Family Poems Are Hard–part 2

I left off part 1 of this topic saying that publishing my first book of family poems, Dance From Inside My Bones, was truly overwhelming.

For a number of reasons.

DanceBonesFrontCover

First, let me say, my experience with Snake Nation Press, where my manuscript won the Violet Reed Haas Award, was not one of those reasons.

The strong women editors at Snake Nation, Roberta George and Jean Arambula, were truly stellar to work with.

They lauded the honesty of my work, and had me attend the AWP conference in Atlanta for the book release.

Not for one minute, did I forget how fortunate I was to have my poetry manuscript published.

Getting a poem published is hard. Getting a book published is harder. I was one of the lucky ones.

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Yet, a part of me believed it was some sort of mistake.

That they announced the wrong winner and would take it back.

Removing word with pencil's eraser, Erasing mistake

A voice in my head (my mother’s) told me I didn’t deserve it.

Nonetheless, I was overjoyed, and deer-in-the-headlights scared.

deer in

At the AWP Snake Nation booth, I stood behind copies of my books, as thousands of people streamed by.

I am a terrible introvert. It took every ounce of bravado I had not to go to my hotel room and hide.

hiding

I smiled. I nodded I answered questions.

Mostly, the same one over and over–

what

My book is about family and growing up into a young woman. 

And the response was largely–

Oh, childhood nostalgia.

happy child

No, not that at all.

Actually, it was more like this–

crying

The problem was when I wrote the poems, I wasn’t thinking of some future point when I would have to physically stand in front of people and justify my work.

I wasn’t thinking about being there, in person with the book, putting a face to the autobiographical poems.

hiding-behind-book

When I was writing the poems, I was trying to put my experiences into words that might connect with others on the other side of the page.

Being in front of people with my book felt like one of those dreams where you are suddenly naked in public.

naked in public

I was more than uncomfortable. I was worried about being judged, or blamed.

I had written my truth, but I guess, I hadn’t yet claimed it. Not live and in-person, anyway.

I hadn’t accepted I had a right to that truth.

I hadn’t thought ahead to having to stand in front of folks and give readings.

I was really up there

But, I would give readings. And at Seattle’s Open Books, no less.

And I feared I would be hated for not saying Hallmark things about my mother. In this culture, and many others, the word mother is synonymous with sainthood.

But I didn’t have a Hallmark mother, nor a Brady Bunch family.

bbunch

And I had been in abusive situations with family members, but never told anyone, other than my therapist.

Now that the book was out, it felt like I was shouting it from the rooftops, telling the world.

shout

Well, anyone in the world who wanted to read Dance From Inside My Bones.

Then, there was the fact that all but one of those abusive family members were still alive.

What would they say, if they read my book?

account

Fortunately none of them wanted to read my book.

Which was a relief.

My mother said she knew it was “garbage” since I had written it.

I expected that. But it still hurt. Even now she’s dead, it’s still impossible to shut out my mother’s derisive voice in my head.

dead mother

So what really happened at each reading I gave?

People were polite, applauded.

polite

Several people bought my book.

Sometimes one or two folks asked me to sign it.

But one person came up and confided in me that my work spoke to them about what they’d been through.

That person thanked me.

And I cried tears of joy as we hugged.

connected

I realized I’d come full circle.

Poetry saved my life as child in harrowing circumstances. Poems reached across time, distance, gender, culture, and spoke to me of survival. Poems taught me I wasn’t alone in my suffering. And if others could survive, so could I.

bridge

Finally, my poems provided that message and reached out as well.

My words only connected with one other living soul. And that was more than I could ever hope for.

I may not have changed the world.

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I may not have bettered that person’s life.

But for one brief moment in time, that person knew they were not alone.

And it was enough. For both of us.

poetry matters

But still, I thought, I would publish no more autobiographical poems. I had said all there was to say.

Little did I know…

[Next time, Family Poems Are Hard–part 3]

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Family Poems Are Hard–part 1

You’ve heard me say before, poetry saved my life. It did. It does.

Reading and writing poetry, both.

I’ve been writing since I could hold a crayon.

crayons

And because things were difficult for me at home, many of the poems were about family issues.

Family poems felt important to write.

But the hard part was not being able to share them with anyone.

The content of those poems felt shameful. Secrets that needed to be kept. Too dangerous to reveal.

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For many years, I wrote poetry just for me.

And read whatever collections I found at that struck my fancy–Sharon Olds, Pablo Neruda, Anne Sexton, Phillip Levine, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, Lucille Clifton, and many others.

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But in 1987, I wanted my own poems to matter. I wanted to learn how to write well.

So I signed up for a poetry workshop at the Boston Center For Adult Education with instructor Ottone “Ricky” Riccio.

To this day, Ricky remains one of the finest teachers I have ever known (and I have 5 official degrees, so that’s really saying something). He was firm, but kind. Gentle, but direct. He was a humanitarian and he took such joy in his students’ work. He was humble and loving and generous.

Ricky truly opened the door to writing poetry and welcomed me over the threshold.

His how-to book on writing poetry remains a bible for me:

int art po

https://www.amazon.com/Intimate-Art-Writing-Poetry/dp/0595093809

When I moved from Boston to New Hampshire, I discovered another amazing poetry mentor offering classes–Patricia Fargnoli.

You know how you secretly wish someone would tell you that you were special, that you had talent?

Pat believed in me. She told me what I wrote mattered. She encouraged me to start sending work out. To put together a collection. She wrote me a glowing recommendation when I decided to pursue an MFA.

Patrica Fargnoli remains my mentor, my friend, my poetry mother. I can never repay all she has given me.

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Thanks to Pat, family poems were the first collection I assembled, though not my first to be published.

Little did I know what it would feel like to have this book in the world…

[stay tuned — Family Poems Are Hard — part 2 coming soon]

 

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Sometimes beauty alone is not enough…

Coastal Oregon is a beautiful place. I consider myself fortunate to live so near the Pacific ocean.

cape meares beach

Being by the ocean has always had a powerful, calming effect on my natural state of crippling anxiety.

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Plus, there is a wonderful sense of community in my hamlet of Tillamook county. People look out for one another. I love attending the monthly pot lucks and meeting all the interested and talented folks.

And of course, there are the local dairies with charming cows and the comely coastal range mountains.

cows

Really, beauty everywhere you look.

And I certainly don’t miss Seattle traffic, where it often took 2 hours to go 30 miles or less.

seattle traf

But what I do miss is where I was going in all that traffic, 2, 3, sometimes 4 nights a week:

to poetry readings!

poetry read

I miss attending poetry readings where the air is filled with poetry!

Where the audience is filled with poetry lovers.

Where I can indulge in my love of poetry with fellow poetry lovers.

Talk poetry nonstop.

no books

What’s really sad is that there is not a single bookstore in Tillamook.

Not even a used bookstore.

Though we do have a wonderful library.

till lib

But when I asked the library if I could arrange poetry readings there, they said no.

So guess what I went and did?

poetry book club

I asked if anyone in my community would want to join me in a poetry book club.

And 9 people said yes!

We had our first meeting and it was wonderful!!! People had such interesting and insightful comments about the poems we discussed from Lois Parker Edstrom’s Night Beyond Black.

lois

It was so much fun, people want to do it again–the last Wednesday of every month!

I feel so lucky there are so many local folks open to discovering poetry along with me.

I’m not alone with poetry any longer.

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And then, the wonderful poet Christine Swanberg from Illinois came to the Oregon coast for a  brief visit!

If you haven’t read her work, you really should.

The first poem in her most recent collection made me weep for joy.

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And now I have this secret plan to bring more poets to Tillamook!

Well, not so secret since I am mentioning it here.

My husband and I are working toward procuring a guest cabin.

And that means someday soon, I can lure poets and artists of every description to come visit me here in Oregon.

Who doesn’t want a wonderful retreat by the beach?

sea cabin

Okay, so it’s cold and rainy most of the time in Oregon, and the sea water temperature doesn’t even top 50 degrees in the summer, but it is so beautiful here.

Powerfully beautiful.

sunset

I want to share all this beauty with my writer and artist friends so they can make even more beauty out of the beauty they discover here.

poe beauty

And beauty alone can be more than enough.

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