Family Poems Are Hard–part 3–final part

I left off part 2 of Family Poems Are Hard saying I thought I was done writing family poems after my first full-length collection, Dance Inside My Bones.

DanceBonesFrontCover

In the book, I have lots of poems about growing up in a difficult family situation.

Like most of us, I suspect.

There is no such thing as a perfect family.

And maybe, not even a normal one. What’s normal, anyway?

normal

There are poems about my mother, my father, my brother, grandparents, uncle, friends, and boyfriends in Dance From Inside My Bones.

There are poems about the state of my heart and mind, from childhood to young adulthood.

So what else was there to say?

no words

Mostly, all my relatives were alive when I wrote and published the collection. They didn’t read it.

Then, over the years, loved ones started dying off.

Some, of awful lingering illnesses.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02: The shadow of a cemetery worker is cast on reclaimed gravestones in London City Cemetery on March 2, 2009 in London, EnglandThe cemetery is piloting a scheme whereby graves over 75 years old become eligible for reclamation. New bodies will be placed into the existing graves, the headstones turned around re used carving the names of the newly deceased. Once a grave has been earmarked by English heritage the cemetery must wait one year to see if family members claim the existing grave. By conserving as many memorials as possible the City of London hopes to maintain the historic cemetery landscape and sustain buriel provisions for the future. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Grief  is always hard. Grief over difficult relationships ending, is especially complicated.

Complex & powerful.

My brother, who had helped with rescue endeavors on 9/11, was diagnosed with a rare, likely incurable leukemia.

 

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My brother and I had never been able to be close growing up because my mother pitted us against one another. She was a master of hateful mind-games. And she forced my brother to to inflict physical punishments on me, as well.

This did not inspire a deep, loving relationship between us, as you can well imagine.

But with my brother’s fatal diagnosis, I realized time was short. If I was ever going to have any meaningful dialogue with my brother, it had to happen soon.

time out

In what turned out to be the last eighteen months of my brother’s life, we talked–

really talked–a few times.

We said things, I never knew were possible.

That brief time was such a gift. A tremendous gift for which I will always be grateful.

heart gift

And then, my brother died, after living his last days with a grace I never imagined possible.

A hero in life, and in death.

There was so much I never got to ask him. Or to say.

So much about our relationship I still needed to process.

So I took up my pen.

write left

I took up my pen because writing is how I process my emotions.

Writing is how I sort what I am feeling and thinking.

I wrote “dead boy” poems because my brother died too young.

Because all my memories became entangled with his too-early death.

headstone

I never intended to publish these poems.

But I did share a few at readings.

Listeners asked me about where they could find these poems in print.

(nowhere)

Still, I didn’t really plan on a book.

And then, a year later, my mother died.

dead mother

My mother died in her sleep. Peacefully.

Unlike my dear father who suffered a horrible lung cancer death.

Unlike my aunt who suffered a terrible, ongoing battle with cancer.

Unlike my dearest friend who died too young–bled to death on the operating table during a procedure meant to extend his life.

Unlike my best friend, who had a bad headache that turned out to be an inoperable brain tumor.

Unlike my brother, who fought the illness as hard as he could, for as long as he could.

death unfair

I was relieved my mother hadn’t suffered.

But angry all over again that other people I loved had.

To be honest, I was glad to be free of my mother. At least this side of the earth.

But her hurtful words live on inside me–make me doubt myself and my self-worth.

So why the bejeezus was I crying so much?

cry

Because fresh grief re-opens old wounds.

Shreds them, actually.

I kept going over family and over family stuff in my head, like a dog scratching at fleas.

scratch

And more poems came.

Because there was more to say about family.

And I was willing to speak my truth because it was mine.

truth

If people would judge me harshly over that truth, it no longer mattered.

Because deep inside, I knew from reading my first book of family poems in public, that sharing my family situation could make another person feel less alone. Feel they could get through the worst of it.

less alone

And so, I went ahead and published the new family poems in journals.

I read the poems at readings.

And eventually, I let the book enter the world.

dead boy

I have no regrets.

The Dead Boy Sings In Heaven is for my brother.

And for anyone else who comes from a difficult family.

I believe if my brother could see the book, he’d give me a hug.

And he’d tell me that the Godzilla poems were his favorite.

(Mine too.)

godzilla and friends

Though family poems are hard…

family poems are healing.

healing

Thank you for reading this far, and listening to my heart.

May you always find healing whenever your heart hurts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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.

bridge 3

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.

art w

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.

luc cl

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.

DanceBonesFrontCover

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.

anx

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.

po bo

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.

christine s

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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Failing Often Means I Keep Trying

I’ve loved words since I fell in love with my very first picture book at age 2–Prince Bertram the Bad by Arnold Lobel.

Prince Bertram even kind of looked a little like me.

Well his hair, anyway.

 prince

And falling in love with poetry happened a little while later, when I discovered a flood-stained volume of Kipling’s poems in my neighbor’s trash.

 kip

I read the poems aloud, and though I didn’t understand much at age 3, I felt their rhythms were a kind of magic. A musical incantation calling forth life.

But sometimes, these days, my head is too full of words.

Overwhelmed by news and media.

 too many

And I crave something creative to do with my hands that doesn’t call for words. 

hand bulb

So, some of you may know I was thinking about taking up crochet or knitting.

Something to do with my hands while watching Netflix that is more productive and less caloric than feeding my face with salty snacks.

Plus, pretty blankets.

crochet vs knit

Well, 17,000 hours of watching YouTube how-to videos later, and lots of salty snacks along the way…

I have officially failed at both.

Really, I gave it lots of effort.

Even sought real life advice from experts.

fail 2

But it’s something to do with my lack of manual dexterity.

An inability to tension the yarn.

Who knew it would be that hard?

Not me.

tension yarn

So what did I do?

I researched aids to help tension the yarn.

I discovered 5 different aids and tried them all.

Didn’t help.

fail 1

Now, I’ve always kind of known I’m a klutz.

Never could jump rope without getting tangled up.

I trip over invisible bumps in the sidewalk.

If there’s even one bit of ice, my foot finds it–and boom–down I go.

fail 3

But I refuse to give up all hope.

Stubborn that way.

Or maybe stupid.

Or determined.

Oftentimes, I can’t tell the difference and just keep plodding on.

And that’s a kind of success too.

fail 4

So, I’m coming for you afghan loom.

Who can’t twist yarn around a little peg, right?

Gonna find out.

afghan

I’ll check back in with you guys with or without afghan.

Let you see the results of this next try / fail opportunity.

Wish me luck! Please. I’m gonna need it.

Ideal many life failures thomas edison Google Search

 

 

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The Road Paved With Rejection

Rejection never gets easier. Not for me. I know rejection is the more likely outcome whenever I submit a completed poem or fiction piece or essay.

If for no other reason, than because of the sheer quantity of writing being submitted everywhere. Publications have limited space and unlimited selection. It’s a numbers game.

Rejection Just Ahead Green Road Sign with Dramatic Storm Clouds and Sky.

But when rejection comes, it always feels personal. Even though I understand from a rational standpoint that it isn’t. I feel like I am being told I suck. I don’t matterNothing I do matters. I am the worst writer in the world. Maybe the universe.

As an editor myself who has to parcel out rejection–something that hurts as much as receiving it–I know rejection is about the taste of the people choosing. And their mileage may vary from my own.

Rejection is subjective. Taste is individual. Not absolute.

Editors’ differing aesthetics, their biases, having to read the thousandth dead grandmother poem that month. And their grandmother is in the hospital. And she may not live. Or maybe that editor just discovered their father cheated on their mother with a person who has the same unusual first name as me.

Whatever the reason, rejection still hurts. And for me, it’s a physical pain as well. A blow to the chest, making it hard to breathe. Which makes sense according to MRI research. Rejection lights up the same areas in the brain as physical injury. There’s a great article on the TED site by psychologist Guy Winch that talks about this: Why rejection hurts so much

guy_winch_ted_dawn_kim_rejection_120615

The good news is, once I catch my breath, I’m ready to try submitting again. Mostly because of the voice in my head. Thankfully, that voice belongs not to me, but to my very first poetry mentor, Ottone “Ricky” Riccio, who taught at the Boston Center For Adult Education for several dozen years.

Ricky said, “Don’t call yourself a poet until you’ve received a thousand rejections.” What he really meant was that success at submitting doesn’t make you worthy. Passion for writing makes you a poet. And if you have enough passion that you’ve submitted a thousand or more times, you’ve got what it takes.

By these guidelines, I can call myself a poet many times over. Thousands of rejections.

Ricky didn’t place much value in the hierarchies of literary publishing. He encouraged sharing your work, but getting it out into the world any way you could. He suggested students take a handful of magnets and post poems on the refrigerators in the appliance section at Sears.

Ricky was an early proponent of self-publishing. Way before print-on-demand came into being. Many of his photocopied, hand-stapled collections stand among my all-time favorite poetry collections.

dealing with rejection

In my heart, I know sharing work matters. During my childhood, growing up in harrowing conditions, poetry saved my life. It still does. Every day.

As a child, I saw how people who’d suffered loss, and tragedy, and all kind of hurt, wrote about their experiences in poems. Across distance, time, gender, culture, these folks spoke directly to my wounds. They lived to write about what they’d been through–a testimony to survival, and likely, even thriving.

I’ve come to believe that our words reach those who need them most. However that happens–whether publication in a literary journal, or in the community newsletter, or posting online.

Poetry is my spiritual practice. Getting work into the world is a necessary part of that practice. Rejection is a piece of it as well. And the hurt. So I rest, take some deep breaths, and keep on. I hope you will too.

heart road

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Time Travel Coming Soon!

Some of you know that I’m a huge time travel enthusiast–reading about it, watching movies, delving into the scientific possibilities. 

delaurian

And I’ve always wanted to write a time travel novel.

Well now I finally have!

It’s a romantic adventure called Time Flash: Another Me.

There are no DeLoreans, but there is a wacky scientist.

And a possibly-magical cat.

tt quote smith

I’ll be releasing my novel soon.

Stay tuned for more details!

 

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In Praise of Philip Levine

I am so excited to have just received my copy of Philip Levine’s posthumous collection,                                                 The Last Shift.

I am savoring reading his words, which have always affected me so deeply.

His very first poem in the collection, “Inheritance,” moves me to tears, especially the last few lines.   The poem is about a watch and other items Levine, as a child, coveted of his grandpa’s. He used to sneak into his grandpa’s room and look at the objects.

Here’s how the poem ends:

 

…I could call them

“Infinite riches in a little room”

or go cosmic and regard them

as fragments of a great mystery

instead of what they are,

amulets against nothing.

phil l

I met and spoke with Philip Levine only once, but the memory of his humbleness and humanity will stay with my whole life.

I wrote an elegy for him the year he died (2015), but never presented it anywhere.  My verse adopts Levine’s practice of the 9-syllable line (mostly), a syllable off from what the ear is used to with the more common English 10-syllable line, giving the overall composition an uneasy bearing or forward momentum.

 

A Simple Truth    

in memoriam for a great poet

 

I imagine Philip Levine time-

shifting in Trafalmadorian

fashion to 1936 where

he is an angel-on-the-shoulder

weeping as Lorca is tortured, then

murdered; to Fresno State his first year

teaching where on a lunch break he sits

with a student reciting Roethke;

to one April in Detroit, the mud

Biblical, men milling, cued up

for news of work that never arrives;

back to the mills, haunted as the men’s

eyes who labored there, understanding

one human being is everyone.

 

And how many more lives than the six

million hearts stopped by Hitler does he

daily visit with his words?  Grass, boats,

dust, wind, the darkening skies, two sons,

a brother, the loves declared, unnamed

desires that were answered not by

their aims, but by the simple truths, small

red potatoes, melting butter, salt.

 

The book is open to the first page

yesterday. Tomorrow is always

the fourteenth of February.  And

today it is 1941

five minutes to 8AM, sweet Phil,

Billy Pilgrim, this day never ends.

 

Yes, oh yes, it is enough to say

what you can, the gift of transcribing

ordinary suffering into

extraordinary joy, your name

hangs in the brilliant morning air, a

feather, eyelid of a magpie, closed.

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Poetry Check-In

So I’ve been doing this research thing for my next poetry collection.

Finally managed to finish reading the first book on my list.

It was a slog…

but I did get some great quotes for epigraphs

and as poem-starters.

 

scary

 

Promised myself at least 3 drafts of poems a week.

Well, now I have 9 poem drafts from this book.

Will any of them grow up to be real poems?

That remains to be seen.

Stay tuned.

 

 

 

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Out into the world…

progress report

 

Met my submission goal for the month of February.

 

Here’s what I sent out into the world:

1 personal essay

1 short story

5 poems to a contest

7 poems to several venues

1 application for a writing class

 

I’ve seen other writers set a goal of 100 rejections per year. I’m going to aim for 180.

 

That means I have to submit at least 15 individual things a month.

 

If I get rejected every time, I will easily slide into my goal.

 

But what if someone says yes?

 

Well then, good problem to have. I’ll just need to keep writing and keep submitting new work.

 

Either way, rejection goal, here I come!

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