Friday, April 26, 2013

The Flint Girls Go To A Fire

One more poem as we near the end of National Poetry Month.  I wrote this rather prosey poem about my Mother and her family twenty-something years ago.  I just came across it again, and decided to publish it here.  I think it's a fun story--at least that was always my intend.  I remember my Mom being a little embarrassed that I said my Dad wasn't a good Catholic.  It's a long story.  Let's just say he was a good-enough Catholic, and so am I. 

Here's the poem.  Enjoy!

The Flint Girls Go To a Fire

My aunt Eleanore had a muskrat fur coat.

My aunt Ruth had a skirt that revealed her knees.
She wore it with platform shoes.
They went to speakeasies
on the Sacramento River during prohibition.
They sat on wooden stools at squat wooden tables
and drank gin.  “We weren’t scared,”
Ruth said.  “We were having fun.”

My grandfather made beer in the basement.
He was of English descent
but my Irish grandmother
would not admit this.
She called him “a Yankee.”
He converted to Catholicism
and was an usher at 9 am Sunday Mass
at St. Francis.
Bishop Armstrong like him.
My grandmother gave the nuns
pink divinity and whiskey for Christmas.
She and my grandfather had four daughters.
They lived in a brick house
across the street from McKinley Park.
There was a road through the middle of the park.
The road was lined with palm trees.

When my mother was ten
she sat on the front porch one Saturday night
with her older sisters Grace and Ruth.
Ma and Pa had gone to the double feature
at the Alhambra.
The theater gave everyone a blue china plate
with the price of adult admission.
Next week they would give out tea cups.

From the front porch of the brick house
my mother saw blue black smoke
billowing into the southwest twilight sky.

“The theater is over there!” declared Ruth.
She was seventeen and knew how to drive a car.
She hastened my aunt Grace and my mother,
whom everyone called “Baby,”
into the red and white chevy
and they sped between the palm trees
through the park.
They turned in front of the theater;
but there was no fire there.
So they followed the smoke
ten blocks down and ten blocks over.
There were police officers
in sweaty blue uniforms
at 20th and W
waving the cars away from the fire.
One of the police officers was the brother
of a boy Ruth went to school with.
“We want to see the fire,” Ruth told him.
He agreed to let them through.
“Not yet!” she said.
she drove to the snack bar
next to the Senator Hotel
on L Street
and bought buttered popcorn
in red and white striped sacks.
She drove back through the police lines
and parked the chevy at the corner
of 19th and W Streets.
The three girls sat in the front seat
eating popcorn and watching
orange flames lick the wooden frame
of the Bethel Temple Christian Church.

My grandmother played the organ at Sunday mass.
At home she played ragtime on a baby grand piano.
She gave bridge parties and served
ham and pickle sandwiches
and high balls.
On summer evenings
my grandfather walked
to the drug store with a tin bucket
and they filled the bucket
with chocolate ice cream.
Some nights the family
piled into the red and white chevy
and drove over the bridge
across the American River
past the trellised hops
to the asparagus fields.
They drove between the irrigated rows
and felt the breeze
blowing cool across the wet ferns.

After my mother graduated from Business College
She worked in a building on N Street
across the street from the State Capitol.
A state policeman picked flowers for her
from the Capitol rose garden.
He presented them to her
as she walked through the park
with her friend Mary.
Mary and my mother ate lunch
at Weinstock’s counter on 12th Street.
On Fridays they ate fish at Robert’s.

My mother learned to knit casting string onto #2 yellow
Ticondaroga pencils.
Her friend Doris taught her and Mary
on a coffee break.
Mary later became my godmother
but they learned to knit
before my mother met my father.
My father was in Germany
at the Battle of the Bulge.
My mother stood in line on K Street
an hour and 15 minutes
to buy a 2 pound box
Sugar was rationed during World War II.
But there was always ice cream
at the USO dances.
My mother and Grace volunteered
at the soda fountain.
The USO had a spring form dance floor.
My mother wore cat’s eye glasses
and open toed shoes.

Grace met the man she would marry
when he was stationed at McClellan Air Force Base.
He was from Montana.
He was a good Catholic.
My mother did not meet my father
until after the was  over.
He was not a good Catholic
but Ma and Pa liked him anyway.
My mother stopped accepting
flowers from the state policeman.

My father liked to watch
the Sacramento Solons play
at Edmunds’ Field.
Julius, who owned
a Men’s Clothing Store on K Street,
had box seats.
He gave my father the tickets
when he wasn’t using them.
My father took my mother
and her nieces and nephews
to the game.

Before my mother got married
she went to Europe
with her friends Mary and Olwen.
They sailed from New York to London
on the Queen Elizabeth.
They were gone three months.
They went to Lourdes and the Vatican.
My mother bought rosaries
that were blessed by the pope
and gave them to her sisters
and brothers-in-law and her nieces
and her nephews.
She also brought back water
from St. Bernadette’s grotto.
My grandmother would put a teaspoon of it
in her coffee every morning
at breakfast.

When my mother married my father
they built a house in the south elbow
of the American River on land
that was once apricot and peach orchards.
And so I chose to be born into this family.
They lived on the flood plain,
in a state of grace.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Encounters with Psychopaths

The other night in my writing group I got starting writing about a woman I worked with many years ago.  I am convinced that this woman was a psychopath.  I’ve tried to write about this woman before, but I always stopped midstream because it was upsetting to think back to this time in my life.  The other night was different, maybe because I was in the safety of the writing circle, with my friends there to support me.

Later I thought, well, I’ve gotten a good start on a personal essay here, maybe I can do it, maybe I can finish this piece.  But then I asked myself:  what’s my point?  What do I want to say?  I don’t want this to be a mere anecdote, so what’s my story?

I can write the story of my year with this woman in such a way so that it sounds outrageously funny.  So what?  The reality is that I was miserable working with her.  I knew she was making up lies about me, but there was nothing I could do about it.  I couldn’t prove anything.  I went to administrators and they were sympathetic.  They actually agreed with me.  I thought they were going to do something.  But they didn’t do anything.  It’s years later and she’s still there, still working with children and their parents.  I was just grateful that the contract I was working under allowed me to ask for a transfer and (at the beginning of the new school year) the district was required to give me that transfer.  If I’d had to stay and work with this woman for another year, I would have resigned.

What is the story here?  I wish I could say something healing, but I have no such wisdom.  I wish I’d handled it better, but—as a therapist friend taught me to chant—I did the best I could with the knowledge I had.  What should we do when we encounter a person like this?  Splash water in her face and hope she melts?

My heart goes out to the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and its aftermath.  I offer prayers for everyone, including the alleged perpetrators and their families. Good wishes and prayers as well to the people of West, Texas, who also endured devastating losses this week.

Friday, April 12, 2013

My Writing Practice

I realized early on that if I was going to be a poet, a notoriously underpaid and underappreciated profession, then I would need a second income—or to be more accurate—an income.

On the flip side, I also realized, as so many artists, writers and musicians have before me, that to practice an art while holding a full time job demands dedication and discipline.  A flair for efficient scheduling also comes in handy.

A regular daily writing practice has been essential for me over the years.  Sure, there have been times that I couldn’t manage it, but I always came back.

What follows is a journal entry I wrote nearly twenty years ago.  It expresses succinctly why a regular practice has been so important to me.

A writer on writing:

For a long time I didn’t want to do anything but write.  I took a job as a teacher’s aide, but when asked, I said I was a writer.
Every morning I pulled myself from bed in pre-dawn darkness, dressed quickly, and wolfed down a cold breakfast.  I huddled in front of the apartment’s lone gas heater, notebook and pen in hand.  Scribble, scribble.  Gray cat flicking his tail at my hip.  Scribble.  My roommates were up and out to work within a half hour but my pre-work ritual was leisurely and long.  I was a poet and on some mornings it came together and I proved it on the page.
In my 20s I was persistent and prolific, published in small local journals and two national anthologies.  I read before handful audiences in bookstores and coffee houses.  I dressed in silk tunics, embroidered jackets and Chinese slippers I bought in thrift stores.  I had fun and a confidence in my art that came from hard work and experience.


I didn’t make a conscious decision to stop writing.  What I did decide was to go back to school to earn my teaching credentials.  Suddenly I had less time and I thought this was the problem.  It wasn’t.  The problem was the world inside my head changed.  But I didn’t notice.  I was too busy to notice.  All I noticed was this:  when I made the time to write I couldn’t write.

A few weeks ago I began again my daily practice.  I have my own house now, old with chipping plaster, and two mortgages.  I subscribe to a morning newspaper and I have inherited my mother’s generational habit of reading the obituaries before I drink my orange juice.  I forego the rest of the newspaper, give my teeth a cursory brush and floss, then blow-dry my hair.

The house has central heating but it is still too cold for me in the morning.  I grab my notebook, my medium point Bic and I huddle in front of a heating vent.  Scribble, scribble.  Rejoice and be glad!  It’s come back! 
What I had forgotten was not the AM hour between a blank page and a heating duct.  What I’d forgotten was the grace of the day that followed.  The words, images, metaphors, and similes rushing at you like trees and billboards and green and white highway signs.  You can stop and grab one, turn it over in your head, contemplate it easily.  Or you can let them rush past; it’s okay!—you can do that.  They’re flashing lights and colors, pretty to glance at, but then you can move on.  There will always be more.  Tomorrow morning when you pick up your pen, there will be more.

So I am realizing, once again, that language is more than words popping into my head or out of my mouth. Language is the house I live in.  It’s my country, my flag, my religion.  It’s my frayed wool blanket, vanilla-colored, with satin ribbon binding the edge.  It’s familiarity; it’s comfort.  It’s a pair of glasses I perch on my nose so I can see the room I’m entering.  It is a steady narration observing, describing, analyzing.  It’s the voice that explains me to me.

Fellow writers:  please tell me about your process and your practice.  Musicians and artists:  how do you keep your creative life alive and kicking?  And are there folks out there who wish they could develop the time and energy to practice an art or a hobby or whatever?

Friday, April 5, 2013

Welcome to April! It's National Poetry Month!

I started writing poetry nearly forty years ago, when I was in college.  I started getting published when I was in my 20s, learning to make my way in the world outside my parents’ house.  My poetry and I were young together.

Poetry for me was short, intense and immediate, like youth.  As I became more settled in life so my poetry did too:  it became longer, rounder, fuller, heavier, more filled with story, until it couldn’t be contained anymore.  Finally it stretched itself out and became a novel.  That’s what I’m focusing on now—writing novels.  But I want forever to be a poet who writes novels.  I want poetry to claim me.  I want poetry to find me worthy.

When I first started writing poetry I wrote without form.  I wrote what came out of my hand, without concern for rhyme or meter.  People often told me that my poetry painted beautiful pictures but the truth is I’m not much good at visualization.  I often find the visual too stimulating, too overwhelming.  I’ve always been an auditory learner.  When I’m writing I choose words because I like the way they sound, I like their rhythm.  Even in free verse, it’s about the sound to me.  It’s about the music.

So let’s post poems this month!  Please share your poems with me.

Here’s a poem I wrote many years ago.  It was published in the anthology, Unlacing:  Ten Irish American Women Poets, edited by Patricia Monaghan (Fireweed Press, 1987).

How to Find the Muse

Think about the sky.

It’s a new blue tablecloth
and a big hipped woman
has carelessly dribbled
gobs of whipped cream
all over it.

There she has set down
an orange bowl.
Smell cinnamon and coriander
as you scoop
spicy carrots
and squash from the bowl
to your mouth.
Bite into a raw cucumber
to cool the fiery curry
on your tongue.

Now drum your fingertips
on the table.
Listen to a jazz quartet.
Tap your feet
on a black and white
tiled floor.
When she starts to sing
those torchy blues
press your lips together
and hum
until you taste sweetened cream
spilling from the sky.

Click on the comments space and share a poem, either one of your own, or one you love!