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

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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

 

 

When a door opens…

By Catherine Keefe

door

It was a time of slamming and silence and being shut out. It was when a white, solid wood four-panel face was more familiar than two eyes and a smile. It was me in the hall knocking. Waiting. Asking, “may I come in?”

It was a card for a special day I swore I’d never forget, but I have. Valentine’s Day? My birthday? It was a note, written in my teenage son’s hand that I’ll never forget.

My gift to you is my bedroom door. Open. For one month.

When someone says, “I don’t need anything,” when you ask what they want, they probably really do want something. It’s just not for sale at any store. If you ask what someone wants, you might already know the answer.

Open a door for someone today. It’s never too late to start again.
~Catherine

For more “Door” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 17,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

In the distance

By Catherine Keefe

distance

“…far to the edge of desolation
suspicious of any poetry
even to exchange a hello…”

from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil
Translated from Indonesian by John H. McGlynn

In the distance, on the Bell Canyon Trail, are Santiago and Mojeska peaks. In the distance
of one week’s time two classrooms full of students will look up at me as if
I have something to teach them. In the distance of ancient geology I see
where oceans once covered this land, have now receded. In the distance
of imagination lies my chance to reseed hope, to teach how we might learn
to stop and listen to one another’s stories of our time together on this earth,
a blip. In the distance I see all of us working together as if we are not
each other’s enemy, but all the killing is. In the distance I see lands
without borders between
what it means to be human.

Ideas already freely cross borders. One of my favorite carefully curated online sites for international literature in translation is Words Without Borders, where I found the poem that contains the excerpt which opens this post. I’ll close with the last stanza of the poem

excerpt from “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil

my palm resigned to resting
on desire still hopeful

can you only be felt
while taste is the experience of each of us
until you possess a range of understanding
untraceable by any and all senses
with no time limit however brief
then you intentionally slip longing
on each breeze converging
to then pit melancholy ’gainst action
time booked time and time again

Read something in translation today. You can read all of “writing you” by Taufik Ikram Jamil by clicking the hyperlink.

Say hello to someone you don’t know.
In the distance I see us together. What do you see?
~Catherine

For more “In the distance” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 16,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Behind the curve

By Catherine Keefe.

arch

I traveled to St. Louis in June to marry two long-time friends. I arrived in a tempestous thunder and lightning storm so severe the airplane baggage workers weren’t allowed to offload luggage for more than an hour. The next day happened to be when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Same-Sex Marriage was a constitutional right. Rainbow lighting shone upon City Hall and rainbow flags flew and rainbow t-shirts adorned same-sex couples who held hands and popped champagne bottles thronging the downtown area, celebrating this landmark on a day which happened to coincide with the beginning of Pride St. Louis weekend.

Visiting the Gateway Arch is a more or less obligatory tourist thing to do, so I passed the Pride parade prelude with a smile and light heart and wandered under the arch’s great stainless steel expanse soaring 630 feet above ground with my husband, daughter and grandson. Gateway Arch is the tallest man-made national monument in the country, the tallest monument in all the Western Hemisphere, and the tallest arch in the world. That’s a lot of superlatives for a curved symbol right smack dab in the middle of our country.

Walking the grounds of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is the nationally funded and protected park where the arch’s feet are planted, we got to marveling at the momentous day we were experiencing for gay rights, and we began to guess what issue might next get national attention and change. Gun control, we hoped. Wealth distribution, we prayed. Racial equality. We shook our heads. We really couldn’t believe we were so far from something so fundamental, something that had started and been fought for and tried and denied for so long.  When?

It’s eight miles between downtown St. Louis to Ferguson, Missouri, eight miles from where Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by a white policeman last August. Eight miles between Ferguson, Missouri and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial grounds which include the Gateway Arch and the courthouse where the early trials of the Dred Scott case were held.

The Gateway Arch reflects St. Louis’ role in the Westward Expansion of the United States during the nineteenth century. The park is a memorial to Thomas Jefferson’s role in opening the West, to the pioneers who helped shape its history, and to Dred Scott who sued for his freedom in the Old Courthouse.

The Dred Scott Case, in case your US History memory is fuzzy, was opened by slave Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, who petitioned in Missouri for their freedom in 1846 on the grounds that they’d lived in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery had been prohibited by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The case was lost in Missouri but was appealed to the Supreme Court.

Although many slaves were freed under these grounds, according to Washington University’s Dred Scott archives, “Seven of the nine judges of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that not only was Dred Scott a slave, but that as a slave, Scott had no right to bring suit in the federal courts on any matter. The court ruled that the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in northern territories, was unconstitutional. Therefore, although Scott had lived in northern territories, he had never earned his freedom.”

You can read the original documents and the court’s ruling on the Our Documents historical archive here.

The ruling was one of the key events leading to Civil War.

The Old Courthouse where the early trials of that pivotal long drawn out Dred Scott case were held, are a national monument sharing space with Gateway Arch as a symbol of our pioneering spirit and expansion. Do you see the possibility here? Do you see how we might strive to rise and even when we fall, keep getting up again until we make a gate for all? Can we imagine the day this tallest arch in the world, which already stands in the middle of our country, can also stand for the end of our struggle over race?

I can imagine that day. I want to work toward that. I have to admit I have no idea how to be effective. But doubt isn’t reason enough not to try.

I wrote this post.
I’m reading Claudia Rankine’s, Citizen.
I ordered Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and I already like this smart author’s website because he offers ways to get involved in helping bring about equality for all.

Are you doing something, anything, to get ahead of this curve?
~Catherine

For more “Curve” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 14,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.

 

Real life with ants and dirt

By Catherine Keefe

At first all I see is the trail. Chester is antsy this morning, fur ridged on his back, low growl rumbling deep as he walks beside me. Earlier, in the hazy blue hour between night and dawn, a chorus of coyote howls drifted in my open bedroom window. The neighbor we met a few minutes ago on the trail tells me he saw a coyote right there and it nipped at his golden retriever. I walk and scan and wonder why my usually calm dog is on high alert. 

Step by step though, we both slowly relax into the cadence of our hike and the gift of a foggy August morning. My attention turns from potential coyote ambush in the brush to keeping my eye on the trail to avoid rattlesnakes. Another neighbor’s dog was bit a few weeks ago and I don’t want to add to the yearly tally of snake bites. 

I notice a line in the sand, pause to examine a colony of ants stretched across the trail and silently marching off into the brush.

trailI wasn’t one of those Uncle Milton Ant Farm kids. I hate ants. Inside or outside, there are just too many of them, and not enough of me with any ability to reason with an insect about leaving the honey in my pantry alone. Unlike bees which pollinate, I have a hard time finding beauty or necessity in these beasts. They work tirelessly to find food and bring it back home, they work together in this endeavor, and defend their nest and when there’s danger they pack up their belongings and flee to new ground where they start all over again. Far as I can tell, they don’t complain, they just keep their heads down and get on with it.

ants

Hmmm. I stoop down closer to observe each individual. One ant has a stinger, another carries a large piece of something, and a third leads the way home for the food-bearing ant. Even the dirt, which looks like a monochromatic trail from eye-height, unfolds as a collection of tiny multi-colored, multi-shaped rocks upon closer inspection.

Real life, this. Quite ordinary. Quite extraordinary. Every day a gift to unwrap if you can pause and truly see.

After my hike, I searched to see what poets had written about ants.  It turns out, quite a lot. I also searched Google images to see if I could learn what kind of ants these are. Best I can discern, they’re either carpenter ants which are benign, or fire ants which sting with venom. There’s a lot of information about how to kill ants too, more about that than poems.

But for today, I’ll let the ants live. This morning’s encounter, and Gary Soto‘s poem,”Failing in the Presence of Ants,” have me feeling a little more kindly toward this small example of “Real Life,” today’s August Break 2015 prompt. Here are a few lines to inspire you.

Failing in the Presence of Ants
By Gary Soto

We live to some purpose, daughter.
Across the park, among
The trees that give the eye
Something to do, let’s spreak
A blanket on the ground
And examine the ants, loose
Thread to an old coat.
They’re more human than we are.
They live for the female,
Raise their hurt, and fall earthward
For their small cause…

You can read the entire poem here: “Failing in the Presence of Ants.”
Where did you observe real life today in all its ordinary splendor?

In the thick of summer,
~Catherine

For more “Real life” images, check out The August Break, 2015, a community challenge to “Live inside each moment,” by checking out the more than 14,000 #augustbreak2015 posts on Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr.