Honoring Laura Hershey — #CripLit Goddess

Image result for laura hershey
Image description: Book cover featuring photo of Laura Hershey, a white woman with O2 line and wheelchair, at her desk.

The publication of a new book by an author you love is a wonderful thing, perhaps especially when that author is no longer in this world  Last month, a posthumous collection of Laura Hershey’s poetry and prose was published by The Unsung Masters Series, a project of Pleiades Press, Gulf Coast Journal, and Copper Nickel Journal.

Hershey passed away after a sudden illness in November of 2010; this came as a shock to her many friends and followers, including me. I’d met Laura when she organized a WOM-PO event at the 2010 AWP conference in Denver. About 30 women attended the lunch, exchanging news about recent books and publications.

I’d become familiar with Laura’s work through the WOM-PO listserv, and deeply admired her incisive intellect and her writing on personal and political facets of living as a disabled woman, and I was anxious to speak with her about her work. At the time, I was working on a chapbook of poems about my experience with hepatitis C and stigma. After some conversation, we embarked on an exchange of poems via email for mutual feedback.

Laura and her long-time partner Robin Stephens had recently adopted a teenage girl, and many of her poems in our brief exchange centered on her new daughter. As an adoptee raised in a fucked-up home, I had a bad taste in my mouth about adoption in general. Laura’s poems were a palate cleanser for me. I had no idea that an adoptive parent could focus, as she and Robin did, on learning all they could about who their daughter was, understanding her daughter as an individual, and acting for the benefit of their child.

The Unsung Masters Series project is an important one, but Laura Hershey was hardly unsung in the many communities she touched with her poetry, prose, and activism. For a sampling of her international influence, check out her website, which continues to live on after her death.

She put her considerable energies to work for both the theory and practice of LGBTQ and disability rights. In addition to her prolific writing, she worked with ADAPT, Not Dead Yet, and other disability rights activist groups. Among other issues, she advocated for universal design — a world that is ready-made for all of us — because, as she asked, “what could be more universal than having a body?”

One of Laura’s poems, “You Get Proud by Practicing,” was set to music and also became a rallying cry for many people with disabilities. It’s included in this important book. Here’s an excerpt:

 

You Get Proud by Practicing
by Laura Hershey

If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.

You do not need
A better body, a purer spirit, or a Ph.D.
To be proud.
You do not need
A lot of money, a handsome boyfriend, or a nice car.
You do not need
To be able to walk, or see, or hear,
Or use big, complicated words,
Or do any of those things that you just can’t do
To be proud. A caseworker
Cannot make you proud,
Or a doctor.
You only need more practice.
You get proud by practicing.

Fresh Confessions

Perhaps especially because I’m a native-born #FloridaWoman, it’s a delight to have my review of Leah Claire Kaminski’s chapbook, Penninsular Scar, in this month’s Tupelo Quarterly Review

peninsula_1024x1024The title of the review, “Fresh Confessions,” refers to an observation about how the nature of confessional poetry has expanded in the twenty-first century, as exhibited in Penninsular Scar.

Like Sexton and Plath, Kaminski employs a set of private symbols that may accumulate meaning over time for the reader who follows her work. “Cypress,” for example, appears in many of the poems as a strong, durable building material that nevertheless falls to the same destruction as the rest of Florida. Unlike the confessional poets of the 20th century, however, Kaminski proceeds with a distinctively contemporary aesthetic. The confessions contained in the poems, even those contained in conversations with “my therapist,” avoid a coherent narrative by questioning a sense of self at the center of consciousness and employing syntactical disruption.

Read the full review here.

What are Crackers?

Thank you, Twitter! Last year, I saw a tweet asking “What are crackers?” and, as someone who can claim the title, I replied. Later, this poem came around, and it got published in B O D Y Literature on April 1. 2019, the first day of National Poetry Month: https://bodyliterature.com/2019/04/01/michele-sharpe/

B O D Y Cracker

Crackers, most simply, are people from Florida, or people whose ancestors have been in Florida for generations. That would be me. But language is rarely simple.

“Cracker” can be a slur hurled against working class white (or white-ish) people.

Some might say that “cracker” is the Florida version of “white trash” or “trailer trash.”

Some might say that a cracker is any white rural Southerner.

Some students of language say “cracker” comes from Middle English or Gaelic “craic,” meaning boaster, braggart, loud talker.

Some historians say the first Florida crackers were landless cowboy types in the 1700’s and 1800’s who herded cattle in the Florida backcountry using whips (the crack of the whip) and dogs.

The term has been used to denigrate loudmouth people since Shakespeare’s time. Yes, I learned this and other things about the etymology of cracker from Wikipedia.

Child Sacrifice

close up of girl covering face
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Possession of even a small piece of history can bring us power, whether it’s personal history or cultural history. Such possession can give us context for current situations, and a deeper understanding of motives and patterns of behavior.

I’ve been outraged to see so many people shocked at the government’s cruel treatment of children at America’s southern border. As if children have never been abused here. Please.

Children have always been the least powerful among us and they have always – in every country’s history – been subject to shameful cruelty and exploitation.

Writing poems and essays is one way I try to understand others and myself and to communicate my concerns. My poem, “Moloch upon Awakening,” recently published in the lovely Parentheses Journal, is an attempt to communicate the horror of both child sacrifice, and the very human complicity that makes it possible.

Click here for the full text of the poem.

I’m a Writer — Why Write Reviews?

Literary journals are often looking for book reviewers, especially for folks willing to review small press and university press publications. Writing book reviews means investing hours of your time in the serious work of analyzing and evaluating another writer’s book, and if you write them for nonprofit journals, you may be donating those hours, and earning a very modest stipend.

If you’re a reader, though, the good news is that by writing reviews, you get free books. These can be hard copy book, or e-books. Either way, they are yours to keep!

 

But if you’re a writer, you may wonder why you should spend spend time you could devote to your own stuff on reviewing other writers’ books. The answer is simple: it will make you a better writer.

Reviewing a book requires reading a book, and we all know that reading will improve our writing. Beyond the simple reading, though, is the re-reading and analysis that forces us to focus on either theme, craft or genre strategies. I always learn something important about craft while writing a book review, and it’s usally something I can put to use in my own writing.

For example, in this review of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poetry collection, Ornament, I considered how this poet works with form and repetition:

In addition to rhyme and meter, palilogy shapes some of these poems. As subtle as slant rhymes, repetition of individual words resonates like the often-invisible patterns in nature and in housekeeping. The poem “Trillium,” which is set outside of the home, is particularly rich in meter, palilogy, and internal rhymes.

. . . our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to a shimmering white,
flower sleeves that lit themselves and flared

over dark leaves. Like stars, whose light is both
a wailed call and calm response, they leapt
out from shadows as we leaned down to breathe

the barest scent of pepper from their centers
and walked among green leaf and flame-white petal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.

The review is one of several that appear in the December selections of Tupelo Quarterly,  a journal that publishes original poetry as well as reviews of poetry collections. If your chosen genre is fiction, try Necessary Fiction for reviews. And yes – reading reviews of books in your chosen genre will make you a better writer, too!

Poetry on Adolescence

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

Many people begin writing poetry during adolescence, a turbulent time of life when we’re wrestling with identity, independence, and desire. That’s a full plate for sure, and no wonder so many young people turn to poetry to try to sort out their feelings and make sense of their place in the world.

As an aside, if you are a young poet (either in age or in your writing career), I have a piece of adviceKeep everything you write. Don’t delete or discard anything. Some of it will probably embarrass you if you look back on it from a more mature perspective, but everything you write is potentially valuable. And, your prior work is also a potential goldmine for later writing projects.

Like many angsty teens, when I started writing, it was to understand my mixed-up thoughts about identity, independence, and desire. What’s interesting to me now, though, as an older person, is the different ways we look back at adolescence.

Some poets, like Claude McKay, have looked back on adolescence as a time of innocence. For Rita Dove, in “Adolescence II,” it seems like a time of magical but frightening transformation. For Adrienne Su, adolescence takes on a broader meaning.

For the following poem on adolescence, originally published in my collection Back East, I considered a memory of one pure afternoon.

Quarry

That volcanic August, the asphalt steamed
behind their older cousin’s El Camino,
a car so hot no one questioned why
it sported a pick-up bed, or why it took
them to skinny-dip at the long- abandoned quarry.

On the path through the woods, they foraged for sex without
knowing it, plucking shapely fungi
and curling moss.
 They came to the water before
it was too late. Years before one lost
an arm to the road and another lost his life
to it, the boys jumped feet first from the cliff,
cupping hands in prayer around their genitalia. 
The flower-power girls dove in before
rapes, abortions, cancers, free-fall naked
without a single consequence, their hands
the points of spades cleaving the mirror.

Treading water, they traded stories of boys
who’d broken their necks and girls who’d disappeared.
The well of rainfall, fluent in the tongue
of silk, praised their barest skin and cooled them.

Poetry: The Triggering Town

The cover of Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town
Have you ever felt left out of a conversation?

I felt that way when I began an MFA in Creative Writing program in the 1990’s. I was at a loss as to why my fellow students kept mentioning “Hugo.” It was “Hugo this” and “Hugo that.” I broke down and asked one of the professors, “Why does everyone keep talking about Victor Hugo?”

If you’re a fan of 20th century poetry, you’re probably laughing at me (good-naturedly, of course).

The other students weren’t talking about Victor Hugo, the 19th century French author of Les Miserables. They were talking about Richard Hugo, a poet, teacher and literary theorist from the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of him.

I had a solid background in European literature, especially Romantic and Victorian poetry, but I knew very little about poets of the twentieth century, except for poets associated with feminism, like Plath and Sexton and Rich, and a few other New England poets. Richard Hugo had not been on my radar.

Soon, I was reading his book, The Triggering Town, a collection of essays and lectures on poetryHugo’s overarching thesis was that rather than “writing what you know,” poets should open themselves to the unknown via triggering subjects. His approach had a spiritual element to it, as represented in the following passage:

Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.

Sadly, I was never able to enter fully into conversations about R. Hugo. I found him difficult to comprehend, but I did understand about being moved to write by an encounter with the unfamiliar, and writing about the unfamiliar by imagining yourself into that unfamiliar space.

Where I stopped following Hugo’s logic, though, was in his suggestion that the poet’s relation to the triggering subject should weaken. I was committed to the opposite: immersion.

This probably had something to do with my intense admiration of persona poems, or dramatic monologues, in which the poet takes on the identity and voice of another. Examples include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and The Kid” by Ai.

Years later, when I lived in Maine, a very old woman told me the story of a black walnut tree that grew in her front yard. I was enchanted by the tree, the story, the woman, and the way she represented an archetypal Maine figure: independent, resilient, crotchety. The woman and her story were the triggers for the following poem, originally published in my poetry collection Back East.

Black Walnut

He offered us a thousand bucks
for all — the trunk and limbs and roots —
of our black walnut. It didn’t arch
above our roof as it does now.

He wouldn’t tell us why, or how
he’d haul it out, a monstrous job
if you consider how the roots
extend their feelers underground,

mirroring the walnut’s crown.
We told him no, and when he bent
to crack a fallen nut, we warned
him of the stain. He didn’t listen.

With a skull-sized rock, he split it open.
His handprint, darker than the door-
yard mud in spring, still gripped the front
porch rail the year he came again.

We watched him through the window then.
He lay his hands along the trunk
as if he thought himself a healer,
and we mistrusted him more.
 We couldn’t

ask why he wanted what we wouldn’t
sell. We don’t meet others halfway,
or go beyond the wall out there
where some glacier gave up and left us rocks.

Poetry in Form: Prose Poems

Fungi circling a tree. Photo by Michele Sharpe
Pure-of-mind formalists might argue that the prose poem is not written in form at all, and some poets and critics have argued that prose poems aren’t poems — they are prose.

Controversy continues to rage on, but the two most authoritative American sources for information on poetry provide similar definitions

The Poetry Foundation defines the prose poem as:

A prose composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. See Amy Lowell’s “Bath,” “Metals Metals” by Russell Edson, “Information” by David Ignatow, and Harryette Mullen’s “[Kills bugs dead.]”

The Academy of American Poets defines the prose poem as:

While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.

Labels seem to me to have a limited use. In my 30+ years of activity in the poetry community, I’ve seen the lines between poetry and prose continue to blur. In fact, some journals now expressly solicit work that defies easy labelling. They call it hybrid work.

As a recovering formalist and fuddy-duddy, I’m okay with saying that I doubted the prose poem once myself. But one day a subject and an image seemed just right for the prose poem (I admit it) form.

This baby below was originally published in the now-defunct but engaging magazine concīsThe “bastards” in the title doesn’t refer to nasty people. It refers to the original use of the word: people born out of wedlock, like me and many of my fellow/sister adoptees. For more on the adoptee rights movement, check out Bastard Nation.

Family Trees for Bastards

1. Dead so long, you can see right through them. The branches fell first, then the crown, then the bark sloughed off like snakeskin, and the cores collapsed, leaving suggestions of strong columns spun upward in helix fashion. Below the shifting leaf litter and sand, roots entwine with limestone. What’s left has put on the pocked and scored look of karst, but a tree remains a tree.

2. Dead, but still intact, this one has some juice for chalk-white fungi spiraling around its trunk. Shelves for tree frogs, pale question marks, frilled platters for dolls.

3. Still alive, this one ripped the floor with it. New name: windthrow. Had something loosed its anchorage and prepared it to let go? A hole opens in the canopy, saplings stuck in the pole stage wake. The earth that ripped with the tree, once part of a forest floor, now named a tip-up mound.

4. Pine cone. Alone on the floor, waiting for a fire to free its seeds. So it can start over.