Reading to strangers: part IV

sydney-harbour-bridge-1930A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part four of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

So now comes the rest of the telling of how I came to write poetry and read to strangers in public.

Poetry occupies three sides in my life. There is the side of my life where reading and writing poetry happens. There is also the shadow side where there is little or no sharing, save with close friends and a few relatives. Then there is the sharing in public to strangers.

I’ve tried to show in this five part series some of the influences on my life that have made me who I am and how I feel and how I relate to poetry.

Seeing this is a short version of a longer telling I must say that there is a difference between having life changing experiences and living by those changes. And there is the importance of a mentor. In college I had two but after that none and so I let life get in the way of reading and writing poetry. I had no one to point out that poetry was my first real love and loves cannot be set aside though they can be ignored. I went on reading and scribbling when I had a quiet moment but never set aside blocks of  time to sit and make writing happen. This is what happens when you do not have money or think about  the little money you do have which is not enough to afford the time you need to write. This is the struggle everyone knows.

A person is like a country with ambassadors and advisers and neighbors and competing interests. A poet is a bridge builder with words. The bridge is never quite complete and need not be because our words take the reader the rest of the way. We are incomplete beings but our words suggest continual revision — this is a picture of a life.

When I would lounge and lull to write there was the intruding thought and the drum of distraction like some war machine on the horizon. In a low thunder it would murmur You’re not doing enough. Of course in time you understand you can never do enough and most often do too much and end up not writing at all. Some people know this sooner than others. It took me a while because that army over the hill was quite a threat. Everyone who works and does have an interest in writing seldom understand the idleness necessary for writing. They think a person who sits for a day or a week or months on end must be a looking for a free lunch when really they are not. What they are doing is making a way for writing to come and come and come until you are good at it and there is so much of it you can sell it and buy everyone lunch and dinner and even breakfast if you want. This is a way of sharing too but it must come after a lot of sitting and seeing the words come out and knowing what sparks are created when words commingle. Not journalism mind you but poetry and art and writing that results in a sea change. Emily Dickinson said I dwell in Possibility. That’s what writers do. We see what is possible. Most Americans understand this with material things but not with words. Some do but they are far and few.

Anyway America is a free country until you do not do what everyone else does. When you take the time to write everyone tries their best to change you or ignore you or chide you like a school boy bully. They do not want you to live in your own self completely as you must to write. In this way America is communistic and violent. No one can stand apart. No one would ever say this but if you ever are different than the rest you will come to know all the others do not like it except the people who like to share what it means to be different. America is learning yet not quite there yet letting people be transparent and leaving people alone inside themselves where they can live and share what it means to be alive.

To be alive means you can read before a room full of strangers. Once this was impossible. Now it is quite exceptional if you think about how long it took and how far someone has to travel before you see strangers as fellow travelers. Others are strangers only when there are no words between them. There must be words between people not competing in order to be sharing and poetry. Debates are arguments over an already dead carcass. Debates are word competitions to see winners and losers. This is a terrible way to pick a president or educate the young. Leaders who strive to win will create a world in which most people are losers. This is the world we have now. This is why poetry is so important. It shows another way.

In January I read on William Stafford’s Birthday at the Hugi-Lewis Gallery in Anchorage. Four others read too. There were a few who watched but did not read. Two shared anecdotes from William Stafford’s life. Two of us also shared poems of our own and another shared a letter Stafford wrote to her. A rich and sweet letter. He shared what share-able writing was like and how you practice your writing everyday.  Stafford said many times you must be as true as you can be to whatever is coming up from yourself and then the writing of worth has a chance to live and breath in the world. The letter showed Stafford’g genius and his love of helping other writers. Jim Hanlen a sweet man hosted the event. We talked before the event which was like talking to a brother you did not know you had. Lovely men like him are so rare. They are national treasures. I think there should be statues in every town square of a lovely man from the town’s past. This would be a reminder to little boys and young men of what men should aspire to be. Gentleness. Winsomeness. And truthfulness. All people aspire to this though it is easy to be distracted. There will always be enough people willing to be violent and busy and foolish. There is no need to encourage them. Those willing to work and live fully alive lives are the ones who change the world.

This then is how I came to share my words. I wrote in my day book the book that I write in every day.  Do you not think the words that come from you are the same unexplainable unfolding that stretched out the stars and galaxies? You must let them go so others may see new stars. Control is an abandoned well. Dry and lifeless. Jump from water falls, each droplet a star, an entire universe parting for you. 

I wrote other things like this and they always make the connection between the larger universe, the unfolding creator and the perceived smaller you which is in no way small and so much a part of everything. Your body is the universe to a cell. You are a cell to the universe. You have a task. You know you must open and close when you are ready.

Stars shine and cannot help sharing their light. We shine by sharing what we write. You can see the stars why can’t we see the stars that are ourselves and the stars that are everyone else. The answer is we decided and each has their reasons that what we have is not what others can value. Now it is true that many people do not listen. They are blunted or stunted or in such a hurry they cannot hear. This is not your concern as a poet or writer. From the very beginning you were made to make an offering. This is your destiny and from it comes forth the life that is in you. This is why anyone can and should read in public to strangers and after you read you will find friends. This is the end of the short telling of how I came to read to strangers in public.


Reading to strangers: part four of five

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part four of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

By high school nearly all sharing was eclipsed by posing. This would change in my junior year after the student walk out. Before this was an art teacher Mr. Teibolt who encouraged us to share and one English teacher who said I should write more in a way that made me think I could write. I do not remember her name. I remember the high cheek bones of her face her smoky alto voice and thick raven hair. She was so wise tender and kind. Her presence is still with me quite clear. Her name is a blank. Maybe it didn’t fit her. We meet people like that whose name does not fit them. If I gave her a name it would be either Diana or Sofia.

The high school years before the big protest walk out were a time when most all of us had become mirrors of each other. We wished to be larger than what we saw in the mirror. All the while the child and the wild within was shrinking barely able to be heard. This was that way we were until the day we all walked out.
Students protesting the Vietnam War were shot by their own countrymen. We all saw it on the television evening news one night in May. The National Guard killed four in Ohio and two black students farther South. All shot for being who they were. The television pictures made us all know we could die so we all or most all of us got ready to die.
A few days later the word traveled in the hallways and soon we were all marching around the school. The principal had a bullhorn telling us we would be suspended. This we thought silly. We were beside ourselves by the killing and anyway what high school student suddenly alive with purpose and expression drawing strength from each other cared whether or not we  would be expelled from school. This was happening all over the country too. We were ready to take some risks even die now and being kept from school was no threat.
After school one of the janitors asked me what I was doing out there today. I said marching to stop the killing and bring my brother home from the war. He said something like you can’t fight city hall. I don’t want to fight them I only need convince them I said. He was a nice man who did not and could not understand what we were doing. He was a gentleman though and said well good luck to you then.
We learned a lot in those days. We learned about authority that day more than we learned during a whole lifetime at school. We learned the power of numbers and agreement too. We even found that some of the teachers were on our side. We came back the next day and I do not think one student was suspended. We grew that day and the days after and many of us went on to other protests later in Washington D.C.
I would tell more but this is the short version so I won’t tell about those times now.

Anyway our voices were now sometimes heard so some of us could begin to share all the things we never shared before about who we were and the world and its wars. This was another way of sharing. It might even be the most important kind of sharing at that time. It was clumsy and sometimes angry but it was sharing like we hadn’t before. It was about us not really all about us and that made it different than what we were doing prior to the shootings. It was in that tumultuous time we learned to live with uncertainty in the world and in our hearts. Yet this would take a long time for some of us to write about.

Poets were already writing about the movement to end the war and change policies supporting dictators around the world. Only much later would I discover Carolyn Forche’s poetry of witness.

College was a mixed bag. College classes were larger than high school. Vast lecture halls in enormous and new office buildings coupled with 10-story dormitories with buffet food made me feel sometimes like a steer in a cattle drive. We sharing among students and a few teachers but college was mostly the same as high school only more independent reading. I like reading on my own. New book and new ideas were everywhere. New music too. I identified with teachers who were slightly older than ourselves and the ones much older than ourselves really seem to care. We talked more than in high school about what was happening in the world not only in class but after in restaurants and bars and in their homes and apartments long into the night. This was the sharing in college.

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

Robert Bly Grand Valley State College 1975

We learn more about the Viet Nam War. The propellants of economics and politics driving the war. This was all very well but it wasn’t until I heard Robert Bly read poetry in Ann Arbor I begin to understand the war wasn’t only half a world away. Was not only in our street protests here and in Washington. The war was in our schools our institutions and even in ourselves.
He appeared in a colorful poncho and sombrero carrying books and papers. He paced the large room removing hat and cloak. He began by thanking everyone for attending then asked that all the recording devices be tuned off. There was a groan from the audience. No one wanted them turned off. This was at the height and power of television. This is wonderful you want everything recorded but some things can not be recorded. He eventually said I don’t want to become a small man in a little box. I remember when he said that a hush went over the audience. There was a sudden understanding. This was something amazing because the crowds in Ann Arbor were always verbal and hissing when they thought they were right about something and they always thought they were right about everything they thought. Everyone was for freedom and filming everything. This was what freedom meant to them. Today it is called transparency but transparency is another story entirely. When Bly said I don’t want to be a small man in a little box everyone understood. I never forgot that line. In that wonderful moment we understood technology was distortion because there is no heart or art in machines. We understood all that within that one line. It wan’t merely a sentence. This is an example of how powerful a line of poetry can be. I was hooked.

So all the cameras monitors went dark. This was a new kind of sharing. Close sharing. Communion without the church schedule. After some people said Bly was afraid that he didn’t want the CIA or FBI to know what he was saying. This was not that at all. In fact I am sure he would have loved to read his poetry to any government official. He read many Spanish and South American poems rich in living under the boots and guns of oppression. Bly and they would rather write and die then not write and live dead. I have been reading them all ever since. He read from his violent and beautiful poem The Teeth Mother Naked At Last. He danced around the audience while reading. He was never still. I never saw someone so animated while reading. He asked others to read poems. We heard their voices too. He encouraged us to hear our own voices when reading. That our own voices bring something to each poem. To each hearing. He was an unlimited spring of ideas.  He made us aware we all had voices and that it is the most beautiful thing to use. A poem is foremost a voice.

I think that night turned my heart forever toward poetry. I saw what great good power poems had. Amazing. Reading poetry is astonishing.

Reading to strangers: part III

A while back, poet J.lynn Sheridan asked on her blog, Writing On The Sun, if poets did anything positive with our poetry in the past year. One of the things I did the past two years was participate in public poetry readings. Part three of five tells of some experiences that influenced me and the poetry I read and write.

There was sharing in Middle School where we read Dickens’ Great Expectations. This sharing was reading from your seat to the class. There was lots of giggling and body sounds and the teacher scolding and taking kids out of the class to sit in the hall or the principal’s office. This we all knew was trouble with the threat of getting the paddle with holes in it swung hard down on our bare butts but some preferred this to remaining in the class attempting to read something they could not read. Most of the kids in my class were poor readers. They did not read books on their own. And even for some of us who did read on our own Great Expectations was difficult. Dickens did not write like we spoke or anything we read. He was really of another country and another century. I was never taken into the hall. I read haltingly and fearfully and with some embarrassment. Not embarrassed in the way I was embarrassed listening to the tall tales boys told in the locker room or the school yard about girls I knew or what the boys did to their own bodies for pleasure. But embarrassed just the same because the reading was difficult and the interruptions frequent. Because of this I did not really learn the story Dickens had to tell until later much later.



Most importantly by the end of junior high the 9th-grade I learned that fiction stories were truer then the stories told in the school yard. Most of the sharing in junior high between boys anyway  was boasting and shaming. It is good to have some embarrassment but not an overwhelming amount of shame otherwise you begin to retreat or tell tall tales that cover up the real and tend toward cruelty.

This was the reason for many ghastly scenes before and after school. There was lots of fighting after school. These attracted large crowds of boys and girls laughing and egging on the fighters. There was always blood on the faces and someone on the ground being punched and kicked before it was over. The crowd was like a school of fish opening and closing around the fighters as they moved. The crowd never touched the fighters as today. That would have been thought disrespecting the combatants. I have always thought it is interesting that the fighters never spoke or taunted one another before during or after a fight. This is not true of professional fighting where the taunting before is staged for the cameras and microphones. In fighting between two junior high boys I never saw this happen. There is only a few serious words to the point and the arrangement of where the fight will happen. It was all very logical and efficient. Scripted almost. So even the violence at this time had unwritten rules followed scrupulously. After the fighting came to a messy conclusion the crowd would be mostly quiet. The winner left first and most of the crowd would leave following him or her then only a few remained with the loser. Say a brother or sister or brave friend. A few others would stand in small groups talking amongst themselves. Many smoking. That is how junior high school fights happened at that time. There was little or no talking certainly very little sharing of any kind other than the blows to one another. A painful physical kind of sharing. After a week or two the two boys who fought would be seen talking to one another as best of friends.

Worse than fighting was the making fun of others who could not or would not fight. This ridicule seldom ever ended. Usually chubby boys or girls that wore homemade clothes were made fun of. There was a stocky tall girl with watery eyes that seemed not to focus. She was called Horse and I felt sorry for her and even though by this time I stopped going to church with my grandmother I did pray for her more than a few times.
Approaching school one day while still a block away I heard the sounds of a horse. Winning, braying and snorting. The sound was very crisp on this cold and clear winter day with the sun still low in the sky and skiffs of snow here and there. I began to think maybe someone brought a horse to school. I kind of wished it were true because I never saw a horse up close or touched a living one because we lived in city where their were only cars. Along with the horse sounds that day came the laughter of a crowd. The horse would bray and the crowd would laugh. Then a moment of silence and again the horse sound and the laughter. When I saw the crowd of kids in front of the school it looked like a fight crowd. Except fights never happened before school. This crowd moved with someone in the center.  When I was close enough to see I saw the girl called Horse. I could hear boys and girls close to her say do it again Horse. Do the horse. And she would oblige. She would gallop around a few times then rear back using her hands to claw at the sky and let go with the amazing sound of a horse as beautiful and real as any horse I have heard since. She did not mind this. She loved to make the horse come out of herself. It was the way she could share with them even though they made fun of her and called her retarded and dumb all the other times at school. So long as she made the horse sound they did not call her names only her nickname that she liked. They laughed but did not call her hateful names. This sharing was beautiful and tragic.
I do not remember her moving on to high school and no one ever talked about her or remembered her even though she had a beauty all her own. To this day I only partly understand how others made fun of her for being who she was or doing what she did so well and that she loved. I always think of her when I see or hear a horse.

Another kind of sharing very close to sharing poetry was singing in chorus. They are close cousins maybe sisters. I loved to sing. I was a tenor. Though I had a trouble staying on key. Mrs Hutty would help me by sitting me at the piano with her and singing in my ear. She helped us all learn to sing in front of strangers. We traveled to elementary schools and nursing homes and the Ford Rotunda in Dearborn before it burnt to the ground. We were embarrassed some singing in public in our white shirts and ties but leaving school early or all day was preferable to sitting still all day. We were not embarrassed to much singing Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus because there was too much to remember so thinking of being embarrassed was not possible while singing. Even when gave a concert in our own school and our friends squiggled and squirmed and giggled in the audience we rose above it all. Mrs. Hutty instilled discipline. She demanded we smile and always look over the audience’s heads to the wall at the back of the room. This and remembering our part in the Hallelujah Chorus got us through all those concerts.

Lawrence Childrens Choir

Lawrence Childrens Choir

Sometimes in the hallways some boys who now would be labeled bullies but then were just boys called some of the tenor and bass boys in the choir sissies. Fortunately no one ever called me that to my face. I don’t know why. I was never one to be challenge for some reason. Perhaps because I was naturally athletic. I never boasted about who I was or who I could pound. I knew this was pride. I knew pride was the biggest sin. My Mum taught me that. So boasting or even having the attitude of boasting was entirely impossible for me.

This was how we shared in junior high school and why some of us began not to share in junior high school. We were most of us Pips in the making. And it would be a long time before we could again meet our own authentic selves or share something vulnerable from ourselves. What begins in fear ends in secrecy. When you live a while with an altered image of yourself thinking it is safer to share the image than who you really are you become painfully introverted. You begin to coverup and hide everything about yourself even though you are as most people are quite amazing in your thinking and feeling. Some people do this hiding so long that they convince themselves they’re public made up image of themselves is the bedrock of who they are. They no longer live in their own true place inside themselves but rather live from the self-imposed image of themselves that sells well with the ridicule happy public.

This is why poetry is so important. It deflates the false. It shows us life inside and out. It shows us the bumps and bruises and scars that can obscure the sweet place that is in us all. When we see that place and remember it is inside of us all just waiting there patiently to be reclaimed then we want to reclaim it and live from there. When we read and write from that place we can read to strangers in public because there is so much to say about simply being human and living the crazy adventure that is life. And speaking from that place often brings insight and some joy to others.