for calculations of stellar magnitudes.

Did I mention I had never taken a maths course beyond Algebra 2?

But our professor was enthusiastic and encouraging and loved using metaphors to help our teenaged brains decipher challenging concepts. I have forgotten most of his analogies, but the ballooniverse stayed with me. Everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. Our future is distance.

Physics classes in high school still use this 3-d visual analogy

So it seems at present. Each of us moving away from one another. Defoe’s narrator says the best method of avoiding plague was to run from it.

But oh, my Beloveds, how I wish to be close to you.