Funny Duchess

Blog of artist and poet, Michelle Seaman

May 31, 2017

Fish

I have a brother who understands how I crave fish.

When I was in Florida for the month of March, my brother Micheal took my sister-in-law Charleen and me to a place in Dunedin called Frenchy’s Outpost. This lovely restaurant was biking distance from Caledesi State Park, one of my favorite places on the planet. I have hiked the nature trail many times, looking up at the ospreys in their nests, watching them tear meat from the bones of fish to feed it to their hungry, fuzzy babies. I love this park, so I was excited to finally visit the nearby seafood joint.

Frenchy’s is an open air restaurant, so although technically we sat inside, the ceiling fans were cranking, and the sea breeze flowed through the restaurant. I love eating al fresco, and there is nothing more relaxing than warm, salty air.

I opened the menu and saw that Frenchy’s offered not one, but four different kinds of grouper sandwiches- a regular grouper, a super grouper, a buffalo grouper, and my very favorite, a grouper rueben.

Nothing says I’m from Florida (and of Polish-German heritage) than a filet of fish with sauerkraut. This sandwich was superb, and I felt grateful.

I was home.

Florida is half of me. My other half is Midwestern. When I was a kid, my brothers and Dad fished the fresh water lakes and rivers of Wisconsin. I grew up eating perch, blue gills, catfish, and bass. The boys also ice fished, so we did eat fish all year long. Still, I associate this protein with some of my favorite spring and summer vegetables like asparagus, zucchini, and tomatoes right off the vine, so fish is warm weather food for me. It’s always fresh. (Well, almost always. As an honest side note, there are two other forms of not-so-healthy pesca that I ate as a kid—fish sticks from the school cafeteria and McDonald’s fish sandwiches. I am not ashamed to say I still eat these sometimes).

Our family took a trip to Florida in the 1970’s, and during this vacation, my cousin Michael made the most delicious crab enchiladas. I remember eating this meal as we sat beneath palm trees on the intercostal at my Aunt Margie and Uncle Angel’s house in Indian Rocks Beach. I remember feeling like we were eating the most exotic food in a most exotic setting.

I was hooked. Oh, pun intended!

Then, when we moved to Florida in the 1980’s, my family really got into salt water fish and seafood. My brothers and I worked at the same Cuban-Italian restaurant washing dishes. While we scrubbed burnt cheese and red sauce from cast iron pans, we also experienced certain rites of passage. We learned how to make Cuban sandwiches and Fra Diablo sauce, and we were introduced to things like deviled crabs and breaded fried scallops. I can barely type those two last dishes without salivating.

During my young adulthood, Florida continued to be good for my fish addiction. In college, whenever I went on a date, I always ordered steamed crab legs. My college roommate and I skipped our Sociology Class to partake in seafood buffets. I had the most delicious shrimp scampi in Tarpon Springs. I had my very first raw oysters and grouper rueben sandwich at Skipper’s Smokehouse, an iconic Tampa joint and live music venue. I’ve written about Skippie’s before. This was the place where I danced to live reggae music, the place where I won a bottle of champagne in a limbo contest. So many stories!

After college, I left Florida (and returned and left again several times). In each place that I’ve lived, I’ve tried the fish, but with a few exceptions, it’s never the same as eating it in the Sunshine State. I do try maintain a glass-half-full attitude for this blog, however, so I’ll briefly list the positive fish experiences outside of Florida:

In Chicago, I liked an imported fish from Hawaii called Butterfish, and I also enjoyed some coconut shrimp.

In North Carolina, there was a man who worked at the fish counter at Whole Foods. He made his own tarter sauce and consistently recommended whatever was freshest that day. Most of the time, it was tilapia that he had prepared himself. He made a great coconut macadamia tilapia. Benjamin and I also drove out to the beach to a place called William’s where we had the best snowy grouper.

In DC, we walked to the Sunday farmer’s market to get fresh crab cakes. These were delicious! We pan fried them in olive oil and ate them with salad. I never tried rockfish while I lived in DC, and I regret it. Someday I’ll remedy this.

In Berlin, I was proud of myself whenever I shopped because I had to do it in a different language. There was a Saturday market near our apartment where the patient German man understood me and kindly measured the .45 kilograms of Jakobsmuschel (scallops) or Kabeljau (cod) for our meals. Benjamin and I also frequented a couple of fish joints in the city—Fischfabrik and Der Fischladen. Both places offered generous portions for reasonable prices.

Here in New York, I like the salmon and cod, and the mussels are excellent. The place to dine out for fish is our favorite pub, The Bridge View Tavern. The menu changes at BVT, because Chef Chris likes to keep it fresh and interesting. My favorite dishes have been the fried catfish sandwich, the fish and chips, fish tacos, and grilled shrimp or salmon on the Harvest Salad. I have yet to try Bronzino in the many Italian restaurants here, but I plan to, as soon as I learn how to properly and safely eat a whole fish. Michael told me that when I do this, to make sure I keep bread nearby. “If you feel like you might have a bone in your throat, eat a piece of bread quickly, and it should stick to it and help you swallow it safely.” Good tip!

No matter where I roam, I know I will always find my way back to the Gulf of Mexico, to Tampa, my family, and especially to a brother who willingly carts his sister around in search of the best grouper sandwiches. Thank you, Micheal!

May 28, 2017

My Florida

I was in Florida, one of my former homes, for the month of March. Like all of my homes, this is a place that partially defines me. Here’s how…

Near my alma mater, the University of South Florida, there is a county park called Flatwoods. It has a 7-mile, paved trail that loops through swampland. I am in love with Flatwoods. I have written poetry about this place, biked this path for years, breathing in the pines, honoring the old growth cypress, noting the palms and palmettos that make me know… I am in Florida.

While biking, I have seen armadillos, gopher tortoises, sand cranes, hawks, ospreys, black racer snakes, and cotton mouth snakes, just to make of few species. I have heard alligators croaking from the water in the center of the park. My nephew and niece have seen a bobcat cross the path, and I watched a friend jump over some baby wild boars (on roller blades) during one of the park’s full moon skates. Yes, this is Florida, and this is a part of who I am.

The sky defines this park as the sky defines me. It likes to be open and clear, bright blue in the day, and full of shine at night. As a writer who lives much of the time inside her brain, this sky gives me a break, lightens any heavy a feel. For the $2 entry fee, I experience a most effective therapy. I don’t analyze anything. I just breathe.

I travel through Flatwoods slowly, taking it in, and this pace is me. There is too much fast traffic in Florida, like everywhere, but in Flatwoods, I am out of the car (or bus or train or plane). It is only my legs, my muscles, my heart, my lungs, the shifting of gears, and two bicycle tires. I can measure this speed. I understand it. I don’t have to hike and hurt my hip. I can glide in Flatwoods.

On this latest visit, my nephew, one of the magic nature boys in my family, took me to my favorite park. Blake saw the red-tail hawk first and showed me where he was perched in a pine. We watched the beautiful raptor take off into the cypress with those big wings, and I exhaled.

Florida…

He and I joked and told stories along the trail, and I knew he was family, because we were at home, in nature, just watching, talking light and laughing. Thank you, sweet nephew. You rule. Thank you Flatwoods for what you always give.

May 9, 2017

Fire

I have a brother who understands my love of fire.

When I was in Florida in March, I woke up one morning to the smell of burning wood. I felt like a little kid on Christmas morning. Matthew had started a fire for me! Better yet, he had set up my special chair, “Spicey,” a red folding chair we found at Home Depot, next to a big ol’ pile of kindling, so I could keep feeding my morning pyre. Oh yeah!

I’m not sure when my love affair started. Maybe it was the first time I went camping. I remember wearing my favorite jean jacket and loving how the smoke attached to the denim, how it wove into my hair. I loved that smell. I had heard that there was a chant you were supposed to do to prevent the smoke from following you around the campfire. You were supposed to say, “Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit.” I never chanted. I loved my fire. I wanted that smoke.

Throughout my adult years, whenever I have had a chance to be with fire, I have savored watching it change colors, shift the positions of logs as a powerful, moving sculpture, breaking everything down into ash. I’ve listened to wind meet fire, making it applaud softly. I’ve relished the sound of twigs snapping, the deep hum of oak, the crackle of pine. Fire has always soothed me.

When the sun isn’t out, I feel cold and I hate it. I light candles, and for a moment, I am ok. The snap of the match is satisfying, the sulfur, a breath I need, and those little baby flames are so cute dancing like they do, but alas, candles don’t usually do the trick. No. I want more. I want a bigger fire.

I think about how I have too many papers, journals, magazines, newspaper articles, bills. I think about the neighbor’s fire pit. I consider asking if I can sit with them, maybe throw some things in, but I know myself. Papers wouldn’t be enough. Soon, I’d be asking if I could add unwanted knick knacks, maybe even furniture. This wouldn’t be neighborly, and backyard bonfires probably aren’t legal.

Still, with my dreams of fire, I am dangerous person all winter long and on any grey day.

This is why I have to go to Florida, to be under the big fire of the sun, to bike in the swamps where the scent of the purposeful burns wafts onto the trail. I have to go to Florida to be with a brother who understands, a brother who will encourage me to sit by a fire until I’ve burned all my kindling down.

Thank you, Matthew.

March 12, 2017

Poets and Wolves

Sometimes, all I have to do is pay attention and ideas for poems present themselves to me.

It was Thursday, and I wanted Chopin. I wanted my favorite Polish potato vodka, and I expressed this to my friend, Mercedes. She reminded me that there was a liquor store in Tarrytown, where conveniently, I would be having lunch with another friend. Proximity bonus!

I strolled in and began to scan the shelves. A tall, handsome man asked if I needed help. I recognized his accent immediately, and I did what I always do whenever I hear English enhanced by a lovely accent… I relaxed. He spoke German. I just knew it.

“Yes, please,“ I said smiling, “I’m looking for Chopin vodka.”

“Ah, yes, the potato vodka,” he answered, “Let me see.”

At first, neither of us recognized the bottle. We were used to seeing it with the composer’s portrait on it, but this one simply had the label, and it was bright pink.

“I think this is for breast cancer awareness,” he said.

“Perfect! I’ll take it,” I said, and then I had to ask, “Where are you from? Your accent is beautiful.”

“Austria,” he said, and it was his turn to smile.

I knew it! From there, we talked about the challenges of speaking German, the beauty of Europe, the necessity for affordable health care, and how increased immigration is posing challenges for the continent. He wasn’t afraid to talk politics. Talk. Not argue. I really miss this about Europeans. When we were in Germany, talking politics was a natural part of the cultural fabric. Here in the States, it still seems like we either dance around anything controversial or we yell at each other. No happy medium. No civil discourse. Personally, I am curious about other people’s views, and I wish to discuss topics respectfully. My friend Wolfgang understood this.

In Austria, he was in the military as a border guard, and he interacted a little with Polish soldiers. He told me this was in the days of the wall, so things were “different then because of communism,” but he “learned a little Polish and it was a decent salary.” He also told me that he had his degree in Psychology, which he thought was essential to service in the military. “People think it’s about carrying a big gun and impressing people,” he said, “but it’s not. It’s about understanding human behavior.” Lastly, he expressed that he didn’t like what he was hearing from Trump’s mouth. “I’ve heard talk like this before,” he said, “and it’s no good.”

Wolf and I have had different life experiences, but there we were in the liquor store, talking about things that concerned us, learning from and listening to each other. This is my point. It can be done.

But back to my story of finding magic poetry.

I went from the liquor store to meet Loretta for lunch.

I’ve written about my friend in earlier posts. She is a fellow poet, a therapist, and co-owner of one of my favorite coffee shops in this area, Muddy Water Cafe. She and I have met several times to share our poems and give each other feedback. She has offered Muddy’s as a venue for Born in Snow gigs and Calyx and Parlance workshops. In January, she and I worked together with our friend, Heather Reid, to host a political salon. Loretta is a bright light, a sparkle face. Everyone who meets her sees her generous spirit, and I am grateful for her friendship.

For lunch that day, we talked like poets do, considering topics for poems that serve us better as we get older, and discussing punctuation as both function and visual design within a poem.

“I think I’m done writing about personal relationships. I want to write about bigger things,” she said. I agreed and added that nature kept coming up as the most compelling topic for me. I wanted to write about what nature means to me without sounding flowery or preachy. She also wanted to focus on the environment and human rights. We talked about how tricky it can be to fuse poetry and socio-political topics, how some poets can get pin-holed, and their work can get stuck in a moment in time, losing the sense of the universal.

Then, we transitioned to the practical, business side of writing. Loretta mentioned that she has a friend who is a well-connected literary agent, and that once I had completed my book, she’d introduce us. My stomach did cartwheels as she spoke. Again, I felt grateful for my friend’s giving nature, but I also felt the weight of making this thing I’ve been doing for the past few years, this writing a novel, real. Deep breath, in and out, in and out…

It was motivating to talk with my friend like this. It was a perfect lunch.

As a third sign post in my quest for new poetry, my story skips ahead to that Saturday, when Benjamin and I drove up to the New York Wolf Conservation Center. We have wanted to visit the wolves for some time, and there was finally a break in the weather. I was so excited!

The center has four ambassador wolves that the public is allowed to see- Alawa, Zephyr, Nikai, and Atka. The first three are litter mates (Alawa is the only female), and they are a mix of gray wolf species. Atka is an Arctic gray wolf and the eldest in the group. There are also twenty grey and red wolves that are part of the Species Survival Plan program. While the ambassadors will remain in captivity, the other wolves will hopefully be released and reintroduced into their natural habitats. Hopefully.

The educational program began with instructor Alex giving an overview of the center and teaching the humans about how important it is not to demonize wolves. He asked the children if they really thought the wolf in Red Riding Hood would dress in grandmother’s clothes and try to eat her. They responded with a resounding “No!”

After the slide presentation, we stepped outside and howled to “let the wolves know we were coming.” They did not howl back. Nevertheless, we hiked up the little hill to the ambassador’s enclosure, and when I saw them, I wanted to stay with them all day. I wanted to be with them under the stars. I wanted to hear them howl on their own. Beautiful as an adjective does not even come close to describing the wolves. They were rhythmic, graceful, and dignified.

What struck me most was how they moved along the fence line. Alawa took the lead, pacing, keeping her eyes fixed on the humans who were admiring her. She glided back and forth along that chain link, and Zephyr followed. He was so in sync with her that he anticipated when she was about to turn, and he turned, just a slight second before her. This went on and on, this back and forth, this music. Meanwhile, Nikai leapt three feet into the air, from a stand still position!

I had never seen canine behavior quite like this. I knew they were hungry, waiting for the treats that came as part of the presentation for the humans, but it looked like they were dancing. Something about this movement made me teary. I wanted to open the gate and let them out. I wanted them safe inside. I know how wolves have been treated. I know about ignorant, idiot humans hunting them for sport, but standing there, I chose to be grateful for places like the NYWCC, grateful for humans who give a damn about predators.

Still there was that fence…and something about the slow amble of Atka, the eldest wolf, outside of his Arctic element, pawing at the last of the snow in his enclosure…

So I thought about borders and a Wislawa Zymborska poem called ‘Psalm’ came to me. It begins:

Oh, the leaky boundaries of man-made states!
How many clouds float past them with impunity;
how much desert sand shifts from one land to another; how many mountain pebbles tumble onto foreign soil in provocative leaps!

I thought about Wolfgang and his gate with Polish soldiers…

And a poem of my own, or maybe a song, started in my brain…

A poem to honor those wolves and wolves everywhere, perhaps noting a connection with a man also named Wolf and dedicated to a poet named Loretta.

Yes, somewhere in there was a poem or a song, and I will write it into my journal until it jumps like a canine at a fence trying to get out. Alleluia.

March 6, 2017

My Holy Book

I keep a copy of the Norton Book of Nature Writing on my bedside table. I read selections from this book every night for comfort and inspiration.

The collection includes some of my favorite writers like: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, D.H. Lawrence, Aldo Leopold, Sigurd Olson, E.B. White, John Steinbeck, Rachel Carson, Richard Wright, Farley Mowat, Maxine Cumin, Edward Abbey, Edward O. Wilson, Sue Hubbell, Maxine Hong Kingston, Alice Walker, Annie Dillard, Linda Hogan, Diane Ackerman, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jamaica Kinkaid, Louise Erdrich, Barbara Kingsolver, and Michael Pollan.

Along with reading familiar writers, or as I consider it, visiting with old friends, I have been introduced to new voices within my Norton, voices like: Janisse Ray, Sharman Apt Russell, Evelyn White, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Celia Thaxter.

Thanks to my brother, I have this book, my holy book, and I feel like I have enrolled myself in a private Literature of Nature Class. Here are quotes from some of the writers in Norton. Read them all or scan and choose a favorite. May these words inspire, challenge, comfort, or slow you down…

“I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks,-who had a genius so to speak, for sauntering…the word comes from sans terre, without land or home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally home everywhere…” -Henry David Thoreau

“The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. In the presence of nature a wild delight runs through man, in spite of real sorrows.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

“…for the last two days it has been the great wild bee, the humblebee, or “bumble” as the children call him. They play a leading part in my morning, mid-day, or sunset rambles, and often dominate the landscape…Large and vivacious and swift, with wonderful momentum and a loud swelling perpetual hum, varied now and then by something almost like a shriek, they dart to and fro conveying to me a new and pronounced sense of strength, beauty, vitality, and movement.” -Walt Whitman

“Talk of hanging gardens of Babylon, all Italy, apart from the plains, is a hanging garden. Thousands of square miles of Italy have been lifted by human hands, piled and laid back in tiny little flats, held up by the drystone walls, whose stones came from the lifted earth. It is a work of many, many centuries. It is the gentle sensitive sculpture of all the landscape. Which shows that it can be done. Man can live on the earth, and by the earth without disfiguring the earth.” —D.H. Lawrence

“A dawn stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass. Like the white ghost of a glacier the mists advance, riding over the phalanxes of tamarack, sliding across bog-meadows heavy with dew. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon.”-Aldo Leopold

“…shifting colors seemed drained from the horizons to form one gigantic rosette of flame and yellow and greenish purple. Suddenly I grew conscious of the reflections from the ice itself and that I was skating through a sea of changing color caught between the streamers above and below. At that moment I was part of the aurora, part of its light and of the great curtain that trembled above me.”-Sigurd Olson

“[Walden] still seems to me the best youth’s companion yet written by an American, for it carries a solemn warning against the loss of one’s valuables, it advances a good argument for traveling light and trying new adventures, it rings with the power of positive adoration, it contains religious feeling without religious images, and it steadfastly refuses to record bad news.” -E.B. White

“The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow, as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental margins warps up and down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.” -Rachel Carson

“There was the echoes of nostalgia I heard in the crying strings of wild geese winging south against a bleak, autumn sky. There was the tantalizing melancholy in the tingling scent of burning hickory wood. There was the love I had of the mute regality of tall, moss-clad oaks. There was the relish of eating my first fried fish sandwich, nibbling at it slowly and hoping that I would never eat it up.” -Richard Wright

“It seems to me possible, even probable, that many of the nonhuman, undomesticated animals experience emotions unknown to us. What do the coyotes mean when they yodel at the moon? What are the dolphins trying so patiently to tell us? Precisely what did those two enraptured gopher snakes have in mind when they came gliding toward my eyes over naked sandstone? And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? We are obliged, therefore to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred.” -Edward Abbey

“One spring afternoon, I was walking back down my lane after getting the mail. I had two fine new flowers to look up when I got back to the cabin. Warblers were migrating, and I had been watching them with binoculars; I had identified one I had never before seen. The sun was slanting through new leaves, and the air was fragrant with cherry blossoms, which my bees were working eagerly. I stopped to watch them, standing in the sunbeam. The world appeared to have been running along quite nicely without my even noticing it.” -Sue Hubbell

“Giant philodendrons tear apart the cars abandoned in the jungle. Tendrils crawl out of the hoods; they climb the shafts of steam shovels that had dug the highway. Roofs and trunks break open, turn red, orange, brown, and sag into dirt.”-Maxine Hong Kingston

“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I’d half awaken. He’d stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I’d wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I’d been painted with roses.” -Annie Dillard

“The first time I was fortunate to catch a glimpse of mating bats was in the darkest corner of a zoo. I was held spellbound, seeing the fluid movement of the bats as they climbed each other softly and closed their wings together. They were an ink black world hanging from a rafter. The graceful angles of their dark wings opened and jutted out like an elbow or knee poking through
a thin, dark sheet. A moment later it was black, a silky shawl pulled tight around them. Their turning was beautiful, a soundless motion of wind blowing great dark dunes into new configurations.” -Linda Hogan

“There was always in the margins of the cornfield just beyond our yard, in the brushy scraps of abandoned pasture, right-of-ways along the railroad tracks, along the river itself, and in the corners and unseeded lots of the town, a lowly assertion of grass. It was big grass. Original prairie grass-bluestem and Indian grass, side oats grama. The green fringe gave me the comforting assurance that all else planted and tended and set down by humans was somehow temporary. Only grass is eternal. Grass is always waiting in the wings.” -Louise Erdrich

“The 1964 National Wilderness Act includes ‘outstanding opportunities for solitude’ as part of a definition of what wilderness is. Socially, we believe that the point of wilderness is to get away from people. Spiritually, we want to meet Nature stripped of our accoutrements and modern “superficial” selves. We want to be that vulnerable.” -Sharman Apt Russell

“I believe the fear I experience in the outdoors is shared by many African American women and that it limits the way we move through the world and colors the decisions we make about our lives. My genetic memory of ancestors hunted down and preyed upon in rural settings counter[ed] my fervent hopes of finding peace in the wilderness. Determined to reconnect myself to the comfort my African ancestors felt in the rift valleys of Kenya and on the shores of Sierra Leone, I eventually decided to go on a rafting trip. Charging over the river, orange life vest firmly secured, my breathing relaxed and I allowed myself to drink in the stately rocks, soaring birds, towering trees, and affirming anglers who waved their rods as we rushed by in our raft. About an hour into the trip, in a magnificently still moment, I looked up into the heavens and heard the voice of black poet Langston Hughes: ‘I’ve known rivers of the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins. I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young. I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep. I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it. My soul has grown deep like rivers.’ …comforted by our tribal ancestors-herders, gatherers, and fishers all-I am less fearful, ready to come home.” -Evelyn White

“Something happens to you in an old growth forest. At first you are curious to see the tremendous girth and height of the trees and you sally forth, eager. You start to saunter, then amble, slower and slower, first like a fox and then an armadillo and then a tortoise, until you are trudging at the pace of an earthworm, and then even slower, the pace of a sassafras leaf’s turning. The blood begins to languish in your veins, until you think it has turned to sap. You hanker to touch the trees and embrace them and lean your face against their bark, and you do. You smell them. There’s this strange current of energy running skyward, like a thousand tiny bells tied to your capillaries, ringing with your heartbeat. You sit and lean against one trunk…The trunk is your spine, the nerve centers reaching into other worlds, below ground and above. You stand and press your body into the ancestral and enduring, arms wide, and your fingers do not touch. You wonder how big the unseen gap. I drink old-growth forest like water. Here I walk shoulder to shoulder with history, my history. I am in the presence of something ancient and venerable, perhaps of time itself, its unhurried passing marked by immensity and stolidity, each year purged by fire, cinched by a ring. Here mortality’s roving hands grapple with air. I can see my place as human in a natural order more grand, whole, and functional that I’ve ever witnessed, and I am humbled, not frightened by it. Comforted. It is as if a round table springs up in the cathedral of pines and God graciously pulls out a chair for me, and I no longer have to worry about what happens to souls.” -Janisse Ray

February 27, 2017

Miko and The Snowflake Love Letter Poem

Miko and I have entered a competition!

For the past couple of months, my sweet friend and I have been collaborating on a sculpture.

It all began with Miko asking me if I wanted to participate in a contest that had to do with snowflakes. I was intrigued. She explained that every year, there is a contest in Japan inspired by the nuclear physicist, Ukichiro Nakaya. Nakaya’s work centers on snow crystal formation, and he has been famously quoted as saying that each snow crystal is like “a letter from the sky.”

I loved this and Miko knew I would. She encouraged me to write a poem with this quote as inspiration, and I began.

Because she and I have also been working on flower poems for Calyx & Parlance, I asked her first about flowers shaped like snowflakes. She immediately thought of stephanotis or white jasmine. I thought about these flowers, the changing seasons, the romance of the night sky, the beauty of snow at night, how a snowflake is a raindrop in the spring, and how flowers bloom from rain. After a few drafts, I came up with this:

I am sending you a letter from the sky
a thousand quiet shining stars
my voice turning to snow
the sound of powder kisses
falling only for you

catch them on your tongue
taste rain, each droplet, blooming jasmine
delicate flowers for your lips
petals from rain, snow, and stars
falling for you
in a love letter from the sky

My line breaks weren’t perfect, but it didn’t matter. In working with a skilled visual artist like Miko, I am reminded of how text can become abstracted, how poems can read as stream of consciousness or even as run-on sentences, and it’s ok. For someone who obsesses over her line breaks, and as a former grammar and syntax teacher, this was challenging at first. I kept fighting with these ideas. This is why I am grateful to have Miko in my life. She sees the work differently. Her encouraging, honest feedback helped me to have the breakthrough I needed, to get the poem into a block form, and turn it from poetry into visual art.

I hand wrote the poem onto card stock, Benjamin made a vector out of it, and we cut it out with our Cricut (see photo above). The next task was to figure out how to make it more sculptural. Our love letter poem was delicate, like paper lace, and since the judges would be picking it up, it needed to be more secure. We also needed to decide if it was meant to be hung or propped up, and we wanted to make it look like an older letter, since letter writing is a traditional art.

We brainstormed and brainstormed! Miko stained our piece to make it look more antiquated, and I played around with light blue embroidery floss to mimic or suggest lines of notebook paper.
Then in a flourish of inspiration, Miko saw the final touch. “Glass!” she exclaimed, “We need to press it between pieces of glass! This would be like chunks of ice!”

It was perfect! She also had the insight to suggest tying the pieces of glass together with twine, like an antiquated package, and viola! We had our sculpture combining poetry, paper cutting, embroidery floss, twine, and glass. We had our snowflake love letter from the sky.

As a test, I showed Benjamin a photo of the layered glass with the poem and embroidery floss. He said, “Oh, nice! It’s like the thread is cracks in the ice.”

One of the best things about making art is witnessing how others interpret it. Miko and I didn’t think of the embroidery floss as cracks in ice, so we were pleasantly surprised by Benjamin’s observation. Fingers crossed the judges will see our work and like it too!

January 30, 2017

Trilogy Consignment

There’s a song called “Happiness” by Clark Gesner.

The first lines are:

Happiness is finding a pencil,
sleeping in moon light,
telling the time.

The song goes on to describe simple things that can make a kid happy. Thanks to Trilogy Consignment in Tarrytown, this kid has found happiness, and I have my own version of Gesner’s song:

Happiness is finding a pencil skirt,
while shopping consignment
in my home town.

Heh heh. Actually, at Trilogy, I found a grey wool dress with an empire waist, a dressy black blouse with a design of white and red dandelions, a soft brown and beige flannel shirt, and a groovy winter white half cardigan. Lovely!

Heather Reid, the shop’s owner, is a groovy woman herself. Not only does she provide Tarrytown with quality clothes at affordable prices, she also hosts Solidarity Salon, a weekly gathering of people who discuss social issues and concerns. I have attended five salons, and each time I have felt like I learned something, and I met new, nice people.

In keeping with my promise to live as John Stilgoe advises in his book Outside Lies Magic, I am always continuously inspired to discover new things, right outside my door, and I am grateful for Heather, Trilogy, and Solidarity Salon!

To sum up, here’s more Gesner:

Happiness is playing the drum
in your own school band,
and happiness is walking hand in hand.

And here’s me:

Happiness is playing dress up
in your own neighborhood
and finding an outfit that makes you feel good!

January 30, 2017

Wendy and Her Spring Rolls

I just learned how to make Chinese spring rolls!

My neighbor, Wendy, invited me to her home for this lesson. She wanted to practice her English conversation skills, and I wanted to learn a new recipe, so it was a perfect exchange!

I climbed the steps to Wendy’s apartment, and the first thing I saw was a wall filled with her 8 year old daughter’s drawings, a wall of pure joy! Kid art amazes me. Of course I love how they draw with abandon, no inhibitions, not allowing self-criticism to sneak in, but I also pay attention to their choices of color, scale, and composition. Because I draw, and I started to draw when I was a kid, I remember making these decisions and having inner dialogues as I drew. I look for stories in children’s art, and Wendy’s daughter had a lot of things to say! Greeted with a wall of joyful art, I felt immediately comfortable in Wendy’s home.

She and I sat at her kitchen table where she had already prepared the shredded filling for the rolls—Chinese cabbage, carrots, and mushrooms. She showed me how much filling to spread across the beautiful, paper thin, rice wraps and how to roll and fold them into pretty ‘envelopes.’ Wendy cautioned me not to roll them too tight, because they could explode in the hot grease. I noted the warning. Then, she poured sunflower oil into a deep frying pan and let it get really hot. When it was ready, she used a large pair of chop sticks to place them into the oil and she turned them slowly, so each side got nice and crispy.

As each spring roll fried, Wendy and I shared details about our lives. She asked about my poetry, and I told her that I was working on a poem for my uncle and our relationship.

Wendy then showed me a brush, made from a ram’s horn, used specifically for writing Chinese characters. On another wall in her living room, she had a beautiful scroll with poetic verses on it. She also told me that she was an athlete when she was younger. She used to practice competitive parachuting or base jumping. Yes, my new friend Wendy jumped off buildings as part of a sports team. Amazing!

I wrote down vocabulary words or phrases when she asked for clarification, and I ate three or four of those rolls while we were talking. The kitchen smelled delicious, and I felt grateful.

It may be a small and perhaps common thing for women to sit in kitchens, cook together and talk, but it meant the world to me. Wendy and I made a connection as neighbors and new friends. We proved that regardless of cultural and language differences, we had things in common. It was a lovely way to spend an afternoon.

December 14, 2016

Hallows Salon

In late October, my mothers-in-law, Amy and Shatar, came for a visit. Benjamin and I decided to throw a little party for them, and the party turned into a salon! Yay! One of my Halloween wishes came true!

Formally, a salon is defined as “an assembly of guests in a (drawing room or parlor), especially common during the 17th and 18th centuries, consisting of the leaders in society, art, politics, etc.”

While our small gathering was not comprised of leaders per se, we did form an impressive group. Together we were avid readers, experts in nutrition, physical therapy, and mixology, florists, gardeners, ballroom dancers, sculptors, poets, and musicians.

We served an excellent assortment of charcuterie, which Amy arranged beautifully, and the beverages flowed, thanks to Shatar’s generous pour. The highlighted drink of the night was vodka and grapefruit juice with sprinkles of pink salt. I think we decided to call it the Salt Shaker, because we are movers and shakers, tee hee, but this cocktail is also traditionally called a Salty Dog, or a Salty Sam, in honor of Amy and Shatar’s favorite golden dog residing in Colorado. Whatever the name, it was delicious!

So we sipped and ate and gathered around our coffee table to talk. Conversation topics included salon favorites like travel, politics, and music.

Born in Snow, our new trio project, shared some songs for the group. First, Benjamin and V performed “Amber Song,” and then we played three more songs that we’d recorded this summer—“Homemade Rocket,” “Make It Poetry,” and “Stone Cold.” We shared our processes for each song with our friends and family, and they graciously offered feedback. Yes, we knew that because our loved ones love us that they were bias, but still, it was a beginning, a little test balloon to see if people of varying age groups and experiences could relate to our work. And they could! Yay!

Along with the supportive praise, we learned that more of a male voice (or more of Benjamin on vocals) could provide a balance in our work. We were told that we sounded “experimental” and that if V sang in a minor key, this could be beautiful too. I listened to these comments and thought about how I have fallen into song writing, how I have learned so much about music from my husband and my friend, and how fortunate I am.

After we played, our friend, Loretta, shared her writing. She had just returned from a month in Greece where she had worked with women and children as a volunteer trauma counselor in a Syrian refugee camp. Needless to say, Loretta’s work was powerful. I was left with images of children hanging paper chains on chain link fences and phrases like “these children are children like my own.” Through her work, and currently in more recent conversations, my friend teaches empathy. How lucky we are to know her!

That evening, in our humble salon, we raised some spirits, drank some down, and it was a perfect Halloween!

November 27, 2016

Poetry in Tim’s for Twelve Bucks

Years ago, I went into Malaprops Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. I selected a copy of Ariel by Sylvia Plath and headed to the register. As I placed my book down on the counter, the saleswoman asked, “Are you a poet?”

“Yes,” I responded, “how did you know?”

“Oh,” she answered in a blasé tone, “because only poets buy books of poetry.”

Aw man, and here I thought my face may have given me away as a scribbler of verse. Foiled again!

Bookstores are my favorite stores. I especially like used bookstores, because you can time travel in them and delight in unique treasures.

In a roadside bookstore in Maine, I walked under a cat who was drooped over the top shelves as lazily as the Cheshire on his branch in Alice In Wonderland. This kitty was scrappy. She hissed at me, and the proprietor said, “Ah, don’t mind her. She hisses at everybody.” I gave Ms. Bitchy a wink. I like it when cats let you know to stay away, and I wish I could hiss at people sometimes.

In another bookstore, not too far from our home, Benjamin, our friends Allen and Nick, and I enjoyed some elaborate signage. Most people observe brevity with signs. Not the owner of this store. One sign read something like: If you’re the type of person who picks up a book, and then doesn’t put it back in the same place, please know you’re not necessarily welcome here.

Ok, I may have taken some liberty with the last part of that paraphrase, but you get the tone. I thought it was hilarious.

Maybe there is something about being a bookstore owner that makes you a bit uppity (think Women and Women First from Portlandia). Or maybe it’s just that when you own a bookstore, it’s your home, your turf, so guests best play by the rules.

In Provincetown, there was a simple sign as you entered Tim’s Used Books that asked shoppers to turn off their cell phones and spend some quality time with the books. It was ironic then to see the owner on his cell phone, but as Emerson said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds…and to be great is to be misunderstood.” I suppose if you’re the king of the bookstore castle, you can be the only one tastefully on your cell phone.

Tim’s is a lovely store. I found a copy of Billy Collins’s Sailing Alone Around the Room and Carolyn Forche’s The Country Between Us for a total of $12. Score! Tim did not ask about my poetic status, and I was grateful he didn’t. I also have to credit him for persuading me to buy Billy’s work. I don’t know exactly what made me avoid Sir Collins for this long. Maybe because he was so popular, like a poetry pop music star, I didn’t give him a fair chance, but wow, do I love him now! Poems in this collection that I particularly love are:

Walking Across the Atlantic- This poem resonates with me on a personal level, because I have my own poem-song where I talk to the Atlantic and ask it to be my road.

Winter Syntax- I love the imagery in this poem…the “yellow pencil in a sparkling blue vase” and the “tiny sentences” as “devoted ants” following the writer in from the woods.

Advice to Writers- I love the line “bare branches in winter are a form of writing.”

Introduction to Poetry- I love how Billy tells his students to “drop a mouse” into their poems.

Schoolsville- Again, this one has a personal resonance because of the opening stanza…I too have had enough students to populate a small town.

Madmen
and
Lines Among Lost Trees
-Both of these capture what it feels like to almost have a poem, to have it just within your reach, and then it disappears.

Passengers-Billy describes the surreal feeling of being on an airplane exactly how I feel.

Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes-This poem is sexy and respectful, and I want to read it a thousand times.

Japan-In this poem, Billy makes you feel a haiku, feel it linger throughout an entire day.

and

Nightclub- The last line of this poem is “we have become beautiful without even knowing it.” This poem is about jazz, staying late listening to music in a club, love, beauty, and a perfect moment.

Reading Carolyn’s work floored me, just like it did when I first read this collection, back in the early 90’s. She has a way of capturing a particular point in time while still making it timeless. Both Denise Levertov and Margaret Atwood describe this better. Denise says her work has “no seam between the personal and political” and Margaret says it is “ achingly sensual and political at the same time.”

Among the most powerful poems for me in The Country Between Us are:

The Island-The imagery in the beginning of this poem catches me right away… mist rising from an ocean and being torn like bread. Carolyn also uses the image of tiny mirrors stitched to a dress. And here I have a confession. Somehow this must have gotten into my subconscious, because I have actually glued tiny mirrors to a dress, and I’ve written a couple of poems with this image too. Carolyn, if you ever read this, wherever you are, I swear I will cite your poem as inspiration for my work from now on. How very haunting to know that a poem stays with you so deep you don’t remember until you read it again.

As Children Together-This poem has the tone of the Nancy Griffith song, “There’s a Light Beyond These Woods.” Both the song and Carolyn’s words speak to girlhood friendship and the dreams that we have when we are young of getting out of our small towns.

Joseph
and
Selective Service
-Both of these are poems to men and soldiers. They are heartbreaking, and this is all I can really say about them.

and

For a Stranger-This poem accurately describes what it’s like to meet someone on a train, share an intense conversation, and know you may never see them again. Joe Degenhardt, Casey Smith, Ginny and Fran, and Dan Mason, wherever you are, may you be well, and may we meet again someday.

Finding poetry in a used bookstore…this is all right by me! Thank you, Tim!

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