I've created a new page, a Poem Gallery, where I'll post some of my published poems from time to time with a little back story about the genesis of the poem. Today I've posted "Conversions at the Motherhouse of the School Sisters of Notre Dame." You may have read about this religious order when they were featured a while back on the cover of TIME magazine. They are part of The Nun Study being conducted by the University of Minnesota on Alzheimer's disease and its impact on the brain.
The Poetry Foundation recently sent out a letter noting that "Ruth Lilly's historic gift made it possible to think of a dedicated building that would be a place for poetry in Chicago, and an addition to the national landscape for poetry." They included an architect's rendering of the new building that "will give to Chicago a place of airy lightness by day and a jewel box, lit from within, by night" (visit poetryfoundation.org/building to see a slide show). The website notes, "Like several other dedicated poetry spaces around the country, the Poetry Foundation building will be a physical manifestation of the nationwide resurgence of poetry in American culture."
The letter adds that "the building will also be a coming home for Poetry." Having perched in rented or donated space since the magazine's founding by Harriet Monroe in 1912, "Poetry will settle into the first ever home of its own just in time to celebrate its centenary." In expressing "the weight of feeling that this carries for us all," the Poetry Foundation Board chairman Don Marshall quoted a poem by Adrienne Rich:
Stone by stone I pile
this cairn of my intention
with the noon's weight on my back,
exposed and vulnerable
across the slanting fields
which I love but cannot save
from floods that are to come;
can only fasten down
with this work of my hands,
these painfully assembled
stones, in the shape of nothing
that has ever existed before.
A pile of stones: an assertion
that this piece of country matters
for large and simple reasons.
A mark of resistance, a sign.
-"A Mark of Resistance," from Poetry, August 1957
Chicago is one of my favorite cities. Having grown up in the suburbs, I loved going to the Art Institute, the Museum of Science and Industry, the Planetarium, and Grant Park for concerts such as the Chicago Blues Festival. This coming summer the doors will open to this new home for poetry, and I look forward to having one more reason to head back from Minnesota to Chicago for a visit.
Tonight SMSU hosted "Of Ebony Embers: Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance," a striking performance by an actor and chamber music trio that examined the lives of the renowned African-American poets Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and Claude McKay, as seen through the eyes of the great muralist and painter Aaron Douglas. It was standing room only in the packed Fine Arts Theatre.
Another ridiculously cold night in Marshall, Minnesota, but with hot jazz on the stage and fine lines by Langston Hughes, Cullen and McKay singing in our ears, we kept real warm inside.
Today my students in Introduction to Creative Writing class brought in one of their favorite pieces of creative writing to share--a poem, a few paragraphs from a short story, a part of a memoir. Some of their choices? Robert Frost's poem "Out, Out--", Ellen Hopkin's novel Impulse, Shel Silverstein's poem "Where the Sidewalk Ends." All strong picks.
But one student surprised me. He chose a poem that had been published by Dannica Dufur, a senior Creative Writing major at Southwest Minnesota State University, in our annual art and literary publication, Perceptions. I wasn't surprised that he chose that particular poem. Dannica is an outstanding writer, and her poem belonged in the company of exceptional writers such as Frost, Hopkins and Silverstein.
What amazed me? That with the vast literary smorgasbord spread in front of him, this student chose Dannica's poem. Why had he chosen it? Her well-crafted, visceral words resonated deeply with his lived experience. As Heather Sellers writes in our textbook, The Practice of Creative Writing: A Guide for Students, "...art is about apprehending a sensory emotional experience." Dannica had created a raw emotional experience by engaging the senses and using vivid images to activate a moving picture in the reader's brain. She had nailed it.
As we take a moment in our busy day to pause and remember the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., we might re-read his speech, "I Have a Dream" or watch a video of it. This reminder of the power of well-crafted words to inspire, to heal and to help create a better world has never been more needed in America than today.
An article about Dana Yost's new book was published yesterday in the Marshall Independent--"Finding the 'right place.'"
The book, The Right Place, a combination of essays and poetry by the former editor and award-winning journalist of the Marshall Independent, "shows how life is never easy in the Midwest," according to Yost, but "there are people committed to the area." He writes eloquently about these people, and he exhorts "other residents--writers, local government leaders, business leaders, anyone with deep roots in the region--to keep thinking critically and passionately about its future."
In these beautifully wrought essays and poems, Yost writes about universals--death, war, faith, illness and grief--and how people deal with them in a specific place. Yost may have moved to Forest City, Iowa, but his heart clearly remains in southwest Minnesota.
When I'm traveling or working in the kitchen, I like to listen to audio books. This week I've been enjoying The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, who had been a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon.
Randy is a good story-teller, and his lecture titled "Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams" made me laugh and made me rethink what goes on in my own classroom. It's no surprise the book is a best-seller. Randy died of pancreatic cancer in July 2008, but his words and his amazing creative energy are still very much with us.
One of the joys of being a poet is discovering new poets whose work feeds and challenges my own work. In the November/December 2010 issue of The American Poetry Review, I read a poem by Donald Platt titled "Young Man at the Blockbuster Video Store, Saturday Night." I was intrigued by his use of tercets with alternating lines--long/short/long and short/long/short--and by his haunting images: "This is Indiana, / America's 'heartland,' a family video store. No man holds hands / here with another / man on the street. Someone has written in pink spray paint / FAGS LIVE HERE / on the sidewalk in front of my gay friends' house. They scrubbed / it off with turpentine. / Ghosts of those pink letters still remain."
I searched for more of Platt's work online and found "Girls with Glow-in-the-Dark Hula Hoops": "...my daughter and her friend don’t / yet feel the ironies radiate / like the day’s heat / up from the asphalt / through the soles of their matching / pink sneakers. As they grow / into their bodies and fill out / the hourglass shapes that spell / women, so they / must grow into history and put on / guilt’s glitter, anger’s / lipstick and sequins."
Both poems tackle tough contemporary issues--sexual identity and race--but do so in a non-polemical, non-preachy manner. They are each narrative poems that pull you into familiar worlds--a video store, childhood games--then, like a yin and yang symbol, show how the dark curves into the light, making it shine that much brighter.
I recently read a good article about writing by Jim Shepard in the July 2009 issue of O Magazine. Here are some excerpts:
"What are we supposed to do when the analytic voices on our shoulders intervene too quickly and start attacking every impulse or idea in its cradle by announcing that it's simply not original enough, not arresting enough, not good enough? Well, as far as I'm concerned, it's not just, as a famous writer once famously suggested, a matter of lowering our standards. It's also a matter of remembering that we need to reconnect with the notion of this sort of creation as play."
"At one point I was writing in my family's hometown in rural Italy and thereby flummoxing my relatives, who had no idea why a healthy man would stay inside the house for hours on end on a sunny day. One afternoon I heard one relative outside my window ask another, "Is Jim working or playing?" And the other said, "I don't know." And it's occurred to me since that that's an indeterminacy to which I should be aspiring. Because as far as we're concerned, when we're doing what we love most, there no longer should be any distinction."
(Jim Shepard's collection, Like You'd Understand Anyway, was a 2007 National Book Award finalist.)
I love to play with words. To capture moments on the page. To explore the physical and spiritual geography of what I call "fly-over country." I write from imagination, observation and my own experience of wandering in fly-over country--the literal, physical spaces of my life on the Minnesota prairie and the inner territory of the soul.