Thursday
Apr242014

Thankful Thursday: Poem in Your Pocket 

Oh, what delight! The convergence of my favorite days: Thankful Thursday and Poem in Your Pocket Day.

Created by the Academy of American Poets as part of National Poetry Month, Poem in Your Pocket Day encourages you to carry a poem and share it with others.

Call me a sap but I enjoy a designated opportunity to share poetry. On this Thankful Thursday, I sing the praises of poems carried, clutched, and shared.

Here's an old favorite. Over the years, each time I read the poem I appreciate it in a deeper way. I like this about poetry: the words do not change but the experience I bring to a poem changes. Sometime we grow into, and with, a poem.

Sweetness

       for my mother


Just when it has seemed I couldn't bear

   one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

 

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness

   has come

and changed nothing in the world

 

except the way I stumbled through it,

   for a while lost

in the ignorance of loving

 

someone or something, the world shrunk

   to mouth-size,

hand-size, and never seeming small.

 

I acknowledge there is no sweetness

   that doesn't leave a stain,

no sweetness that's ever sufficiently sweet . . .

 

Tonight a friend called to say his lover

   was killed in a car

he was driving. His voice was low

 

and guttural, he repeated what he needed

   to repeat, and I repeated

the one or two words we have for such grief

 

until we were speaking only in tones.

   Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

 

to make sense of what it means to be alive,

   then returns to its dark

source. As for me, I don't care

 

where it's been, or what bitter road

   it's traveled

to come so far, to taste so good.

 

Stephen Dunn

 

Gratitude. Appreciation. Praise. Please join me for Thankful Thursday, a weekly pause to give thanks for people, places, and things in our lives. What are you thankful for today?

 

Saturday
Apr192014

Fast Five with Gail Waldstein


   I believe in telling
the total

   emotional truth, or as much

   of it as I can clasp.


Because a few questions can lead to endless insight, I'm happy to present Fast Five — interviews with my favorite writers.

Gail Waldstein is author of To Quit This Calling, a memoir of her 35 years as a pediatric pathologist, and Afterimage, a poetry chapbook. Her stories, essays and poems have won numerous awards and have appeared in New Letters, Carve, The Potomac Review and many other journals. An excerpt from Mind Riot, a memoir about her disintegration into schizophrenia, is available to read at Solstice Literary Review. She lives in Denver, Colorado.

As a pediatric pathologist you routinely conducted autopsies on dead children, as well as diagnosing leukemia and brain tumors on very sick children. How did your career choice impact your creative life?

I had always wanted to write and a few years after a grueling internship in pediatrics, ’68-69, when I also gave birth to my first child and worked every-other-night for the rest of that year, I did write about that and was published in the early ‘70s. By then I had two more babies and my marriage was fragmenting. I was divorced in ‘76. I put aside all hopes of writing then, continued in pediatric pathology full time and solo-raised three children for fifteen years.

The truth of what I did daily in the morgue, the operating room, at the surgical bench and microscope, diagnosing tumors in babies and children drained my humanity. Said another way, in order to stay reasonably sane I shut down empathy and worked, wrote medical articles, book chapters and never accepted career advances that would require working evenings, which were dedicated to being home with the children.

“Creative” for me during those super-busy years equaled crocheting, cooking, embroidery. I kept a journal, always have, but didn’t venture into serious writing again until a poem seized me in the early ‘90s, when I pulled over, parked and wrote. By then the children were off at college or into early careers and I was remarried, another adventure that was going to hell. I continued in pathology, but increasingly found that the armor I had to wear to muscle through the surgeries and autopsies was diametrically opposed to my being able to peel my skin off and write from a raw place, which is how I wanted my work to be. I want to move a reader’s heart, to create in them the emotions that sweep us, almost slay us, move us deeply. Eventually, this dichotomy between how I had to present myself, and how I wanted to be caused (or contributed to) several severe diseases. Later, after lots of drugs, surgeries and wrestling with part time work, I quit medicine, primarily because of rheumatoid arthritis. Economically, an insane decision, but personally fulfilling and the right thing for my writing and my body. It took a few years before I noticed my body had begun to unclench, cells were breathing again.

The story of your health is story itself. You’ve survived cancer of the cervix, rheumatoid arthritis, and schizophrenia (for which you were treated in a mental institution). Do you consider writing a form of therapy?

Absolutely NOT.

I have been asked that question many, many times or told that my writing is therapeutic, that it’s so confessional and out-there that it must bring closure or relief or healing. And while writing, the way I approach it is very interior, visceral and (hopefully) deep, it is not therapy.

I was in intense psychotherapy after my hospitalization at age 30 for three years. That experience was painful, self-revealing, transformative. I have been blessed not needing psychiatric drugs afterward, but I remain connected to therapy and assume I will return for “mini-fixes” forever. While it’s easier now, having lived with my disease for decades, and recognizing danger and mental disorder faster than ever, I can say that the worst day of writing, when I’m stalled in front of a legal pad or computer, desolate and dry, the most difficult dark places I visit in my work, the most eviscerating confessions I decide to expose, is like eating a thick slice of chocolate cake compared to those early years of therapy. There is no comparison.

You are a later-in-life writer. How did you come to writing?

I am definitely a late-life writer, but as I said earlier, it was something I always wanted to do. I read poetry and novels in med school, sometimes secreted paperbacks inside medical texts. I would’ve graduated higher in my class had I read more medicine, no doubt, but I majored in both English Lit and Biology in college, and I desperately missed literature in the sterile, memorization-oriented sphere of medical school.

My writing began as my second marriage was crumbling. I saw lovers kissing on a Denver street in a snow storm and it reminded me of my first kiss and I wrote what I saw, what it renewed in my body. That opened some connection with the muse, some daring. I had always wanted to write about my hospitalization and had made weak stabs over the years. In the mid-90s, as more poems, stories and essays arrived, I began work on my book, Mind Riot, which I’m still wrestling.

You write in many forms: essay, poetry, short story, memoir. Which came first, and what does one form offer that another doesn’t?

Poems came first, and still, if I’m lucky enough to feel one bubbling up, I stop whatever I’m doing and write. It’s not automatic writing, but I do want to honor the impetus.

Prose writing is more work, more struggle, more muscular for me. Not that I don’t work hard on my poetry, I do, but the end is always close, the rhythm set, the music compact. For prose I try to remember Ron Carlson’s advice, where in the body does this happen and write toward that. I have a erratic approach to writing (as do most women writers). I may see a shape, a floating color, a locale where I realized something novel, a vision of a loved one in a particular slant of light, an argument, and that starts things. I don’t read for plot and if it shows up in my work, great, but I’m not primarily interested in it. Occasionally I think I know where I’m going, but I don’t outline. I think the delight of “first writes” for me is discovery and planning would ablate that.

As I reread an ugly first draft, I’ll see ten or twenty pages without a single scene. Revision time. It took me many years to learn that revision is not simply editing, but seeing the whole piece anew. I now love revision as much as a fresh start, which I never thought I’d say.

I realize in rereading your question I haven’t answered what form offers what. That’s probably because in pathology I considered myself a “lumper,” not a “splitter.” I saw similarities between tumors; I noted the dance of malignant cells and their relationships, and found that more interesting than individual characteristics that subcategorize and define individual malignancies. I certainly could and did break things into small cubby-holes; that was my job, my career. But I’m not sure I ever subscribed to the concept that such minute distinctions were as important as medical professionals insisted.

I feel the same way about prose. I’m not a strict nonfiction MUST be TRUE kind of woman. I believe in telling the total emotional truth, or as much of it as I can clasp, but I often have no idea whether I’m writing memoir, short story or creative nonfiction. And to add to my personal confused philosophy, many of my pieces, which invariably contain autobiography, have won awards in two or three of these “classifications.”

(I first read this question as to what informs my work, so as a “bonus,” I’ll leave what I wrote to answer this unasked question: My obsessions inform my writing, love and its foibles, observed and experienced, is a theme I come back to often. My long exposure to medicine and my experiences in it as a doctor and then a patient colors my work and infuses my vocabulary. Feminism is also woven deeply in my writing.)

For many years you served as a creative writing mentor for Denver Public Schools (earning teacher of the year in 2003), and also taught at the college level. I have been the beneficiary of your insightful and incisive editing. What do you find turns a piece from ordinary to extraordinary (and how do we do it?!)

If I could answer that, I’d win some prize. There’s something about the strength of truth that hits the reader in the gut. I know it when I see it, the old Supreme Court comment about pornography, applies. You feel it in your cells, you gasp, your nose starts running and you know you’re about to cry. Sometimes pretty prose alone, the music of it, catches my breath, or a strange, mystical image; sometimes it’s a peculiar juxtaposition, two ideas that are unrelated are mashed together and I’m forced to rethink reality. As far as I know there is no simple rule for making writing extraordinary. Except, maybe the old saw, How does one get to Carnegie Hall?  Practice, practice, practice.

I do know though, that without risk there is little but ho-hum. You hear risk easily in humor, people have to go over the edge, insult or offend (and often apologize), but without the courage to try something wild and new, there’s no extraordinary, just rehash.

I encourage that risk-taking in writers all the time. A lot easier if I don’t have to do it myself. But of course, I try and make myself tell the absolute truth, the fullness of what happened and what an idiot I was, or how base and mean and petty I was. I think we all need to tell the full truth as best we can. I believe writers are obligated to show pimples, prejudice, injustice, corruption, at least on the page, and hopefully kindness and perhaps redemption, or at least an inclination to reform.

I still teach and mentor in the public schools, now through a program run at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and when I get something from a student that evokes a visceral reaction I try and let the reaction show. I applaud these young artists who exhibit courage, and am humbled and inspired by their fertile, fervent minds.

Bonus Question: I’m a word collector, and encourage writers to gather words with interesting textures, sounds and significance. What are your favorite words?

 yes, love, hope, simple, laughter, truth, courage, writing, grace, chocolate

 

Thursday
Apr172014

Thankful Thursday: Cheap Joy

Dear Stranger. Write a letter, get a letter.

It doesn't take much to make me happy. This week I bought joy for two bucks. Not Trader Joe's Two-Buck Chuck but a more sober sort of happiness: a daffodil bunch for just $1.99.

It's Thankful Thursday, let's recount a week of simple, low-cost, high-reward pleasures:

Chopped Salad. Why does salad taste so much better when someone else makes it? And when it's cut into bite-size pieces?

Pentel Sign Pen. They've got good glide, backed with heft. Oh, how I love these black marker-pens.

Affordable Health Insurance. Better coverage, lower price. This self-employed asthmatic is grateful.

Dear Stranger. Oregon Humanities is bringing back the penpal. You write a letter, and get one in return. So old-school and cool. How are you? I am fine.

Sunshine. A slice, a sliver, a sunbreak. I'll take any scrap of light.

Please join me for Thankful Thursday, a weekly pause to express appreciation for the big things, the small fries, and all the inbetweens. What are you thankful for today?

 

Monday
Apr142014

Are you rain or shelter? 

A Matter of Fact, a write-over poem by Drew Myron

We're halfway through National Poetry Month. How are you celebrating?

I've been doing write-overs, sorta like a do-over. I just tear a page from an old thrift store book, gently glaze through the words, and then write my own. No intention, no direction, just wandering — with a solid literary foundation to prop me up.

I just love the line: "The sea will never need you" — from Mary's Son, appearing in The Collected Poems of Rudyard Kipling. Bless his heart, Rudyard Kipling is taking me across hill and dale, sea and sky.

So, where is writing taking you?

 

Thursday
Apr102014

And then we never meet again

Kala Osborn, writing on the Alsea Bay, at age 13.
This is how it works:

I write with kids — sometimes for a day, or a week, sometimes for years. Hunkered over journals, we share chunks of time in which head, heart and words come together all at once. When we share our poems, stories, and secret thoughts, it's beautiful, scary and almost always exhilarating.

And then we meet again — the next day, or week, or never again.

Families break up, parents lose jobs or houses, and children move on or away. But the kids stick in my mind.  The girl with hard eyes and a fast pen. The sneering boy who wrote love poems. The teen with fancy dresses and scars. The youngster who lived in a car.

I remember every one. Not what they wrote (though sometimes I am struck) but the mood and tone, the want and willing, the resistance and reach.

Last week we lost a young writer forever. Kala, an 18 year old high school senior, was killed when her car went over an embankment and into the Alsea River. 

I knew Kala briefly, for just a week, when she was 13 years old. She was a student in Seashore Family Literacy's 2009 Summer Writing Adventure Camp, and we spent the week together hiking, biking, kayaking, and writing through each exploration.

Any Moment in a Kayak

With each stroke, the kayak surges forward.

When you bottom out all you can do is push with your paddle, or hands, or your mind.

The sound of the birds, mixed with the beautiful beating hot sky, is almost enough to put you to sleep.

When you catch the breeze you feel fresh.

When you stop to take it all in and close your eyes, you feel like it is all a dream and at any moment you could wake up and it would be gone.

—  Kala Osborn, age 13


I live in a remote and in many ways untamed place, and tragedy hits hard and quick. One person knows another and another and we carry the weight of too much knowing.

Loss shakes and shows us. See, here, it says, this is how to enter the lives of each other, even briefly. Death reminds us that we are ever shaped, even slightly, by our interaction with others.

Over the years, I've kept in touch with many of the young writers. We write letters, share texts, emails, phone calls, and get together for meals. I see them get jobs, go to school, find love, move away, get lost, get in trouble. . . There are many struggles, too many to name. And the victories sometimes seem too small.

This morning one of my first students — from nearly 10 years ago — shared with me an update on her life. There was no big event, no shaking news, but that she was happy. And that felt enough. That felt like everything.