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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (28): Emily Dickinson … to find that phosphorescence, that light within

Emily Dickinson at sixteen years o age
Emily Dickinson at sixteen years, 1846

“PHOSPHORESCENCE. Now there’s a word to lift your hat to… to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry.” Emily Dickinson

41rt1zipr5l-_sx319_bo1204203200_Emily Dickinson was famously reclusive and wrote 1,775 poems, few of which were published during her lifetime. When her opus was finally published posthumously, it wasn’t well received. Today, however, she is considered one of the most significant of American poets. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is my favorite collection. The poems are organized chronologically, allowing us to see her development from teen years into the darker poetry of her maturity.

“Nature” is what we see—
The Hill—the Afternoon—
Squirrel—Eclipse— the Bumble bee—
Nay—Nature is Heaven—
Nature is what we hear—
The Bobolink—the Sea—
Thunder—the Cricket—
Nay—Nature is Harmony—
Nature is what we know—
Yet have no art to say—
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.

– Emily Dickinson

Apart from reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry, I can’t think of a better way to celebrate her and her work then to see William Luce’s one-woman play, The Belle of Amherst, starring Julie Harris.  It’s available to watch on YouTube and it’s a must if you are a lover of poetry and theatre and looking for some budget-wise charm this coming weekend. Order dinner in, set out the candles and wine … and Enjoy!

The play follows Emily Dickinson at the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. It incorporates Dickinson’s work, diaries, and letters in a reenactment of her life with her relatives, friends and acquaintances. It’s engaging and often wry … as is the poet herself.

The original Broadway production, directed by Charles Nelson Reilly and starring Julie Harris, opened on April 28, 1976 at the Longacre Theatre. It ran for 116 performances. A Wall Street Journal reviewer wrote . . .

“With her technical ability and her emotional range, Miss Harris can convey profound inner turmoil at the same time that she displays irrepressible gaiety of spirit.”

Harris won a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, earned a Drama Desk Award nomination for a Unique Theatrical Experience, and won a Grammy Award for Best Spoken Word Recording. She appeared in a televised PBS production and toured the country with the play for a number of years. [sources: Wikipedia and NY Times]

Luce and Harris collaborated on other wonderful plays including Bronté.  A broadway playwright, Luce also wrote Barrymore, which with family I was fortunate enough to see on stage starring Christopher Plummer many years ago. That was a bit of heaven.  Luce wrote Lucifer’s Child based on the writing of Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen), Lillian about Lillian Hellman and Zelda, which became The Last Flapperabout Zelda Fitzgerald. If script writing is one of your interests, you could probably do worse than reading a few of  Luce’s plays.

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The recommended read for this week is Robert Pinsky’s Singing School, Learning to Write (and Read) Poetry. No rules or recipes here just learning by studying the pros. Charming. Fun.

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CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (20): Terri Muuss, Over Exposed

American She-Poet, Terri Muss
American She-Poet, Terri Muss

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SCARLET LETTER

In fifth grade
my father’s secrets
start to breed under my red
confirmation dress—
dig deep in the tunnel of my inner
ear, cling to sentry hairs
on the nape of my neck—

his secrets: black bodies,
glassy eyes, squeeze
beneath my fingernails—
quiet as eggs;
they spin a red thread
that cuts me inside
out.

Over Exposed, the memoir of Terri Muuss, is at once painful and triumphant. It is an examined life that exposes the family of her childhood, the obscenities imposed on her by her father, her numbing with alcohol and drugs and her journey in therapy. All of this and yet she arrives victorious and accomplished with a healthy marriage, healthy sons and a multifaceted career, elements of which reach a hand out to those in trauma.

This is the story of how a child survived and became a woman who found herself and a writer who found her voice. The experiences of a lifetime form a collection of poems and prose vignettes that bespeak the possibilities of redemption and hold out hope and affirmation to those others whose childhoods have left them wounded. I recommend this book to everyone but, most especially, to those who have a history like Terri’s.

Lately, I feel a bull’s eye on me: on the street, the A train, in the fruit market. Men infect me with words, with smiles. Eyes snatch at breasts, tongues pin me to subway walls, mouths like a cold speculum pry open my inner ear. Their words pound, pound me, a worn head of drum. Voices divide and conquer, dividing me from myself—

Emotionally it was not the easiest book to read. I often found myself in tears.It is rewarding though, not only because its subject remains unbeaten but because the writing, pacing and organization have you moving through the pages anxious to gobble up each poem, each story, every nuance. Terri’s switches from child-voice to adult are smooth, her imagery clear and moving, her poetry well-crafted.

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There are two videos in this post. If you are reading this from an email, you will have to click to this site to view the videos.

INTERVIEW

JAMIE: Am I right that your first love was acting? If so, how did you transition – or what inspired – the addition of poetry to your artistic repertoire?

TERRI: Yes, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.

That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in 10th grade, my best friend Leslie was a beautiful person and poet who I admired greatly. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.

It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.

But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and came to see myself as a poet.

JAMIE: It is one thing to write about painful events in life and another to share them publicly. I think you are something of a hero for doing so. Where does this core of courage come from? What is the reaction from friends and relatives?

TERRI: This is a very interesting question that I get often–the question of the courage it takes to reveal my past. Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.

I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.

Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.

Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.

JAMIE: With two parents who are poets, do your children like poetry? Have they started writing themselves? Have they read your poetry?

TERRI: Great question! Yes! We have two boys, Rainer, 10, and Atticus, 7, and they have both had poems published. Rainer is by far the more prolific writer who really loves writing and poetry. Atticus is a drummer who dabbles in writing. They both had poems published in Skipping Stones, a journal for children ages 7-14. Rainer has also been published in Stone Soup, The Louisville Review (when he was 4), and the anthology, Holiday Word Gifts (JB Stillwater, 2011). Some of the things that Rainer writes take my breath away. It’s proof positive that as artists we are always trying to get back to that place where we were as children– where we can take risks and be playful and not worry about being judged.

JAMIE: You seem to have a gift for building a poetry community. What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?

TERRI: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.

I would also add that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!

JAMIE: You put together a lovely trailer for “Over Exposed.” How long did it take to put it together and what kind of tools did you use. Have you found it helpful in getting the word out.

TERRI: Dana Maddox did my trailer. She’s a brilliant filmmaker studying in LA right now. I came in contact with her through the mother of someone I directed in a show. We did the voiceover elements in the studio first and then she came to shoot the video at my house. It took about 10 hours of shooting and about two weeks of intense editing for her to put together the trailer. It’s not something that I could have done alone. Many people have that skill set but that’s not my wheelhouse. I can direct videos but editing is a different thing. She did an amazing job and I’m very proud of it. It certainly helps get the word out about my book. I think social media and online platforms always help books.

JAMIE:  So you have to my knowledge three books out: one on poetry as therapy, the recently published anthology, and “Over Exposed.” What’s next on the agenda?

TERRI: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. The other group you mentioned here is the Poets of Well-being (Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). I was the last member to join the group and so their chapbook does not include my work. It’s absolutely worth checking out. You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Susan runs a beautiful poetry event called “Poetry Street” out in Riverhead that is a fine example of great community organizing and art as a healing method.

*****

A tidbit on the light side and apropos upcoming elections in the U.S.: Atticus and Rainer Muuss on Ellen and at The White House with the First Lady.

©2016, portrait, poems, bookcover art and interview responses, Terri Muuss, All rights reserved

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (13): Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, writing at the intersection of personal and cultural history

Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966), U.S. Poet Laureate, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Pultizer Prize for Poetry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University
Natasha Trethewey (b. 1966), U.S. Poet Laureate, Poet Laureate of Mississippi, Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University

After hearing Natasha Trethewey read at a poetry festival, Librarian of Congress Emeritus James H. Billington said he was “struck by a kind of classic quality with a richness and variety of structures with which she presents her poetry … she intermixes her story with the historical story in a way that takes you deep into the human tragedy of it.”

Natasha Trethewey is perhaps uniquely equipped by personal history, American history and public discourse, place of birth, education, inclination and innate talent to address a cruel and criminal aspect of our culture that dogs us unrelentingly: the roots, memory and legacy of racism. She is the daughter of a white father (poet Eric Trethewey) and black mother (social worker Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough).  Her background is rooted in the South. Born in Mississippi, when she was six years old her parents divorced and her young life was then split between Louisiana and Georgia. In Trethewey’s hands the juxtaposition of her biracial heritage and our shared history of colonialism, slavery and racism make a powerful case for the role of poetry to effectively and unflinchingly deliver truth.

At the time of her parent’s marriage and Trethewey’s birth anti-miscegenation laws were still in place, making their marriage illegal. Our laws against interracial marriage were struck down in 1967:

“Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967),[X 1] [X 2] is a landmark civil rights decision of the United States Supreme Court, which invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

“The case was brought by Mildred Loving, a black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, who had been sentenced to a year in prison in Virginia for marrying each other. Their marriage violated the state’s anti-miscegenation statute, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which prohibited marriage between people classified as “white” and people classified as “colored”. The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision determined that this prohibition was unconstitutional, reversing Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on marriage in the United States.” [Wikipedia]

51T8yxaK1xL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Thrall: Poems (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2006) – a sequel to Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2005) –  is breathtakingly eloquent. Trethewey explores her relationship with her father in the first poem about a fishing trip. Written as an elegy though he is still alive, it tells him in effect that she is the better poet . . . or so I infered.

Tretheway moves on from that quiet meditation to questions of identity and race, exploring colonial attitudes about race reflected in the art of Spanish painters and the Casta (caste, categorization of mixed-race peoples) Paintings of 17th and 18th Century Mexico. I was unfamiliar with most of the paintings and painters, chose to look them up.  That, however, did not detract one iota from engagement with this collection.

The work is exquisite: formal, clear, precise, perceptive … Although the material is distressing, I find Trethewey’s style understated. These poems are not strident but they have sinew and bone. Her forms are mostly free verse. One poem is a series of cinquains and another is a villanelle.

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In the video below, Trethewey offers some insight into the development of the collection and reads the eponymous poem. You will also find a sampling of her poems HERE.

Note: The painting Thrall that inspired the poem is by Juan de Pareja who was apparently the child of indentured servants and left as property to the Spanish painter Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez to whom he became an assistant. Juan de Pareja was born in 1606, freed in 1650 and died in 1670. The painting featured on the book’s cover is Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo by Juan Rodríguez Juárez (1675-1728).

If you are reading this post from an email, you will have to click through to the site to view the video.

© 2016, essay, Jamie Dedes, All right reserved; Natasha Threthewey’s photograph, Jalissa Gray under CC BY-SA 3.0; cover design, publisher

CELEBRATING AMERICAN SHE-POETS (12): Sharon Frye, Last Chance for Rain

SharonSharon Gariepy Frye – a.k.a. Sharon Frye -is a photographer as well as a poet with one chapbook published, Last Chance for Rain (White Knights Press, 2014) and a new collection, Red Dashboard (Elizabeth Dillon, 51T8-CyhKSL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_2016) to be published later this year, the exact date to be announced.

Last Chance for Rain offers us twenty poems. Each presents a compassionate look at the complex architecture of everyday lives – occasionally her own – with all their bays and battlements, their facades and their niches. Understanding comes with small intimate descriptions like this one of an elderly gentleman:

“She noticed his wrist, a small pear stone,
silver hair planted, bloomed over stone.”

excerpt from the Last Chance for Rain, the poem that lends its name to the book

When I first encountered Sharon’s poetry, I was impressed with the detail, the sense of a spiritual journey, and with her compassionate imagination, which is both her strength and her distinction. No surprise that Sharon was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for Poetry and most recently made the shortlist for the 2016 Blackwater International Poetry Festival.

JAMIE: Congratulations on making the Blackwater shortlist. It was so pleasant to see the announcement go up. I think it’s not the only award you’ve received. Bravo!

It seems to me your interests are as eclectic as most of us who read and/or are featured here: art and photography, music and dance, literature and poetry. I think I’m not alone in enjoying your nature photography. With the wealth of your interests, how and why did you come to focus on poetry?

SHARON: Thanks for the warm regards on making the Blackwater shortlist. I was a little surprised myself.

From an early age poetry dazzled me. I remember my first anthology of poetry was called Reflections on a Gift of Watemelon Pickle. I was mesmerized by the play and dance of words across the pages. I have been hooked ever since.

I began writing more as my children moved into adulthood, one by one. Now that I have an empty nest, I have more time to follow the muse. I have to say I am pleasantly surprised where it has taken me, from reading to FDNY firefighters, to Ireland and Sacramento…to various stops along Route 66.

JAMIE: This is a question people think is reserved for women, but I ask it of everyone I interview: How do you do it? How do produce a fair amount of poetry, well-crafted and well-considered, and juggle all your interests, your job with the U.S. Postal Service and your family responsibilities?

SHARON: It’s not easy, all this juggling… and I get frustrated. I try to be a good daughter to my aging parents, a good parent and an active grandmother. I also work full time as a rural mail carrier and am an active member of a local writing club. I think the experience and interaction with what has become my focus is also what inspires and serves as a catalyst to express – or record – some of my feelings and observations that result from these experiences.

I once wrote about the Asian man who was giving me a pedicure. I felt my heart expand as I considered what his life and history might have been. It’s a good practice, trying to perceive the worldview of those you come into contact with throughout the day. It gives the gift of empathy, which then always circles back to gratitude, always.

JAMIE: Do you find inspiration in the landscapes of Wyoming, where you come from, and Oklahoma, where you live now?

Jamie, you are a keen observer. I do love the landscape of my birthplace Wyoming and now those in my home of Oklahoma. There is just as much beauty in an Oklahoma sunset as there is on a snow-capped range nestled in the pines. I have learned to love Oklahoma’s red-dirt roads and often meander on a Sunday afternoon, taking pictures of abandoned farms and rusted Studebakers, forgotten in fields.

JAMIE: If I’m not mistaken, you have a strong affinity with what is probably your ancestral country, Ireland. You come honestly then by your love of and gift for poetry. Who is your favorite Irish poet and why?

SHARON: You are right, my maternal grandmother’s family hailed from Kilkenny. Of the Irish poets, I love Seamus Heaney, the earthiness of his words. You spoke of landscape: Heaney seemed to meld the inner landscape with the outer world in a mystical way. I also like some of Yeat’s work…The Stolen Child and A Prayer for my Daughter.

JAMIE: Tell us about Writing Knights and Equador Das Coisas.

SHARON: Writing Knights Press is an independent publishing company in Ohio. They publish many aspiring poets’s chapbooks, as they did my book, Last Chance for Rain. I was pleased that the publisher, Azriel Johnson, nominated one of my poems, Dollar Store Princess for a Pushcart Prize in 2015.

O Equador Das Coisas (the equator of things!) is a lovely journal of art and literature from Brazil. Editors Carol Piva and Germano Xavier have invited me to be a regular contributing poet, with my own page in the journal. Carol translates my poems from English to Portuguese for this endeavor… Oh, sometimes the world is so wonderfully small, you know? 😊

Poverty Line

It started with my back tooth,
much cheaper to extract wisdom.
Now tongue swirls in dark abyss
around black cavity, nothingness.

I feel unbalanced as I walk
one molar gone, orthodontic
shift in class, the have­-not caste,
one millstone followed by another.

How much grinding bore holes
in enamel, uprooting the bed?
Babies sucked from natal stream
drained the marrow, shriveled the bone.

Frayed blue collar underscores
my lopsided, one­-less­-tooth smile
while white starched collars
curl below rows of faultless teeth.

—Sharon Frye

Here is a slide show of Sharon’s photography ~

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You’ll find some of Sharon’s poems in past issues of The BeZine. (Just type her name into the search feature.) We are sharing some of Sharon’s poems in the April issue – due out on the 15th – which celebrates poetry month.

© 2016, poem, words and photographs, Sharon Frye, All rights reserved