Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Dear Cycling: A Sports Version of Dear John

Last weekend, I completed the 9-bridge route for the Providence Bridge Pedal in Portland, Oregon, which was part of welcoming the city's newest bridge, Tilikum Crossing, into regular use. The ride was fantastic, and every couple miles I found myself stopping (ONCE I'D PULLED OVER AND GOTTEN OUT OF THE ACTIVE LANE) to say holy shit, because holy shit, the skyline is so beautiful at 7:30 in the morning in summer, full of whites and purples and pinks, and the new bridge is meant for pedestrians and runners and cyclists, and this is all impossible not to enjoy.

View of the new bridge, Tilikum Crossing, from (I think) the third bridge I crossed.
A few times, I mentioned to Tom, who signed me up for the race in the first place, that the whole sport might be too fussy for me - that or I am too simple for it - I mean, all the accessories and time and repairs and expenses and, no? You disagree?

Tom adores his bike. Bikes. He loves to ride. And so do I - it's fun. You know. It's... fun. Some of my favorite childhood memories are of riding my bike no hands with Chelsea down Pheasant Hill. Biking is cool. I like it.

In all our post-ride glory.

But running, that's different. A couple years ago, my sister got me a copy of Train Like a Mother and, I'm not kidding you, whited out every reference to motherhood or momming and replaced those terms with "Ph.D. student" or "poet". (I didn't have a kid yet and thought books written solely for moms were ridiculous... a feeling which, now that I have a kid, hasn't actually changed much.)

Most active people practice one sport that really hits the spot, that outshines other activities that, sure, you enjoy, but do you love them? I like swimming. I like biking. I like lifting weights. (JK, I lift weights and find it tedious.) But I love running. And no, I'm not a marathon runner, and my knees'  wellbeing keeps me from doing even the half-marathons that, if I'm honest, I'm not really interested in anyway. I run 5-6 miles on a long day and 2-3 most days. I run because it feels good and I can see where I am and I can run in the city or at home or around my work or with a dog. I don't have to operate, carry, or rely on anything that isn't me. The sport is me, and I am the sport. (This is also the downfall of a sprain or other injury, when your "being the sport" is also what keeps you entirely banished from it until recovery.) I go slow when I want to go slow and fast when I want to be fast.

This morning, I broke the roof rack on my car before I could go for a ride, which I thought I needed to do on account of the crunching noise my left knee has been making, and how it seems to buckle when I go up or down stairs. I called Tom. He couldn't walk me through fixing it. Suddenly, biking was too demanding for me. At least for today. I gave my bike the stink-eye, there in the yard. You prick, I thought. I could be running right now.

So I went for a run. A nice, easy, 9:27 mile, two and a half miles, on the Nathan Chapman Memorial Trail. My knee was quiet. I promised it ice. About a half mile in, it started to rain. I could hear the water pressing through the enormous pine trees above me but couldn't feel it. Everything smelled like blackberries. I finished, walked, and went home to work.

Then I wrote a poem about cycling because it was either that or work on conference prep and dissertation revisions and I can do that at night, right? Also, I've been rereading Denise Duhamel's Blowout. Thanks for reading, guys! And cyclists, thanks for your patience. Because we all know how much you value patience.

Dear Cycling

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t try
to make this work because my husband
was watching, that he wanted to see us
barrel down paved trails together
with all the discretion of children,
my mouth purpled by blackberries,
your chains licking grease off my calves.
He’s the one who introduced us:
he brought you home to me one night
and we flirted in the gravel driveway,
your silver sprockets grinning up at me
and a frame I could lift over my head like a cat.
He said you’d be kinder to my knees
than running, you were low-impact,
you could be tailored to my body.
Every relationship ends in a single moment:
one second I’m icing the kneecap
running has bitten and chewed,
the next I’m trying on helmets.
One second I’m shopping for you,
you want reflectors and handlebar tape,
the next I’m whizzing past a cyclist
under chest compressions on the race route.
One second I’m cross-threading the bolt
on the bike rack and the next I’ve given up,
me clinging to the roof of the Subaru
while you sprawl in the yard, kickstand-less,
suddenly slouchier than running ever was,
more expensive and higher maintenance,
too confident. I’m tired of your fussiness
and your time commitment, how long it takes
for you to get my heart pounding.
And the accessories! I’m sick to death
of the gloves and racks and the special shoes
that can’t be walked across hardwood,
the padded shorts and moisture-wicking jerseys
with pockets too narrow for a book of poems.
Cycling, you’re the lover I’ve spent years
wanting to be with because my husband
thinks we’re sexy together, amped up
on speed and glistening in spandex.
But I’ve been too plain for you all along,
a minimalist wanting her simpler art:
the movement of my legs against space.
I’ve been spending more time
with my guru who survives on sneakers
and whatever I happen to be wearing,
who costs nothing and requires no grease,
who accepts twenty minutes 
with the same gratitude he might take an afternoon, 
who tells me, especially in summer, 
that I can come back any time. 
I’ve been running. Cycling, I’ve lost patience 
for you, though you’ve been a gentle friend.
My crumbling kneecaps will miss your tenderness. 
I may come back for that kindness alone, 
but please don’t beg. Stay available. Be cool.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Poetry with Kids: A Break from My Regularly Scheduled Program

I love teaching poetry workshops for adults. You'd hope so, considering that's what I do for a living. I teach at Binghamton University, but I also work for the Binghamton Poetry Project as an instructor for the veterans workshop at the Binghamton Veterans Center, and I've taught at the Broome County Public Library as well. These workshops - there's something magic - I leave each one of them feeling just a little more clear-headed than usual. I feel lighter, luckier, hopeful. The community writers who gather at these workshops love poetry because it loves them back. Beautiful and simple. We read poems aloud, talk about them, respond to creative prompts, bitch about self-promotion and refine our techniques for revision. From the beginning (and my beginning was on Capitol Hill in Seattle, circa 2002, when I took my first undergraduate poetry course), I have wanted to work with adults returning to college, non-traditional students, and all writers interested in exploring their poetic voice.

But I've never gone more than a year without working with kids in some way or another. Usually it's by teaching poetry, but I've also taught violin lessons in Oregon, Alaska and Colorado. I was a substitute teacher in Alaska - one of my favorite jobs as I've traveled the country - and worked with students aged five to eighteen. One day, as I herded 25 kindergarteners into a single file line at Baxter Elementary, each of them demonstrating hallway etiquette by putting their hands on their heads - they looked like prisoners - a boy at the front of the line said, "Why do you have an earring in your lip?" I was glad he'd asked. "Fishing accident," I said. "Oh," he responded, unflinching. "It looks good."

Last year, a few instructors from the Binghamton Poetry Project offered to teach four hour-long poetry workshops at Charles F. Johnson Elementary in Endicott, New York. The teachers were thrilled. Heather, Nicole, Clara and I showed groups of 20 first-graders what it meant to brainstorm, write a list poem, dabble in concrete poetry, and write poems addressed to themselves. The first time I walked into the classroom, a student hopped out of his chair, rushed over to me and said, "My cousin lives in South Carolina!" I congratulated him. What news! No, for serious. How cool.

This past Friday, we went into two elementary schools, Charles F. Johnson and Johnson City Primary, for the same round of workshops. (Nicole was gone, having left to teach poetry at Shippensburg University, but we were joined by masters student LaJoie to take her place.) I managed to secure a tiny honorarium for all of us through the Binghamton Center for Writers, although I know we would have done this work for free. It's that magic we feel when we finish a lesson. The poets look down at their desks and recognize themselves on paper.

Poetry, for one hour, returns to its most fundamental simplicity, shedding the complications and complexities that so often riddle more mature workshops. The pursuit of publication, questions about formal verse and the clarification of rules and references, claims of one poet being stronger than another - all this is absent, long gone, off the table. Everybody in the room likes Shel Silverstein and Kenn Nesbitt because they are what's on the menu. And everybody knows how to write about a game they've played. Everybody's willing. And nobody's anxious.

Each year, before workshops, we worry (a little) at our planning session: what if the kids feel like their poems have to rhyme? What if they don't want to break their lines? What if alliteration eludes them? What if they feel pressured to write a certain way? And the classrooms aren't without problems. Because of testing requirements, kids are coming and going from the classroom constantly, some of them learning the lesson but missing the activity while others miss the lesson and return bewildered for the activity. Sometimes there is pressure to write a certain way, to follow the prompts exactly, and we have to encourage everyone to use their imaginations, to stop worrying and write freely, to break the rules if they want (I know, this sounds awfully familiar to adult workshops). Sometimes it feels like I am breaking into a student's mind, waking her imagination up by dousing it in cold water. Sometimes it is hard to get kids to play.

But poetry - perhaps more universally than soccer, Minecraft, wrestling, or tag - never fails to stimulate that urge to take risks. Kids are natural storytellers. So are we, but some of us have learned to doubt our talent. That's why I'm so glad I get to take these short breaks between teaching adult workshops, which I love so much. If I didn't teach kids, how else would I remember why I've got a lip ring? How would I remember it's exciting to have a cousin in South Carolina? I might forget that playing Duck, Duck, Goose is frustrating for people with bad knees and slow feet. I might not ever think about what Barbie would say if she talked. (One teacher said, "She'd probably tell you to stop putting her in heels.")

And what happens when we forget? I'm not just being sentimental here. If we forget how to play, our poetry becomes more like a recording than a call to action. If we do not play, we lose our ability to cope with fear, sorrow, and anger. Our poetry becomes desperate. The best poets I know are the ones who aren't afraid to play, even in the face of danger and tragedy. Amy Lowell. Ellen Bass. André Breton. Jericho Brown. Carolyn Kizer. Ruth Stone. James Tate. Kwame Dawes. Peter Sears. The list is ridiculously long.

The ability to play lends us power that is useful and manageable. It keeps the mind primed for compassion, love, creativity and fearlessness.

I wanted to share a couple shots of some poems written yesterday by first graders who did not once ask why lines are broken where, or whether their poems had to rhyme. Who dove into the prompts like bowls of frosting. (You may have to do some guesswork on some spelling attempts. That didn't stop them.)

The frustrations of Duck, Duck, Goose. He told me 
the title was "Why I Don't Like Duck, Duck, Goose."

"A Fun Day."

"My Barbie Dreamhouse."

"My iPad Turned into Minecraft."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Guest Author This Week at Best American Poetry

When I was asked to write five guest posts for the good people at Best American Poetry, I decided to go a little further outside my comfort zone than I'm used to. Instead of writing about my own poetry or the subjects I so often study, I composed five brief essays on my experience as a poet who uses meditation to survive the process, the craft, the professional creative writing field.

Please check out those essays here. I welcome your comments! Monday's post set up my personal introduction to meditation; Tuesday's elaborated on the value of compassion and nonviolence; today's is all about identifying "success" in poetry; tomorrow's will discuss mindfulness, and Friday's final post will bring you through the physical practice of walking meditation.

Meditating has not only been the key to my keeping hold of some perspective in this crazy profession, it's also been the reason I can sleep at night, survive Tom's deployments, negotiate anxiety and constant worry and depression. Meditation is available for all types of people, all religions, all backgrounds. We are all broken and beautiful and capable of deep awareness.

Enjoy, and thank you, Stacey Harwood, for the invitation to write for BAP!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Dylan Thomas, ACDC, and a Grumpfest about the Great White (Male) Poet

In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Parker writes that Dylan Thomas was "the last rock-star poet," and that when he died in 1953, poetry died with him. Okay, I get it, we're dealing with a bit of a man-crush here; Parker obviously mourns the ages-old loss of a poet he considered "a wizard".

I have no such man-crush (I'm not a man, and Dylan Thomas is, to me, the creator of some brilliant poems, yes, but he's not a lost love or anything). I kept reading Parker's lament because, well, it's the article about poetry in the December Atlantic. And I'm not ready to read about beheadings or male mid-life crises.

In the second paragraph of Parker's dirge, he croons: "This Welshman was electronically famous, and he constellated in his rumpled persona various blips and signals that all said poet." [Herk. Gag.] [Sorry.] "The bow-tied ham at the lectern, bass-baritoning away; the scape-grace of the after-party, peeing into potted plants; the inspired tavern regular, talker for hours, blood-brother of the universe; the craftsman in his deep and scratching silence; the fire-tailed bard, the cometary Celt. All of it was Dylan, all of it was poetry, and when he died, it died with him. He was the last of the rock-star poets, because the minute the real rock stars showed up--amps buzzing, drugs twanging--the poets would be shuffled off into inconsequence."

Okay. FIRST OF ALL, Parker might be better off claiming that Thomas was the first, rather than last, of the "rock-star poets," if by being a "rock star" Parker means a white male poet who meanders in an alcoholic stupor through radiant lectures and poems that would dazzle for decades, only to show us how 'down to earth' he is by, ohmygosh!, peeing in potted plants! And spending time in taverns! And brooding! Really? I'm not making any commentary (yet) about Thomas' poems, but do you really think this description of a rock star poet is original, unique to the genius life of Dylan Thomas? I'm sorry, Mr. Parker, but you just described about fifty other white male poets I know, and probably hundreds I haven't met yet, who methodically practice these "blips and signals" with the hopes of being someday compared to poets like Dylan Thomas -- those poets who produce remarkable poems but live their lives as if they have already been mapped out by traditions of hopelessness and rugged philosophizing.

SECOND, poets have hardly been "shuffled off into inconsequence" by "real" rock stars. Honestly, they've shuffled themselves into problematic unpopularity by embracing obscurity and exclusivity in their work, but I don't have time to get into that now. I know, though, that ACDC didn't have much to do with the Poet's demise. And I know that, if poets were so inconsequential, I wouldn't have hosted an auditorium full of community poets last Friday as they gathered to share poems they'd written over the past two months. I wouldn't have stayed awake most of Tuesday night because I'd been reading war poems that've emerged from Iraq and Afghanistan, I wouldn't have shared one of these poems with my husband, a man routinely suspicious of poets and their work, and heard him laugh and laugh, the poet's humor having cracked into him like an ax against pine. So, how do you define consequence? Book sales? Undergraduate class attendance? Fine.

Parker goes on to claim that Thomas' poetry has "not held up well" over the years, so THIRD, I need someone to explain this to me: only three weeks ago on a chilly Tuesday night, I was explaining villanelles to a group of poets at the Veterans Center, and we read Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (yes, I still teach it). You want to tell me that the silence in the room after reading that poem, the sound of somebody saying plainly and quietly, "I like this!" is the product of something that only disappoints you? That lacks the "sticky generative sizzle" you crave? Please. Nothing indicates you've crafted this claim from a high tower more than this. I like Thomas' poems and probably always will, despite my refusal to marry any of them. I think they've "held up" better than many poems from the 40s and 50s.

The good news? Parker admits that Thomas sometimes flopped with all the grace of a whoopie-cushion when he recited the works of others, and he compares Dylan Thomas' reading of Edward Thomas' "The Owl" to something like "Stevie Nicks' 'Landslide' performed by Meatloaf." Ha! You left me laughing, Parker.

It'd be unlike me not to end this grumpfest by saying I'm sure Mr. Parker is a nice guy (even though the fact that this Dylan-Thomas-worshipping article is sitting nearly squat in the center of one of our country's most well-read magazines proves how "consequential" poets still are), and that I appreciate his clearly stated love for poetry and one of its beautiful sons. So, thanks Jim; you got me to write a blog post.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Yours, Mine, Ours: Who's Driving This Thing?

I’ve been thinking about Little John lately – specifically, the animated-bear-version from 1973, when Disney was on a mission to tell little girls it was totally cool to have crushes on bears and foxes and orangutans and tigers. But that’s not what I’m writing about here.

There’s a particular scene, right after the archery contest, when, in the chaos of Robin’s exposure as a fox only disguised as a bird (seriously dude?), the whole carnival erupts in madness and Little John, caught up in a striped tent so packed with animals it begins to run away poles and all, pops his head from the top of its little roof, looks around and shouts, “Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?”

This Little John one-liner comes to mind often when I see things slip out of control. I yell it when I almost back into my mailbox every morning. When I see a leashed dog running ownerless down the trail, when my computer turns on without being touched, when I trip over my own feet. And I thought about it Monday night, in front of a ballroom filled with three hundred donors, artists, board members, and invited guests of the Broome County Arts Council. Sharon Ball, the Director of the BCAC, had invited me to read one of my poems as a representative of the Binghamton Poetry Project, an organization they graciously support.

The stage manager pushed me lightly on the small of my back after I was introduced, and I stepped up to the podium under the glow of so many crystal chandeliers. I’ve always appreciated poets who talk candidly (and briefly) before reading their poems, if only to smooth the reading out and give the audience some context – a perk we miss when reading a book. So I gave a few sentences about my poem, “Phantom Limb,” soon to be published in an issue of Rattle. The poem is about the Afghan people Tom worked with so recently, and what they can build using mostly rubble. In it, the speaker confesses she is a phantom limb, there and not there, practical but not really helpful.

“I write often about my husband’s experiences as a soldier deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s a capt – wait, he’s a major, recently promoted, in the infantry—” and the ballroom burst out in applause for Tom and his accomplishments. “I’ll tell him you said that,” I chirped. I read my poem and went back to my seat by the pasta bar, where I selfishly wondered whether the people here connected with me, the poet, or my husband, the soldier at the center of so many of my poems. I think about this every now and again, when I’m riding that chaotic circus tent of poetry, when I stick my head out of its open roof to shout, “Hey! Who’s driving this thing?”

By the time I drove home, it was dark, and the night was cold. The approach of autumn put me in a better mood, and I called Tom to tell him what had happened.

“So, this ballroom full of people wants me to tell you you’re awesome,” I said. I have a real way with translation.

“What? Why?”

Tom, for the record, has never really appreciated the handshaking and thank-you-for-your-service-ing he gets from so many strangers. He never knows what to say – I wouldn’t either – and he often gets caught in awkward confessions and conversations that isolate him more than they comfort or inform. His trauma isn’t something he knows how to give to people like a dropped wallet or a lost cat. But he puts a good face on, every time, and tries to escape the situation with grace and speed.

“Because you’ve been to war.”

“Oh. What’d you tell them?”

“When I got up there to read my poem, I just gave a little background to the piece by telling them I write often about your deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“But you don’t.”

“I kind of do. You know Little John? In the Disney version of Robin Hood? That time he pops out of the circus tent when it starts running away and he yells, ‘Hey! Who’s drivin’ this thing?’”


“Dude, I’m Little John! I don’t know who’s writing this stuff. It must be you.”

“Why don’t you just own your poetry and start saying you write about your experiences of war? You aren’t writing my experiences. They’re yours.”

I feel like he missed out on my Disney reference. But.

Let me say here, in writing, on the Internets, that I hate it when Tom is right like this – in an unprompted, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that kind of way. Also, let me say that Tom, while a very thorough reader, doesn’t often offer such poetic advice. When another poet insults me or disappoints me in any way, his response is an explosive “fuck them!” If someone criticizes my writing, he dubs that person asshole.

Experienced poetry mentors, beloved past professors, have given me the kind of insight Tom gave me on Monday. Marvin Bell, Dorianne Laux, and Joe Millar. Peter Sears. Sharon Cumberland, who, when I cried in her office as an undergrad because I had married a soldier I loved but felt, at best, passionately conflicted about his career and the social expectations of officers’ wives, said, “Abby! Snap out of it! You’re on the inside now – you’ve got to write about this. Don’t you see?” Let the record show that, back then, in Sharon’s office, I felt like a sneak, a liar, a greasy fraud who stole everything she heard and gave it away as her own. (Isn’t this how all women are made to feel when they find their voices? That they are so clear they must not be their own?)

And yet, I continued to write poetry because, well, I couldn’t stop. And if I was going to do it anyway, I figured I may as well be my best version of honest, and my feelings about a war that swallows up so many lives demand my attention when I sit down to write. I write what I see in Tom and all men and women who fight because those stories won’t go away, and they don’t follow Tom the way they follow me.

I think there was safety in thinking these were Tom’s stories and not mine, in seeing the reader as someone concerned about Tom and not me. I could forfeit loneliness that way, imagining myself picking up what he’d dropped and putting it together again. I didn’t make the thing; I just reassembled it after it broke. If they weren’t my stories, I wouldn’t have to be by myself with them, which is good because they’re scary. 

I hate it when Tom is right, but today, I need to admit that he is. A couple weeks ago, he started writing his own creative nonfiction in earnest, and I realized then, too, that he is the only one who can write his experiences. His stories are his own. My poems, my stories, tell what I’ve seen, done, heard, felt. They are retellings of my own horror, loneliness, confusion, helplessness. They show my humor, love, faith, desire for something good.

Turns out, I’m driving this thing. I’m moving forward without knowing how, shouting from the busted rooftop.