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I discovered my passion very early. I just love doing it. My mother claims that I was writing when I was crawling — with a twig in the sand, or on the margins of books. But I think just growing up in the South and having a somewhat difficult time, you know, really helped me to look to creativity as a way to cope, really, with life.

Art requires us to really see, to look at things with understanding. And I think because things were difficult —  for instance, you had one pair of shoes that had to last the entire year. So if you sort of wore them out, what were you going to do? Well, you had to really think hard about how people managed to clothe you, and how they managed to feed you.

The advice I would give to anyone, but especially to the young — find some quiet space around yourself and maintain it. And don’t fill your outer space or your interior space with other people’s anything. Keep a space for you. Because it’s the only way you can grow into being who you were meant to be.

–Alice Walker speaking this morning on We Have a Dream: Inspirational and Motivational Black Americans on 5 KSTP




-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

-related to post on practice, mentors, and Alice Walker on labyrinths: Labyrinth

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Question Mark, Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis, Minnesota, January 2008, all photos © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


A few weeks ago, I watched an interview on Bill Moyers Journal and was mesmerized by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. It is tough work. She takes on controversial subjects most would not touch in our sanitized, politically correct language of the day. Her 1992 one-woman performance Fires in the Mirror explored the violence between Jews and Blacks after an August 1991 civic disturbance in the New York neighborhood of Crown Heights in Brooklyn. Her solo performance in Twilight: Los Angeles dramatized the 1992 riots that broke out in L.A. following the first Rodney King trial.

For her current one-woman play Let Me Down Easy, Anna Deavere Smith interviewed Americans from all walks of life about healthcare, medical, and end of life issues. After 9 years and 300 plus interviews, she chose 20 people; through their words, body language and speech, she transforms on stage into each one. I’ve only seen snippets of her 90 minute performance on TV. And from bullrider to politician to Buddhist monk, I could hear the voice of all America inserted into the healthcare debate, leaving little room for doubt — something has to change.

We are trying to bring disparate worlds together, not so that we can all get along, but so we can see out of the ‘me’ into ‘us.’

— Anna Deavere Smith

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Highlights


Below are few notes I jotted down while listening to her conversation with Bill Moyers. A few may seem cryptic, but will make more sense when you watch the interview:

  • The title Let Me Down Easy came to her almost out of a dream. There are two songs with the name. Of the title, James H. Cone of the Union Theological Seminary said they are the words of a broken heart and can be interpreted as broken love. “Don’t do it harshly. Not too mean. Let it be easy.”
  • Let Me Down Easy is a call about grace and kindness in a world that lacks that often —  in a winner take all world.
  • Death is the ultimate form of loss, the ultimate form of abandonment
  • It broke her heart to know that we, with all of our money and technology, believe that we can afford to leave people so alone
  • Are we afraid of being poor, afraid of losing, afraid of being sick? Is that why we distance ourselves from that reality all around us?
  • She chose these 20 particular people because they are very connected to the life cycle – death and life
  • The most important thing you can do is be with someone when they die
  • Art comes in when the official language falls apart. When things fall apart, you can see more and you can even be part of indicating new ways that things can be put together.


What seems to be important to Anna Deavere Smith is the art of listening. And letting what she hears soak into each cell of her body. Words matter. People matter. She believes something she learned from her grandfather (who was also the inspiration for her method of theater) — if you say a word often enough, it becomes you. In a New York Times article Through 1 Woman, 20 Views of Life’s End she says, “I try to embody America by embodying its words.”

Near the end of the interview, Bill Moyers asked, “When did you begin to listen to people so acutely?” Anna said when she was young, she lived next to a woman who weighed 400 pounds. The neighbor would ask her to go to the store to buy her fatback and she’d love to sit on her porch and listen to her stories —  that’s when she started really listening.

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Writing Topic — 3 Questions


How do we teach ourselves to listen? How do we get people to talk about what has meaning for them, moving beyond repetition or sound bites? In Anna’s words, “I say their words over and over. I listen and I wear the words.”

She said she also taught herself to listen by breaking up certain rhythmic speech patterns. She met a linguist at a cocktail party in 1979 who said she would give her 3 questions that were guaranteed to break the patterns and change the way people are expressing themselves:

Have you ever come close to death?

Have you ever been accused of something you didn’t do?

Do you know the circumstances of your birth?


And that’s the inspiration for this Writing Topic — 3 Questions.

Choose one of the 3 questions above. Write it down at the top of your paper. Take out a fast writing pen and do a timed 15 minute Writing Practice.

Maybe 3 questions, combined with the wild mind of Writing Practice, will break patterns in our writing and lead us to listen more closely to our own voices.

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Epilogue


Anna Deavere Smith is on fire. In pursuit of her mission to translate art into social commentary about race, poverty, and injustice, she’s won two Obie Awards, been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and two Tonys, and is a recipient of the prized MacArthur fellowship. (Not to mention her role in NBC’s The West Wing, as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally.) You can read more about Anna Deavere Smith at Bill Moyers Journal. Or watch the full interview with Anna Deavere Smith and Bill Moyers at this link.

In November, the Moth Storytelling Awards in New York honored her as their 2009 recipient at the Annual Moth Ball. The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy covered the event which was also attended by writer Garrison Keillor. On the subject of healthcare, the blog references a compelling verbal account from Keillor that night about his stroke in September. He had the stroke while on a massage table, eventually drove himself to the ER, and waited 15 minutes in line before he was able to tell anyone he was having a stroke. Read the full story at Speakeasy: Jonathan Ames, Garrison Keillor and Anna Deavere Smith Headline Annual Moth Ball.


In some ways the most effective politicians are the ones who have the best verbal clothes that they manipulate the best way. And there is a gap between that type of clothing and where people walk and where people live.

Whitman was doing another kind of work for the country at that time. Speaking a different song. And I think the politicians can sing to us but I respect, in a way, the limitation of their language. I mean I guess it’s a part of our culture that goes back as far as Jefferson, that they have to be so careful about what they say. My only desire would then be that we would find other places in our culture to work out our differences.

— Anna Deavere Smith from Bill Moyers Journal, November 2009


-posted on red Ravine, Sunday, November 29th, 2009

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patrick dougherty masks (one)

Here’s Looking at You, Patrick Dougherty installation at Bosque School,
Albuquerque, October 2009, photo © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
One evening last week I went to see North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty give a talk to an audience of parents, students, faculty and staff of Bosque School, plus a few members of the broader Albuquerque community. The turnout was solid. All seats were filled, yet I couldn’t help but lament how tucked away this globally recognized, soft-spoken artist was—how very hidden his presence in our city was to the public at large. And just how much they were missing by not being here.
 
Dougherty was guest artist at the independent Bosque School (grades 6-12) from October 5-23. According to the multi-arts organization collaborative LAND/ART, which sponsored the sculptor, Dougherty was here to create “a site-specific work on the grounds of the school adjoining the Rio Grande Valley State Park, using willow saplings harvested from the site and involving the students and teachers in the process.” (Bosque School is known for the way it incorporates study of the adjacent cottonwood forest—also known as “the bosque“—and river into its Science curriculum.)
 
This was Dougherty’s first time working with students this age. He’s done installations at museums, university and college campuses, and on sites of all types, from Ireland to France, Connecticut to California—over 200 works in the US, Asia, and Europe over the past two-plus decades.

He wasn’t in New Mexico to create art in a highly visible public space. His primary job was to work with students and teachers. The installation was open to the public most days and weekends during his stay, and many people took advantage of visiting hours. But still, hearing him speak on a late afternoon in October was like stumbling upon the city’s best kept art secret.
 
 
 
 
 

patrick dougherty (the man)        patrick dougherty land art 3

Patrick Dougherty poses for a shot after his talk (left), building the installation
required scaffolding (right), which visitors were sometimes allowed to climb,
October 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
Drawing with sticks
 
Dougherty began his talk by walking the audience through a slideshow, starting with images of the log cabin home he built by hand, then moving to samples of his installations. He was funny and charming and deep in an unassuming way. He told us that he thinks about sticks as drawing material. “Consider the stick as a line,” he suggested, talking to us as if we were fellow artists.

His favorite piece, which he said he liked precisely because of its good lines, was “Tension Zones,” installed in Sheboygan, Wisconsin in 1995 at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center. (Unfortunately, the only image I found was in a hard-to-read archived article from the Milwaukee Sentinel.)
 
He went on to talk about his work in three ways, showing examples of each:

  1. Architecture: Many of his installations have an interplay with buildings. Stick sculptures climb walls, cap towers, or lean into buildings.
  2. Trees: Dougherty often uses trees as “a matrix.” He might make use of the limbs, trunks, or the canopy of the tree, building his installation in relation to one or all of those parts. He showed us pieces that seemed to sprout leaves in spring and shed them in winter.
  3. No thing: Many of his installations, he said, were built in “just space,” indoors or outdoors. 
     

After the talk, members of the audience had many questions. “How did the students catch on?” someone asked. “Great,” Dougherty said, “we know all about sticks; it’s the Hunter-Gatherer in our blood.” He reminded us that the stick is a universal play thing for all children. They use sticks to draw in the dirt, as instruments, building material, weapons, and utensils.
 
 
 
 
 

drawing with sticks (two)    drawing with sticks (one)

Drawing-with-sticks details from the Bosque School installation,
October 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
Two Years and Three Weeks
 
Dougherty’s pieces generally have the same lifespan as that of a stick, which is about two years. After two years, most installations come down.

In an interview (date unknown) on Don’t Panic Online, Dougherty talked about the temporary nature of his work:
 
 

I think that part of my work’s allure is its impermanence, the life cycle that is built into the growth and decay of saplings. My focus has always been the process of building a work and allowing those who pass to enjoy the daily changes or drama of building a sculpture as well as the final product. However, the line between trash and treasure is thin, and the sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, begin to fade after two years.  Often the public imagines that a work of art should be made to last, but I believe that a sculpture, like a good flower bed, has its season.

 
Other highlights from Dougherty’s talk include (italics direct quotes; the rest paraphrased):
 

  • On Art and Being an Artist: The art world is not a wall; it’s a loose-knit group of people. Artists are just normal people who are looking for their place in the world.
  •  

  • On finding that Place in the world: Hysteria rides on the shoulder of every creative person.
  •  

  • On building his own house, a log cabin: He wanted to build a house that was functional, with no maintenance once it was done. That way he could live and work there when the money wasn’t rolling in.
  •  

  • On living in North Carolina: Lots of maples in North Carolina, and the stones there have color. Some places have a lot of stones, but they’re not different colors like they are in North Carolina.
  •  

  • On using willows to build art: Every time you cut the base of the willow, you get twice as many sticks that grow back. (Which was good to hear, given that my daughter was worried that nature was being sacrified for art. It wasn’t.)
  •  

  • On how long it takes: Dougherty stays for about three weeks in each locale, which, he joked, is about the maximum amount of time before his hosts get sick of him.
  •  

  • On climbing the pieces: Please don’t. Even though the structures are solid due to the layers and layers of sticks, as well as the stick foundations that gird them, climbing tends to destroy the surface over time. However, people (drunk adults, especially!) love to climb the sculptures.
  • On whether the students liked it: They loved it, although they felt at times constrained by doing things the way Dougherty wanted. In order to give the kids some freedom, there were three experimental installations where the students could do whatever they wanted.


 
 
 
 

patrick dougherty land art 4   experimentation with patrick dougherty

Long view of the installation (left), and looking out from inside an experimental
sculpture, October 2009, photos © 2009 by ybonesy. All rights reserved.





Brown meets Green

After the talk we were invited to go outside to see the installation and walk around and inside of it. The piece is made up of three two-sided heads, like masks with eyes and noses, which, according to Dougherty, are a combination kachina and Green Man, who often can be seen adorning ancient cathedrals.

The masks were much larger than I had expected. I’d seen them just a few days before during an admissions open house at the school, but my viewing was brief plus I was distracted by the other goings-on. In my mind’s eye, the sculptures were about twice as large as a person. Wrong! They are many times taller than the average person, as you can see by the photo below, which shows someone standing in the doorway/mouth of one of the masks.

The best part of the event was watching people of all ages marvel at the creations. Inside, outside, peeking around corners. A father dressed in a suit and tie (he must have come straight from work) played a sort of hide-and-seek tag with his two daughters, running in and out of each structure. I walked slowly into the giant heads, looking at elegant lines of the willows and taking in the most wondrous fragrance of sage and willow. One woman turned to me and exclaimed, “If only we could bottle that smell!”

The sun was sinking as the visitors scattered. I went over to the experimental installations. The sticks were not nearly as tightly layered as in the giant masks, but they had shape and structure. What an opportunity to learn with a master. Art in the Schools like it’s never been done before.




patrick dougherty masks (three)







More information on Patrick Dougherty


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the desert is no lady, C-41 print film, driving across
New Mexico, January 2003, photo © 2003-2009 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 

Yesterday our blog friend from Seeded Earth was reading her journal from last October and posting snippets on Twitter. One journal entry caught Liz’s eye:

 

Is a wash different from an arroyo, or a gully, or a gulch? We drove over a wash (looks like a dry creek bed) called Car Wash. Really. True.

The entry reminded Liz of last May when we went to see Patricia Hampl and purchased the book Home Ground – Language for an American Landscape. She tweeted back to Bo that she would look up the words arroyo, gully, gulch and wash.

This morning when I got up, Liz was placing Post-it notes on those sections of the book before driving off to work. Curious, I thumbed through the bookmarks and started reading. Our Word Of The Day multiplied to four. I was so fascinated by the subtle differences that I was inspired to post excerpts from the Home Ground definitions on red Ravine.

 
So is a wash different from an arroyo, or a gully, or a gulch? Before you read the answer, what are your definitions? They are powerful, visual words that might even make good Writing Practices. Write one of the words at the top of your page — 10 minutes, Go!

 
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arroyo

The Spanish word arroyo means “large creek.” Often steep-walled, an arroyo may be flat-bottomed sand or laden with boulders and gravel. Arroyuelo and arroyito are the diminutive forms and mean “rill” or “brook.” Arroyos are ephemeral streams, carrying water only briefly during such events as spring runoff of the summer monsoons. In the American Southwest the words arroyo and wash are sometimes used interchangeably, as are arroyo seco (meaning “dry”) and dry wash — though the English terms often describe shorter or abbreviated water courses stretching less than a mile and not necessarily part of a specific arroyo.

 –Arturo Longoria from his home ground, The Texas brushlands, Zapata County, Starr County, Texas

 
 
gulch

In the western United States, gulch is a word for a small ravine. Deeper than a gully, generally narrow and steep sided, shallower than a canyon. Miners often found gold or other minerals concentrated in a gulch’s swash channel. The Blue Cloud Gulch and the Old Dominion Gulch in Montana each yielded gold, silver, and copper for many years. Artifacts of ancient civilizations are also sometimes exposed in a gulch. In Grand Gulch, Utah, for instance, the Anasazi left their mark in red sandstone. In the profusion of gifts offered by gulches, none was more spectacular than the one discovered by a miner in New Mexico in 1987. He saw the tip of tusk in a gulch; the remains were later identified as those of a Columbian mammoth. Public and scientific interest brought about a full excavation of this site, now known as the Dry Gulch Mammoth Site, exposing a grail of bones.

 –Elizabeth Cox from her home ground, Chattanooga, Tennessee

 
 
gully

A channel worn in the earth by a torrent of water carving out a deep ditch is called a gully. Gully erosion happens after a rill, a high-velocity rush of water, has moved large amounts of soil along a depression or drainage line. As water wears away the land, the rill — the geomorphic feature — becomes a gully; cutting farther down, the headlong water makes a gulch, until the cellar doors open into a canyon. Geographers distinguish between gullies, washes, and arroyos on the one hand, and cañadas on the other, according to the materials involved. Cañadas — like cañoncitos — slice through bedrock. Arroyos and washes cut through flat layers of valley deposits; and gullies and gulches erode hill-slope materials.

 –Elizabeth Cox from her home ground, Chattanooga, Tennessee 

 
 
wash

The word wash is used to describe areas where subtle contours allow water to flow, or “wash,” from elevated sites to lower zones, like the bottoms of canyons or along gullies or next to ponds. Carrizo Wash in Arizona and Hunters Wash in New Mexico are examples of washes that run for many miles. A dry streambed or creek is often called a dry wash. In some areas of the American Southwest the words arroyo and arroyo seco are used interchangeably with wash and dry wash. In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey writes: “Streambeds are usually dry. The dry wash, dry gulch, arroyo seco. Only after a storm do they carry water and then briefly–a few minutes, a couple of hours.”

 –Arturo Longoria from his home ground, The Texas brushlands, Zapata County, Starr County, Texas

 

-partial excerpts from Home Ground — Language for an American Landscape, published by Trinity University Press

 
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-For more information on the Home Ground Project or to purchase your copy of Home Ground — Language for an American Landscape, important links can be found in the post and Comment conversation at Home Ground — Back In The Saddle. 

Gratitude to the writers of Home Ground, to Bo from Seeded Earth for asking the question, and to Liz for responding. Together they became the inspiration for this Writing Topic.


-posted on red Ravine, Wednesday, September 16th, 2009

-related to post: Midwest Poets & Writers — When Can You Call A Place Home?

 

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Insomnia, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2009, photo © 2009 by
QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

every waking moment
fitful bursts of sleeplessness
posing as dreams

 
 
 
 
 
 

Couldn’t sleep last night; so many scattered thoughts rolling around in my head. They say you wake up at 3 a.m. for anxiety, 4 a.m. for depression. I must be feeling anxious. At a few minutes before 3 a.m. (Dead Time), I was wide awake. So wide awake, I even broke the 5-7-5 structure on the Sleeplessness senryu (not typical of my haiku).

I did keep the 17 syllables. After a few years of haiku, they must be hardwired into me. Sometimes I’ll dream about writing and counting haiku in my sleep. I once read about a Japanese poet, Shuson Kato (born Takeo Kato but referred to by his pen-name, Shuson), who counted syllables on his fingers while he lay unconscious a few weeks before his death.

 
Here is an excerpt from his 1993 obituary in the Independent — Shuson Kato, poet and scholar: born Tokyo 26 May 1905; died Tokyo 3 July 1993:

In April this year, he fell sick, but again recovered and started the arduous task of choosing the weekly poems for the Asahi. Alas, on 20 June he lost consciousness: the 11 July issue of the Asahi poetry page was his last. It was said that even while he lay unconscious he was moving his fingers in the typical syllable-counting fashion of every haiku poet, bending the fingers inwards towards the palm, then releasing them again one by one.

Shuson believed in the healing powers of poetry. Again from his obituary:

In 1957, Kadokawa Shoten issued a first collected edition of Shuson’s works. But the poet fell ill in 1960 and underwent chest operations, presumably for tuberculosis. Yet he continued writing haiku. As he said: ‘Without my haiku I am nothing. It is only haiku I live for, and only haiku that keep me alive.’

His faith in the healing power of poetry was such that he gradually recovered. It was in the Sixties that Shuson became identified in the popular mind as a poet who wrote in order to explore ‘how human beings should live’.

Powerful testament to the value of poetry, an art form whose readership is dropping. I find the ancient haiku poets inspiring. It is customary for haiku poets to compose a death haiku just before dying, an epitaph that lives on. Perhaps you’d like to leave your own haiku or senryu in the Comments to honor the recent July 3rd anniversary of Shuson’s death.

 

Blue (If I Knew Then, What I Know Now),
Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2009, photo ©
2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

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Epilogue: At 6 a.m. when Liz’s alarm was about to go off, I was heading to bed and a Version 2 of the Sleeplessness haiku popped into my head. I don’t know if Versions 1 and 2 are opposites, or complements like red/green or orange/blue.

 

every sleeping moment
fitful bursts of wakefulness
posing as dreams

 

Below are a few other Night Owl posts from over the years. I am most creative in the middle of the night or very early in the morning in that space between dark and light. I wonder if there are other Night Owls out there who write poetry in their sleep. Or if the Early Bird still catches the worm. 
 

 

-posted on red Ravine in the space between Tuesday morning, July 14th, 2009 and Monday night, July 13th

-related to these obituary posts on red Ravine: The Uses of Sorrow – What Is It About Obituaries?, Reading The Obits, Halloween Short List: (#2) Build Your Own Casket

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River Painting, dusk along the Mississippi River, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

River Painting, drive-by shooting of dusk along the Mississippi River after a walk with two Midwest writers, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

 

Last week I finished reading writer Patricia Hampl’s memoir The Florist’s Daughter. It is set in her hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota. The landmarks are familiar to me, and I identify with her descriptions of “middledom” — the ordered streets, the litterless greenways and lakes, the pressure to conform that naturally seeps into the psyche when one lives in the Midwest.

But I was telling a friend, after 25 years of living in the Twin Cities (and I do love it here), I am still a transplant. My roots are steeped in memories of Southern dialect, and the writing and letters of writers like Flannery O’Connor, Alice Walker, and Carson McCullers. I feel an intense connection to the land and culture in the South. The years in Georgia (birth to 12), less than half the time I have lived in Minnesota, shaped me.

I am from the Midwest but not of it.

 

The Midwest. The flyover, where even the towns have fled to the margins, groceries warehoused in Wal-Marts hugging the freeways, the red barns of family farms sagging, dismantled and sold as “distressed” wood for McMansion kitchens, the feedlots of agribusiness crouched low to the prairie ground. Of all the American regions, the Midwest remains the most imaginary, ahistorical but fiercely emblematic. It’s Nowheresville. But it’s also the Heartland. That weight again: the innocent middle. Though it isn’t innocent. It’s where the American imagination has decided to archive innocence.

   -excerpt from The Florist’s Daughter, by Patricia Hampl

 

Patrician Hampl is a poet and a writer. She has written four memoirs and two collections of poetry. And maybe because it’s National Poetry Month, I was drawn to the way she weaves poetry into memoir when describing the differences in her relationship with her mother and father. One wanted her to be a poet; the other, a writer:

 
He could accept the notion of my being “a poet” better than my mother’s idea that I was “a writer.” Poets are innocents, they belong to the ether and the earth. They don’t narrow their eyes and tell tales as “writers” do, proving in their mean-spirited way that the earthlings are filled with greed and envy, that the world is a spiral of small-minded gestures. Poets, at least, don’t tell tales on other people. They celebrate beauty. They make much of the little. Flowers, birds, the names of things are important to them. So being a poet was all right, though hopeless.

There was, even in “tragic” poetry, a note of optimism, of hope, the lyric lilt of meaning and significance. And he was determined to be cheerful all his life.

 

___________________________________________

 

But for the most part he was silent, absolutely without affect. Finally let down his guard. I would chatter, ask him things, I got nothing—nothing—back. He just sat there, staring. Natter, natter, natter, my voice doing all the cheerfulness, his voice fallen silent as the midsummer fronds of wild rice made low hissing sounds in the wind. His real being, bleached to virtual absence by sun and water, descended to the soundless fish world where you didn’t need to say a thing.

Something about silence, something of silence was at the resistant core of poetry. Silence had to do with honesty. Just sit in the boat and stare at the lake’s troubled surface. No opinions, no judgments. No Leo the Lion—she almost never went out in the boat.

   -excerpts from The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl
 

♦       ♦       ♦       ♦       ♦

 

A few days ago, a Bill Holm poem rolled into my inbox; it was sent by Ted Kooser on behalf of American Life in Poetry. Two more Midwest poets. We had been speaking of Bill Holm in the comments on several posts after he died unexpectedly a few months ago. He spent much of his time near his roots in Iceland, and I got to thinking, what is a regional writer?

What if you were born and spent your formative years in Virginia, your teenage and college years in Nebraska, then moved to Pittsburgh and New York like Willa Cather. Or were born and raised in Iowa but lived most of your adult life in Nebraska like Ted Kooser. Where are you from? What if you lived in Georgia as a child, Pennsylvania as a teenager, Montana in your twenties, and Minnesota for the rest of your life. Are you a Midwest, Northeast, or Southern writer?

Is it personal preference? The place you were born and raised. The town where you spent most of your life. Do you choose the place. Or does the place choose you? When have you lived in a place long enough to say “I’m from….” When can you call a place “home?”

 

___________________________________________

 

American Life in Poetry: Column 213

By Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2004-2006

 

Bill Holm, one of the most intelligent and engaging writers of our northern plains, died on February 25th. He will be greatly missed. He and I were of the same generation and we shared the same sense of wonder, amusement, and skepticism about the course of technology. I don’t yet own an Earbud, but I won’t need to, now that we have Bill’s poem.

 

Earbud

Earbud–a tiny marble sheathed in foam
to wear like an interior earring so you
can enjoy private noises wherever you go,
protected from any sudden silence.
Only check your batteries, then copy
a thousand secret songs and stories
on the tiny pod you carry in your pocket.
You are safe now from other noises made
by other people, other machines, by chance,
noises you have not chosen as your own.
To get your attention, I touch your arm
to show you the tornado or the polar bear.
Sometimes I catch you humming or talking to the air
as if to a shrunken lover waiting in your ear.

 

___________________________________________

American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org), publisher of Poetry magazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright (c)2008 by Bill Holm, whose most recent book of poems is “Playing the Black Piano,” Milkweed Editions, 2004. Poem reprinted by permission of Bill Holm. Introduction copyright (c)2009 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006.



 
-posted on red Ravine from the Midwest, salt of the Earth country, on April 22nd, Earth Day, 2009

-related to posts:  Got Poetry? (National Poem In Your Pocket Day)Book Talk – Do You Let Yourself Read?, Desire And A Library Card — The Only Tools Necessary To Start A Poetry Group, WRITING TOPIC – A PLACE TO STAND

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Mississippi Drive-By, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Mississippi Drive-By, sunset on the Mississippi, Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 2008, photo © 2008-2009 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.








Spring thaw spills over
Mississippi’s swollen banks;
Red River rages










I’ve been thinking about rivers this week as the Red River border between Fargo, North Dakota and Moorhead, Minnesota spreads out over the land. Happy for Spring, this mighty south to north flowing river is swelled and overreaching her banks, leaving human devastation in her wake. The Red River stood at 40.71 feet shortly after 8:15 a.m., down a bit from the 40.8 feet at the stroke of midnight. That’s nearly a foot higher than the Red River has ever before reached in recorded history.

Rivers have minds of their own. And the Red River is a rebel. I remember a 1970’s flooding of the Susquehanna River when I was in college in Pennsylvania. Everyone was evacuated to higher ground; we were out of school for a week. My hometown hosts the mighty Mississippi, a river that writer Mark Twain knew intimately. He wrote about her history and human habitation in Life on the Mississippi. He also had this to say about trying to tame her:


The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise…

       – Mark Twain in Eruption

The same appears to be true of the Red River. This week, citizens of the area have lost homes and businesses swallowed up by the river. Thousands of Midwesterners in the Great White North rose to the occasion, sandbagging between the echoing dribbles of basketball’s March Madness. Cheering for the home team kept their minds from spinning, a kind of in-the-moment relief.

But yesterday, officials in the flood-plagued Minnesota community of Moorhead asked about one-third of their households to evacuate ahead of the rising river. Moorhead along with neighboring Fargo, North Dakota, a city of more than 90,000, are preparing for further evacuations. The river is not expected to crest until Sunday afternoon, an all-time high of 42 feet. Thank goodness the cold weather this week left the Red frozen to the bone, unable to push the higher limits that were predicted.

Our prayers are with our communities to the North, though the odds may not be. It has always been this way with rivers; and so it shall always be. And if it’s true what Twain says that “we form our opinions of our country from what other people say of us,” then Midwesterners will always go down as a people who show up for each other when the chips are down. Middle of the country. Middle America. High regard for the land, the rivers, the habitat, and the people who commingle there.



It is strange how little has been written about the Upper Mississippi. The river below St. Louis has been described time and again, and it is the least interesting part. One can sit on the pilot-house for a few hours and watch the low shores, the ungainly trees and the democratic buzzards, and then one might as well go to bed. One has seen everything there is to see. Along the Upper Mississippi every hour brings something new. There are crowds of odd islands, bluffs, prairies, hills, woods and villages–everything one could desire to amuse the children.

Few people every think of going there, however. Dickens, Corbett, Mother Trollope and the other discriminating English people who ‘wrote up’ the country before 1842 had hardly an idea that such a stretch of river scenery existed. Their successors have followed in their footsteps, and as we form our opinions of our country from what other people say of us, of course we ignore the finest part of the Mississippi.

 – Interview in Chicago Tribune, July 9, 1886, from Mark Twain Quotations


– For up to the minute coverage, photographs, and history, read about the Red River Floods of March 2009 at these links:


-posted on red Ravine, Saturday, March 28th, 2009

-related to posts: haiku 2 (one-a-day), susquehanna haiku, savannah river haiku

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