Friday, February 28, 2020

Poets on Prozac

This book gripped me: Poets on Prozac, edited by Richard M. Berlin, a set of essays by various poets on Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process. I checked it out of the library because it's what came up when I searched for work by Denise Duhamel, who judged the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award. She's a poet I have admired for many years when I encountered her work in journals, and now I have also acquired some of her recent books of poetry, all as "homework" for when I get to meet her in April at a reading, as this year I actually won the contest! I have entered in previous years and also recommended this contest to other eligible writers--women over forty who have not yet published a full-length book of poems. Chapbooks are OK. If you qualify, consider this another recommendation!

I learned a lot about many things and was delighted to find in this book two of our Escape Into Life poets, Ren Powell and Martha Silano, as well as Chase Twichell, whose book The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, co-edited with Robin Behn, sits on a shelf above my computer, ready to grab when I need a creative push. I used it when I was teaching, and I use it now.

I always love to read about a poet's process, and Poets on Prozac*, has the added interest of how mental illness, whether temporary or permanent, chronic or intermittent, and the treatment or medication for it affects the writing. Excerpts and whole poems are provided in this context, and the authors include mental health professionals who write poems.

*Not everyone was on Prozac, but it was so interesting to see the lists of what people had tried, looking for the right dosage, combination, relief from pain and anxiety. It was hard to put this book down, so I read it with intense concentration, and now, as in Andy and the Lion,  by James Daugherty, it will have to go back to the library!

Wednesday, February 26, 2020


I can neither spell it nor pronounce it without help, but I can eat it! With help. I got a box of 4 paczki in time for the real Fat Tuesday, yesterday, to comfort my sick husband, whose appetite was returning (!), and today I learned about Fat Thursday (last week), a Polish/Polish Chicago tradition. Sadly, I missed timing this post to either of the correct days, even though "Fat Tuesday" is one of the "Eight Days a Week" of this actual blog! We got Bavarian cream paczki, but now I want to try all the flavors mentioned in the WTTW article. Recently, I learned of the many flavors of Kit Kat bars & confections in Japan in an essay in this book, so I want to try those, too. I also heard a nice NPR story on paczki yesterday, and read all the pronunciations on our box from the local grocery-store bakery. Attempting to spell paczki just now, I got Ed Paschke, the Chicago artist of Polish descent, who may well be named, somehow, for the sweet, yes? As Paschke seems like one of the pronunciations on the box, along with Pooch-key. Sigh... It's Wednesday, the Hump of the Week.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Venus Flytrap

Between volleyball matches, at last weekend's intercity tournament and this weekend's invitational tournament, I continued to read Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver, and finished it this morning. I was sensing that one of the characters, Mary Treat, who wrote letters to Charles Darwin and Asa Gray, must be a real person, and she was! A naturalist who has plants and ants named after her! I liked her a lot. In the novel, she lets a Venus flytrap gnaw on her finger.

It was a lovely, busy, birthday week for me. The Poetry is Normal open mic at the library resumed for 2020. Our overall theme this year is life itself, its major events, starting with Birth, and, delightfully, our first date coincided with my actual birthday. People read poems on and mostly-on theme, by themselves or others. I gave away candy and books. Our next theme is Childhood, in April, National Poetry Month.

A lovely child named Dusty is born into grief in Unsheltered and is almost ready to walk right into joy at the end.

And look at this beautiful photo, by Noah Elhardt, of the kind of plant, a sundew, that Mary Treat observed and drew. Watch out. It's eating some damselflies.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Love & Volleyball

Sadly, Russia is the main reader of my blog this weekend. I'm pretty sure that means bots, trolls, attempted election tampering coming up. Because why else would Russia be interested in my poetry/what I am reading blog? I am now reading Unsheltered, by Barbara Kingsolver. So I'm feeling a little unsheltered, thanks to empathy (and Russia). On p. 12 I found this: "Marriages tend to harden like arteries, and she and Iano were more than thirty years into this one. This evening he would come in the door like a blast of warm weather, give her a kiss in the kitchen before changing out of his office clothes, and they'd have no chance to talk before dinner."

It's Valentine's weekend. My husband and I have been married "more than thirty years" (although we tend to forget our anniversary). Yesterday, actual Valentine's Day, he came through the garage-to-kitchen door with a blast of cold weather, gave me a kiss and a volleyball summary, and went to change out of his coach clothes before our lack of dinner, as he had eaten in the coaches' hospitality room, and I had eaten a late lunch after visiting the endodontist, who took a picture of my successful root canal of a year ago. This is our life.

Today, I went to see part of the intercity volleyball tournament--a fantastic setter, both excellent and lackluster playing, a loss by my husband's team. Before his girls played, we watched a couple matches side by side--his team asking, "Coach, who's this?" "Wife," we both replied. (They don't know I'm in the stands for their home games.) When it was time to get ready he reached into his bag for his roster and pulled out my chapbook Spiritual Midwifery. (The cover is based on one of his paintings.)

"Your second poem always makes me cry," he said. The title poem, it's about a baby who died before it's about a baby who lived. "The last time, I couldn't make it past that poem."

"You carry my book in your volleyball bag?"

"Something to read," he said. We both teared up a little in the stands, the ref blowing her whistle. This is our life.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Just Mercy

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson, is such a good book. My sister told me about this book a few years ago, when everyone on her campus read it and brought the author there to speak. It's heartbreaking and makes me want to be an activist for prison reform and against capital punishment, but I imagine there are lawyers and activists like Stevenson and his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative, who are way more qualified and already well into it. So I'll just keep working in smaller ways at the local level toward the kind of community awareness that is needed.

I have not yet seen the movie based on this book, but I have seen the preview! And am eager to see the film and how they've adapted the material, which spans many years and many cases. Such patience! So many complications in the legal and criminal justice system, all clogged up further by racism. And yet the book itself is so clear, moves swiftly, breaks the heart, mends it with compassion.

Our columnist Basel Al-Aswad, whose birthday is today (!), wrote about this book at Escape Into Life. And my book group is reading it and will discuss it later this month.

And we have many valentines for you over at EIL--love poems and bug poems! Happy Valentine's Day.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

The Dutch House

My friend Kim recommended the book The Dutch House to me--by Ann Patchett--and I just finished it.  I was struck, on p. 287, by the phrase "she could have been anyone's mother, but she was mine." I recognized it! I had written it, I thought, though in the present tense, in a poem, a poem my own mother loves. It was one of those odd, slightly scary moments--a mix of fear of plagiarism and the delightful shock of recognition of an emotional or psychological truth.

My poem, "Local Patterns," was published way back in 2011 in Soundzine, an online magazine, that appears not to exist anymore. The link I had for it connects to a danger message. Then it was published as the "L" poem in my chapbook ABCs of Women's Work, published by Red Bird in 2015. The Dutch House was published in 2019, so this is 1) coincidence and/or 2) nothing I need to fear! Which is not to say that I think Ann Patchett somehow read my poem and echoed me. No, it's a strange little frisson that wiggles through me. And then to realize we have somehow echoed each other is a comfort, in various ways.

I love this book--the quiet mystery, the intricate family relationships, the love and compassion.

And here is my poem:

Local Patterns

A man and a woman walk miles together
on sand, luminous shell.

What made them last?
What made them wash up whole?

In winter, a train pauses beside golden weeds, nothing
blooming, patchy snow.

Nobody needs to get anywhere fast. 
Who told us to strive?

Broken open in the spring
a seedpod reveals

the local patterns of the wind.
A scientist draws that picture with a stylus

on a pad, and now we know
what that picture looks like.

On a shelf over my desk is a photograph
of my mother before I knew her,

looking back over her dark shoulder,
smiling, the corner creased.

She could be anyone’s mother,
but she is mine.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Red, White & Bwuuhaha!

Well, that was fun! If you need a break from impeachment proceedings, caucus debacles, 2020 election anxiety, and general worry about the dire state that American democracy is in, you can read about a romance/sex scandal in a parallel American political universe: Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. It is very funny, very sexy, and I learned a lot. For instance, I learned on p. 288 of my paperback copy (pictured here) that the King James Bible "exists...because the Church of England was so displeased with James for flaunting his relationship with [George] Villiers that he had the translation commissioned to appease them." That's James I, and the King James Bible is my favorite translation still, now all the more so with this tidbit of info...gotten from a novel, so is it trustworthy? I hope so, 'cause it's a good one. Who gnu, as I like to ask. McQuiston knew, and lots of historians, and Wikipedia knows, acknowledging that "James's sexuality is a matter of dispute." Who cares? We got a good Bible out of it!

I saw part of the Friday debate via YouTube and New York Times video after attending local junior high volleyball. (ABC doesn't come in on my TV most of the time.) So I know that Amy got after Pete for chatting up people on the campaign about needing a break from Senate impeachment proceedings. See casual comment above that starts my blog. Mea culpa. I like Amy, and I have her hat. I like Pete, too! I really want all the current candidates to be somehow part of the next administration! What Would Lincoln Do? What Would Obama Do? That, I think. Invite everyone to the table. (Speaking of the King James Bible, that's also what Jesus would do.) But Amy is right that it's serious business, those Senate proceedings, and what responsible legislators do do! (Oops, I said "do do.")

And, speaking (earlier) of Waiting for Godot on Groundhog's Day, and in Sarajevo, I saw our local production of Waiting for Godot last night. There was a full moon onstage and in the actual sky, perfect night to see it. Members of the audience who are suffering from 2020 election anxiety felt it resonating in that way! An endless, devastating waiting...for what, for what?!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

I Know That I Know Nothing

In the middle of the night I woke up and finished Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. It was really good, but slow going, as it is a fat book. Sort of like a beautiful hike in thick snow.* Susan Sontag was a fascinating woman, that's for sure, full of inconsistencies. I even read the notes, finding this gem, a comment by photographer Lisette Model on Sontag's book On Photography: "It is a book by a woman who knows everything and understands nothing."

*Sontag might not like my comparison, as she was "against metaphor" (in her book Against Metaphor) but, as I learned in Moser's book, sometimes not even able to recognize metaphors in other people's writing--one of the odd inconsistencies!

This morning I know nothing and understand nothing about the results of the Iowa caucuses and what went wrong in reporting them. That is, I know what's been reported but not the full truth, nor the actual results. It seems we will find out later today on this Fat (Book) Tuesday!

Here is John Weir's Susan Sontag story, "Hiding the Body," in World Literature Today.

Susan Sontag did understand masks. There was Susan Sontag and "Susan Sontag," the persona-public figure. Art was her salvation.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Waiting for Godot on Groundhog's Day

Can you imagine that? Waiting for Godot, forever, over and over again, on Groundhog's Day, the way Bill Murray has to repeat his day until he gets it right? Hey, has Bill Murray ever done the play Waiting for Godot? I do not know and don't have time to Google it before church, on Candlemas Day, which, according to this CNN article, is the origin of Groundhog's Day! The article also tells us that the groundhog in Pennsylvania predicts an early spring. It's sunny here in Illinois, so I guess we get six more weeks of winter. (And I guess we'll find out whether some people would like to repeat this Super Bowl Sunday until they get it right, but then they will have to watch all those political commercials over and over...)

OK, what I wanted to tell you was how, once again, I am reading a book at exactly the right time. This week I will go see Waiting for Godot at Heartland Theatre, and this morning, in Sontag, I am reading about Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo. Susan Sontag directed a production of Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett, during terrifying wartime conditions in Sarajevo in 1993, to help bring attention to the situation, where genocide was going on--"ethnic cleansing"--and the world was ignoring it, despite the Holocaust of World War II which we were never to forget. She did wake up the world and was appreciated for it; the plaza in front of Bosnia's National Theatre was named Susan Sontag Square in her honor. And she brought Annie Leibovitz there, to take pictures for Vanity Fair, which brought even more attention to Sarajevo. Then Sontag went home and continued to be annoying.

To make it a perfect Random Coinciday in the blog, my Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair has just arrived, my last issue, as any money formerly spent on renewals or subscriptions now goes to political candidates. Heads up, political candidates, all my "subscriptions" to you have also run out. But I'll be voting on March 17 and November 3, you can count on it! Which brings me back to Beckett. Or, rather, back to Benjamin Moser, author of Sontag, who says, "If a condition of the modern artist--of the modern person--is awareness that Godot will not be turning up, that does not mean that that person is not needed, cannot make some difference." That person--actor, director, reader, writer, voter--can! However invisible (see book cover) or meaningless we sometimes feel or seem.