Where does inspiration lie? Everywhere!

This is my attempt to pounce on and then shape the words I breathe.

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Friday, June 29, 2012

On my 61st birthday

I should be vacuuming and completing the little things I do when my parents are coming to visit, but here I am instead capturing these thoughts while they are ripe.  Just an instant ago, I wrote this poem on a theme that has been with me these past few months:  
Hitting the top

I am at the ceiling, I shall want
the days when sky was the limit--
nor is the ceiling made of glass.

I rub my eyes as if clearer vision
will assist me to rise above
like eyeglasses help me to hear.

I have roof tiles in my hands
tar between my teeth,  and grit
in my hair as I bat my head up.

Is the sky still blue?  And clouds?
Are they puffy? sketchy? still?
When did I become color blind?

When bound? What eagle eats
my bloody heart as I relish—
or try to—gifts I once gave?

I resist plucking feathers as past
you zoom and I try again to rise
in the tail of your gravity.

I am exaggerating, of course, but I feel this occasionally in the Halls of the Poets I have been visiting who have not even yet reached the peak of their knowledge or abilities in science, music, mathematics, probability, statistics, philosophy and chance.   I want to crack codes to hear the truths poets share.  Conversely, I want to stand in my own truths and admire the parade as it goes on by, proud that I used to be part of it.  
Amazingly (or not), I find many of them enjoy reading me, too—not as a relic but as a participant in their emerging culture.  It is a daily joy to walk with them as we nudge each other toward our bests. Something true is happening here and the poem above is part of it.   I have tears in my eyes, which I now know is a sign of more to come. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Truth and Poetry, Part Two

In my poetry and fiction I fabricate stories, narrate from perspectives I could not possibly experience directly, and even--when using my exact experience--distance it from myself in some way so that the reader can not assume that I am the "I" that is the voice in the poem.  I seem to use these devices at random--and though there is always a  purpose to my strategy--I am not sure I can always articulate the reasons behind my choices.  Are my poems untruths, then?  

This question came to me because of new experience I am having workshopping my poems in two on-line groups.  The posted poems are exceedingly  good, and the comments range from helpful to outright praise.  But those who comment often speak to the writers as if they were the voice and as if they experienced the emotions and actions they present in their poems.  And the writers' responses often second that impression.  Except in the allegorical types of poetry, then, I feel out of step.  Should I change my ways, or frame my poetry in a fictional contest?  
I think, if I am not telling the truth, I am also not lying.   I write what I know, following the advice Audre Lorde gave me long ago.  But I remember also what Aristotle insisted was the difference between poetry and history: They are two different kinds of truth.  He even implied that poetry's truth was superior.  Here are his words--and yes, I am trusting the translation:  
. . . . [I]t is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen.
       Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.
      By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. 
      The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered. . . .

Aristotle is one dead white male that I don't mind referring to because I believe that he was trying to save education and literature and art back in his day just as many are trying to do now.   His teacher, Plato, and his time were trying to banish art and poetry and theatrical expression from political authority.  The evidence of this is in Plato's Republic, which preceded a new stress on military and local authority and seemed necessary for the obedience required in a more fascist state.  In The Poetics, to which I refer above, Aristotle is trying to establish the necessity of poetry by showing that it too has formal rules that could be quantified and then obeyed.  The Classical Age and its Ideals, according to Aristotle, had to embrace poetry as well as what actually was more controllable.

Two types of truth exist: poetry and history--maybe even more.  And many kinds of lying exist.  Adrienne Rich describes two in her essay "On Lying."  One is lying directly and the other is lying by omission. Plato (and my contemporary faith) show another kind of lying: saying words and taking perspectives that are not our own, IE acting and "playing at" as one does on the stage or when quoting another's truth.  And that is another subject for another time.  In the meantime, I console myself that my poetry fulfills some kind of ministry, even if as yet I do not know what that is.

(I'll be back to provide the links.)

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Truth and Poetry, Part One

Truth has been troubling me lately.  

By "troubling," I mean that it insists on being considered from more than one perspective, and it will give me no peace until I do that.   

By "Truth," I mean truth itself in as much as I experience it.  

As a Quaker, I am a Friend of Truth, which means that I do not have a double standard that lets me lie if I have not taken an oath.   Telling the truth got me in lots of hot water when I was a child, but I could not even lie to avoid punishment.   I laugh about that now although I would live it the same way again.  But I did not discover Friends of Truth until I was fully 30 years old and working alongside them to create the Women’s Encampment for a Future of Peace and Justice.   

Early Quakerism (1660-1760) believed so much in truth and individual experience that it warned against the art of theatre.  Theatre encourages people to act, speak, show things that are not themselves, and deliberately participate in untruths.  It was seen in the same light as gambling and horse racing.  

Things change.  In my 1980s political activism, I had experienced theatre as an essential tool.  It (1) communicates to and convinces audiences of hard truths and (2) re-energizes those who already believe its message.  And when I discerned that my ministry would be in theater, members of the Friends Meeting in Albany, NY helped me season the decision that moved me across the country and earned me a PhD in Dramatic Arts.  

When I moved to Philadelphia 20 years later, I planned to research and write about the late addition of theatre departments at Quaker Colleges—not until the 1960s.  I had just been part of a controversial staging of a “gay” play; and I wanted to examine religious strictures on theatre, dance, and certain populations.   Instead my ministry took me to inner-city public school teaching for the next eleven years. 

Now I am a retired teacher and a poet.  Truth has been troubling me again.  In my poetry I make up persona and experience; I invent situations rather than always tell my own.  Indeed, I distance myself deliberately at times when I seem to be spilling my guts.  It doesn’t always interest me to be plain and simple and straight forward; and if it doesn’t interest me I do not think it will interest my reader.   I use devices to get at a Kind of Truth, but not the one I was talking about earlier.  This behavior borders on equivocation.  "But everyone does it."

Two nights ago, however, I found myself playing the poetry game in front of a Meeting for Worship.  I entertained instead of telling the truth.  I wanted to get a laugh and I did.  Does everyone do that? I wanted to hide that I was in physical pain (chronic condition, long story), and so I talked about going to graduation at my old high school.  This was not a lie, but it was an omission of truth that could ultimately mean I did not ask for help.  Does everyone do that too?  And who cares?

I do.  I told the truth before worship ended, and the corrected lies became a ministry in our silent meeting.

But I believe now that there is a place for a Poetic and Literary Truth that is both different from  and more inclusive than Day to Day Truth.  It doesn't belong in between God and I, but it is part of a God-given ministry of some importance.  

(to be continued) 

Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Gift

Yesterday I went to the Last Poetry Cafe of the 2012 high school seniors at my old place of employment to hear poems from and to read poems to those I abandoned by retiring back in March.  I was surprised and moved when they gave me a little sculpture of 2 white geese, mother and child.  I immediately associated to the fairy tale about the Golden Goose and imagined myself as a guide into a marvelous world.  An instant later I associated this with an undergraduate memory from my sophomore year of college in 1970 when I gathered a tiny contingent of friends for a follow-the-leader to a bar.  The drinking age was 18, not 21 as it is now.  

The way led through a snow and ice encrusted park--according to Worcester, Massachusetts legend, the oldest public park in the USA.  One image stands out in my mind even without a photograph:  Walking single file across a wooden fence rail, I looked back and laughed at the line of "baby ducks" imprinted on me as if a Mom.  I won't tell you about the awful end of the tale where two of us incited a bar fight by pretending we were native Americans (Indians, then).  I don't remember how I got home.  What I remember from the chilled park is the laughter and clouds forming in our breath and lack of fear and delight in being alive.  I remember that I couldn't lead them had they not wanted to follow.  

And that is what I felt yesterday in the school library setting of the cafe, a feeling reminding me of what work had been like a few years back before my actual pinched nerves worsened under the terror of metaphorically pinched ones.  What a gift!  

Teaching had been my ministry and I had loved waking up in the morning to go in, revising long laid plans in my head as I drove: what had worked and what hadn't, which students needed more practice etc.  Driving was for planning and centered prayer, noticing what was new, grinning at yesterday, being friends with Jesus.  Each day I remembered and smiled at my Grandmother's admonition to "be kind."  She had been my art teacher in high school, and she was not kind to me.  In an attempt to avoid favoritism, she had aimed her sharpest comments at me.  Now I wonder if she just wanted me to be excellent, but she was decidedly not kind and I often fought back tears while trying to meet the goal just out of reach by time or by talent.  

As a teacher in love with learning, I think I was kind.  To my own surprise, I was also very conservative in demanding students learn basic skills and formats as well as the creative writing and inquiry that I so loved releasing. Hard that, to want to follow them into the future but to demand observant attention to their artifacts, a kind of meta-learning.  They always "got it" by the end of the year when they put together portfolios of their work along with self-evaluation essays.  These were the real gifts to me and to themselves.  Not everyone cared (understatement) and some hated the classes I taught, but I hope that some will remember how it felt to know they were good because they knew what to look for--to know they were good because they applied this skill to things that mattered to them, not to me or anyone else.  I hope someday when raising children or singing to fans or studying or pumping gas, they will see that as a gift.  Meanwhile, the gift I gave myself is that I did not compromise what education is to me.  I did not cave in to the conformity forced around me.  

I think that same strength is motivating me now as I keep writing and practicing both revision and talking to a public that so far is on-line and very small.  I need the practice.  Yesterday, again, students and a faculty member urged me to publish. I will break through that stay-back-stage, ride-in-the-back-seat mentality with practice.

And the public schools--in the midst of the financial crisis and the unbearable number of pink slips and lost programs--have been re-valuing creativity.  The younger teachers have that covered.  I don't have to be there because, in fact, they are better than I could be with my hit-and-miss methods of finding what works.  If anyone can help students overcome the "I-know-better" mentality they have developed over the last few years, it will be these brave new ones.  I shift my focus to re-directing me, to refuse to compromise on the move toward publishing.  I will try to remember not to aim at perfection, but to get on with it, to finish, just as I told my students.  Honing skills comes with practice.  Meanwhile, do not hide thy light under a bushel.  No more standing behind and pushing others forward without moving myself however small my steps are at first.

I thank my poets for this reflection, for this gift.