The Virginia Festival of the Book and Snow!


It's here! The Virginia Festival of the Book! And along with it -- our first big snow of the year, so everything I planned for today, especially the reading starring the one and only Remica Bingham,  is canceled because the university is closed. And here I was had been so hoping to find my way out, thinking--it's not that much snow. But, well, I don't live in Ohio anymore. I don't think this snowfall would ever rate there as more than a briefly noted annoyance.

I will be reading on Friday night at Christ Episcopal Church on Friday night with David Wojahn and Tyehimba Jess, and I am more than a little nervous. Jess, a Pulitzer prize winner, and Wojahn is one of my former professors and a Pulitzer finalist . . .  I am glad I am going first so I can enjoy the show. (You can see my interview with David Wojahn is here . I also interviewed Tom Sleigh, who will be reading at the New Dominion Bookshop tomorrow.) 

It will be little strange to be reading in that church--the same church where I was married years ago, where the minister counseled Jim and me about the ways marriages fall apart, describing at great length how irritating he found it when his wife squeezed the toothpaste tube from the top instead of the bottom, how she liked a lot of blankets on a bed, even in summer. You'd be surprised how many marriages fall apart from these small details, he advised, fluttering his perfectly manicured fingers. And then, he added, There's the question of dogs. Do you want them? And if so, in the house? And in the bedroom? Clearly, he wasn't a fan of the house dog, much less the bedroom dog.

I think the third question was the most important, but then, we didn't have dogs yet. Now, especially on a day when I  am beginning to feel VERY nervous, I think, How could I ever have lived without a dog? My old Boston terrier, she's the perfect blood pressure medication-- as she sleeps and farts in my lap.



The Mother-Grandmother World


Recently I heard a report on NPR about how the USA has the worst rates of maternal deaths during childbirth in the developed world. It was one of several NPR reports on the subject, and it stopped me in my tracks, esp. now when my daughter, Suzanne, so recently gave birth at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. I was amazed-- to the point of being annoyed-- at all the precautions that were taken-- before, during, and even days after the birth. Every step of the way she and the baby were monitored and cared for extensively.  I thought, Wow, this is too much.  Now I am feeling enormously grateful for this great medical facility and all the expertise she and the baby have right here. And I am also amazed--both by the risks of complications and the risk of being a critical or know-it-all grandmother. 

I can't help thinking back-- one of the worst times I spent with my own mother was when she arrived shortly after Suzanne was born. Instead of helping, she spent her days telling me what I wasn't doing right and complaining  to the neighbors and the milkman and the postman and my father-in-law and, well, anyone who came to our door. My daughter is sleeping in the living room! she would announce. And so is the baby! (I was sent home eight hours after delivery and was not allowed to go to my upstairs bedroom for a few days).  She's nursing on demand instead of on a schedule! That baby latches on and never lets go, my mother would tell them. And then, if my mother had a captive audience, she would launch into an explanation of how Suzanne was three weeks late. Three whole weeks!  They would never let a cow carry a calf that long! she would practically shriek.

A dairy farmer, my mother always compared her daughters to heifers. 

Really, I could not wait for her to leave me in peace. But, to be fair-- my mother probably was somewhere on the autism spectrum, and I should have known better than to allow her to come so soon. Nurturing infants and new moms was not her strong suit.  Years later, when my children were older and in school, she was a great advisor. She had such faith in my children, far greater than she ever had in me. Whenever Suzanne had trouble at school, she would scoff, There are just so many stupid teachers. Don't listen to them. Suzanne is fine. She thought a lot of aspects of schools were silly. And that parents and teachers worried far too much about when their children read or did their multiplication tables or whatever else they were supposed to do. She would say simply, When the fire's lit, it burns. Then she would assure me that Suzanne's mind was both lit and burning. 

But I still wonder how and why she had six children, esp. when she didn't really care for infants. She even said to me once that she would have had more children if she'd married younger. I would have liked eight, she confessed, her eyes dreamy. That was the day she told me me how she timed all her children's births--just like she timed the births of calves.  


BIRTH by Louise Erdrich

When they were wild
When they were not yet human
When they could have been anything,
I was on the other side ready with milk to lure them,
And their father, too, each name a net in his hands.



The Phone Call You Never Want to Get


A few weeks ago, I went for my annual mammogram, and I didn't hear anything. Usually no news is good news, so I didn't think about it. But then, on Tuesday afternoon, I got a call that I needed to go back to the Breast Care Center asap for another screening--this time an ultrasound. I was told I'd know the results of the test before I left. 

Evidently, a large per cent of call-backs are not bad news. I didn't know that. I did know that there is a part of one of my breasts that feels odd, that I've asked my doctor in Youngstown about it many times, and she has reassured me (every year) that it is fine.. Or, as she put it--it feels like oatmeal there. Nothing to worry about. But--if you ever find a raisin in the oatmeal, call me The call-back this year, not surprisingly, was about the oatmeal. 

Whenever I hear bad news, or potentially bad news, about my health, I hear in my head that accusing prayer: You have left undone those things you ought to have done. And you have done those things you ought not to have done; and there is no health in you.  (I always change the "we" to "you" with this prayer.)

The next morning at 8 AM, I got a closer look at the oatmeal. It looks like waves, vaguely like the picture above, some waves are closer and some further apart. Some waves are circling and some flattening. But on and on, waves and more waves

Lying there, watching and feeling the ultrasound wand going over and over the same part of my breast, I felt at first sick with panic. But then, as the test continued, I relaxed. It felt odd, as if I were very alone and far away. The watery image made me think of Maine. I imagined myself rowing slowly out across the bay. 

Then it was over. And just like that, the nurse came back and said everything was normal. I could go home. I had been so sure the news was going to be bad. I felt dizzy and slightly stunned. All day I kept thinking of my friends who have had cancer, some no longer with us. And I felt grateful that my doctor in Youngstown didn't put me through this. She insisted that my hands can tell me what's going on--just was well as another test. 

And I thought of this poem by Mark Strand, one of my favorite poets, who died not too long ago of cancer. 

A Morning 

I have carried it with me each day: that morning I took
my uncle’s boat from the brown water cove
and headed for Mosher Island.
Small waves splashed against the hull
and the hollow creak of oarlock and oar
rose into the woods of black pine crusted with lichen.
I moved like a dark star, drifting over the drowned
other half of the world until, by a distant prompting,
I looked over the  gunwale and saw beneath the surface
a luminous room, a light-filled grave, saw for the first time
the one clear place given to us when we are alone.



The Birth of Amelia Jean


"The Swan"
by Rainier Maria Rilke (1875–1926)
translated by Stephen Mitchell 

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying—to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day—
is like his anxious letting himself fall

into the water, which receives him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draws back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

I love this poem, and  think of it so often, and yet not in regards to death, though that is, of course, what the poem is about. I am too agnostic to know whether I believe or not that there is a graceful letting go at the end of life. Rather, I think of this poem as a description of all those moments when suddenly you find yourself letting go into life itself, when suddenly you are at ease. When all that worries and troubles you lets go. When you simply are here, more or less. It is a state I sometimes discover in writing, the words flowing after days and days of nothing happening. 

I thought of the poem a week ago when watching my daughter in labor, and then giving birth to the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. (Admittedly, I am a teensy bit prejudiced.) The long labor, the anxious waiting and worrying, and then the child, coming into the world with the water of life-- to be received and welcomed, the child so full of majesty and mystery in her own right. Really, it was a holy experience. 



In the fog


This morning everything was covered with fog, and then it slowly dissolved. Fingers crossed, my brain fog will dissolve soon, too. 



The Ends of Things


I always feel lost when I finish a project, and I sit there, picking over what I've done, talking to my friends or myself about what I wrote or said or didn't write or didn't mean, thinking, doubting, wondering. But at a certain point, it's time to fly on. At least that's what I tell myself while sitting on the fence. 





I still can't believe we live here now!! This is the sunrise from my office windows. Makes me think of Emily:

I’ll tell you how the sun rose, -
A ribbon at a time.
The steeples swam in amethyst,
The news like squirrels ran.

The hills untied their bonnets,
The bobolinks begun.
Then I said softly to myself,
"That must have been the sun!"

But how he set, I know not.
There seemed a purple stile.
Which little yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while

Till when they reached the other side,
A dominie in gray
Put gently up the evening bars,
And led the flock away.



What Do you choose NOT to write or talk about?

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The other day I was talking to a counselor who asked me, What do you choose not to talk about to your readers, your friends?  The answer, many things, I suppose.. But I do try to open most of my locked doors, at least when I'm writing. Some doors get open and then locked again, opened and locked again. Like this one



Bad Hair Day

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Last week when I was at the Y, getting dressed alongside the high school girls' swim team, I listened to the girls chattering about their insecurities. A blond girl was going on about her feet. She didn't want anyone to see her feet.  How can I swim and not show off my feet? she asked.

Seriously. Feet? Okay, maybe she was being silly. But everyone started checking out her feet. I like your feet! the girls said in a chorus. They're so long and skinny. Like tree roots. They started giggling and comparing their feet.

Then another girl started whining about her weight. But you aren't fat, the girls chimed in. They were right. She was as skinny as the rest of them. Me, I hate my lips, another said.

Maybe this is an all-too familiar scene. They're teenage girls, after all. Problem is, I felt like I was one of them. I wanted to join in--It's my hair I hate. Look at my limp, lousy pin-straight hair!  

I stood there, blow-drying my hair. Styling it with a flat-iron. I hate how long it takes.  I was just thinking I was done when I pulled out a hairspray I'd ordered on Amazon that was supposed to be unscented.   I gave one quick squirt, two, then I inhaled. Oh shit! I smelled like a toxic flower. My hair felt like tinsel. 

I had a  phone meeting with Nicole, my writing pal, and I was really excited about it, so I thought, Maybe all I need to do is open the windows on the way home. The smell will blow away. No such luck. At home, I put a scarf on. Then a shower cap. Still I could smell my hair. How do you escape your hair?  I thought about wrapping my head in Saran wrap or tin foil. Finally, after another shower and blow dry and yeah, styling session, I called Nicole. I didn't want to admit what took me so long. Why I was so late for our phone call. 

What can I say? My hair and I, we have a very difficult relationship.



Enid! Shannon McLeod!



Last week I met with Shannon McLeod, a young local poet whose work I was not familiar with and am now a fan of. I particularly love Enid. I love the image of Enid (above) as well. It reminds me of those weird drawings by Henry Michaux. I think he called them Meidosems. Something like that. 

Shannon McLeod


Last week, my therapist suggested we put a name to my anxiety. 

During our conversation, just for an example, she called it "Enid." She said I could change the name. She suggested I give it a name with a more repugnant association. 

We named it so I could see illness as an enemy, a separate entity, rather than me. 

I cannot think of anyone I hate as much as I hate this part of myself. 

Hello, Enid.


Published by wigleaf  


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Interview with Cindy Veach


I've done a lot of interviews, and sometimes they really aren't much fun. And other times, I love the person, the poet, the whole experience. Cindy Veach was really great. As was her book about the her ancestors who worked in the textile mills in Lowell, Massachusetts. I especially liked her section, Lowell Cloth Narratives, that she said were "Based on Ex-Slave Narratives conducted by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s. Lowell cloth was a “generic” term for cheap, course cotton cloth, produced originally in the textile mills of Waltham, later Lowell.

Here's a poem from that section:

State: Arkansas Interviewee:  Bear, Dina

I was born in slavery time—a world away

we wove we wove away. I was born in the field

under a tree. Thirteen hours a day we toiled

cotton into cloth. People wore home-made

what I mean homespun and lowell clothes.

It snowed in our lungs and every window

shut. My dresses was called mother

hubbards. We passed abolitionist poems

from loom to loom. I was too young

to remember anything about slavery

blood and sweat blood and sweat. I went

barefoot until I was a young missie.  We

signed the petitions. Folk did not know

how we was made. 


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Thinking about Billy Collins' Recipe for Audience Appeal

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Lately I've been thinking about Billy Collins--about an interview I heard years ago on Fresh Air in which he described how he wrote a poem. He went on to say how he didn't care for all those poets that describe their life history. Who cares about your storys? he asked. (And now I want to find that interview to be able to quote what he said. )

It interests me because Collins is so popular, so engaging, and he talked about his recipe for audience appeal. And yes, there was kind of a recipe. As well as a formula for writing a poem. And yet, I realize how little I know about Collins himself.

By contrast, when I read someone like Denise Duhamel, who writes about her divorce, bulimia, alcoholism, family as well as about sexism and feminism, and-- you name it, I feel as if I know her, as if her poetry is almost like a conversation with her. And of course, she, too, is very popular.  

THE BOTTOM by Denise Duhamel

I stopped drinking on my way down the hill
to the liquor store when two guys pulled up
and tried to drag me into their pickup. I crossed the street
then ran in the opposite direction, puffing
against the incline. The stranger thrust into reverse 
and, when I wouldn’t talk to him,
threw a bag of McDonald’s trash at me,
Stuck up bitch. I stopped drinking
when I realized I was fighting 
for the vodka at the bottom of the hill
more than I was fighting against the terrible
things that could have happened to me
inside the cab of that rusty Chevy. I stopped drinking
before cell phones. I stopped drinking
after Days of Wine and Roses. I stopped drinking
even as I kept walking to El Prado Spirits
and the guy behind the counter who recognized me
asked if I was alright. I didn’t tell him
what had happened because he might have called
the police and then I would have had to wait
for them to arrive to fill out a report, delaying my Smirnoff.  
I stopped drinking even before I had that last sip,
as I ran back up the hill squeezing a bottle by its neck.



Agni, A Cone of Light

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 Agni is one of my favorite literary journals. I especially love reading Sven Birkerts introductions. He has such great insights and the ability to explain why I love what I love. This quote stopped me for moment: 

We are, Cortazar might say, moving through a vast teeming darkness with just the cone of flashlight illumination in front of us. We imagine we have the all of it, when it fact it's quite the reverse. We have nothing, only the illusion of knowing. 

And then he quoted one of my favorite passages from Hopscotch:

Would I find La Maga? Most of the time it was just a case of my putting in an appearance, going along the Rue de las Seine to the arch leading to the Quai de Conti, and I would see her slender form against the olive-ashen light which floats along the river as she crossed back and forth on the Pot Des Artes, or leaned over the iron rail looking at the water.



Where am !?

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Last night I woke up and I couldn't remember where I was. A part of me is still living in Ohio. I think a part of my soul has still not caught up with the move. Looking out at the window, the dark night sky, so unlike the suburban sky, I felt like I was on some other planet before I fully woke up and remembered. 

It's amazing how hard it is to reconstitute oneself, to redefine the ordinary.



Commas and Breathing

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Sometimes, commas drive me nuts.  I put them in, and take them out. Put them in, take them out. Should I say that again? I have spent the last few days doing just that. 

I remember clearly the four comma rules taught by Mrs. Ward, my sixth grade English teacher.  A for appositives, B for before introductory dependent clauses and before coordinated conjunctions, C for series, D for introDuctory adverbs. And the rest for duh twang, meaning obvious places as in dates. As in addresses.

But I have trouble still, esp. in dialogues. I put them in before a question, and an editor takes them out. I take them out, and an editor puts them in.

My chapbook, Any Kind of Excuse, had two editors. The first editor took all the commas out, saying, This is poetry! You don’t need all these commas. The second editor put all the commas back in. This is poetry. You have to follow all the same rules as everyone else.

My friend, Beth, an English professor, says that when she’s writing, she knows when she needs a comma because that’s when she has to breathe.  She adds that everyone says this is the WRONG way to decide about commas. But she insists it works. Adding emphatically that if she doesn’t HAVE to breathe, she doesn’t add a comma. (I am sure she also follows the comma rules.)

But when do you HAVE to breathe?  I find that confusing, too. I never realized how confusing until I met my friend, Ann, a yoga teacher who was always telling me to breathe.

Before that, I never realized how often I don’t breathe. Or when I don’t breathe. But I have been trying to pay attention. Truth is, I hold my breath a lot.

I hold my breath when someone says something mean. I hold my breath when I can’t hear. When a car accident happens--or almost happens in front of me. When I am in the doctor’s office. When I'm listening to the bad news on NPR (I let it out on the rare occasions that the news is good). When I’m reading or at a reading. When the phone rings in the wee hours of the morning.  When I’m trying to decide what I think. When I don’t know how to do something. When I can’t answer a question. When I feel stupid . . . That’s just the beginning of the list.

In first grade I practiced holding my breath during class. I counted as high as I could before I would breathe again. Sometimes the teacher, Mrs. Wallace, asked me what was the matter with as my face turned redder and redder. That wasn’t the only time she asked me that question. I didn’t care for Mrs. Wallace and vice versa. I didn’t like school at all. So I never raised my hand when she asked questions like, Who ran faster, Dick or Jane?  (Should there be a comma after the like in the previous sentence?)

It wasn't just first grade I disliked. 

In grade school, it seemed to me that everyone else was raising his or her hand, eager to answer questions, eager to participate. But I didn’t want to be there. So often I just held my breath. I liked the dizzy feeling it gave me. And the challenge. I liked watching the clock hands glide past a few more minutes, counting down to the end of class. 

Sometimes mothers came with cupcakes for birthdays, or to help out around the classroom, or take us on field trips. Sometimes they read us a fairy tale or helped us with our coats before we lined up for recess or whatever. My mother never came. She wasn’t the baking kind of mother. Or the school-helper type.  And besides, I was the 6th kid.  

Sometimes my mother would ask me what I did in school, and I’d tell her I held my breath. I would tell her I was good at it. I don't think she listened to me.

But I was good at it. So good, in fact, I thought I might be another Houdini one day. And during the summer I could swim lengths of the pool without coming up for air. I doubt my memory is correct, but I remember swimming two whole lengths.  My sister was even better—she swam at least three. I know that’s probably not possible, but I remember it just the same, just the way I remember a lot of things that might not have happened.

But I am beginning to wonder.

Because at the Y lately, I’ve been swimming at the same time as an elementary school swim practice. These children are tireless. They zoom back and forth for hours, splashing and screaming as they race each other and pinch each other and pull one another’s swim suits down. All except one. One skinny boy with black hair and long trunks instead of the tiny Speedo others wear – who sinks to the bottom of the deep-end and stays down there for most of the practice. I watch him as I swim-- one lap, two laps, three . . . I must miss the moments he comes up for air.  I keep worrying about him. Doe she ever breathe? What if he drowns? I feel as if I have to keep watching just in case. But he’s always down there, his arms moving slowly as if he’s conducting.

At the end of practice over Christmas breaks, there were days when the mothers and fathers came to welcome their children, to cheer them on or wrap them in towels. No one came for the skinny boy. He rose slowly and slipped off to the locker room alone and towel-less.




Stage Fright

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The other day at the swimming pool I watched a couple try to force a young child to jump into the deep end. The child, a girl with a single black braid and a pink suit, was clinging to her mother's leg and screaming while her father begged and cajoled and finally screamed back at her. We should just throw you in. That's what my mother did to me, and that's how I learned to swim. The teenage-lifeguard, who usually looks so bored, watched the scene with worry and interest.

I was reminded of my own childhood . . . of one of my earliest swimming memories. I was young enough that all five of my older siblings were at the pool, and my father was there as well.  I could not have been much more than three or four, and my father was tossing me into the air and letting me splash into the water, then tossing me up again. He did it over and over, and as I rose up and splashed, rose up and splashed into the blue swimming pool, I remember the glittering sun and water all around and the feeling of giddiness mixed with pure terror. I could see that everyone watching me.  Watching and laughing and cheering.  I loved the attention, and I knew, even in my small child's mind, that if I cried or showed fear, the attention would vanish or turn sour.  It was a test, and I wanted to pass. I wanted to be happy, or at least appear happy, and thus keep everyone else happy, too. And for a moment I remember watching myself from outside, rising and falling and splashing. It was easier not to be in my body.

It's that same feeling I sometimes get before performing. Stage fright, being out of my body, watching myself, watching my body, trying to make it smile and laugh and do what I want it to do, not what I feel like doing. 



One of these days . . .

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I'm still in vacation mode, still in moving mode, still in missing my friends from Youngstown mode, still in having visitors in the house mode, but I am slowly working my way back to my desk. Fingers crossed for more work time.

And I did (I think, with much help) finally get the blog to work. Now it should only send out updates once a week, so if you are kind enough to subscribe to the thing, don't worry--you won't be overwhelmed on the times when I actually blog a bit. Only on Thursdays will you hear from this space!



First Draft, Best Draft?

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Apologies if you received this already--yesterday. Jimmy has been helping me fix my blog so that it actually sends posts to subscribers, which means I have been taking the post down, testing it, and putting it back up again. So I am not sure if this one was sent out yet. But I am very excited to have an actual working blog! Or so I hope! And I am thankful that people actually want to sign up for it! 

Jimmy and Stephanie also gave me a book called HANDS for Christmas--after I admitted I cannot draw hands. Even comic hands  take me forever to draw. Seriously, have you tried drawing hands?  They usually look like alien body parts, not something you want at the end of your arm. The more I work on them, the more alien they become. So I like to keep the hands hidden in my drawings. Of course, it could be argued that the hands are the only part of the drawing that is not alien . . .

Which reminds me of editing a poem. How often have I worked and worked on an ending, only to have the ending look like it belongs to another poem. Excessive editing is one of my many truly annoying habits.  I've destroyed so many poems in an effort to fix them--and often discovered, weeks or months later, that the first draft was, in fact, the best draft. Or maybe the third draft, now that I think about it. Or the fourth. No the third one. The second or third . . .

I often have as many as fifty drafts. What a nightmare! But in the end I go back and forth between one or two. 



Happy New Year!

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I was reading the year's recap, and thought I better stop. 2017, argh. It has a lot to be depressed about. But instead of dwelling on that, I decided to open up one of my favorite, passionate, purple poems so I can think of other things, better things, including the truly great . . . 


THE TRULY GREAT by Stephen Spender

I think continually of those who were truly great.

Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history

Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,

Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition

Was that their lips, still touched with fire,

Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song.

And who hoarded from the Spring branches

The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.

(The rest of the poem can be read here.)



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In my last post I talked about the risk of praise, and I am not sure I was correct. I heard from one sibling and a close friend that my parents didn't, to their knowledge, ever praise any of us to our faces. Now I am not sure what is true or false about my latest assessment. But I liked another sister's comment that my parents, my mother in particular, just expected us to grow up, sort of like plants. A little sun and good weather, and we'd be fine.  I think that's probably accurate. She was good with plants. And flower arranging. 

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And the more I think about it, the more  I realize I don't think I'd ever have even tried to succeed as a poet if I had not had such kind professors as David Lehman and Lynn Luria Suckenick and Alberta Turner and Sydney Lea. And they were very generous with the praise. I have this one funny memory of Lynn -- who passed away in 1995--she was so sweet, but this one day she saw a photograph of me pregnant and commented, You looked like a had a goldfish in your belly . . . Are you sure that was your son in there? 

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