The Balance of Trust

I’ve been in workshops off and on all semester for my final writing class before my graduation in December (eek…how fast it approaches, how that December 13th date both excites and terrifies).

The project that I have been workshopping is a sequence of poems documenting this past summer of my life. While most of these poems are fairly simple in content, dealing with family and home and love, a few are a bit more complex.
I spent a couple of weeks in Israel in May, so a few poems deal with some issues and experiences I encountered in Israel. I’m no expert on Jewish or Israeli culture by any means, but a two-week excursion, a semester-long preparatory class, and four years living in a markedly Jewish area of northern Ohio had given me a frame of reference.

The first poem I wrote about Israel is titled “To the Western Wall,” and in it I make brief reference to the ancient Jewish priests who once filled the temple. Here are those lines:

This war-torn
Foundation, revered stone
once supporting a heavy
Presence—a room ringing
bell and pomegranate.

I approached writing this knowing that priests in ancient Jewish custom wore robes that had embroidered bells and pomegranates on the hem, which had symbolic significance that I wanted in my poems.

But my classmates again and again commented, “what’s up with the bell and pomegranate?”

Okay–I do not expect my workshop group to have a knowledge of obscure Jewish custom. However, it got me thinking: how much do we trust our reader to research and look for allusion so we don’t have to compromise the integrity of the piece or treat a poem like it’s a lesson to the reader?

I’m not sure I have the answer to this one. What do you think? Is allusion okay? Or is it often too obscure to be appreciated?

I think I lean towards trusting the reader to do their homework, to research, so poems can be rich with depth.
It’s also important to be as clear as you can, though. A one-word allusion is probably going to go over even the most competent and researching readers.

And perhaps it’s as simple as including notes or an epilogue in the back of a collection. I think I support almost anything that allows language to reign in a poem, for the turns of phrases to be beautiful allusion if you want them to be.

What do you think, writers and readers of the blogosphere? Where’s the line of trust with readers?

Keep up the good work, friends.

Abigail Joy

The Poetry’s in the Perspective

Last night, I read The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart by Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
And it was lovely.

I haven’t written much about my own writing on this blog, but the project that I have been working on all semester has been a series of sequence poems that all chronologically represent the past summer in my life.

I’ve struggled with the way to make 20 poems describing vastly different events flow together in the way the need to, but reading this short chapbook was definitely the help I needed.

This book is a series of poems from different historical persons’ perspectives about…you guessed it… the last time they all saw Amelia Earhart.
Her language is concise, conversational, in a way that is difficult to do in poetry without being way too simple.
She creates emotional depth that rocked me to the core with the simplest of images.

A portion of my favorite poem of the collection is:
VII: Joel Sullivan, miner

“Amelia Earhart is a dream

 

my daughter won’t give up.

Sometimes I want to shake her,

tell her what small towns are,

 

how the coal dust coats your skin

till darkness never leaves you

and the sky doesn’t matter much

 

when you’re wheezing underground.

She won’t believe that woman’s dead.

She says, I think it’s romantic

 

to disappear. I bite my tongue

to keep from telling her

she’ll get her chance in time.”

 

Her language is simple, uncomplicated. I can picture a dirty, tired miner saying these words, but at the same time, the beauty of her poetry is the imagery, the connections she makes. She makes us feel the emotions of every character in every poem by getting into their experience and telling the story from their perspective. By doing this, she gives homage and honor to one of the most well-known American heroes.

 

So be encouraged, friends. Keep telling good stories, engaging emotionally, and keeping it simple. And if you need inspiration, read The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart.

Keep reading,

Abigail Joy

 

Magical Nature and Nicola Waldron’s Girl at the Watershed

It’s starting to feel like autumn in Tennessee, which is definitely a rare and welcome treat for this time of year.
I think changes in weather make me notice nature in a way I don’t usually…the colors of the trees, the colors of the sky in evening time. It just seems to point itself out to me in times like this.

That’s why Nicola Waldron’s Girl at the Watershed was a perfect read for me this week.
She’s simply fantastic at creating magical nature imagery that leaves you with this profound sense of wonder and thoughtfulness.

To go through every poem would take forever, simply because truly good poetry is always going to be deeper and fuller and more expressive than can easily be explained.
(A lesson for all of us, huh? If your poem is easily digestible, every image surface-level, all language and illusion understood at the first read-through, it’s time to add complexity.)

So here’s the last four stanzas of the final poem of the book, “Shine:”

“Leave off writing postcards,
seeking what you never dreamed:
it has come around
to winter and loving —
to prosperity — and you
cannotwillnot see the daisies.

You turn
in earnest, three times,
likes a dreaming dog.

Follow my tracks
along primrose —
they are deep and cloven,
and tipped with moon.

(Come
home) –”

I could offer some deep and drawn out phrases about these beautiful lines,
but I’ll just say this: they’re magical.

She juxtaposes language in interesting ways, changing words’ parts of speech so they attempt new and intriguing things–“follow my tracks / along primrose.” It’s ethereal, yet simple.

I think her use of punctuation also draws attention to the oddly magical way she’s using language.
She ends the entire book with two dashes, almost as if to say, “it’s not done. These poems continue on. They are more than me.”

She makes nature-imagery have this almost Native American sanctity, this expression that must originate from a close connection with the earth… “deep and cloven, / and tipped with moon.”

My current project is centered on a single summer of my life, so nature imagery is definitely something I am going to personally be working on incorporating in a more consistent and intentional way.

So here’s what I’m taking away for my own writing on this late Sunday evening–

1. Play with language and punctuation. Do interesting things. Experiment.

2. Write about what you are connected to. Nature, faith, relationships… write what you feel connected with because it definitely shows in your writing.

3. End your poems/collections with a hint of surprise, a little cliffhanger to keep your readers thinking.

4. Keep reading work by those who’ve been doing this longer and more intentionally than you.

Friends…write, be inspired, and go outside. 🙂

Abigail Joy

The Magic’s in the Metaphors: Learning from Lisa M. Cole’s Negotiating with Objects

“Well, there it is again: that damn penny moon;
that dirty crystal ball; a pearl; a child’s flimsy kite
staggering drunk behind me.”

Herein lies none of those overly romantic images of the moon that seem to be ridiculously pervasive in modern poetry.
No Nicholas Sparks references to the moon’s ability to look over all of us as we fall in love over and over.
No rhyming “moon” and “June,” no tacky or tired comparisons.
No, here we sense a sort of tired disgust with the moon’s presence,
a complicated emotion that drew me in when I read it.
And it’s accomplished solely with surprising turns of metaphor.

This is the genius of Lisa M. Cole, author of Negotiating with Objects and five other chapbooks, as well as two full collections of poetry.

As I read this chapbook this weekend, I found myself continually intrigued by the way she utilizes language. This chapbook is formatted as a collective whole by how the poem’s are titled–each one taking the form: “After _______.” (The poem that I quoted is from her poem “After Asking.”)

I get this sense after reading her chapbook that she is using language to deeply explore issues and instances that can be very complicated and surreal, but she is seeking to understand and express those things with metaphor that can give the reader a sense of concrete imagery to hold onto.

One such issue she explores is this: amputation. She explores the implications of medical and biological loss in her poems “After Amputation” and “After Seeing.”

The line that I thought was most powerful in these poems was in “After Seeing,” where the speaker expresses
“Again, I am half-phantom-ing–
my stuttering foot in a paperweight shoe.”
The personification of the foot, the metaphor of the shoe as a paperweight holding down a phantom limb…these intriguing metaphors express a difficult-to-explain sensation while giving the reader a concrete thought to hold onto about it.

I see this seeking, this exploration especially in her form. She writes short stanzas, and most of her poems utilize Roman numerals to separate them into sections. I think this gives her the opportunity to explore each poem’s theme in greater depth and shows that wants to explore for many different angles.

I think metaphor is the most important feature of her writing that I would like to glean for my own writing.
I would love to be able to craft turns of phrase even partially as well-written as hers.

However, that’s just me, and there’s far more to know and glean.

Give her chapbook a read if you’d like at http://www.sundresspublications.com/negotiatingwithobjects.pdf

and keep reading, friends. There’s much to learn.

Abigail Joy

Canned Peaches and Pennsylvania Dutch

This week, I read Julia Kasdorf‘s 1992 chapbook, Sleeping Preacher. Yes, this book is one year older than me, but good poetry is good poetry, right? (Right! sounds the resounding online literary community.)

I read this chapbook at the recommendation of one of my professors, and I’ll admit, I didn’t dive into this reading with the poetic thoughtfulness that one should approach creative work.

But it caught my attention.

I would say the first thing the collection does very well is put you directly into the narrow and unique frame of experience of the poems’ speaker. In “Green Market, New York,” the collection’s first poem, you learn through an interaction between the speaker and an Amish pie maker that the speaker is living in New York City and is originally from a small community in Pennsylvania.

And so the scene is set. It seems simple, until Kasdorf begins to lay out the dirty laundry of her family in their small Mennonite community and grappling with how she deals with the alienation of living in a very modern and diverse city after growing up in the pastoral and very narrow Mennonite community.

This one poem sets the scene for the rest of the book’s theme, from the way the speaker approaches discussing her relationship with her husband to how she makes bean soup. Everything in her existence is permeated by her experience growing up Mennonite. What does it mean to reflect and integrate one’s past into their present? That’s what Kasdorf dives into in Sleeping Preacher.

So, what does this chapbook mean to my (and all of our) writing?

We read so we can have an eye for quality, for what makes writing good…

Here’s what Kasdorf does that makes this chapbook good. Like read most of it in one sitting without losing attention good:

1. She writes story, detailed but unpretentious.

After reading poems like “Grossdaadi’s Sale” and “Dying with Amish Uncles,” I feel like I understand her family and I can place members of my own into her story.

She details memories from her childhood without making them overly emotional or cluttered.

She’s an incredible storyteller.

She doesn’t mention how her mother “lovingly combs her hair, gently showing her/how to be beautiful from the inside out/a light to all.” (That was the most pretentious/overtly emotional fake poetry I could come up with on the spot, sorry.)

She tells the story and trusts that the story will speak for itself.

I know that I often need to remember that poets need to be good storytellers too.

2. Her poems work cohesively without having to be blatantly chronological.

Kasdorf has a good grip on where to place flashback pieces and where to place modern, reflective pieces. And they’re all mixed together, because life is complicated.

Memory mixes with current reality, and that’s what makes sense in human life.

3. She writes what she knows. What she uniquely knows.

Kasdorf was a Mennonite New Yorker. Not so many could say that. She knew her niche and wrote it well.

I’m not a Mennonite New Yorker. But I have unique experiences that not everyone has had. And I can learn from Kasdorf’s experiences and her reflection just as much as I can learn from my own life.

It’s okay to have a favorite flood subject. Poet Anya Silver, one of my favorite poets writing currently (read her chapbook The Ninety-Third Name of God– it’ll transform the way you approach faith and doubt in your writing) told my class this in a workshop we had with her last year.

Anya’s flood subject is cancer. Julia’s flood subject is Mennonite culture (at least in this chapbook), and I have my own. I fluctuate between brief interactions with strangers and the intricate heartbreaks and victories of romantic relationships.

It’s okay to write what you know. I know that I’ve had my share of bad relationships in my past, and I want to write about them. That’s okay. And your flood subject is okay too.

Write it from every angle. Fill a notebook with work about one single idea. Make it your own. It’s okay.

Your knowledge about what you care about could be exactly what someone doesn’t know they need yet. But they do.

Read Sleeping Preacher by Julia Kasdorf if you get a chance,

and write stories about what you care about.

Keep writing, keep reading.

Abigail Joy

“Yeah, I read! I read the Bible.”

My father, who’s currently getting his PhD in English, used to be a full-time minister in an evangelical denomination of Christianity. He was on the board that was given the task to interview new ministers to determine ordination.

One question he learned early on to ask at those interviews was “What are you reading?”

This is a pretty typical question thrown around at cocktail parties and coffee shops. It’s a getting to know you question. Are you the sort of person who reads fantasy? Young Adult Lit? Whatever Oprah put on her list in 2006 that you just got around to reading? God forbid, something pretentious like poetry chapbooks? (Because there is no “I’m kidding” font, I would like to say that I’m kidding here.)

However, when my dad would ask these potential young pastors what they were reading, they would often flounder and then say, “Well, I read the Bible.”

 

Now, as a Christian, I am fully supportive of reading the Bible. Like, I think it’s vitally important.

But Christians shouldn’t just read the Bible. Because not reading widely not only makes you miss out as an individual, it makes you miss out as a Christian.

I read a fantastic article that was actually published a few years ago, but I stumbled upon it today while doing some research for a class. It was titled “Thou Shalt Read” and it was written by Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University. (You can read the full article here at Relevant).

She basically lays out the different reasons why reading is important and vital for Christians. It seems like a simple idea, but I think it’s unfortunately a necessary thing for a lot of Christians to know.

The argument that I think was my favorite in her article was that reading non-Christian work helps us to “test” all things, and cling to good and resist evil. (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22)

She uses an example of the first time she read Madame Bovary, a book that was banned in its day for being too racy, and how it helped her faith and marriage. She said she saw her own romanticism in Emma Bovary, and she said the novel opened her eyes to the poor results that could come from having unrealistic expectations about love and passion.

A “secular” work made her rethink something very integral to her personal character.

It helped her cling to good.

Reading is important. Reading makes us better, if we let it.

As a beginning writer who’s currently focused on one major writing project, I need inspiration wherever I can find it.

However, this article reminded me that reading isn’t just beneficial for me professionally.

It’s essential for me spiritually too.

 

So in the coming weeks as I read and blog, I’m going to be clinging to the good technically and artistically, as well as spiritually.

Because I want what I read to mean something to my life holistically. I want everything to be drawing me closer to the person I want to be and the Saviour I profess.

 

Keep reading, friends. Cling to good.

Abigail Joy

 

Joshua Robbins–Seeking the Divine in Strip Malls

Do you remember that movie The Princess Diaries?

Okay, perhaps such a question isn’t a good first statement for a blog that I hope is pretty thoughtful reflections on the inspiring work I’m reading lately…

But as I read Joshua Robbin’s Praise Nothing this evening, I couldn’t help but think of Mia Thermopolis, the movie’s protagonist, and her quirky poet neighbor Mr. Robitussin.

In the movie, he’s a comically brooding poet who writes poetry about his garbage can and the goings-on in his San Francisco neighborhood.

While I believe Joshua Robbins to be a much better poet than that character seems to be in the film, I imagined as I read that Robbins perhaps has the same writing process.

 

I think one of my favorite aspects of Robbins’ chapbook so far (I’m about halfway finished) is his thematic focus on the mundane and run-down aspects of everyday living. He writes of suburbs and turnpikes, the sound of semi-truck jake brakes and the rumblings of washing machines in his local laundromat.

He writes eerily of the mundane and frankly depressing aspects of lower-middle class American life. Bowling alleys shut down, vacant strip malls with shady bars. And in all of it, he finds this spiritual depth and conflict.

The book is split into three main sections: “Against Forgiveness,” “Praise Nothing,” and “Collateral.”

“Against Forgiveness” seems to deal mostly with issues of the Church’s and God’s interaction with a dilapidated world of forgotten, failing America. He grapples with faith in very realistic and tangible way in poems like “Theodicy” where he writes “God raised both hands above His head

as if to say, “I’ve had enough,”

and renounced all of it,

 

took a job behind a desk

wearing khaki-colored scrubs,

filing papers to code and answering

 

the phones, His voice far away” (Robbins 7)

Even in this one section of poem, I think the way he approaches explaining his frustration or confusion about faith is very tangible and human. In his poetry, the divine and the base connect so seamlessly, yet also in juxtaposition with one another.

The passion of his poetry, the angst, is evident most in his constant referral to fire. He powerfully makes reference to burning a list of his father’s faults as his funeral in “Less than Ash,”  he describes guilt and passion in “Controlled Burn” by comparing an affair to a fire in a field in Kansas, and he describes a pile of hymnals on fire in “When I Say Hymn.” This motif both connects his poems and infuses this depth of passion into what he writes.

Juxtaposition is something Robbins’ poetry does wonderfully as well.

In “Washing in the Sangam,” his descriptions flow from a foreign and strange scene on the shores of the Ganges to a simple scene of his son eating breakfast in his high chair. The connection flows beautifully and unexpectedly with just a few common details to both scenes, and the end result is a very haunting view into the beautiful complexity of the simplest of everyday scenes.

 

I also deeply appreciate the simplicity of his structure–every poem is comprised of short lines, and most stanzas are two to three lines each. I think this keeps his poems fast-paced and passion-infused without losing a lot of the contemplative descriptions that he provides.

 

Basically, if you’re at all intrigued by work that attempts to grapple with the divine in unusual ways,

give Joshua Robbins’ Praise Nothing a try.

It’s a haunting, simple-yet-so-very-complex little read with much to offer in the way of writing inspiration.

His website is joshuajrobbins.com if you’re looking to learn more.

 

Keep reading and watering those creative minds, friends.

Abigail Joy