The Living Poetry Project: 15–Gifts

This weekend was J.J.’s fourth birthday, which had me thinking about gifts. He had a list of wanted items, mostly unicorns and sea creatures. J.J.’s life is (gratefully) filled with friends who love and know him well—he unwrapped many creatures, but none so vast as a wall-sized-Velcro alphabet. Who could want more than that magical code for endless symbols—endless possibilities?

I didn’t know it at the time, but the best gift I ever received was being read to. I owe a great dept to every adult who read to me as a child, but especially my grandmother Shelia. It was she who was the first to introduce me to poetry. She read (somehow knowing) that I would love it; this made all the difference in my life—saved my life in many ways. Shelia and my Grandfather died too young, too suddenly—the jolt of their deaths made poetry even more special to me, as it is her voice I hear in my head when reading.

The second poem Shelia ever read to me was the “Goblin Market” by Christina Rossetti. This poem continues to captivates me as an adult (in different ways than when I was a child—though as a child I could sense the layers and double Entendre  in the poem. As a kid, I worked for hours to understand what made adults giggle and blush when reading it.) As an adult, the poems themes of drug addiction, sex, and the power of friendship have guided me much like a eccentric grandmother would have.

I wanted to give this poem as it was given to me. However, reading is often an private, silent, and intimate process—only the reader and the page know which words are mispronounced and unknown. It takes a certain courage to read aloud. Maybe this is why people don’t read to each other very often? (Maybe this is why I don’t read to people very often?)

Similar to the intimidation of reading aloud, is writing. I can not spell. No; this isn’t exactly true. How to say, the music of words is so fierce in my mind that I loose track of letters before my hand or eye lands upon the page—stupid little bird, whose flight keeps it from the nest. Words are not words to me, but widows (or windows) filled with images. I don’t read, I see words. I don’t write, I attempt to describe a vision. This glitch in me causes endless grief and embarrassment—it makes me feel stupid and incapable of language. Normally, I would avoid feeling stupid at any cost—any cost but poetry. With poems, even insults unfold into stories—stories into contexts—contexts into perspective. If a teacher told me I was too stupid for poem, the poem whispered with the birdsong-conviction of Shelia’s voice, I was written for you.

How could I not love poetry?—that rebel voice saying more with its silence than letters on a page ever could. Regardless of my faults, poetry was written for me. (It is written for you.)
Christina Rossetti is often placed in the company of Emily Dickenson as one of the “odd women,” meaning they wrote, lived alone, screamed loudly when in (spiritual, physical, emotional) pain—odd for acting more like people than ideas. Something about these women reminds me of Shelia. Something about these women remind me of many of J.J’s little girl friends—there is a freedom and confidence that resonates from them.

J.J and I invited his friends to the nature preserve for marshmallows and a poetry reading. (The nature preserve has many trails and bridges which light the kids minds with imaginary trolls and the possibility of seeing coyotes and rabbits.) There I read, not well, Goblin Market. Despite my tripping on the beat and blotching words, the poem did its work. Especially on Z, who was captivated by the lush descriptions of fruit, goblins, and girls. I gave her my book and she immediately went to work on deciphering what it was in the poem that made adults giggle and blush. This poem was written for her.

The Living Poetry Project: Part 14

Poetry Everywhere: “One Boy Told Me” by Naomi Shihab Nye

It is said that Toni Morrison writes her novels in an attempt to define love. It might be true that every writer finds the abstraction of their obsession to make real through concrete imagery–like a cat bringing a bird to your door–here is love.

If I were to name the abstraction I write for, it would be kindness. Naomi Shihab Nye has a great poem entitled kindness. I think in many ways I shape my poetry collections to the movements in this poem:


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

I was lucky to read at the first open mic at Butler’s Coffee House. This event was organized by local writers and literacy advocates Rod Williams and Kevin Smith. The reading included the talents of Gary Helm, Rod Williams, Sheryl Dawson, Wayne Slater-Lunsford, “Storyteller” John McGee, Pat Alexander, Kevin Burton Smith, and Charles Hood. Word AV now has a regular slot at Butler’s Coffee, the fourth Friday of each month.  That means we’ll be back on Feb. 24th, 7:00 – 9:00 pm, so those in the Antelope Valley, please save the date.

Word AV is an amazing organization that was created out of necessity because all funding was pulled from the library literacy program. Word AV is a creation of pure kindness.

For the Butler’s poetry reading, I wrapped fifty of the poem “Kindness” in red bows to give as a gift to the audience–an incredible kind group of listeners that included my son and his little friends. To my delight,  almost every poem was gone by the end of the event.  It is wonderful to think there is more “Kindness” in the world because a poem was given.  Many thanks to Naomi Shihab Nye and Word AV for their kindness.

The Living Poetry Project: Part 13

I’ve been carrying Maureen E. Doallas book of poems, Neruda’s Memoirs, around with me for months. Some books are like that, I have to live with them for awhile before I can really say anything about the material.

This collection is filled with grief over the loss of family members—the focus of the grief is primarily on the passing of a beloved brother. It is said that the loss of a sibling is the most difficult grief to navigate. Having a brother myself, who is the keeper of my childhood memories and the only person who can speak “my private language,” I can see how to loose a sibling would be an inexpressible and endless heartache.

Maureen tactfully approaches the language of loss by studying the poetry of Neruda. Like Neruda, Maureen’s poetry finds comfort in questions. Questions create a conversation for us to explore the suffering, growth, and wonderment of death; this is such a lovely subject for a poetry collection to tackle.

To celebrate this collection of poems I first made a 100 copies of Neruda’s poem, “The Question.” On the reverse side I copied Maureen’s poem, “Neruda’s Memoirs.” When placed side by side, these two poems have such a wonderful conversation with each other. I took these poems to a place that would care for questions—AntelopeValleyCommunity College. I hid the poems everywhere. But this Living Poetry act didn’t seem enough sharing for this book; this is not just a book of questions but a book of loving lyrics.

I barrowed my favorite poem from the collection, “Worn Shirt,” and tried to enact its lines a bit. I made paper shirts and placed them in paper bags for people to find while searching for their favorite scents.

I wish this book many safe travels, as I think it is a book that will help many through their own grieving processes.

The Living Poetry Project: At The Heart Of It Is Keats

This semester, I’m going to attempt to teach the works of John Keats. In other words, I’m going to try to learn a little about John Keats this semester. As a big fan of Lyric poetry, it is easy for me to love John Keats—I sometimes wonder if such loves can be taught. Probably not. But maybe, maybe, poetry will inspire a love of poetry that is beyond teaching.

Well, I guess it is best to start with definitions. The Lyric is an ancient subdivision of poetry. One of poetry’s three categories, the others being Narrative and Dramatic. Lyric poetry is musical in nature, implementing rhythm and rhyming to expresses personal feelings through song.

The definition above is a very lame representation of Lryic poetry.

I love Gregory Orr’s Richer Entanglements that looks at the mechanics of Lyric poetry. Orr explains, “The nature of the disorder in a poem tells us what the poet’s human concerns are. The orders he discovers, creates, or imposes to respond to that disorder are his gift to the human community—a representative manifestation of the human encounter with disorder and a possible response to it.”

With the ideas of Richer Entanglements in mind, I think a better definition of Lyric poetry would be a poem that is deeply concerned with order and disorder—both within its pages and the world that extends beyond its binding.

For John Keats, the order and disorder manifested itself as beauty—beauty being capable of being orderly and disorderly simultaneously.

There is the echoing phrase:

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

It sounds conclusive, doesn’t it? But there is no closure in poetry—only great landings in relentless attempt to fly.

I believe in beauty. I do. But what is it—beauty?

This is the question at the heart of The Living Poetry Project and my goal as a teacher—to investigate what beauty is for Keats, what beauty is for my community, what beauty is for my students, what beauty if for me.

If this is the last strand of faith in me, I’m going to follow it.

This week, I went to The Stained Glass Shop in Eagle Rock California—my old home. I love the glass shop; the people there are my found family. This place changed me—healed me—with color and care.

I melted some glass into a line from Ode on a Grecian Urn. JJ and I left it in a public window.

Maybe this is something beautiful, maybe?

Ode on a Grecian Urn

From Letter to Benjamin Bailey, November 22, 1817

“I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination—What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth—whether it existed before or not—for I have the same Idea of all our Passions as of Love they are all in their sublime, creative of essential Beauty. *** The Imagination may be compared to Adam’s dream—he awoke and found it truth. I am the more zealous in this affair, because I have never yet been able to perceive how any thing can be known for truth by consequitive reasoning—and yet it must be—Can it be that even the greatest Philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections—However it may be, O for a Life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts! It is “a Vision in the form of Youth” a Shadow of reality to come—and this consideration has further convinced me for it has come as auxiliary to another favorite Speculation of mine, that we shall enjoy ourselves here after by having what we called happiness on Earth repeated in a finer tone and so repeated—And yet such a fate can only befall those who delight in sensation rather than hunger as you do after Truth—***—the simple imaginative Mind may have its rewards in the repetition of its own silent Working coming continually on the spirit with a fine suddenness—to compare great things with small—have you never by being surprised with an old Melody—in a delicious place—by a delicious voice, felt over again your very speculations and surmises at the time it first operated on your soul—do you not remember forming to yourself the singer’s face more beautiful that for than it was possible and yet with the elevation of the Moment you did not think so—even then you were mounted on the Wings of Imagination so high—that the Prototype must be here after—that delicious face you will see—What a time!

Covert Keats and Gwendolyn Brooks: Small Preview of The Living Poetry Project Part 12

Finally, a little bit of work.  Ahhhh!!! It feels good to go to work.

Today, I am lucky to be substitute teaching; today I am blessed to have a place to hide poetry. There is no better place to hide a poem than in a student’s mind.

Today on the wipe board—Gwendolyn Brooks; today, posted in the teachers lounge, John Keats.

Gwendolyn Brooks, We Real Cool


John Keats, Bright Star


Okay, lunch is over. Back to work.

The Living Poetry Project: Part Eleven

More rain.

Rain is a great reason for poetry. JJ and I hid poems  from Julie Andrews’ Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabiesall all over the local Mall.

Light verse is tricky; I love its softness and compression, its rhyme and rhythm. I often make the mistake of taking light verse lightly, but a good poem is never shallow. As I read the poems of Rossetti and Hugo, I began to tear-up; my baby just turned four this week—my hopes for him grow faster than I can keep up.

It is unsettling being a parent—I live in a constant and unrelenting fear for his well being. It is the simple comforts that keep me together—a smile from a stranger, a meal from a friend, a joke, a rainstorm, a familiar song. Light verse, like comfort, is stated simply for the sake of sincerity.

What a great gift from Hugo and Roseetti, who in the face of there own horrific hardships took the time to say Everything’s going to be alright. On this rainy day, it is good to be reminded that every storm passes, rainbows are beautiful, and the world is filled with light verse.

Be Like the Bird

“Be like the bird that, pausing / in her flight awhile on boughs too slight, / feels them give way beneath her, / and yet sings, / knowing that she hath wings.”

—Victor Hugo

What Are Heavy? Sea-Sand And Sorrow

What are heavy? Sea-sand and sorrow:
What are brief? To-day and to-morrow:
What are frail? Spring blossoms and youth:
What are deep? The ocean and truth.

—Christina Georgina Rossetti

The Living Poetry Project: Part Ten

Rain in Los Angles—the world turned human—humidity in layers of collective touch.

I love the city. I love the city even more when nature is intensely present. The connection between people and nature is at the core of Cole Swensen’s collection greensward.

This book is amazing; it simulates flight on the page. Again, without overstatement, this book is amazing!

Look, amazing:


 I was visiting my good friends, Kate and Karl, in Burbank. We began the day at a local coffee house, where I wrote sections of greensward on napkins to hide between the creamer and sugars. Across the street from the coffee shop was the Burbank Farmers’ Market. We walked in the rain. With the gray canvas of the day, colors of carrots, peppers, and strawberries were electric. I knew this was the right place to share greensward.

The honey man wasn’t interested in poetry (it’s been a bad year for honey), but he was kind and let us try spoons full of buckwheat and sage honey.

The flower lady was out (most likely getting coffee and reading a poem written on a napkin).

But then the book found its own home.

I noticed a woman looking at the gorgeous cover of greensward. I asked her, do you like poetry. She answered, I love poetry, with a voice that backed up her claim. Catalina, the Market Manager, was the perfect person to give poetry to.

The adventure continues. Thank you poetry for connecting me to my life, like rain connects sky to city.

The Living Poetry Project: Part Nine

Empty. That’s what I have right now—a whole lot of empty.

I really wanted to hear Kate Gale read at Ellis Martin Gallery this Wednesday, because I like her. She is kind, strong, and tough in all the ways I wish to be. I wanted to go, but right now gasoline is expensive. I wanted to go, but my car said, no go. My car has been saying this a lot lately, making me feel like a complete failure at being an adult.

Whatever it is, it is never enough. I am never enough. This emptiness is depressing, however when I take a step back, blur my eyes a bit, my life looks rather beautiful. I couldn’t get to Kate’s reading, but I own two of her poetry collections. Also, lately I’ve had lots of time to read. (Time is one of the beauties of not having any work.)

My favorite poem by Kate Gale is Tundra Races. It begins with,

Poetry is a place

where, when madness occurs

nobody notices;

Ah, I love these line breaks—the idea of poetry as place given as a complete thought—the imagination having a moment to imagine what that place must look like—we get to play with the idea of poetry taking up residence on islands or mountains. But wait, there’s more! The following line lands on the preposition where and that jewel of a comma that allows for the word to sound both as statement and question. The second line continues with, when madness occurs, allowing the poem and reader to give pause at their own absurdity for making little imaginary houses for words to live. The stanza only continues to stretch with possibility, as it ends with, nobody notices. How sad—how hopeful—that two-word line leaves the stanza. The poem continues with:

or if they do
it’s called genius.
It’s one of the reasons

I’m so comfortable with poetry.
Other art forms require sanity,
at least in short bursts.

Painting allows for certain
lapses, but only poetry
can be wildly

careening from its kinetic purpose
gyrating in its own orbit
yet produce awe

in critics willing to stare
at the naked poet
bloody cold on the tundra

call to each other
from one borough to the next
how brilliant

the texture
the threads of meaning
the overall pattern of color and light.

The poet knows;
Ah, he or she knows.
Bloody cold, we whisper.

Bloody cold. Cold. Cold is real. I like that. I like texture, threads, and overall patterns of color and light. These are things that make pleasure surface from the murk of daily worries. I don’t have much, but Kate Gale reminds me what I have is worth a day’s wages paid in the joy of living.

The domestic is made sublime by Kate Gale’s poetry; to honor this, I made a hundred copies of selected poems from her collections, Fishers of Men and Mating Season and left them in grocery stores, beauty supply shops, and other temples of the perfected adult lifestyle.

The Living Poetry Project: Part Eight

This Living Poetry Project is a bit involved. I’d like to title it:

Sex, Death, and The Natural History Museum

(or the lessons our children ask for, but no one really knows how to teach)

The short of it is:

JJ and I intended to give out  poetry presents at the L.A. Zoo, but the weather redirected us to the Natural History Museum. We gave out sections of the book ROAR! by Margaret Mayo and Alex Ayliffe. This book is full of alliteration, which made me think of Robert Hass’s lecture On Teaching Poetry.

If you are interested in reading, (and in my heart, I hope you are) the longer meditation unravels in the sections below:


Robert Hass in his Judith Lee Stronach Memorial Lecture On Teaching Poetry says, “…the first thing poetry is: the physical structure of the actual breath of a given utterance and its emotion.” Hass’s example of “utterance” is from John Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” where a young knight describes his seduction as:

She looked at me as she did love

   And made sweet moan.

Hass asks his audience to say the phrase again:

   And made sweet moan.

He explains, “What you will notice, if you articulate just the sequence of vowel sounds—ahhh, aayyy, eeeee, ooooh—is that they begin in the far back of the throat, move to the mid-back, to the mouth, and then breathe out through the lips, in a perfectly modulated and progressive release of breath.”

   And made sweet moan

By having his audience repeat the phrase, Mr. Hass has brilliantly lead his audience into an utterance orgy. This is amazing to me.

I love how Robert Hass first teaches to put “that breath [of poetry] into people’s bodies—either by having them say a poem aloud, or by saying it to them.”


The linkage of breath to poetry is why I love poems: with poetry, it seems words might have the ability to reincarnate something (like another’s life) within us.


It was cold yesterday, in Southern California cold is always abnormal. The weather redirected J.J. and I from the L.A. Zoo to the Natural History Museum—we went from visiting live animals to taxidermy specimens of life. Normally, this wouldn’t be a hard transition for us (we regularly go to one of these two places) but this trip to the museum was different.

It finally occurred to JJ that the animals at the Natural History Museum are dead.

Why did they have to die mommy? JJ repeated again and again. The parents around us were snatching their children away from the contagion of his questions, Why death? Our dear friend Melanie and her daughter had to leave the litany of JJ’s questioning.

Melanie’s three year old daughter is like a sister to JJ. Melanie offered, You handle death and I’ll handle sex. I quickly agreed; I got the death part handled—a collection of pat answers about stories morphing into other stories, the concept of transitioning. Sex, on the other hand, terrifies me. (JJ can have sex when he’s forty, maybe.)

It was a little overwhelming to witness how childen inherit their parents’ interest. Melanie’s daughter was drawn to the exhibit on bird’s mating rituals—the process of an egg becoming a bird. J.J. was obsessed with how the seagull was unable to move—That bird is dead mommy. Why?


Ironically, the day of our NHM adventure was also the birthday of my cousin Nicholas, who died of cancer last year. Nicholas taught us all how to live with his fight with cancer. An avid member and councilor with First Descents, his story is a great triumph for hope and love.

Again, why?

I don’t know…because, JJ, because…


In his lecture On Teaching Poetry, Robert Hass admits to not having the full truth about poetry, but he possesses a whole desire for the investigation of why poetry.

Hass makes reference to a book of essays by W.H. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand. Auden borrowed the phrase from Shakespeare to conjure the notion of someone so immersed in his trade that he is permanently colored by it.

The Dyer’s Hand—the idea of blood-guilt. (I know what book I’ll be ordering next.) ______________________________________________________________________________

There is something about a poem that reminds me of taxidermy—the artifice of life giving access to life. My fear of death is so persistent that it seems like a dear friend.  Why? I ask death. Because times infinity, death teases.

Why, mommy? Why are these animals dead? JJ asks again.

Because life is our greatest riddle JJ. Because I love you more than can be expressed in words.

Because once upon a time there was a parent, who in desperation, posed the dead corpse of a coyote near her cubs, so the world might retain how a mother loves her son.


The Living Poetry Project: Part Seven

Shakespeare really is THAT good.

For me, the sonnets explain why he is THAT good.

When I write a full length poetry collection, I use Shakespeare’s sonnets as a model.  I could (and would) never claim to achieve Shakespearean success as a writer, however I love to emulate him—how he weaves the elements of a theatre with poetry / poetry with theatre. The entrances and exits of a persona’s presence is one of my favorite parts of any work by Mr. William Shakespeare.

This weekend, my son and I helped our local theatre company, The Antelope Valley Thespians (AVT), with auditions for Wittenberg. This play borrows the character of Hamlet for a plot that takes a comedic look at our higher education system. I was in charge of greeting people at the door and helping with line reads. My four year old wanted to know what a “line” is—to my delight, my explanation for a play’s line is similar to my definition of the poetic line.

JJ and I made masks with Shakespeare quotes to give to people at the auditions. (Please see photos below.)

After auditions, JJ and I went to visit our friends (The Jennings-Tafarella Family) for a play-date. Rachelle Jennings teaches Shakespeare at Antelope Valley College; she can recite most of the Sonnets by heart. Her favorite (for the moment) is Sonnet #2:


When forty winters shall beseige thy brow,
And dig deep trenches in thy beauty’s field,
Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tatter’d weed, of small worth held:
Then being ask’d where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say, within thine own deep-sunken eyes,
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beauty’s use,
If thou couldst answer ‘This fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,’
Proving his beauty by succession thine!
This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold.

Rachelle fell in love with Sonnet #2 when a joke turned into a fistful of tears.

(I should explain, Rachelle is a very talented actor and theatrical person. I’ve seen her explain the intrigue of the 42nd sonnet to her students using toothbrushes as puppets. She is a great teacher, full of passion for her students and the works of Shakespeare. She is always finding creative ways to bring Shakespeare to others.)

On her fortieth birthday, Rachelle thought it would be funny to recite a poem about the woes of being forty. With the help of her (beautiful young-man) nephew, Rachelle enacted the commissioned advice of Shakespeare (procreate while you’re young to find immortal beauty within your children).

While her nephew stood on a table posing with “the warmth” of his young limbs, Rachelle said aloud, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow.” The poetry-play was funny, until the last lines of the poem…

This were to be new made when thou art old,
And see thy blood warm when thou feel’st it cold

…ambushed her.

Looking at her new born daughter, Rachelle began to sob. As she put it, “I looked over at my little baby and realize the last call for the eggs had come.” Rachelle pointed out how the poem isn’t exactly kind to women, “The original poem is of an older man talking to a younger, but in my situation it was an “old” woman realizing she’d just had a baby before her time had run out.” Time, according to Shakespeare, is extra cruel to women (whose eggs stop calling).

My favorite thing about the sonnets is Shakespeare’s ability to begin in jest and end with tears—the poem must shift as life is in constant flux. I asked Rachelle to point out a few other things to love about the second sonnet, and these are the jewels she offered.

Rachelle loves the mixing of military and agriculture metaphors, such as with the word “trenches” and “field.”

She explained the importance of the high-forehead—the “brow” being the ultimate mark of beauty during Shakespeare’s time. To ravage that part of the body, is to demolish all of the body. The word “brow” (along with many other words in the sonnet) make great use of synecdoche (the use of the part of something to stand for the full). To harm the “brow” is to ruin the whole.

Rachelle often interrupted herself by saying, I love his abundance—referring to Shakespeare’s use of rhyme and alliteration.

She also loves how filthy Shakespeare can be—the word “treasure” referring to a young man’s semen. The poem literally is asking, “what have you done with your sperm?”

The poem is written in the Italian form. It has the English rhyming pattern, but the argument is presented in the Italian. When I asked Rachelle why Shakespeare might have made this form choice she offered, “probably because he was commissioned to persuaded a young man to get married. The 6 lines to give his argument would allow him more time to persuade.”

Rachelle concluded our short interview by explaining why the final lines brought her to tears. “It is the opposition between seeing and feeling” that makes the poem work. The warmth of youth can be seen by the elderly, while they can only feel the cold of their own age.


This is why I love Shakespeare; this is why I love poetry.