Poetry and Old Wives’ Tales

Poetry and Old Wives’ Tales

“Black and white shot of two old women carrying bags in Zaragoza” by Rubén Bagüés on Unsplash

The term “old wives’ tales” is meant to be derogatory, like so many phrases that make mention of women. I’m reclaiming it right this minute. I’m old, and I’m a wife. And I tell tales.

Some folk wisdom, once disparaged as old wives’ tales, is turning out to be true. Also, the trees can speak, you know.

Old wives’ tales can be the subjects of poems, like this very cool list poem by Safia Elhillo.

And, they make good prompts if you’ve temporarily run out of ideas for new poems.

Photo by Presian Nedyalkov on Unsplash
One old wives’ tale that I heard as a child was that dragonflies (or flying needles as they were sometimes called) would sew up the mouths of naughty, mouthy little girls. That would have been the little me, who makes an appearance in this poem, originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Paper Nautilus.

Bad Seed

At the market, I can’t resist

the orchid sellers, or any hothouse beauty,

although I know the flowers

and their little open mouths

won’t last. Conditions in the outside world

don’t often favor anything so delicate.

Ask the dragonflies: did they invent

the stories told to evil, orphaned children?

Or tell us how the iridescent spike

between a pair of gauzy wings

can sew a naughty mouth right shut?

The orphan-master tells me

Your mother was a slut.

I run crying to the river,

where dragonflies pause

on bulrushes, a half-sunk oar, a kneecap.

Each wears sapphire, tourmaline, and wings

as intricate as Shetland lace.

I point to my lips, in case they can fix

the threads about to come unstitched.

Poetry Seeks the Unknown

Photo of my mother, Theresa Christie, as a teenager. circa 1956.
I never met my mother.

Like many people adopted as infants in the the 20th century, the fact of my adoption was kept secret — from me, from the neighbors, from my teachers. When I was in my 30’s, I found my blood family, but my mother had already passed away.

Poetry is a map of the human heart, a useful tool if you don’t know where a heart came from, what it’s made of, or where it’s going. I map my mother’s heart in my imagination, looking for what she felt about me.

If we’d met, there’s no telling how our relationship may have been twisted by my feelings of abandonment, or her feelings of loss. Sometimes I’m full of regret that I didn’t search for her earlier.

Oher times I wonder if waiting until it was too late spared us both some pain.

The poem below, originally published in Crab Creek Review ( regular submissions open from September 15 through November 15!), is my attempt to imagine this unknown.

Writing Memoir: Using Dream Images

“A silhouette of a man holding a smoke bomb on a deserted beach, with a pink sunset sky in the background” by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash
Do dreams have a place in nonfiction?

Since childhood, I’ve had occasional vivid dreams — the kind that are so weird, or colorful, or fantastic that they woke me up. When I started writing poetry (also as a kid), I thought those dreams and their images belonged in poems.

The dreams seemed so meaningful to me. So I wrote.

Later, more than one poetry teacher told me to ditch the dream poems — they didn’t mean anything to anyone but me. The teachers were right: without a context, dream images don’t translate very well for an audience. Of course, if you’re writing only for yourself, that’s different.

But dreams can work well for an audience in fiction and in creative nonfiction writing. They work as long as we make clear that they are, in fact dreams, and connect them to our stories and the people in our stories. I’m not a dream-interpreter, but when people reveal their dreams to me in real life, I feel as if I’ve gotten inside their heads a little. I feel I know them better.

Readers of both fiction and nonfiction want to know the people — or characters — in the stories they read. Reading a good book, we actually crave that knowledge, especially knowledge of a character’s motivations and how those motivations interact with plot. It’s why we stay up past our bedtimes and keep reading. We’re trying to figure out what will happen next.

Some literary theorists believe we read fiction to exercise the part of our brains that guesses at motivations, and that our brains have been programmed by evolution to want to guess at motivations.

Lisa Zunshine, in her book, Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel, applies this idea specifically to novels, although I believe it can apply to any kind of writing that includes characters. She argues that understanding motivations, and then predicting behavior was an adaptive strategy for early humans seeking to survive and reproduce.

Zunshine’s theory is similar to Finnish psychologist Antti Revonsuo’s theory of dreams. Revonsuo believed that dreams were resulted from the brain practicing for flight-or-flight situations. In other words, our dreams are simulations of stressful situations we might face in real life.

Human beings have long believed dreams are powerful, either as predictors of the future, as revelations of past mysteries, as expressions of repressed wishes. They seem to come with a built-in significance.

For a writer of memoir or nonfiction, relating a dream can help to communicate something about motivation, or obsession, or desire. Instead of telling the reader “I felt trapped in my lifestyle,” I can show the reader how it felt by describing a dream related to that trapped feeling. Here’s an excerpt from one of my essays that attempts to do this:

Night after night, I dreamed of walking under streetlights in Boston, after the bars have closed, when the streets are deserted. I have trouble walking, but not the kind of trouble I had in the dreams of my twenties. In those dreams, my feet were as rigid and heavy as flatirons, and I couldn’t lift them to run away. In these new dreams, I’m drunk and wobbling. The busses have stopped running, and I stumble and curse, desperate to find a way out of Boston that will take me to the North Shore. I have to pee badly. I’m under the Southeast Expressway, surrounded by concrete Jersey barriers and I-beam steel, and there is no one to ask for directions, no taxis, no traffic. The city is silent. Should I walk up onto the expressway if I can find a ramp? Can I walk over the Mystic River Bridge because there are no cars? In the dream, I’m angry that the city is so hard to leave, and I never find the bridge.

In the context of the essay, this dream excerpt demonstrates, perhaps more vividly than reality could, how trapped I felt, and how frustrated. The dream itself may sound familiar to you — dreams about being lost and trying to find a way out of somewhere are common, as are dreams of trying to run with heavy feet. Perhaps they signal some common fear we share as human beings of being stuck in place.

What are some of your favorite examples of dreams in fiction or nonfiction? And what do you think about using dreams in your writing?

I must miss teaching . . .

In the works – a series of articles with practical, concrete tips on getting your work published in literary journals and magazines. I’ll share them here and on Medium  I’m excited about this project, and just realized why – I must miss teaching!

Teaching has a been a part of my life since 1990 when I taught my first college composition class for Salem State College (now University). Then in 1995, I gave up my law practice and started teaching full-time. Up until January, I was engaged in teaching in one form or another so that’s more than 20 years of my life. No wonder I miss it!

Teaching is a very happy job because you get to be around people who are reaching for knowledge and striving to improve themselves. Although I took a leap in January to devote myself full-time to writing, I think it’s okay for me for me to indulge my love for teaching as long as I do it in writing. So here’s my first stab at that. Click on the image to read the full article.

A Sample Cover Letter to Help Get You Published

The cover letter strategies here have worked for me with literary journals including North American Review and Catapult, and with more general interest publications including O, the Oprah Magazine, and Guernica. Feel free to adapt the sample for your purposes, or use the outline method explained below.

While it’s important to observe publishing etiquette, you don’t want anxiety over submitting your work to get in the way of why you write in the first place — to express your creativity. I’ve found it best to automate the submission process as much as possible so I can spend more time on creative writing than on administrative writing. Once you have a solid cover letter drafted, you can recycle or adapt it again and again.

Editors are busy folks, too, and in the world of literary journals, many work as volunteers. They will appreciate you making their lives easier with a concise cover letter, and it doesn’t hurt to have an editor read your work while you’ve put them in a good mood. Some things most editors want to know:

Where you heard about their publication

A little about you

Where you’ve been published before

IMHO, one sentence for each of these does the trick. There are exceptions, of course. A few publications don’t want a cover letter at all, and a few want specific information about you. For example, some publications ask about your demographics to help them keep track of how well they are doing with their outreach to writers who aren’t young, hetereosexual cis white men with MFA degrees. My demographic statement is “I’m an old, 97% white lady.” Always read submission guidelines carefully to make sure you are giving the editors what they have asked for.

So, how do you write that “a little about you”?

Click here for the full article. And happy writing!

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.