“Whale Fall,” “Reversing the Spell on Mauna Kea,” and “Minotaur,” three poems I read in the Poetry Flash reading series last February, have just been published in the Poetry Flash Literary Review. My thanks to Poetry Flash editor Joyce Jenkins for including me among poets I admire so much! And thanks to both Joyce Jenkins and Richard Silberg for curating one of the West Coast’s best, warmest and liveliest reading series.
Sometimes, magically, one of those perfect readers you imagine when you write something is actually out there in the audience when you read.
It happened last February at Poetry Flash at Moe’s Books in Berkeley. Cynthia Albers was in the audience that night, and later wrote a wonderful blog post about my work.
But I had hand surgery when I got back from Berkeley, and wasn’t able to post for three months. So until now I haven’t had a chance to share Cynthia’s great visual and performing arts site, and say THANK YOU! for the beautiful post.
Last month was National Poetry Writing Month – NaPoWriMo. I decided to commit myself to writing and posting a poem every day for 30 days. I joined a NaPoWriMo Facebook group of a dozen or so poets whose work I admire, and warned my family and friends that I would not be fit to live with for the next month.
Ordinarily, writing poems comes last, after other commitments are fulfilled. Which is why writing retreats are so important to me – when I’m far away from home and can’t take care of other things even if I wanted to, I’m free to focus on writing.
But I want to be able to write at home, too. And I thought that committing to NaPoWriMo – making it my priority to spend whatever time it took to generate a new poem and work on it, at least enough so that I could bring myself to post it for others to see – every day for a month – might be the boot camp reorientation practice I needed.
I don’t work quickly: it takes me a very long time to discover where a poem is trying to go, and how to open space for it to breathe. So would I be able to let other things go during NaPoWriMo and make writing poems my job?
The answer is that it was hard and I struggled with old habits every day. Every evening I felt that I had accomplished nothing during the day, because I had made writing a poem my priority, and that ended up taking so much time and energy that I did very little else.
But it was great discipline. And it gave me the excuse I needed to ignore the inner ringmaster and do what is, in truth, far more important to me.
So NaPoWriMo was a start. I’m trying to keep it up, keep going – if not a poem each day, a poem or two a week? Maybe?
About half the poems I wrote in April are worth continuing to work on. There’s energy there, something calls me, some mystery. The rest are not interesting, which is fine. Writing to prompts was good exercise.
Here, however, is the poem I wrote the very first morning of NaPoWriMo, after an uncomfortable and mostly sleepless night. It’s called
Day One FAIL
In the middle of the night sometimes it’s like a party upstairs and me just wanting to go to sleep.
They start with the terrible jokes. Like last night it was, “Don’t call us ‘Dead,’ call us ‘Otherly Living.’”
Oh, they cracked up over that one.
Of course I was wide awake by then. “No, dammit!” I yelled.“This is MY notebook!”
Oh, go on, write it down, sweetheart! “Otherly Living! Hahaha! It’s a great line!”
So here it is, folks. Be my guests.
First day of NaPoWriMo, everything hurts, no sleep, and THIS is what I’ve got? “Otherly living?”
It’s fine for THEM to be partying all night, but this old rattletrap’s spitting duct tape and baling wire – due for a change if you know what I mean. I don’t have time for this!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally up for an all-night adventure once in a while. But for godsakes! Let it be something I can write home about.
When a whale dies, it becomes whale fall. Its body, an immense ecosystem, sinks slowly to the ocean floor. But that ecosystem changes. First come ratfish, hagfish and sharks – mobile scavengers who smell flesh and swim in to feed. For years, sometimes, the vast world sinks. When it reaches bottom, new colonizers – worms, crustaceans and mollusks – “enrichment opportunists”– move in to feed on leftover blubber or burrow into the sediment beneath the remains.
Finally there are only bones, and the last stage begins. Bacteria begin breaking down lipids inside the bones, generating sulfur, which attracts more bacteria and a huge community of strange mussels, worms, snails…. The whale has left the upper world of light-sourced life and now supports a world based in sulfur.
The universe of whale fall and its infinite layers of meaning, its darkness and its memory of sound, its vast continuum from light to song to trying out, from divers to scavengers to worms to, in the end, the lipid music rising from bones – this has fascinated me ever since I first read about it.
I’ll be reading “Whale Fall” poems in Berkeley at Moe’s Books on February 2nd at 7:30 pm, along with the extraordinary fiction writer Sandra Hunter.
A few weeks ago a friend from western New York sent me a packet of autumn leaves from her woods. They were still soft, just fallen, red and orange and yellow and chartreuse, bright with banked fires.
Until I moved east from California to live with my sweetheart in an old farmhouse in Colden, New York, I had never lived in a place with four distinct seasons.
That October I fell into the madness of love, wandering in the woods, cramming my pockets with leaves that soon faded, staring at the intense blue of the sky. I wrote a love poem, “Fat Time.” And then, as the year turned, I wrote more love poems to other seasons, to a landscape of intoxicating sensory transformation.
The poems became my first book, a cycle of praise poems called Here Along Cazenovia Creek.
I had never known what the winter solstice meant until I lived along Cazenovia Creek. I had never burrowed deep, never wakened to utter white silence. I had never felt a leap of gratitude at the first fat bud, the first bulb pushing through gray ice. I had never swum through air heavy with the respiration of swollen leaves, never watched young deer play leapfrog in the long midsummer evenings.
Now I live in a place where there are no seasons. It is a bold, handsome palette of greens and tropical reds, the same all year round. It is beautiful, and there is no bitter cold, but it does not speak of transformation.
So I miss Colden, especially in the autumn and at times like this — remembering pumpkins and scarecrows, bowls of apples and Indian corn from local farms, a crepuscular early winter dusk, perhaps the first dusting of snow.
Here is a poem for Hallowe’en in Colden, New York, with love and gratitude:
All Saints Eve
At dawn, leaf-ammil flashes
morse for sun.
Old texts of tires melt
into the highway’s margins.
The syllables of maple branches lose
their thousand tongues.
Leaves molder into veins, ghost hands
The last light bears language into darkness.