What Can You Say, If You’re Not Rumi?

Depends, as does the proverbial red wheelbarrow. Williams’ poem and this editor’s comment (see May 15, 2016 blog where I recount how I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi” ) persist as personal rocks and hard places between which I floiter (my new portmanteau for flounder - loiter). I was going to say they are my spiritually aesthetic Scylla and Charybdis, but I’ve come around to agreeing that using obscure classical references locks readers out. Of course, these references will become culturally even more obscure from lack of use, but I’m starting to forget them all anyhow. So we move on…

What can any of us say? And where? And on whose authority? In the September 2016 issue of Harper Magazine, Alan Jacobs of Baylor University concludes his probing article, “What became of the Christian intellectuals?,” with the comment, “I think that, from the Fifties to the Seventies, American intellectuals as a group lost the ability to hear the music of religious thought and practice. And surely that happened at least in part because we Christian intellectuals ceased to play it for them.”

Likewise, I can’t help but ask, where are the Christian poets? And their interesting subset, the Catholic poets? Dana Goia, former chair of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), met this question head-on in “The Catholic Writer Today” in the December 2013 issue of First Things. He remains hopeful for a renaissance in the Catholic literary imagination but admits “contemporary American letters has little use for Catholicism, and Catholics have retreated from mainstream cultural life.” The solution, “the renewal of Catholic literature will happen—or fail to happen—through the efforts of writers.” Not only in isolation, but in the forging of new communities. 

I wonder what these communities will look like, with the diminished role of the Catholic intellectual. Or if I can even allow myself to think this, the diminished freedom of the Catholic intellectual. 


Jacobs’ article can be found here
Goia’s article can be found here

Who’s Laughing Now?

I, for one. My poem, “Inter-Subjective Affect,” has been published in Oxford Poetry XVI.i. As in the Oxford University, Magdalen College, poetry journal. It doesn’t get much better than that, certainly not on these shores. I’ve had lightning strike three times in the UK, Stand Magazine and Magma, as well as this latest. All three poems share – what would you call it? – a poignant snideness. Am I British in my core?

Maybe. Biologically, through my father’s line; intellectually, by virtue of being educated as an English major in the ‘60s when American literature was an elective; and comedically, by means of suppression and survival. Anyhow, how much would I like to share the news of this victory with some forbearers? For instance, my grandmother and her father, John Reese, born in 1870 in Staffordshire, England, a bit more than 100 miles from Oxford. Or one hour and forty three minutes away, if I left now, according to Google. Assuming I was in one or the other place. 

At the age of fourteen, Great-Grandad arrived with his mother and siblings in New York, aboard the good ship Egypt, carrying a pair of Staffordshire dogs. Which my father admired so much as a “young lad” that he inherited them. As a young mother, I lived in terror that my kids would bump against one of them, positioned on the floor next to a bench in my parents’ foyer where we all kicked off our boots and shoes. My angst and acute regard for “the dogs” apparently impressed my daughter so much that she wanted nothing less than the dogs as a family heirloom. A shout-out, no, a standing ovation, to my brother Phil Casey of Scuppernongaree fame (Like them on Facebook) for agreeing to let the dogs bypass him and reside with my daughter and her family. 

Where we now puzzle over their significance. What did they mean to Great-Grandad? Maybe he was helping out his mother and had no interest in them. I doubt that because, according to my father, Great-Grandad took pride in claiming he carried them, as a young boy, and still honored them decades later. Maybe they represented to him a bit of home, having been manufactured locally in Staffordshire. Maybe considering them the most beautiful items he had ever seen, he commited early on to beauty. Think Aeneas, carrying his father along with the Lares and Penates out of burning Troy.

I remember Great-Grandad vividly, with no specifics. If that is possible. He died at 85. I was seven years old. My cousins remember him smoking a cigar. True, but I remember more his presence. If he had a touch of the British humor, he sure didn’t share it with me. Nor did my beloved Grandma. A gentle humor, quiet laughs, desire for the facts of the matter, commitment to family. And undoubtedly, a belief that simple objects could become invested with history and meaning. That some things were worth carrying into the unknown. Maybe even poems.

Staffordshire pottery dogs come from the many pottery companies located in the County of Staffordshire, England, which produced them to sell to working class families to decorate their homes. While they produced dog figures from 1720 to1900, the peak of interest and, therefore, production came towards the end of the 19th century. 

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

                Thank you, Great- Grandad!

Does "A Rose Is a Rose" Ever Bloom?

For June Cotner, who has edited over 30 anthologies of inspirational prose and poetry, the answer is yes. In her latest, Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations, published by Viva Press, she chose “pieces that authentically speak to the earth and to the intricate ties that bind us to it.” Three of my poems, “Doxology,” “Go Ahead,” and “Says Mother Earth,” are included, and in the foreword material, June graciously mentions me and several other poets whose work has appeared in her previous anthologies: “we go back for two decades!” How sweet is that!

And how sentimental! William S. Burroughs purportedly said, “In deep sadness, there is no place for sentimentality.” While I’d consider myself deeply sad about climate risks, I must not have hit bottom. I must still be hoping for significant reversals in current trends or for climate change deniers to be vindicated after all. In fact, I’m full-out in favor of bringing sentiment to bear on the topic. 

Haven’t we all had some of our best moments in nature, unbidden? Not an orchestrated moment, but a sudden feeling of intense presence. A surrealness to the real. Awareness of existence extending beyond our petty concerns. These moments, remembered and cherished, can continue to guide us.

Go Ahead

Imagine a baby, mother and father.
Have them sit together on a bench
in dappled sunlight, or lie, playing
on a blanket. Let them hear birdsong.
Let them breathe loamy earth,
the wafting scent of pine.
The day is coming to an end.

Don’t discard the sentimental
image. It won’t hurt you.
It may even cast its lightness
on you. Befriend beauty
and innocence and simplicity. 
We owe it to ourselves; 
we owe it to that baby.

 (from Earth’s Blessings: Prayers, Poems and Meditations)


What Else Did I Say to Myself?

If you think this blog is nauseatingly self-referential, you’d be right. Nearly self-reverential. A shameless mind selfie!

What are we humans to do with all this feeling, all these emotions that we keep to ourselves, or share with the special few who have signed on with us for the long haul? “Too full of self” does not work in poetry. Nor does any emotion, served thick and visible to the naked eye. I’m willing to bet most of us are awash in emotion, what with one darn thing or another. And not always the noblest kind.  

Beyond the embargo on emotional excess, poems about life, death, love, faith, motherhood are nearly verboten in an ironic culture. Yet these are the poems I want to read and write, the subjects nearest and dearest to my heart. Those last few words would be tracked cliché! by any decent editor. I once had an editor tell me, “You can’t write that unless you’re Rumi.” I get the point, that what has already been said must be re-envisioned into a new-and-improved version of itself before it has merit, beyond personal satisfaction. Original: good. Sentimental: bad. Although maybe the pendulum is swinging again. The New Sincerity. All the post-post-ironies. 

In the meantime, I’m trying to render personal experiences and feeling/s on the big topics with words as perfectly suited as I can. Sometimes sentimental, sometimes ironic, whatever an individual poem demands and my personal skill set allows. A long way from Wordsworthian “emotion recollected in tranquillity,” but not less satisfying when All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood posted my poem, “Coming of Age in Lesbos,” on  its site  May 9, 2016. An anthology of the same name has just been published by Sage Hill Press. The poems on the website are not included in the anthology, although I was told by the editors that there may be a second volume. 

People want to read poems affirming and lamenting the trajectory of generations through time:  separation is good, it’s natural, it’s painful. At least I do. What epitomizes this necessary transition better than the coming of age of a daughter? And how nice to step back and contextualize any personal experience in the gorgeous-sounding words of Sappho’s fragment. I fell in love with those words, oi moi, alas! right around the time my own daughters were leaving home. Yet I hope the poem moves the experience through Sappho’s mother’s mind and heart, part of the universal river of mothers and daughters.


How Do You Say Anthology?


I say aunt hō lō gee a, equal stress on all syllables.  Only in my head, of course, where things fanciful and apocryphal pass for normal.

I do love anthologies, though. And their long history. The first one compiled by Meleager of Gadara in 60 B.C., a collection entitled Garland. And the nailed-it! etymology of anthology: a logos (story, collection, study, all-purpose word) of anthos (flowers). Hence, the Garland translation. As a side note, Latin coined a parallel term, florilegium, based on the same metaphor, but anthology became time’s victor.

I love reading anthologies, especially themed ones, to relish the fecundity of human imagination, in thought and aesthetic. So much variety, no matter how narrow the theme.  I love having my work included in anthologies, to be in the midst of the play. Which is why I report, with great pride, that my poem, “Eureka! Corner Drugstore, Slushy March Afternoon,” has been published in The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology, edited by Jerry Bradley and Ulf Kirchdorfer, from Lamar University Literary Press. 

What kind of flowers be these, you might ask. Brash, upright ones, with here and there a thorn. Sheltering among the many stand-outs in this anthology is a great privilege. At the risk of being ungrateful, though, I regret that the press did not send author proofs before publishing the book. Some of my poem’s formatting was lost in transmission, but most importantly, “Eureka!” was previously published in minnesota review and that fact was not acknowledged. Hereby acknowledged, with apologies to the minnesota review, such a terrific journal, which is published out of Virginia Tech, with only a historical relationship to Minnesota.

I sense a poem in that incongruity. And that’s the energy of  The Great American Wise Ass Poetry Anthology: poets drawn to  unmask discrepancies between presented reality and perceived truths. In the book’s introduction, the editors write, “The wise ass poet holds his own court and exerts whatever influence he or she has on the page, both animated and frozen at the same time” (p. 2). While this can be said of most poetry, it is true, that the angrier I become, the more I turn to humor. As one of the first satirists wrote, difficile est saturam non scribere. It is difficult not to write satire, given the current provocations. Thank you, Juvenal. 


Who Said “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?”

George Santayana, in The Life of Reason (1905), and some thirty billion people afterward. My poem, “Highly Fungible,” published today at the rock-star NewVerse.News site, might suggest that I follow suit and see our current political situation as akin to Rome’s infamous decline from robust halcyonic Republic to debased, doomed, vulgar Empire. Yes, and no.

First, it’s the prerogative of political satire to ignore substance in favor of style. Over-the-top style. How else to ferret out deeper truths? But, political satire is different from cultural analysis. It will take years for a serious critique of current political phenomena to develop.

Still,  I don’t want to leave on the public table the notion that I think we are witnessing another round of Fall and Decline. In some ways, Trump (supposedly) offers antidotes to what brought Roman society to a halt: for instance, the “bread and games” mentality and the corrosive Roman patronage system. Trump wants to bring jobs back that will allow people to work and participate in rebuilding the economy and renewing the social fabric. He says over and over that he is funding his own campaign and that he will therefore not be beholden to special interests. Very nice. UnRomanEmpirelike, and strangely reminiscent of Bernie Sanders.

Trump may be a great person. Certainly, his wife, children and many friends and associates think he is. Certainly, he seems sincere in wanting to make America great again. And dare I discern some altruism somewhere? Who can judge? But I think we can judge what he represents as a Candidate and speculate that he is reifying a nasty element in our national psyche, and, conversely, that the current political scene is bringing out the worst in Trump. So henceforth, here, when I speak of Trump, I am talking about this crazy projection of a leader that he purports to be, and I am leaving the personal Trump to discover between him and his Maker if there is ever need for forgiveness.

With that in mind, I would say that Trump represents late-stage Patriarchy. White, of course. (And I have no evidence that it’s late-stage; I’m just hoping.) When he is on your side, the sun shines, shines, shines. It helps if you are similarly endowed. Or the Beautiful Wife of a Success Story. We all like Success. And the rest of us can weather the various storms by Following the Rules.  Or else. If he’s not on your side, then yes… the playground bully and the abusive husband hurtling home. Watch out. The Romans wrote the book on patriarchy. A seductive, appealing version of patriarchy sometimes, but nonetheless a ruinous system for half the world’s population. Actually, all the world’s population, but that’s another soapbox.

The final word on this political season is a long way from being written, but one cliché that I embrace without equivocation—we are indeed living in “interesting times.”

What Weighs 2 Pounds and Flies? And How Much Is That in Fitbit Stones?

Gargoyle 64, of course! The amazing 500 plus page literary annual, edited by Richard Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole. I love everything about this journal, especially the fact that my prose poem, “Another Cock and Bull Story,” appears in this issue. Richard, with his impeccable taste for the sagaciously off-kilter, assembles seriously good reading year after year, and I am thrilled to be part of it. 

Several years ago, when I was beginning to submit work to journals, Richard returned my poems, with a scrawled note, “Do you have anything edgier?” This was in the days of postal submissions. I sharpened my paper and envelope and tried again. “Sorry,” he wrote back and then suggested more appropriate markets. But no, I wanted Gargoyle. I knew the poems I needed to write needed to appear in the company of other Gargoyle authors. I was edgy on the inside; it just wasn’t on the paper yet.

As I continued writing and revising, I kept “edgier” in my  mind as a goal-cum-permission and then success! My prose poem, “Desiderium: Ardent Longing, As for Something Lost,” appeared in Gargoyle 59.  Two more prose poems, “A Short Manual on Flying” and “Walter Mitty, Wonderbra and I Were Born in 1947,” were published in Gargoyle 60, and two more poems have been accepted for Gargoyle 65.

I met Richard at the 2013 AWP conference. I told him how freeing his “edgier” comment had been for me. He was gracious, but had no recollection of our interaction. I imagine he has extended himself to so many aspiring poets, that it is all in day’s work. Gargoyle, founded in 1976, 30 years in print. On its website, a Poets and Writers quote that in its history, 45% of published authors have been women. A lifetime of good work. Thank you, Richard and Lucinda.


Is "A Win Is a Win" the Only Way to Win?

To enter contests or not. To pay to submit poetry or not. These are serious and debated questions among serious and debating poets. The truth is money and poetry don’t mix well in our culture, yet they are, of necessity, bedfellows. I can see both sides and, as a result, sometimes I enter contests and sometimes I pay to have my work read by a publication that I particularly admire. And sometimes, usually after a string of painful rejections, I rebel.  Decide “it’s bad enough to be highhandedly dismissed with a generic form rejection, but to pay for the experience—no, thank you.” The only exception is for book publication, where entering contests is de rigeur, unless you are only interested in posthumous publication.

But let’s say, you bite the bullet, research the market and find a so-suitable contest, submit your best work (as requested), and pay the required fee and months later, receive the excellent news that you are a finalist, semi-finalist, have received Honorable Mention or some such accolade. I say “excellent,” rather than “most excellent,”  because you have not actually won and therefore you don’t know what kind of victory you can claim.  You know that bridesmaids cannot say they are married. Yes, they attended the wedding in a rather prominent position, but the day does not remain on their resumé.  

I’m into this conundrum at the moment, because I just received a “happy to report” email that my poem “Zeitgeist” has been selected as a 2015 Rash Award in Poetry finalist. The contest was sponsored by Broad River Review and judged by David Kirby, Robert O. Lawton Distinguished Professor of English at Florida State University in Tallahasee. As an aside, I love the blend of wit and compassion in Kirby’s poetry, so to have him select one of my poems raises the honor exponentially. “Zeitgeist” will appear in their upcoming 2016 issue.  

Other also-rans of which I’m proud include a piece on then candidate Barack Obama’s rhetorical style which was a finalist in the 2009 Special Contest on Obama, New Millennium Writings

and “Sail On, Silver Girl” which was a semi-finalist in Naugatuck River Review’s 2010 Narrative Poetry contest .

and my prose poem, “Soft Skills for Today’s Market,” which received an Honorable Mention in The Binnacle 8th Annual Ultra-Short Competition 2011, housed at  the University at Maine, Machias. 

Perhaps I’m spliting hairs here. Not to worry—it’s all good. Just part of the Zeigeist. 

Can There Ever Be Enough Sunshine?

A visit to the Boca Raton Museum of Art on a recent rainy January afternoon provided another kind of sunshine, Norman Sunshine, to be exact, and his exhibit DAMES, a series of digitally manipulated portraits of 25 influential women, mostly of uncertain age. He created the series by beginning with iPad photos of women powerful both in terms of their wealth and their philanthropic, civic and art accomplishments, many of them in his own social circle. Then he rendered these snapshots into works of art with iPad apps. Large Giclée 57 x 42 inch watercolor prints on rag paper, massed to good effect on the museum’s 2nd floor. 

It is exciting to see digitally manipulated photography in the hands of a master, and it’s exciting to see this exhibition in a museum.  I also can happily while away hours with an app and a few good photos. Sometimes it seems almost too easy but as Sunshine is quoted in the Palm Beach Daily News as saying, “Everyone has apps. But they don’t have my eye, my emotions, or my sense of composition and color.” Duly noted.

Beyond the technical fascination these portraits held for me, I was entranced by the Dames Themselves. I was not familiar with most of them, although the brief biographies provided for each portrait made it clear that I should have been, given their amazing accomplishments. I kept looking at these women, though, who have made it to the top of their various professions and thought, do they look happy, fulfilled, at peace? A few of them might have, but I was dismayed at the many somber, sad or sometimes contentious expressions. They cetainly looked like they thoroughly understood Yoko Ono’s words, “winter passes and one remembers one’s perseverance.” To reprise Wordsworth, can perseverance, recollected in tranquillity, work? 

Since I am myself of uncertain age, I’m particularly interested in balancing lightness of heart with courageous acknowledgment of facts on the ground. I didn’t find many role models among these Dames. And then, spoiler alert that was not provided at the exhibition—in the same newspaper article quoted above, Sunshine acknowledged that he requested the women not smile when he took their photos. Aha! We therefore can draw no conclusions from these portraits. And so we persevere…

How Much Surprise Can One Poem Deliver?


It was Einstein who said
either nothing is a miracle,
or everything is -
a jagged mountain range,
lilacs in bloom,
a peacock unfurled,
sun on your arm,
the touch of a stranger.

Take your pick: be surprised
by nothing at all,
or by everything that is.

I wrote this poem in one sitting. One existential freaked-out sitting, during which I purposely tried to induce a state of derealization. It was January 1997, and we were flying from JFK airport to Athens, Greece. Not my first trans-Atlantic flight, but potentially my last, given the way my breathing was accelerating and my projectile fantasies were working against me. 

I was surprised, of course, to be going to Greece, surprised to be in a metal can high above the earth, surprised at the way my life was turning out, surprised to feel a blessed fugue state coming on, surprised at the visceral joy of odors and sights recollected, surprised at the strangeness of sharing the experience with a stranger on one side, my husband on the other. 

I was surprised to have this poem immediately accepted by June Cotner for one of her early collections, Bedside Prayers. Surprised to see it reprinted numerous times, in Bless the Day, Serenity Prayers both edited by June Cotner, Simple Joys by SPS Studios, to name a few. Surprised to see it posted and then discussed on other people’s blogs. Surprised to see that the North Carolina state legislature used it as the opening prayer on September 3, 2002. Surprised to see that the poem is sometimes quoted in its entirety on sites without attribution.

Finding myself on the Internet still surprises me. Which is an improvement. It used to shock me. In truth, I have been much more of a consumer than a producer in the lively online poetry world. I am truly grateful for the unparalleled access to so many people’s work and think it’s now time that I contribute more. Of all the surprises mentioned above, this one surprises me most of all.