Slip me some skin

By Catherine Keefe

Skin is the sole
thin veil between
where I stop
and you begin

baby

This sole thin skin is all
that keeps me
from melting into you

Slip me some –
Give me some –
You are under
my skin.

Be soft today.

My grandchild’s face is the inspiration for Day #3 of The August Break photography challenge prompt, “Skin.” Follow #augustbreak15 on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr for more images.

~ Catherine

 

 

“…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

Sweet freedom

By Catherine Keefe

“Freedom: to walk free and own no superior…”
           Walt Whitman

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Today’s a perfect day to play with Walt Whitman’s poetry. The Poetry Foundation says:

Walt Whitman is America’s world poet—a latter-day successor to Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare. In Leaves of Grass (1855), he celebrated democracy, nature, love, and friendship.

Whitman’s legacy is as a poet of the people and his poetry reveals optimism in the great democratic experiment that is America, one that I think needs a little shaking up these days.

Here’s one Walt Whitman original.

America
Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,
A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.
And my new poem: 

keefe-4

 ____________________________________________________

May your day be spent in the company of those who make you feel most free.
May your freedom be spent sweetly.

Happy 4th,
~Catherine

 

 

Building community post by post

road

Writers work alone, it’s true. But it’s equally accurate that writers work in community once the word by word composition is finished. I’m thrilled for Backyard Sisters to be this week’s stop on The Writing Process Blog Tour by hosting a self-interview with Sara Henning.

sara picSara Henning is the author of the full-length collection of poetry A Sweeter Water (2013), as well as a chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012). Her poetry, fiction, interviews and book reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in such journals as Willow Springs, Bombay Gin and the Crab Orchard Review. Currently a doctoral student in English and Creative Writing at the University of South Dakota, she serves as Managing Editor for The South Dakota Review.

Here’s Sara…
The Writing Process Blog Tour
Many thanks to Catherine Keefe for hosting my installment of the vastly circulating Writing Process Blog Tour on her Backyard Sisters Blog!

 What am I working on?
I’ve been spending the past few months promoting and reading from my first volume of poetry, A Sweeter Water, as well as continuing to promote my chapbook, To Speak of Dahlias (2012). Both of these collections concern suicide, paternal order and the trope of longing. The reoccurring image of the dahlia weaves in and out of the fractured narrative as both a talisman and a taboo.

I have had the joy as of late to have been interviewed about these books by Laura Madeline Wiseman, editor of the groundbreaking Women Write Resistance, an anthology dedicated to resisting gender violence, and Sally Deskins of Les Femmes Folles. A collaborative interview with Laura Madeline Wiseman regarding these collections is also forthcoming on the Sundress Publications blog.

I’m also working on a collection of poetry entitled What Women Won’t Tell You, which I envision engaging with poetry as a means of embodied resistance to hegemonic narratives through both post-confessional protest and lyrical meditation.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
As a poet, my work explores issues crucial to the current contemporary moment. Most specifically, it tends to address the quiet war on women waged at home. In the wake of cases such as Ariel Castro and the kidnapping of Jaycee Lee Dugard, I brace myself for every time I watch the news. Every few months, another woman is found locked in a basement. Every few seconds, there is a woman suffering in silence. Now, if you will, pit this against the current state of poetry, with its focus on professionalization and bohemianism from within the ivory tower.

By writing work that engages with the current cultural moment, I’m trying to avoid being a McWriter.

Why do I write what I do?
Because I can’t help it.
Also, because I’m sick of reading writers who masturbate on paper.

How does my writing process work?
I begin with an idea, and I obsessively research it. I look for anything I can find out about it through disparate sources (Wikipedia, databases through my university, books, other articles, you name it).

I’ll then try to think about its narrative and lyrical applicability to a concrete moment or action. I then write long-hand in my journal until I feel like I have captured the moment.

I then attempt to weave in different incarnations of what I have researched, so what emerges is a patchwork of intertextuality—my lyric informed by empirical data.

I then type it all into an electronic document and obsessively revise it until I can’t look at it anymore.

I repeat the revision process until I come up with something I can live with.

Then I start sculpting.

~~~~~

Thank you Sara for stopping by the Backyard Sisters.
Next week, on another host blog, The Writing Process Blog Tour will feature words from the amazing Matthew Silverman, Daniel Wallace and Teniesha A. Kessler-Emanuel. I’ll post the links when they’re live.

Teniesha A. Kessler-Emanuel is a Master’s candidate in the University of South Dakota’s English Department and a graduate teaching assistant. A published poet, her work can be found in several journals including the South Dakota Poetry Society’s Pasque Petals, the Vermillion Literary Project magazine, and Scurfpea Publishing’s Siesta anthology. Teniesha is also a visual artist, & upon finishing her degree, she intends on joining her two passions by illustrating her poetry.

Daniel Wallace is studying his PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Tennessee. His work has been published in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Tampa Review, Fiction Writers Review, and Air Schooner. His first novel is being represented by Inkwell Management.

M. E. Silverman is editor and founder of Blue Lyra Review and Review Editor of Museum of Americana. He is on the board of 32 Poems and is a reader for Spark Wheel Press. His chapbook, The Breath before Birds Fly (ELJ Press, 2013), is available. His poems have appeared in over 75 journals, including:Crab Orchard Review, 32 Poems, December, Chicago Quarterly Review, North Chicago Review, Hawai’iPacific Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The Southern Poetry Anthology, The Los Angeles Review, Tulane Review, Weave Magazine, Many Mountains Moving, Pacific Review, Poetica Magazine and other magazines. He recently completed editing Bloomsbury’s Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry with Deborah Ager and is working on Voices from Salvaged Words: An Anthology of Contemporary Holocaust Poetry. http://www.mesilverman.com

Happy National Poetry Month
~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.

invite 2

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

“All I have is a voice…”

By Catherine Keefe
Up until 1963, when home movies were silent and telephone answering phones didn’t exist, the only way to know your own voice was to hear the sound you made in your head. And then one day right before Christmas my father brought home a small silver box encased in black leather. It’s a tape recorder! He invited me to sing into a microphone.

I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…

I sang with my whole heart and soul.  The family sat around the living room waiting to hear how well the new gadget worked. Rewind. Play. Rustle, rustle. Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel… I was certain the new toy was broken because the sound was wincingly loud and distorted and much too big for the living room.  All the laughing it caused made the paneled walls vibrate. What was that?

“Stop!” I stood up and shouted. “Stop it now!” In my head I sounded like a choir girl. In reality I made a reverberation like a cross between a goat bleat and toad croaking with swollen adenoids under a mossy river in spring thaw.

rocks

Demosthenes spoke with pebbles in his mouth. I tried that once.

The first time I saw my poetry in print, I hated it too.

i am…

i think.

i’m not really sure.

are you?

It was ten years after the tape recorder incident and my small poem, “i am” was published in the high school literary journal, not a small feat for an underclassman.  I’ve spared you the last stanza.  I’d submitted five poems to the journal and was surprised the editors picked this example of Descartes redux, even though at the time I’d not yet heard of cogito ergo sum.  I thought the poem was too simple then, and when I finally met Descartes’ work in college, I wondered how he got so famous arguing for what I’d already intuited. i am. i think. I dropped the ellipses and began calling my poetry philosophical.

Today I was invited to read my poetry aloud at the upcoming Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in Seattle at the end of February. I’m thrilled and terrified, though I probably shouldn’t admit to either. The event is a gathering of more than 12,000 writers, editors and book lovers and though I’ve read my writing aloud before audiences of one, of dozens, and hundreds, I’m still unused to my voice in public. I relate completely when poet Sarah Kay says in her TED talk, “My self-confidence can be measured out in teaspoons.”

But there’s something worse than hearing my voice and seeing my words in print. Silence.

“All I have is a voice / to undo the folded lie” wrote W.H. Auden in his poem “September 1, 1939.” It was one poet’s response to the outbreak of World War II.

What’s the distance between silence and sound? There are 30 decibels between pure silence and a library whisper. Decibels are sound units based on what the human ear can hear. The sound of typical conversation reaches 60 decibels.

I imagine that each decibel is one step in an average 10-step staircase. I know I can climb three stories. I whisper. I know I can climb six stories and speak aloud even if it leaves me breathless.

My students, this first week of the new semester, wanted to talk about voice too.  After they asked a variety of questions about assignment word count and final exams and if it was fine to miss class for the Coachella Music Festival, it was my turn to ask a question.

“What do you want from me?”
Silence. That kind where you hear sniffles and shoe scuffs and the lawnmower outside three blocks away.

Then somewhere between a library whisper and full conversation volume, one girl spoke out.  “Can you help me find my voice?”  

Like frogs slowing waking up to sing in the night rain, voices rising upon flights of stairs, a chorus began murmuring, “Yes, that’s what I want too. I want to sound like me.”

“Me too,” I say. “We’re all in this together.”

~Catherine

from “September 1, 1939” by W.H. Auden

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die. –

You can read Auden’s complete poem here: “September 1, 1939.”

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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I hate goodbye even when I need it.

When the cousins from St. Louis come for a week in the summer and you jump on the bed every night while the grownups finish long dinners and the parents are so busy you don’t even get in trouble until someone falls and conks her head badly: like that.

Or when your parent’s friends and their children from Sacramento drive down to your house with a 24-pak of Coke, something never allowed in your house, and you and your sisters and your new best friends all drink three sodas in a row after breakfast then careen through the halls scattering rugs too wild to be caught: like that.

Inviting the muse to spend a month is most like what happens when you open your door to a visitor who disrupts the house rules and decorum, seemingly without repercussion. It’s a whirlwind of rambunctious activity. I bump into corners, forget to eat, mutter in bed at 3 a.m. annoying the cat. It’s exhilarating, draining. My fellow July poets claim we’ll “collapse into a hot mess now,” and endure “postpartum blues.”

photo-48

To create a poem a day is to utterly trust and bend to the whims of the muse so when it’s time so say goodbye I feel a mixture of relief and regret. I look at my bare feet and am surprised to see them on the ground.

Call me superstitious, polite, or crazy, but I never ever want to say goodbye to the muse without inviting a return. So of course, I write a goodbye poem, the final lyric for July.

photo-35

Sayonara Muse

It’s never really good-bye with us, is it dear?
Even after the fat lady sings, and she always does, you throw your shadow
give good back
pretend to walk away.

You mock me with forever. The quitting kind, I mean.
Later baby, I know your style. Gate’s open.
Soon enough I’ll start cooking up the jambalaya you love.
Don’t slam the screen door on your way back.

Go ahead.
Leave me standing here under the concrete overpass, wailing sax
drowning out the waves at the pier.
The only blue I feel is sky.
It’s really better this way. You’re a beast. Needier than roots.

Go bother some other giver. My tongue’s dry.
Platter’s empty. Bone, I say. Nothing but crackle.
They’re playing your song in another bar.
I’ve got other things to do. Slow dance for instance.
Sway by August candlelight.

Right this minute I’m diving into a quart of Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough
with one cold spoon.

I miss you hardly already.

____________________________________________________________

Tupelo Press 30/30 Project: it’s been swell. Nine new poets are at the starting gate to compose a poem-a-day for August. Best wishes to all of them. I feel your joy. I feel your pain.

August: you’re looking pretty sweet. I’m already in the middle of a giant new project: hosting a Backyard wedding on Sunday. Abundant love and happiness, and the muse too, will arrive if you invite them in. Did you open a window today?

Happy It’s-Still-Summer,
~Catherine

How many words in a world?

“I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”

Steven Wright’s quip isn’t too far off from the way this poet thinks. I look at the dictionary, all the words right there at my fingertips. If only they’d arrange themselves to perfection.

photo-48This is the corner of my office where, day by day in July, a new poem literally got hung on the line. Writing a poem a day has been a rigorous creative exercise, but the toil is completely offset by the thrill of sharing space with 8 other poets, discovering their new-to-me voices and fresh perspectives on the world each day.  To honor my fellow July poets, Risa Denenberg, Jennifer Faylor, Janet Ruth Heller, David Koehn, Richard O’Brien, Claudia Rodriguez, Mobi Warren, and Nicholas YB Wong, I created a cento using some of my favorite lines from their July poetry. A cento is a “patchwork” or collage of lines from other poets.

Highlight Reel: Homage For the July Poetry Crew      

Is a poem everything?

What I am trying to say here is my wild wiry hair suddenly has aphasia.
Fire knows no diva can sing god’s linked tongue.
Delta Force of the written word
orange swoon of monarchs

(breathe deep):   the stairway is not
red tulips.

Frogs sing in the pond, purple martins maneuver in squadrons;
orchestra of nerve endings
slows to a steady beat.

If I’m lucky, hummingbirds or deer pass through my yard, and I write a poem.
Two door hinges,
a latch, a handle from the old shed.
God’s voice
rustling toward you.
The way
most of the body is water, yet manages not to seem so.

We knew that being in love 
in saltwater is always a mistake.
The moon blue
shy at first to know you,
frenulum that binds the tongue to the mouth-cave, arresting language.

Circuit—

We hack our way through rough brush, thorns, vines that
strangle the forest—the agony of vaulting the temple wall
only to discover the gods have moved away.

The radio is a comfort–
to be on the same frequency, possibly, as you are.
Words can’t be arrested,
Go at you — rock’ em sock’ em robots.

No doom descends on Michigan.
A dull
Eye translates what
You see.

Break me a sunrise 
in a cup.

In and out of time,
the stars remain the same;
in the marrow of limestone caves,
silent albinos⎯rare blind beetles,
eyeless spiders, lived.

Alarm
the jays clamor
hidden in the pleated grass—
a warrior heart on her sleeve—

Into the air on a dare, the arrow was meant to strike a concrete
Blue whale.

A woman opens a book and finds her mother’s handwriting in the margins,
gets up to sharpen pencils.

Everything is a poem.

________________________________________________________________
To read more from the July poets, including their bios and links to their author websites, take a leap over to the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project site. It’s a rather remarkable repository of extraordinary poetic lines.

On an entirely unrelated note, yesterday I was surprised by a sudden influx of dragon flies in my garden. Maybe they want their own Sacred Garden tanka?

I wish you some sort of beautiful bewilderment today.
~Catherine