Poetry: The one that got away

artistic influence

If you write poetry, perhaps you’ve had an experience of reading a poem that makes you sigh and utter the words “if only I had thought of that first”.  What about consciously working a phrase or line of someone else’s into your own poem? Perhaps you’ve never done that, and yet found unconsciously a line or phrase of another poem breathing itself into yours?

I’d like to consider the idea of influence.

Nathan has an incredible ear for music. Sometimes we’re listening to the radio and with nonchalance he will call out musical influences of the song on the airwaves. It’s almost like a game we have in our house. Katy’s ear hears the minutiae but instead of picking out influence, she mimics the sounds and can usually accurately guess what’s coming next melody– wise. Hers is a photographic mind of music and the play list extensive. I teasingly call her “the human jukebox.”

When it comes to recipes, this idea of influence is a bit of the wild west. What would the ratio of original recipes be that have not been riffs of another person’s? I actually think it’s one of the things about recipes I like best- inspiration from the original and then the personalizing and tweaking that ensues. There is ongoing discussion about the right way to attribute recipe source.

In poetry, there is a way to call out and pay tribute or homage to the source of one’s influence. This can be done through borrowing the title of a poem that has influenced you as is or tweaking it to your place, time or particular transition from the original source. Then there are also the poems that borrow a line or phrase from another person’s poem and there are ways to cite source or not. You can also indicate that you are mimicking a poem by titling it “after (insert poet’s name).”

jeff friedman the poet

During my MFA program, Jeff Friedman was hands-down my favorite person to lead us in workshops. At the beginning of  our workshop time together, he would provide a single or series of writing prompts to get the juices flowing before we discussed each other’s poems prepared ahead of time.  I embraced the prompts. Our small group of four or five would jot out all the tendrils of ideas for 20 minutes and then share the very raw writing that resulted. He later became one of my mentors as I appreciated his deeply narrative style and the compassion lent to his characters, whether his uncle with a glass of scotch in hand or recounting memory through poetry. He didn’t let the “actual” story get in the way of the “story.”

In one of these workshops with Jeff, he gave us a writing prompt to create a poem “after” a poet. This exercise led us to consider how we might fashion a response to a poem by Cesar Vallejo about how he envisioned dying and what he might be doing. Our responses veered off from this central idea, tone and style of his voice. From it emerged a poem that I still feel proud of these many years past, set in the sticky heat of a Moroccan villa. I’m 100% romantic in my sensibilities.

There is something to be said with borrowing phrases, attributing along the way and infusing your own voice into something that is other. It is a way of grappling with the world around you – with the void and the fill, where the world is actually richer for all of the references and influence that worm their way into your work. If you find yourself influenced and appropriately enamored with a song or poem, why not try your hand at making it your own and giving it the refinements that might spark something new from the created?

It is after all, raison d’etre – this gift and need to create and re-create, n’est ce pas? How have you borrowed from or been influenced in your personal work- poetry, recipes, fiction or art?

Journeys Tales from the MFA

Not quite the bedfellows you had in mind

chihuly umbrellas

I finished reading “The Nakedness of the Fathers” by Alicia Ostriker tonight. Since she’s my mentor this semester, it was good to delve into some of her writings to see how she approaches craft and spirituality. Below I share with you one of the images I found most striking and profound from her book:

“Some balloons cling tenderly to the ceiling, pale pink, lobelia and daffodil, sent by cripples, political prisoners, leaders of military regimes. Sent by pornographers and schoolchildren, gamblers and gunmen. They are among the many who entreat him to stay alive and want him to know they are praying for him, the balloons nuzzling each other electrostatically upon the ceiling signifying the celestial ascent of their desires. They send their prayers upward- like the balloons- for him, to him.” (p. 249)

Journeys Tales from the MFA

Leaving the desert


I have been roaming in the desert longer than forty days and forty nights. What is to become of me, of them?

James Wright’s poem “To the Saguaro Cactus…” really got me thinking in a new way of this usually barren plot of land associated with hardness of earth and heart. Moses and I convene almost every night, listening to God laying out His plan for separation. It’s been coming all along and points back to a tree and a self-possessed decision. And yet. Moses sits, face beaming, taking down the measurements of the dedication of the priests, of the Holy of Holies. The separation begins anew. Even as a golden calf is being shaped and liquid gold is being forged into its parts, there is a part of me that wants this time to be different. Maybe this time they will decide that hoop earrings are stylish and the women will stage an uprising against any sort of calf nonsense. But it’s like any story you become interconnected with- you know what’s coming and you grimace, you brace for the long journey ahead. It’s as if I have as much to lose as Moses once he steps foot off that mountain of Sinai. Can’t he just stay up there longer? Can’t there be another way?

Tonight for assignment packet three I begin reading “The Nakedness of the Fathers” a midrashic feast into the Torah/Old Testament’s integral stories and I am pulled back into what it will take for me to make my way into my own Exodus. The Jacob in me wrestles with the man in the night, but my Jacob is tired and not as prone to tenacity, not tonight. The Abraham in me easily invents safeguards to protect from disaster and perceived malice. The Joseph in me asks that his bones be moved in anticipation that this desert life will not be all that is savored after death. The Isaac in me waits to see what kind of exhortation might well up and pronounce itself. Tonight’s offering presented itself in poetic form, bleak with a well watered spiritual bed, that maybe this time there might at least be a peek at the promised land. If you’re in SF and if I have the cajones to read it, go to the Rock Saturday night and for a spell, enter the desert’s solace with me.

Journeys Tales from the MFA

Good Friday


I avoided Allen Ginsberg tonight. Usually I take Good Friday off and spend it hiking, silent, in contemplation reading the four accounts of Jesus’ last moments before the gruesome death at 3 p.m. Earlier this week, I could see that we would have a press check today bringing one of my most recent projects to a close. So with an action-packed day like this one, I figured Allen would be okay with me waiting to dive into his exposition on “holiness” tomorrow morning. Tonight centered on reflection.

The Good Friday service I usually attend is all liturgy in darkness (something my catholic heart warms to) but tonight’s service struck a different more artistic chord. The reader described how God created the earth and how at the end He perceived it to be good, that He perceives us to be good ideas. He then referenced how the Word (logos) was with God in the beginning and invited us to take up a marker and draw a symbol of ourselves on one of the six canvasses lining the walls. Outlining my hand with a grape-scented marker, I filled in the hand with symbols that I think define me.

Next though, he spoke over us a litany of poor decisions to which we are inclined. He cited the Israelites in their impatience as Moses met with God on the mountain to craft a golden bull to worship. We are disposed to going our own way, it’s the sheep in us. I am a proficient sinner. It comes easily to me. Perhaps on the outside everything looks neat and tidy, but I know the truth. I can see the bowels of my heart. The reader then told us to go back to our drawings and mar them, to mar other peoples, symbolic of our turning our own way. I drew red flames licking the bottom of my palm, over and over until I could write in my own personal leanings to sin. I sat down next to Lola and her fiance Shawn as she predicted the next part.

He then encouraged us to go and make the drawing beautiful again and as she guessed, for most people it was impossible. I grabbed the blueberry-scented marker and drew a gigantic hand reaching down to pull me up.

At this point in the service, it was obvious that more needed to be done than our mere fixing blemished self-portraits. With box cutters in hand, the reader went and slashed the canvasses so the middle fell to the ground in a heap. He then took a roll of duct tape and began wrapping it around the fallen canvas until it appeared to be an effigy and he duct taped it to the cross.

I loved the symbolism, but the effigy weirded me out as did the slashing. The violence and associations were gruesome. During communion I sat in my chair listening to the classical minor keyed music. Sat in my chair until almost no one was left in the room, wondering when I would get up and go partake of the body (bread) and blood (wine). Wondering if I was full, is it gluttony to eat the Lord’s Supper? Mad at God for several things that He can’t change and buggered that of all nights to be openly mad, it had to be tonight. But I guess that’s the thing with relationships, it’s not always black and white. And I can be mad this evening and leave it at the altar, make a clean start.

The curves of the fingers on my left hand show traces of purple marker. I think Allen would be interested in large canvasses, self symbols and transformation in the artistic contemplative. Holy! Holy! Holy!

Journeys Tales from the MFA

A poet’s celebration

javits new york

Culminating a marathon week of back to back tradeshows, I found myself in New York righteously upsetting several union workers. Amidst their yells and screams of “lady, you can’t move that” my 5’2 stature heaved and shoved the largest of our crates waiting at the back of the Javits Center, the last vestige of our seven hours of waiting in plain sight. I yelled back as I pushed, “What, are you going to fine me?!” And then promptly came to my senses seeing our aisle blocked, running back to the booth, to my colleague Charlie and telling him the union workers were on yet another break. He and I scurried back to the crate, and as he waved at the foreman, he pushed and I guided the crate back to our booth space, giggling as I ran backwards.

The cause of this kerfuffle: Galway Kinnell’s 80th Birthday Celebration at Cooper Union. It started at 7 p.m. and I was now pushing 7:20, so as much as I respected the union workers’ rights to a 15 minute break, not on this leg of my watch… so we decidedly installed the bookcases, table and components into the crate and I sped off, haling a taxi in this great race against the clock.

My friend Sherry had called and recommended sneaking in straight through the basement since they had begun turning people away, which went off without a hitch. I walked quietly into the packed auditorium, seeing at least fifty standing in the back, reminiscent of the San Francisco opera. I walked in as Komunyakaa was reading. Kinnell, both a National Book Award recipient and Pulitzer Prize winner sat in the front row, as scores of poet friends read selected poems. The impressive list of readers included: E.L. Doctorow, Mark Doty, Cornelius Eady, Marie Howe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Anne Marie Macari (NEC prof), Sharon Olds, Grace Paley, Gerald Stern (NEC prof) and C.K. Williams.

C.K. Williams described Kinnell as not only one of the great poets of our time, but one of the great readers, as well. His poetry had people laughing and then just as quickly, cut off all noise, dousing it in silence. When Kinnell read some of his own work, I quickly warmed to Williams’ description of the great reader in Kinnell. Macari said she had been sick and stashed away with some of Kinnell’s poems finding in them great company and expressing honor to have them.

After the reading, we saw Anne Waldman walking in the throngs of people toward the front. Even after only a few weeks, it was like seeing a friend. She leaves for India soon to read some of her energetic poems at a festival. Sherry asked if we were working together this semester, and she said no, but that there was a connection between us (we both incorporate spirituality into our work and have an appreciation for South Asia). Afterwards, Sherry, her husband Sam and I wormed our way down to where Gerry and Anne-Marie were standing. She is on sabbatical from NEC right now, so we didn’t really know each other, but I hope I get to work with her during my time in school. Jan Heller-Levi was standing with them and broke out into a big grin when she saw us. They all wished us their best on our first semester’s homework. Sherry and I talked about our struggle of getting it all in, doing all the homework, so their best wishes we took with us. I also commented that in the U.S. where it seems most elderly people are not respected or appreciated as in Asian contexts, in poetry there is such a sense of homage and honor paid to these poets. They still have much to teach us before moving on toward Styx’s shore.

Later, in the lobby, Sherry and I stood in line waiting to have Galway Kinnell sign our books. Just in front of us, Michelle Williams, that’s right of “Brokeback Mountain / Dawson’s Creek” fame stood also waiting for his signature. I loved that she who gives autographs often (was approached while in line by a girl asking for her signature, gushing about what a great performance she gave in BM), was now in the position of getting one. When Kinnell was signing her book, he mentioned to her that he had accidentally left a card inside the theater and asked her to retrieve it, which she did without any air of inconvenience.

Gerry and Anne-Marie were leaving and as they passed by, he looked at us. In his sonorous voice, he told Sherry, “Remember you’re a poet.” Then almost as an afterthought, he looked at me and said, “And you too.” The thumped my nose with his index finger in an endearing way. He makes me laugh… Sam and Sherry drove me back to my hotel and I was so glad for this evening reading and time spent with friends in a city that one day could be lovely to call my own.

Journeys Tales from the MFA


tales from the mfa

After a day of being back at work, I decided to stop off at Borders for a moment to look around the poetry section for the one “text”book I couldn’t order that must be hidden underneath a rock somewhere. I’m not giving up.

Have you ever been overcome with a voracious desire to want to read everything?

There on the Borders floor, I had such a sense of wishing I could, feeling like this was the bread that could feed me. I was overcome and pulled into poems by Czeslaw Milosz, Larry Levis, Anna Akhmatova, and Philip Levine. Almost unscathed, I left with just one new book tucked into my purse.

Journeys Tales from the MFA

a winter wuthering heights

tales from the MFA

I have been in an intensive first residency of my poetry MFA program. We have been lodged in Northfield, MA, which has been described as the “Wuthering Heights Residency.” The campus has myriad architectural styles gracing the buildings, along with two graves in the middle of the campus that turned out to be those of D.L. Moody and his wife.

My class consists of ten other students who are so different and varied from each other both in temperament and personality as well as poetic style. One of the things that I think each of us can attest to is a sense that we have struggled at least once throughout the week about why we are here, if we’re qualified to be a part of this community. As my new friend Mercedes pointed out, if we didn’t care then it wouldn’t matter. Ours is a class that cares a lot.

We request three mentors and the faculty decide who they take on. I was partnered with my first choice: Alicia Ostriker. Her work is rich in the midrashic tradition and lush with imagery. Check her out at Over our course of meetings, I have learned we both love to draw, have an affinity for India and a passion for artists like Chagall. It’s such an honor to have her as my guru-ji. 🙂 This semester I will be working on four major topics: Self + Spirit; Self + World; Narrative; and Tradition. Every student has four packets full of fun due throughout the semester. Ours will be a semester rich in work and words.

Tomorrow we will traipse around the campus while being videotaped for fun. I have been dubbed the director, so will don my best George Lucas hat. We are wanting to memorialize these early moments in our careers and friendships. As numerous “upper classmen” have stated, “Ours is a strong class.”

I am coming back to San Francisco Saturday and interested to see how the dominoes will fall. The time here has been invaluable as well as the direction received from multiple faculty and students. We have each been able to nicely admit that poets are eccentric people who tell the truth slant. So it is refreshing to be with others who are trying passionately to pursue the truth in the written artistic vase that is poetry. Ours is an intimate circle of 65ish.

And this is just the beginning…