Thursday, March 31, 2011

It’s National Poetry Month again! To the founders of this celebration, April seemed like the perfect time to celebrate poetry—no all-consuming holidays (if you don’t count April Fool’s Day, the birthdays of yours truly or Amy Cornell (a founder of this very blog), or Easter), no school exams, no snowstorms if we’re lucky—and income tax preparation just cries out for artistic distraction . Not too much happens in the thirty lengthening days of this season of transition, where the weather can vary wildly from day to day.

Here is some background on the celebration and its origins in 1996.

April 14 is “Poem in your Pocket Day.” “The idea is simple: select a poem you love during National Poetry Month then carry it with you to share with co-workers, family, and friends.” If you like, The Academy of American Poets will sell you a little volume filled with poems to tear out and share; this year they’ve added another volume for kids.

Teachers are especially encouraged to celebrate the month in their classrooms; the idea is to bring poetry to life, even for the dubious: Scholastic and ReadWriteThink are two sites with suggestions for working with kids. (I’ve just learned, belatedly, that in 2006, the Poetry Foundation named Jack Prelutsky the inaugural American Children’s Poet Laureate. Who knew?)

Here’s a fun list of activities, one for each day of the month, if you are so inclined. I especially like the suggestions for advocacy—lobbying elected officials for arts funding or asking the US Postal Service for more stamps commemorating poets. How about exploring the Favorite Poem Project initiated by one of my favorite Poets Laureate, Robert Pinsky?

Saturday, April 9th is a day of poetry at Women Writing for (a) Change, Bloomington. From 10am-Noon "Poetry Detectives" will discuss poems. Check them out. From 1-3pm, Beth Lodge-Rigal and Nancy Long offer a free sample class for writers and aspiring writers of poetry.

Here's a highly ambitious observance of National Poetry Month—join those attempting to write a poem a day as a participant in NaPoWriMo. “How do [you] participate in NaPoWriMo? Easy! Just write a poem a day for the month of April. You can post them on the internet. You can hide them in a notebook. You can make up a special book just for yourself out of them. Really, all you need to do is write a poem a day for the month of April.”

Enjoy the month! And share with us what you come up with to celebrate poetry in April!

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Summer Camp at Poplar Grove

Summer Camp at Young Women Writing for (a) Change provides a special opportunity for girls and young teens to enjoy being themselves through many channels of creative exploration. A day at camp is a day in paradise for girls and young teens who love to write. Camp is held in mid-July at the historic Poplar Grove Schoolhouse, a building that served eastern Monroe County as an elementary school in the early 1900s. Poplar Grove now houses offices and writing space for Women Writing for (a) Change, a writing program in Bloomington since 2004, offering youth programming since 2009.

A typical day of camp begins with writers gathering in a circle formed by comfortable pillows and chairs around a center cloth. Facilitators open the day by reading a poem, often followed by an invitation for writers to dive into their first short burst of writing. In these “fast write” exercises, emphasis is placed on writing freely, keeping the pen flowing, and turning off the inner critic who insists on perfect grammar, sentence structure, and spelling. The result is writing that holds depth and insight, with interesting associations that arise from the non-analytical side of the writer’s mind. Participants are given the opportunity to share their writing fresh from the pen, in varying ways. This might include partner sharing, reading out loud in small groups, and large group. Careful attention is given to how writers listen and create safe space for one another, and it is always honorable to pass if a writer chooses not to share at any given time.

One way young writers learn to listen and respond to one another is through the recording of “read back lines” which are resonant words or phrases captured by listeners and read back to the writer at the end of her sharing. Hearing one’s words echoed back is an affirmation to the writer, contributing to an “acoustics of intimacy” that strengthens a writer’s connection to her voice. This support of authentic voice is the underlying mission of Young Women Writing for (a) Change. The added benefits are self- confidence, a sense of belonging, and deep engagement in the creative process.

Camp is led by trained facilitators, and a low teacher-student ratio of 1:5 is maintained. Leaders participate in writing exercises and share their writing alongside students. Hands-on craft activities, music, movement, and visual writing prompts are often incorporated, as well as writing outdoors under the shade tree in the large back yard. At the end of each day, participants reflect on their experience before closing the circle for the day. At the end of the week, camp culminates in a special read-around for parents and friends. One parent reflected, “This was a beautiful experience…these girls are courageous and creative. You do a phenomenal service for them in providing a safe place for them to be brave.”

For more information about Young Women Writing for (a) Change, or to register for camp, please visit

-- Kim for the Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

I Remember the Sandwiich

I Remember the Sandwich

In the PBS Masterpiece series Any Human Heart, a character named Gloria Scabius is talking about herself as a poor young woman. She tells her companion about a time she only had enough money for a sandwich or a bunch of violets. She bought the violets. She said she would have forgotten the sandwich, but she remembered the violets. I probably would have remembered the sandwich. That struck a chord with me and got me to thinking about memory. When I took a Cognitive Psychology course, we studied memory and no one seems to know precisely how the brain processes and chooses what information it stores. I find it fascinating; especially when things float to the surface that I haven’t thought about in years.

I remember great meals and the great cooks in my family. My brain has stored the light, fluffy taste and texture of Aunt Etta Mae’s homemade coconut cream pie; the smell of Mother’s yeast bread as it rose in the pan; the popcorn Dad served us with slices of crisp red apples in the fall. Those memories tell my mouth to water and it does. When I smell burnt food, I remember my Grandma Wentz’s fried potatoes and can see my grandpa smothering them in ketchup in a futile attempt to cover up the burnt taste.
Memory can be triggered so randomly. Friday night when I was watching Jeopardy!, one of the questions was, “Who is Chopin?”. That triggered a memory of a tiny bust of Chopin that my piano teacher had given me. It sat on my piano for years. I’m not sure what it was made of, something white that had a little sparkle to it and was gritty to the touch. I wonder what ever happened to it.

Memories are like dominoes, one touches another, opening up another remembrance. Piano lessons remind me of how I used to bite my nails. My parents tried everything to get me to stop. Rewards didn’t work; even painting my nails with a special hot sauce mixture they got at the drug store for nail biters didn’t work ­--­ I thought it tasted good. No outside stimuli worked. What did the trick came from inside me when I began playing in recitals around age 12. The public shame of displaying bleeding nails and cuticles made me stop cold turkey.
Smells are always a good memory trigger. Once in a while, when I smell cigarette smoke that has a special acridness to it, I’m taken back to when, as a little girl in grade school, I would be awakened in the middle of the night by that same smell and the low murmur of my parent’s voices in the next room. As an adult, I realized what they had been doing, but as a child I just thought it was a funny time of night to be awake and smoking. That was before things got really bad between them.

As an adult, I sleep with the covers over my head, just my eyes and nose sticking out. My ears are always covered. I remember doing that as a child to try and drown out the angry voices of my parents. It only muffled them, but it felt safer somehow. I haven’t lived in a house with angry voices since I was a child, but I still seem to need the comfort of covering my ears.

My son grew up in a house without angry voices. The memories I have of raising him are my best memories. He was fun. He had, and still has, the best giggle I’ve ever heard. He’s always been the trickster, loves to play jokes, even as an adult. One of the best tricks he played on me, still makes me laugh out loud. He was about 24 and living with me temporarily. I had come in late and Casey was already in bed. I made myself a bologna sandwich. The phone rang; I sat my sandwich plate on the coffee table and went to my room to take the call. It was an extended conversation, when I came back out and hungrily bit into my sandwich, I couldn’t bite all the way through it. I opened it up and discovered my bologna had been replaced with a piece of cardboard the exact size of the round of bologna. I immediately yelled, “Very funny, Casey!” All I heard from the next room was, “Heh, heh, heh”.

Casey is an artist. The other day I was going through some of the drawings he did as a child. In one of the drawings he used a cross hatch pattern for shading. Another domino falls. I’m immediately taken back to riding in the back seat of my Grandpa Wentz’s Studebaker. It’s summer time and Grandpa is wearing his straw fedora with the black band. He has just had a hair cut and I could see the back of his tanned neck. It had deep cross hatch marks in it. I was fascinated with those marks and what caused them and why they didn’t match the smooth skin on his face.

Because my Grandpa Wentz was such an important person in my life, I’m back again to wondering about memory and how it affects the way we live our daily lives. I’ve worked hard to get my life to where it is today. It allows me to be a happy combination of a social person and one who needs solitary time. This helps keep my life balanced, because when I write during my solitary time, I often draw from the dark and difficult memories of my childhood. I don’t believe writing heals in and of itself, but it gets me to a place where I can process, move on and make more memories, which will create more dominoes to tumble and fall on one another, releasing sources of never-ending memories that make a writing life so rich.

Rebekah for Poplar Grove Muse

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

It's How You See It

I’ve been reading these big Graphic Memoir-slash-Meditations on the creative process by artist-slash-writer, Lynda Barry. She’s a cartoonist of the non-mainstream variety, a novelist, a workshop instructor, and advocate of naming and releasing the monsters that keep people from accessing their singular creative authority. Her books What It Is (2008) and Picture This (2010) are wild collage and Zen ink painting explorations of her own evolving understanding of herself as a creative person.

So when I read a book, any book, I look for myself in it somewhere. We do that, right? The characters in Barry’s books come from a world I don’t intimately know. I didn’t grow up on the “wrong side of the tracks” as Barry’s heroine does. I didn’t fall asleep under a threadbare blanket in a trailer in the flicker of the blue TV screen. But I commune intently with the inner world of her searching characters. I was definitely a girl whose first break with her childhood innocence came when she discovered the smelly wheat-colored gum eraser; when the nose on the face of the princess she drew on the newsprint drawing pad was all wrong, and the page ripped and the whole thing had to be crumpled up and started over. And over. When the question: “Is this any good?” came up, and the answer “No, it’s terrible” came back. When this happens, our connection to our first trust of our artistic instinct has been severed. At least this was 100% true for me.

So much of my own life’s journey has been a trip back to the time before I cared whether whatever I was making was good or not. The time of pure play, of living in experience, living inside the pictures that came in to my head as real as any I saw in a picture book. This was the time before erasers and expectations of perfection, if not grandeur. For me those times existed on a woven rug in a tiny naptime room where hours were lost to the unfolding story in the stick figures trekking across vast white landscape of a page in search of the lost village, the small white dog, the magical sea shell.

It took me a long time to realize the true value of a creative life was not the end result, but what was illuminated along the way in the squiggles and merging images and words that showed HOW I was seeing as I went along. There's a kind of presence to the present moment, the image as it presents itself and a willingness to go with it unselfconsciously that we all knew once and I'm convinced, can be reclaimed again if we want to. This doesn't diminish my reverence for aspiration, the masterpieces of art, literature, theater, and song or my respect for those who aim to do fine work.

I’ve been lucky because in spite of the big gum eraser in the sky, I managed to claim enough permission to scribble my way forward and reach out to others, each of us working with our own god-given abilities to draw the princess faces, the landscapes, the, blue-lit rooms, we remember and know. The aliveness and interchange of this work brings me more happiness than I can articulate. And you know what? Sometimes something both artful and informative emerges through the process of giving oneself this permission.

The smoke and mirrors of a world out there that falls on its knees in reverence to “recognition” –whether deserved or not from the standpoint of pure artfulness, is so less interesting to me than the divine creative spirit in each of us ordinary people finding our way back to our source. I believe all people deserve the chance to re-connect with this part of them selves.

This won’t put me on any magazine covers, but it puts me where I really want to live for the moment. And that’s how I see it today.

BLR -Poplar Grove Muse

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Breaking Bread and Boundaries

I am co-leading a feminist spirituality group in my faith community, along with two remarkable women whose life stories are quite different from my own. Apart from traditional women’s circles and auxiliaries, I wonder if there has ever been a class limited to women only, devoted to thinking about women, their faith journeys, and their life stories in this congregation before. It has been a rich experience, drawing women from all stages of life—20’s to 80’s, gay, bi- and straight, every marital status, with no kids, young kids, and grown kids, from a surprising array of faith and non-faith backgrounds, and an array of political perspectives for a largely progressive community.

We are reading Sara Miles’ Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion, a memoir of her sudden, radical conversion, as a leftist, lesbian, atheist journalist, to Christian faith manifested in feeding others, especially the poor and those most unlike herself. One of her central, evolving tenets is that we must rub shoulders with those who are not like us to truly make a difference in the world. I tend to take a pretty traditional approach to lesson preparation, and I really didn’t know what to expect from this group. But the discussions have been delightful, wide-ranging, and deeply questioning. I should have known that we could count on a group of engaged adult women to come together to talk, having done the reading, with many reflections to share, in a spirit of mutual respect, tolerance, and safety.

I am still processing a February 11 column in the New York Times by Bob Herbert, in which he stated: “As the throngs celebrated in Cairo, I couldn’t help wondering about what is happening to democracy here in the United States. I think it’s on the ropes. We’re in serious danger of becoming a democracy in name only.” I actively grieve recent political developments and devolutions, and sometimes despair of how we, at the local, grassroots level, can work to repair and rejuvenate our societal fabric despite the torrent of partisan hatefulness that rains down from our national “leadership.”

This class renews my faith, in a number of senses. Other uplifting examples of “good works” I am buoyed by in Bloomington include: the Interfaith Winter Shelter, staffed by believers and non-believers alike and supported by a wide range of faith communities and political perspectives; the November 2 passage of a local referendum to support our schools, and the ongoing community conversations, some more contentious than others, on how best to use those funds to educate all kids; WWF(a)C’s ArtsWeek “Day of Writing and Art” for girls grades 4-12, which brought together writers, teachers, and artists of all stripes to interact with a patchwork of girls from many corners of our community; the Bloomington Farmer’s Market, where everybody and anybody is drawn together by a common love of food and festivity.

We are lucky to live in this community. Let’s increase our good fortune by supporting and participating in efforts like these that bring together folks who don’t necessarily see eye to eye, on common ground, where we can extend and break down our boundaries, “presuming good will.” What are you doing, or what can you do, to widen your world?

Mary for the Poplar Grove Muse