The Stirring “Occasional” Poem of the 2021 U.S. Inauguration Poet, Amanda Gorman

U.S. 2021 Inauguration poet, Amanda Gorman

from The Hill We Climb

And so we lift our gazes, not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.

Amanada Gorman, U.S. Inauguration poet, January 20th, 2021

Just how real this poem is, written by twenty-two year old Amanada Gorman was proved to me in a comment in marked contrast to this poem’s wisodom, geneosity amd hope. What made the comment worse was that it came from a white credibly-published American poet in California. His response to my Canadian friend’s excited and positive post of Gorman’s reading at the inauguration was to call her “a moron.” Someone who became Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. and goes to Harvard, a moron? Oh dear. I think it says more about the man than it does about Gorman.

The comment and the post has been removed but it was a singular reminder that the divide Gorman calls closed may be far from it. At this moment. What would it take for that man to be able to say:  ” We lay down our arms/ so we can reach out our arms.”  I wonder about imagination. Gorman’s imagination is on full display in her poem. That she can imagine a country where divides and divisions end. Where arms can be put down so arms can reach out. Wade Davis, the noted social anthropoligist says” imagination is the enemy of dispair.” I would say that male poet beset with his own version of despair may be lacking the imagination to fight it. What could change him? What can change any of us stuck in a “I am right, you are wrong” place? That’s the answer we all need today.

When I saw Amanda perform her poem I was moved by its intelligence and power. And by the way she delivered it.  Like a “spoken word” piece. That energy and focussed impact.  At twenty two to write a “spoken word” piece like this is beyond commendable. Bravo! I found it compelling in its hope and its truth telling. It was finished the night of the Capitol riots on Januray 6th. If it could even open one heart dead set against the Biden presidency that would be a victory in my mind. The entrenched mindsets that would dismiss her poem can bring me close to despair. Then I have to remember. Put down arms, reach out your arms! Thank you Amanda.

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[Not So] Silly Old Man, Wet and Laughing in the Rain – Bill Cunningham (May 16th, 1942 – January 12th, 2020) R.I.P. And You Did Not End Up Having Simply Visited This World!

Bill Cunningham (1942-2021) in Florida in 2018 – A man for all seasons, wet or dry!

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems Volume I, Beacon Press, 1992

With a burdened heart I say good-bye tonight to one of the greatest gifts poetry has brought me – Bill Cunningham. An extraordinarily fine human being by any measure. Dead today from cancer. And for sure this man, this dearest of dear friends, did not as Mary Oliver writes: end up simply having visited this world. He went eyeball to eyeball with it, stood tall, up to his elbows in the beauty and mud of this world! And in one of his latest poems featured below he imagined himself as a silly old man wet and laughing in the rain. That kind of eyeball to eyeball!

And one of the great beauties and gifts of this world for him was the birth of his grandson Jad almnost three years ago. We all got a great laugh when his daughters remembered how he said he would not be an available-all-the-time kind of grandfather if he ever became one. Well, within weeks if not days of Jad’s birth he was showing up pretty well daily to help out! And when Jad’s mum, Ali, went back to work Bill was there dutifully and happily at 7 in the morning  every day, except weekends, for a long time! And was a constant visitor after that time as well until Jad went daycare where Bill would often pick him up and take him home!

One of my first memories of him was at Surfside, Texas when he joined a poetry retreat I was leading there in 2011. A retreat organized by other dear friends from poetry, the late Andy Parker and his wife Liz. Imagine this: he is in Texas and comes to visit dear friends, nine months after his beloved wife Liliana had died of cancer. They bring him to the retreat! I still remember the beautiful poem he wrote about the last days of his wife and also him reciting Rilke in German and then in English.

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Everything Itself Even More So – The Poetry of American Poet Dion O’Reilly

American poet Dion O’Reilly from California


Burned Body Contemplates the
Bottom Sheets

Not razors exactly, more like
powdered glass. Gunpowder.
Asbestos maybe. Superglue,
so when I moved it wrenched
the dendrites of my skin.
I had no skin. I’m sorry.
I had no skin.
What I really mean is
the sheets were slim silver
whips. As slim and silver
as millions of threads, stitching
their silver through
what shouldn’t be seen.
The undergarments of flesh
should be secret.
I mean the body is a fruit
that should never be peeled.
Never eaten by air.
Never touched behind
the thin curtain of its cover.
The sheets were touch.
Not touch. There was no
touch. There was a diamond-
bright rake and flay
I sank from. Into the dark-
red halls and caverns
of my guts. To the proper hush-
and-flow machine
of a living girl.
Breath. Nephron flow
of urine. Pancreas
ooze of insulin. The wish
wish wish of the heart
crying itself out
to the sheet.
The sheet holding me.

Dion O’Reilly from Narrative, Fall, 2020

If I had bruises from reading some of the hard-hitting poems in Dion O’Reilly’s recent poetry collection, Ghost Dogs, published last year, then from her new poems published on-line in Narrative in its Fall 2020 issue, I have more and they aren’t shadowy marks, they are purple-blue. And don’t get me wrong, these are good bruises not the ones the speaker in O’Reilly’s poem shares from Ghost Dogs. And oh the fierce cry of her escape from all that:

Her mother with whatever she used
against her children’s shining faces-
flat of the palm, butter knives,
thin branches pruned from apple trees.
Her father watching, grim and satisfied-
they can’t catch her.

Dion O’Reilly from her poem Eighteen from Ghost Dogs, Terrapin Books, 2020

Okay the bruise in me from this has purple in it, too. But it is the kind of brusing I want from a poet giving me an is-ness in her writing that makes the words burn. The kind of experience Charles Wright writes about in his poem Clear Night: I want to be bruised by God./ I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out./I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed./ I want to be entered and picked clean. Read More »

Making Poetry Out of the Poetry, The Poetic Prose, of Arundhati Roy – an Erasure Poem by Richard Osler

Arundhati Roy. Photo Credit: The Guardian 2020


An Erasure

This thing happened, a virus, yes, but more,
than a virus…the mighty kneel, the world
halts, trying to stitch future to past, refusing
the rupture, the rupture,
this terrible despair,
a chance to rethink the dooms worse than
a pandemic. Imagine a portal, a gateway.
We can drag carcasses, prejudices and hatred,
avarice, data banks and dead ideas, dead
rivers and smoky skies behind us or walk
through lightly, little luggage, ready
to imagine another world, and fight for it.

Richard Osler and Arundhati Roy based on an excerpt from The Pandemic is a Portal by Arundhati Roy, 2020

As seen below, this poem comes from an erasure
of the last few paragraphs of The Pandemic is a Portal,
by Arundhati Roy, an essay in her book: Azadi:
Freedom. Fascism. Fiction.
, Haymarket
Books, 2020

Only once in a while do I share my own poems in a blog post. But call this one a hybrid, a poem by Richard Osler and Arundhati Roy! An erasure of part of her essay The Pandemic is a Portal. Normally in an erasure poem I would want the resulting poem to be almost not recognizable from the original! But in this case that didn’t seem to work and I did want to capture some of the power of what Arundhati was saying! Let’s not miss this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make some big changes because of the pandemic.

Here is the actual erasure on the image and words supplied by Florian Gonzalez on Pinterest. Thank you Florian. And directly below it is Florian’s original image with Arundhati’s words!

Arundhati Roy from her essay The Pandemic is a Portal from her book, Azadi:Freedom. Facisim. Fiction.,Haymarket Books, 2020. Image customized and posted on Pinterest by Florian Gonzalez.

 

The Shocking and Transformative Power of Poetry – A Poem by Gregory Scofield

The Billboard at AKA-Artist Run in Saskatoon in 2018
of Gregory Scofield’s Poem: She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars

 

She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars (Nikâwi’s Song) 

She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars
She is laughing more than the men who
beat her.
She is ten horses breaking open the day.
She is new to her bones.
She is holy in the dust.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She is singing louder than the men
who raped her.
She is walking beyond the Milky Way
She is new to her breath.
She is sacred in her breathing.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She holds the light more than those
who despised her.
She is folding clouds in her movement.
She is new to this sound.
She is unbroken flesh.

She is spitting a mouthful of stars.
She is laughing more than those
who shamed her.
She is ten horses breaking open the dark.
She is new to these bones.
She is holy in their dust.

Gregory Scofield (1966 – ) from CBC’s The next Chapter, January 2016

An elegy. A hymn. A praise poem. The epigraph poem to this blog post, She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars, is an extraordinary poetic achievement by Gregory Scofield. He takes one of the great tragic stories in recent Canadian history (our murdered and missing indigenous women) and turns it on its head. Gives a lament a triumphant turn. Gives disempowered women an extraordinary afterlife. The hope and celebration in this poem out of something seemingly so hopeless and worthy of despair seems an apt way to begin 2021 after a such a desperate and despairing 2020. Thank you Gregory.

Gregory, a Métis of Cree, Scottish, French and Jewish descent is known for his advocacy and activism on behalf of murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. As a high school dropout he has developed a remarkable CV. Currently an assistant professor of writing at the University of Victoria, B.C., he is a poet (eight volumes) memoirist, activist and traditional beadmaker. His epigraph poem is not only a searing tribute to those women (“She”)but is particularly poignant because his aunt was one of those women, murdered in 1998.

Turn Stones into Altars and Everything Is Going to Be All Right – The Wisdom of Irish Poets, Pádraig Ó Tuama and Derek Mahon

Irish poet, community leader and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama

So let us pick up the stones over which we stumble, friends, and build altars. Let us listen to the sound of breath in our bodies. let us listen to the sounds of our own voices, of our own names, of our own fears. Let us name the harsh light and soft darkness that surround us. Let’s claw ourselves out of the graves we’ve dug, let’s lick the earth from our fingers. Let us look up, and out, and around. the world is big, and wide, and wild and wonderful and wicked, and our lives are murky, magnificent, malleable and full of meaning. Oremus. Let us pray.

Pádraig Ó Tuama from Daily Prayers with the Corrymeela Community, Church House Publishing, 2017

What a meditation to close out 2020 from the poet, curator of Poetry Unbound podcast and theologian, Pádraig Ó Tuama! To make altars of the trials and tribulations that trip us up! To listen to ourselves starting with our breath! To name our fears! And then his huge call out for us to claw ourselves out of the graves we’ve dug! And this: let’s lick the earth from our fingers! And to remember in spite of a wicked world it is wide and wonderful and we are murky, magnificent, malleable and full of meaning. Yes and yes and yes! Thank you Padraig for being such a light during a murky year!

Padraig who lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is becoming one of the more prominent spiritual leaders and poetry supporters in the English speaking world. He is currently the poet-in-residence for The Church of Heavenly Rest in New York where he has been leading remarkable seminars and workshops and he is the voice and commentator for the On Being’s poetry podcast Poetry Unbound! He was also a featured panelist with Marie Howe during the 2020 Collective Trauma Summit in October that drew more than 80,000 participants.

What ever it is we pray or don’t I am so grabbed by Padraig’s invocation and call out. And I hope it grabs you too! Let us celebrate our humanity and not only look for meaning in 2021 but be a source of constructive and life-giving meaning in the lives of others especially through our writing. especially through our poetry! Read More »

We Must Write Love Poems in a Burning World – The Inspiring Poetry and Prose of American Poet Katie Farris

American poet Katie Farris

 

Why Write Love Poetry in a Burning World

To train myself to find, in the midst of hell
what isn’t hell.
The body, bald, cancerous, but still
beautiful enough to
imagine living the body
washing the body
replacing a loose front
porch step the body chewing
what it takes to keep a body
going—
this scene has a tune
a language I can read
this scene has a door
I cannot close I stand
within its wedge
I stand within its shield
Why write love poetry in a burning world?
To train myself, in the midst of a burning world,
to offer poems of love to a burning world.

Katie Farris from a Facebook Post, October 9th, 2020

For those of you following the American poet Katie Farris or her American Ukranian poet-partner Ilya Kaminsky on Facebook you will know Katie has been in treatment for breast cancer for a number of months. I first found this out back in October which was when I also noticed Ilya had shaved his head in solidarity with her.

We may be poets whose words can imagine so much out of air but life imposes its own forms and limitations. There’s nothing free in free verse some famous poet once said and there is nothing free in the poetry we make out of our lives. We must live within what our lives give us but we can always give it our best! And Katie is doing this with the poems pouring out of her this year. More than three hundred, she says.

I know many poets who say they have written poems that pre-figure things in their life. On the happy side of that formula a poem of mine prefigured my relationship with my dearheart Somae, my wife. In a much less happy side a poem of Katie’s prefigured her breast cancer as she writes about so movingly below.

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Finding the Poetry in the Pain – A Pandemic Anthology from Tupelo Press, Launched On-Line Dec. 6th, 2020

Four Quartets – Poetry in the Pandemic. Tupelo Press, 2020

Dear Tomorrow,

I could do it again, watch the heron carry
my grandmother’s verses to its despair garden.
I could be a citizen of evergreens and tend
to a homeland of weeds in the forest with something
resembling love. I can accept the patience white
strawberries require. I can learn prayers in the spring
kingdom, can learn from my dog bounding after
the deer that it’s okay to believe I carry the instincts
of my ancestors. Yes, there’s still a chance for us
both to be tooth and moon and wild recovery.
There’s still a chance my last love will not become
my new enemy. Trust me, the faith it takes to let
the violets bruise the yard without slurring through
the grass in panic is almost mine. I can refuse
the image its eager metaphor. I know better now.
Dusk summons me home with its sapphire curfew.
Do you want to know how I do it? I expect nothing.
And then, and then then, the bright surprise of your arrival.

Traci Brimhall from Four Quartets – Poetry in the Pandemic, Tupelo Press, 2020

It was last minute. I know. But yesterday I gave a heads up for a fabulous event as it started! Tupelo Press out of Mass. USA wass hosting the launch of their astonishing anthology – Four Quartets. No, nothing to do with T.S. Eliot but everything to do with luminous writing from eighteen American poets and a photographer responding to the Covid-19 pandemic.

And this anthology is quirky! It is really 15 chapbooks of poetry and a photo essay! And two of the chapbooks are collaborations between poets. We get to read them truly as one voice in each chapbook! Amazing. One is written by well known poet Yusef Komunyakka and Lauren McClung. The other by Traci Brimhall and Brynn Saito whose poem is featured above. What a series of ghazals Brynn and Traci wrote together. Seamless. No sense of two different voices. The poem above is one of two non-ghazals in their collection. Brynn wrote the opening non-ghazal poem and Traci, the last.

I picked Dear Tomorrow by Traci for its lyric flexibility and the gorgeousness of its lines. This: both to be tooth and moon and wild recovery” Yes. And this: Trust me, the faith it takes to let/ the violets bruise the yard without slurring through/ the grass in panic is almost mine.

Brynn and Traci have been collaborating since 2009! Their collaboration in this collection is enough to justify buying the whole book! And the other poets are no slouches! Each of these chapbooks and the photo essay are keepers. Twelve of the chapbooks were picked by Tupelo then they opened the anthology up to other submissions. They had a 1000 submissioms for twelve pages of poems per submission. They picked four. Amazing. And in record time here it is!

Other poets in the collection are Jimmy Santiago Baca, a long-time favoriate of mine, Denise Duhamel one of America’s great so-called ultra-talk poets, Rick Barot, featured in a Ellen Bass’s on-poing on-line course, Maggie Queeny, A. Van Jordan, multi-media artist and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Lee Young-Ju, Jon Davis, J. Mae Barizo, Dora Malech, Ken Chen, Shane McCrae, Mary Jo Bang and Stephanie Strickland.

The photo essay by B.A.Van Sise is a stand out. Taken this year, and some if not all taken during the first wave of the pandemic, it has a bleak honesty that back and white photos can deliver so well! The pic of a freighter called EVER LIVING with a black mother and child in the foreground could be a kind of “Pieta” image. And the paradox of a freighter called EVER LIVING while an “ever dying” is going on in the pandemic. Masterful and horrifying.

Van Sise says this: Few of these images are the ones I expected to see— but in reality history, like poetry, never seems to turn out the way it’s planned. Truth is never the same as memory.// These are some of this year’s photographs, from our increasingly infinite present.

This book is a keeper. Not surprising coming as it does from Tupelo Press, one of the top independant literary publishers in the U.S.

Shout, Shout Out from Your Tiny, Tiny Boat! An online Poetry-as-Prayer Retreat – Nov. 5, 6, and 7th, 2020 – Sponsored by Hillhurst United Church, Calgary

 

This year’s title for the Hillhurst poetry-as-prayer retreat comes from the Fisherman’s Prayer as quoted by American poet Dorianne Laux, a finalist for the 2020 Pulitzer Prize:

Dear Lord, be good to me,
the sea is so wide
and my boat is so small.

Please consider this invitation to shout out in your own words what calls out from the small boat of your life. To experience the mysterious alchemy of words of poetry that transform into words of prayer. And to discover a truth claimed by Christian Wiman, celebrated poet, essayist, former editor of Poetry and, currently, a teacher at Yale Divinity School: I do think,… that poetry is how religious feeling has survived in me. Partly this is because I have at times experienced in the writing of a poem some access to a power that feels greater than I am…

Through a pre-retreat poetry-as-prayer adventure, two two hour evening sessions from 7 to 9 PM mountain time, Nov. 5th and 6th and a four hour morning session from 9 Am to 1 PM mountain time on Nov. 7th, you will be invited to write your own prayers, your own poems, to honour the words called out of you no matter your writing or poetry experience. To find, as Laux says: the importance of the individual who is stranded in the swirling universe, a figure standing up against the backdrop of eternity. To register please click here.

I was pleased to base this year’s Hillhurst Poetry-as-Prayer retreat on The Fisherman’s Prayer as quoted above by Dorianne Laux. From this exquisite imagistic and poetic prayer comes, from Dorianne and me to you, the call to shout out your “is-ness” back to God, to eternity! And to do that through writing poems/prayers. Poetry as a spiritual practice!

In recent days I came across the Unlikely Conversations Podcast. There, the moderator, Ellie Roscher asked her two conversationalists if they consider writing a spiritual practice? They both answered unequivocally:

“Oh absolutely. The words of Jeremiah: the fire shut up in your bones. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes.

Here is the verse from Jeremiah 20,9: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,’ then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.

“I think reflecting on the way writing is part of a life of prayer is an important part of coming to terms with how this way of being authentically yourself is part of your service to God and the world….[It] is part of the shape of our soul. Not all souls need to write to pray but ours seem to.” Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

What a great expression from Jeremiah. This idea that if we do not express God or, may I add, the sacred in our lives, we have this burning fire in our bones that must come out. And for me I don’t know what burning fire I have in my bones until it begins smoking out of my words on the page or screen!

There are a few spots left for this retreat. Maximum eighteen particpants. I would love to have you join us!

Songs of Dust – Three Poems – Two by Lorna Crozier, Recent Winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and One by Danusha Lameris

Canadian poet and non-fiction writer Lorna Crozier. Wearing her, now, signature glasses! Photo Credit: Elfrida Schragen

Sand From the Gobi Desert

Sand from the Gobi Desert blows across Saskatchewan,
becomes the irritation in an eye. So say the scientists who
separate the smallest pollen from its wings of grit,
identify the origin and name. You have to wonder where
the dust from these fields ends up: Zimbabwe, Fiji,
on the row of shoes outside a mosque in Istanbul,
on the green rise of a belly in the Jade Museum in Angkor Wat?
And what of our breath, grey hair freed from a comb, the torn threads of shadows?
Just now the salt from a woman’s tears settles finely its invisible kiss
on my upper lip. She’s been crying in Paris on the street that means
Middle of the Day though it’s night there, and she doesn’t want the day to come.
Would it comfort her to know another, halfway round the world, can taste her grief?
Another would send her, if she could, the rare flakes of snow
falling here before the sunrise, snow that barely fleeces the brown back of what’s
too dry to be a field of wheat, and winter’s almost passed. Snow on her lashes.
What of apple blossoms, my father’s ashes, small scraps of sadness
that slip out of reach? Is it comforting to know the wind
never travels empty? A sparrow in the Alhambra’s arabesques
rides the laughter spilling from our kitchen, the smell of garlic
makes the dust delicious where and where it falls.

Lorna Crozier from Blue Hour of the Day – Selected Poems, McClelland & Stewart, 2007

(I started this blogpost a number of days ago and in it I included Lorna Crozier and her poetry in a group of some of whom I consider the finest woman poets of Lorna’s generation. I think Lorna  would naturally be included in this group if she were American. One of those poets, as of today, is the Nobel Prize Laureate Louise Glück. I still include Lorna in that group with Louise!)

Strange how it works. I start by writing a blog on American poet Danusha Laméris and in that process find a recent poem by her called Dust. Then I thought I remembered a poem called Gobi Dust by Lorna Crozier and can’t find it anywhere. Instead I find the one that begins this blog post. And then I remember the prose poem “first cause: dust” in Lorna’s 2009 memoir, small beneath the sky. Then in the midst of doing all that I remember Lorna’s latest book of poems, THE HOUSE the SPIRIT BUILDS.(Please click here to read my blog post on a poem from that book last year) . It had been nominated for The City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and I scramble to hear her read from it on a livestream on Sunday night. Later that evening she was announced as the winner, beating out, among others, her friend and former student Steven Price for his 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize long-listed novel Lampedusa. Whew! Where poems and writers will take you.

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