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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

I used to get the most wonderful feeling from writing. Poetry, especially, was a lifeline for me. I loved that percolating, almost giddy sense of impending creation that meant I was ready to rough out the bones of a poem. The revising was even better, shaping lines and words like clay.

That feeling died over the years. A lot of it was killed off through sheer overuse after more than a decade of writing greeting cards nonstop. I also grew up, literally and figuratively, and lost the luster of naivete — instead of the lofty self-delusions that I could be a great poet, I faced the reality that I wasn’t even a good poet (at least not according to the standards I respected). That kind of gritty acceptance renders the effervescence of literary creation as flat as yesterday’s bath water. Editing Poet’s Market for all those years kind of sealed the deal as far as my slacking off on my poetry. Instead of being inspired by all those opportunities to publish, I felt overwhelmed by them and by the quantity of poetry that gets published yet goes unread.

I’ve never reached the point of understanding the difference between crocheting a piece of lace, embroidering a sampler, or quilting a wall hanging and simply writing for the pleasure of it. It never bothers me that few people will ever see my handiwork; yet the lack of audience has no impact on either my striving for excellence or my immense sense of satisfaction and enjoyment. I reach for a current needlework project as if picking it will save my life; I haven’t reached for my notebook that way in more than a decade.

Yet to create a poem that won’t be read or published, to do it simply for the enjoyment of the process and the fulfillment of completing a small work of art, seems like an act of futility. Why? It’s all wrong. It doesn’t help that the literary establishment doesn’t seem to encourage writing without trying to publish. God forbid there should be love of craft without ambition.

Since leaving Poet’s Market, I’ve taken a year off from poetry. I haven’t read much of it, haven’t visited the blogs or the zines, and definitely haven’t written a single line. That was partly due to my latent resentment at losing Poet’s Market, partly due to that futile, burned-out feeling; but it was also a deliberate choice, an act of literary fasting.

Maybe it helped. Because I’m beginning to miss poetry, both reading it and writing it. And sometimes I feel that little tingle that means I WANT to start working on a poem. I think it would be good for me. Whether I try to publish or not, I don’t know. I’ve been sending out work for almost 40 years, so it’s kind of second nature. Then again, maybe I’ll just post the poems I write here. Maybe update with revised versions. We’ll see. But it’s one of my resolutions for 2009 — I’m going to write poetry again. I’m going to write more period (that includes blogging as well).

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With Mother’s Day this Sunday, I’ve been thinking of not only my own mother, but of the wonderful women going back generations in my family. One reason I know about those women is because both Mom and her mother, Grandma Martha, always told great stories, whether about their own pasts or about the female family members who came before.

One of Mom’s stories stuck with me because I was so impressed with her mother’s resourcefulness. Mom’s paternal grandmother was known as Grandma-Up-Dayton because she lived above Dayton, Ohio — in a community called Vandalia. Grandma-Up-Dayton lived in a rather rustic home with an outhouse and an iron wood-burning stove. She turned out unbelievable breads, pies, and other goodies on that stove, which my mother recalls with fondness and admiration.

It was a long drive from the southernmost border of Ohio to north of Dayton. Something that happened on one of those return trips was the foundation for that story of Mom’s that impressed me so. It involved a flat tire, a pie, a car key, and the talents and resourcefulness of mothers:

A CHOCOLATE PIE

When I see chocolate pie I think of
a pie I never tasted, the one
my mother likes to tell about
from her childhood: She’d traveled
with her parents and sister to visit
Grandma-Up-Dayton, a remarkable
cook who baked glorious creations
in a wood-burning stove. When the
Applegates motored up from Cincinnati,
Grandma-Up-Dayton packed the car
with culinary plunder for the return trip.

On the way home that evening, their car
had a blowout. It was past dinnertime
and the girls needed something to eat.
While Grandpa wrestled with the flat,
Grandma took a chocolate pie
from Grandma-Up-Dayton’s stash of goodies.
There was no knife, so Grandma
used a car key to slice the pie. My mother
remembers how good that pie tasted,
they were so tired and hungry,
with so far yet to go.

When I see chocolate pie, I think
of this story and those three —
of Grandma-Up-Dayton, blessed
with cheerful generosity
and baking prowess; of Grandma,
blessed for life with calm resourcefulness;
and of my mother, blessed with a talent
for keeping the past alive
and for helping me understand
the kind of women I come from.

(c)2006 by Nancy Breen; “A Chocolate Pie” first appeared in Best of 2006: The 69th Annual Ohio Poetry Day Contest Awards

UPDATE: My mother has written a special blog post telling all about Grandma-Up-Dayton, her unusual house in the country, and her baking — not to mention the full story of the car key and the chocolate pie. Go to Lillian’s Cupboard for nostalgic details, period photos, and even a chocolate pie recipe!

 

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I guess I shouldn’t let April pass without posting a poem. This is from my chapbook How Time Got Away (Pudding House Publications, (c)2005). The night I’m writing about happened over 30 years ago.

APRIL 16TH

Spring again, a sadness to swear by.
Lamplight filters through the shadow
of a neighbor’s death. In a back bedroom,
my father, cricket caught in a skeleton’s ribs,
sings “Old Ninety-Seven”
softly to himself. The breeze hooks
the melody like a mail sack,
slow train style. The breeze is antic,
doing spooky things to the front room curtains.

I sing, too. I sing this warm evening,
front porch and rocking chair. No one
has rocked me for years, but tonight
I cradle myself, humming
the flannel lullabies.
Beside the porch rail, the lilac
murmurs appreciatively.
My voice tests the night as quietly.

In an upstairs window
of the dead neighbor’s house,
a slip-clad figure pauses and springs.
The gauzy after-image
is eerie, more ghostly than an appearance
by the deceased himself.
Someone lowers the shade as tenderly
as the lid over a blank eye.
My father and I fall mute, tunes
collapsing in our throats like parachutes,
splendid billows of rapture
thinning to silk and cord.

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As I said in this post, April is my birthday month. April often is also Easter month, so there are two big celebrations right there.

At various times over the years, other celebrations have added layers to the party atmosphere of April for me. And, frankly, sometimes keeping up with all the parties and commemorations made me very busy.

I don’t know what they’re calling it now, but years ago there was a National Secretary’s Day. Although I worked as an actual secretary only a couple of times, support staff of all kinds were included in the festivities. There might be gifts and a treat day sponsored by the immediate department, and/or lunch out besides. An executive might take support staff directly under his direction to lunch as well. Once we were given a combined breakfast and a seminar on time management — well meaning but very pragmatic (although the bagels and pastries were tasty).

Secretary’s Day was so close to my birthday that the celebrations often overlapped.  I had to plan carefully not to bring in my birthday treats the same day that Secretary Day treat spreads were being offered in nearby departments. (For 20 years I worked for companies where the tradition was the birthday person brought in treats for everyone else.) Because of that proximity, however, Secretary’s Day kind of got grafted onto my birthday celebration, expanding it into a longer period of high spirits and out-of-the-ordinary activities. When I became a greeting card writer, it hit me between the eyes the following April that there would be no more gifts, no more lunches, no more attention on Secretary’s Day. I might have to write a card now and then for the day of honor, but I wouldn’t be partaking of that attention myself. It was disconcerting and stripped a thin layer of gloss off my usual birthday “season.”

April is also National Poetry Month. Being a poet, this mattered to me, although I tended to have more private celebrations. Every year I chose a certain poetry volume I wanted as my NPM “book” to purchase. I tried to kick up my poetry writing a notch, which often meant simply producing one acceptable poem, given my growing lackluster production.

Once I became editor of Poet’s Market, I frequently was called upon to do presentations on poetry publishing at bookstores and the library. I was very pleased to do my part to promote poetry during National Poetry Month; however, the first year I was over-enthusiastic and did several presentations over a couple of weeks, trying to work in Easter and my birthday and the height of the Poet’s Market production cycle all at the same time. Still, it was unusual not to have at least one poetry-related gig during April, whether it was speaking to 20 people as part of the NPM program at the main branch of the public library, or discussing poetry with the three people who were kind enough to show up at Barnes & Noble one night. (It became less a presentation than an everyone-gather-around-and-let’s-talk session.)

Now I’m not a secretary OR a support person OR the editor of Poet’s Market. This year, Easter wasn’t even in April. There’s still my birthday ahead, though. And the older I get, the more I celebrate the little things, the simple joys, and the fact that I have treasured people in my life to mark occasions with. And believe me, I don’t wait until the month of April to celebrate the latter. I try to do that every day.

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In honor of Halloween, I posted a poem called “A Horror Story” here, where I explain the circumstances that inspired the piece.

On this blog I thought I’d post a couple more Halloween poems. Happy haunting, everyone!

TRICKS AND TREATS
AT SHORTY’S SALOON
A warped pumpkin face leered
from the ring-marred bar top.
We peered through eye holes
at an electric beer sign where
the Cincinnati skyline brightened
with noon-time radiance.
From the jukebox a banshee yowled
her hair-prickling lament.
Hunchbacks lined the bar,
breathing smoke, red ash
singeing their knuckles.
They watched us without moving,
eye sockets shadowed,
foreheads purple and green with neon.
The bartender had the eyebrows
of a madman; he was
not to be trusted, shiny-cheeked
and glib. From a cauldron
of wrapped sourballs he clawed
a crackling fistful. Our paper sacks
rattled, we backed away. One
of the zombie hunchbacks shifted.
C’mere, youngsters. The dull nickels
he fished from his pockets
were doled with yellowed fingers.
Gloom deepened as the beer sign city
plunged into midnight. The moaning singer
gave up the ghost, a heart-stopping silence.
We shoved each other out the door
as the madman cackled at our backs,
mixing and pouring his poisons.
(from Best of Ohio 2004, © Nancy Breen)
  
THE MUMMY SPEAKS
He showed up for open mic night,
poems inked on the stiff bandages
across his crusted palms.
It took him half the evening
to work up his nerve, took half
that long again to totter
between the folding chairs
to the front of the room.
The crowd murmured,
grew excited. This promised everything
they’d heard poetry was about–
death, a voice echoing
from the grave, deterioration
and its impact on the poet’s art.
He opened his mouth to recite.
Stale breath blew dirt
and dried moths. He started
with an imagist poem
about the Nile at sunset,
another about shadowy camels
in sandstorms, ended with a brief verse
about how everything depends
on a little green scarab
glazed with dust in the burial pit.
The audience grew restless.
Where was the decay? Where was the madness?
He knew he’d lost them.
Their indifferent applause mocked him
as he humped into the night.
He became a recluse after that,
dressed all in white gauze,
wrote batches of poems
he tossed into a sarcophagus.
Future generations would discover his work,
declare him the genius he knew he was.
And after all, he
was the living dead.
He’d last long enough to see it happen.
(from How Time Got Away, © 2005, Pudding House Publications)

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rites-photo.jpg

I’ve been lucky enough to have two chapbooks of poetry published in the last seven years, after struggling for at least two decades. I self-published one chapbook nearly 30 years ago; then in the early 80s I won a chapbook competition through La Reina Press — which went out of business before the chapbook was ever published. In the late 90s a friend started his own press and said he’d publish my chapbook; then his press went under. That’s how it goes in the small press publishing world, but it’s extremely frustrating.

I made shortlists or was a finalist with chapbook manuscripts several times, which was helpful in preventing me from thinking my work was totally useless. I wanted a chapbook out there, though. It was happening for everyone else around me, but there I was, still schlepping along.

I still haven’t won a chapbook contest since the La Reina competition; but the two chapbooks I did finally publish were chosen through competitions. More and more presses with contests use the competitions to find other quality manuscripts they wish to publish. It’s another way to get a reading of your work (although the entry fees can sure add up if you’re really active at entering).

The chapbooks that were (finally!) published are:  

Rites and Observances (Finishing Line Press) — available here.

How Time Got Away (Pudding House Publications) — listed here on their catalog page (you have to scroll down or use your “find” button).

Both are extremely active presses doing beautiful work. If you’re a poet, take a look. (And buy something — if not my chapbook, then someone else’s. Support and read poetry!)

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