Trees

The catalpas are blooming, really putting on a show this year–huge crowns full of white blossoms. I suppose the climate this year contributed to this show somehow, but my research says catalpa speciosa is drought resistant and requires little water compared to other tree species.

casp8062

catalpa in bloom

Eastern Pennsylvania has not had drought lately, and two wet springs in a row have meant burgeoning iris pseudacoris and particularly floriferous honeysuckle vines in my yard. The river birch seems happy with its feet all wet; the firs–though in a slightly less waterlogged area of the yard–are, by contrast, miserable.

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I’ve been thinking about trees because I’m reading Peter Wohlleben’s 2016 book The Hidden Life of Trees. The text reads like a friendly forester inviting readers to learn what he loves about trees and their encounters with us, with the environment (soil, air, sun, water, pollutants, pests, fungi), and with one another. I have to say I remain somewhat skeptical about the scientific veracity of his source material, but I do enjoy his warm enthusiasm for his subjects and his reminders that we humans don’t know even the smallest fraction of what goes on in the planet’s interconnected and unplumbed depths.

Although some critics object to what they see as too much anthropomorphism in Wohllebehn’s book, his use of the analogy of the human and the tree “bodies” makes his information about how trees and forests work easy to grasp.

For science nerds, there are other texts. The Hidden Life of Trees is meant to make the less scientifically-inclined reader more aware of his or her environment, to convince the average human being to consider plant life more consciously.

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I take many photos of trees; and they appear in my poems pretty regularly, not as main characters but in supporting roles–not symbolic, but actual. Wohllebehn’s book may influence my work somehow…possible inspiration? But then, the trees themselves, especially the oldest ones, are inspiration enough.

sycamore

This 200-year-old sycamore resides at Bartram’s Garden in Philadelphia

 

 

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Interview

“Who has not sat, afraid, before his heart’s
curtain?  It rose:           the scenery of farewell.
Easy to recognize. The well-known garden…”
–Rainer Maria Rilke
~

primrose by Ann E. Michael

Herewith, a recap of my side (much edited) of the ArtsAlive! conversation this past Sunday at Soft Machine Gallery. SØrina Higgins was also reading and being interviewed by Lehigh Valley Arts Council director Randall Forte, but I can’t adequately summarize her insightful comments. You can find her book here, however.

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RF: What is your favorite poem in the collection Water-Rites?

AM: I hate to try to pin down a favorite poem, by my favorite writers or by myself. I once heard Billy Collins reply to that question by saying his favorite poem is always the one he is currently in the process of writing. That’s kind of cleverly evasive, but it’s also a little true. Though sometimes I hate the poem I’m currently working on…

I like the title poem, but I get a kick out of “Doxology” because it is so odd; and perhaps my favorite poem is “Tailfeathers” or “The Big Umbrella” or, for purely sentimental reasons—not because it is my best poem—“At Bull’s Head Pond.”

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RF: What was the most difficult poem to write?

AM: The most difficult poem to complete was probably the long poem in the center of the collection, “The Valley, the Whitetail: A History.” That was difficult in terms of managing the length and the purpose of the poem; also, it required some research. Yes, occasionally poems take quite a bit of research—I have no desire to be inaccurate when I am writing about history or geology or botany (though I often am, inadvertently, despite my best efforts). Not all poetry is solely a work of the imagination.

There are other ways to be “difficult” however. A poem that was hard to complete was the elegy “I Shall Never Be Nearer,” which came quickly initially but took a long, long time to revise and to come to terms with. Not all of these poems—or any of the poems I write—are “about” me or my experiences, I mean, not as biographical as they may seem. But this poem does deal very specifically with the death of my close friend. It was the day after I learned of his passing, and, completely numbed and sleepless, I went with my family for a canoe trip on the lake. I titled this poem “Single Lines” for several years while I was revising it, because the images came to me in – well – single lines. Single images. I must have revised little tiny things in it oh, about 14 times. So I guess that means it was “hard to write.”

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RF: So, the opposite question. Which poem was easiest to write?

AM: Some poems do come quickly and relatively easily. Not often, and sometimes those that come rapidly end up being sort of crappy poems. But “Lot’s Wife” only underwent about 2-3 drafts and mainly arrived, haiku-like, as a visual image that carried with it some cultural freight.

Another poem that arrived rather miraculously is “River by River.” That was the result of a car trip to Indiana with my kids and is kind of a list poem. It spooled out as a result of a kind of inadvertent prompt. Will Greenway and Elton Glaser were looking for poems about Ohio for an anthology. I read the call for work, went back to my notebook about the car trip, and recalled an incident with my son and a roadmap. The editors chose it as the opening poem in the main text of the book—immediately following the preface poem by James Wright. I felt completely graced and humbled.

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RF: How did you choose the title of the collection?

AM: Early on, while I was working on my graduate thesis project, I chose the title for the book. I’d written the title poem but hadn’t really thought of it as the title poem until I recognized how many of the poems dealt with drought or with bodies of water or rain or artworks that portrayed water. And spelling the second word as “rites” as in ritual, rather than as an other interesting aspect of water—the “rights” to water that have caused so much conflict over the centuries—seemed fitting given that there are also rites associated with death. Funerary rites, religious rites. And rites in the form of chants and dances people have done to invoke rain during times of drought. So there’s a pun there, rights and rites, and I love literary puns.

I wanted to use Steve Tobin’s sculpture as the cover art, and Steve granted the rights for that photo (more rights, legal rights) and Keith at Brick Road approved of the image for the book cover. So I am gratified by all of that. The sculpture is an early work of Tobin’s, when he was making art using surgical glass piping. It’s environmental, site-specific art that really looks like a splashing creek. But it isn’t—it is glass.

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RF: Tell us about your publishing history and about how and if poetry publishing has changed over the years.

AM: I had my first poem published in a tiny literary journal back in the days of Xerox-ed micro-magazines, 1981 or 82. I’ve been publishing pretty regularly since then, regularly but not ambitiously. Lots of individual poems and essays in individual journals. I had no academic reason to get a book out, and I had no real direction either. It didn’t seem to be on my to-do list when I was in my twenties. Then, at 30, I had my children. Most of my creativity went in the parenting direction, though I continued to write. I didn’t really work toward book publication until about 1999. Then I began to think about it—after David Dunn had died. In fact, I got a chapbook and a full-length collection of his work out after his death. This is hard to do—to convince a publisher to put out a book posthumously. After all, the poet cannot promote his work. That’s hard on small publishers. But I succeeded. So I thought, I guess I can get my own books published. Maybe. And my first collection was a chapbook Spire press published right after I graduated from Goddard, 22 poems about building a house, sort of ecologically-invested nature-type poems.

Things have changed in the world of poetry publishing, but it is still hard to get your work into actual print—ebooks and POD self- or partially-self-published options, as well as the web and blogs, have changed the spirit of the poetry world only marginally, though I do think these options have made it possible for more people to read and encounter poetry. The absence of critical, discerning, well-read editors & proofreaders is a loss, in my opinion; but poetry is finding other ways to deal with that. And those editors are still out there. Underpaid and overworked and cranky, but out there nonetheless. MFA programs, perhaps. Critique groups have maybe replaced salons and absinthe cafes. I don’t know.

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RF: Any advice for aspiring poets who want to get published?

AM: I’d advise aspiring poets to be ambitious. But there are many ways to be ambitious. I’m a bit of a plodder, but I hang in there. I’m not great at networking or schmoozing or even being sort of normally assertive—I’m quite shy with strangers and hate to ask even small favors…like asking an editor to consider publishing my work. Or asking people to host readings. I mean, that goes with the job, but it’s taken me a long time to get good at doing that. I hate that stuff lots more than I hate being rejected. I don’t take the rejections hard at all. My weaknesses lie in other areas. So I can say, if you want to get published, you might not want to do what I did…anyway, if you are eager to see print soon, you might want to be more assertive and organized. On the other hand, I have been self-promoting rather badly for thirty years; and I’m okay with that because the poems are better after thirty years even if my publicity skills are not.

I’m kind of outside the box as far as the “po-biz” goes. I do my job at the college, which is only marginally poetry-related, and then only when I am teaching a section of intro-to-poetry. (Mostly I teach remedial comp and tutor students in English; I like to remind myself that Kay Ryan has the same kind of job!). I attend conferences when I can get away and when I can afford them; I have taken seminars and workshops over the years, but not religiously or frequently. The “big thing” I did for my so-called career was to get an MFA from Goddard College in 2003. This was after I had won a PA Council on the Arts Fellowship—back when the council was giving those out. Please lobby your congress people for an increase in federal and state arts funding. That was so crucial for me, earning that grant. A great confidence-builder.

Since then, I’ve earned my MFA and have four chapbooks and this full-length collection coming out and a job in academia that I probably wouldn’t have if it hadn’t been for my graduate studies and a certain amount of dogged persistence of a sort of quiet variety that I seem to possess in abundance. I still send out individual poems for publication in print and online, though not as often as I should if I were really eager to stay on the po-biz radar. I keep up a blog and a Facebook page for “promotional purposes” but don’t expect to see me on your Twitterfeed anytime soon. Technology takes me away from my reverie zone and is, generally, bad for my poetry. What’s good for my poetry are long walks, gardening, and genial loafing, visits to museums, viewing architecture and geological formations, long face-to-face chats with friends, and reading reading reading.

The quote that opens my book, the Rilke quote, kind of sums that up for me. It’s really the well-known garden that makes me recognize where the poems are coming from. The scenery of farewell, in this case, opened up the place this collection began, in loss and later in fullness.

Water thoughts

This weekend brought some rain to our valley. Gratitude! The rain softened the soil and the air, bringing haze and drizzle and greening up the parched grasses. Nonetheless, a little searching of weather-history sites revealed that this March was the fourth-driest on record, with only .92 inches of precipitation; the average precipitation is 3.4 inches. The region is also 6″ below average for the first quarter of 2012. As a gardener, I take my “stewardship” of the earth and its resources seriously; and water is one of the most valuable resources that we take for granted here in the United States. I can conserve water at home through many means–and I have established fairly resilient plants in my ornamental gardens (if it survives drought and flood and the deer don’t eat it, I find a way to make it look pretty in the yard). There isn’t anything I can do to change the weather patterns, though.

Given my deep concerns about cyclical drought, long-term equitable distribution of water, potable water and clean waterways, I thought I would use this post to share the title poem of my upcoming collection, Water-Rites. The publishers at Brick Road Poetry Press will be bringing the book out this spring. If the year continues to be a dry one, then it’s strangely suitable for this particular collection: I wrote many of these poems during a serious drought cycle. Some of the poems deal with the loss of a close friend, too. For me, drought and grief are metaphorically closer than “floods of tears.” Loss felt more like the numb, dry absence of drought than like the gift of rain.

For some soothing photos of running natural waters, I recommend Don Schroder’s series taken at Rickett’s Glen. Meanwhile, I’m grateful for the rain.

Water-Rites

I.

I take my shower
lean into water’s hot stream
too many minutes
lathered in steam, guilty skin,
greedy pores

knowing the well empties
and the earth’s in drought.
II.

Off Nova Scotia’s south coast,
small islands spring fresh water
surrounded by sea. We hauled
the pine-brown but potable
stuff from the well in buckets,
heated it on the woodstove,
dabbed at our bodies, and dried
in the sea wind. We drank it:
pine-water coffee—water
sprung from nowhere, gift of rocks,
glaciers, lost to eons.
III.

The Mideast erupts again.
Retribution. Religion. Water-rights.

Oil will get you water;
water will buy you oil.
Barrels and tanks,
tanks and barrels—

each has a meaning
for water and warfare.

I reach for soap.
IV.

On the Caribbean volcanic island,
rain’s the only source. Rock
carved into cisterns. Water
hauled in like gasoline, by truck.
V.

We do not need to be so clean.
The industry of soap cajoles us—
promoting glycerin, methyl paraben
and the lauryl sulfates—
exposes our filth and offers
deliverance from evil.
Lye and tallow. Better to wallow.
The cost is less. Think:
Were we not formed of clay?
VI.

Tap
like sap
provides
sustenance.

Water
up root and
down:
taproot.
Soil            unsoiled
needs rain

silt       sand       loess—
water-loss

water’s
lost,
VII.

runs down my body,
thirsty skin, down drain
into pipes, tanks, drainage field
where ryegrass covers meadow,
percolates through sand, loam; disperses—

if it should rain
I will run out, arms wide,
mea culpa, mea culpa,
so many parched human beings
desiccating earth and I—
I thought to wash
my trespasses away
in something other
than rain.

© 2012 Ann E. Michael