Catalysts

Sometimes in my memoir classes I ask participants to write about catalysts in their lives — small occurrences or choices that, upon reflection, we realize actually fostered a big change in our outlook or circumstances. Often I start out with a poem by Carl Dennis, who is a master at exploring parallel realities. Something like “Candles” or, if the class has been meeting a long time and can withstand it, “The God Who Loves You.”

Some catalysts exist on a large social scale, such as prejudice, rural isolation, poor schools, or economic change. They have all sorts of effects on individual lives. Like the government grant I was awarded to get my masters degree. Before I attended my first class, a newly elected conservative administration didn’t believe the country needed more social workers, so they cancelled the grants. This, coupled with a recession that made it hard for me to get a job with my freshly awarded undergrad degree, led directly to my husband and me having our first child when I was 22.

Some occurrences exist only as possibilities. For example, on a recent weekend I headed toward the highway after teaching a class for Literary Cleveland only to remember I’d left behind my new water bottle. I turned around, parked in the lot, walked back in, searched for the bottle, then realized I’d had it with me the whole time. I’d tucked it in my tote because this new one didn’t leak. I felt silly having gone through all those steps for a memory lapse, only to drive back to the highway entrance ramp where rescue vehicles were just then getting to the scene of a car accident. I have no idea if mine might have been one of those cars had I been there a few minutes earlier.

Some results stem from what seem like, at the time, poor choices. Like the time my friend Kathy and I went to Westgate Mall. We were both 14 years old. We didn’t buy soda or food, but we loved music desperately and considered spending the last of our babysitting money on records. We told ourselves we’d walk the nearly six miles home rather than take the bus. We figured it was good exercise. We were still in the record store when Kathy ran into two guys, Bruce and Mark, who were friends of her older brother. They seemed vastly older, both being 16. They offered us a ride home. I definitely wasn’t allowed to get in cars with boys my parents didn’t know. We shouldn’t have accepted, but we did. I asked to be dropped off at Kathy’s house so I could walk the rest of the way home. That way my parents wouldn’t know I’d broken a rule. I dated Mark all through school and I’m still married to him today.

In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is the idea that small changes can lead to significant results. Theoretically, the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil can have an effect on weather patterns thousands of miles away.  Nothing we do is without effect either. That’s true in every moment, in every generation. If your grandfather hadn’t lost his job and moved to another town to take a new one, he wouldn’t have bumped into that smart girl who lived the next street over, the girl who later became your grandmother. If your mother’s high school crush hadn’t broken her heart, she never would have gone on to fall in love with your father. If these and thousands of other circumstances hadn’t unfolded exactly as they did, you wouldn’t be here now.

As my mother used to say, “Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”

Trace back changes in your life to some small precipitating factor — a pivotal conversation, a left instead of right turn, a friend’s comment, a lost opportunity, a new dream. Please, share the story of a catalyst. We’d love to hear it.

 

Poetry Writing Hacks: 7 Playful Ways To Create Poetry

Spine poetry

Spine poetry

I’m eager to liberate poetry from that stuffy good-for-you closet where it’s so often kept. That is, as long as I can do so playfully.

Each time I lead poetry-writing workshops I learn from students as young as eight years old. I see them write in a direct line from experience to meaning, use metaphor intuitively, and fiercely adore their own work. Our time together often looks like crafts or games, but it’s much more. We draw faces on peanut shells, glue them to cardboard, and write poems around them. We use bright permanent markers to adorn an old footstool or rocking chair with poems to make a classroom Inspiration Seat. We ask stones to tell us what they’ve seen over their long geologic history, then write down our impressions. We compose from the perspective of carrots as we bite, chew, and swallow them. We write on prayer flags to let poetry fly with the wind. We write and release poems in public places for others to find. It’s never, ever boring.

The following poetry writing hacks are fun to do with kids. But don’t forgot they’re great to do with anyone—your book group, at a family reunion, as a party game, even to liven up a meeting.

 

Stack up spine poetry

Ever noticed a stack of books with titles that, together, form unintentional wordplay? That’s spine poetry. Over 20 years ago, artist Nina Katchadourian started the Sorted Books Project,  creating clusters of books that display clever idiosyncrasies and themes. (Some images were published under the title Sorted Books.)

To create your own spine poetry start by looking through books you have on hand and pull out titles that appeal to you. Then arrange them spine out to form poems. Take a photo to preserve your literary remix. If you’d like, share your images on Twitter as #spinepoem or #spinepoetry.

 

Play Exquisite Corpse

This absurdly pleasing game was dreamed up during the Parisian Surrealist Movement. There are a variety of approaches. Basically you start with a good-sized piece of paper. Each person writes a phrase or sentence, folds the paper to conceal lines from previous contributors, and passes it on to the next player with only the newest passage revealed. Keep going around until the paper is used up, then read the whole construction aloud.

 

Encounter unexpected poetry

Collect a variety of everyday objects. You might come up with an apple, peanut butter jar, mitten, shoe, flashlight, toy dinosaur, and nightlight. Then label each object by taping a word where it can’t be readily seen, perhaps folding the word to the inside or hiding it underneath. You don’t want the labels to read “apple” or “peanut butter jar.” Instead use unrelated yet evocative words like “beast,” “messenger,” “neck,” “song,” “intention,” and so on.

Each person picks one of the objects and writes a poem fragment leaving a blank for the object. If someone gets stuck, encourage them to simply write two or three adjectives and a verb. You might study the apple, then write, “Red, round _____ crisp on my tongue.” When the apple is turned over, a label reading “silence” transforms the poem fragment into: “Red round silence, crisp on my tongue.”  Or you might pick up the flashlight, write, “High intensity _______ let’s me see where I’m going” only to find that it’s labeled “wrath.” Change word tense to fit the poem fragment as necessary. If inspired, turn the fragment into a longer poem.

 

 

Keep a perpetual poem going

There’s something freeing about adding to an evolving verse. There are no rules, only possibilities. Start it with a line stuck with magnets on a file cabinet or fridge door. Or paint a cupboard,  wall, even your car with chalkboard paint  — keeping chalk handy for anyone to use. Or cut strips of paper to leave out in a container next to a jar of markers and a box of poster tack, letting contributors stick the next line right on the wall. In my house we use dry erase markers on a laminated world map mounted in the kitchen.

 

Make collage poems

Collect words and phrases from all sorts of sources such as food containers, magazines, and junk mail. Provide heavy paper or mat board so each person can glue their word choices into a collage poem.

 

Write an erasure poem

Choose a page from a magazine, newspaper, or unwanted book, then blot out some of the words to reveal a new meaning. You can also make erasure poems digitally using the Erasures site via Wave Books. They provide classic texts and the e-tool for erasures. Check out Austin Kleon’s erasure poems in his book Newspaper Blackout.

 

 

Pull a poem from a bag

Romanian poet Tristan Tzara was denounced by his fellow Surrealists when he proposed making a poem by pulling words from a hat.   In 1920 he wrote “Dada Manifesto on Feeble & Bitter Love” which contains these instructions:

To Make a Dadaist Poem

Take a newspaper (or magazine or other printed resource)
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are – an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.

 

This article was originally published in Poet’s Quarterly.

Everyone Is A Poet

everyone is a poet

When people tell me their largest stories I am helpless as a page under pen.

A woman told me how, as a child of 11, she struck out when her grandparents were ignored rather than served at a restaurant in the deep South. Her anger was so heated that she used the restaurant’s complementary matches to start the place on fire.

It wasn’t entirely the content of the memory or the force in her voice. It was the way she strung words together; spare yet detailed. She talked about her grandmother’s arthritic hands picking up and putting down a salt shaker. She described her grandmother’s dark green dress and sensible heels, the patient smile she wore even though no one came to take their order. Before this raised-up-North granddaughter could utter a word of complaint she was shushed by her grandmother’s stern look. As her grandparents stood to go the girl ducked into the cloakroom and in seconds set to smoldering the hair oil soaked fedoras left there by white gentlemen. Of the fire she said little, except that the restaurant was forced to turn everyone away that day.

A teen described how, when he was a small child, his mother got so strung out that she’d leave him alone for days at a time.

He ended most sentences with “you hear me” and “wasn’t nothing” as he talked about licking his fingers before running them along the insides of drawers and cupboards to find crumbs. He said his mother got angry if she caught him sleeping curled next to the apartment door. She’d yell “I didn’t raise no dog.” When his story ended a refrain continued. He said “wasn’t nothing” four times, each repetition softer until his moving lips made no sound at all.

An elderly woman recounted the story of union busters coming by their cabin at supper time to beat up her father, who’d been organizing his fellow coal miners.

She didn’t recognize her own family any longer but vividly remembered this tale from her earliest years. Her words were impressions. I saw her mother standing fearfully at the door insisting her husband wasn’t home, children clustered behind her wide-mouthed with alarm. I envisioned this little girl with the presence of mind to hide her father’s dinner dishes. “Just laid em in the stove with a cloth over,” she said. When the men barged in they found only enough place settings for mother and children on the table. They left, never looking under the porch where her father hid. She had no other stories left to tell. This one was large enough for a lifetime.

Not only do I feel what they’re saying, I’m awestruck by how they say it.

When people talk about extremes they’ve experienced they speak as poets do. They rely on verbal shorthand made up of sensory description and metaphor. They drift from past to present, change viewpoints, dip into myth and scripture. Often they end abruptly, as if what they’re trying to say can’t truly be said. Their stories, powerful already, gain a sort of beauty that sends ordinary language aloft. It’s truth that trembles. To me, it’s poetry.

 

This essay first published in Poet’s Quarterly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

Links & Updates 3-3-15

great linksEven the date is wrong on this post, because I clicked “publish” before changing the date from two months ago when I thought I’d publish it.

I thought I’d do an update every other month, but I tend to be fueled by many delusions. One is that I’ll magically become more organized and productive any day now. So far this has not happened, as the teetering stacks of Very Important Papers on my desk attests. Heck, I’ve been on the planet quite awhile now and I still don’t manage to behave. Here are a few recent examples.

My hand is on the door to let the dogs out. I just so happen to be belting out Ode to Joy with spontaneous lyrics lauding joys of peeing in the snow. This was meant to encourage canines to go out (perhaps to escape my singing). Unbeknownst to me, an innocent FexEd guy is on the other side of the door, finger poised to ring the doorbell.
I hope this qualifies him for trauma-related workman’s comp.
Learning never ends. I just learned that one should not, when needing an extra hand, grab a corner of packing tape in one’s mouth. That is, unless you’re seeking traumatic lip exfoliation.
We’re trying to teach the dogs to stop barking when someone’s at the door. To do that we brandish a squirt bottle. (No need to actually spray the water, they get the idea.)
Yesterday the doorbell rings. I grab the squirt bottle on my way to answer it. Immediately it starts slipping out of my grasp. I tighten my grip and, in doing so, squirt myself right in the eye. Yes, I was holding it backwards. Yes, I did one of my hyena laughs.
I pity the poor innocents who don’t realize they’re ringing the bell at Awkward House.
 

And then there’s this.

My loved ones and I are enjoying the blue skies and longer days that hint at spring. I’ve been planting seeds in little pots under grow lights with vegetable garden-sized enthusiasm. It’s all fun and games till I’m yanking out weeds on muggy 95 degree August days. On to some links!

A Few Writerly Updates

My short story “Everywhere Stars” was included in Cleveland Scene Magazine’s fiction issue: full text.

My poem “Survivors of Child Abuse Support Group” was published in Literary Mama: full text.

My poem “Fog as Visible Dreams” was published (full text )in the recent edition of Shot Glass Journal  along with a second poem, “What the Onion Teaches:” full text.

My poem “2:37 am” was published in Mothering:  full text.

My poem “Failure Too” was published this month in the print journal Mom Egg Review, issue 13.

I had the pleasure of being featured on Coffee with a Canine, a site for dog-loving writers. Here’s the recent interview and my last one, five years ago when our German shepherd was still with us.

And I had the honor of talking about the books I’ve been reading on Campaign for the American Reader, which was also published on America Reads.

Amusements

If you haven’t seen the way Mallory Ortberg of The Toast re-captions art, you should. See if you don’t smirk at Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History and Women Listening To Men Play Music At Them In Western Art History. Here’s a taste:

a.jp.jp

the-toast.net/2014/10/28/women-terrible-time-parties-western-art-history

get up
it’s weird to lie down when nobody else is lying down
sit up
i’ll sit up when I see something worth sitting up for

If you write, try out the Rejection Generator.  As the folks at The Stoneslide Corrective explain,

The Rejection Generator has helped thousands of established, emerging, and aspiring writers by preemptively exposing them to the pain of rejection, making all subsequent rejection less painful. Now, for the first time, The Generator has been tuned to provide highly personalized pain. Answer a few questions about your writing, and get a rejection letter tailored just for you—instilling maximum healthful preemptive suffering.

a.jp.jp

Day Brighteners

How people are stepping up to undo environmental damage in the YES! magazine article, “Depaving Cities, Undamming Rivers.”

A way to purchase bookish delights while helping to build libraries in Ethiopia, made possible by a wonderful volunteer-run site.

What to do when you’re having a crappy day.

Ethical investors around the world are shifting their money out of fossil fuel. Divestment is happening at colleges, churches, pension funds, and other organizations–effectively rerouting more than 50 billion away from the coal, oil, and gas industry.

Science-y Fascinations

Researcher and intrepid person Jeff Leach is spending a year trying to acquire the healthiest possible gut microbiome. Pretty fascinating and entirely relevant for all of us.

A new documentary on how birth “seeds” us with essential bacteria, and how we can assure every baby benefits whether naturally or surgically born. Here’s more about the film Microbirth.

Information is passed from plant to seed using memory of seasonal fluctuations. Find out more in the (not very scientifically titled) article “How Mom Plants Teach Seeds When to Grow.”

And how great is this? The risk of coming down with the common cold is reduced by hugs.

Learning

A Thousand Rivers: What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning” is, without a doubt, the best essay I’ve ever read about learning. Long, insightful, and worth reading every word. It’s by Carol Black, maker of the must-see documentary film Schooling the World

The Importance of Ancestral Knowledge in the Modern World” is a wonderful article by Neal Ritter in the recent Holistic Parenting Magazine.

What do you do all day? is a question faced by many homeschooling families. Here are all sorts of ways to answer that question.

In what’s now a classic, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith explains how our culture systematically obstructs the powerful inherent learning abilities of children, creating handicaps that often persist through life. The author eloquently contrasts a false and fabricated “official theory” that learning is work (used to justify excessive regulation and massive testing) with a correct but officially suppressed “classic view” that learning is a social process that can occur naturally and continually through collaborative activities. Here’s a chart from the book.

child 2

Visual & Auditory Yes

Ophir Kutiel, who goes by Kutiman, is a musician and editor who took lots of YouTube clips of amateur music performances, from different people, different years, different places, and different songs, and edited them together into a new song. The vocals are by KarMaRedd, singing a cappella. Kutiman listed the source videos at the YouTube page.

Tony Orrico has been called a “human spirograph” but his work is much more. He is a visual artist and performer who uses his own body to inscribe geometries on paper. Through physically exhausting performances involving highly choreographed motions, Orrico creates works of visual art that record his own motion.

a

This poem was featured at the opening of the Climate 2014 summit in NYC. The poem was written and read by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old native of the Marshall Islands. It was spoken as a promise to her new baby, a commitment to create a just and sustainable world. After her recitation in front of 120 heads of state, her daughter and husband joined her on stage, to a standing ovation. An official U.N. Twitter account said many world leaders were moved to tears.

And here’s a new piece by Michael Franti.

Superstupiditis, philosophies that divide us.
Keep us in fear from one another
so we can’t recognize a brother from another mother.
No way, we can’t live this way,
that’s why so many people stand up and say:
One love, one blood, one heart, one soul and
one drum and only one rhythm,
One tribe and all of us singing.

 

 

Poet Seeks Words

Unraveling Y, acrostic poet, Amy Heath,

Amy Heath. Sojourner, tinker, acrostic poet.

Amy Heath is a writer, poet, and artist. The past few years she’s lived a somewhat nomadic life, exploring ways to sustain herself while being true to her spirit.

I met Amy when she was a children’s librarian and children’s book author, back when I spent a lot of time in the picture book section with my four kids.  I was drawn to her friendly blue eyes and gentle manner. I cherished our brief, always lively conversations. I’d walk away thinking how much I’d like us to be friends but I was too shy to ask if we could get together because she was older, vastly cooler, and far more fascinating than I’d ever be. Fast forward to the last few years, when Amy befriended me. I’m giddy about it in a can’t-believe-my-luck sort of way.

One of the many things Amy is up to lately is a poetic challenge. About a year ago she decided she’d write an acrostic poem a day. Being Amy, she amped up the challenge by making a rule for herself that the acrostics must be composed around words chosen at random from a book or words others chose for her.

a·cros·tic   (ə-krô′stĭk, ə-krŏs′tĭk) n.
1. A poem or series of lines in which certain letters, usually the first in each line, form a name, motto, or message when read in sequence.

“The main point of this project was to play with words every day until I reach 60,” she says. “Until that idea struck me, I had been writing acrostics in a more serious vein, on words like mindfulness, anxiety, patience, empathy. I have seen many people approach the Big 6-0 with trepidation. Well, I would play my way there!”

And no matter what, she vowed to post each piece on her blog, Unraveling Y. She says, “After reading the book Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I decided that if I blogged these short daily creations I would feel somehow more accountable to my intention. My wordplays would be out there. And being fairly sure that very few people would read them, I felt liberated to do my best without worrying about what anyone thought of them. That’s good practice anyway. Worrying about what other people think is trespassing in their heads. Not cool.”

Amy’s poems find an inner presence in words, making each one into something so alive we can feel it breathe, as she does with equanimity.

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/space-sky-hand-fingers-paint-636894/

Even in the space of a few syllables.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/background-branch-dusk-evening-20862/

She turns a word into a tale that leaves us wondering.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/890638

She helps us understand why the Latin word for hearth has come to mean “center of activity.”

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

Amy Heath, Unraveling Y, acrostic poem, pixabay.com/en/fire-heiss-fireplace-cozy-heat-266093/

She shares little known history, explaining in her blog entry: “The lighthouse built by Ptolemy I Soter and completed by his son Ptolemy II Philadelphus was a prototype for subsequent structures. Pharos, a small island, ultimately the tip of a peninsula near Alexandria, became the root word in many languages for lighthouse.”

Andreas Achenbach, Pharos, Amy Heath, pixabay.com/en/andreas-achenbach-sea-ocean-water-85762

She’s undaunted when faced with a word like quitch.

acrostic poem, Amy Heath, morguefile.com/archive/display/951061

Among my favorites is a poem she composed around the word orenda, which is defined as “a supernatural force believed by the Iroquois to be present, in varying degrees, in all things and all beings, and to be the spiritual force underlying human accomplishment.”

Amy Heath, acrostic poem, birthday poem, orenda, pixabay.com/en/background-gold-golden-texture-630417/

Amy is brimming with acrostic-related ideas. She may write a book on a single theme or compose a children’s story using words for various literary devices. She may illustrate her poems using paint or yarn or glass. The future is open for my playfully creative friend.

What is she seeking right now?

Words.

She’s continuing her daily acrostic challenge and invites you to send her a word which she’ll gladly transform into a poem. Her email is unravelingy@gmail.com

While you’re at it, I suggest you:

visit her blog Unraveling Y 

read her memoir I Pity The Man Who Marries You

share her poems on social media

contact her to let her know how much you enjoy her work

consider embarking on a challenge of your own!

Poetry’s Origin Story or Why Drink Skáldskapar Mjaðar

I have never heard the Norse version of how poetry was created. But thanks to Sam, who is reading The Prose Edda for the sheer pleasure of it, I now know about Skáldskapar Mjaðar: the Mead of Poetic Inspiration.

origins of poetry, Norse study, homeschooling,

Sam reading The Prose Edda using a Pomeranian bookrest.

Here’s the story as I understand it.

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

The Æsir Against the Vanir (wikimedia.org)

Groups of warmongering Norse gods, Vanir and Æsir, agreed to a truce after a long and bitter battle. Each side spat in a vat to preserve the peace.  The gods decided to keep the agreement safe by shaping their spittle into the form of a man they named Kvasir.

Kvasir was the wisest man on earth. He traveled the world— teaching, spreading knowledge, and correctly answering every question posed to him. (A lesson on the benefits of peace…)

But alas, evil dwarves Fjalar and Galar murdered Kvasir. They drained his blood and distilled it in Odhrǫrir, the magic caldron. (Apparently smarts are a downfall. The dwarves told the gods that Kvasir’s intelligence had suffocated him.)

Draining  Kvasir's blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Draining Kvasir’s blood. ( germanicmythology.com)

Kvasir’s blood was mixed with honey to create the Mead of Poetic Inspiration. Poetry had once been the province of gods. But this drink held the power to turn all who imbibed it into skalds (poets) and blessed them with wisdom. Thus, skaldship spread.

child 2

Along came the giant Suttung. He sought revenge on the dwarves because they had killed his father, the giant Gilling, for sport. Suttung seized their precious mead and hid it in the center of a mountain with his daughter Gunnlöð standing guard.

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

Gunnlöð (wikimedia.org)

But Óðin (a.k.a. Odin) was displeased that so vital a nectar was hidden in a remote cavern. Óðin was a biggie in the Norse pantheon. He was known as King of Asgard, ruler of the Aesir, father of the thunder god Thor and associated with battle, victory, death, wisdom, prophecy, and the hunt.

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

Òðinn (no.wikipedia.org)

So Óðin disguised himself as a man and wooed Gunnlöð. After three nights of sex he got her to agree to offer him three sips of the mead. But he tricked her (or by some accounts she succumbed entirely to his charms). He emptied the first vessel with his first sip. His second swallow emptied the second vessel. His last swallow emptied the last vessel. Holding all the divine mead in his mouth, Óðin changed into an eagle and headed back to Asgard.

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Óðin as an eagle. (norse-mythology.org)

Suttung transformed into an eagle as well and gave chase. Óðin hurtled over the mountains. His people saw him coming and put out vessels in the courtyard. Óðin swooped low and spat the blessed mead into those containers. In the frenzy of the pursuit some of the mead came out “backwards.”

Yes, Óðin shat it.

Anyone that wants it can take that portion. It’s called skáldfífla hlutr, the rhymester’s share. It’s the portion for inferior poets.

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end. (en.wikipedia.org)

Óðin pursued by Suttung, both in eagle form. Note the Mead of Poetic Inspiration being spat into vessels, with the mead for inferior poets coming out the other end.
(en.wikipedia.org)

Hey, I’ll take whatever portion I can get.

 

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick.deviantart.com)

Ceremonial drinking horn. (smithing-chick)

 

Quick update on the poetry-wise goodness that’s flowing my way.

  • I was nominated for, but did not win, a 2014 Pushcart Prize. (Where’s my fairy godmother when I need her to turn the pumpkin of my work into a magical coach?)
  • Houseboat did me the honor of featuring several of my poems along with some wonderfully evocative photographs.
  • Read+Write: 30 Days of Poetry, a National Poetry Month project by Cuyahoga County Public Library, happened thanks to the hard work of poet Diane Kendig. I was fortunate that she selected one of my poems to appear during those 30 days. Along with the other 29 poets in the project, I received the gift of tickets to hear former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky read. Of course I show up in my badly scuffed shoes wearing clothes decades out of date because, well, that’s pretty much the best I can do. The event took place in Cleveland’s dazzlingly beautiful Playhouse Square complex, with an advance reception for Mr. Pinsky held in a plush mezzanine featuring a gorgeous painted ceiling and gilded walls. I tried to hide my hermit-doesn’t-know-how-to-talk-to-stranger issues by lurking near the tables with finger foods, which led to me licking my fingers after a few bites, which led to someone who doesn’t approve of barbarians handing me a napkin accompanied by a withering look.
  • I was stunned by a beautifully written, deeply generous review of my book by Ivy Rutledge in the newest edition of Mom Egg Review.

What an abundance of blessings.

Create Lasting Family History: 8 Ideas

 

My family, probably like yours, has only a few pieces of tangible family history. Receipts saved by a great great grandfather. A nearly illegible diary written 70 years ago by a young soldier. Recipes with notations in my grandmother’s handwriting.  Solemn photographs, many unidentified.

Still we recently managed to trace part of our lineage. We found it exciting to uncover a family tree reaching back dozens of generations. Maybe having a Nordic ancestor named Malcolm the Big Headed explains my protracted labor with our very-big-headed third child. But discovering the names of ancestors isn’t entirely satisfying. We want a wider glimpse. We long to know what sort of men and women these people were. How did they feel about the events of their time? What were the stories that made up their lives? What personal traits did they pass down to us?

Our ancestors may not have left us much to go on, but chances are we’re leaving even less for our own descendants. The richest details of family history come from sources that are rarely if ever utilized these days. Families once saved newspaper clippings, but there aren’t many local newspapers reporting the details of club meetings or family reunions. Few of us are avid letter writers with copies of our correspondence. The tradition of travel journals and daily diaries are largely forgotten. We may have extensive digital material but there’s no real assurance that our videos, photos, blogs, and social media sites will be saved let alone accessible in 100 years or more.

There’s a solution.

Create family memorabilia intentionally. This isn’t a one-shot deal, it’s a long-term approach. Working together on any of the following following projects not only promotes close ties, it adds to a storehouse of rich family memories. Choose the methods that work best for your family.

 

Write Annual Autobiographies

Each year help your young children make a new “All About Me” book. Start with a scrapbook or blank book. Include a self-drawn portrait as well as photos. Write about favorite foods, activities, and places. Use the same prompts each year such as “What makes me happy,” “What I am good at,” “What makes me mad,” and “What I want to be when I grow up.” Don’t show surprise or dismay over any answers, just help with writing, transcribing if necessary.

As your children get older, encourage them to keep up the tradition. These books are an invaluable record of growing self-awareness. You might write one of your own too.

 

Save Online Journals

Many of us post entries on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, blogs—well, you know. These regular updates are a form of journaling. They detail our struggles, joys, and interests—compiling exactly the sort of material family historians adore.

A simple way to preserve your blog or other online material is to turn them into books. Print out your most memorable posts on acid free paper and slide them into archival sleeves. Or bind them into books yourself (put the terms “book binding instructions” in a search engine). You may prefer to submit the pages to a custom book service such as Lulu.com, Snapfish.com, or Blog2Print.sharedbook.com Consider making copies for each family member.

 

Keep a History Cache 

Designate a special trunk or storage container as a personal history cache for each person in your family. Use it to store photos, once-favorite toys, copies of medical records, a few baby teeth, letters, artwork, stories written by your child, special ticket stubs, whatever you deem memorable. Whenever possible put items into acid-free bags, wrap fabrics in acid-free tissue, and slip papers into archival sleeves. Add important items to this cache throughout the decades.

 

Pass Around a Family Journal 

Once a month or so, your family may enjoy adding entries to a large-format, acid-free journal. This journal might include hand-drawn cartoons and sketches, observations about current events, and diary-like entries. Consider lists such as “things I want to invent,” “places I want to go,” and “people I’ll be friends with forever.” Each family member can respond to the same journal prompt such as “my idea of a perfect day,” or “the best part of my week.” Keep this activity light-hearted and non-critical to ensure that kids of all ages continue to take part. Such journals provide a messy and charming look at our unique families.

 

Make Collaborative Scrapbooks 

If you are one of the many talented scrapbookers carefully keeping photos and memorabilia, you’re ahead of the family history game. But make sure you include more than photos and themed decorations. To really capture the essence of your family you’ll want to include envelopes in your scrapbook pages where you can save letters (try having each member of the family write a letter to an older version of him or herself), lists, and notes about each child. You can also fill the pages with your child’s artwork and creative writing.

 

Put Together Family Zine 

A family zine or newsletter is a lively way to keep your extended family and friends up-to-date on your news. Include updates, inside jokes, funny quotes from the youngest ones, photos, family trivia (measure the circumference of your heads or all the proposed names for the new goldfish), memorable moments, favorite recipes. You may decide to create a monthly, seasonal or twice yearly issue depending on time constraints. Encourage each child to contribute something each time. Make sure you print out plenty of copies to save on acid-free paper.

 

Seal a Time Capsule

A time capsule is a great way to get to know what is important to each of your family members. Choose an airtight, heavy duty container if you plan to store it long-term. Ask everyone to contribute items they find personally and historically relevant. This might include photos, toys, artwork, coins, and magazines. For extra protection put each item into separate airtight acid-free bags, folders, or boxes. Include an inventory explaining the items; otherwise the significance of that plastic movie monster may be lost!

You may also choose to leave a written message for whoever will open the time capsule, even if it will be your own family in thirty years. You might want to write about an ordinary day, your concerns, your views on the news, current trends, and predictions for the future. Before sealing, toss in a few desiccant gel packages (these are often found in new electronic goods or vitamin supplements) to absorb damaging moisture.

It’s best to store your time capsule indoors. If it’s hidden, keep track of the location by noting its GPS coordinates. You may choose to schedule an opening at a special date or occasion, perhaps upon the birth of your first grandchild or New Year’s Day 2040. Send those GPS coordinates and plans to as many people as possible for safe keeping. Also, register your time capsule with the International Time Capsule Society.

 

Keep a Memory Jar

This is the easiest idea of all. Write the label “Memory Jar” on any large container and keep it visible. Or use a locked box with a slot. Encourage family members to scrawl memories, even a sentence or two, on any scrap of paper. Each one needs a date and name before folding it to tuck in the jar. Decide in advance when the jar will be opened. Once a year? After a few decades? Here are more ideas for keeping a Memory Jar.

 

As you work together on the projects you’ve chosen, you’ll find that making intentional memorabilia is fun. It’s also highly educational, builds family closeness, and creates irreplaceable resources for future enjoyment. Now that’s a legacy.

 

Published by Natural Child Magazine  March/April 2014

Leaving Little Love Letters

mother's love notes,

Image: Ebineyland

My mother regularly wrote little love letters to her children.  They started appearing on our pillows when we could first read, at least one every month or so. Sometimes her notes would reference something we did or said but mostly they simply gushed with affirmation. Her standard ran along the lines of, “You are the nicest, most wonderful seven-year-old in the whole world.”

Her one or two sentence notes were usually written on a scrap of paper. My mother made “scratch” paper out of junk mail and school fliers. She tore paper on the fold lines, getting three pieces out of a standard letter-sized sheet. This made the flip side of her little love letters unintentionally quirky, with references to bank policy or reminders about choir practice. My brother and sister got their own notes but we never mentioned them to each other. They were a private and cherished connection between mother and child.

By the time I was nine or ten years old I wrote little love letters to her too, hiding my notes in her shoe or tucked into her jewelry box. It was easy to tell when she’d found one. She’d dole out a big hug and whisper a line I’d written back to me.  It seems these notes meant as much to her as they did to me. After she died I ran across some of them stuffed into her favorite cookbook, effusive words penciled in my best handwriting.

I know all too well that family life sometimes scrapes us like sandpaper against those closest to us. We don’t talk enough about what amuses or delights us because we’re busy saying that the towels aren’t hung up, shoes are blocking the door, and food is left out on the counter. We may also be dealing with doubts kindled by worry and annoyances that can spark into anger.

Sure, we linger over tender moments that we wish could last forever. We praise the effort (as all those relationship experts tell us to do). But there’s something special when we take the time to write down our very best feelings for one another.  A note is a tangible expression unlike any other.

I won’t kid myself that I’ll ever write as many tiny love letters as my mother wrote in her life. But today I’ll be writing a few sentences to my loved ones and hiding those notes where they’ll find them. I know there’s a sense of completion when we say what’s in our hearts.

Why Write Poetry

write poetry, why poetry, becoming a poet,

Image: karrr.deviantart.com

I started to write poetry when I was eight or nine years old and continued until I was 13. The highlight? Winning a poetry contest in Mrs. Barker’s third grade class. The prize was a large chocolate bar.

The few scraps of writing I’ve found from those years consist of a child’s earnest questions and the comfort sought in a forest that once stood behind my parent’s home. Most lines are drenched with early existential dread. I’m not sure why I stopped writing. It could have been the surprisingly arduous trials of growing up or simple self-consciousness.

A moment from my 12th year comes to mind. I was in sixth grade, trying very hard to be like the other girls, never discussing the concerns that kept me awake most of the night. During the day, sleep-deprived into silliness, it often seemed to me that the conventions people took for granted were absurd. I did lots of laughing. One afternoon, walking out of class toward the playground for recess, I was telling a funny anecdote. A cluster of friends not only walked with me but jockeyed to be closest to me. The sun was shining on gumdrop green grass and I felt completely alive as I reached the best part of my story. I thought for a blindingly self-absorbed instant that this was what it was like to be popular. The next second I walked straight into a tall pole.

I hit it so hard I was thrown back. Dizzy, I made a joke about not seeing what had been there all along. My friends acted concerned but that was it, my brief encounter with popularity. Maybe I lost the secret habit of writing poetry because it seemed too much like an unseen pole, the sort of fullness that can erupt into a poem but might also raise a welt.

I never walked entirely away from poetry. As an adult I created poems from the phrases given to me by nursing home residents, crediting them separately for each line that eventually appeared in a book titled Gathering Our Thoughts. I led support groups for victims of abuse, hearing poetry as they shared their anguish in grace-laden detail. I taught non-violence workshops using poetry to emphasize the message of each session. I sent the work of my favorite poets to dear ones as a way of celebrating their joys and sharing their sorrows.

Yet I rarely encountered people living nearby who talked about, read, or wrote poetry. Far from our little farm I’m aware that poetry speaks for itself in slam festivals and readings, that it takes up residence in MFA programs and literary journals. Those worlds seem distant.

Poetry still feels like an indulgence. It hear it rustle in my head, trying to shuffle impressions into form, but I focus on my usual work of writing articles, editing, gardening, bringing in firewood, feeding cows, and other ordinary tasks. Besides, those impressions never entirely fit into words. I usually hush them till they are quiet. The ones that continue to pester I allow to fall onto paper although they don’t fully capture what’s just beyond language. When I took my manuscript to the post office to be weighed, addressed to “Poetry Editor,” I felt faintly ashamed, as if publicly admitting I squander time that could be devoted to more useful pursuits. The Puritan ethic dies slowly.

But the articles I write and the books I’m working on center around letting each person’s unique radiance shine. I believe this has to do, in part, with claiming both the light and dark in our lives so we can move toward a world of deeper mutuality. I know I’m not true to my ideals unless I live them. So I’m learning to treat the poetry writing impulse more gently. It feels starkly revealing, as liberation does.

The pieces in this collection have to do with beginning, uprooting, gathering, and abundance. They rise from the simple daily rituals that nourish me and from the loved ones who shape my life. They’re a way of walking into something hard without falling backwards.

publish poetry, why write poems,

Image: xxju.deviantart.com

Endless thanks to the intrepid souls who helped shape this book. The first ms readers: my beloved siblings Dale Piper and Cynthia Piper. My merry writing group: Connie Gunn, Margaret Swift, and Sarah Vradenburg. Those discerning individuals who commented on later drafts: Laurie Kincer, Leslie Nielson, Katherine Clark, and Mark Hersmann. I’m endlessly grateful.