How Poetry Workshops Work

Last night, a poem on chronic pain (and other things) was published in Heron Tree, a journal I very much admire for its aesthetic and its restraint.

heron treeWithout the feedback I receive as a member of a community poetry group, I’m sure my poems would not be ready for public consumption. Often, what seems very clear to me is not at all obvious, even to experienced poets.

When I moved from Massachusetts to Florida in 2004, I missed the criticism and camaraderie of the incredible Powow River Poets Workshops that I’d attended for ten years. I whined about it to the group founder, Rhina P. Espaillat. She told me to go start a new poetry workshop in Florida. So I put up a notice in a local bookstore and a new workshop was born, almost 12 years ago now.

My deepest thanks to the brilliant women in this “new” poetry workshop who are such insightful critics. Samara Crutchfield, Aliesa Zoecklein, Faith Clark, Corky Culver .

Bird Omens

I’m a long-time believer in bird omens. When I was a commuter, I’d make a little obeisance to the red-tailed hawks that perched alongside the highway into Boston, asking for general car luck and a parking spot. More than once, a fatal encounter with a bird foreshadowed the death of someone I loved.

heron

Last month, while I was walking around the North Florida campus where I work, a white heron flew right over my head, so close I could almost have touched it. It landed on the sidewalk about 15 feet in front of me. We walked together single file for about 20 yards before the heron veered off into a shrubbery area.

That evening I was notified that a poem I’d submitted to a magazine was accepted. The magazine was  . . . HERON TREE. Coincidence? I think not!

Listen to the free poetry

EAT Sampler

What do you call someone who’s a writer, artist, musician, teacher, publisher, and anarchist? One word won’t do, but one name will: Mark Ari of Jacksonville, Florida and the world.

Ari’s been publishing audio chapbooks as well as print works under EAT Poem imprint since the turn of the century, and he’s just released a sampler of poems from some of the audio chapbooks.

Ari says:

To get the album for free, just put “0” in as the price when you download. You have to download the whole album to get it for free because I’m too lazy to make the adjustments for individual tracks.

But enjoy these terrific poets. I am forever in their debt for their graciousness in sharing their work with me so I can share it with others.

 

Poets in this release include me,  Driscoll Frances, Tim Gilmore, Teri Youmans Grimm, Richard Peabody, Liz Clarke Robbins, Robert Walker, Mary Kelley Baron, Tiffany Steward Melanson, Fred Dale, Andy Rojas.

Gun Shy

Michele_Leavitt

This poem grew out of some thoughts about how people (me included) who’ve survived systemic violence are dealing (or not) with the current administration’s exaltation of racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynist individuals and organizations. It was originally published in Rise Up Review. Go show them some love — they publish a new poem every day on their site, a place for “the poetry of opposition.”

Presenting

human partsToday I realized that most of my essays are about how very much I love a particular human being. If writers are doomed to return to the same theme over and over again, I guess “how much I love someone” isn’t such a bad theme to go back to again and again.

This piece, Presenting, is one of those. It’s about how much I love my niece Theresa. It was published earlier this year in the print journal Grist, and is now online in the Medium magazine, Human Parts.

 

View story at Medium.com

View story at Medium.com

Terror, Anxiety, and Not Much New Writing

In the spring of 2016, I got on a creative roll, waking up in the dark at 5:30 am and writing for 90 minutes before heading off to my day job. But as the 2016 election drew near, I focused more and more on reading the news each morning, and then each night. Each new misogynist revelation, each new racist pronouncement left me newly depleted. My morning writing practice fizzled out.

Since 11/9, I’ve been in a perpetual state of checking: checking the NYT, WaPo, the Guardian, checking 45’s Twitter feed, checking social media. Recently, I realized this checking behavior was what I did as a child in an abusive family situation, and later, a teenager in an abusive relationship. It’s got to stop.

People who’ve survived child abuse and intimate partner violence get used to walking on eggshells because abusers and batterers can snap at any moment. When I lived like that, in terror and anxiety, I monitored my boyfriend’s moods with great vigilance. I hung on to the fantasy that if I could predict his violence, I could prevent the next black eye, broken nose, split lip.

For many years after escaping that relationship, I was as head-shy as a maltreated horse. Any sudden movement near my head made me flinch. I thought that for the most part, I’d gotten past that.

But no. I live in a country where elected leaders exhibit the same characteristics as batterers: blaming others for their actions, denying or minimizing their own bad behavior, using sex as an act of aggression, losing their tempers explosively, insisting on control. And access to their babyish rantings and explosions is always just a click away.

So it’s not surprising, really, that I would be re-living the terror and anxiety of my youth now. The current political landscape is awash in overt racist and misogynist violence. It’s also awash in the more subtle violences that attack the health and security of women, of immigrants, of anyone who doesn’t look white, of gay, lesbian, and trans people, of people with disabilities, and people living in poverty. It’s much too much like the old days, when men were legally entitled to rape their wives, when homophobic violence was not prosecuted, when racists got away with lynchings, when men could beat their wives and children, when communities and government sanctioned such behavior or excused it as “private family business.”

For me, the terror and anxiety manifest now in my checking behavior. I spend way too much of my time and energy monitoring the political climate and obsessing about it. As if I could predict violence, subtle or overt, and so prevent it. As if.

So where’s the balance between staying informed enough to call my congressmen (yes, they are all men) regularly, and freaking out over every new photograph of a group of old rich white men smiling over meetings and documents meant to exploit or harm our planet, our people? Where’s the balance that will give me back at least some of the energy I need for early morning writing sessions?

Help me out here. Thank you.

 

Dedicated to My Northern Friends

woodlot

I used to live up North.

Way, way, way up north, as in Central Maine and Northern Idaho. And though I’m wicked happy to be back in Flor-i-dah, a little piece of my heart is still frozen in the snow, and I remember the long wait for spring.

“Wood Lot in April,” published in the March 2017 issue of Cleaver trillium-erectum-in-dlong-bMagazine, is about the dark side of that longing. In my desperate searches for signs of spring, I often walked alone in the Unity College wood lot, on the lookout for trillium, unrolling fiddlehead ferns, and other early risers. And I was often disappointed when I found the land still in winter’s grip.

Cleaver won my heart with its “Thwack!” and its Ask June column. It’s one of the coolest online magazines around. Check ’em out.

Time Travel in True Stories

I’m honored to have a personal essay, “Maternity Cave,” included in the March 2017 issue of Hippocampus. Like most of my publications, I worked on writing this piece for several years, and worked for even more years trying to figure out what the events in the story meant.

Every so often, a phrase or an image or a small event in daily life captures my attention as being connected to a phrase or image or event from the past. Those little a-ha moments are the beginnings of my stories. The maternity cave story begins in 2006 on a visit to a  bat cave in Central Florida with my teenage niece Candi, where we saw thousands of little brown bats swirling up into the dusk, then it wiggles around in the 1990’s between my first marriage, my experience of infertility, and finding my birth family, and then it shoots ahead to a family picnic in 2016, when Candi is a grown woman with two children of her own. There was a moment at that picnic that lit up the past for me.

maternity-cave

The story doesn’t follow linear time, and I’ve been thinking lately that’s one of the benefits of being a reader of personal essays: we get to experience hard-earned wisdom in a way that isn’t tied to chronology. We get to look back, be in the present, and jump ahead to the future in less time than it takes to bake a cake. There’s no undo or do-over button because truth doesn’t change, but at least we get to see truth’s trail.

Personal essays are time capsules, freezing us in a moment. But they can be time machines, too, taking us forward and backward, allowing us to grab on to the hindsight and foresight in someone else’s experiences, even as it escapes us in our own.