Sunday Poetry: A feminist Mother’s Day

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

Sunday Poetry: May 11

One of the things I detest most about Mother’s Day (TRUST ME, THERE ARE A LOT) are the facebook posts thanking moms for their sacrifice. My friends praise their moms and think about “all the things they gave up” to make our lives better. Some recognize that they “never wanted for anything,” implying that financial stability is one of the greatest gifts a parents can give. I’ve had a friend assert that one of his reasons for not having children was that he did not feel confident he could make enough money to pay for a child’s entire college education without any loans. It was better not to have children at all than to fail in this essential role.

Inherent in these Mother’s Day posts, to me, is an assumption that a mother’s identity is the sum of her children. Pictures of moms at their daughters’ wedding, or at college graduations not their own. It seems that what we expect from our parents is to sublimate or refuse their own lives and dreams in order to do it all on our behalf.

Isn’t it enough that our parents love us? Can’t we thank them for trying to give us a good life by being themselves, by being role models and teaching us that success isn’t measurable in dollars? Why do we demand their sacrifice?

I tried to write about sacrifice and what other versions of motherhood could be. This isn’t by any means a finished poem, but it’s my attempt to make some sense of the anger I feel and retain some hope that I could be a different kind of mom.

 

i.

how much blood is lost in birth
how much blood in nonbirth
what sacrifice do mothers make enough
to be counted as selfless
as if generating life takes away our selves
steals our bodies
crime of gift to take our minds and our lives

what if motherhood isn’t an altar
or a hospital issuing of what was once mine
not a battle, not a loss
not a taming of the spirit to be always hunched
but rather a transmission to other worlds, other minds
a melding
an embodying

ii.

giving up the self
should only be praised
when it is a lifting of hands to sky
to welcome rainwater in cupped hands.


iii.

what if motherhood is the mama I saw
hastening down the sidewalk
after her toddler practicing walking? 
with every excited step she cautioned
“don’t run, baby, don’t run.”
“there’s lots of cracks, don’t go too fast.”
“just take it easy.”

 

 

There are so many versions and reasons of motherhood, many of which are difficult and dark and sad. I hope that whatever motherhood means to you, you’re doing okay today.

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Sunday Poetry: short poems

Back from a short hiatus, Sunday Poetry is a new series this spring. Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

April 21: short poems

A student recently talked to me about poetry (first– can I take a moment to think about how amazing it is that teenagers talk to me about how poetry works? And that another student sent me an email with the subject “A poem I wrote but don’t want you to share with anyone”? This life of mine is a treasure).

Okay, back to the question at hand– she was wondering how to write or what to write about now that she’s doing well and she’s in a supportive, healthy relationship. How do we write about joy? She identified that it requires a shift of mindset, and maybe a different way of writing altogether.

This reminded me of The Secret Sisters Tiny Desk Concert in which the sisters mention that now that they’re married and happily settled, they don’t know what to write about anymore.

And I’ve been in this place too. When everything seems fine, there’s nothing too interesting to write about. There’s no pain that needs to be expunged. So, no new poems?

The great thing about poetry (one little great among many many) is that it can be used to notice the smallest moments and not to reflect the overall trajectory or mood of a life. That’s where short poems come in. There are still interesting tensions and contradictions within joy and peace. Here’s one of mine:

how can love happen any other way
but quickly
majestically
like a fast otter surfacing joyfully midstream
twitching its whiskers
shaking water freely
about to dive deep in its search for clams?

I originally wrote a second stanza, about springtime and being in love, but it felt canned. And I’m still toying with the question mark. Is the poem compact enough to viably be one sentence?

So to answer my student – our poetry changes when our lives shift in new directions. Most of my poems until quite recently, have been in the same length range, but I’m trying my hand at shorter poems and longer poem sequences. Maybe this is because I write more regularly, and am more willing to revisit poems. That first length range feels comfortable because it is the stretch of time I need to get something important out. Poetry seems less urgent now, because I can trust that it will be there whenever I need it.

Our poetry may change, but it is still ours.

Sunday Poetry: astronomy

Sunday poetry is a new series beginning this Spring! Each week, I’ll post a poem that I’ve been thinking about, whether mine or someone else’s. Tune in for an exploration of how poetry can interrupt and enrich our lives when we least expect it to. 

March 31: astronomy

One of my dearest students has a small obsession with astrology and horoscopes, and she helped me look at my natal chart. I’m an aquarius, but with rising scorpio / saggitarius signs. And apparently my moon is in Virgo? (this seemed like such a chump sign to me– didn’t agree with me at all). And then there’s a lot of dominant Mars rumblings going on. I’m not sure how they’re all connected or what they all mean, but I’m a little fascinated by the idea of seeking signs to tell us who we are. How often do we look outside ourselves for the answers of who we should be? Do we have a way to compare this outside signifying with the urges and signs of our internal selves?

Right in the wake of editing a poem of my own that’s now called “Astronomy,” I ran into this gem in American Poetry Review (Nov/Dec ’18). I’m really intrigued first by the suggestion of two moons and two loves, and then by the lingering temptation that the speaker feels to take tenderness or buy it or take advantage of it. She reminds herself that “tenderness is not for sale,” yet it calls to her. Tenderness and love has called to me so many times. I feel that.

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My own poem starts, “something is violet / in the way you look at me” which at first seemed to be a happy desire. Violet is beautiful and soft, and the speaker can see that in the gaze of her lover. But then, that violet distance becomes astronomical distance, as the speaker looks at the sky above an ocean and wishes that the stars and her lover could come close to her.

How often do you look up at the stars and moon? What do you feel or think when you do?

Another snippet from one of my poems:

I wonder if he knows I started
writing moon poetry because of him,
and that I’ve outgrown that weak light;
I am a sun and sky creature now.

Dear reader, what’s your sign? What kind of creature are you?

Essay Fragments

Essay Fragments

gray and black hive printed textile
Photo by Iva Muškić on Pexels.com

Does your writing sometimes exist in fragments for months at a time?

I have so many ideas for essays, titles, little pieces I’ve written here and there, observations, journal and free-write entries that might eventually become something. Many of my essays come into being sprawled across multiple notebooks and on pages stuck into my folders at school. Once I have an idea, I muse on it for quite a while, and it comes to me in flashes, which I write down fast, pen flying, and then I take a long break, knowing that I’ll eventually . This makes sense, and I think it even makes my writing better, because I’m often dealing with multiple ideas that get twisted up into what I hope becomes an interesting yarn.

I’ll share a couple of my fragments with you:

i.

The probable site of my future wedding is Providence City Hall. 

I feel not tied down to this idea, but excited. Rhode Island has welcomed me and I’ve made it home, so much so that I feel like putting down money for a house; so much so that I want strings of lights in the basement for the many Christmases I’ll spend here. I can imagine walking hand in hand with my little ones down these streets, and meeting them at the library when they’re old enough to go on their own. 

I like that I can smell salt water and drive to the ocean. I like the way people know and honor each other. I like that this place welcomes and values me; that I am not a stray but a refugee seeking haven, that I have found a way to envision futures away from where I came from. 

ii.

At times it seems inevitable. When I tell people I’m a high school English teacher (even in bars; especially in bars), they will look a little sheepish. “I wasn’t very good at English in school,” they will say. And they will follow this with a confession that they either hated reading or writing, or both.

I’ve grown interested in the catalogue of reasons to not read: books never captured their interest, they found all the class books boring, they liked reading as kids but somehow school took the joy out of it, they had learning issues, a disability, ADHD, or were just slow at reading, and they couldn’t keep up. Or they just had better things to do.

My students often hate reading too, and they tell me. Some seem adamant that I will NOT like them, because they DON’T like reading. They’re defiant at the start of the year, and though I wish I could say that every kid in my class learns to love reading by the end of the year, I know that many of them leave for summer and won’t crack a book’s spine for months. As an educator, it’s my responsibility to care about the reasons kids aren’t reading, and to intervene when I can. But as I explain to my classes, I am not personally offended. I intend to make the argument to every teenager I meet that reading is awesome, but if they resist, I do not wither and die. I do have a life outside school, and enough of a solidity in my love for reading that it can resist a little shoving around. I know what books mean to me.

 

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Photo by Kinga Longa on Pexels.com

See, I have to have hope that someday (maybe someday soon, as I’ve been paying a little more attention to prose this week), I will take up these fragments in my hands and lovingly fit them together into something that makes sense. And then, once I have a whole picture to look at, I’ll probably add a frame to my mosaic, then a title, and then smooth out the surface into something beautiful and telling.

 

Poetry Class

Poetry Class

Oh what joy! 🐦

My poetry class (for 11th and 12th graders at my amazing little public high school) has started for this semester, and I am loving it. I designed the course last year with a small group of incredible students who gamely jumped into writing their own poetry and followed me down the path of reading poetry. This took guts — most of them weren’t already poets, and many had those stubborn, thorny views of poetry as a whole: it’s old, boring, and hard. 

Many people think that to get high schoolers to engage with poetry is impossible, but I believe that it is just a matter of getting them to try it. Like when you’re a kid, and your Dad makes a deliciously refined dish — or broccoli– and you are required to take three bites. Three bites, and if you still don’t like it you can go make yourself a PB&J. If I can get kids in the classroom to write three poems and read three poems without realizing that they’re really doing ~POETRY~ then usually they’ll kind of keep going. I know not every kid I teach is going to wholeheartedly embrace poetry, but I think that I can at least open the door.

I said it this way to a junior student who is thinking about taking the course next year: “It is definitely a class that requires creativity and a willingness to just try stuff, even if it doesn’t work. But by the end of it, the goal is that you could read poetry on your own for enjoyment, you have a way of writing poetry that you can always return to,  and you could succeed in a poetry course in college.”

black ball point pen with brown spiral notebook
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As I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, writing beside my students has been simultaneously the best thing to spur my writing practice forward and the best thing to help my students’ writing growth. So, in concordance with this mission, I’ve started producing more poetry again.

We start with memory poems, inspired by Geraldine Connolly’s The Summer I Was Sixteen, then we move on to lists. I write what I assign the students to write, and ended up with a flawed poem about the sky that reminded me of afternoons waiting for my mom to come home from work, and a few different lists of things I see and notice.

An easy way to write a list poem is to write “I Saw” three times, creating three stanzas, and then fill in the blanks. Here’s what I wrote in class, on the whiteboard.

I saw the fog over Providence this morning on the bridge.

I saw a bird looking suspiciously down at me as I walked out my door.

I saw the steam from coffee brewing.

 

It’s simpler than what I usually write, but there are things I like about it. I like that it includes both fog and steam, which are relatively hard to see. I like the story it suggests about birds — in every house I inhabit I seem to make bird enemies, who yell at me or haunt my windows when I’m waking up, or guard their chicks from me up in the eves. I think it’s funny how birds like to yell at us, expecting us to understand what they mean.

My students are always invited to comment on these in-class rough drafts, and I often ask them to help me revise. In this case, one girl was adamant that I should switch the order. It made no sense, she insisted, that I started with driving to work and then went backwards back into my house. She’s right, in a way — it would be clearer to the reader if I swapped the first and last lines. But I like how the morning chases me back inside, into a quieter space. It’s often how I feel in the mornings, boldly venturing out in the cold to drive to a job I love, yet somewhat inclined to go back, bundle into bed once more, return to the warmth of reflective, quiet morning.

Does the poem mean that to a reader, or just to me? If I expanded it or added more entries to my list of things I saw, would it add to the sense of the poem, or just make it seem cluttered? When I write frequently and within a community, I get to have this thought process. Poetry happens spontaneously most of the time (at least in my life), but the handling of the poems once they have come into existence is where great skill is needed. I’m still learning that, and I LOVE having my students around me to help.

Stay tuned for further adventures in poetry!