Trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love with poetry is like trying to pinpoint the moment I fell in love. The world around me didn’t blur, Louis Armstrong didn’t sing, the wind didn’t blow just for us. It was more gradual than that. Poetry opened doors for me, and poetry fed my hunger. It persisted through small shifts in the armature of my bones. My own heart became a beating semi-colon, pausing for just one pulse before the emphasis.
And now, I teach art, creative writing, and composition in a community college where students claim they don’t “get” poetry. Then they turn up the volume on their headphones and bob their heads to music and mouth the words. Poetry is inherent and intuitive for all of us. The rules can be evasive. Formlessness itself becomes a form. I often find myself trying to pinpoint what I love so much about poetry. There is something about the silences between words, the inhale interrupting the tempo of the slam poet, the anticipation as we turn the page. Sometimes, by saying something that means nothing at all, we are much closer to saying something.
My debut book of poetry, “In Lieu of Flowers,” was dubbed a collage in book form for the way it transmuted narrative and abstraction through text, painting, and fabric collage. Painting has always been an essential part of my process, and at times the writing takes a back seat to colors and forms. Sometimes, I spend whole summers exploring my poems and stories as large scales murals sprawling across walls in the city. Other times, I am reminded that my writing is the beating heart of my painting.
My first book contemplated our relationship to flowers. Keats said that lilies represent the return of the soul to innocence at death. I’m fascinated by the roles flowers play in our rituals– that we designate some flowers for funerals, and others for weddings. And I think it’s very interesting that there’s some overlap. Some flowers have their roots in two worlds, and I relate to that as someone who is a little confused. Most of my work is about memorial, and I suppose I’m planting words like flowers to make peace with my memories.
My current project also catalogues memories. I have turned to nonfiction as I research the story of my Orthodox Jewish grandparents who worked in secrecy on the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during WW II. This project functions primarily as memorial, but doubles as a personal connection to a complex historical context, that finds itself critically relevant today in an increasingly xenophobic society. The atomic bomb casts an ominous shadow over the narrative. It haunts the characters, and the words themselves, casting even my own grandparent’s love story into the horrific nightmare of war. Ultimately, it offers my grandparents a sort of double life as I find myself reacquainted with them once again, this time through an adult consciousness, only to lose them all over again as the pages turn.By shifting between the perspectives of my toiling grandparents, and alternating paintings with sentences, this book asks the question: what did the world look like before the sphere of online voices became a force of social justice? What did the typewriter ding sound like echoing off the Jemez mountains, towering over the cloudy skies of pre-modernity America? If we listen closely to the words on the page, can we hear the past? What is the point of all this poetry? What is waiting for us in the empty space on the next page? If I plant my words deep enough, will they bloom?
This blog exists as a space for reflection, reviews, and all laments poetical. One thing I have learned from living in Chicago is that literary citizenship is an essential part of writing, just as lifelong learning is an essential part of teaching. If I want others to review my writing, I have to review the work of others! If I want students to be open minded to my comments, I have to be openminded to theirs as well. I urge you to disagree with me! I welcome you to read over my shoulder as I reflect on classroom practices, review books from indie presses, receive critiques from author salons, celebrate the whir of traffic, the screaming car alarms, the words hanging off ledges and high rises, and the metronome of walking, walking, walking that IS Chicago.
Tonight, I did a memory exercise in class. I put a still life in the hallway and asked the students to draw it. The only catch was they had to walk to the still life, walk back to the paper, and draw what they remembered. The other catch was that this was an english class, not an art class. What resulted was a conversation about perception and personal hierarchy. Who drew the shoe? Who drew the flowers? What was the book title? Why did you focus on the butterflies? We then read a story by Aimee Bender, entitled, “The Rememberer.” The story catalogues the reverse evolution of a character who leaves a loved one behind as he morphs from ape to sea turtle, to tadpole, to nothingness. The class debated the metaphor. Some said cancer. Some said drugs. Many said death. But they all read their own ending. In other words, the magic of abstraction is that we each live our own narratives. “What is the answer?” demanded one student.
“We know you know the answer!” exclaimed another.
“I’m sorry guys,” I found myself laughing. “There are no answers in english class.” And as I said it, I paused, and realized it was true.