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 in public: part one of four

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 was participate in a public poetry reading. This is the first of four parts of that story.


This is the beginning of the telling of how I came to read poetry to strangers. It is a telling of how I came one day to sit and another day to stand in front of strangers and for the first time read my own poetry. It was a long journey. This is the short version of that journey.

child painter

I suppose and can only guess that it began when I was a child. Children are naturally show boats. They create a drawing or write a poem and they want to share it. To this day whenever my daughter writes a song she has me read it or sings it to me. No delay. My son used to share his drawings too but now he only shares by talking. He loves to talk. This is now mostly how he shares. I am sure I did this too. I began sharing the things I made and eventually shared only talking and sometimes only a little talking at that.

My mother was a talker too. Whenever I visited her back in Michigan she would give me something I created that she hung on to all through the years. A blue plaster of Paris ashtray. A charcoal drawing of a house set in mountains with red windows and black windblown smoke from the chimney. A paper mache elephant. Even cards I wrote to her that meant the love she gave came back like a cute boomerang. This was important to her as it is important to all mothers. So it is natural to express ourselves in all kinds of ways. The question is why do we stop?

For a long time almost a lifetime I did not know at any time why I stopped. Now I see a little more into this. I did not cease to share entirely but essentially. Oh I gave Christmas gifts and birthday cards and these are fine things to do and a kind of sharing but not sharing of the vulnerable part inside us. This is why it was difficult to share with others . There was stage fright of course though not enough to stop me or most anyone. This is the natural fear of rejection anyone might have and get over. Yet the big freeze came because I also have a larger and looming and quite irrational fear of abandonment. This larger fear was constant and with me so long it seemed natural. Anything lived with long enough seems natural. Even something looming and not luminous. My father left my life when I was eleven. Just like that he was gone. He was not dead but gone just the same. As all boys at any age a boy of eleven is in great need of his father. I did not know at that time why my father left and my mother would not say. So there was not a lot of talking about that. I think this abandonment planted a rather large fear in me and may account for most of my unwillingness to share created things. It made all hope hard. If everything you admire and love can be taken away not just taken away but taken away for no reason then hope is hard to have and to do. Sharing then becomes too daring for someone like this.

It took decades before I could again share. I knew it is natural not seemingly natural and that sharing is caring and makes everyone who can share feel together and good. The feeling of this sharing stays with you a long time after too. Maybe always. Whenever you remember this sharing it is like running fingers over a scar long after a cut and smiling. You know the scar is still there but the pain whatever is left of it can no longer hurt or keep you from hope. Even though there is still some pain and some fear even today speaking in public I can speak to the fear and cause it to shrink away. This way I don’t stay forever locked up inside myself. Poems, mine and others, helped me see this. This is why poetry is so valuable to me and anyone if they discover it. Poems cut through pain with the clever living that transforms experience. Poems are scars that speak. People who love each other share the story of their scars. There is comfort and closeness in reading or singing poems together. Illumination too. And hope. All this and even more are present when people read poetry together. Even when they are strangers.


William Stafford’s poem “Scars” confirms the inevitability of wounds in life, and some ‘sorrows’ may be unreachable even by very fine church choirs. Find it here.