Wednesday, June 28

Poetry Thursday: This time it’s personal

Today I have found a companion in my journey as a poet, as an artist, as someone who is healing from her wounds. I have found the poet, Linda McCarriston, through Bill Moyers, who, if I had a list of my favorite 10 men in the world, would most definitely be on that list.

As I read poem after poem by McCarriston, I thought immediately of Lynn's poem and the many responses left in the comments on that blog post, by readers of Poetry Thursday. I wrote her a letter, copied to Liz as well, which I am posting here:

Dear Liz and Lynn,
It's Saturday morning, around 9:00 am. I got up at sunrise this morning and spent two hours kneeling on the ground in my garden, pulling weeds, hoeing just-warming earth into mounds, then transplanting my small tomato and basil seedlings. It's finally warm enough in Montana to put these tender starts outside, so they can grow accustomed to the harsh elements where I live. Sunrise was early today, since we're just three days past Solstice. With soil under my fingernails and dirt-rounds on my knees, I ate a delicious breakfast -- in the sun -- made by my husband, Tim: waffles from freshly ground spelt and oat grains ... strawberries grown in our hanging baskets, maple syrup and a small cup of thick espresso. Tim has gone to work in his furniture shop, after bathing our old dog, Sam and leaving him to dry in the sun.

I tell you this (how my Saturday morning has been) because in a roundabout way, my morning today is connected to something I have gained from and learned from both of you.

I feel so lucky to have the companionship of a man who truly loves me, whose hands are gentle and kind, who cooks meals for me occasionally, who kneels down on a wet bathroom floor to lovingly bathe a 17-year old (around 104 equivalent human years) dog ....

Feeling this lucky made me think about your recent poem, Lynn -- the one inspired by words you love/words you hate .... and the upwelling of feeling I had when I read it -- it reminded me so much of experiences I had as a very young pre-teen and teenager. I have sat with those feelings and memories for the last two days, since reading your poem.

I wrote a comment on that blog post, Lynn, but I just wanted to say again that I believe your courage in sharing that poem (no matter what degree to which it is autobiographical or not ...) affected me strongly -- not just the poem itself, but the fact that you posted it! that you wrote it and shared it and didn't just let the poem sit between two journal-covers ... and I believe your courage probably affected alot of people who read that poem, judging from the comments.

For a break from my garden "chores", I thought I would go online to read your poem again, along with more of the amazing, heartfelt and diverse poetry contributed this week by the many Poetry Thursday members. I'm sure you know how browsing around blogs and the internet in general can be a round-about and sometimes incredibly synchronous experience!

Well, in the course of the last hour I have read six Poetry Thursday blog posts and commented, looked at a whole bunch of Flickr photos posted with poetry .... (from the Literary Reference in Pictures group on flickr) plus come across an amazing interview by Bill Moyers with poet, Linda McCarriston. You may be familiar with her work, Liz and Lynn. If you aren't I encourage you to read her poetry, maybe starting with this very good interview.

The interview is an archive of Moyer's PBS show, NOW, which is now unfortunately, hosted by David Brancaccio (he's not nearly as radical as Moyers thus the show has become kind of tame, imho) -- anyway, I get sidetracked. Back to the point: Moyers and McCarriston were discussing intense, personal uncomfortable writing -- very similar to yours. At least, the discussion between Linda and Moyers reminded me of some of the questions and issues brought up here in these comments, by readers who have responded to your powerful poem.

Here is an excerpt from the interview:

The material was hard to handle, but in some ways a more difficult problem was that many people actively tried to discourage me from writing these poems. They felt that if I were to write them, the poems would be shrill or I might be identifying myself as a feminist or a radical. Because I knew that these experiences told in the first person woman's voice of outrage were not supposed to be poetry, I tried to write these poems in a way that was veiled. But when I veiled the voice or the experiences I put the fire out in them.

I tried again and again and again to write these poems, and I was really driven a little bit wild by the necessity to write them. I didn't know why I felt so compelled to write them, but when I finally found that I was beginning to write poems about these experiences that were standing on their own, that were good poems, I realized that I simply had to speak back to the culture that I saw as creating and sustaining the ideas that led to this violent situation in the first place. I really don't feel I had a choice. That was my material, and the difficulty was simply in waiting and leaning on the material long enough until a way came to me by which I could speak.

Those who argue that poetry says the unsayable generally mean the unsayably beautiful or the unsayably profound, but the unsayable can also mean what people simply don't want said, ever. That's why poetry is extremely radical—poetry allows the individual experience to strike like lightning through the collective institutional consciousness and to plumb the depths of actual communal experience so that what people don't want said in fact gets said, and in a way that is unignorable. Poetry does this through the stature of utterance which characterizes it.

MOYERS: Some of your poems are suffused with healing— just the sound of your voice when you read it is a healing experience.

MCCARRISTON: I think that's what people respond to, that it is possible for the people who are damaged to deal. Many, many people suffer cruelly tragic childhoods, and many others who don't suffer cruelly tragic childhoods suffer painful childhoods, but they're all encouraged by the future just to grow up and get over it. So they have all this experience which they can't get over very easily, and it continues to be painful. At times when they begin to confront it, they feel that they're going to be stuck in it forever, and they don't want to be stuck in it forever. Then they begin to ask: Is there a way out? Can one heal? How does one heal? I think it's the possibility of healing in that poem that people have responded to.

If you are interested in reading the entire interview, it's here. And here is a poem by Linda McCarriston, which strikes me as very much like the type of poem we Poetry Thursday participants have been discussing in this comment thread.

I was wondering if maybe this would be something you would want to post on Poetry Thursday, maybe in the sidebar under special links, or I don't know ...l maybe somehow we could have this be a topic, without getting too much into the "confessional" type of poetry -- maybe just putting some thought into how this kind of poem might fall flat, or on the other hand, might be so powerful and universal that it changes someone's life, truly changes someone's response to pain and circumstances.

I'll leave it up to you how to present this, if at all. I love Poetry Thursday and congratulate you both on a successful idea that seems to be drawing more and more people to be open to writing, reading and sharing poetry in community.


Here are a few more links and excerpts by or about Linda McCarriston:

From McCarriston's article about her poem "On Horseback" article published in Sojourner's Magazine: When the artist goes into the "dark place," she goes with her materials, her commitment (which is the habit of her presence there), and her humility (a willingness to be surprised and even undone by what finds her there). What discovers her is usually neither what she expected nor what her society wants particularly to hear, but it is a truth, something she didn't know she knew or knew but had forgotten.

Here is an interview of Linda McCarriston by Bill Moyers on his now tame PBS show, Now. (I say it's tame now because Moyers has retired from the show leaving his replacement, David Brancaccio, to continue. Brancaccio's style and subject choices are anything but interesting to me after the brilloiance, courage and genious Moyers demonstrated week after week when he hosted NOW. )

And McCarriston's poem:

On Horseback

We are only walking.
This is not the romance
of horseback riding:
your mane, which is short
and scraggly, sticks out
like a hedge of cowlicks
or merely flops off to the side.
Nothing is flying, trans-
porting, transcendent.

Then we aren't a metaphor
for anything, Shawnee James,
little borrowed horse I learn on.
Your body is bent and dented
as the first car I owned,
the '52 Plymouth, brush-painted,
one walleye headlight
held in with masking tape.
And I am a comparable model.

But, cast off the road,
our shadow is travelling
across the cut stubble of October.
My hands have forgotten themselves,
as the shadow has forgotten them,
does not require them.
With your four legs, our two heads
find a balance.

A single thing in gray,
its many muscles flush and flexing
in everyday grace,
we move over the grass, as whole
as the shape anything makes, passing.
We are something going somewhere,
handsome and practical and proud.
We shake out our tail.

LINDA McCARRISTON teaches poetry at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. Her most recent collection of poetry is Eva-Mary (Northwestern Press, 1993). Talking Soft Dutch was published by Texas Tech Press (1984). Reprinted here by permission of the author/poet.

Today's post is part of a growing circle of blog posts written for Poetry Thursday, begun by poets, Liz and Lynn. Click on their names to see their blogs, or check out the other poetry posts for this week by clicking this button:

Poetry Thursday: this week’s (completely and totally optional) idea — this time it’s personal