New look!

I am rolling out a new professional website! At some point, this blog will probably “move” to the new site; for the time being, though, I’m continuing to occupy two zones of the internet’s vast web. However, please consider clicking on the link below to take a look at the redesign.

One reason I am so excited about this new site is that I worked closely with the young digital-graphics designer to try to compose a site that reflects a little better my public-professional-poet persona. I wanted easy navigation, an uncluttered look, informational text, and links to my books’ publishers. I also wanted the page to convey my interest in the environment and to focus a bit more on my books’ themes and styles. The site is still a bit under construction, but it is “live.”

Did I mention that the designer is my son? He graduates January 19th with a degree in computer science/digital graphics. He is initiating his way into the professional world, following his sister, who has been on her own and working since May of last year. I graduated from college during an economic recession in the 1970s, and I can empathize with the frustration my college students and my grown children are experiencing as they start to make their adult ways into the world of work. But I know they will find their paths at some point (heavens, my own path took long enough!)

Here it is. Please take a look: www.annemichael.com

Silence (John Cage, Zen, head-noise)

Slow Muse blogger Deborah Barlow–artist, critic–recommended Kay Larson’s recent book on John Cage, Where the Heart Beats. Silence was so significant in Cage’s work and thinking that, given my recent reflections on noise or lack thereof, this seemed the right time to pick up that text. Lo and behold, synchronicity of several kinds. The author, Kay Larson, thanks John Daido Loori, a rōshi of the Mountains and Rivers order of zen Buddhists and long-time abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery near Woodstock, NY. She studied with him beginning in 1994.

In 1992 and 1993, I attended two weekend retreats there; the brief days remain vivid in my memory. Perhaps more on that another time. Haiku is involved…and silence.

Recently, given some irregular bumps along the walk of life that have led to excessive “head-noise” (my term for stress I can’t quite let go of), I have been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of his essays–dovetail very neatly into this reflective book on Cage’s life, work, and influences. Larson’s “Zen” approach to writing about Cage is so gentle and refreshing that reading this book soothes me. I find within myself a kind of inner silence, my breathing returning to its slower, quieter pace, as I read the brief selections of prose Larson uses to explore the life of the mind of this peculiar and innovative artist/composer/writer.

Very like philosophical analogies, Confucian fables, parables of many cultures, koans, meditations, prayer and other forms of contemplative practice.

What reduces head-noise? For me, the best strategy is calmness, but I am not an adept at meditation. I have sat zazen badly, and learned much from the practice of sitting zen badly, but I have never managed to make meditation a genuine practice in my life. Deep breathing and slow movement, such as tai chi or qi gong, seem to work better for me. In addition, the Quiet Place. I settle down better when I can detach from computer, phone, electric lights, appliances. Art reduces head-noise: art requires attentiveness. Poetry, yes. Gardening, walking out of doors–good choices. Music, sometimes.

Philosophy, not so much. (Alas.)

Politics? Weather reports? Analysis? ….as the Buddhist monks might say: mu. Translation into teen-speak from five years ago: “not.”

And also, compassion. The practice of compassion keeps a person attentive and also relaxed. It is a form of active prayerfulness, of acceptance of self through the acceptance of others. After the bruises and bashings of a presidential election year in 21st-century United States, a little compassion would reduce the malaise and anxiety we have had to endure intellectually, emotionally, and–in the wake of bad storms on the east coast–physically.

I give you Quan Yin, or Guanyin, or Kannon Bodhisatttva, known as Avalokitesvara  in Sanskrit and termed the goddess of mercy, a counterpart to the Christian Jesus or Mary. This being represents the compassionate, merciful, kind, non-judgmental, accepting aspect of the cosmos, the universe, or god. I realize that it seems I may have wandered a bit far afield of Cage at this point. But read Larson’s book; I haven’t drifted as far from my topic as it seems.

And just because it does seems as though I am rambling considerably in this post, I think I can close with a poem from my collection Water-Rites, and somehow make it fit with these topics:

Intervention

I am thinking about the cowbirds who fought
in my driveway this morning
and how they struggled, one overbearing the other,
pecking at its head, keeping it pinned
to gravel. I wonder, now, why I chose to stop
and free the losing bird from its aggressor,
lift its bloodied damp body in my hands,
rescue it even though
it was also a cowbird, a pest
that usurps the nests of thrushes—
although I respect the dominion of beak & claw,
I want to preserve the generation
of songbirds; there was no reason for me
to intervene, no logic but somehow I felt
surely there is a place,
in the battle that is this world,
for the mandate of compassion.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael

Another Reading reading

On All Saints’ Day, November 1st, I’ll be reading poetry in Reading Pennsylvania–again! And this time, I’ll be accompanied by my fellow Goddard alumna, the dynamic and talented Barbara DeCesare, author of Jigsaw Eyesore and Silent Type.

Reading, PA is home to GoggleWorks, a former goggle-making factory that now serves as studio, theater, and gallery space for Berks County area artists and craftspeople of all kinds. Small, struggling cities like Reading are turning to the arts as a means to fill abandoned factory space and create an economic and cultural reason to keep downtown areas alive. Sometimes these efforts succeed, sometimes they don’t. GoggleWorks opened in its current incarnation in 2005. So far, that’s a 7-year run, supported through grants and donations and rent. I am optimistic about GoggleWorks and about other such endeavors, including Bethlehem PA’s Banana Factory, which is a little closer to my neighborhood. I strongly believe the arts belong in our neighborhoods, in our school curricula, and in our lives.

I’m thrilled, therefore, to be reading from my book, Water-Rites, at 6 pm November 1st at GoggleWorks’ Cucina Cafe.

And I’m thrilled to be reading with Barbara, whose work is funny, poignant, imaginative, fierce, and charming by turns.

November 1st is the Day of the Dead in Mexico, a good day for elegies and to celebrate the lives of those we’ve loved and lost. I will be thinking of David Dunn, among other dear ones. And in honor of All Saints’ Day, I may also read a poem or two about saints; recently, I’ve composed a few imaginary lives of saints poems.

I have no idea what Barbara DeCesare has up her sleeve for this event, but it is certain to be delightful. If you are in the region, stop by at 6 pm. I believe an open mic follows the reading.

water-rites by Ann E Michael

A moment of self-promotion

It’s a busy week. I am glad to note that my local newspaper (yes, our area still has a local newspaper) published the following article about my new book, Water-Rites. Many thanks to Collin Roche and Jodi Duckett at the Call.

Profile of Ann E. Michael in Allentown Morning Call.

Thanks for reading, and for everyone’s support for poetry.

Amazon…

The second week of August is always a busy one for me. There’s little time for reflection–or writing.

I do have some news to impart, however: Water-Rites is now available on Amazon.com at this link. In the best interests of my publisher, Brick Road Press, I’m going to request that you order from the press itself if you can.

Thanks!

Ambition & failure

Some of my non-writer friends are surprised to learn that I am in the process of trying to get a new book into print. After all, Water-Rites just came out! So shouldn’t I be concentrating on selling that book and resting on my laurels awhile? To be sure this collection is a “success” before continuing on?

Those who write poetry or literary fiction, however, recognize that by the time a book finally gets published, the work in it is “old.” We are already well into new projects, working on new ideas, using new styles to express ourselves, addressing different topics. If I were to wait to write new poetry until after my book got into print, I’d probably never write another collection. The economics of the poetry world are too close to what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy” to imagine we can stop writing, sell a book, live off of the income and then write another one. Even many best-selling authors cannot do that. Poets are lucky to sell 500 copies of a book. We write for other reasons. Need. Love. Ambitions of a non-monetary kind.

Like all artists, poets take risks. Sometimes the changes we make in our work are not well-received. Sometimes they aren’t any good. Failure, however, can be a most excellent instructor. Sometimes, to shake myself up when the writing seems stuck, I attempt a completely different activity. Gardening clears my mind, and gardening offers many chances to fail at what I do. I’ve also tried watercolor painting, sumi ink calligraphy, modeling clay, embroidery, dancing, piano, and many other endeavors. I cannot claim to be remotely good at any of them yet each of these pursuits has taught me much…often through my lousiness.

janis ian

Janis Ian, 2012. Photo by David Sloan.

Recently, Janis Ian–singer, songwriter, science fiction author, and philanthropist–offered the commencement address at Warren Wilson College in Asheville, NC. In her speech, Ian talked about being self-taught; being a self-taught success. And she had important things to say about failing, as well. She said, “We are rarely asked what success really represents to us, or why failure is so demeaning.” Then, she admitted that she herself had always avoided failure but that at a point in her life when she felt unhappy with everything she was producing, “I had to learn to fail before I could find my way again.”

Her approach was to take ballet lessons! At age 33. And she was awful at it, but she enjoyed doing it. Then she attempted other things at which she was terrible, and she learned to overcome some of her fear of failing.

An autodidact myself, even though I do have academic degrees, I found I could easily relate to Ian’s experiences. The part of her speech that spoke to me most was this section:

“You see, I am an artist. I believe that art saves. I believe it is often the only thing that stands between us and chaos. I have faith that while the world is crumbling, art survives. So to feel like my work was a mockery of what I could do, that I was not living up to my talent…well, it was killing me.”

Art requires us to do our best, to be ambitious and strong, to take risks and –occasionally– to fail. To fail spectacularly perhaps, or just to produce a bunch of small, humiliating, stupid failures…like dancing badly in your own room where no one can see you.

But dancing can feel so wonderful, so freeing, so different from writing! It’s worth doing badly. Sometimes when we have less at stake, we find new methods of expression and new ways to keep our fears, including the fear of failure, at bay.

~~

The full speech is available on Warren Wilson’s site here.

Berries

My region, like many others, has been sweltering through a heat wave lately. The mild winter pushed bloom times and fruiting times a bit earlier than usual; blackberries started ripening ten days ago, and now we have blueberries before July.

But not much before July. In celebration of blueberries and other joys of summertime, here’s a poem from my collection Small Things Rise & Go.

The Blue of July

We pick the first blueberries
while lilies gape at us,
peering over their green fans.
Birds’ tirades scatter over wind
and into our ears,
buffeting us with scold and caw and
something not melody but song:

a song of fruit, of seeds and
mealybugs and inchworms,
the wild clack of bamboo
or maple branches.

Summer’s like a mulberry,
a blueberry, dark and vivid.
It stains the day sweaty,
leaves bright pollen on our noses
as we inhale the sun

on lilies, as white clover gathers
like clouds upon the grass
and, sweet in our mouths,
the day explodes—blue.

~

A note to anyone who has ordered or wishes to order Water-Rites: The order has gone to the printer. Possibly 2-3 weeks before my book is in your hands. Many thanks.

“The Atlantic”

 Atlantic by John Sevcik

A few years back, I was privileged to join John Sevcik, his wife Lynne Campbell–who is also a marvelous painter–and a few art students and friends for three lovely days of art talk and plein air painting sessions and terrific food at a beach house in NJ. This painting, by John Sevcik, inspired the following poem, which appears in Water-Rites.

The Atlantic

She and her mother
are knee-deep in water
their backs to the shore

What they discuss
as they look eastward
you cannot hear–

breakers, the wind,
the natter of laughing gulls
cover their conversation

Besides, you are busy
fathoming the sea’s tones
and mixing the sky–

Trying to stake claim
to the reflective shallows
between you and them

At this hour
they are your subjects
as the sea is

and what they say
she will share with you
later. Or she won’t.

It doesn’t matter, you
have set down on canvas
their communion

And your own conversation–
the one between mind’s eye
and artist’s hand.

~~~

Many thanks to John Sevcik for allowing me to post his painting here on my blog. To see John’s other works and find out about gallery showings, visit him at his web page. He is also a teacher, poet, playwright and actor.

Generous community of writers

Lately, my days have been busy with gardening and household chores and efforts to promote my book Water-Rites. I find I can jot ideas into my notebooks but that more sustained creative writing efforts are not possible at this time. That’s okay. Writing, for me, often comes cyclically, with the slow periods acting as collecting points and reflective opportunities that may result in poetry later on. Also, when I am not writing much, I have time to read.

On this blog, I have a page devoted to ART which featured links to work by painters, sculptors, and other artists of my acquaintance. Today, I’m posting links to websites of and books by friends. One thing about the solitary life of writers is that we still require community of some kind: readership, first and foremost; but also reviewers, friendly but useful critique, emotional and career support, and misery-loves-company ranting and hilarity. This community develops many ways–face-to-face, mentorship, virtual collegiality, networking, even postal mail–and sustains the generous community of writers over years and miles.

The event that precipitated my desire to post these links was reconnection with poet Alfred Encarnacion, whose first chapbook, At Winter’s End, David Dunn and I published in the early 1980s when we were running LiMbo bar&grill books. You can find Alfred’s 2012 collection The Outskirts of Karma here.

One poet who has quietly been disseminating poetry for 25 years from his tiny press in Kanona, NY is Michael Czarnecki of FootHills Publishing. From his website, you can order books by many of the people in my writing community: Michael himself, and also Craig Czury, Heather Thomas, Karen Bashkirew, Paul Martin (whose beautiful 2009 full-length collection is available here), Steve Myers, Kelley Jean White, Elizabeth Bodein and many others…including two of my own chapbooks.

Finishing Line Press, which sells through Amazon as well as its own site, has published many of my colleagues in the poetry community and particularly supports female writers; I urge you to purchase books by Celia Lisset Alvarez, Kelley Jean White, Nancy Scott, Elizabeth Bodein. Finishing Line also sells my book The Minor Fauna.

Through Dave Bonta, I met the folks behind Phoenicia Publishing and, through Dave and through the Women’s Poetry Listserv, met Ren Powell. Dave’s book and Ren’s book are available through Phoenicia, and so are print issues of Dave’s online blog literary journal, qarrtsiluni. Also through Dave, my literary community grew through meeting Luisa Igloria, whose books you should definitely check out. Another connection with the inimitable Dave Bonta? That would be Ron Mohring of Seven Kitchens Press, which will be publishing Dave’s next collection and which advocates for the work of Pennsylvania-based poets such as the late Lou McKee and another of my colleagues-in-writing, Harry Humes. August Evening with Trumpet is a particularly lovely book, and Harry is a master. Other Pennsylvania poets to whose tribe I am happy to belong include my much-lauded friend Barbara Crooker, the unpredictable and enthusiastic Barbara DeCesare, Patricia Goodrich (sculptor and poet), and that magnificent woman of letters, Elaine Terranova.

Attending an MFA program at Goddard College granted me an immediate community for which I continue to be grateful many years later. Books by my fellow students and by my mentors include but are not limited to the following (really, there are too many to recall!):

Alan Smerdjian, Jessamyn Johnston-Smyth, Elena Georgiou, Christian Peet, Bea Gates, Ian Haight, Barbara DeCesare, Jan Clausen, Janice Goveas, Bill Moser, Jen McConnell, and forgive me for running short on time or forgetting others…and from my long-ago days at The New School, the amazing Maurice Eidelsberg, whose poems in Shit, Sex, Love, Palsy will have you viewing life from a perspective you may never have imagined.

Through the Women’s Poetry Listserv I mentioned earlier and through conferences and festivals, the generous community of writers has led me to Diane Lockward, Pat Valdata, Elizabeth Raby, Rosemary Starace, Julie Kane, Elaine Heveron, Lori May, Juilene Osborne-McKnight and Steven Allen May of Plan B Press; Ned Balbo, Jane Satterfield, April Lindner among many others. Wendy Ellsworth has written a book on beading and spirituality; my cousin Scott entered the world of book writing with a children’s book you can find here. And my brother, a true Renaissance man, has published a novel and is working away at a non-fiction Rip Van Winkle-type story of archeology, empiricism, Stephen Jay Gould and Samuel Morton.

So  you see, the life of a writer need not be–and seldom is–solitary. Writers love to read, and they therefore support one another inadvertently. My community also includes Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Emily Dickinson, Jane Austen, Vladimir Nabokov, Elizabeth Bishop, Robinson Jeffers, Dante, and Dostoevsky. To name a few.

Ephemera

My collection Water-Rites was begun in response to a drought and a death. Interesting that the book’s release appears during an unusually wet spring here in my valley. On my morning walk through the meadow today, I saw quite a few species of dragonflies, generally a sign of a damp period in my region. Two days ago, mantis cases hatched; now there are tiny praying mantises on the patio slates, in the lawn, and among the grassy flora where we seldom mow.

The bees are out; the cabbage moths and early butterflies busy themselves with knapweed, eupatoria, penstemon, golden alexanders, honeysuckle, milkweed. The fragrance settles above the dewy grasses.

Most people are aware of honeysuckle’s scent. Few people know how lovely the aroma of milkweed blossom is. You have to time it just right–there’s no perceptible scent when the buds are furled, and the blooms are open only briefly. Almost at once, the blossoms ripen into pale knobs that will produce the familiar pods full of seeds packed cone-like into the pointed cases, silks battened tightly until autumn dries the pods and they burst.

But in early or mid-June, when the butterflies begin to arrive, those blooms are pale purple clusters of fragrance on a stem.

milkweed bloom

~

Ephemera intrigues me. Human ephemera usually is just that: brief, transitory, “lasting a day” (the Latin name for daylily, hemerocallis, comes from the same root: ἐφήμερα). Our letters, our emails, our YouTube videos and Hallmark greeting cards and shopping receipts.

Biological ephemera, however, is part and parcel of the cycle of life.

And poetry? Perhaps it’s an effort on the part of human beings to contribute to the lasting sort of ephemera.

 

~

 

milkweed in autumn Ann E. Michael