After two weeks in the Finger Lakes region of central New York, tonight was a literary love-fest at The Waypost in North Portland. Six women reading their work with or without hipster-fresh-squeezed margaritas. The beat does, indeed, go on even when it's 71 degrees outside...
I've decided to spent the twelve days of leading up to Christmas reading a book of poetry each day. And then writing what I learn, observe, feel after reading the volume here on my blog. And seeing if I can find any of the objects in this famous holiday song in the poems I read, too. I may also try and write a poem a day that somehow uses these famous true-love gifts:
The twelfth day of Christmas, | My true love sent to me | Twelve lords a-leaping, | Eleven ladies dancing, | Ten pipers piping, | Nine drummers drumming, | Eight maids a-milking, | Seven swans a-swimming, | Six geese a-laying, | Five gold rings, | Four calling birds, | Three French hens, | Two turtle doves, and | A partridge in a pear tree.
I know, I know -- it's technically December 25 through Epiphany in January that count for the real twelve days but I know I'll be way too busy then to do all that reading so I'm starting now instead...first up, Drift and Pulse by Kathleen Halme.
A recent assignment for my narrative poem class asked us to write a multi-part poem about a forgotten social injustice. I decided to boil down my words to tell the story of Gandhi's march to Dandi, a railhead by the sea as part of a non-violent protest against the viceroy's egregious tax on salt. This became the famous Salt Satyagraha of April to May 1930, a cornerstone of the Indian independence movement. Below a snip.
Dandi Salt March
What hope shall we gather, what dreams shall we sow?
Where the wind calls our wandering footsteps we go.
Writing assignment #3 for our narrative poem class was this:
Write out your full name. Research the meaning of your name (which can include any or all of the following: your nickname, first name, middle name, surname, and/or mother’s maiden name if you use it). If possible, interview someone in your family of origin about the story behind your name. Write a poetic sequence called “How I Got That Name.”
I struggled. My first and middle names are derived from the same name, Hannah, which means grace or mercy. My last name, like so many Irish surnames? Put in the missing O and of course, you get
“son of the”
(in my case) red-haired man. But it turns out the name Nancy is quite the topic of discussion in the user-created Urban Dictionary as well—I'm sure these are because of the very beguiling Nancy Botwin character on the Showtime series, Weeds, played by Mary-Louise Parker!
Here are some sources/definitions:
NANCY. Origin early 20th cent.: nickname for the given
name Ann. Either a typically English metathesis of Anne or a variant of Agnes, perhaps influenced by the Italian
Nanna, a diminutive of Anna. ‘A gipsy name’ remarks Charles
Williams in his Tarot novel, The Greater
Partridge, A Dictionary of Traditional
NANCY. a male homosexual. From the female name. Originally
as Miss Nancy and then as nancy boy.
Holder. A Dictionary of Euphemisms
NANCY. A rare beauty who’s extremely
smart and has a love for life. The definition of a great lover. She is an
amazing and beautiful girl. Men easily fall for her. She has astounding sex
appeal by nature. She has gorgeous green eyes and a breath-taking smile! She is
fun, random, and sweet. You may find yourself addicted! If you have the fortune
of falling in love with a Nancy, your life will be forever fulfilled. Damn that girl’s a Nancy! —February
5, 2010 entry, www.urbandictionary.com
a surname of Irish origin. It is an Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Floinn
‘descendant of Flann’, a byname meaning ‘red (dish)’, ‘ruddy’. —Wikipedia
metathesis. Noun: 1. Grammar the transposition of sounds
or letters in a word.
2. (also metathesis reaction) Chemistry a reaction in
which two compounds exchange ions, typically with precipitation of an insoluble
product. Also called double decomposition.
—Oxford English Dictionary
So I played around with all of that. And ended up with one wild and crazy ride of a poem. Which begins:
The Gypsy Exchanges
Ions with the Son of the Red-Haired Man
I'm taking a great class in how to write a narrative poem. Our first assignment was to find a family photograph then write a narrative poem in response to the photograph. At some point in the poem, we were to indicate that the story told thus far was untrue. Then tell a second story. At the end of the poem, inform the reader which is true. Or maybe not?
We lost so many of our family photographs in the Hurricane Agnes-inspired flood of 1972 that it is always a challenge for me to find something to use for an exercise like this. So I turned to a photo of my own tiny family, my son and me, from 1979, in those last months before I fled Northeastern Pennsylvania for Ithaca.
Here's a fragment from the first section, maybe or maybe not riddled with untruth:
A Tale of
It was the last day of summer.
He propped the camera on that stump,
their makeshift chopping block,
then a ten-second scurry to join the
to say cheese.
They lived on the mountain all August,
playing hippies in the tipi they’d erected
drawknife skinning the bark for twenty poles
the canvas wrapped, roped
then pegged to the stony ground.
Mornings, he drove into town
where he sketched elevations for a strip
the topcoat she found at the thrift store
hiding his back-to-the-land dishevel.
She stayed behind,
gathered berries, chicory, their kitchen fire’s
while the toddler played with his trucks
in a pile of shavings left from skinning
Photograph above is from Walter McClintock and Annette Karge and in the archives of the Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript
Library, Yale University.
Turns out it isn't that hard to stay focused, to immerse in the vast sea of poetic language and crank out a poem a day. Of course, revision is still in the offing for most of the ones posted on this site throughout this NaPoWriMo month. Here's the start of my last one for the month, an excerpt of a longer piece based on notes taken from train trip then drive along Highway 101 to Big Sur, California a few years back.
I was on the Coast Starlight,
the end point Salinas,
then a rental and the
highway, 101, that unwind
of ribbon all the way,
Monterey to Big Sur.
But first, the territories
and my pop-bead ears
as the train climbed off the
grid through the Cascades
and into the Dunsmuir dark.
Violins over the PA
were evening’s vespers,
Mozart keeping score,
and the cough down the hall
might have been anything:
the predictable wheeze from a
my coal miner grandfather
spitting up black lung.
By morning, the train closed
on Oakland, a station named
for Jack London. But first we
had to wait—
for freight to cross a fret,
rail bridge above the tidal flats,
brackish water, a mothballed
fleet in the estuary
at Sasson Bay. I watched and
wished the hard, sad stone
that is the bottom of my
heart would float up and out,
mingle with the eucalyptus
tang, its grey and silver
peeling everywhere along this
siding, turn California
la-la and light. Instead,
faded American flags tied
with faded yellow ribbons
spiraled a street lamp in Martinez.
We passed people fishing in
the shallows, tents a skyline
above rubble, a great blue heron
flapping, its neck
pulled in. On through the C
& H sugar refinery
at the born-again Crockett
station. Bake sales were surely
held to pay for its
newly-gilt sign. Berkeley’s Xanadu
was a chalkboard—“Whitey
Repent”—and West Oakland
boasted a monument to the
Brotherhood of Sleeping
Car Porters. We barreled
toward the San Andreas Fault.
Sometimes it feels right to start a poem with the old tried-and-true words, Once upon a time. Looking back from middle age at the frenzies—and follies—of youth can make it seem that your life as once lived was, indeed, something of a fairy tale. I find that is especially true when it comes to the memories over of first loves. In December, I was thinking about all that time spent on the phone with my high school boyfriend. Sometimes we wouldn't even talk; we simply needed that phone cord as a kind of umbilical connection. One thing led to another and I ended up writing a poem about those days. I was also big into Russian novels at the time, especially Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. In fact, I was often reading them instead of paying attention to the boring sermons every Sunday at church, so in this opening stanza, even Anna Karenina makes an appearance. Here are the opening stanzas:
Once upon a time, my nights were spent
on skates, scoring every bend of the
his breath my infinitive, a shooting star
caught on my tongue. I am forever jailbait
in the memories, such hunger a drug
for my longing as I starved through Sunday
sermons, a book hidden in a hymnal,
the telegram Vronsky got from Anna the day
before she threw herself on the tracks.
We left tracks in the snow. That’s how
the borough police found us trespassing,
their boot prints down the passenger side,
the windshield fogged, my curls covering
the unzippered feast in his lap. “Tell them
you’re eighteen,” the first words out
his mouth. They never asked.
Photo: Somewhere in North Dakota, on one of our Empire Builder Amtrak treks across the U.S.
I've been trying to write a poem with a specific purpose in mind. To serve as a kind of coda for my series book. I am still debating whether or not it is actually needed. Not sure if I'll call it Coda or Autograph the Body or simply Autograph. The final stanza gives some flavor of what might or might not come before. I'd really like to use this epigraph -- I remember a version of this from high school year book days!