Sunday Poetry: weakness / strength

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. 

April 28: weakness / strength

Sometimes I think my poetry is weak.

It’s not a commentary on the unique 21st century conundrums of technology and privacy. It doesn’t always deal with cutting-edge social controversies or current events or social justice. Sometimes it does. Sometimes my identity is relevant to the poem. But sometimes I write about waiting for someone to come home, or wanting someone to change; about being alone, about love, about seeing myself in nature. Sometimes I write about vulnerability and grief.

A while ago, I was talking to a friend about getting published. Kind of cool, I thought, to get recognized when all I do is write little love poems.

He stopped me in my tracks. “What could be more important than little love poems?”

 

I have to say I agree. We live in a world where too often simple humanity is seen as weakness, where kindness is seen as an absence of strength rather than an absence of tyranny, where talking about feelings is less important than talking numbers. I want so much to be in a world free of this toxic masculinity, but I still feel doubt that my softness is valuable.

This worry over weakness and strength is found in Elaine Equi’s poem, “Lazy Bones,” recently published in American Poetry Review:

Lazy Bones

Sitting in the waiting room
sucking on the sweet paranoia
of a Shirley Jackson story.

Sitting among silk tulips
and paper roses,

the frosted glass panels
and pale pink walls
of the radiology center.

Then led to a dark cubicle
(politely pornographic?)
for the imaging of my skeleton.

Dave, the tattooed technician
slips a pillow under my knees.

I want to tell him,
“My bones are shy.

I don’t exercise.
I love coffee.

They know they’re weak
and don’t like being photographed.”

 

I was intrigued by the word “weak”, and by the speaker’s advocacy for her bones. She identifies her bones as ‘shy’ as if they are actually humans who don’t like being photographed. The reason given: “they know they’re weak.” The speaker wishes to express this sentiment to Dave, the technician, who is in the position of looking at her (and her bones) and potentially judging them. To stave off the embarrassment of being seen, she wishes to reassure him that she already knows her weaknesses. It’s the same phenomenon of getting up in front of a class to perform a speech and apologizing first: “I know this isn’t very good, but it’s the best I can do.” But the bones do not speak in first person; the speaker wishes to speak on their behalf: “They know they’re weak” (emphasis added). This shows that she feels responsible for their weakness, as we can see from the lines that immediately precede this one: “I don’t exercise / I love coffee.” Here, the speaker is criticizing the actions in her life that have made her bones weak, and therefore critiquing her own character weaknesses as she notices her physical ones.

But she also uses the poem to establish sympathy. Weakness seems allied to softness, gentleness, in the feminine, gentile setting of the waiting room. And she is, after all, here to seek medical help, an act of bravery in my opinion. he speaker must admit that she is weaker than she would like to be, weaker than a healthy person should be, but why should she apologize for that?

This poem seems to suggest that we all have moments when we are weak– we are not always at our peak condition. Sometimes it is because of injury or disease, sometimes because of emotional distress. We also may have moments when we are seen as weak because of our identities, our ages, our gender, our class. We may find embarrassment or judgement in those moments, and may try to avoid it by apologizing or self-deprecating. Instead, we should sympathize with ourselves. It is okay to be soft and vulnerable, and when we feel tired and weak, we should accept the kindness of a pillow gently slid underneath our knees.

Writing about this weakness, these moments of humanity and need, is the role my poetry seems to be serving in my life right now, and in doing so, I think it is making me stronger.

 

Advertisements

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.

20190330_194151

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?

March post on The Aspiring Author Blog

Hello dear readers,

You can see my first monthly post on The Aspiring Author Blog today. I’m so happy to have been given this opportunity to share my thoughts on poetry, nonfiction, and the writing life.

Go on over to see it on the blog > click here

And while you’re there, check out more great posts from the other contributors. Each of us represents our favorite genre, and there are fabulous tips from writing in each.

Love,

Nora

Sunday Poetry: love week

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 24: love week

Part of my poetry class is divided into themed weeks full of contemporary poetry. This week, it’s time for love poetry. I have the kids each write a break-up poem, and I show them some of my own love poetry and read my friend Noa’s poem, “Losing you makes me think of terrible Godzilla analogies and I wish I could explain why but I can’t.” I love love, obviously, and I think poetry is one of the ways to demystify love and yet keep it shrouded in roses.

Last year, I pushed my class to read this poem, but due to its evocative nature and erotic hints, it’s a little much for my new class to handle. But I do love it so:

 

Sunset

Nothing exists in a vacuum,

Least of all that pale shade of pink

Perched at the corner of her mouth.

 

The color recalls grapefruit,

Freshly picked from new heights

Provided by the roof of her neighbor’s house.

 

How many hours did we stay there?

 

Lying on the shingles still warm with afternoon heat,

Trying to pick out the few stars in the sky

That escaped the harsh glare

Of driveway lights turning themselves on at dusk.

Tiffany Babb is a mixed-race, bisexual poet currently based in New York.

 

Happy Sunday; tell someone you love her.