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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Let’s get social

Who doesn’t like a good story and when I mean a story, I mean a person. You’ve heard “don’t judge a book by its cover” and while the genesis of this phrase may have started with a book, let’s just say more often than not it’s intended for people.

Journalism, waitressing, coffee barista, even librarian- the only similarity shared in these hats of the past was people. My blood starts flowing faster it seems, heart speeds up when I think about an opportunity to connect. I’ve been thinking a lot about words like “connection” and “community” lately. Where I think they may boil down for me is delight and opportunity of the online meeting the necessity of the offline. Perhaps the point is that one begets the other or at the very least informs the other.

Poetry can be like that too. A person writes a poem. The poem meanders into the hands of another person, who then ascribes their own ideas and value onto the poem. And the poem outlasts both of them, possibly touching countless other hands or nudging into other ears and eyes.

Narrative poetry // photographic poetry- it all belongs to the people.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Seeing the Light

I have a bit of a tendency toward thinking about the morbid. As I type this, my black lacquered nails tap the keys furiously.

This morning I found out that a friend is in very critical condition. I’m thinking about death and about losing two legs and how the unconscious self recognizes the shearing off of self.

This all started with reading Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s “Requiem for a Friend”. Upon reading this poem for the first time, I felt such a deep resonance with its direct addresses, its wanting to speak of the usually unspeakable. There is an intimacy and childlike pleading that occurs within its confines that plucks me like a string. Its beauty is tragic in a loss that feels without bottom. I am taking my time re-reading it and want to invest the time to get into the poet’s perspective of life after several months of not having that person in it. What does the five month mark look like? The 12 year mark?

As my father put it so eloquently, you get to a point where death is seen as a positive option. When you’re young, there is an interesting dichotomy of reckless immortality mingled with the delicacy of not being fully formed yet. You think or know you will get a chance to experience everything that is ours to enjoy before the final closing of the eyes. You think.

Poetry speaks to those unknowns; it blankets the chill of the uncertain by giving voice to the scary truths and possibilities that for some echo in the deepest chambers and for others are on the cusp of the line of vision, dictating how their steps play out.

This translates to how faith works itself out, for me personally. I have a quote by Lesslie Newbigin on my desk that drives it home for me:

“I do not want to suggest that faith is easy. There are black hours when faith seems to die, when illusions seem true and the truth seems an illusion. But I know that they will pass, not because I have a firm grasp of Him, but because He has His grip on me and I know that I cannot evade Him. He is the living Lord, who was dead and is alive forevermore and has the keys of death and hell. I believe in Him: I can do no other.”

And so the best that I can come up with is to live in the potential of the day. To drill down in the poetry we need to fully realize this life. Rilke included.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

A change a comin’

I have 80% decided to publish a one-time journal. 80% rather than 100% because I am still in the exploration phase and analysis phase, but I have an idea, a poetry comrade who’s interested in helping and a gnawing curiosity that is pushing this nearer to closing the 20% gap. Stay tuned.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Bad Habits Put to Bed

With the arrival of June is the stark realization that half the year is gone. Never to be seen again. And what do I have to show for it? Deepening love for one character of a guy and a lot of travels (minus a now defunct trip next week to NYC).

The writing has not been in hibernation, but in a state of germination. It’s as if waking from the haze of academia is just taking its sweet time. You know those kids who would cry when they left home and call their parents every single day from camp? I never was one of those kids. Instead, when I returned home, I would pine away alone in my room mourning the cacophony of sound, kids and activity that now gave way to silence. And while post-graduation has been no malaise, I have allowed the other parts of my life to begin eating away at the time that for two years was obsessively inhabited by poetry.

But no more.

I had this quirky last minute opportunity to go to France in a part-work / part-leisure excursion. Some people have places that evoke a spiritual connection for them and France has been it for me for some time. The circumstances around this trip happened so quickly and came together so well that I couldn’t help but see and wonder what His design might be or what He wanted to convey to me.

Enter waking up at 4 a.m. No jetlag roused my sleeping form into the vertical position. A poem (or two) did. And they came so quickly. Urgently, as if tiny eggs hatching to produce the small vibrant creatures of poetry. I felt a rush in being back in my right mind again. Living with “poetry mind” calls a certain mindfulness to replace the typical zooming through life that is my modus operandi. And this is where France typically is my biggest reminder to slow down. Sip the wine, so to speak, rather than the slurp.

I took some ridiculously long walks in Paris, through the light rain and felt at home in the San Francisco-like climate. While listening to an original score of electronica music with grey skies framing the beauty, I walked with camera in hand, letting the road take me forward. My self-direction for the 2 days in Paris consisted of taking my time, not rushing, getting a little lost if need be and soaking in the touristy spots (which I would often counter is so unlike me) but I’d never had THAT Paris experience, so it worked out well. And amazingly I never got lost. We fear the failure of the almost perfect experience, which I think sometimes tends to cause the inertia of not trying at all. By allowing myself freedom, I discovered haunts over the course of my jaunt that would have remained hidden. A question for you, “Do you ever feel like you’re living your life too safely? OR Do you ever feel you’re living your life for someone else?”

My reading companion during the Paris leg, “Art and Fear” is a must for any working artist (or struggling one). Written by a photographer and a painter, they talk about the issues that drive artists to create and the things that keep them from creating. It continued the unraveling epiphany for me. God and I walk. It’s what we do to connect and I felt His presence very strongly over my little forays in Paris and Cannes. It felt good to feel Him again as the winter seems to be finally closing. But this next season, who knows what it will bring? It does not appear like anything I’ve ever encountered with Him before, but does not dissipate His proximity. As grey skies roil above, the questions come and not from a place of incertitude.

Artistically, since my return from France, I have continued writing poetry and other projects. This time, working on a book review and considering a new project that will keep me busy for some time to come.

Though New York is eluding me right now, as a friend said, “You always have Paris.” And a few orangettes from Fauchon tucked away for a rainy day.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

gift from the wilderness

This year has been such a topsy turvy ride. But life is like that, sometimes you get signed up for classes you never thought you needed to take. I for one was thinking about all these good things happening right now in my life. And how sometimes when you’re great but the people around you are crumbling, you feel that being quiet about goodness is the right way to be. But sometimes you just really want to shout. And today is one of those days. I think all of us have a bit of chicken hemmed to our heart. A bit of wariness that is learned along the way as a survival tactic.

In yoga class, we always end our practice with a time of silence to say internally what we are thankful for. Tonight I found gratitude welling up inside me for the assault that I never would have wanted, asked for or wished on my worst enemy. But because of it, I am living in a space of deeper self-awareness and other-awareness. It’s as if the very worst thing that I could imagine has happened and now am living in the freedom of it already having happened.

One of my favorite all-time quotes is from Vincent van Gogh. “The fishermen know the sea is dangerous and the storms are terrible, but they never found this sufficient reason to remain on shore.” I rode MUNI for the first time this Saturday with my friend Kenny-O since the 38 incident. He didn’t know this until we were almost to his house, but I woke up and decided it was the day. I also decided that if I had a panic attack when on the bus I could get off and not feel any shame in it.

Life requires a certain amount of feckless risk. I’m glad that my life is not ruled and ordered by my whims but instead by a God who sees me and knows me intimately. Makes the risks less dubious. I was thinking about the idea of living in a reality where every good thing is received as gift. The opposite response to me would be living a life of entitlement. Crushing disappointment comes from unmet expectation. Instead I want to see every person I encounter and my time with them as gift, plain and simple. On the flip side would be seeing bad things that happen as gift. This is a harder one to receive. But how we respond when the shit hits the fan really says a lot about the core of our inner being. I want to have an inner being that is crafted of iron so I can be iron to the people around me- with tremendously long outstretched arms. 🙂

Many of my poems have been inspired by the duress of plain people mired in their lives’ darkness, but reveal that even darkness has a thread of shadow and light to it. We need light especially in darkness if we are ever to find our way out of it.

If you’re reading this- thanks. It’s kind of a rambly post, but my thoughts are swirling about less linear than usual. I guess the point of it is to just encourage you to think about life as gift or life as entitlement and which would be the cloak you might choose to wear. Cheers.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Geeking out on a Saturday night

I think writers are a special breed. Everyone writes. I get that. And some even go so far as to declare that as their profession (catch the slight nasal inflection upon the word “writer”) which is different in perception than being a reporter. There is something to be said for the drug of the craft.

Drug as in the wind blows the branches a certain way, blows a snippet of a line into your mind like candy to be sucked on. Drug as in you are out with friends, in the middle of drinks and the line is ready to reveal itself- you politely duck out and walk in a clipped gait because you don’t want to lose its potency.

So it’s Saturday night. I have been fighting my manuscript, in essence fighting against listening deeper than the surface treatment it has received. Tonight, sitting at a karaoke bar with Tyrone, I told him, “I am overthinking this. I need to just let go of it and the order will all fall into place. The poems will show me how they are talking to each other.” We sang (he: “The Promise” // me: “Umbrella”), we drank, hell we even made friends with a girl named Tressa visiting from Vegas and screaming with the rest of the bar in collective pitch to Four Non-Blondes “What’s Going On?” I had every intention of meeting up with Kenny for a late night movie / early birthday celebration. And then the urge hit, the need for the drug, fingers opening the laptop readily.

So after months and years and final days and hours, the draft of the MFA manuscript is now finally put to bed. Draft still because as Tyrone said, I “like to expound upon the work from the work.” How right he is. And yet, may I not be Goya in this.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

glass half full kinda gal

It’s 11 p.m. on a Friday night. I’m at home tethered to my computer. Revising poems is no small thing. Even the smallest tweak can be maddening. You want the cadence and the sense to all coexist happily. You want to be open to suggestion and know when to drop the eraser. It’s all a fine dance really. I can only imagine the damage and obsession I could give to the poems if given a week off, my mentor’s edits and time on my hands. A friend in New York and I recently talked about how boring we are- he wanting to work every Saturday on his book, me holed up on a weekend night mired in the work.

I want to revisit the word obsession because I think this is the fuel when in manuscript mode. You kind of have to be obsessed to get the job done as it ought. I am grateful for the artists in my life who remind me of that obsession with “getting it better, getting it closer to the core” that give creedence to this path I’ve chosen. I am grateful for the non-artists who let me partake in and see the other side of the coin like a county I visit from time to time and from which I can send postcards- all hand-drawn of course.

Next Friday, I am spending a day in Yuba City, California. This town was founded by Sikhs in 1910 and though they worked the land and built a railroad, they could not own any of it. Their wives were left behind in India, only to follow 40 years later. One of my favorite fiction writers, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, got her start as a poet and wrote the two poems I will be addressing in my senior panel. I had emailed her questions about them and was delighted to find her responses in my in-box this morning. Each of the poems is written from a different perspective: one male and the other female. The investigative journalist in me wants to go do research, wants to place myself in a space of dreaming without having. And this feels close to home really. But I’m a glass half full kinda gal. A gal who sees there are stories to be told, stories that need a storyteller and I just happen to have a pen in hand.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Greetings from New Hampshire

henniker, nh

Long live the evenings where the wick burns late into crickets chirping and the mornings hunkered down, eye mask on, avoiding the inevitability of sunlight.

Poetry camp this past week extends itself into a week feeling like a lifetime that then transcribes itself into mere minutes, breaths of time exhausted in cups of coffee, collusion over finding space of solitude in writing, tinkering with obsession and repetition- those leitmotifs, attempting to banish the fog and gloom hovering over the Contoocook River, spurts of a birdie shuttling from one racket of conversation into another.

And then the drive to Logan with packed bags and savored line prompts as souvenir are all that remain. Until six months from now on when it all resumes in one last oeuvre of glittering magnificence.

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Life uncut: Earth Day

Earth Day. Somehow I am dressed in all black. We’ll say workout clothing. Rubbing sleep out of my eyes, I rush off to the car, feeling like I’m running late. Engine started, doors shut, I am about to pull away from the curb when I see the largest bug with stilted legs flying along the edge of the front window. And it’s inside. No good.

I love nature being in nature. And so, I open both windows, trying to persuade the mammoth bug to fly out. But no, it has perched and is pondering my steering wheel from on high. This means driving with the windows down all the way to Mill Valley. Mammoth bug pulls in the wings and flattens himself along the curve of the visor, not intending to go anywhere, while the wind whips through the hair on my head. In the parking lot of the Safeway, I have pulled over for the confrontation.

It’s Earth Day, day to salute the earth by giving it a high five, not day to kills mammoth bugs. So with tennis shoe in hand I am waving it around the periphery of MB and it has finally begun to consider its options. Still frantic around the front window, it has begun to hide in the corners of the dashboard. With both windows open and driver’s door open, he is married to the dashboard. How to convince?? A woman climbs into her car with groceries in hand, she smiles and then begins laughing with me as if she understands. I’ve lost perhaps 10 minutes of time on the way to work. I decide to up the ante and MB immediately flies outside perhaps with maimed leg.

Not a great way to start Earth Day, but thank God for my eco-curlicue lights- that should count for something!

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Bubbly like a glass of good champagne

Tonight, I met up with a grad school friend’s mom for dinner at Straits. Over garlic noodles, pickled ginger salad and chili-laced long beans, we talked culture, literature and life direction. Honestly, I knew going into it that this would be a significant conversation. She teaches American Lit. at a school in Texas and her thesis in grad school was on Don Quixote. What is there not to love about this woman? Not to mention she gave birth to the amazing Stephanie.

But as the lighting at the restaurant kept dimming and candle snuffed out completely, we talked with each other for hours about the cross-hairs of life. My virtual map was not only affirmed, but got her excited. She said as we were taking the elevator downstairs that she had been praying about the possibility that God might have brought her out here to meet me. It was that kind of evening where we both left full- stomachs with good food and minds with good fodder. Then, on the way to the car, we talked about Li-Young Lee and his role in my thesis, evidence that more conversations (so many more) could resume on literature which we barely discussed. I love literature and geeking out with friends who extrapolate the nuances of romanticism in Don Quixote or plain speech and friendly manner of Billy Collins. Fabulous. We hugged like old friends by the end of the evening. I left grateful for the wisdom of Him who brought her out to me through an International Studies conference. How great is that!

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Drum roll, please

I finished writing the first draft of my thesis!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You’re right, I’m not excited at all… In fact the little 15 pager ended up at a cool 22. Hallelujah. Seriously, I traveled to four cities in two and a half weeks and wrote a thesis in the midst of all of it. Can I get a Hallelujah? Now my friends might actually see my smiling face instead of the driven spook walking out of the local pizzeria

without tipping /
without eye twitching /
without 15 minute break despotism /
without popping cacao nibs at late hours of the night “for the rush” /
without doing push-ups a few feet away from the laptop /
without enlisting youtube’s homage to St. Elmo’s Fire: “Man in Motion” played 15 times

And the topic: “An Expansion of American Poetics Through the Multi-Cultural Lens”. Somehow it weaves in the terrorism harbored inside each of us in the form of terror of the unknown. I’m just suggesting poetry could solve all that. Just. 😉

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Poetry Tales from the MFA

Lying among leaves of grass with the Rabbi

As one who believes in equality for all men and women (but knowing that opportunity does not present itself equally for all), I embrace Walt Whitman’s imperative of equality in “Song of Myself”. Any disparaging mumbles or mind mutters I’ve ever made in his direction I rescind.

He speaks about a prostitute: “The prostitute draggles her shawl, her bonnet bobs on her / tipsy and pimpled neck, / The crowd laugh at her blackguard oaths, the men jeer and / wink at each other, / Miserable! I do not laugh at your oaths nor jeer you,)”

Imagine another scene: fishermen stand in their boat, nets empty and faces despondent. Along comes the Rabbi telling them to throw the nets back into the water, to trust that they will produce a good return this time. They yank them up onto the deck with a great tug. Fish flop and fill the nets in such a multitude that their faces appear sunlit in the dusk of day. But instead of the fishermen taking the fish to market and reaping the great financial reward of their catch, the Rabbi tells them to leave their nets and follow him.

Two words: “Follow me.”

I have encountered these two words many times in my life and they always require an answer. With the answer always comes a cost. In high school, they turned my life in another direction of wanting to embrace the disenfranchised and not overlook the oppressed. They took me to a slum in Honduras and then many years later to a slum in India. In both places, I learned so much about the love and joy made possible in the simplicity of poverty. They brought me out to California almost 10 years ago to pursue a greater knowledge of understanding God and really teaching me how to ask better questions rather than receiving pat answers I anticipated. They have shown me what it is to have more than you could have ever hoped for and turn around, giving it away with a joyful spirit and heart. They took me to France last year unleashing my voice in song. Little did I know that “Follow me” would lead to the unlikely place of an intense pursuit of poetry.

Another way to categorize last year is that I became a dry branch. Feeding on the waters of poetry has furthered the depths of my own work. I can see it and am overcome with gratefulness for the growth that is happening. But in a conversation of faith and art, my art started taking pre-eminence over faith. I have become engrossed lately in some great dialogues on faith and art with Olga. As an opera singer, she and I have discussed and agree strongly on the need for the artist to be open. Openness allows a great influx of ideas to collide and create something new. For her, as she interprets characters she has to consider their mannerisms, their quirks. In my poetry, I want to speak to and embrace humanity. Walt and I share that in common. I want my poems to be like a grand dining table filled with platters of delectable food, where there is something palatable for everyone. And not compromise vision or voice in favor of the pleasing.

Instead of allowing faith and art to coalesce, I began abandoning the one over the other. And I firmly believe that they can be in conversation with one another in a way that is thoughtful, unsentimental and provocative.

What I appreciate about following God through Jesus is that it requires thought and action mingled together. The depths to be plumbed are vast indeed and this mystery of following a God who is so other and so unknowable in the midst of knowing compels me onward. My good friend L. says I am the most Hindu Latin American she has ever met and this is such a complete compliment. I follow a Person / God who I want to transform me more into a fuller human being. The words given in the Bible are dynamic and always hold something new for my eyes if they will be open to see and my ears if they will be open to hear. The Rabbi / teacher / guru informs my innermost being. He teaches me to be contrary to myself and love my enemy. He teaches me I am not God (nor would I want to be). I learn love through reading of His example and generosity through the multiplied food He endows upon the masses. Most importantly, I want to be like Him. That’s really what I guess this faith comes down to for me. And being like Him means also being excellent in the gifts I possess.

“Follow me” right now looks like weaving through a myriad of images and scenes painted by Walt’s generous strokes, where he admonishes,

“Long have you timidly waded, holding a plank by the shore, / Now I will you to be a bold swimmer, / To jump off in the midst of the sea, and rise again and nod / to me and shout”.