Thursday, July 30, 2009

To Preach or Tell the Truth?

Recently a Colorado TV station, KBDI, aired a wonderful program titled "Polis Is This"--a biography, in essence, of poet Charles Olson. If you are already familiar with his work, this film takes you back and features a host of his compatriots from Black Mountain College, some of whom I have met or heard read, so I was nostalgic about that aspect, as well as the clips of his home town in Massachusetts, the fishing town of Gloucester. As a fellow New Englander, I get his drive to explore the history and nuances of that place. Place--the great challenge for many of the poets whose work I turn to for guidance and example. How to get at the heart of one's experience with place, when I come from a family of vagabonds and immigrants? Our attachments to place are brief and, at times, mythic. We create a memory and grip it like a life preserver when we feel lost and alone. "If only I could have stayed in Happyville, where everybody knew my name." No wonder Cheers was so popular. Even the idea of having a regular pub appeals when, in fact, we have little to call our "local" and every place looks like a chain-store franchise.

What Olson felt and espoused was the particularity of his community, its mythic connections, its impact on his unique life, and his effect on that place. Olson was a big man, physically and emotionally and intellectually. He knew poetry in a deep and useful way. It filled his head and his days. He has a reputation for having taught classes (he probably would not have accepted such a regimented label as this) that lasted for hours when the discussion was vital and the people engaged. One time he went on for 24 hours, talking, talking, listening, listening. Makes the fifty-minute hour seem like chump change, doesn't it? What I came away with was a thirst for his poetry--very different from what is heard today--and a determination to serve this muse with more devotion. I don't want to preach, though I see that tendency in myself. I want to offer to anyone who can use it the truth of my unique experience in whatever place I find myself. Let them make use of it as they wish. That's the best that I can do, knowing the limitations of language and selection, the need to replace nostalgia for a burned out farm in Maine with insight into the Front Range and suburbia where I now live. To be a poet, really, is not fun, or not only fun. It's a responsibility to "notice what you notice," as Ginsberg says, and to report back with all possible honesty.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Books Matter

Like many tightwad readers, I often buy books at yard sales, thrift stores, and any cheap outlet I come across. Recently I brought home, among others, Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, a detailed case study and history of a Hmong child born in the US who developed a devastating seizure disorder. The child, Lia, had multiple admissions to a hospital in Merced, where the whole staff did their best, given an almost insurmountable divide between her parents and those who neither spoke Hmong nor understood the deeply held cultural beliefs that forbid surgery, invasive procedures, or ongoing Western medication. The Hmong, having suffered horribly during their escape from S. E. Asia, rely on their shamanistic blend of health care and spiritual advice--pretty much one and the same. No surprise, in retrospect, that Lia's doting parents never understood or approved of the treatment their daughter received. It all came to a sad end in which the child lived, but without any perceptible brain function beyond the brain stem. She breathed, her heart beat, she digested the food patiently spooned into her by a mother who ended up never leaving her daugher's side, she no longer seized because most of her brain was inert, but she never again spoke or knew what was happening to her.

What impresses me, in addition to the detailed and well written text, is the need for such books. As a nurse, I often faced language barriers and struggled to understand cultural difference. One has to in order to care for people who are, almost inevitably, different from oneself. I don't work as a nurse now, and I have no experience with Hmong culture, probably never will, but the book has given me what I need to try again and again to understand the diversity that is increasingly a part of being an American. The book holds that experience in place, makes it available for me to return to it, to share it with friends, to treasure the knowledge. Imagine that, a significant lesson in decency and its limits in the face of ignorance. All for a couple of dollars. Ah, books.

Friday, July 10, 2009

What a Difference a Week Makes

Well, a week ago I was all fired up about the weak language I heard from a politico, and now I'm fired up about a conversation with a group of poets in a coffee shop. The difference? We talked to one another, listened, had specific things to say, especially to one of our group who asked for help and advice. And the useful information kept her pen moving as she made lists of things she could do to learn the slippery art of poetry. For what has been described by some as a dying art, poetry elicited enthusiasm, energy, openness--things I value in conversation. There's the word that works--conversation--a spoken exchange. Ah, when we exchange words, all parties have a say. That's nice. In the age of text and twitter, the sound of a human voice, modulated to reach only those who want to hear it, is precious. A conversation suggests closeness, geographical proximity--not a newsreader on the other side of the continent--reciprocity, multidimensional sound, complete with tolerable interruptions, hesitancy, clarification, and the unique tone and timbre of each human voice.

Poems and stories, wonderful as they are, don't allow for the immediacy of talking face to face. We read and reflect, maybe write a note to the author, but we tell our coffee klatch or dinner companions about what we read. Speech is the most fluid and spontaneous use of language. It sometimes uses the sculptured sounds of poetry, but it also allows for laughter and the low murmur of sadness. Conversation cannot be called back without converting it to dialog, in which the writer prunes and shapes the sentences to fit the page. Much as I love making poems and stories, I value as much the increasingly rare chances to talk with patient, open-minded people. We worry about what high-tech life does to reading; shouldn't we also be concerned about what it does to conversation?

Friday, July 3, 2009


Last evening a large group of people gathered to hear one of our senators speak on health care reform. Well, first of all, the senator sent in the JV's and showed himself at the tail end of the meeting. And I do mean the end with the tail on it. How do people--citizens--put up with the vague language out of political mouths? No, the right question is why do we tolerate being talked at, talked down to, talked to death with no tangible results? If any poet or fiction writer I know stood in front of an audience and blathered on about how pretty the scenery is and how we might take a stand on an important issue, IF others will go along--we'd be hooted away from the mike, given the vaudevillian hook, the gong, the raspberry. Sometimes I wonder about politeness. It just makes me want to scream.

But my mama told me to use my inside voice, so I wrote a letter to said senator, listed my specific aspects of concern over health care and threatened to vote the whole slew of them-there law makers and breakers out of office the very next chance I get, if I haven't by then come down with some pre-existing, expensive illness which any insurance agent can dodge. Somehow the doctors and nurses and pharmacists have been left out of the discussion, let alone the patient. So, I'm not a patient, and I'm impatient: I want real speech backed by action. Bah, humbug, I'm going to do the laundry and write. At least Congress hasn't screwed up these modest daily activities. And I know how to put together a simple declarative sentence.