Quote Unquote: Haunted

In preparation for Wednesday’s visit with poet Mark Doty, I read the following quote from a 1997 interview to my students: 

“I wait to be haunted, as it were, by an image … What happens is something I see registers on a deeper level than most experience does. A seal in the harbor, or the wreck of a fishing boat. I’ll feel this tug in my memory. Then I’ll begin describing it to try to capture it. …” 

“What does the poet mean when he says that he is haunted by an image?” I asked my class of teen moms. 

“I know,” one student said, “it’s like when a song gets stuck in your head. But instead of a song, something you saw gets stuck in your head and you can’t stop thinking about it.” 

And so another poet is born! 

Things that threaten to swamp your craft


photo by Aja Riggs

Every now and then my students amaze me. Okay, at least once a week my students amaze me.

This week’s tale goes something like this: We’ve been reading poems by Mark Doty, who’ll be visiting our school Wednesday. And of course you can’t really read too far into Mark’s work without coming upon poems about homosexuality. And when you teach teenage girls you never know how reading poems about gay men and AIDS and poems with words like butch and queen in them is going to go.

In fact, I spent almost all of my prep time devising strategies to diffuse, deflect, and even downplay the gay thing. I quickly realized that wasn’t going to work. It’s like trying to throw an afghan over the elephant sucking peanuts up off the living room carpet and hoping your dinner guests won’t notice that there’s a pachyderm standing there.

So, before I read “Embrace,” an absolutely beautiful poem in which the author receives a visitation from his deceased lover in a dream, I decided to put the cards on the table.




Okay, so I kind of speed talked my way through the introduction, hoping, I guess, that if I didn’t leave any time for students to comment they wouldn’t have time to say anything homophobic. Then I launched into the poem. Which, by the way, you just can’t speed read your way through. Because at some point when you read it, your voice will get caught on all those tears that building up during the achingly loving descriptions of the narrator seeing his lover again, his face untouched by the pain and suffering and sickness.

When I was done reading there was silence. Then a ripple of sighs sifted through the room. “Wow,” S. said. “I wish I had a love like that.”

Another student immediately began writing a poem about her father who died of AIDS. Instead of love, she wrote mostly of the anger she felt toward him for neglecting her during his short lifetime. But, she wrote, she never would have expressed these long-hidden feelings, if Mark’s poem hadn’t invited her to explore them.

Then T., whose poems have up until now been stifled by that particular brand of teenage girl obsession with polish, shine, neatness and matching — which translates into sweet poems in perfect penmanship about nothing much — finally wrote about her father’s violent death.

And on it went. No one, needless to say, got caught up in the particulars of the poet’s sexuality.

Which brings me to something Mark told his workshop students back in 1996 at Columbia … a workshop I was taking as part of my graduate studies. He said: “Write about the things that threaten to swamp your craft.” That’s the kind of instruction I might have given my class, if I hadn’t been so busy anticipating homophobia that my students were obviously beyond.

 But in the end they got the message anyway. And sailed with grace through the tumultuous waters of their hearts.

Some pancakes with that poem?

Driving out west on Route 66 through nearby Westhampton this weekend, I noticed clouds of smoke billowing above small weathered outbuildings. Around here, that can mean only one thing: maple sugar season.


For most people, that conjures images of metal buckets hanging from maple trees, or stacks of pancakes and waffles slathered with amber-colored maple syrup.


I, of course, think instead of poetry.


Maple syrup is in fact one of my favorite metaphors for poetry. Think about it: To make a quart of maple syrup one must first collect gallons of clear, tasteless sap. By boiling this bland liquid — and boiling it some more, one is left with the dark, sweet and sticky essence: The syrup. Or, as the case may be: The poem.


As with the farmer making syrup, the poet must turn up the heat in order to get the taste and quality she is looking for. For poets that can mean turning up the emotional heat: feeling the anger burn, touching a finger to the blade edge of pain or the smoldering of desire.


The maple farmer lets the syrup run through an evaporator, and happily allows everything that’s not essential to the end result disappear into air. Likewise, the poet must let go all unnecessary words: delete, delete, delete.


So, enjoy the season. Pour some locally made maple syrup over your pancakes if you can. Or better yet, boil down the essence of some experience you’ve had and make it into a rich and tasty poem.


Quote Unquote: Weightless Words

Photo by Aja Riggs

I remember once my sister, a visual artist whose studio was filled with canvases, tubes of paints, easels and old coffee cans filled with brushes and sticks of charcoal … in short things … once saying that she was envious of me as a writer: “All you need is a pencil and paper and you can create,” she said.

But I, in turn, have often been envious of the artists in my life. They get their hands dirty with color, they surround themselves with objects that possess texture, shape and depth. The tools of their trade have weight.

We poets and writers have only words. Ephemeral and elusive, they can not even hold their shape as they pass from one language to the next.

Samuel Johnson, the man who gave us the dictionary and the great grandfather of journaling had this to say about the tools of our trade:

“I am not yet so lost in lexicography, as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven. Language is only the instrument of science, and words are but the signs of ideas: I wish, however, that the instrument might be less apt to decay, and that signs might be permanent, like the things which they denote.”

 Me, too.

Big Girls Do Cry

On J.’s first day at our school, where all of the students are teen moms, we happened to be having a special poetry reading. Our guest was Aleida Rodriguez, a well-known poet who has written emotionally moving poems about her mother. During the reading Aleida frequently broke into tears and then just as frequently apologized for crying.


“You don’t have to keep saying you’re sorry,” J. announced from her seat in the center of the room. Who is this new girl who dared to speak up to our guest poet? I wondered. “It should be okay to cry here,” J. told Aleida, “it’s an all-girls school after all.”


As it happens, I think boys should have just as much license to cry, but that’s beside the point in this case. The point is that J., a teenage girl, was wisely coaching us all in the art of tears. Little did I know that first morning, she would continue to do so in the months that followed.


As I’ve come to know J. better, I’ve learned she has plenty to cry about. Her brother can’t seem to shake a drug habit and her father abused both J. and her mother. Remembering herself as a little girl, the year her father finally left the family, J. wrote “I can’t believe an 8-year-old could feel so much hate.”


Last week in class J. cried as she listened to her classmates read poems about one girl’s father who died of AIDS, another’s grandmother who died of old age, a baby who died in utero, and a friend who was shot and killed on the streets. Crying might seem the natural response to stories like those, but all of us have been trained to be strong, and J. and her classmates have had more practice than most at confronting tragedy and burying pain.


This week J. teared  up again when another student, who found out this week that she passed her GED, wrote a poem of farewell to her classmates.


“You’re going to miss her, aren’t you,” I asked as I passed J. a tissue.


“Yes,” she said, “but that’s not all.” She was crying, she explained, because one day she too will graduate. And when she does she’ll have to leave the first school she ever enjoyed coming to. She’ll have to leave behind the best friends she’s ever had. She’ll have to return to a life she described in a recent essay as being ruled by Murphy’s Law: Everything bad that could happen, does, she wrote.


I tried to reassure her that the friendships she’s made here will continue. That college can provide another supportive community of caring teachers and students.


“It’s good to get it out,” another student reassured her as J. cried. Then E. joined in, and soon we were passing the tissue box around again.


It was three minutes to one; time for poetry class to end and the next to begin.


“Okay, everyone,” I said. “Take a deep cleansing breath. Inhale everything that’s good and strong and breathe out all the sadness, anger and pain.” After a great collective exhalation, I told everyone it was time to go. But first, I thanked J. for giving us all the freedom to break down and cry.