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Writing and Empathy

Kathleen McCoy:

Marilyn McCabe’s reflections on faith and success seem particularly germane this Easter season. Writers and wonderers, consider.

Originally posted on Marilynonaroll's Blog:

A poem by Dante Di Stefano, “A Drone Pilot Discusses the Story of Abraham and Isaac” (http://www.amethystarsenic.com/issues/4-1/dante-di-stefano.php) compares Abraham’s faith on that day he offered up his son to the kind of everyday faith with which we live our mundane lives, faith that, for example, if we wait in line at a store, we will be served, if we offer up our credit card, the purchase will be successful. “You don’t question the altar or the knife,” he writes. “You don’t ever doubt that the Walmart/will carry the Tide marker you need…” This is kind of stunning, this deep empathy with Abraham’s point of view, speculative though it may be, ironic, rueful. I thought of this poem when I heard a lecture by Alain de Botton about our culturally-based ideas of success and failure (http://www.ted.com/talks/alain_de_botton_a_kinder_gentler_philosophy_of_success). He claims our contemporary understanding of them can lead us to discount the…

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Between “Human” and “Being”

Poets, like humanoids of all stripes, play a balancing game on a daily basis. Grade papers. Run to meetings. Teach classes. Run kids to events and activities. Check in with the spouse. Dust once in a blue moon. Throw leftovers in the microwave. Eat. Run some more. Rinse. Repeat.

It’s what Ekhart Tolle, in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, calls “finding a balance between human and Being” (104). The human part of us is the ego, which is wedded to the roles we play–poet, teacher, wife, mom, etc., etc.–while the Being at our core is timeless, disembodied, the Spirit that transcends all our earthly errand-running, role-shifting, ego-propping, power-grubbing, material-minding chaos.

Today, it’s meeting with the WMDs (Women of Mass Dissemination) to tweak, update, and generally improve our web sites. Tonight it’s marking draft poems for students who are (generally) more confident about their fiction.

But soon–not now, but SOON–it will be just the page and me. Setting the “human aside.” Connecting with poetry. Just . . . Being.

Book Signing

cereusDaughter, do not give your stories to the wind . . . . — “For My Daughter” by Kathleen McCoy
The Willows Bistro in Warrensburg, New York is hosting a book signing/reading event this Saturday, December 7th. I will be selling copies of my chapbook, Night-blooming Cereus and other poems, for $5.00. (Makes a decent stocking stuffer.) I’ll be there from 10:00 – 11:30 a.m.
WillowsBistroFront

100 Thousand Poets for Change

time&place100,000

There may never be a time when it is more important to bring the Big Ideas of Peace and Sustainability home. And nothing brings Big Ideas home to roost like poetry.

It’s been my joy to assemble local poets, artists, and thinkers with a global initiative: the SUNY Adirondack Writers Project is sponsoring 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a poetry reading and informative gathering for peace and sustainability. And heck, I get to say that “Philip Levine likes us on Facebook, and so does Caffe Lena Poetry!”

We have a line-up of award-winning and student poets, artist John Hampshire‘s work, and mini-talks by professors Tim Scherbatskoy on sustainability and Rebecca Pelchar on art and peace.

100,000 medium postcard

Poetry of Witness

How do you feel about “poetry of witness”? I’m referring to a still-debated term used by Carolyn Forche and other poets that respond in their poems to the injustices, oppression, and violence suffered by others.

At the recent AWP conference in Boston, I heard wonderful poets–from the Old Guard and the Newer  alike–including Sharon Olds, Olga Broumas, Kathleen Graber, and Kimiko Hahn–praise Adrienne Rich and Muriel Rukeyser. Carolyn Forche is a long favorite of mine as well.

It’s one of many paths poetry can take, and this one can be fraught. My poetry mentors of the ’80s were mostly men who were, while brilliant artists, indoctrinated in the view that any brand of “political poetry” was, categorically, bad. Today I’m sure their views are more nuanced. At least, I like to think so. I don’t think they would have argued that Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” is a bad poem, nor Randall Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball-Turret Gunner,” but when it came to feminism, domestic violence, abject poverty, and a host of other social issues, they turned away, huddled over poems that remained intensely personal or philosophical. I’ve noticed, over the years, that much of this work is written by women or people of color against whom they would never overtly discriminate today.

What makes “political poetry” good or bad? When does some measure of social activism cross the invisible (perhaps undulating) demarcation between compassion and schlock or opportunism or appropriation of others’ experience?

Please comment!

Do the Catwalk

Doing the catwalk

Doing the catwalk

This year, I’m challenging myself–and any of you who care to join–to claim your own catwalk to move across steadily and with as much grace as we can muster. I’m not talking about a Kate Moss catwalk, but the kind that’s tethered near the tops of trees, a single cable you inch across for the heady experience, and just to convince yourself you can do it. Mine has something to do with picking up and moving on without one of my biggest cheerleaders, searching for contact with the wire, checking my fear at the tree and pressing on to the next one. (And yes, that’s me in the photo last year, nearly hyperventilating with a fear of heights but moving across as I’d urged my students to do. We all made it, unscathed.) The breeze will blow; my balance will not be constant; the air will grow cold. But walking the line requires trusting I can find some words, some truth. I’m harnessed in, after all, so all I love will break my fall.

In her poem, “Apples,” Grace Schulman writes, “beauty strikes just once,/ hard, never in comfort. For that bitter fruit,/ tasting of earth and song, I’d risk exile.” The act of inching across the catwalk is a deliberate pursuit of beauty, but the risk is real, and it can feel like exile. Waiting months for the response of an esteemed publication. Then getting it. Over and over. There are compliments as well as critiques. There is hope. But the rope is high and the trek is long.

This month, I’m revising (for the twenty-something time) several poems in an evolving book-length manuscript while trying to work up a new class on portfolio development for creative writers and kick out a couple of new poem drafts. Then it’ll be a recommitment to sending out small batches of poems. Step by pensive step, I inch across. I think of my lifelong cheerleader, my confidante, my first reader, whose death still does not quite feel real. She wanted to be a writer, but wrote very little. She did publish one article and write a couple of stories and a song. She really wanted me to succeed. I have to walk the walk for myself . . . but I know it’s for her, too. At this rate I may not break any land speed records, but then, I’m not touching the ground.

So, what is your catwalk? What’s your plan to get across?

caroll ann duffy | mr. midas

Kathleen McCoy:

I rarely reblog, but this is a particularly enjoyable piece from Britain’s poet laureate.

Originally posted on poetry dispatch & other notes from the underground:

POETRY DISPATCH No.386 | November 27, 2012

Carol Ann Duffy

Editor’s Note: Though the “Poet Laureate” honor has never been my cup of tea (given the politics present in such selections), I do occasionally visit whatever fashionable Laureates have been honored on the American scene just to see if they have done anything of value for the poetry cause while holding office.

I’m pleased to remind/report that though Billy Collins (far from Laureate material in my humble estimation), sure did one fine thing in his brief “hour upon the stage”: edit the anthology, POETRY 180, A Turning Back to Poetry, an anthology of contemporary poetry that speaks so plainly, so perfectly to one and all.

He also wrote a magnificent intro to this book, wherein, in part, he describes the discomfort many readers experience dealing with a poem. Having experienced the war zone of trying to teach poetry on the…

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Retooling with Rumi

Rumi's attributed photo

Rumi’s attributed photo (Photo credit: Eliza_Tasbihi), courtesy of Flickr

After a series of personal challenges in the past six months (fire, three moves, close deaths, and associated challenges), I’m baaaaack . . . . Now that I’ve dusted off, it’s back to teaching, pulling out the poetry manuscripts, mixing things up (big-time), greasing wheels, feeding my inner nerd, hoping I remember how to see upside-down through my legs like a kid, or, as Fitzgerald famously said, breathing underwater.

I’ve been reading poets new and ancient, the most ancient of whom is Rumi. From eight centuries back, he speaks more clearly through translators like Coleman Barks than most, regardless of their epoch or their age, as in these lines from “Who Says Words with My Mouth?”: “Who looks out with my eyes? What is my soul? / I cannot stop asking” (Selected Poems by Rumi, trans. Coleman Barks [New York: HarperCollins, 1995]). On September 11th this year, at an interfaith community commemoration at Hudson River Music Hall featuring preachers, poets like Paul Pines, and musicians including Duke Ellington‘s granddaughter Mercedes Ellington, I had the privilege and joy of reading Rumi. Preparing for that event, I immersed myself in Rumi’s ecstatic love and wisdom, a tasty tonic for the soul.

If you had told me two decades ago that very soon our culture would broadly celebrate a thirteenth century Persian ecstatic mystic poet, I wouldn’t even have believed you. Rumi’s appeal transcends his faith tradition, eschews false piety, embraces all humanity. You just have to sip his work to get it.

So, if you’re here, if you read or write poetry, what revives your soul? For whose poems do you head when your head is down? Scroll down a little and post a comment, please.

For Adrienne Rich

They led a writing workshop together in Austin...

Rich (right), with writer Audre Lorde (left) and Meridel Le Sueur (middle) in Austin Texas, 1980 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the memory of Adrienne Rich, one of our country’s finest poets who died last week, I offer the following poem, penned a couple of decades ago and revised very recently:

The New Androgyne

She will be like the deaf mute                                                 turned composer:

ink will pulse               through her veins the color

of half-lit midnight                  when grass sways slightly

By turns she will be            gardener and stargazer                  peasant

and prophet                      bag-lady                                   and carpetbagger

pointillist                                                                 and modern dancer

delivering mother                                and midwife delivering

the mother                                           and her child

You will see her                           gradually

rising with the sun                   her origins uncertain

her language                        raw and bold                       her hands stained

strong-boned                                 her eyes deep                    as Andromeda

She will take                                   by the first two fingers

anyone who will                             enter the labyrinth                               listen

to the crackling of leaves                     as she infuses them                with breath

and witness                         her gypsy dance                as she steadily

wrenches                                 an arc of bone                          from her side

–Kathleen McCoy

In the past two weeks I’ve had a house fire, attended a magical manuscript conference, and lost Adrienne Rich.  While I won’t forget any of these occurrences, one of them I can now acknowledge with this piece. For the way she championed the oppressed of all types–gays and lesbians, men and women of color, the imprisoned, the marginalized, the impoverished, and the politically oppressed (all people who have been silenced or ignored)–and did it with beauty, grace, and always, compassion, I am deeply grateful.

Rich helped to show the world the value of the women’s liberation motto that “The personal is political.” This is a good time to reread some of her unforgettable poems like An Atlas of the Difficult World, “Sources,” “Integrity,” “Diving Into the Wreck,” “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law,” and “Twenty-One Love Poems.” Or you may want to read one of her landmark essays such as “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision,” “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson,” “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying,” “Split at the Root,” or her historic rejection of the National Medal of Arts in 1997, when she dared to write to Jane Alexander, then head of the National Endowment for the Arts, that she could not accept an award for a few privileged artists when “the people at large are so dishonored” in this country.

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