For the last week, I’ve been working with high school students in Austin, Texas. Specifically, I (along with 11 other great teachers) am teaching 39 students everything they need to know about current events and public speaking. It’s my fourth year here in Austin and I’m having a hootenanny, however… IT’S TOO DAMN HOT. A couple of days ago, the high was 104, a record. I grew up in Dallas, Texas. Several of my poems reference memories of trying to cook eggs on the sidewalk because it was just that warm outside. My childhood memories of summer are rife with droughts, water restrictions (don’t water your lawn, except on Tuesdays and Fridays, etc.), and the joy of playing with water hoses because no one in my family could afford a swimming pool.
With that being said, I don’t live in the South anymore. And each time I come back, I feel less and less like a Southerner. I’ve made my peace with that reality. Now that I’ve gotten that rant out of my system (seriously, it’s been wearing me out), it’s worth mentioning that I really haven’t had the time to write or read since I’ve been here. I’m working with the students from 9:30 am until 10:30 pm. And when I do have free time, I’m usually too tired to think lucidly about poetry, much less put words on paper. At first, like the heat’s oppression, this had me a bit panicked. I’m working on my thesis this summer, which is to say I’m in the process of writing 45-60 poems. For the last two months, I’ve been living, breathing, and obsessing over these poems. After some meditation though, it occurred to me that that obsession is exactly why I needed to come here. I needed a break from writing so intensely. It’s not that I’ve stopped thinking about my work. Quite the contrary in fact. I can feel new images & ideas churning in my creative subconscious. Being back in Texas (or Tejas, depending on my mood) has reminded me what heat is & what it does to you. It’s a theme I’ve written about already and apparently, still want to write about — if, of course, I don’t die from heat exhaustion.
A few minutes ago, I was minding my own business, reading some poetry blogs. I clicked on the link to How a Poem Happens, a great blog by Brian Brodeur, and started reading his entry on “Requiem” by Camille Dungy. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was in no way prepared for the beauty & power of her poem. It knocked the wind out of me. As soon as I finished reading it, I walked into the next room and started reading the poem out loud to some friends. I would have fainted if I didn’t share that poem with someone (anyone) right away.
And now I’m sharing it with you. Read it and then go to Brian’s blog to read about Dungy’s process.
Sing the mass—
light upon me washing words
now that I am gone.
The sky was a hot, blue sheet the summer breeze fanned
out and over the town. I could have lived forever
under that sky. Forgetting where I was,
I looked left, not right, crossed into a street
and stepped in front of the bus that ended me.
Will you believe me when I tell you it was beautiful—
my left leg turned to uselessness and my right shoe flung
some distance down the road? Will you believe me
when I tell you I had never been so in love
with anyone as I was, then, with everyone I saw?
The way an age-worn man held his wife’s shaking arm,
supporting the weight that seemed to sing from the heart
she clutched. Knowing her eyes embraced the pile
that was me, he guided her sacked body through the crowd.
And the way one woman began a fast the moment she looked
under the wheel. I saw her swear off decadence.
I saw her start to pray. You see, I was so beautiful
the woman sent to clean the street used words
like police tape to keep back a young boy
seconds before he rounded the grisly bumper.
The woman who cordoned the area feared my memory
would fly him through the world on pinions of passion
much as, later, the sight of my awful beauty pulled her down
to tears when she pooled my blood with water
and swiftly, swiftly washed my stains away.
A confession: At the beginning of every summer, I experience a complete revulsion to the idea of reading contemporary poetry. I realize that this is foolish (actually, stupid) since I’m a contemporary poet, but I always feel like I need a break. My break: reading nonfiction and novels. Really though, writers like Toni Morrison have taught me about poetry as much as any poet.
Speaking of the great ToMo, lately – every time I see hydrangeas, I think of this beautiful passage from Tar Baby:
At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint, or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens – that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.
Now, if you don’t read that and automatically hear Walt Whitman himself, we could never be lovers.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end, / but I do not talk of the beginning or the end. / There was never any more inception than there is now, / Nor any more youth or age than there is now, / And will never be any more perfection that there is now, / Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now. (from Song of Myself)
Let’s not pretend that the validity and value of the MFA is still a hot topic. At the very least, it’s warm enough to warrant air-conditioning. I’m not going into a rant because, frankly, a lot of other people are much better at the whole sound & fury bit. I will simply say that the voices of actual students are often drowned out in arguments over something that is obviously very close to our lives. Recently, a friend criticized me for interviewing mfa graduates because.. well, what could they possibly have to say about writing? My answer: a lot. And anyone who disagrees probably should find another blog to start reading.
I genuinely am enjoying my MFA experience. Being able to work with a diverse faculty and student body has made all the difference. To say nothing of the countless opportunities I’ve be afforded in the last year alone, thanks in large part to my writing mentors. If you don’t want to get an MFA degree, then don’t. No one is making you. In the meantime, let the rest of us get on with our education.
And because I’m not totally one sided, here are some links.
Robert Peak shares what he learned during his MFA Program at Pacific University.
Louis Menand wonders if creative writing can, and should, be taught?
And J.A. Roebling responds to Menand’s article.
For those of you who have been keeping up, we’ve been lucky enough to follow poet DeLana Dameron through the process that finally culminated in the debut of her first book. Recently, I was able to interview DeLana about her book, poetics, and the publishing process. And so, it was with great pleasure that I attended her official Book Release Party for How God Ends Us.
In addition to getting to hear DeLana read from her book, we also got to hear from poets like Roger Bonair-Agard, Patrick Rosal, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and John Murillo. To say nothing of guests like the newly engaged Tara Betts & Rich Villar as well as Tyehimba Jess and Jericho Brown. With Cave Canem and poets from all over the City in attendance, DeLana’s book got the send-off it deserved.
The reason I’m drawing attention to this landmark is simple: young poets are inundated with bad news about the publishing industry and the seemingly fruitless enterprise of writing poems. While we can’t pretend that being a poetry is easy, it’s equally foolish to pretend that there isn’t joy in the struggle as well. DeLana’s party is a reminder that there is indeed enough joy for all of us.
Significantly, DeLana kicked things off by reading “won’t you celebrate with me” by Lucille Clifton, which concludes: “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”