“…out of doors is made up of air…”

gulls By Catherine Keefe

“…and a painting is always a flat surface, a painting has no air, the air is replaced by a flat surface and anything in a painting that imitates air is illustration and not art.” Gertrude Stein was rather firm in her opinion about the artistic effort of rendering air in her book, Paris France.  What bravado then, for me to attempt to photograph “air,” the Day 2 prompt for The August Break.

But then, I always like a challenge. I try the seemingly impossible in photography, “capture air,” or in writing when I take on Helen of Troy’s persona in my poetry manuscript.  Undertaking the difficult thing is the call of an artist. Gertrude Stein also wrote, “One of the pleasantest things those of us who write or paint do is to have the daily miracle. It does come.”

We seek that exhilarating moment when we capture the flash of life as art in momentary perfection. Usually the daily miracle comes by showing up and paying attention.

What you can’t see in my image of California Gulls on Laguna Beach is the little boy, just out of left frame, running down the beach in bright red trunks, flapping his arms in agitation at this flock that moments earlier descended on his towel and pilfered his bag of Cheetos. As the boy began running, I pulled out my camera to focus on the gulls.

Every day gives up its sparks if we show up to pay attention. One certain miracle of a summer Sunday is having enough time to spend outside. Put down your device, and go outside now! Chase birds, or chase your daily miracle. Chase your dream, or your lover, or your child.

Breathe.

Gulp great mouthfuls of air.

You are alive.
~Catherine

ps. If you want to hear one sound of California summer, check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology California Gull Call audio here. For more “Air” images search #augustbreak2015 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

I could give a fig

figs

By Catherine Keefe

Breakfast.

California figs.

Figs are technically flowers, not fruit.

I eat flowers for breakfast.

California grows 90% of the world’s figs. This year there was enough water to grow these delicacies. Endangered by drought? Maybe. But today, there are figs. Rejoice!

And read a morsel of fig poetry by the indominatable Edna St. Vincent Millay.

First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

For more “Breakfast” images, check out The August Break, 2015 project inspired by Susannah Conway, a photographer 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.

Happy August! ~Catherine

Let’s have a party

By Catherine Keefe
Faced with a choice, I’d prefer to throw a party than offer almost any other gift.

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Invitation by Paperless Post

If you want to know how deeply I love to celebrate your new baby granddaughter, jubilate in your high school graduation, rejoice in your 79th birthday, or revel in your nuptials, just come in my open front door, grab a plate, some cheese, a glass of Viogner and we’ll dance late into the evening. Motown. Van Morrison. Maybe a little Michael Franti & Spearhead.

I want to hear about your trip to Crimea, your knee replacement surgery, the tai chi classes you’ve begun and what it’s like teaching English to newly arrived immigrants in Korea Town. When I hug you hello, I want you to feel like you’re home and when I kiss you goodbye, I’m not really ready for you to leave. Don’t even ask; I’ll refuse to let you do the dishes.

J will scrub the big pots and pans, stack the plates into the dishwasher while I hand wash and dry the goblets with a white cotton sack cloth. In my mind, your face is still smiling and I feel your spirit warming my home, sure as the candles flicker low.

Yes, we’ll talk about you. T looked good. D seems so happy right now. It’s too bad about G‘s brother. We’ll compare notes as we wipe the countertops, thank the dog for licking crumbs off the floor, turn off the lights and sink into bed.

For an introvert who can get physically exhausted by conversation, I have an amazing capacity to entertain.

For a joyful person, I write a surprisingly deep well of sad poems.

When I was a new writer and first realized this, I felt sure I was in my “tragic artist” phase, a period I’d outgrow once I left graduate school.

When I’d sufficiently drained my tolerance for this, I tried and tried to write happy poems. And I did. Write them. Over and over and then I edited them to death because they sounded like Hallmark card jingles that deserved to languish unpublished.

Then, like Goldilocks finding the just right chair, I discovered “The Party,” a poem by Jason Shinder. Reading it feels like looking into a mirror.

The Party by Jason Shinder

And that’s how it is; everyone standing up from the big silence

of the table with their glasses of certainty and plates of forgiveness
and walking into the purple kitchen; everyone leaning away from the gas stove

Marie blows on at the very edge of the breaking blue-orange-lunging-

forward flames to warm another pot of coffee, while the dishes pile up in the sink,perfect as a pyramid. Aaah, says Donna, closing her eyes,

and leaning on Nick’s shoulders as he drives the soft blade of the knife

through the glittering dark of the leftover chocolate birthday cake.
That’s it; that’s how it is; everyone standing around as if just out of the pool,

drying off, standing around, that’s it, standing, talking,

shuffling back and forth on the deck of the present
before the boat slowly pulls away into the future. Because it hurts

to say goodbye, to pull your body out of the warm water;

to step out of the pocket of safety, clinging to what you knew,
or what you thought you knew about yourself and others.

That’s how it is, that’s it, throwing your jacket over your shoulders

like a towel and saying goodbye Victoria goodbye Sophie goodbye
Lili goodbye sweetie take care be well hang in there see you soon.

Shinder knows that gathering friends is “warm water,” a “pocket of safety,” how true art captures the bead drop between celebration of life and death. Shinder wrote “The Party” after he was diagnosed with lymphoma and leukemia. It was published posthumously in Stupid Hope. I didn’t know all this when I first read the poem, but now it makes sense, this abuttal of celebration and loss.

On Monday my daughter tells me one of her 29-year-old friends has been diagnosed with Astrocytoma Glioma, a malignant brain tumor expected to kill her within the year. “It’s so sad I can’t even bear to think about it,” my daughter moans and I hug her close, impressing her sweet scent in my mother heart.

On Saturday, instead of writing or editing or grading or submitting poetry to journals, I’m hosting a baby shower for the daughter-in-law of one of my dearest friends. This isn’t my friend’s first grandchild and this isn’t the daughter-in-law’s first baby, so the event has surprised some. Why have a shower now, they ask.

Why not, I say. Faced with a choice, I’d just as soon compose in strawberries and champagne, a little Lorde music and pink lace. Is there any better gift than gathering young mothers with wise elders to sit and bask in the sun? For one afternoon, let there be nothing but joy.

Cheers,
Catherine

Does this voice make my thoughts look big?

By Catherine Keefe
I’m waiting for the call that I’ve been accepted as a voice surrogate to create a custom synthetic vocalization for a female “target talker,” one of the 2.5 million Americans with a speech impediment so severe she must rely upon a computer voice.

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Right now, if you want a mechanical voice, there are about 60 to choose from, the most popular being “Perfect Paul.”  You’ve heard “Perfect Paul” if you’ve listened to Stephen Hawking speak. You don’t have to be a math wizard to quickly figure that a choice of 60 voices for 2.5 million speakers constructs an incredible long shot that a person will sound distinct, which is one basic human characteristic. Each being’s voice creates an utterance so individual that voiceprints are as singularly identifiable as fingerprints.

Life takes odd twists and turns when you wonder what to write about on a Thursday and a Google search for “human voice as unique as a fingerprint” turns up a TED talk by a speech scientist named Rupal Patel who’s developed the VocaliD project to “create unique voices for the voiceless.”

I register as a donor.

If I’m needed, my voice will be recorded for about 3-4 hours, then a computer will chop it into vowel and consonant bits that can be blended with the range of sounds the target talker is able to make.  Most likely it will be for a woman roughly my age as voices develop different pitch and tonal characteristics as we age.  The “target talker” will create the prosody with utterances like “ahhhhhhhh.”  I’ll provide the sound for word pieces.  Together we’ll create a voice, that for the first time will sound like her.

Giving voice to the voiceless.

I’m thinking of this because “voice” is the Backyard Sisters theme this month and also because my students are drafting their first formal projects and the distinct sound of their writing when I first met their voices in informal exercises has taken on a more constricted, stilted tone.

“I’m worried about my grade,” the young man in the front row tells me when I present this observation to the class and wonder aloud what has caused them to change.

Another student ventures, “We don’t know how you want us to sound. ”

Like yourselves?

I introduce a game developed by one of my philosophy and rhetoric heroes, Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam.  As an example of the impact that language can have, Erasmus famously wrote 150 variations on the sentence, “Your letter delighted me greatly.”

Your pages suffused me with unspeakable joy.

Your lines were as sweet to me as the sweetest of all things.

May I die if anything more delightful than your letter has ever happened.

Your letter to me was pure honey.

honey

My students and I laugh, then I challenge them to write, in one sentence, the primary idea they are trying to express.  It seems extreme to suggest they rephrase 150 times, so I suggest they come up with 10 ways to say the same thing.

While they infuse their ideas with new language, I perform a twist on that exercise, using quotes I find on voice which utter similar ideas.

“A powerful and fundamental aspect of who we are: our voice.” – Rupal Patel (TED talk).

 …a voice is like a fingerprint, possessing a constant and unique signature.” – Seamus Heaney (from a 1974 lecture).

“Oh how wonderful is the human voice! It is indeed the organ of the soul!” Flemming, the protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s novel, Hyperion: A Romance.

Now I’ve slightly misled you with that last quote as I didn’t easily find it, although a variation of it appears in Patel’s TED talk, is easily found on Brainy Quote and Goodreads and ThinkExist in a cleaned up, simplified, edited version of the above, stripped of its two exclamation marks, devoid of its sounding like a man falling in love which is exactly what’s happening to Flemming in Hyperion: A Romance, a thinly disguised Longfellow at the time.

Time has been kind and replaced Longfellow’s romantic exuberance with a more mature sound.

“The human voice is the organ of the soul.” – Longfellow

In that revision I hear a restrained baritone utterance with a genteel New England accent.  It took quite a bit of sleuthing to find the original from Hyperion: A Romance.  

It can be difficult to find your voice, I tell my students. But if you don’t, someone will speak for you, or paraphrase you, or give you “Perfect Paul” when you’re really Perfect Cath.

They nod and we begin anew the effort to sound like no one but our selves.

With fingers crossed I’ll be a surrogate,
~Catherine

You can watch Rupal Patel explain her VocaliD project in this video:

 

That awkward phase

photo-67By Catherine Keefe
Oh, the late 1980s. Neon ruled; hair was big, and bib ski overalls were still in fashion.

While it’s easy to observe fashion’s fluctuations it’s a little more difficult to discern how the adult phases of life slowly meander bearing unexpected gifts and challenges.  One thing that surprises me at this mother-of-young-adult-children phase is how difficult it is to make new friends.

I do have a deep connection to many wonderful women. But I’m often reminded how impermanent relationships are. This friend followed her husband’s job to Davenport, Iowa. That friend is eyeing a move to Phoenix when she retires to be closer to her grandchildren.  And so I begin a plunge into the inevitable awkward phase of trying to build new friendships. As if the universe listens to me, the following e-mail arrived from a woman I barely know.

Hi Gals,
I’m starting something new this year. It’s a salon (ala Dorothy Parker’s soirees at the Algonquin Hotel in New York), and I’m calling it “The Interestings.”

Did the woman who sent this, a former Broadway actress, current screenwriter and almost novelist, know she had me with the Dorothy Parker reference? It’s forever been my dream to start or belong to a salon like the Algonquin Round Table, a daily gathering of poets, writers and critics that convened in NYC from June 1919 until 1929, a group that “strongly influenced young writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway” and where “Harold Ross, legendary editor and friend of The Round Table, created The New Yorker” according to the hotel’s website.

I immediately imagined a group of smart women, part writing group, part literary critique and visionaries who might support my desire to turn the abstract concepts I glean from literature into concrete action to affect social change.  Would we begin a new magazine or a Writer’s House? Start a movement?

I wondered what connection there was between us and the novel the group took its name from. In The Interestingsby Meg Wolitzer one character famously blurts, “Specialness — everyone wants it. Most people aren’t talented. So what are they supposed to do — kill themselves?”

Last night’s inaugural agenda was to create vision boards, something I was a little snarky about. “I feel like Oprah will show up any moment,” I said not long after I walked in and eyed the leaning stacks of magazines, scissors and glue sticks. The circle laughed, a little uneasily and I made a mental note to be more open-minded and close-mouthed.  I wondered what Dorothy Parker would have made of our earnestness.  Quit talking about what you want to do and just do it.

But there I was and so I sat around a table with 8 other women snipping pictures and words from travel brochures, Yoga Journal, Bloomingdale’s catalogs, and a beauty salon’s stash of titles like O: The Oprah Magazine, InStyle, and bon appétit. I felt like a little Brownie Girl Scout at Craft Afternoon as we diligently put ruffled cut edges around camels in Saudi Arabia or a front porch weeping wisteria blossoms and I wondered if I was destined to wander alone through the end of my life unable to fit in with a group of nice women.

What didn’t we talk about? Our jobs. Our children. Our relationship to the hostess. We were untethered to any identity other than what made us smile for our future.

Finally, like kindergartners as Star of the Week, we held up our vision boards. “An open-mouthed shark bursting through the ocean’s surface represents a desire to attack new projects,” one woman said. The next woman pointed to a small photo of hundreds of lanterns floating on a river.  “Not that we’ll get to the Loi Kratong festival this year, but this reminds me to spend more time with my daughter who will go to college next year.”

There was a murmur of low sighs. Oh. Mhmm. A recognition of that awkward phase when who we were, who we are and who we want to be eddy in the rapids. Last night I heard enough dreams to light a million candles and enough desire to share those dreams even at the risk of seeming hopelessly earnest and decidedly unliterary and I think how no amount of talent or literature can save a person or sustain forever a circle of friends.

As we walked together into the full moon night, each of us clutching one cardboard idea of a life, the relentless Santa Ana winds battered our newly envisioned futures so we had to protect them tightly against our bodies. We agreed to meet in a month, to talk about and write poetry. Who knows what will happen? Our called-out promises were blown away under watchful stars.  

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With more white space than most,
~Catherine

p.s. You can read one idea on how to create a vision board version here, but I highly recommend instead, gathering a group you don’t know well. Make small talk as you release your rational brain and sift through images to see what makes you sigh or your heart quicken.  We all agreed there were more surprises than deliberate compositions and for that we were grateful.

Pomegranates, Poetry, and Play

I was invited on a field trip.  My Backyard Sisters post, “Pomegranates, Poetry, and Play” shows up today over on the Minerva Rising Literary Journal blog. Minerva Rising’s mission is, “to celebrate the creativity and wisdom in every woman.” I’m honored to be included among the fine group of writers and artists represented there.DSCN3482
I was asked to guest blog because one of my poems, “Early Warning,” appeared in the Minerva Rising’s June 2013 edition titled “Rebellion.” When I submitted the poem – a dark piece dedicated to women in history who suffered years of domestic abuse until they finally murdered their husbands- I wrote:

When I think of rebellion from a Minerva Rising perspective, I think of June Jordan‘s poem, “In My Own Quietly Explosive Here.” Women silenced sometimes feel as if we are “dying underground,” yet we discover strength when “circles hold us together.” We find wings when we tell our stories and listen to one another.

My poem was a challenge to us all not to judge, nor to ignore, unsettling behavior. Today’s post is much lighter in tone than the poem, yet it also is related to a type of rebellion. It tells the story of a front porch encounter with a group of neighbor girls playing Bigger and Better. Here’s an excerpt:

Maybe it’s the poet in me, or maybe I spy the pomegranate perched on my porch next to the pumpkin and find the perfect metaphor for why bigger isn’t always better. Pumpkins and pomegranates both ripen at this time of year with their fiery oranges and red in defiance of the coming brown and deadness. But they couldn’t be more different.

You can read the entire post on the Minerva Rising Literary Journal blog here. I’d be remiss not to mention the influence of Joan Houlihan‘s The Us upon my musing.  I was in the middle of that unique and haunting poetry book when interrupted by the neighbor girls. I doubt it’s an accident that my mind went to questioning the value of bigger over better while hypnotized by what is described on the back cover as:

The Us, Joan Houlihan’s mesmerizing new book, is a sequence of poems spoken in the collective voice of nomadic hunter-gatherers. Incompatible with a stronger, more developed culture (“thems”), the us must live outside civilization in order to be free and fully alive.

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The Us is stunning.

If you’re inspired to “be free and fully alive,” through prose,  you might appreciate these recent posts of mine.

“Anything Can Happen”
“Be small. Feel big.”
“What do you bring to the table?”

May the goblins you meet tonight scare you just enough to keep the porch light on, but not enough to ruin your evening with nightmares.

~Boo!
Catherine

p.s. You can read Darrel Lorenzo Wellingtons’ fine review of “Directed by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan,” here. Jordan, whose spirit inspired my poem “Early Warning,” was the author of  “political verse, protest poetry, folk poetry, love poetry, scenic poetry, surrealist and associative poetry, light and humorous verse, spoken word poetry and even a few sonnets.” The collection, published by Copper Canyon Press in 2007, is big:  649 pages. Rebellion indeed.
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Strange things happen at midnight

“This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
done…”    from “A Clear Midnight” by Walt Whitman


My head has been in perpetual midnight this month. I walked off an airplane and into the terminal leaving my gate-checked carry-on luggage sitting on the tarmac. I accidentally left my cell phone on my car’s back bumper and drove away. I’ve taken Chester out for walks without his leash and set off the smoke alarm when the bread I forgot in the oven burned. For 25 days now my body has been on earth, but my heart and soul have been tuned into the frequency of the poetic muse on the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project.  Sometimes I look at my feet just to see if they’re on the ground, craving the “free flight into the wordless.”

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The experience has been weird and wonderful and I heartily recommend a one-month total immersion in whatever you love to do. Your support – by reading and forwarding the poems, by joining the Orange Whistle Secrets Divulged group, by e-mailing to discuss poems, and by donating to Tupelo Press – is deeply appreciated. You have no idea how much a kind word fuels literature.

Just for you, dear readers, I’ve reprised two favorites from the 30/30 Project website.

From Day 20
gullWhat the Gull Heard One July, Main Beach, Laguna   

If I tell you a secret, will you promise not to tell?
Never trust a woman sitting at a table alone without a glass of wine at dinner.
Of course she’s difficult, that’s her schtick. She calls herself a Mensa puzzle.
“What did you expect, hula girls?”

Careful, surf’s rough.
My wife thinks I’m at work today.
That seagull, like your eyes when you wake up before you put your glasses on.

Before I wanted to be an artist I wanted to be a saint.
What did you create this afternoon? Havoc at the very least.
I wonder if the pigs are out. No sharks today.
Only looking, no touching.

I thought the ocean would be bluer.

Mama, can we have our Daddy back?
Living gives you heart trouble.
We have so many issues we should open a newsstand.
I’m a lot like Barbara Streisand except that I don’t sing.
Would you mind if I walk alone for a bit?
This would be a great spot to get married.
Hey, hey, don’t run. You’ll knock people over.

I’m starving. I’m cold.
Hit your mute button.

Things that are worthwhile are sometimes more difficult.
There’s no need to yell.
That wave that knocked you over was God’s way of saying you shouldn’t walk out so far.
It’s nothing like the pictures.
It looks just like the photo!
3.  2.  1.
Snap.

And from today:
photo-21

Faith

We hear of rain
some years
breeching banks
creating a right flood.
Horses stampede. Fish take up in the basement. Whippoorwill trills all night.
Other times
drought.
Cicadas. Flat shimmer. Dust for breakfast.

 Water, so very much like love.

 Saying It’s the season
isn’t enough to end a parch
right where you stand
palms up, head tilted skyward, mouth an open urn.
I see you wait like you are sure
it will rain once again.

 

You can read all 25 poems at the 30/30 Project.  (Day 22 was written just for one of the Backyard Cousins.) If you’ve been meaning to make a small donation to the press, time’s almost up if you’d like to mark “In Honor of Catherine Keefe.” Come August 1, I’ll be back to my more grounded self and you’ll never hear me ask you for a single thing again.

Long live books and readers and poets who write at midnight. Long live those who support the arts rather than grumble about the decline of fine publishing.

Looking toward dawn,
~Catherine