Debra Nystrom's poem "Smoke Break Behind the Treatment Center," posted on today's The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, put me smack into the uncomfortable shoes of those jittery smokers at the end of the third week of treatment and the start of family weekend. The poem's power resides in its understated, spare approach to a hot topic, such as noting that in fifteen minutes the patients will "see the ones who've come to find out if / they are changing."
This poem paints a vivid landscape that hints at the painful inner world of those in treatment:"this door behind / the cafeteria, where they can look across / to the stubble field, world of chopped-off stalks / that has ripped them up, that they needed / too much from."
Poems have the power to build empathy by letting us experience other worlds far removed from our own. In this poem, I can see and smell the smoke from the cigarettes, and though there is no description of anyone's face, I can imagine the pain in those eyes.
"Smoke Break Behind the Treatment Center" by Debra Nystrom, from Bad River Road. © Sarabande Books, 2009.
On May 11, at "An Evening of Poetry at the White House," President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed renowned poets, such as Rita Dove and Billy Collins, to
She saved me. When I arrived in 6th grade, / a known criminal, the new teacher / asked me to stay after school the first day, she said / I've heard about you."
Sheila Packa's poem, "Not Forgotten," recently posted on May 18 on The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor took me back to summer days of wobbly bike riding that turned into the thrill of flying on two wheels. I love the way Packa captures the father-daughter dynamic with such vivid imagery.
Jim and I both become kids once again as we ride our bikes on trails around town and explore trails around Minnesota. Last summer we biked the Lake Wobegone Trail up by Collegeville, and we highly recommend it. While bike riding, I get a good workout as ideas for my writing "cook." I often gain fresh perspectives for a particular poem or essay from the passing landscapes.
Happy trails to you, and all the best with your summer writing.
Poetry Foundation has posted an interview with this year's 2011 Poetry Out Loud winner Youssef Biaz. He read his favorite poem (and one of mine), "Filling Station," by Elizabeth Bishop [click on title to hear Bishop's wonderful reading of it], one of the most highly revered American poets of the last 50 years.
Here's an excerpt from the interview:
What would you tell students interested in Poetry Out Loud who may not have participated?
I would encourage them even if they don’t have an interest in poetry. Public speaking is a wonderful skill, and it’s a wonderful feeling to be able to communicate a message to an audience.
According to the website, "Biaz was introduced to poetry through his English teacher, Davis Thompson, who brought the Poetry Out Loud program to students at Auburn High School in Auburn, Alabama last year—the first year that Biaz served as Alabama State Champion and became a national finalist."
I hope the Poetry Out Loud program keeps flourishing in the years ahead. It takes dedicated high school English teachers like Thompson to nurture talented students like Youssef and make it happen. I like this video, "What Teachers Make," by Taylor Mali, that one of my writing students shared with me last year. Mali captures the impact of a good teacher with skill and humor.
David Brooks wrote an interesting article, "Poetry for Everyday Life," in the New York Times this past week. Here's an excerpt:
Here's a response to the article:
To the Editor:
David Brooks’s column is a strong piece of advocacy for the arts in education. “Metaphors are not rhetorical frills at the edge of how we think,” he writes, paraphrasing James Geary. “They are at the very heart of it.”
And this is what educators know about the importance of the standing, speaking, moving, memorizing, hearing and seeing in an arts curriculum: they are not frills, they are at the heart of learning. They are the nation’s hope for a strong, confident and competitive future.
In our panic over how badly we’ve used our resources, how shortsighted we’ve been, how deeply we’ve gone into debt, we could cut out our hearts.
New York, April 12, 2011
The writer is the actor, performance artist and clown.
What do you think of the role and importance of metaphor in language? The importance of supporting a strong arts curriculum? At dinner tonight, a friend who is an art history professor told us that the outstanding music program at the elementary school in her small hometown in Pennsylvania is being cut. A sad story, and one we hear all too often. After dinner, we went to a terrific musical comedy, "Lucky Stiff," at SMSU. All those singers and actors on stage have had lots of opportunities to develop their talent starting in elementary school and continuing in high school. What happens to talent that is not nurtured? Makes me think of a Langston Hughes poem, "A Dream Deferred," rife with vivid metaphors:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Brilliant spring day in Marshall--sunny, 50-ish, bright blue sky with wisps of cirrus high above, the smell of the earth waking up. First, I attended a great anusara yoga class taught by Kristin Knight at Prairie Yoga, then later took a long walk with my husband Jim on the bike trail with our dog Maya. The Redwood River beside us, high, fast-moving. No wind today, no mosquitoes yet. A hawk hovering above, circling lazily.
We didn't see any geese overhead today, but just as I was walking into work one morning last week I stared up at a spectacular set of interlocking V-formations, the honking calls described in one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems, "Wild Geese."
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We're dog people, and we've been blessed with a good string of lovable, rascally dogs over the years--Sugar, Halley, Mollie, and now Maya, who is a Black Labrador and Bassett mix . I've written my share of dog poems, and I always love to read a good dog poem. Enjoy.
American Life in Poetry: Column 314
BY TED KOOSER, U.S. POET LAUREATE, 2004-2006
Maybe you have to be a poet to get away with sniffing the paws of a dog, and I have sniffed the paws of all of mine, which almost always smell like hayfields in sunlight. Here Jane Varley, who lives in Ohio, offers us a touching last moment with a dear friend.
Packing the Car for Our Western Camping Trip
What we will remember—we tried to take the dog,
packed around him, making a cozy spot
at the back of the Subaru, blocking out the sun,
resisting the obvious--
he was too old, he would not make it.
And when he died in Minnesota,
we smelled and smelled his paws,
arthritic and untouchable these last many years,
took those marvelous paws up into our faces.
They smelled of dark clay
and sweet flower bloom decay.
American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation, publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2009 by Jane Varley, whose most recent book is a memoir, Flood Stage and Rising, University of Nebraska Press, 2005. Poem reprinted from Poems & Plays, No. 16, 2009, by permission of Jane Varley and the publisher. Introduction copyright © 2011 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction's author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.
One of my goals for my writing life: I want to memorize more of my own and other writers' poems so I can carry them on my tongue wherever I go. Speak the words for strength and solace on the journey. Share them around a campfire with family and friends. OK, I'll admit it--it might help to keep the grey matter firing as well. I'm inspired by poets Philip Dacey, Susan McLean and Beth Ann Fennelly who are all masters of memorization.
This poem by Naomi Shihab Nye is on my list of poems I want to "know by heart"--such a wonderful phrase.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
-Naomi Shihab Nye
On The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor, today's poem is "Forgetfulness" by Billy Collins. Click on the poem's title to watch an innovative video with Collins reading this beautiful poem about the slippery ways of memory. This poem will resonate with anyone who has had a loved one suffering from Alzheimer's or dementia.
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.