I’ve denied shame exists, but that’s wrong. And one thing that makes me feel deeply ashamed is being wrong. Just imagine how I felt when at 21, I found out I was adopted! I’d been wrong about quite a few things.
Here’s a poem that touches on the experience of shame, published in February, 2020 by the wonderfully daily poetry journal SWWIM. It’s an honor to be included in their river of poems.
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.
Poets Resist began in 2017 in response to . . . well, you can guess.
It’s a current events poetry project of Glass: a Journal of Poetry, which seeks “poetry that enacts the artistic and creative purity of glass.”
My poem, “Suspect,” appears there today. The poem confronts a few aspects of racism: assumptions, rationalizations, and inaction. The speaker of the poem both is and is not me; perhaps that’s one way racism inhabits even well-intentioned white people.
The poem begins like this:
As many activists have noted, it’s well past time for white people to be reaching out to other white people to confront racism. I’m interested in thoughts that anyone might have about this, or about the poem, which can be read in its entirety here.
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/
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.
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.
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!
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 poetry. Hugo’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.
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.
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 concīs. The “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.
All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.
During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?)conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses.They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.
But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.
Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.
You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.
But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations.Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.
It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]
Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:
This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
This is a poem about an abusive father
Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.
Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.
Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.
Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.
In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.
Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good.Complexity.Poetry can sing about that to us.All we have to do is pay attention to the words.