Dear Ross

figs

Dear Ross Gay,
I saw you laughing on Saturday. You threw back your head and pierced the cacophony of the giant bookfair at the LA Conventions center with the uninhibited rumble of your joy. I didn’t stop you, and I didn’t introduce myself because there was a small circle around you and I felt like an outsider.

I didn’t even know your name until a few months ago.

I always tell my students, “You’re not born knowing everything, so don’t be ashamed about what you don’t know today. But not knowing isn’t the same as not learning.”

I get so confused about the way I’m learning poems and poets, so slowly it seems to be a drip, and with such wide gaps I feel like an imposter to even call myself a reader of poetry, much less a writer. How do I learn all the good poets in this lifetime?

Who first mentioned your name? I wish I could personally thank that friend, along with you, for writing. You’re hardly an unknown what with that 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Deep congratulations on those recognitions.

And now, thanks to someone I can’t remember, I have your Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens, co-written with Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitudea book I return to often, and gift to friends who are non-poetry readers. I trust they’ll learn to love the form after reading you.

I met your words in 2015, but you’ve said so much before. In conversation with Elizabeth Hoover at the Furious Flower Reading Series, she pointed out that Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude seemed invested in different concerns from your first two books, notably,  “exploring violence and masculinity.” She said your Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude “feels like those investments are very much in the background.”

You agreed and reflected on why that might be:

Simply, I’ve been gardening a lot and working on orchards and working with people in community in a place that is…it’s sort of allowed me to think differently.

You’ve allowed me to think differently about trees, and grief, and plums. I wonder though, do you wish us to excavate your past poems to find this present joy? Can we learn how to be this gracefully grateful without living through your violence and pain?  Am I cheating to sing joy with you if I didn’t first hold your sorrow?

For those who haven’t met your words, I give them a taste of fig from your mouth:

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month. You can read more about Ross Gay on his website.

Dear Ellen

DSCN2625

Dear Ellen Bass,
I am the woman who passed you in the hallway this morning at the LA Convention Center, and stopped you mid-stride to say thank you.

Yesterday in your talk, “Embracing a Poetics of Joy,” you said many true things.

The world needs poetry, but I don’t think it needs anyone particular person to write it. So if you don’t love it, do something else.

I do love it, the way you love it; the way all the writers I know and admire love it, the way, if we’re lucky enough and work hard enough, we might tweak the world a tiny bit for another and help unfold more tender awareness of each other.

I know it’s not an obscure poem, yet I still meet people who have never read your Gate C22. It’s poem that changed the way I travel through airports watching people walk, holding hands or not holding hands, kissing or not kissing, leaving or returning with joy or regret.

For them, I share your gift of reading that poem aloud.

Yesterday, you also said:

It’s an honor to put my pebble on the altar of poetry. I’m joyful that I still get to walk up to the altar.

Thank you for doing all the hard work that carrying that pebble entails. I’m joyful too that you walk to the poetry altar.

With gratitude,

Catherine

This is part of a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.You can read more about Ellen here: Ellen Bass | Award-winning SantaCruz-Based Poet And Educator

 

Dear Prageeta

Cuke1

Dear Prageeta Sharma,
“Please write your friends poems and write them into poems.”
Do you remember urging us to do that in your your Poetry Foundation blog post, “Dear Reader, There’s a Still Suburb of Friendship, Community, and Poetry & Praise?”

I’m sorry I don’t know you well enough to call you friend, and I wish I could write poems more quickly than I write prose. But I want to tell you that I sat with you yesterday as you spoke about “Reverberant Silence” to the writers gathered at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Los Angeles.

I imagine that we who heard you speak about the loss of your husband, we who heard you read from the blog post you wrote about that grief, we who listened as read your poems, we don’t know you, but through your words.

Those words made me want to help you hold your pain. I’ll never capture its heft, but maybe I can let you rest for just a moment.

Have you ever seen a wild cucumber? In late winter, its spring green tendrils, kinked as tight as curls, cling to every branch or fence it finds. Its fruit, spring green too, grows quickly into a palm-sized egg shape covered with long sea-urchin like spikes.

Once the growing season is over, the cucumber’s sharpness falls away; the fruit becomes a dry woven cup, often mistaken for a bird nest. Did I tell you the dried wild cucumber looks like lace? A sponge? A wish? If you lift its lightness toward the sun, you can see through the brown husk to sky. This cup looks fragile as a bird egg, but it’s sturdy enough that I use it to hold feathers, anchor a collage or capture hope.

collage.jpg

I want you to know how we who hear you, read you, hold you up even when you need to fall. We are as inadequate and as enough as a husk. I think you were very brave yesterday in your non-silence, reverberant with raw grief.

After meeting you yesterday, I want to read your latest book, Undergloom. And I want to thank you for showing us how to keep living with words.

With gratitude,
Catherine

This is the first in a series of gratitude letters to poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.
You can read more about Prageeta Sharma here: Prageeta Sharma: The Poetry Foundation

 

 

I’ll wait for you my sweet

By Catherine Keefe.

peach

“It’s alright, a farmer’s market is for learning,” says the tall, lean, tan farmer from Fresno.

He is dicing ripe peaches into tasting pieces and smiles at the mother who we both just overheard tell her barely-tall-enough-to-reach-the-top-of-the-table toddler daughter not to grab samples with her hand. The mom returns his smile and offers her daughter a toothpick to grab sections of the juicy yellow fruit.

“So if the farmer’s market is for learning,” I say to the farmer, “can you please tell me something?”

“Sure.”

“These samples are ripe, fragrant and juicy, but the fruit you’re offering for sale doesn’t even smell like fruit.”

The patient farmer explains about having to perfectly time his picking date to take into account his driving time and how you never want to refrigerate stone fruit that’s waiting to ripen or it will become mealy, but how he needs to be able to offer fruit for sale that isn’t past its prime.

“If I picked it perfectly ripe, it would be spoiled by market day. But here’s what you do. Store stone fruit stem down, maybe for a day or two, until it gives slightly when you gently squeeze. Then it’s ripe.”

I bought peaches and plums on faith on Sunday. By Wednesday, I learned that I can trust this farmer and wonder how I’ve lived through so many summers without knowing how to perfectly ripen a peach, a nectarine, or a plum.

What are you waiting for? What art and knowledge are you bringing to the ticks of time separating now from then?

As you wait for whatever it is, here’s a delicious peach poem by Lee Sharkey, one of my favorite quietly strong poets. This poem, “”Its roundness curving to a cleft” is found in Lee’s full-length book, Calendars of Fire, although it was first published, in a different version, in dirtcakesa beautiful literary journal I founded in 2010 and am patiently waiting to figure out how to revive. Poems too, need to ripen. The edits Lee made between the dirtcakes version and the poem in Calendars of Fire, published three years later, show that one of the greatest bounties of wait time is knowing how to use it well.

Its roundness curving to a cleft by Lee Sharkey

I offer a child a perfect peach
pulled from the shadows nesting in a bin of peaches

Mourning dolls hold crosses fashioned of twigs and string
their cheks pinked, kohl eyes veiled by fishnet

A golden morning     long-winged wasp approaching
from the amber mountain            Que vergüenza la guerra!

A peach, then, without blemish when ripeness is upon it
for her to memorize and tear its velvet cheek  (for him to memorize and tear its
     velvet cheek)

When someone in the future makes an offering to the heart
its ever-moment passes, hand to hand

Reticence the shell, joy the nutmeat
The skin reluctance, joy the open mouth

With peach juice on my chin,
~Catherine

This post is my “sweet delight,” today’s August Break 2015 prompt. For more takes on sweet delights, check out #augustbreak2015 on Instagram and Facebook.

Question: The edge

By Catherine Keefe

hopper

“This one appeared to me
in a dream…”

A grey bird grasshopper rests on my deck and I remember the opening lines of Lawson Fusao Inada’s poem, “This One, That One.”

This one appeared to me
in a dream, was forgotten,
only to reveal itself
on the shower wall
this morning.
It must have been the water.

That one was on the full moon
last night, clear as a bell.
Someone projected it there.

I find the grasshopper and I wonder, where do you draw the line between this thing and that?

By color?

One grey grasshopper rests between two grey wooden boards.  All is grey. There is no color edge.

By whether or not it lives?

One living Schistocerca nitens pauses on a now-dead Tabebuia ipê hewn into lumber planks for a deck. Yet both grasshopper (Schistocerca nitens) and tree (Tabebuia ipê) had a moment of birth. Both are listed in the Catalogue of Life, “the most comprehensive and authoritative global index of species… essential information on the names, relationships and distributions of over 1.6 million species…information is compiled from diverse sources around the world.” There is no edge between things that live.

By borders?

This grey bird grasshopper is also known as a vagrant grasshopper and can be found, among other places in most of the Southwest US, Hawaii, and parts of Central America. The ipê is indigenous to many countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela. Both ended up in my backyard.

How do we name the edge, the line between this thing and that?

That one speaks to me
of space, and negative space,
of open and filled spaces,
and the among
that comes between.

Today I want to dwell in the “among that comes between. If you’re inspired to consider liminal edges today, read the entire poem that this grasshopper moment called to mind. “This One, That One” by Lawson Fusao Inada is printed in its entirety on the Poetry Foundation website here. The poem seems especially right for this conversation when you know that Lawson Fusao Inada was one of the youngest Japanese Americans sent to live in internment camps during WWII.

Here’s to trying to lose our edge
~Catherine

For more “Edge” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community project curated by Susannah Conway, a photographer, author and teacher we greatly admire over here at Backyard Sisters. You can follow the month-long photo challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Book notes

By Catherine Keefe

Thankfully I’ve never been a rule follower. “Don’t write in books” means nothing to me when reading rattles a new thought. I read with book in one hand, pencil in the other.

bookI go to books to the way a diver explores the shipwreck: to swim out of my element into something deep and unknown. The very best encounters leaves me breathless.

I mine for words I don’t yet know, like mendacious (Hour of the Star pg. 36).
I note new questions like, “Who has not asked himself at some time or other: am I a monster or is this what it means to be a person?”(pg. 15).
I retrace lines that reaffirm something I always secretly thought but rarely read, “…for we are all one and the same person,” (pg. 12).

This photo captures the inside of my copy of Clarice Lispector’s classic novel, Hour of the StarIf you’re not familiar with Lispector’s literature, maybe reading “Why You Should Know Clarice Lispector” by Benjamin Moser will entice you to seek out her work and create your own book notes.

“This great figure is duly celebrated in Brazil and throughout Latin America. Her arresting face adorns postage stamps. Her name lends class to luxury condominiums. Her works are sold in subway vending machines. One Spanish admirer wrote that educated Brazilians of a certain age all knew her, had been to her house and have some anecdote to tell about her, much in the way Argentines do with Borges. At the very least they went to her funeral in 1977…readers might, as I did, find in her expressive genius a mirror of their own souls.”

Although Clarice died in 1977, her work is enjoying a recent renaissance. Complete Stories was just released August 1, 2015. You can read the Publisher’s Weekly review of it here. Turns out, according to the Slate Book Review by Jeff VanderMeer, Clarice and I have something in common.

Sometimes when you don’t care about how many writing rules you break, you wind up somewhere sublime and subversive and original. Reading Lispector, you see this happen with startling regularity.

Isn’t to be alive to learn something new every day? Maybe that happens when you break a few rules. What do you do to inspire new perspectives? Make note. Take note.
~Catherine

For more “notebook” images and interpretations from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

 

“I like the generosity of numbers…”

By Catherine Keefe

I always hated numbers, despised their precision, their insistence on creating a definitive right answer or wrong guess. How many jellybeans in the jar? How much money in the bank? How many hours in a day?

I’d rather live in the ‘ish, a realm my body understand better than calculators.

DSC00296A clatter of red lacquer shutters.
Firework bursts of flower petals.
A cacophony of tilted bicycles.
This means more to me than the single number 4 plastered onto one black lamppost in Delft.

I hated the constriction of numbers until I reconsidered them through poetry. When I started The August Break project I didn’t define the number of hours I’d spend on the project, or establish the number of posts I’d participate in. Rather I promised myself fluid time to investigate concepts through images and poetry.

Today that exploration led me to discover poet Mary Cornish, a poet whose words I never would have met if I hadn’t ignored the definitive number of days left in summer before I must return to teaching with a prepared syllabus. According to Mary Cornish’s official biography at Poetry Foundation, she “came to poetry late in life.” (There’s that number thinking again.) Her poetry is, “Known for its thoughtful investigations of domestic scenes…explores the relationships between art, artifice, and the past.” Here’s an excerpt:

Numbers

I like the generosity of numbers.
The way, for example,
they are willing to count
anything or anyone:
two pickles, one door to the room,
eight dancers dressed as swans.

I like the domesticity of addition—
add two cups of milk and stir—
the sense of plenty: six plums
on the ground, three more
falling from the tree.

Today, I reconsider my relationship to numbers. Maybe you’ll open yourself up to a new possibility too as you remember to count your blessings and number your gifts.

You can read the entire text of Mary Cornish’s “Numbers” poem here, or take a 2-minute video break and watch the poem here:


For more “Numbers” images from The August Break project, search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

~Catherine