Monday, December 31, 2018

New Year's Resolution: To Read The Books I Own

You enter a writing contest. There is a reading fee. Whether or not you win, place, or lose, you receive a subscription to the journal. Most of the time you lose. But the journal always comes. You glance at the winning poem or story. No time now, but you'll leave it on your desk and read it soon. A week later it's still there, untouched, in your way. You put it with all the other unread journals crammed into a drawer or a closet.

Or you attend a reading. Perhaps you are one of the featured readers. Or not. Either way, you come home with multiple signed volumes you have the best intentions of reading. The books join your unread journals.

I have so many journals and books that I have not read, that I decided one of my New Year's resolutions is not to buy any more books until I have either read what I have, or read enough of the volume to know I don't want to finish it. Then I will donate what I don't want to keep, opening up space and budget for more books.

I began early working on my New Year's resolution. In the past week, I have read all the poems in the latest issues of Salamander and Rattle. I always read with a pencil in hand. The benefit of this New Year's resolution is that it feeds into another one--to post more regularly on this blog. And so, I begin with a summary of some of the poems I like in Salamander #47, and why...

I define liking a poem by answering yes to the question, "Would I take the time to read this poem again?" Of the sixty-six poems in the most recent issue of Salamander, I would (and did) re-read ten poems by seven poets. While I don't feel it ethical to reproduce all ten poems in their entirety, since the issue is just out, I will list them below, and illustrate why I think three of my favorite deserve multiple readings. The one exception to not posting the entire poem is Rebecca Foust's "Guernica." I know Becky personally, and have received permission to reproduce her poem here it in its entirety. I will also reproduce all seven of the poets' bios so readers may locate additional work by them.

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle

I am immediately attracted to this poem because it is in tercets. Tercets, if they broadcast correctly, signal for me that the poem will not be tidy and will not end with a bow tied around it. The odd number of lines, hopefully, will cause the poem to lean into the blank space between each stanza, and propel all aspects of the poem forward with results that subvert readers' expectations in some way. In that regard, and others, this poem does not disappoint.

Witness the first three and two-thirds stanzas:

It is rare for a person to enter
a castle, but common for him
to die there. Often enough

I feed the wrong meter.
One bird will raise another's
and think nothing. I raise

my head and am astonished
by the window's absolute
and complicated green,

the opposite of the wrong
suitcase's impassive empty

I love the enjambed line of the first stanza, how "Often enough" looks backwards to it being "rare for a person to enter / a castle, but uncommon for him / to die there," as well as setting up a tension we experience in the space that follows, and that is resolved with the first line of the next stanza: "I feed the wrong meter." This line not only satisfies, but also provides more mystery, as "feed[ing] the wrong meter" can be understood in multiple ways. One can see it as paying for someone else's (or a broken, etc.) parking space, or as playing into the wrong meter of a poem or dance or song. 

I'm sure there are other understandings that can be gleaned from this deceptively simple line. In a similar way, each stanza or some part of each stanza provides a resolution to a previous dissonance, or satisfies a previous question, while creating a new dissonance or asking a new question. 

I am also a sucker for sound work, and this poem has plenty of musical language that chimes--"rare/ there," "enter/meter/another's," "green/wrong," are just a few examples. Later in the poem, we encounter "hands/them," "clutch/perch," and "talons/one."

Every time I read "The Waking Life," I am awakened to new ways that Christle has heightened the language in her gorgeous poem.

2."Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin

This poem's structure is simple--a 34-line, single stanza that lists the images needed to be applied to a canvas to accurately portray the poet. But the images themselves are striking, beginning "with coffee grounds and leaves," adding "the reedmace-colored whiskey / [his] grandfather hid in his overcoat, the pistol-black taffy that melted / in [his] grandmother's Buick / that summer my father married Catholic." Martin continues brushing on the language, ending the poem with the strongest lines of all: 

my birth mother from the hard maroon
dirt in that West Virginia cemetery
of the broken pale cherub
and let her scream into the canvas
until paint curves into eyes
and a boy's cheekbones break
into the night like a dirt road
cutting through pine, and have nobody
come down that road for as long
as she works, not even my father
with his blue shirt shadowed 
by sweat, the wind pulling his collar
as if to say, you cannot get there,
here where the bloodroot opens
and crow-song purples the trees.

The father's "blue shirt shadowed / by sweat, the wind pulling his collar," and the "here where the bloodroot opens / and crow-song purples the trees," are images that will remain with me long after I forget the title of this poem or the name of the poet. I love when a poem ends with its strongest lines. As Dorianne Laux says, "In poetry, there is no such thing as denoue-fucking-ment!"

3. "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust

Foust has two poems in issue #47, and both deserve recognition (see below), but the one that serves my purpose in illustrating seamless marriage of content and form is her smart villanelle, "Guernica," based on Picasso's large oil painting with the same name, depicting the suffering and death of animals and people due to the Nazi bombing of Guernica.

Do you still look and see that it is good?
You spoke, then saw what you'd wrought.
We are the monster in the mirror, God,

your world made of words. Let there be untied
sky from earth and sea, night from light,
and you looked and saw that it was good.

With spit and a fistful of dust, you made
the first man. Then to make Eve, took him apart.
You made everything, even the mirror, God

and it's all carnage. A cell cleaves to breed.
Before one war ends, the next one will start,
then the next--still looking? Still good?--

and the eyes that weep for spilled blood
are set in a head that plots the next slaughter.
A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God,

how will you judge the quick and the dead
when the dead include this child for a martyr?
Can you really still look and say it is good?
The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God.

The poem's irreverent tone is perfect in light of the horrors of war--not only in this war, but in all the wars--"Before one war ends, the next one will start." And this repetitive truth of history is enacted with the repeated lines that the villanelle keeps cycling, each time with modifications to match the increasing numbers of victims, and more inhumane ways humans devise to kill. Line one ("Do you still look and see that it is good?) morphs into "and you looked and saw that it was good," and then "then the next--still looking? Still good?'--," and finally into "Can you really still look and say it is good?" Likewise, line three ("We are the monster in the mirror, God,"), becomes "You made everything, even the mirror, God," and "A monster. Picasso's vexed mirror. O God," and finally the complete shift of responsibility: "The monster's in your mirror; it's you, God."

This is not the first time that Foust has written virtuosic poetry, where form is elevated to the status of voice, not only echoing the content, but conveying meaning in a deeper way than can be achieved with words alone, the diction becoming almost a translation of form's unspoken language, thus achieving what Matthew Zapruder speaks of in his book, Why Poetry, as "saying the unsayable." In Foust's most recent full-length collection, Paradise Drive, she successfully utilizes the sonnet form throughout to present short scenes of a longer, connected narrative, charting her main character's quest for meaning. (To read my review of Paradise Drive in South 85 Journal click HERE.)

Each time I read "Guernica," I can say that it is not only "good," but better and better, as I bring more to it with each reading.

Based on the samples of their work found in this issue of Salamander, I will search out additional work by these poets. And I encourage you, if you haven't already, to read the entire issue #47. I would be interested to see how many of the poems you find there you would choose for your "best" list, and whether or not our lists overlap. In the mean time, enjoy your new year, and stay tuned for more posts soon!

My favorite poems in Salamander #47, listed in order of appearance:

1. "The Waking Life" by Heather Christle (page 21)

Heather Christle is the author of four poetry collections, most recently Heliopause (Wesleyan University Press, 2015). Her first work of nonfiction, The Crying Book, will be out from Catapult in 2019.

2. "Nailing the Steps for a Tree Fort" by Jacob Lindberg (page 25)

Jacob Lindberg is an MFA student at the University of Arkansas. He serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Up North Lit. His poetry can be found in Rattle, cream city review, River Styx, and others.

3. "Elegy to my Family" by Steven Cramer (page 28)

Steven Cramer is the author of five poetry books, most recently Clangings (Sarabande, 2012). Recipient of an NEA fellowship and two Massachusetts Cultural Council grants, he founded and teaches in the Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University.

4. "Compline" and "Guernica" by Rebecca Foust (pages 44-45)

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive, reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement. Recent recognitions include the Cavafy Prize, the James Hearst Poetry Prize, the Lascaux Flash Fiction Prize and the ALR Fiction Prize.

5. "At Land's End" and "Snapshots" by Gail Mazur (pages 60-62)

Gail Mazur is author of seven poetry collections, including They Can't Take That Away from Me, finalist for the National Book Award, Zeppo's First Wife, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award, Figures in a Landscape, and Forbidden City. Her eighth book, Land's End: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming.

6. "Self-portrait" by Joshua Martin (page 64)

Joshua Martin is a doctoral student at Georgia State University. He has published poems in Tupelo Quarterly, Nashville Review, Raleigh Review, The Cortland Review, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook Passing Through Meat Camp was a finalist in the 2015 Jacob Press Chapbook Contest.

7. "From a Tree above the Liffey" and "On a Collage by Peter Sacks" by Fred Marchant (pages 100-102)

Fred Marchant is the author of five books of poetry, the most recent of which is Said Not Said (Graywolf Press, 2017). Earlier books include The Looking House, Full Moon Boat, House on Water, House in Air, and Tipping Point, the latter reissued by The Word Works in a twentieth anniversary second edition. Marchant is also the editor of Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford, and the founding director of the Suffolk University Poetry Center in Boston.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Catharine Clark-Sales: Brats

Catharine Clark-Sayles organized her recently published chapbook from Finishing Line Press quite logically. She opens with "First Fish," proceeds to "Act 2, Scene 2," and then delves into the tender flesh of growing up a military brat, moving a dozen times in as many years, trying to fit in at school and into her skin, as her mental gifts and discipline came into bloom in adolescence and adulthood. The result is a skillful rendition of a caring and competent physician and poet. She closes with the perfect poem, "Night Call." Here are its closing lines:

     I will not resent more than a little

     my dream forever gone, not curse you

     for the warmth cooling beneath my quilt.

     I will not hold you accountable

     for the missing hour of sleep.

     I will love the crescent moon, the sudden deer

     and the hustling skunk on my street as I return.

     I will love this midnight world.

     I will love my skill.

     I will love your need.

Not only does this agile poet, who almost always finds her balance on a secure high wire stretched somewhere between the sheer cliffs of Vulcan logic and Captain Kirk's over-the-top sentimentality, give us an insider's view of what it's like to stand guard above the chasm of death that will engulf us all, she actually creates the need for her own poems with narratives that have no resolution except to dissolve into lyrical lines, and then finally into the blank spaces between them.

In "Alas, Babylon Was the Code"--a literal statement of fact from her childhood, when her military officer father told her mother if he ever called and used the words "Alas, Babylon" to load the kids into the car and drive as far and as fast as she could to avoid impending nuclear bombs-- Clark-Sayles enacts this process in graphic, yet tender language. The poem opens with the following lines:

     After the towers fell     planes did not fly
     their trails of white stitching     the sky
     was bluer     like when I was a child     Colorado
     sky     high enameled blue     deep and wide
     clouds moved across     puffy white masses
     plume of a plane passing     a seldom thing

She then concludes with the subjects of her narrative (clouds--both natural and human-made), finding a life of their own:

     I would gallop     with them     across the gravel
     playground     running fast     before the wind
     they ran raster     I fell     rolled to watch
     the others move     up the mountain     evaporate

Once staking out her topical territory--growing up a military brat, whose background and mental gifts helped her become a physician with an expected grit, yet unexpected dose of sensitivity--whatever poem the reader comes upon is bent toward that landscape like a thirsty plant's roots toward water, its hungry leaves toward the sun. Simple poems such as "Tumbleweeds," "Chorus" (about "...those of us from nowhere, / or from too many places to name them all"), "Deluxe Puzzle," and "Divide," for example, are imbued with ontological connotations, in addition to their denoted meanings.

I have the advantage of living in the same county as Catharine Clark-Sayles. Recently, I heard her read two of the poems from the heart of Brats that speak directly to the bewilderment and inevitable  accommodation that comes when confronted with the experiences of adolescence ("On The Algebra of Collaboration"), and death ("First Call Night"). This poet-physician particularizes these universals by getting inside the condition of growing up without permanent roots, and in providing people with solutions to life or death issues with competence, humor, empathy and vulnerability--in other words, with her humanity.

Clark-Sayles gets it right with poem order most of the time. Her last three poems are spot-on. However, I would prefer opening this short book with the power of the two poems mentioned above. I do recognize the personal importance to the poet of "First Fish," a narrative about catching fish with her father who, after she hooks her first, responds with "That's my number-one girl."

For me, this thin chapbook is a "number-one collection." Short, powerful, relevant poems, with a voice I trust. It doesn't get much better. I close with what may be my favorite poem, at least until I read Brats again. Then, I'm sure, I'll find another.

     First Call Night

     Don't feel guilty, it's really not your fault.
     The nurse says "We need you to pronounce"
     and all I know by heart is "Jabberwock" and that
     would scare the widow but now you've really done it
     with snicker snack and formal blade stuck in your brain.
     Your career is over if you giggle
     in front of this nurse or this man's kids.

     You have got to get his name--Something-vich.
     You've only been this guy's doctor for three hours
     and forty-seven minutes and the nurse
     was definite about "No Code." You
     are just the night call intern, haven't figured out yet
     how to sign M.D. so it looks like it belongs,
     but you've got to get his name right,
     "Something-vich and how many family are in the room?

     Look serious but kind. Keep your hands
     in your pocket if they shake. The nurse says
     "Room 918. Get the family to go home
     so we can get him downstairs to the morgue,
     admits are stacking up in ER."
     The chart reports "Pancreatic CA, prognosis grim."
     Even on the cancer ward you don't say "death."

     Don't stammer over doctor when you say
     "I'm the on-call doctor" and remember:
     it really is not your fault that the small dark woman
     with reddened eyes sobs in a chair next to the bed
     and the people clustered under the get-well balloon
     look at you as if dark wings sprout from your new white coat.

     The waxy ivory stare of the man in the bed, Mr.--what is his name?
     isn't holding any blame as you flick the pen light firmly, beam shining
     down into still black wells of pupil as if you have done this often.
     As you press fingertips stuttering with your own wild pulse
     against his cooling skin don't think of the night you were ten
     and stayed up past midnight reading Poe's "Accidental Burial."

     Wait for a silent count to sixty just in case you might
     feel one last bump of his heart, then stethoscope
     to chest, listen to the trickling pop of fluid (surely)
     settling and not even in imagination any wisp of breath.
     Say "I'm sorry. He is gone" and "I'm sorry
     for your loss." Offer tissues and a priest.

     At the nurses' desk fill in each box neatly with numbers in black ink.
     For time of death pick, as your one small protest, an exact number,
     something like 9:47 PM,
     and don't wonder where Mr. Janovich was
     while he waited for you to come.




Friday, August 31, 2018

Lindsay Bell: The Naughts

More than a year ago, I promised former colleague of mine at Columbia College Chicago, Lindsay Bell, that I would review her book, The Naughts (Finishing Line Press, 2017). I had the best of intentions to write the review in 2017. I could cite reasons for my delay that might seem justifiable--more pressing deadlines, the priorities of family and work, health issues. And those would not be inaccurate. However, alongside those reasons is the reality that I chose to do other things rather than get down to reading and writing about this book as promised. Two things have resulted from my experience: 1) I now forgive all five of my writer friends who have promised to review my books, but never have--I understand much better how one can allow that to happen; and 2) following the suggestion of Dr. Joe Dispenza to not get up from one's meditation without asking "What is the greatest ideal of myself that I can be today?" one of the things that came up for me this morning was "to reread and write a review of Bell's book." So, Lindsay, my apologies, and here we go...

Consulting The Compact (it's not really) Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, produces the following for "naughts": 1) nothing; 2) wicked, evil, morally wrong; 3) lost, ruined, injurious, hurtful; and 4) in arithmetic, ciphers (which is to say, zeros). Most online dictionaries list "lost or ruined, worthless or useless" as archaic. And finally, the online slang dictionary has only one entry: "The decade from 2000-2009." I found evidence that the decade 1900-1909 was also called "the naughts."

One of the strength's of Bell's collection is that her poems touch on all of the above meanings and more. The more is the light her poems shine on this world, complete with its worts and naughts, by juxtaposing seemingly disparate images and ideas with a sparse language that is oftentimes quite gorgeous. I am reminded of Jorie Graham's " Self-Portrait As The Gesture Between Them [Adam and Eve]" from The Dream of the Unified Field with a poem like "Ode to the Apple:"

For the wanderer who forgot
            how to turn a phrase
            who wants our love;
For the wretch whose apathy
            ate her careless,
For we can aspirate
            the earth
            but we need a conduit
            to get the worms
            out of our will;
For the snake,
            in careful netting
            on the banks of the Clear Creek
For the dogs cocking their heads,
            backed away,
            while their humans
            inclined to their doom;
For in the ever closer, wherein
            something lies coiling-
For the utter giving in of predator
            and prey, entwined
            and equal,
            without blame or conceit.

As in her final stanza above, the diction and meaning of her poems in this collection are all "...entwined / and equal, / without blame or conceit." Bell brings to the page a knowledge of, and love for, geology. Utilizing earth science as a tool to excavate the unique language of her poems results in slanted meaning and exposed history, as in "Margin Architecture:"

Later faults dismember our early geometries,
            a failed arm wastes, leaving the mark
            of its absence
commonly bounded by angular unconformities.
            Blue abides in everything, slashed with black,
            dots of light pock our walls.
We are the consequence of erosion, or a poor seismic pick.
            Our earliest memories of water,
            captive to heave and throw, strike and slip.
A sequence of calcareous mudstones and marls
            sum our lifetime moments,
            some marine transgression, resultant desertification.
Submarine channeling
            bespeaks burrowing creatures, deposited
            by meandering, fixed by their outlines.
A topographic map : cipher of our hinterlands
            interbedded basement interactions
            created a seam, fingers lace with blue.
Volcanoclastic sadness, the minor plays of Shakespeare.
            Dust motes deposit in geologic time as we hover,
            watch the names they've given us
Attempt to interpret themselves.

This poem attempts to mine the depths of abstractions such as failure, transgression, memory, and sadness by providing a concrete language for them. Other poems that drill deep into universalities, searching for poetic ore, include "Streber" and  "Love Did This." "Streber" begins with:

Today I smelled the summer's
sad last batch of freedom fries

heard the ice cream truck hemiola
whose pitch unwinds with each iteration.

As I pull into the driveway
rain begins to plunk in the gutters

in seamless concord with ending.

These lines showcase Bell's strength for taking a conglomeration of concrete language and putting it under pressure until it is metamorphosed into an abstraction that carries qualities of each particular. This shifting of language back and forth from specificities to generalities is characteristic of the collection. Thus, dipping into a poem here or there will not always provide a true sample of Bell's capacities. Her work requires taking it all in before assessing its value. When one does, all of the nuances she occasionally demonstrates in a single poem come through, and her work excels. Witness how she does this in "Love Did This," shifting from "love" and "fear" to "the toaster / in the bathtub," and "the faint hearing test intoning right / then left..."

Love Did This

I'd been kidding myself with play fear
but real fear just woke me up,
put a robe on my nakedness, yoked me again.

It said, Lo, I am the toaster
in the bathtub
of your performance anxiety,
the real projector,
the spit and glare and cross yourself.

I am your mother's weary voice,
the faint hearing test intoning right
then left, I am the singsong of baby's breath
carpeting a grave.

I am the burden of you
who are my slave.

There is playfulness in the above lines that occasionally bubbles up into full-blown whimsy in a poem like "Proximity." But even here, "The Naughts" are never far away, stepping onstage from the wings of the poem for the final scene, as they are ready to do throughout all of this surprisingly fresh collection.


I was born with a historical gap.

All my clothes were fitted for it,
pink and asymmetrical.

I was a pink lobster, lop-sided meringue,
chewed air with my hands, ruined my toes.

The floor wept under me.
I was timing.

Allergic to gift horses,
all glossy, candied things.

I was crocheted into a name, sing-song.
The picture of innocence : a tutu in danger.

Looking forward to the decades built on the naughts of the new century, we who claim to be writers are called to join Bell by "Imagin[ing] rape as a theft / of letters : [to] write through holes / in the alphabet." Brava, Lindsay! May we, as you have, all find our way in.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Writers Write About Writing: Richard Hugo and Verlyn Klinkenborg

There is no end to advice from writers about writing. I agree with those who say that the best way to learn how to write is to write. And I agree that much advice from writers may apply to their writing, but not to everyone's. However, occasionally I read a few sentences that seem to ring true universally. Whenever I find more than one writer that I respect saying the same thing, I take notice. And when those writers are in agreement with something I've written about writing, something that I attempt to do in my own writing, no matter how well, or how poorly I'm currently doing it, I think it's important enough to share. Richard Hugo and Verlyn Klinkenborg have done just that.

Here’s a passage in an essay by Richard Hugo entitled “Writing off the Subject” from his collection, The Triggering Town:

A poem can be said to have two subjects, the initiating or triggering subject, 
which starts the poem or “causes” the poem to be written, and the real or 
generated subject, which the poem comes to say or mean, and which is 
generated or discovered in the poem during the writing. That’s not quite 
right because it suggests that the poet recognizes the real subject. 
The poet may not be aware of what the real subject is but only have 
some instinctive feeling that the poem is done.

Young poets find it difficult to free themselves from the initiating subject.
The poet puts down the title: “Autumn Rain.” He finds two or three good
lines about Autumn Rain. Then things start to break down. He cannot find
anything more to say about Autumn Rain so he starts making up things,
he strains, he goes abstract, he starts telling us the meaning of what he
has already said. The mistake he is making, of course, is that he feels
obligated to go on talking about Autumn Rain, because that, he feels, 
is the subject. Well, it isn’t the subject. [Bold font is mine.] You don’t
know what the subject is, and the moment you run out of things to say 
about Autumn Rain start talking about something else. In fact, its a
good idea to talk about something else before you run out of things to 
say about Autumn Rain.

Don’t be afraid to jump ahead. There are a few people who become more 
interesting the longer they stay on a single subject. But most people are 
like me, I find. The longer they talk about one subject, the duller they get.
Make the subject of the next sentence different from the subject of the
sentence you just put down. Depend on rhythm, tonality, and the music
of language to hold things together. It is impossible to write meaningless
sequences. In a sense the next thing always belongs. In the world of
imagination, all things belong. [Bold is mine again.] If you take that on 
faith, you may be foolish, but foolish like a trout.

And here’s a passage from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing:

You have no idea what you’re going to say
Until you discover what you want to say
As you make the sentences that say it.
Every sentence is optional until it proves otherwise.
Writing is the work of discovery.

Imagine this:
The piece you’re writing is about what you find in the
piece you’re writing.
Nothing else.
No matter how factual, how nonfictional, how pur-
poseful a piece is.
Sooner or later, you’ll become more interested in what
you’re able to say on the page and less interested in
your intentions.
You’ll rely less on the priority of your intentions and
more on the immediacy of writing.
It may sound as if I’m describing a formless sort or 
Not at all.
Form is discovery too.
It’s perfectly possible to write this way even when con-
stricter by
A narrow subject, a small space, and a tight deadline.

Finally, here is the link to my article, “Why I Write: Discovery Vs. Self-Expression"

Here's to all of us writers, as we seek to discover the writing within the writing.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The Widening Spell Widens: Memoir

It has been several months since I posted on my blog. During that time, much has happened in my writing life that I couldn't write about as I was experiencing it. With a bit of distance, I now turn a corner in the content of "The Widening Spell" to bring my readers up to date on some of those experiences. Hopefully they will be as helpful as my past posts about some of the poets who have influenced me the most. This blog will always be about poetry--or at least about my reading and writing experiences that began for me as a junior in college--attending my first poetry reading by William Stafford, and then decades later having my head spun around for a second time, reading Larry Levis. All of my life I have been caught in poetry's "Widening Spell."

However, motivated by Mary Karr's The Art of Memoir, in 2016 I wrote 650 pages of memoir. When I began Karr's book, I had no idea that I would be examining the story of my life--both its exterior trappings and its interior conflicts and struggles--to discover for myself first, and then for any future readers, what it all meant. I certainly had no intention of writing a memoir. But I became addicted to my morning two hour sessions from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m. at my local coffee shop, cutting myself open and bleeding onto the page. The resulting draft was terrible by even the lowest literary standard. But the process reactivated my memory of events and feelings I'd all but forgotten. It also gave me an outline for 5 separate memoirs to be written--something I felt totally inadequate to do. The only genre I was just beginning to feel comfortable writing was poetry. Non-fiction seemed totally out of my reach.

During the six months it took me to get that draft down on paper, what kept me going were the words of Melba Beals, one of "The Little Rock Nine," whose prize-winning memoir, Soldiers Don't Cry, I had read after Melba became one of my customers at a men's clothing store. She had just retired as Professor Emerita from Dominican University of California. When she found out I was a poet, she invited me to lunch to talk shop. Mostly, she talked and I listened in awe to her rendering of events not included in her memoir that depicted her going to high school every day with an armed national guardsman, as one of the first nine black students to integrate high school in the state of Arkansas. As we were parting, I mentioned that I was dabbling in memoir, with about a dozen pages written. "What about your life is so interesting that other people would want to read it?" Melba asked. I must have flushed, knowing the significance of her public life compared with mine. "I grew up in a pathological family," I said. "Give me an example," she replied. "Okay. Here's the first sentence to what I've written so far: When I was nine years old, my father taught me how to kill a man with my bare hands, and how to please a woman, both in the same conversation." Melba paused and, drilling into my soul with her ink-colored eyes, replied: "Keep writing!"

So I kept writing--two hours every morning for six months. And when I looked up there were 650 pages in my word file. What to do with these disconnected, randomly remembered stories of my life? How to revise them, connect them, order them? How to structure a coherent story from them? I sensed, from reading other poets turned memoirists--Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird; Patricia Hampl's I Could Tell You Stories; Nick Flynn's Another Bullshit Night in Suck City--that my memoir wasn't going to be a chronological telling of story in the classical sense of 1) beginning; 2) introduction of problem or conflict; 3) rising action; 4) climax; and 5) denouement. My story wasn't tidy--it wasn't even a story--it was a chaotic mess, just as much of my life had been. I needed help.

That help came in the form of a workshop offered by a new conference center, 1440 Multiversity, in Scotts Valley, California--a 2-hour drive from where I live. Last September, I attended Nick Flynn's workshop entitled "Memoir as Bewilderment." Since I was certainly bewildered, I thought there might be hope for my memoir. It turned out there was. Applying what I learned in Nick's workshop, I have edited my 650 pages down to 275; I've organized my draft according to a "closed energy system" of places and scenes that orbit one central place which is a metaphor for the entire memoir; and to my surprise, I've started writing poetry again, triggered by my own memoir--portions that just don't work as prose, but do as poetry. Here's an example:

Returning To My Childhood Home Thirty Years After Foreclosure

From across the street in my rental car,
first thing I notice is the teardrop-shaped
juniper my father and I planted
when I was eight, grown taller now
than the roof, covering what was then
my bedroom window.
At the front door,
I ring the bell and mourn the loss of our brick
planter attached to the porch, the four o’clocks
I grew from brightly colored packets of magic
seed, mail-ordered from Better Homes and Gardens.
I caress the doorframe, wonder if it was the replacement
we had to buy, if I were the only boy that ever saw
his father walk through this door, splinter it
away from its hinges.
I remember the night—
playing on the living room rug, my mother yelling
in the kitchen at my father, her breaking into pieces
a burner cover on top of the stove, repeatedly
hammering exclamation points with an iron skillet,
screaming my father was never home, so she might as well
destroy every damned thing in the house.
       My father
always needing to prove himself better at destruction,
answered by riffing on his PTSD in syncopated rhythms—
opening and slamming cabinet doors, shattering the God-
damned plates and mugs, flinging our best china
against the wall.
   When my mother threatened to call
the cops, my father went for his sawed-off shotgun,
dared her to dial the phone, loaded a single red shell
into the breach and clicked it shut. 
         I covered my ears,
tracked my father’s boot steps into the front hallway,
mother’s muffled words trailing behind—little deaths
nipping at his scarred ears; marching into the front yard,
he filled the dark air with buckshot.
I can still hear the clack
as my mother locked the door behind him, the crack as he split it
in two walking back through it, the concussive sound of it
smacking the floor—“Don’t ever try to lock me out again!”
Gathering his bags, he walked back through the emptiness
he had opened up in our house, loaded his truck
and gave himself back to the road.
I ring the doorbell again.
Different notes sound from tones heard back then. Slight man
in shorts with coarse gray hair on his chest opens the door—
“Yes?” he says in broken English. “I grew up in this house,” I say,
“and was wondering if I could come in for a minute or two…”

         I hear a woman’s voice call from deep inside,
the rattle of a swamp cooler fan, the motor’s whine; I feel a chill
of air as he shakes his head and shuts the door, leaving me outside,
standing with one foot on a stranger’s porch, the other on what once was
a flowerbed—now dry unforgiving sand, runneled with long shadows.

(Previously published in Open: Journal of Arts & Letters.)

Stay tuned for progress reports on both the memoir, Flight: The story of one man's escape from religious fundamentalism, and my pilgrimage as a poet.