Monday, February 28, 2011

Unlearning the Science of War

Gandhi's glasses
Fear of death puts a definite crimp in the long struggle for peace.  When Gandhi proposed non-violent protest, he did it with the clear understanding that death was a possibility.  Fear of death creates a need to be physically strong—to be able to overcome someone who is trying to take away something you love.  When two opponents who are both afraid of annihilation have the need to be right then one (or both) of them will have to be brought low. 

When I think about the wars that have occurred since early in our career as humans, I am humbled by the sheer numbers of young men and women who felt it right and proper to die.  They were not afraid.  Something larger was calling them to service and they were (usually) willing to go.  (I’m not sure the 6-15 year old boys who have been conscripted into fighting were actually willing to leave home and start shooting—you can argue this point with me if you have other details.)

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."  (Willy the Shake.  From Henry V)

And I want to say, for the record, that I’m grateful to those who fought to get rid of Hitler and Pol Pot, although I also want to say that these horrid creatures had pretty much the same DNA as I have and that’s  damned scary.

We’ve been maturing in our view of the world, albeit in geographic patches around the world.  Time has been on our side, but we can see that ongoing, persistent war takes a toll not only on human life and progress but on the planet as a whole.  Widespread rape by soldiers sends shockwaves through a society that can last for generations.  Landmines kill and maim long after the victors have called it quits.  Our short lives, no more than the span of a fruit fly when compared to the universe we inhabit, seem purposeless when they begin in violence and end while walking to school through a field of hidden mines. 

And yet we have been guaranteed purpose. 

Consider how discord and dissension have prevailed in this great human family for thousands of years. Its members have ever been engaged in war and bloodshed. Up to the present time in history the world of humanity has neither attained nor enjoyed any measure of peace, owing to incessant conditions of hostility and strife. History is a continuous and consecutive record of warfare brought about by religious, sectarian, racial, patriotic and political causes. The world of humanity has found no rest. ….In this most radiant century it has become necessary to divert these energies and utilize them in other directions, to seek the new path of fellowship and unity, to unlearn the science of war and devote supreme human forces to the blessed arts of peace. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Promulgation of Universal Peace p230  from talks given in 1912 (emphasis mine.)

(to be continued….)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Ramping up to a month of Peace

The month of March has been arbitrarily designated by this blog as a Month of Peace.  (I LOVE being arbitrary)  Several poets will be contributing their thoughts and I plan to keep hope alive in my own little corner of the internet.

To get ready, here is Mr. Rogers giving some of the best advice I've ever heard about dealing with the world in a peaceful way.  Just click on the link and imagine a trolley coming through your room, ready to take you anywhere.

Click here for Mr. Roger's advice.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

In memory of Janet Reimer

After praying one day in her little house, in her 89th Year,
she bent her head, weeping gently. 
Her son and I looked at each other with wonder.

“I didn’t know it would be so sweet,” Janet said.
The prayer had delighted her,
as all lovely things surprised and delighted her.

She wore a bra outside her shirt for my birthday party
just to get the big giggle going--
pulling us inexorably into as much joy as we could manage.

She would shine laughter into any room of gloomy hearts.
We hovered around her--
a fragrant garden we couldn’t resist. 

Working all day and the nighttime too 
she readied her house for guests.
There would be coffee and fruit
on a table set with flowers and bits of blue. 
There would be laughter.
There would always be delightful, surprising sweetness.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


Here is a picture of (clean and pressed) antique hankies for you to look at while lounging around home today.  (You ARE lounging, aren’t you?)  I love old hankies and buy them up at thrift shops and yard sales.  After bringing them home I clean and press them to use as gift wrap, or in get-well cards.  Most of you are too young to remember, but surely you know that proper young ladies always had a clean hankie.  Gentlemen had handkerchiefs clean enough to loan to any beautiful woman who might be weeping. Hankies were often embroidered, an art my mother taught me (I the ever unwilling student).  Hand-done things like this aren’t available at CVS and I’m going to propose a World Day of Hand-Done Things. Small domesticities like Embroidery, knitting or cooking.  Family hands.  Nurse’s hands tidying up and bringing comfort.  Hands on the keyboard. Artist’s hands. Friendly Hands. Hand’s cleaning away rubble after an earthquake. Hands to God. 

No denying this is a tough time in the world, but hey, we were built tough, weren’t we?  All of us humans were built tough.  I have it on good authority that we were created to bear and endure.  And to use clean hankies at need. 

The embroidered hankie

Each tidy stitch held beauty—
beauty folded and pressed
into my tiny hand:
Bold banner of courage.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011


(with apologies to Cole Porter)

Birds do it.
Bees do do it.
Cats and dogs and whelks and worms do it.

I do it after a cuppa in the morning.
Aunt Rose needs prune juice in lieu of laxative.
Bossie the cow takes in 4.5% of her body weight daily
to put out the pounds of crusty rounds we avoid as we
walk through the pasture.

T. Rex used to do it. 
Now fossilized bits of dinosaur shit* sell for $75.00 per piece,
demonstrating that there is always an afterlife.

Jesus did it.  We honor this in a common statement of surprise.

Dusty the clown does it late at night after the rowdy crowd goes home.

He sits quietly with a week old copy of the Times,
a small flask,
and he transubstantiates the sadness of an entire city.
                                          rhonda palmer

(*word for the day: coprolite)

Monday, February 21, 2011

What I Don’t Know for Sure

I am riddled with ignorance.
The holes in my world are large and overarching.
I am a honeycomb of the unknown.
I don’t know how to explain leaps in evolution
nor the parting of hearts.
There is no coherent explanation for the beginning
of matter and time.  Racism is a vast question,
as is the beating of babies and how whole peoples
are abandoned and starved.
In the city of myself there are neighborhoods
that keep lock and key on the front gate and
do not permit reconnaissance or exploration.
I am lured to these gates again and again,
as a mother to the empty cradle,
as a lover to the silent phone.
I am riddled with ignorance.
I am a honeycomb of the unknown.
This is what I know for sure.
                          Rhonda Palmer

I listen to the evening news as I come home from work and hear those calm NPR reporters explaining the day’s atrocities—the recent powerful energy surging through the Middle East with such devastating human tragedy--the U.S. polarized and at odds with itself--a teetering global economy--looming environmental disaster.  One case of child abuse is enough to knock me onto my keister for days, and I’m often flat on the floor in a puddle of woe by the end of the evening, wailing about my small brain and my large lack of understanding.  

And yet, when has it been different?  In the 14th century when 75 million people died of the Black Plague?  Or during the Crusades (1095 to 1272) when European Christians raped and pillaged their way through the Muslim world?   Or think about King Leopold and the Congo, or Pol Pot.  (or rather, don’t, except to promise you won’t personally slaughter people and keep their hands as souvenirs.)  We are not a uniformly nice life form when it comes to our dealings with either ourselves or other life forms.  Yet despite the worst of us, we manage to mostly lead lives of quiet kindness.  Not that many of us actually see death and destruction up close and personal.  The vast majority of us sit around dinner tables at night with our kids and try not to get food on our clothing.  Most of us do something useful on a regular basis.  All of us, every last one of us on the planet, can admit to being wrong about something.  We know that for sure.

The TED talk I’ve enclosed by Jared Diamond is a big picture look at societies rising and falling.  Big pictures are notoriously hard to see with our noses pressed up against the glass.  I’m submitting that there is an even bigger picture, one of cosmic proportions, one we’ve gotten glimpses of from mystics and seers and saints and poets.  I’m proposing that our quest in life is to struggle to live our small lives while looking for glimmerings of that bigger picture with our noses pressed up against the glass.  We find hints in our neighbors, in our children, in poetry, in art, in pictures from the Hubble, in particle physics, in leaves and silence.  We find directions in prayer, in scripture, in tradition, in intuition, in common sense.  We find knowledge in giving up what we think we know.  

“Perchance we may divest ourselves of all that we have taken from each other and strip ourselves of such borrowed garments as we have stolen from our fellow men, that He [God] may attire us instead with the robe of His mercy and the raiment of His guidance, and admit us into the city of knowledge.” Bahá’u’lláh

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Today’s poem from Tobias.


“Thank you lungs

for making me brave

and not making me chokey.” 

Then he said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “They really wanted a poem about them.”

We just don't have enough poems about lungs, do we?

Friday, February 18, 2011

Roger White--poet and friend. He's on my committee.

Writer and editor, "poet laureate" of the Bahá'í community

(2 June 1929-10 April 1993) 
obituary by Robert Weinberg

    "Treasures lie hidden beneath the throne of God; the key to those treasures is the tongue of poets."     The Báb, quoted in The Dawnbreakers(1)

During the 17th century, it became the practice of English monarchs to appoint an official court poet who would compose odes to mark important state occasions including anniversaries and ceremonies associated with the sovereign and his circle. The term for such literary luminaries -- poet laureate -- arose from the ancient custom in universities of presenting a laurel wreath to graduates in the subjects of rhetoric and poetry. The position of poet laureate is one which still continues in Britain in our own time. But with the passing of Roger White, it might be said that the Bahá'í community lost its most recent poet laureate -- a singularly talented and humane voice who, writing from his home at the spiritual and administrative heart of the Bahá'í world, used his literary gift to celebrate the triumphs of Bahá'u'lláh and his community while perceiving within their victories the very human struggles which made their achievements all the more remarkable. The published works of this untrained poet, whose talents only really began flowering in his forties, are now enjoyed, recited, set to music and analysed throughout the world. Hasan Balyuzi likened White's works to those of the greatest of Sufí poets, saying White wrote "with an elegance and fluency reminiscent of Hafiz, and with a like power to affect the spirit."(2) But Roger White was not only a poet. He was an historian, novelist, accomplished editor, imaginative visual artist, a lithe and graceful dancer, as well as a conscientious servant to Bahá'í institutions. To those of all ages who knew and loved him, he was a brilliantly witty mentor, a master of the kind word, an encourager and ennabler of the highest order.

It was as a result of a visit to Vancouver by the Hand of the Cause, William Sears, and his wife Marguerite that Roger's professional life would change forever. One night, after Mr Sears went to bed having delivered a talk, Roger, Mrs Sears and another Bahá'í, Bill van Zoest, were discussing Mr Sears' health. Mrs Sears believed that if her husband's workload could be eased, he might live to serve longer. It was during this conversation that a plan was hatched for Roger to become Sears' secretary. For three years between 1966 and 1969, Roger devotedly served the Sears in Kenya. During this time, he also acted as secretary to the Hands of the Cause in Africa, and amongst his other activities, danced a leading role in a professional production of "Guys and Dolls."

Returning to North America, a further two years were spent with William Sears in Palm Springs, California, as secretary and research assistant. It was an amicable relationship, enhanced by the love of laughter the two men shared, and warmly recalled in a late poem: "You may alter my grammar and sentence structure," Sears had told Roger, "but don't rewrite my jokes!"(5) When William Sears planned a lengthy teaching tour in 1971 and Roger's services were not required for the trip, he offered to loan Roger to the Universal House of Justice for six months. Twenty years later, Roger was still serving at the Bahá'í world centre. William Sears would often later joke about the loan going on and on.

Roger's manifold services included serving as secretary aide to David Hofman (who coincidentally had also been taught the Bahá'í Faith by May Maxwell), additional secretarial duties to the House of Justice itself, and managing the publishing department of the Bahá'í world centre during a period when many important new volumes were published. Under the supervision of the Universal House of Justice, he was responsible for compiling and publishing volumes XIV to XIX of The Bahá'í World, the standard reference work charting the growth and development of the world-wide Bahá'í community, as well as editing the invaluable compendium of volumes I to XII, published in 1981.

Stimulated by his proximity to the Bahá'í holy places and by the vibrant atmosphere of Israel, Roger renewed an earlier interest in creative writing, particularly the composing of poems and short stories. Already in his early twenties, he had published at his own expense a book of poetry called Summer Window for which he did the drawing on the front cover. But now an innate and exceptional talent seemed to be bearing fruit. Roger was encouraged in this by David Hofman, and a succession of publications followed which quickly established his reputation as a poet of note, most importantly two major anthologies published by George Ronald: Another Song, Another Season (1979) and The Witness of Pebbles (1981). A tender and eloquent novel which presented a semi-fictionalised account of the early days of the Bahá'í Faith in Paris, A Sudden Music, was also published by George Ronald in 1983, followed by a biographical tribute to the poet Emily Dickinson in the form of more than 100 poems: One Bird, One Cage, One Flight (Naturegraph, 1983).

In addition to his touching and sometimes gently humorous tributes to the heroic figures of Bahá'í history, Roger White's poetry also explored the nature of committment, the challenge of relationships between men and women and the contrast between outward semblances and inner reality. A literary scholar, Geoffrey Nash, has described him, as a "distinctive poetic mind...His is a Bahá'í consciousness, conveyed with the utmost felicity in poetic expression...Roger White to my mind shows himself to be in many things the first Bahá'í poet."(6) In his foreward to Occasions of Grace, Australian Bahá'í poet Ron Price summed up the essence of White's poetry and its impact on those who read it: "White knows that he is working at the beginning of this new world and its embryonic order. With all the strangeness, darkness and insecurity that all true beginnings bring to those who search, White deals with the existential questions of the human predicament with both timeliness and timelessness. In the process he helps empower his readers to define who they are, where they've been and where they want to go."(7)

Roger White's work has appeared in literary journals throughout the world. Some poems have become the subject of paintings; others have been used as the basis for firesides and for English classes from Canada to China; some have been performed by actors, with music and dance accompaniament; many have been set to music. This cross-fertilization of different art forms brought great happiness to Roger and strengthened his hope that his poetry might perhaps be considered as having the capacity to speak to the human heart despite differences of background, race, culture, philosophy or religion. It was his conviction that in the future, one of the measures of the spiritual maturity and health of the Bahá'í community world-wide, would be its capacity to attract and win the allegiance of artists of all kinds, and its sensitivity and imaginativeness in making creative use of them.

Roger White believed committed artists would be a vital force in preventing inflexibility in the Bahá'í community. "They will," he predicted, addressing a group of Bahá'í youth in Haifa in 1990, "be a source of rejuvenation. They will serve as a bulwark against fundamentalism, stagnation and administrative sterility...To the degree the Bahá'í community views its artists as a gift rather than a problem will it witness the spread of the faith 'like wildfire' as promised by Shoghi Effendi, through their talents being harnessed to the dissemination of the spirit of the Cause."(8) To this end, White encouraged hundreds of budding writers and artists around the world, and called upon Bahá'í communities to assist the artists to find their place. His influence extended beyond the Bahá'í community and into the environment in which he lived. For many years Roger was an associate editor of the first English language poetry journal of Israel, Voices Israel, founded in 1971.

Roger White retired from his service in Haifa in 1991 after undergoing major heart surgery. Returning to Canada, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Undeterred, he set about teaching the Faith through the establishment of a poetry writing group and speaking at firesides. In his final months, he taught the Faith to his surgeon, the nursing staff and social workers. He collected his last works of poetry into two volumes Notes Postmarked the Mountain of God (New Leaf, 1992) and The Language of There (New Leaf, 1992) and had them published himself because he was "running out of time."(9) He also completed the text for Raghu Rai's photographic celebration of the Bahá'í house of worship in New Delhi, Forever in Bloom.(10)

Roger White quietly accepted his approaching departure, saying, "It's really alright. I've done everything I've ever really wanted to do."(11) In one of his final poems, this craftsman of the English language contemplated what vocabulary might be needed in the place to where he was going.
    There, light will be our language, 
    a tongue without words for perhaps, or arid, or futile, 
    though shadow will be retained that we may contrast the radiance......
    In time, our desire to speak will abandon us. 
    All that need be said the light will say. 
Roger White passed away at 5.25 in the afternoon of 10 April 1993 in Richmond, British Columbia surrounded by his family, "drawn away by the music, the laughter, the promised ecstasy of reunion."(13)
Robert Weinberg(14)

Copyright 1997, Association of Bahá'í Studies -- English speaking Europe.  reprinted here with permission

End Notes 
1. Nabil-i-Zarandi. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabil's narrative of the early days of the Bahá'í revelation. Translated and edited by Shoghi Effendi. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932) 258.
2. H.M. Balyuzi, Unpublished review of Another Song, Another Season, included in biographical notes which were sent out to reviewers.
3. Roger White, "New Song," Another Song, Another Season (Oxford: George Ronald, 1979) 117.
4. Roger White, Notes Postmarked The Mountain of God (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 29.
5. Roger White, "Remembering William Sears,"The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 62.
6. Geoffrey Nash, Unpublished review of Another Song, Another Season, included in biographical notes which were sent out to reviewers.
7. Ron Price, "Foreward", Occasions of Grace (Oxford: George Ronald, 1992) xiii.
8. Roger White, "Bring Chocolate," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 79-80.
9. Eileen Collins, Unpublished biographical notes on her brother, Roger White.
10. New Delhi: Time Books International, 1992.
11. Eileen Collins, Unpublished biographical notes on her brother, Roger White.
12. Roger White, "The Language of There," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 78.
13. Roger White, "Learning New Ways," The Language of There (Richmond: New Leaf, 1992) 77.
14. I am grateful to Roger White's sister Eileen Collins, Ann Boyles, Sherna Deamer, Carol Allen, and David Hofman for their assistance in providing information for this essay.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tell your story. (You are the only one who can.)

Maori Chief telling the story of his people at Mitai Maori Village

Telling Stories

Can you feel the mindfulness of the dead—
the heavy silence of their intent,
the solemn thoughtfulness of their waiting?

They want the stories of our lives.

They want to know if their lives
led to something with purpose,
with love. 

Your turn to listen will come,
but today, lift your gaze to the night sky,
to a tree, to a friend.

“Let me tell you my story.” 

The universe and all history—
the quiet ones hiding in the curves of a double helix—
find their rightful places between your heartbeats.

They hear every word.
                                     Rhonda Palmer

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pteranadon dreams

It’s a damned big, scary world out there.  We’ve figured out a myriad ways to stay isolated even as our numbers increase and our means of communications improve.  I’m just wondering what kind of event it might take to bring us back into community and I’m not really sure I want that kind of event to really happen.  My theory, based on pseudo-scientific, poetic silliness (thanks to Ted Stevens) is that the current rash of apocalyptic movies out is a reflection of our longing for the ultimate party invitation.  You know, the one that reads, “You’ve got five minutes left to live—be a hero now or forever lose your chance.” 

Pteranadon dreams

If the plane begins swinging wildly,
or if I look out to see a wing unbuckling itself
from the fusilage,
small brackets flying in all directions—
or if a pteranadon lands on top of the plane—
leathery wings folding over my window,
wild teeth chewing through a crunchy outside
to find the soft morsels within—
would the stranger sitting next to me,
reading the Skymall magazine with such attentiveness,
would this large and stolid man accept my hand
so that we would not die
alone and friendless in an empty sky?
                                    Rhonda Palmer

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An open letter to Bahá’í artists. (which anyone can read, of course. And answer…)

Baha'i songwriter Mama Anita of Ntobo, Equatorial Guinea

As some of you are aware, many years ago I began a study of the Nineteen Day Feast*.  My goal was to understand its purpose and to see if I could lend a hand in the strengthening of this Divine Institution.  My feeble understanding of the “foundation of the new World Order” as Shoghi Effendi called the Feast, led to some feeble projects and, naturally, some feeble results.  This is not something I am any longer surprised by, as the efforts of any one person, however well intentioned or well informed, do not channel the same power as consultative efforts.   

My study of the Feast did prepare me for many of the aspects of what we now see as the Institute Process, and thinking about these aspects brings me to you, the artists who have been working over a lifetime to hone talents and skills as a gift fit to lay on the Sacred Threshold.  

“Even though the observance of the Feast requires strict adherence to the threefold aspects in the sequence in which they have been defined, there is much room for variety in the total experience.  For example, music may be introduced at various stages, including the devotional portion; ‘Abdu’l-Baha recommends that eloquent, uplifting talks be given; originality and variety in expressions of hospitality are possible; the quality and range of the consultation are critical to the spirit of the occasion.  The effects of different cultures in all these respects are welcome factors which can lend the Feast a salutary diversity, representative of the unique characteristics of the various societies in which it is held, and there fore conducive to the upliftment and enjoyment of its participants.”  Para 4, 27 August 1989 letter of the Universal House of Justice on the Nineteen Day Feast

We artists are good at individual initiative.  Indeed, it’s the one thing we have completely mastered.  We see a project, fit it to our skill set, figure resources, call in helpers according to the scope of the project and bang and hammer our way to a wonderful end we hope will justify a sometimes nervous and dicey means.   We wonder that others, who may have good ideas in consultation, do not seem able to carry them out.  We wonder that others do not articulate their needs or ideas very clearly.  We wonder that Assemblies or committees do not call on us for advice on any of the many things we have thought about or done.  We often feel like lovely objet d’arts, brought out on special occasions for the occasional delight of the community and then neatly tucked back into our special compartment.  We ARE sensitive to the slight digs and the seeming cold shoulder.  We DO accurately feel the undercurrents of angst around us.  And it really is easier just working alone, usually. 

“In a letter to his brothers written in December 1817, poet John Keats described a state of being which he called “negative capability.”  It is, he wrote, a state when “man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  from Ways of the Heart by R. Romanyshyn p 135 

Artists live in comfortable uncertainty when it comes to our art, but for some reason we crave certainty when it comes to working in community.  

“Wert thou to ponder in thine heart, from now until the end that hath no end, and with all the concentrated intelligence and understanding which the greatest minds have attained in the past or will attain in the future, this divinely ordained and subtle Reality, this sign of the revelation of the All-Abiding, All-Glorious God, thou wilt fail to comprehend its mystery or to appraise its virtue. Having recognized thy powerlessness to attain to an adequate understanding of that Reality which abideth within thee, thou wilt readily admit the futility of such efforts as may be attempted by thee, or by any of the created things, to fathom the mystery of the Living God, the Day Star of unfading glory, the Ancient of everlasting days. This confession of helplessness which mature contemplation must eventually impel every mind to make is in itself the acme of human understanding, and marketh the culmination of man’s development.”  (emphasis mine) Gleanings of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh

Perhaps it is time to do an end run around our past experiences and really do what we do best:  that is, to re-imagine the world. 

We don’t have to come up with a new world whole cloth.  Our Lord has given us full-page descriptions of newness, has bathed us daily in a new light, has shown us a new window opening onto a new horizon.  We have been working heroically at looking at this new vision with our old eyes.  We have tried to describe what we see (even though we sometimes can’t help but to see slant) to ourselves and then to the world.  It works, sometimes, doesn’t it? 

Our hardest effort will not be in the writing, or the painting or the dancing or the act of creation.  Our new hardest effort will be this:  to work in community with everyone, even those who don’t know how much they love us.

How will this happen, this working in community?  How do we, the sensitive, the creative, the lightly-tethered, the holders of the keys—how do we work in community with the engineers, the actuarials, the slow-to-change, the ones who bring us clean water and keep airplanes from falling out of a blue, blue sky? 

I’ve had thoughts on the answer, they all involve lots of prayer, and overlooking faults and admitting our own.  Nothing new.  I’d like to open this up to some discussion, but would request that your comments not just be a laundry list of problems.  What solutions have you tried that have worked to really integrate the arts into your community life?  I await with eagerness the result of your own thoughts. 

*  Baha’is come together every 19 days to worship, consult and “bind the hearts together” through fellowship and fun.  It is primarily a feast for the spirit, and because we are such a young religion, and because we don’t have clergy, we are learning together as a global community what is being asked of us so sweetly.    My note today on the use of the arts in community is one part of a larger, ongoing dialogue about walking a path of service. 
The Feast may well be seen in its unique combination of modes as the culmination of a great historic process in which primary elements of community life—acts of worship, of festivity and other forms of togetherness—over vast stretches of time have achieved a glorious convergence.  The Nineteen Day Feast represents the stage in this enlightened age to which the basic expression of community life has evolved.”  From the Universal House of Justice letter dated 27 August 1989

For information on the Baha'i Faith

Sunday, February 13, 2011

"Don't bully your poem along too much. They hate that." an interview with Linda Connell

I have loved a certain family from Bloomington, Indiana since meeting them during my first year of college.  They are a mythic family.  Seven sons each with a gorgeous sense of groundedness, though they would laugh if I said that seriously.  I met poet Linda Connell when she married oldest brother Bill, and I have admired her own groundedness and honesty.  They currently live in New Zealand, far, far away, and she has kindly agreed to be a guest this week on “of all possible worlds.” 

Q: Linda, give me a little background about you: your education, your work, maybe a favorite book/movie/musical group or three.

A:  Catholic schools and a dismal failure of a year at university. I forgot that the purpose was to go to classes and not really to sit around smoking and drinking and talking. Never sat any exams! I've worked at several different things: office work in government departments, hospital xray dept, secretary for a pediatrician, occupational therapy assistant (basically, providing activities and nursing help) for advanced Alzheimers patients.

Favourites? Hm. Anything by Robertson Davies, AS Byatt and John le Carre, 'Lolita', 'The Favourite Game' by Leonard Cohen, 'Sula' by Toni Morrison.
Movies: American Beauty, Once, Magnolia, 'The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls' (NZ documentary about our fabulous national icons, hugely beloved!)
Musical groups: Leonard Cohen (naturellement!), Bonnie Prince Billy, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Grandaddy, Tom Waits.

Q: In your most recent book of poetry, “Guarding the Cellar Door,” you use very personal moments as poetry. Where did you find the courage to use your life as a poem? Do you ever find yourself thinking of poetry in the middle of an experience?

A:  This can be tricky. There are many things I'd like to write but won't because I worry about how my words will affect others. I don't have the 'courage' or whatever it is of, say, Sharon Olds, whom I admire hugely. Also, I don't really feel the need to share all personal experiences. For the most part, I detach myself while writing. I guess that's how it doesn't feel hard. Though when a couple of extremely emotional lines have come to me, I've felt quite shattered - namely (from Poem to Kate from Florida in my first book) "thinking about the frost-tender girl I left in mid-winter". That destroyed me at the time, left me wailing on the bed - what kind of mother leaves a frost-tender child in MID-WINTER?!!! But, and here's the crunch, I loved the line, and wouldn't have dreamed of not using it. It was precisely what I was feeling, and precisely how I saw Kate then. I've read that inside every writer lies a sliver of ice (can't remember where), and I suspect that's true. I've tried for many years to write about my lost baby and have finally found ways of doing it that aren't maudlin or sentimental. I like to think the poems are more poignant for the reticence. But it's important to remember that poems are often just works of fiction. Not all the poems are factual!
And yes, of course I do find myself thinking of poetry at very inopportune times! Often, I'll simply think Gosh, that'd be a good name for a poem (or book) when someone says something. But other times, I feel like jotting things down.

Q: When did you start thinking of yourself as a poet? What was the <<aha!>> moment for you?

A:  I don't really think of myself as 'a poet'. I'd never describe myself as such. I think of myself as someone who writes poetry. I can't explain the difference - maybe it's just semantics - but I don't feel I've earned that title. But I've scribbled verse since I was nine or ten. My parents both wrote when young, and we had a lot of poetry on the shelves so it was normal (though my brothers don't have the slightest interest in it). I started seriously as an adult when I was a single parent of two pre-schoolers, desperately needing to feel alive. My father babysat while I went to night classes where I was told I was ready to share poems, not learn the mechanics - that was a defining moment!

Q: Who are some of your poetical influences?

A:  Beginning from very young years....Mathew Arnold, Yeats, TS Eliot (huge; Prufrock enthralled me and I knew it by heart; it's rhythms were exactly akin to what I was writing, and I adored the wit and excruciating situation!), Leonard Cohen (for simplicity), NZ poets Bill Manhire and Vincent O'Sullivan, Anne Sexton, Billy Collins, Robert Bly (huge, again), Stanley Kunitz's poem 'The Layers', Carol Ann Duffy, Stephen Dunn, and innumerable poets in the Best American Poems series- I have every issue since 1997.

Q: When, where and how do you usually read? (i.e. at bedtime under the covers, cover to cover, etc.)

A:  I dip into favourite books at any given moment when I want to 'feel' the words again. Usually in a comfy armchair, though I always have a couple of goodies by the bed. I often read a few before settling for sleep.

Q: When, where, how do you write, and why?(i.e. at dusk on a dock, longhand in a notebook, because...)

A:  By hand on A4 paper, always. I like to see the shape of whatever the poem is going to be, and a notebook is too small for me. I jot down lines/ideas/thoughts/sounds even fairly randomly over the page - more or less where I imagine they'll end up, leaving big white space in between. The first draft is actually the tenth or whatever, because I use that same page for innumerable changes - I like to see what was before. Tiny writing with many asterixes and arrows and crossings-out. No-one else could follow it! I don't type it up till I'm fairly certain I have a poem. I still have many vaguely written thoughts and images waiting for some sort of shape someday...

Q: How long do you wait before revising a poem?

A:  No specific time. No system. But I labour over them for a very long time, months or years.

Q: When do you know a poem is “done”?

A:  Before I decide that, I do put it away and try to read it with fresh eyes some time later. When I feel I've said just what I wanted, and can't think of a way to do it better, I accept that it's 'done'. But are they ever really done? Hmm.

Q: Finally, what piece of advice would you most like to share other writers? (This can be on writing, the writing life, or anything else...)

A:  Trust in your own process and instinct up to a point, but read read read others, and be prepared to take a different tack if necessary. Don't copy, but allow the rhythms and gorgeous lines of other beautiful poems to seep into you, just sink into them too, and then look at your own words afresh. Try to figure out what it is that moves and inspires you about your favourite writers, and realise that it takes an enormous amount of effort and craft to produce an effortless-looking poem! Don't bully your poem along too much. They hate that.

The extra doors
            By Linda Connell

There were the usual,
of course, front and back,
but my grandparents’ house
had two more—whimsical escapes,
rectangular surprises tucked away
in the corners of rooms
lit by the psychedelic gleam
in a glazier’s eye.

I’m all for
the swoop and flourish of things:
stilts and unicycles and the Frenchman
on his windy high-wire,
handwriting that leaps
and tumbles across the page—
acrobats performing
in the circus of language
while contortionists squeeze into
the cramped little boxes
of themselves.

There’s much to be said for
an absurdity of doors.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Hardware Store


I glimpsed redemption
while sitting on the wooden floor
of my local hardware store.
Here were rows of useful things
and helpful people to point the way—
hard problems solved with patient wisdom.
Plumbing explained.  Plaster illumined.

You can wander the rows of bins,
looking at bits of things that don’t make sense
and you needn’t feel worse for that. 
Someone knows what they’re for.

Possibility and hope hover over each spool of rope,
each box of nails.
Hearts lifts with the thought of your life made new—
your failed and broken life fixed up,
and painted over

so that no one need know you were ever broken.
                                    Rhonda Palmer

(It's so weird to put a slightly serious poem with this wonderfully odd video, but I like it and hope you do too.)

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ted Kooser and a few friends talk about writing

I asked for your response to the question Ted Kooser answered in Columbus, Ohio several years ago. "Why SHOULD we write when it has all been said so much better before?" Here are a few responses, although for the sake of transparency I’ll note that Stephen Crane has been dead for a while.
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become." -C.S. Lewis (contributed by Jeanette Livesay of Norway)
“Why I write - I write because it makes me a better person in the world. I love words. I love writing. I love reading. 

I love how it feels when I read others' words that touch me deeply - I feel connected not only to that person but to the many others who are also touched. I love writing. Writing makes me whole; somehow through writing I become myself.

 Words - reading them, writing them makes me me. My daydream self has arms trying to hold as many words as possible, stuffing them into pockets, filling up odd containers, burying them in the garden. Words, words, wonderful words. Words in my voice, in your voice, in the voices of the ages may overlap but each voice is still unique.

"Why should we write?" I don't think it's a matter of 'should'. Some people certainly feel an overwhelming need to express their inner thoughts/feelings in lines they may either keep to themselves or decide to send out into the world. Most of us write (I imagine) because we long to find a way to connect to the world, and to other people, and because we need to discover what it is that keeps rising within us, simmering below the surface...the yearning that finds us standing at windows staring out at the world and wondering how to find our way into it, feeling intensely alone yet not necessarily lonely, and longing to somehow capture this odd mix of stillness and agitation that can be completely immobilising . I think most of us write to find ourselves. This sounds overly self-regarding but I don't mean it that way: I simply mean that some of us can't find ourselves 'out there', we are terrified of 'out there' (at least, I am) and we long to connect to something that feels like home. Good poetry feels like home to me in a way that is impossible to express. Good poets and novelists feel like my true friends in that they seem to understand both me and the world we all inhabit, and they give me joy. I guess I also write to feel joy. And when others tell me that my poems express something they also feel, that's when I feel I've done my little bit and made the world of sorrows a little bit better. Not less sorrowful, but less cold.” (contributed by Linda Connell of New Zealand) (You’ll be seeing an interview with Linda in a few days.)
Why I write - I write because it makes me a better person in the world. I love words. I love writing. I love reading. 

I love how it feels when I read others' words that touch me deeply - I feel connected not only to that person but to the many others who are also touched. I love writing. Writing makes me whole; somehow through writing I become myself.

Words - reading them, writing them makes me me. My daydream self has arms trying to hold as many words as possible, stuffing them into pockets, filling up odd containers, burying them in the garden. Words, words, wonderful words. Words in my voice, in your voice, in the voices of the ages may overlap but each voice is still unique.  (from poet Ginger Swope of Ohio)
There was a man with tongue of wood
Who essayed to sing,
And in truth it was lamentable.
But there was one who heard
The clip-clapper of this tongue of wood
And knew what the man
Wished to sing,
And with that the singer was content.
Stephen Crane
“If I praise the ambition that drove Keats, I do not mean to suggest that it will ever be rewarded. We never know the value of our own work, and everything reasonable leads us to doubt it: for we can be certain that few contemporaries will be read in a hundred years. To desire to write poems that endure—we undertake such a goal certain of two things: that in all likelihood we will fail, and that if we succeed we will never know it.Donald Hall

I’d seen this quote a long time ago. It’s funny at first, then sort of sad, and then just true. But still we write, eh? We’ve been telling stories about ourselves and the world since sitting around those campfires, munching on crispy bits of flame-broiled mastodon and watching the stars. We still do it in everyday gossip, on facebook, reality shows, movies and late at night behind our eyelids. But the writing of it seems to have become encoded in one or more of our gene sequences and we can’t stop. And why should we? Here, finally, is what Ted Kooser had to say:

"Considering the ways in which so many of us waste our time, what would be wrong with a world in which everybody were writing poems? After all, there’s a significant service to humanity in spending time doing no harm. While you’re writing your poem, there’s one less scoundrel in the world. And I’d like a world, wouldn’t you, in which people actually took time to think about what they were saying? It would be, I’m certain, a more peaceful, more reasonable place. I don’t think there could ever be too many poets. By writing poetry, even those poems that fail and fail miserably, we honor and affirm life. We say ‘We loved the earth but could not stay."

Ted Kooser (The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets) (get the book. It’s short, sweet AND helpful.)

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Storialist

I met Hannah Stephenson several years ago in Columbus, Ohio.  We connected over our poetry and stayed connected as she moved into that wider world of art and a global understanding of the artistic process.  If you click on the title of this blog, you'll go to Hanna's blog.  Scroll down, click on her links, enjoy the artwork she uses as a springboard, listen to her sing (!) and watch the amazing video with the venetian blinds.  I was just stunned with admiration.  

Here is a short interview with Hannah.  I know you'll enjoy meeting her and reading her work....

Q: Hannah, give us a little background about you: your education, your work, maybe a favorite book.

A:  As proclaimed by my business card, I’m a poet, writer, and instructor. I teach English at two universities, and freelance edit. But actually, I identify as an artist--I thrive when making things and being creative.

I live in Columbus, Ohio with my husband and our cats. We’ve recently moved back (I’m a native Columbusite) after living on the West Coast for the last for four years (first in the gorgeous Vancouver, BC, and then in LA). I got my Master’s here at OSU in English, specializing in 20th Century poetry (shout out to the terrific poet Jeredith Merrin--I was lucky enough to have her as my advisor. Hi Jeredith, and thank you!).

Q: In your blog The Storialist, you often write poems with an image as a springboard. Does this type of poetry have a name? How did you find yourself drawn to this as a form?

A:  Many of us are familiar with ekphrastic poems, which are pieces based on works of art. I am so inspired by art and museums (actually, the poetry manuscript that I’ve been sending out is called Guided Tours). I was originally only writing about images by The Sartorialist (Scott Schuman, a very talented and innovative photographer--in his daily blog, he posts pictures of style that he finds inspiring). Currently, I link to all kinds of art--I’m always looking at artist’s sites and exhibits anyway, so it feels natural for me to do something (write poems) more structured with my looking. Regardless of genre, I think artists share so much--in many of my poems, I feel that I’m engaging in conversation with the artist who created the image I’ve selected.

Q: When did you start thinking of yourself as a poet? What was the <<aha!>> moment for you?

A:  Since I was little, I loved the idea of writing in notebooks, and I was a voracious reader. But at maybe 13 and 14, I was writing a lot, and exploring my own taste in music (I started listening to Ani Difranco, which is a very enlightening experience for a 14-year-old--my Dad bought me one of her albums for my 14th birthday--thanks, Dad!). As a senior in high school, I took an independent study with a fantastic English teacher (Joe Hecker) in poetry--we read a contemporary poetry anthology--we started with John Berryman, I think, and it blew my mind. I am so thankful to Mr. Hecker for taking my interest in poetry so seriously--I also worked on the first literary magazine at the high school with Mr. Hecker, serving as Editor. I think that this experience also helped me learn that it was a positive thing to share writing with other people--with friends, with family, and with instructors.

Q: Who are some of your poetical influences?

A:  My favorite poem is Robert Creeley’s “The Language,” but some other poets I love are Wallace Stevens, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Bob Hicok, Elizabeth Bishop, and Randall Jarrell. More recently, I’ve loved collections from Zachary Schomburg , Catherine Graham , Adam Sol , and Amy Gerstler.

But in terms of writers, I am so inspired by Rebecca Solnit and Anik See--by their curiosity about everything around them. I also love the crazy worlds of George Saunders and Aimee Bender.

I borrow inspiration from language all over: commercials, signs, typos, songs, conversation.

Q: Talk to us about the process of your blog. I know you often link to other blogs with either images or poems—talk to us older folk about the processes you go through to connect with so much beauty/information. How does the internet inform your worldview?

A:  Boy, the internet. For me, my blog makes explicit what happens in my brain when I look at a piece of art. I read a lot of online publications that mention art, and following art/design blogs that feature new sites and designers frequently (some of these sites include Design for Mankind, Art Hound Booooooom! , My Love for You Is a Stampede of Horses , and The Jealous Curator).

Mostly, though, I “find” artists by looking through the links that artists share on their sites. I have a lot of patience with sifting through links! I also sometimes begin a search by visiting the website of a gallery I love, and looking at what artists they feature or represent.

Very often I have emailed back and forth with artists that I write about--it is so wonderful to connect with them, and hear a bit about their process and perspective.

Regarding writing blogs--it has been so helpful to me (as a writer and reader and human) to “meet” other writers through their blogs. I wanted to share some favorite blogs that I would recommend if you are interested in reading the work of some brilliant, positive, and supportive writers.

Projects by Nic Sebastian: Voice Alpha and Whale Sound

Tracey Cleantis: La Belette Rouge

Terresa Wellborn: The Chocolate Chip Waffle

Dave Bonta: Via Negativa

Therese Broderick