This is the first of the occasional blog posts I look forward to writing in the months and years ahead on this website. Welcome! Welcome to this blog and welcome to this website – Recovering Words.
I chose the name Recovering Words to capture the mystery at the heart of poetry. The mystery that somehow we do not make our poems as much as we find them; that our job is to recover something that already exists or as Ralph Waldo Emerson says: Poetry was already written before time was.
And like a good poem does, Recovering Words has layers of meaning. Some are obvious at the time of writing and some are not. In this case Recovering Words also refers to the work that poetry led me to do with recovering addicts at drug and alcohol recovery centres in B.C. In this work I have seen the reality of addicts recovering so much of themselves in the poems they write – many writing a poem for the first time. They prove to me and themselves again and again what David Richo says in his recent book Being True to Life : ..poetry reflects who we are and shows us how to find out about ourselves.
My journey back to poetry and to leading poetry retreats and workshops proves the wonderful lines written by the writer and speaker, David Whyte: what you can plan/ is too small/ for you to live./ What you can live/ wholeheartedly/will make plans/ enough/for the vitality/ hidden in your sleep.
The words of Whyte reverberated in my mind a few weeks ago as I looked out at the mirage-like blue of the waters off the Texas gulf coast at Surfside south of Lake Jackson.
I was there leading a retreat – To Upset the Ordinary – Poetry as Prayer. Just five years ago I could not have imagined my interest in poetry would have led me here with poets from Austin, Houston and Galveston as well as poets from Lake Jackson, members of St. Timothy’s Episcopalian Church. But it did!
In 2004 I headed down to the Glen Workshop sponsored by Image – a quarterly journal, published for almost 21 years, celebrating art, faith and mystery. Image, led by its irrepressible founder Greg Wolfe, is recognized as one of the leading journals of its kind with a list of contributors that is a who’s who of contemporary writers and artists.
The Glen offers multiple workshops led by the writers and artists whose work graces the pages of Image. It is a creative oasis which combines the best of a workshop, arts festival and conference and attracts more than 200 people every year to Santa Fe, New Mexico. And in 2011 for the first time, the Glen will be split in two – Glen West in Santa Fe and Glen East at Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. See this link: www. imagejournal.org/page/events/the-glen-workshop.com.
I went to the Glen to take my first ever poetry workshop but ended up with much more – membership in a community of inquiring, creative people. I have now attended the Glen six times. One of the people I met at the Glen that first summer was Peggy Rosenthal, scholar and author of numerous books including Praying Through Poetry: Hope for Violent Times. Peggy was the first person to introduce me to the idea of poetry as something to pray through but also to the idea that writing poetry could also be considered an act of prayer. The next year I led my first poetry-as-prayer retreat on Bowen Island where I then lived offshore West Vancouver.
Again, thanks to Image I met Andy Parker and later, his wife Liz through the Glen. Andy and Liz share the priest duties at St. Timothy’s. Andy and I hatched idea of running a retreat sponsored by St. Timothy’s when we both attended workshops in two separate years given by Margaret Gibson and Pete Fairchild. We launched our first retreat last year. For a writing prompt I planned to use poems written by Margaret Gibson and Deborah Digges that featured an amaryllis. But when Andy and I went to find one we discovered they were out of season. We picked a flaming red bromeliad instead! No matter. Many poems/prayers flowered from that exercise.
The challenge to this exercise is to go beyond the eyes, the object itself, and let the imagination flower! The poems by Gibson and Digges do that. Margaret Gibson lives in Connecticut and brings the focus of a contemplative to her writing which has garnered many awards and honours including nomination as a finalist for the National Book Award in 1993. Deborah Digges, an American poet with a fine edginess in her use of words and images died tragically last year. Here are excerpts from their amarylis poems:
God in the near
onion, in the wintered song sparrow
in the long-gone scarlet tanagers, God in the school of orange
carp and the dark amber of watery
in the tissue of chaste berry and skullcap –
God, I have been looking for you
months of waiting
since the last flamboyant flame of leafing
on the worn-down
whose seven red trumpets
could have blown down the walls of Jericho
and raised up the rubble
had I known how to play them
had I known how to let
them play me –
Margaret Gibson (1944 – )
from My Amaryllis
So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes
by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,
my buffoon of a flower,
your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens
in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.
Then he sends out across the land a proclamation-
there must be music, there must be stays of execution
for the already dying.
That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven
leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish
my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.
How you turn my greed ridiculous.
Deborah Digges (1950 – 2009)
This year my choice of an object as a writing prompt for the retreat was not as ambitious. A stone. This choice was prompted, not surprisingly, by Rosenthal and Image. In a recent issue of Image featuring poets in translation Rosenthal profiled a number of books including The Alaphabet in the Park by the Brazilian poet Adelia Prado, translated by Ellen Watson. I was riveted by these two lines of Prado from her poem Passion: Once in a while God takes poetry away from me./ I look at a stone. I see a stone.
As a poet who has dry moments when trying to write a poem is like getting water from a rock (excuse the cliché) or should I stay stone, these lines speak to me about what lies at the heart of poetry: the ability to see with unusual eyes as John O’Donohue says in his last book which was published in the US after he died too soon at age 52 in 2008. When we see with our unusual eyes we see miracles and turn the humdrum ordinary into the extraordinary. We become poets.
Luckily for us God does not take poetry away from Adelia Prado very often it would seem! A devout Roman Catholic, she has written 12 books (six of poetry) since she began publishing her work at age 40. And luckily for us a stone is rarely a stone for her. Here she manages to sneak a stone inside a poem about poetry:
Poetry catches me with her toothed wheel
and forces me to listen, stock still,
to her extravagant discourse.
Poetry embraces me behind the garden wall, she picks up
her skirt and lets me see, loving and loony.
Bad things happen, I tell her,
I, too, am a child of God,
allow me my despair.
Her answer is to draw her hot tongue
across my neck;
she says rod to calm me,
she says stone, geometry,
she gets careless and turns tender,
I take advantage and sneak off,
I run and she runs faster,
I yell and she yells louder,
seven demons stronger.
She catches me, making deep grooves
from tip to toe.
Poetry’s toothed wheel is made of steel.
Adelia Prado ( 1935 – )
Prado has a deceptive playfulness. Here she turns poetry into a sultry seductress but behind her play is the reality of a world where bad things happen, where poetry might give her words like stone and geometry but is at heart a toothed wheel made of steel. It is a good reminder that poetry has a sharp edge if taken seriously.
You might not be able to get water out of stone ( at least from one on the surface) but many poems flowed out of the stones the retreatants wrote about at Surfside a few weeks ago. This is the genius of poetry. This is why William Carlos Williams so famously says in his poem Asphodel – That Greeny Flower: It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.