Monday, April 30, 2012

Poem for a Monday and a Crush

I have a new "poet crush":  Wesley NcNair, the poet laureate of Maine.  Be still my beating literary heart ... he's wonderful ... !

Even the spouse agreed.  I know, that sounds strange, but hey, it's a literary crush. We've just wrapped up Poem in Your Pocket week in Brunswick (all sorts of fun poetry events, culminating with McNair speaking/reading at the local library on Friday night) and I corralled a small group of friends to come with, including the spouse, who usually has no energy for socialization on Friday nights. When he learned poetry and dinner out with friends was on tap for the evening, he growled from the grossfaterstuhl (that's what we call his Big Daddy Chair, in faux German):

"Oh god.  What sort of poetry are you dragging me to hear??"

I took umbrage with the verb "dragging," and accused him of all sorts of high crimes, including becoming a curmudgeon.  Which, it turns out, is a badge he wears with pride. 

Anyhow, off we went (the spouse grumbles, but usually comes along for the ride) and we were treated to a magical evening.  I'm one of those who doesn't "get" the sorts of literary highbrow poems published in places like The New Yorker, where it feels like the poet is speaking, in code, to three of his closest friends who  know the code.  So McNair's poetry, which is so relatable, which had us all laughing out loud, or wiping our eyes, or breathing a collective "Ahhh," at the end, was simply wonderful.

Here's one from his latest collection, Lovers of the Lost, published by David R. Godine press. The cover art (above) is Edward Hopper's Cape Cod Morning. As someone who spends a lot of time weighing the various attributes of particular words, I loved this rumination on a common pronoun. (note: The spouse purchased this volume and had it signed following the reading: from curmudgeon to convert in one night.)


Don't fall for it.
Don't scratch it.
Don't spoil it for everyone else.
Don't take it for granted.

It's not anything to play with.
It's not the end of the world.
It's not brain surgery.
That's not it.

I used to have cravings for it.
It's the last thing I need right now.
I wish it would just go away.
I can't take it anymore.

Why is it so important to you?
Why did you laugh about it?
Why can't you just be quiet about it?
Is it all about you?

It's all sticky.
It's giving me the creeps.
It's worse than I thought.
You're getting it all over yourself.

This is no place for it.
There's no excuse for it.
Take it outside.
Get over it.

Wesley McNair's volumes of poetry include seven collections and two limited editions. He has also published books of prose and anthologies of Maine writing. A recipient of Fulbright and Guggenheim fellowships, he has received two NEA grants and has twice been awarded Rockefeller fellowships for creative work at the Bellagio Center in Italy. His honors in poetry include the Theodore Roethke Prize, the Eunice Tietjens Prize, the Jane Kenyon award, and the Sarah Josepha Hale Medal. In 2006 he was awarded a United States Artists Fellowship for poetry. He lives with his wife, Diane, in Mercer, Maine.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Follow on a Friday: Your Heart

I remember my first encounter with Kit Smith.

I call it an “encounter” because he was three years old, and you don’t really meet a three-year old.  Especially not this one.  I had escaped from my own young children for a blessed hour of peace at a local coffee shop where I often went to get some writing done. Halfway into my first cup of strong coffee, I realized I couldn’t string together one coherent thought. That was because there was a three-year old under a nearby table, crashing giant legos and bellowing in exuberant play … while his parents, enjoying their own coffee and crumpets, blithely ignored him.  I waited for the parents to do, say, something, to their tiny terror, but … no.  They obviously didn’t think there was anything unusual about this din.

They were used to it.

Two decades later, I’ve learned that extraordinary children are often not politely quiet. They don’t color in the lines. They say outrageous things at inappropriate times.  They are hard to raise. Sometimes they crash and burn and all we can do as parents is pray that they’ll emerge, phoenix-like and wiser, from the lessons they’ve learned.  I’ve noticed that those that do, that pull off merging their amazing talents with common sense and discipline, can realize their dreams.

They live a Plan A life.  The first choice, the dream life.  Not the backup plan: the job you’d be willing to live with and pay the mortgage with.

Plan A can be pretty much anything, but what all Plan A’s have in common is the odds.  Low, practially impossible odds of success.  Like, becoming a professional actor.  Publishing a novel.  Singing with the New York Metropolitan opera. Competing in the Olympics.

Or becoming a professional athlete.  Like Kit. Who recently learned he’s made the cut to play lacrosse with the Boston Cannons.  He’ll suit up for his first game tomorrow and I hear a fan club’s worth of folks from our little town in Maine are heading to Beantown to cheer him on:

Granted, Kit has talent, but so do many people who don’t achieve their Plan A dreams.  So what’s the difference between those who “make it” and those who don’t?  Yes, yes, I know, hard work, determination, faith in yourself … we’ve heard it all before.

I had reason recently to “poll” a few of my writer friends about this topic, and novelist Alison McGhee said it best.  I knew Alison back when we were in the same creative writing seminar in college.  Since then, she’s published some 20 books, and achieved a wonderfully satisfying career.  Besides emphasizing the importance of always having enough income to pay for health insurance, here’s what she said:

I myself never had a Plan B. I wanted only to be a writer, and a creative writer, not a journalist or academic. … I wanted to write short stories and poems and novels. So I have never had a real job, really, in my life, besides part-time teaching (health insurance!) Writing those novels and poems always, always was the priority, and I organized my schedule around it from day one. When my kids were born I got up at 4 a.m. so as to get the writing done before they woke up.  Many, many sleepless years.

Eventually, 20+ years down the road, I was/am living the life I always wanted to live. There were many years, decades, when I worked in solitude and without any sort of public affirmation (e.g., 13 years of writing every day before I sold a novel, mostly because it took me a long time to become a good writer). It’s very scary for me, as a mother and as a caretaking sort of human being, to advise anyone to put all their eggs into one basket and never veer from a certain path. But that’s how I did it.

Yes.  It’s as simple, and as terrifying, as that:  No Plan B.  No backup.  No other vision for yourself.  You live Plan A because it’s who you are, and you’re willing to make little or no money doing it, endure long years without outside affirmation, and resist pressure from people who suggest you get a “real” job. Or go to law school.

Like my childhood friend, David, the kid who always had the lead in the school musicals. He was in a lot of denial about himself for a while and told everyone he was going to law school.  At some point he had a reckoning and threw caution to the wind and has gone on to have a wonderful career as an opera singer.  It’s not an easy life: he’s had to find other work between “gigs,” and he travels a lot. But one year, when he was performing with the New York Metropolitan’s traveling company, I got to hear him sing, and I wept.  He was fabulous, this boy I used to know.  Living his Plan A life.

And now there’s Kit.  The Tiny Terror, not so tiny anymore, hurling lacrosse balls like miniature cannons into a goal.  Plan A life.

A few weeks ago another boy I used to know (my 20-year old son) decided to make a few Plan A plans of his own, and auditioned to attend an acting conservatory in London in the fall.  He described the audition itself as surreal:  the folks he performed for registered no response, just stared blankly and scribbled notes as he sang and strutted his stuff in a classroom.  He had no clue what they thought, or how he did, which is unsettling for a stage actor who feeds off the energy from a live audience.

“Whatever,” he told me.  “I didn’t hold back. And in my written statement, I just said I don’t want to be an actor.  I will act.  Anywhere, for whatever money, it doesn’t matter.  I absolutely will do this.”

I didn’t see his audition, but right then I knew:  he got it. 

He’s headed to England in September.  Meanwhile, I’m calling Blue Cross this afternoon to make sure our policy covers him while he’s abroad.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Poem for a Monday: Real Work

At some point we start to learn, really learn, from our children.  I don’t know when it begins, or when it began, for me, but my teenage daughter teaches me every day.

This Monday began her spring break week.  It’s her senior year in high school, and while she’s got some pretty big fun planned for the end of the week, she didn’t have many plans for the beginning.  Unbeknownst to me, she called our local food bank and scheduled volunteer hours for herself. 

She chops vegetables, sorts donations, cooks, cleans, and serves food to the clients who come for a meal and free groceries each day.  She’s been doing this all year, and when I asked her why she chose to spend her spring break this way, she shrugged and said, “I love working there.  It’s so real.”

It made me think of this Marge Piercy poem, which I’ve loved for a long time.  Never, over all the years that I’ve turned to it, did I imagine this would be my daughter.  But, there you have it.

To be of use

The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.

The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.

Marge Piercy is the author of 17 novels, 18 volumes of poetry, a memoir, articles, essays, and criticism.  She was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1936 and currently lives on Cape Cod.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Poem for a Monday

Happy National Poetry month! I've been having Google problems lately (grrrr .... ) so this blog is late and it's already nine days into National Poetry Month. Ah well.

In honor of a MONTH of poetry I wanted to call attention to a wonderful initiative by Maine Poet Laureate, Wesley McNair: Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry.

Each week a poem by a Maine poet is published in two dozen newspapers across the state.
My local paper doesn't participate in this (grrrr .....) but the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance archives all the selected poems, which you can check out here:

So, thank you, Wesley McNair, yay for the MWPA, and yay for National Poetry Month!

A few weeks ago I posted on this blog a poem called Transportation by Maine poet Kristen Lindquist. Last week Garrison Keillor read it on The Writer's Almanac, and this week, as I was looking for a Monday poem, I came across this one by Billy Collins. Like Kristen's, it's set in an airport, where the narrator feels a sort of communion with his fellow travelers.


At the gate, I sit in a row of blue seats
with the possible company of my death,
this sprawling miscellany of people -
carry-on bags and paperbacks -

that could be gathered in a flash
into a band of pilgrims on the last open road.
Not that I think
if our plane crumpled into a mountain

we would all ascend together,
holding hands like a ring of skydivers,
into a sudden gasp of brightness,
or that there would be some common place

for us to reunite to jubilize the moment,
some spaceless, pillarless Greece
where we could, at the count of three,
toss our ashes into the sunny air.

It's just that the way that man has his briefcase
so carefully arranged,
the way that girl is cooling her tea,
and the flow of the comb that woman

passes through her daughter's hair ...
and when you consider the altitude,
the secret parts of the engines,
and all the hard water and the deep canyons below ...

well, I just think it would be good if one of us
maybe stood up and said a few words,
or, so as not to involve the police,
at least quietly wrote something down.

Billy Collins served as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and Poet Laureate of New York State from 2004 to 2006.