It occurred to me after reading this article in today's New York Times that it might be time for a refresher on the proper uses of "Oy" so I pulled these helpful illustrations by Mitch Sisskind from our archive. Mitch says, and I agree: "'Oy" is one of the greatest words in any language and I've noticed that people of all backgrounds quickly pick it up and start using it. Let's take a look at some situations in which saying "Oy" is appropriate":
For three years, before I had my own children, I was a Court Appointed Special Advocate to two little girls living in the foster care system. As a CASA, I visited these girls weekly—at home, at school, and at daycare—and attended all court hearings relevant to their placement. My goal was to make sure they were safe and thriving—both in their foster home and when they visited their mother, who was overcoming a series of difficulties in her life. The role as a volunteer CASA is not unlike that of a social worker—get to know the children, learn their routines and habits, and hope that they come to see you as someone they can trust. If many cases, they will confide in you things they might not confide to a foster parent or a social worker, situations that could become harmful or life-threatening.
I loved these little girls. We played paper dolls and “running away to Hollywood”. I watched them enter kindergarten and learn to read, sounding out each word with furrowed brows, and then graduate to chapter books. These girls were fortunate to have a caring foster family. But in their guardianship situation they were not so lucky. They still linger in the foster system after many years, caught in a court battle that remains unresolved.
It was heartbreaking to watch these girls struggle to feel safe, to understand where they belonged, to wonder if they were wanted. Now that I am a mother to two little girls of my own, I look back on those years I spent as a CASA with new eyes. It was what drew me to support the Pajama Program, an organization that provides new pajamas and new books to children like the ones I knew. The children they help are in foster care, or living in shelters, or living in poverty, or have been abandoned. These are kids who do not get tucked into bed. Sometimes these pajamas and books are the only new things they have ever received. Pajamas, and books, help them feel warm and secure at a time when they are most vulnerable.
I can’t imagine what it would have felt like to have never owned a book as a child, to have never had those long Sunday mornings in bed reading, dreaming up new worlds. If you would like to get involved, visit the Pajama Program site to donate, sponsor a book drive, or volunteer at their NYC reading center. Or go here to learn about volunteering as a CASA.
As a guest blogger whose debut collection is about my experiences as a military pilot’s spouse, I would certainly be remiss in not commenting on this part of my life. In my poem, “Heroes,” I say, “The truth is / So much of it now is just like life, the guys / coming over for a drink after work and the XO / breakdancing in a pair of running pants / at the Christmas party and all the lieutenants / in reindeer costumes with their girls on their arms.”
I have been fortunate to have done many things in my life—singing in Lincoln Center, and standing at the feet of the statue of David, and swimming in the glow of a bioluminescent bay, and reading books in libraries older than the town I grew up in. But the life I live now is a life all its own. There is something magical in being always part of a group, always part of something larger than yourself. There are the downsides, of course—filling out the paperwork before your husband leaves for a deployment, writing down who you would like to be with you, should you be informed of your husband’s death. And there are the crashes that happen, more often than you would like, one of them just a mile from your house, the flurries of phone calls and texts, finding out it is not your husband but someone you know anyway, because everyone here knows everyone, it seems. You are friends with widows who are too young to be widows, and you watch them get married again, and understand that it is beautiful because they are in love, but sad too, because in the back of everyone’s mind is the bride’s first love.
But there are the friendships. There is laughing at dinner with a group of women while across the world your husbands are laughing together at their own table, on an aircraft carrier, having breakfast. There are the group trips to far-away ports where you check in to luxury hotels with swimming pools as large as banquet halls. There are the grand balls that are supposed to be sophisticated but everyone knows will be debaucherous. There is your two-year-old daughter seeing “Dada” flying every plane she sees overhead, and there is watching movies where actors pretend to live the very life you are, in fact, living now.
But, mostly, there are ordinary days. There is running into someone you know at Target, and filling lunchboxes for school, and wandering the aisles of department stores looking for sheets. There are afternoons at the beach and afternoons at the waterpark and afternoons at the museum. There is reading books and cleaning the kitchen and walking the dog.
Still, it has been, as James Salter once wrote, looking back on his own years in the military: “a great voyage, the voyage, probably, of my life.”
I thought I was immune to culture shock. Attending American schools, K-12 (albeit in Kuwait and Egypt) meant I was familiar with the lingo. Even though I spoke some Arabic at home, I never formally studied it at school, which translated into reading, writing, and dreaming, in English. What’s more, I had gone to college in the United States - so I didn't really expect much of an adjustment period when, around ten years ago, I made the US my home.
But, my college years in (in Washington, DC) were a kind of reactionary blur, where I’d spent most of the time with my nose buried in a book, experimenting with things like philosophy and silent fasts instead of taking in the New World around me. Seasons came and passed without my noticing, and I would go back home anyway at the end of each semester. So, when I decided to move stateside I was, for all practical purposes, living in America for the first time - the same way they say that you never know someone till you live with them.
Thus, in spite of all my early Americanization, landing in Miami airport, in early 2006, I felt like an untitled and near penniless version of Eddie Murphy’s African prince character in the 1988 hit comedy, Coming to America. A series of cultural confusions during my first year of disorientation, featuring my then-college-crush and soon-to-become wife, convinced me I was still “off the boat” and that Project Integration was very much underway.
Sure, America had changed, and I had too, since those college years (this was the tail end of the Bush Years, and pre-financial crisis) but somehow I had not wrapped my mind around the basics last time I was here: like the credit system. So, when Diana(my spouse-to-be) disclosed to me the amount of her mortgage ($115K) I was genuinely scandalized. After I candidly told her I thought such debt was criminal and she should do time for it, I gave her another piece of my overwhelmed mind. “In Egypt, we have a saying” I volunteered: 'extend your legs to the extent of your blanket.' Meaning if your blanket/means are limited, no need to stretch/splurge.” She heard me out, patiently, and brushed the whole thing off, assuring me I was over-reacting.
As a fledgling poet, I used to send out countless packets of my work to magazines across the country, like quivering arrows, in hopes a lucky few might hit their target. One day, Diana brought back an envelope to me. “You need to include the state and zipcode,” she said. “I did,” I replied. “No, you didn’t,” she continued matter-of-factly, “you just wrote Portland.” “Oh no,” I shot back, rather smugly. “I read that one very closely, my dear. It clearly stated either Portland or the zipcode; and the ‘or’ was even written in caps!” Very slowly, as though addressing a small (dim-witted) child, she let me know that OR stood for Oregon.
Meantime, I was looking for work and without much success, when I came across what seemed like a plum position. I could hardly contain my excitement. “Dianaaa,” I nearly hyper-ventilated into the phone “come over, this instant, and check out this job!” She tumbled into the room, also breathless, like a happy puppy. “Where, where, let me see…”
“You’re going to need to sit down for this,” I warned, presenting her with the job description. As she scanned the form, I volunteered: “I know, I know, it’s a military job… But, I’m willing to swallow my principles [I’m a die-hard pacifist ] for a salary like that… I'll just sell my soul to the devil for a short period, in order to buy my long-term freedom.”
“What are you talking about?” she ventured, cautiously. “Keep reading, please.” I bounded across the room and pounced on the page, forefinger landing on the key paragraph: “There!” I exclaimed. “401K,” I mouthed it like a miracle. “Can you imagine, for an editorial job? I’ll do it for a couple years, then quit! Plus, they can keep that extra one thousand dollars…” She gave me a look - half incredulous, half pitying - then burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
Author collage (shortly after arriving to Florida) with his wife, Diana C. Restrepo
*I was soon to learn, a 401(k) is a standard type of retirement savings account in the United States, and has absolutely nothing to do with my fantasies of fortune and early retirement.
Poetry is how we pray, now. In these skeptical times, poets are Caedmon and poems hymns. Past the personal, poets sing for those who cannot – registering our awe, making sense of our anguish, and harnessing the inchoate longing of countless souls. Unlike prose, poetry can keep its secrets - deepening our silences, so that we might overhear ourselves.
Poetry, also, can restore our sight, helping us to bear better witness to Now and, past that, calmly gaze over the head of our harried times. By lending us this third (metaphysical) eye which collapses distances, poetry can act as a sort of journalism of the soul, reporting on the state of our spiritual life. After all this, too, is what prayer can do: serving as our conscience, and reminding us in times of (personal or political) duress of our essential selves, or who we might become: ‘the better angels of our nature.’ Thus, poetry reconciles false distinctions between vita active and vita contemplativa – demonstrating how words are also actions. I pray by admiring a rose, Persian poet Omar Khayyam once said. In contemplating poetry’s rose – its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we’re made finer morally, able to conceive of a greater reality.
Our metaphysical eyes are expert at collapsing distances, seeing through the apparent to the infinite. Lately, I’m consumed with the idea of the artist as mystic, and the worship of beauty as a form of prayer. How, in Khayyam’s deceptively simple utterance (prayerful admiration of a rose) one finds the connection among the visible, invisible, and indivisible laid bare. Theologian and Sufi mystic, Al Ghazali, puts it thus: This visible world is a trace of that invisible one and the former follows the latter like a shadow."
One year before his death, Rilke is meditating upon the inseparability of the material and spiritual worlds, in these memorable words:
"It was within the power of the creative artist to build a bridge between two worlds, even though the task was almost too great for a man… Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being. It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves, so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, invisible, inside of us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible."
Reverence for the visible world is not in opposition to the invisible one; in the same way that it is through the body we access the life of the spirit. Remembering we are "bees of the invisible," sweetens the suffering and even cheats death of its ultimate sting. We are saved by the very idea of a back and forth, between a Here and There. Bodies are like poems that way, only a fraction of their power resides in the skin of things. The remainder belongs to the spirit that swims through them.
Here is another Persian and Sufi poet, Hafiz, reflecting on the centrality of beauty to our well-being:
“The heart suffers when it cannot see and touch beauty, but beauty is not shy it is synonymous with existence.”
Beauty, far from being a superficial concern is essential, and can be a turnstile that leads us from the visible to the invisible world. To return to Khayyam, yet again, by admiring the rose — its inscrutable architecture and scented essence — we are made finer morally, spiritually even. This is how aesthetics can serve as an ethical code, and prayer is "the soliloquy of a beholding and jubilant soul" (Emerson’s definition).
Poets, philosophers and mystics, by their nature, seem especially well-suited to exposing the false divisions between the visible and invisible worlds. While a calling in the life of an artist might be divorced from the strictly religious sense of the word, it still requires similar renunciations, obedience and sacrifice. I can’t say I’ve studied the lives of mystics as closely as I have those of artists, yet the profound similarities seem difficult to dismiss. Time and again, I discover poets and thinkers I respect powerlessly submitting their private lives in the service of intensifying consciousness (out of what can only be described as an indestructible inner imperative). Thus, entire lives are anxiously arranged around the conditions most conducive to the maturity of this elusive faculty.
The artistic-philosophic landscape is teeming with seers of this type. The power and aura of these fiery spirits derives as much from the truths or realities they have revealed as what they’ve had to sacrifice along the way; it is an authority born of the tension between what is accomplished and what is suffered.
What such poets or thinkers have in common is a life-long struggle to build a bridge between the two worlds — an uncommon commitment to bear better witness and Be, more fully. To travel to and fro, between the visible and the invisible, required a kind of vanishing act of the traveler, what Foucault called “a voluntary obliteration that does not have to be represented in books because it takes place in the very existence of the writer.”
I held out as long as I could before signing up for an email account. At the time, I viewed the idea of electronic mail as invasive, and unnecessary; far preferring the romance and torture of letter-writing which took days or weeks to compose and send. But at the repeated entreaties of a dear friend (and early adopter of new technologies), I caved in. I remember pressing the “send” button on that first email felt like diving off a cliff —as terrifying, as exhilarating. My threatened, and admittedly precious, terms of agreement in those heady days were that I would not report on my outer life, or any daily activities, but rather share glimpses of my mental diary.
For more or less the same reasons (perhaps, out of a writerly fear of being consumed?) I never owned a mobile phone, until I moved to the US nearly ten years ago. Why willingly carry a tracer, I thought, shrilly interrupting my inner dialogue at any moment? If someone needed to contact me, urgently, they could reach me at home or work. But, the rest of the time was mine: to dream, to escape, to slip between the gaps. Now, I confess, my Iphone serves as a kind of life-support machine, and I suspect I am not alone. I’m still not overly fond of speaking on it, but think of texting as a kind of telepathy and do share, through the pores, on Facebook and Twitter (after, you guessed it, also fighting them off for as long as I could, in hopes social media would go away).
Instead, what does seem to be going away to my dismay, and those of my ilk, is the so-called real world, specifically the print world. As a writer, it fills me with dread to see independent publishers endangered, actual bookstores going out of business, book review sections in esteemed newspapers folding and, subsequently, the newspapers and magazines themselves struggling to maintain a physical presence.
As I put it in a short poem “Shuttered Windows”:
“To speak of the smell and feel / of books, the erotics of the text, / has begun to sound perverse. / One by one, the old places of worship/ become quaint and are vacated/ In their stead a gleaming, ambitious screen”.
Yet, I am beginning to see the error of my ways, and realize the patent folly in being a self-defeating Luddite. I don’t read on Kindle, but four of my books are available, electronically, and I hope that others do! I do read, rabidly, articles, essays, reviews, you name it, on my smart phone and computer, and even wrote my first i-phone poem not too long ago – when forced to check in my bag at New York’s MET museum, and left only with “a gleaming, ambitious screen” to record my impressions.
Which is to say that, as I gingerly enter my fifth (!) decade, I am making a kind of peace with the virtual world. It’s all just wrapping paper, I tell myself, whether paperback or electronic. What matters is the gift inside, the words themselves – that they are read and people connect.
So, it seems that the world itself is now migrating online. Fine, I’ll work with it. Not just for survival’s sake must we stoop to engage with this brave new world, but also because it’s spiritually foolish to condescend. I have friends, writer friends only slightly older than myself, who regard things like Twitter and Facebook as infra dig, insisting that they “mean us harm”. I get it, or a part of me does. But, the other part, doesn’t. It might be virtual, but it’s still real people in real time. Managed judiciously, that is to say with intelligence and care, it’s simply too great a learning experience to pass up.
Wherever people congregate, en masse, for sustenance – such as the great communal wells of social media – we must pay attention. Real friendships are forged in these virtual communities, vital news shared, and that most elusive thing of all, inspiration, sparked from so many souls colliding in wonder and thirst for human contact. And, yes, I remain aware of the many serious dangers: the regrettable narcissism networking engenders, the cluttering of our inner spaces, the real and paradoxical isolation that results from so much online “socializing” as well as the attendant erosion of social skills and, no less importantly, the damage to our attention spans.
Particularly, in regards to how the Internet can detrimentally affect our concentration, meaning our capacity for immersive reading and/or critical thinking, I remember being set alight a few years ago by an Atlantic magazine article (which the author, Nicholas Carr, developed into a fine book). The title of the piece encapsulated all my misgivings, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?: What the internet is doing to our brains”. Shortly after this seminal, but somewhat alarmist, piece, a slew of articles, backed by scientific studies, made a counter argument: Google and the Internet might be making us smarter. True, multi-tasking stands to make memory worse, they suggested, but certain types of memory are improving as search engines reroute our brains.
“Abundance of books makes men less studious” stated a critic of the printing press, Hieronimo Squarciafico, as early as the 15th century. This might well be the case today, too, with the wealth of unsorted, uneven information available at our fingertips. Yet, perhaps this truth also speaks to our innate laziness as a species, rather than the evils of abundance. For those with discipline and curiosity to sift through the buried treasures (as well as the sanity not to entirely live online), the Internet need not be a soul-destroying monster but can be, potentially, a life-enhancing tool.
Growing up in Cairo, Egypt I was surrounded by a love of language. So, it came as no surprise to me, for example, when our Revolution erupted in 2011 that masses of peaceful protesters chose to express their dissent and dreams in poetry, chanted jubilantly from Tahrir Square. Wit and verse were always sport, and a kind of national pastime, during the three decades I lived in Egypt. Never mind that around 50 percent of the population were actually illiterate; it wasn’t about being book-smart. “Knowledge is what’s in your head, not in your notebooks” an Egyptian saying shrewdly justified (in Arabic, it rhymes, too: el 3elm fil rass mish fil korras).
Which is to say, proverbs were always our street poetry as well as philosophy. They were our oral tradition and inherited wisdom, rescuing keen psychological insights from the past, and passing it onto future generations, as shortcuts to hard-won experience or observations. Proverbs can be like coral reef, that way, fossils of ancient philosophies merging with living truths. Good aphorisms aspire to this type of wisdom literature, as well.
Only recently, am I beginning to fully realize what it means to have been raised in this culture where aphorisms were viewed as both common utterance and a sort of magical invocation. I grew up with grandmothers, both maternal and paternal who, at times, spoke almost exclusively in such sayings - a string of proverbs, sing-songy, witty-wise remarks, for every occasion. Also, being half-Lebanese myself, meant that Gibran Khalil Gibran, popular poet and philosopher, was an early and inescapable influence. I even suspect such matters of stylistic heritage might have been written in blood, since I was named after my paternal grandfather (Yahia Lababidi), a musician and poet, who passed away long before I was born, yet passed onto me a love of song, intravenously. When, in my late teens, I found that I could unburden myself in verse and aphorism I felt that, for the first time, I was beginning to earn my name.
Lately, in the United States at least, there seems to be an Aphoristic Renaissance - something I would never have imagined when I first started writing them (anachronistically, I felt) over 20 years ago. The practitioners of the contemporary American aphorism tend to be poets, and bring to them a poetic sensibility. This November, I’m pleased to be part of an anthology, Short Flights (Schaffner Press), which draws together the work and musings of 32 leading pioneers of short-form writing. I’m especially proud to be in the company of writers I respect and admire, many of whom have become friends and helped me take my first literary steps, such as: James Richardson, James Geary, Alfred Corn, H.L. Hix - as well as the editors of this exciting project, Alex Stein (with whom I’ve also collaborated on a book of ecstatic conversations, The Artist as Mystic) and James Lough, both fine aphorists in their own right.
(Ed note: Pundits have begun to ask David Lehman to apply his trochaic theory of predicting election outcomes to the current slate of candidates, both Democrat and Republican. He first described the theory on the BAP blog in 2008 when his analysis favored Barack Obama. (It also favored Obama in 2012.) Find more about his theory here. Lehman's now classic interviews on the subject are pasted below. sdh)
What do Woodrow Wilson, Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan have in common?
Yes, all were presidents. But so were Dwight D. Eisenhower and George Bush.
No, what the nine presidents mentioned have in common is that each of their names is a double trochee. That's right -- nine of the last 16 presidents scan their names to the tune of "Okla-homa." A trochee is the inverse of an iamb; in the former, there's a strong stress followed by a weak stress (e.g., "Harry").
Your chances of getting elected president go up if your name conforms to this pattern -- or if, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, your scansion is extraordinary and metrically favorable.
In the current electoral climate, the clearest winner is Bernie Sanders, whose name is a classic double trochee (even if you spell out his first name -- Bernard -- as long as you pronounce it as the British do, with the accent on the first syllable). Bobby Jindall would also score high but only if (1) he were a viable candidate and (2) you accept Bobby as a legitimate first name. The counter-example of Jimmy Carter will be offered, but it might be argued that his resort to a nickname instead of the proper "James Earl Carter" may help account for his failed presidency. Well, OK, how viable a candidate is Bernie? I don't know. I'm not really political.
Probably the most interesting candidate, from the point of view of metrical theory, is Carly Fiorina. Her name translates as a trochee followed by a dactyl and a trochee. It is similar to Franklin Roosevelt if you leave out the D (but you can't).
Marco Rubio has a trochee followed by a dactyl, also an interesting variant.
According to trochaic theory, Donald Trump's chances would improve considerably if he changed his name to Donald Trumpet.
The guys with one-syllable first names (Mike, Ted, Scott, Chris) have little chance. Rand Paul -- two spondees (two strong accents back to back) -- taps into the George Bush rhythm but without the obvious advantages that Jeb Bush has. But what is Jeb's real first name? And why has he dodged the issue?
If this is equivocal, well, it's early in the process. May we remind all that trochaic theory favored Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012? -- DL
Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan Universities, writes frequently on the fate of higher education, with particular attention to the changes wrought the technological revolution.
From a recent piece in The Atlantic:
Given the drumbeat of doomsday declarations about higher education in recent years, it might be tempting to dismiss The End of College as part of the pile-on by would-be disrupters. But that would be mistake. While Kevin Carey, a Washington education-policy analyst at the New America Foundation, may have swallowed too much of the disruption Kool-Aid, his call for more accessible student-centered universities is a powerful response to some of the real problems that beset these institutions today.
In 2008, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, along with Michael Horn, published Disrupting Class, an account of how “radical innovation” would change K-12 education systems. In 2011, Christensen and Henry J. Eyring came out with The Innovative University, which explored how higher ed would have to respond to the pressures of technological change—if it were to survive at all. Christensen’s publications have been followed by a wave of books, articles, op-eds, and films pronouncing the imminent demise of higher ed as the country knows it.
Read more here on such subjects as MOOCS, the transformation of universities into rites of-passage country clubs rather than houses of learning, the value now placed on the "gospel of disruption," the so-called "hybrid university" in which research and teaching are inextricably linked, and whether traditional learning of traditional disciplines is still possible -- and on what terms.
My office is in a building adjacent to Ground Zero. The ceremonies are about to begin. The ramp at the far end of the pit is lined with flags of the victims' homelands. Otherwise, there isn't much to see. A few more tourists than usual, and overnight, employees in one of the office buildings managed to drape an "Obama for President" banner across two floors.
Like most every poet, I have viewed the publication of each year's Best American Poetry with happiness (I love that poem), jealousy (That poet has been chosen for seventy-three years straight.), disdain (Oh, look, another middling poem from one of the greats.) and hope (Maybe they'll choose one of my poems next year.). I am also proud that I've been in Best American Poetry (BAP) five times and even more proud that one of my poems was included in Best of the Best of American Poetry. But let me tell you a secret: I am also conflicted about my appearances in BAP because I don't love four of my five poems that have been chosen. I don't think those four poems are among my best work. In fact, I am rather embarrassed by my first poem to appear in BAP. But there was no way I was ever going to turn down the chance to be in BAP, no matter how I felt about the poems, then or now. I'm quite willing to accept that I might be wrong about the quality of my poems. I understand that I might be immune to their relative strengths and weaknesses. So, yes, like many poets, I am a bubbling mix of arrogance and selfdoubt. And, yes, like many poets, I carefully studied each year's edition of BAP and was highly critical of the aesthetic range (Okay, there had to be more than two great poems published last year written in meter and/or rhyme.), cultural and racial representation (I can't believe there are only 8 poets of color in this edition.), gender equality (What is this? The Golf Club at Augusta?), and nepotism (Did those guest editors really choose, like, sixty-six of their former students?).
So, yeah, most basically stated, I take the publication of Best American Poetry very fucking seriously.
And because I take it so seriously and have been so critical in the past, my first instinct was to decline David Lehman's offer to guest edit Best American Poetry 2015. Then approximately one second after I pondered declining, I enthusiastically accepted the job. Of course, I had no idea that I would spend the next six or eight or ten months reading hundreds and hundreds of poems. Hell, it's quite probable that I read over 1,000 poems last year. I might have read over 2,000 poems. It could have been 3,000. Well, let me be honest: I carefully read hundreds of poems that immediately caught my eye while I skimmed hundreds of other poems that didn't quickly call out to me. It's possible that I read more poems last year than any other person on the planet. It was an intensive education in twenty-first century American poetry.
So what did I learn during this poetry siege? Well, none of us ever needs to write another poem about crocuses, or croci, or however you prefer to pluralize it. Trust me, we poets have exhausted the poetic potential of the crocus. If any of you can surprise me with a new kind of crocus poem then I will mail you one hundred dollars.
But, wait, I'm not ready to make sweeping pronouncements about the state of American poetry. I must first tell you that I established rules for myself before I even read one poem for potential inclusion in BAP 2015. And what were those rules?
Rule #1: I will not choose any poem written by a close friend.
Rule #2: I will be extremely wary of choosing any poem written by somebody I know, even if I have only met that person once twenty years ago and haven't talked to that person since.
Rule #3: I will also be hyper-judgmental of any poem written by a poet I already admire. I will not be a fan boy.
Rule #4: I will not choose any poem based on a poet's career. Each poem will stand or fall on its own merits. There will be no Honorary Oscars.
Rule #5: I will pay close attention to the poets and poems that have been underrepresented in the past. So that means I will carefully look for great poems by women and people of color. And for great poems by younger, less established poets. And for great poems by older poets who haven't been previously lauded. And for great poems that use rhyme, meter, and traditional forms.
Rule #6: As part of the mission to represent the totality of American poetry, I will read as many Internet poems as I can find, whether published at popular sites or in obscure emagazines that have nine followers.
Rule #7: I will not ask for the opinion of any other human being when choosing poems. Oh, I know that David Lehman will make many suggestions—and I welcome the help in winnowing the pile of magazines—but I will ignore David's counsel as much as possible.
Rule #8: Unless David leads me to a great poem that I am compelled to choose, which he will most certainly do a few times.
Rule #9: I don't want to fill the damn book with poetry professors. I really want to choose some poets who work outside of academia. But I also don't want to bias myself against any poems because they happen to be written by poetry professors, so I will not read any biographies or contributor notes about any poets.
Rule #10: I don't want to know anything about any of the poets beyond what I already know or what is apparent in the poem itself. So I will not do Internet searches on anybody. I will do my best to treat every poem like it is a blind submission, even if some famous poet has written the poem I'm currently reading.
Rule #11: I know that these rules will inevitable result in contradictions, conflicts, hypocrisy, and stress rashes.
So, okay, as a result of these rules, what did I do with Best American Poetry 2015?
Approximately 60% of the poets are female.
Approximately 40% of the poets are people of color.
Approximately 20% of the poems employ strong to moderate formal elements.
Approximately 15% of the poems were first published on the Internet.
Approximately 99% of the poets are professors.
I have never met or had any previous conversations or contact with 56 of the 75 poets.
There are 30 poets whom I'd never previously read. I didn't know anything about them when I chose their poems.
I am close friends with only one of the 75 poets.
Only three of the poets have ever invited me to speak at their colleges. And one of them was on sabbatical when I eventually visited her college.
In years past, before I was guest editor for BAP, I'd sent fan letters to nine of the poets and, as a result, have maintained semi-regular pen pal relationships with three of them. I have met in person only two of those pen pals and talked to them, separately, for a few minutes at AWP in Denver in 2010.
Only four of the poets have ever chosen any of my writing for publication. Two of the poets have rejected work of mine for publication.
I share a publisher, Hanging Loose Press, with three of the poets, though I haven't had contact with one of those guys in 20 years and share maybe one email a year with the other two.
I work in the Low Residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Art with two of the poets.
I have done public readings with only two of the poets.
Of the four poets with Seattle roots and connections, I know two of them. I had coffee with one of them eight years ago and briefly met the other last year at a book awards party in Seattle.
I have only provided publicity blurbs for two of the poets.
I could easily replace at least thirty of the great poems I chose with thirty other great poem I almost chose.
I suspect I will eventually regret choosing a few of the poems and omitting others. In fact, right now, I can think of one particular poem that haunts me. I am sick to know that it is absent from BAP 2015. And, no, I will never tell anybody which poems I almost chose.
So did I pick the best 75 poems published last year? Of course not. I picked 75 poems that survived a literary ordeal that happened only in my brain. I think BAP 2015 contains a handful of incredible poems and dozens of good to great poems.
I am very proud of what the Best American team and I have accomplished. And I wish I could end this statement with that sentence.
But, of course, I must now address the controversy that threatens to overshadow every other critical examination of Best American Poetry 2015.
I chose a strange and funny and rueful poem written by Yi-Fen Chou, which turns out to be a Chinese pseudonym used by a white male poet named Michael Derrick Hudson as a means of subverting what he believes to be a politically correct poetry business.
I only learned that Yi-Fen Chou was a pseudonym used by a white man after I'd already picked the poem and Hudson promptly wrote to reveal himself.
Of course, I was angry at the subterfuge and at myself for being fooled by this guy. I silently cursed him and wondered how I would deal with this colonial theft.
So I went back and reread the poem to figure out exactly how I had been fooled and to consider my potential actions and reactions. And I realized that I hadn't been fooled by anything obvious. I'd been drawn to the poem because of its long list title (check my bibliography and you'll see how much I love long titles) and, yes, because of the poet's Chinese name. Of course, I am no expert on Chinese names so I'd only assumed the name was Chinese. As part of my mission to pay more attention to underrepresented poets and to writers I'd never read, I gave this particular poem a close reading. And I found it to be a compelling work. In rereading the poem, I still found it to be compelling. And most important, it didn't contain any overt or covert Chinese influences or identity. I hadn't been fooled by its "Chinese-ness" because it contained nothing that I recognized as being inherently Chinese or Asian. There could very well be allusions to Chinese culture that I don't see. But there was nothing in Yi-Fen Chou's public biography about actually being Chinese. In fact, by referencing Adam and Eve, Poseidon, the Roman Coliseum, and Jesus, I'd argue that the poem is inherently obsessed with European culture. When I first read it, I'd briefly wondered about the life story of a Chinese American poet who would be compelled to write a poem with such overt and affectionate European classical and Christian imagery, and I marveled at how interesting many of us are in our cross-cultural lives, and then I tossed the poem on the "maybe" pile that eventually became a "yes" pile.
Do you see what happened?
I did exactly what that pseudonym-user feared other editors had done to him in the past: I paid more initial attention to his poem because of my perception and misperception of the poet's identity. Bluntly stated, I was more amenable to the poem because I thought the author was Chinese American.
Here, I could offer you many examples of white nepotism inside the literary community. I could detail entire writing careers that have been one long series of handshakes and hugs among white friends and colleagues. I could list the white poets who have been selected by their white friends for each of the previous editions of Best American Poetry. But that would be just grandstanding. It's also grandstanding for me to accuse white folks of nepotism without offering any real evidence. This whole damn essay is grandstanding.
So what's the real reason why I'm not naming names? It's because most white writers who benefit from white nepotism are good writers. That feels like a contradiction. But it's not.
And, hey, guess what? In paying more initial attention to Yi-Fen Chou's poem, I was also practicing a form of nepotism. I am a brown-skinned poet who gave a better chance to another supposed brown-skinned poet because of our brownness.
So, yes, of course, white poets have helped their white friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, of course, brown poets have helped their brown friends and colleagues because of nepotism. And, yes, because of nepotism, brown and white poets have crossed racial and cultural lines to help friends and colleagues.
Nepotism is as common as oxygen.
But, in putting Yi-Fen Chou in the "maybe" and "yes" piles, I did something amorphous. I helped a total stranger because of racial nepotism.
I was practicing a form of literary justice that can look like injustice from a different angle. And vice versa.
And, of course, I know many of you poets are pissed at me. I know many of you are screaming out a simple question: "Sherman, why did you keep that poetry colonist in the anthology even after you learned of his deception?"
Listen, I was so angry that I stormed and cursed around the room. I felt like punching the wall.
And, of course, there was no doubt that I would pull that fucking poem because of that deceitful pseudonym.
But I realized that I would primarily be jettisoning the poem because of my own sense of embarrassment. I would have pulled it because I didn't want to hear people say, "Oh, look at the big Indian writer conned by the white guy." I would have dumped the poem because of my vanity.
And I would have gotten away with it. I am a powerful literary figure and the pseudonymuser is an unknown guy who has published maybe a dozen poems in his life. If I'd kicked him out of BAP 2015 then he might have tried to go public with that news.
And he would have been vilified and ignored. And I would have been praised.
Trust me, I would much rather be getting praised by you poets than receiving the vilification I am getting now.
But I had to keep that pseudonymous poem in the anthology because it would have been dishonest to do otherwise.
If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet's Chinese pseudonym.
If I'd pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.
And, yes, in keeping the poem, I am quite aware that I am also committing an injustice against poets of color, and against Chinese and Asian poets in particular.
But I believe I would have committed a larger injustice by dumping the poem. I think I would have cast doubt on every poem I have chosen for BAP. It would have implied that I chose poems based only on identity.
But that's not what happened. In the end, I chose each poem in the anthology because I love it. And to deny my love for any of them is to deny my love for all of them.
In choosing what I think is the most diverse set of poems in Best American Poetry's history, I also rejected hundreds of poems written by a vast and diverse world of poets. I rejected a bunch of old white guys. And, hey, I rejected a bunch of old brown people, too. I rejected hundreds of young white poets. And I rejected hundreds of young brown poets, including some of the superstars who are most loudly insulting me. I rejected formalists and free-versers. I rejected dear friends and old enemies. I rejected poems I love and poems I hate.
I rejected at least one thousand poets in pursuit of the 75 who are in the anthology. It was an exhilarating and exhausting task. And now I am being rewarded and punished. And I am pondering what all of this reveals about my identity—perceived, actual, and imaginary. And I hope that you, as readers and writers, continue to debate The Yi-Fen Chou Problem and my decision to keep the poem in the anthology. But in the midst of all this controversy and wild name-calling, I also hope that you take the time to be celebratory or jealous or disdainful or challenged by the other 74 poets in Best American Poetry 2015.
If our age is apocalyptic in mood—and rife with doomsday scenarios, nuclear nightmares, religious fanatics and suicidal terrorists—there may be no more chilling statement of our condition than William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming.” Written in 1919, in the immediate aftermath of the epoch-ending disaster that was World War I, “The Second Coming” extrapolates a fearful vision from the moral anarchy of the present. The poem also, almost incidentally, serves as an introduction to the great Irish poet’s complex conception of history, which is cyclical, not linear. Things happen twice, the first time as sublime, the second time as horrifying, so that, instead of the “second coming” of the savior, Jesus Christ, Yeats envisages a monstrosity, a “rough beast” threatening violence commensurate with the human capacity for bloodletting.
continue reading at the Wall Street Journal (If you're not a subscriber, a Google "News" search using "WSJ David Lehman" as your terms will take you to the full piece. sdh)
Asked to explain the Poetry Foundation's mandate -- to serve "poetry rather than poets" -- Kiphart says, "By building the largest possible audience for poetry, we believe that we are serving all poets." The first item on his agenda moving forward is "a national search for a new president." A Vietnam veteran, who served as an officer aboard a US Navy minesweeper, Kiphart responded warmly to the suggestion that the Poetry Foundation should support an effort to distribute books of poetry to US servicemen, as was done during WWII: "What an interesting idea! Happily, through our digital programs, we offer more than 13,000 poems for free, as well as every issue of the magazine, podcasts and lots of other content. This is another point of pride for the Foundation’s great work in building an amazing poetry archive."
The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Sealed Air will introduce iBubble, a version of Bubble Wrap that will not pop under pressure.
In the early 1960s, when my father was a salesman for Ethyl Visqueen Corporation, Sealed Air was one of his customers (along with Orchids of Hawaii, the makers of plastic leis). Whenever he returned from a sales call to Sealed Air's New Jersey factory, he brought home samples of Bubble Wrap that I could take to school and distribute like contraband to my classmates. Whatever brief periods of grade-school POPularity I experienced I owe to Bubble Wrap.
The samples were packaged like pages in a loose-leaf notebook and smelled like gasoline. Once, the company experimented with Bubble Wrap in primary colors that it hoped to introduce as gift wrap; another time Sealed Air came up with sheets comprising large “bubbles” roughly one-inch in diameter. These were more difficult to pop and were more likely to deflate than to burst, which may not have hurt its value for packaging but was disappointing from the point of view of children wanting to disrupt the classroom with a chorus of fart noises.
My suburban childhood home was partially furnished by Bubble Wrap. When we discovered my mother’s allergy to feathers, we removed the offending filling from our living-room furniture and replaced it with wads of Bubble Wrap. Drafty windows? Bubble Wrap.
One day my father arrived home with two extra-large rolls of the stuff. These my mother turned on their sides and disguised with slip-covers fashioned from yellow fake fur, for lightweight portable seating.
Lally's fans have come to expect certain pleasures from this gregarious, theatrical, funny, sometimes pugnacious master of the contemporary American idiom. The new book opens with a brilliant and very characteristic effort, "Before You Were Born." The recurrence of that phrase (or variants thereof) structures the poem. The assertive speaker refuses "to give up / the life of a poet and get a job, / but I already did that / before you were a gob of spit / hanging from the lip of / Charles Bukowski who had a / nice secure job at the post office back then." There's a double surprise here -- first the "gob of spit," then the invocation of Bukowski as either a role model or an anti-hero. It's funny but there is sadness, too, in the opposition of the speaker to a "you" who is younger and -- if only by implication -- less original, less daring, and more glibly "avant-garde."
Lally's poems flow from his refusal to give up "the life of a poet" and his determination to annotate it. But it is not only this cri de coeur, important though it is, that aligns him with the New York School. A hallmark of the New York aesthetic is the interior monologue projected outward into a theatrical soliloquy. Frank O'Hara was the master of this maneuver -- all conversational grace and ease.
One of Lally's major strengths is his skill as a conversationalist in verse. He is totally engaging -- chatty, direct, boastful as Whitman but ironically self-aware in the manner of O'Hara. To clinch the deal, or to illustrate it cunningly, I would give you the final part of "The Geese Don't Fly South" -- the part that may be said to begin with the line "Thank God for Turner Classic Movies" and to continue for sixty-eight more lines in which these subjects come up: the armed services, heroes, Hollywood, family trees, Hurricane Katrina, the novels of Walter Scott, and the war journalism of Martha Gellhorn -- but rather than quote it, let me encourage you to acquire the book, and I will just say here that there is a second New York School quality that Swing Theory exemplifies, and that is the reconciliation of the colloquial with the use of verse forms to restrain and give focus to the imagination.
Lally has a particular affinity for the sonnet and the sonnet sequence. In Swing Theory you will find "The Jimmy Schuyler Sonnets" (a group of five), "The 2008 Sonnets" (eleven), and "The San Francisco Sonnets (1962)" (five). From the last named, consider this nugget: "She said if I read Herman / Hesse's Steppenwolf it would change my life." The statement will catapult you back to the mind-set of the early 1960s whether you had the experience in real time or not.
Jerome Sala is on the mark when he speaks of the "jazzy rhythms and pre-hip-hop improvisatory rhyme with pure attitude" that you find in Lally's work. It turns out, as Sala observes, that Lally was ahead of the curve with his poems so congenial to the performative impulse. That vibrancy is just one thing Swing Theory has going for it. -- David Lehman
To laugh properly
you must sound
So that’s what this child
works on tonight
as she practices laughing,
trying to sound natural.
-- from "Childhood" by Amy Gerstler in the Spring 2015 issue of DMQ Review skillfully edited by Sally Ashton
For more -- including work by Betsy Johnson-Miller, Brian Clements, David Lehman, and others, click here.
Every few years or so, we are told by someone new that poetry is dead. I’ve been writing poetry seriously for about twenty years now, and I can recall at least five such elegies during that time. I’m sure they came before as well. I’m sure they will come again. Indeed, when my friend, Silvana, sent me a link to the latest such death knell (this week by Christopher Ingraham, in The Washington Post) I told her I had no intention of responding to it, because, well… I had poems to write. But then I remembered I was gifted this great platform this week and figured it was probably as good a time as any to address it.
In deciding how I’d enter this discussion, I wanted to begin straight off with a screed on how whiteness in the form of ‘evidence’ and ‘empiricism’ is always interested in reducing to cold, hard numbers, ideas and beauties that were never meant to be thus confined. I wanted to analogize Mr. Ingraham’s data, with the dismantling of public school education through the turning of our children’s educational lives into an argument of profit vs loss. I thought to talk about hip hop’s ubiquitous influence on the world as evidence that poetry is alive and well, sure as I am that rap is the most important (and rigorous) poetic form of the 20th Century, but I needn’t have searched so far to find my evidence. I walked into a South Side Chicago Elementary this morning, where I teach a theatre residency to second and third graders. One of my third-graders, in the bi-lingual class (they have been almost painfully shy this entire time) got up to share this response to the weekend poetry exercise I gave them:
I hear the voices of the dogs, the bears the snakes / I see the refuge in the eyes of cows. / My dreams are about fire and flesh. / Nobody knows about one graveyard under the stars in the skies in our world…
I’d introduced them to Federico Garcia Lorca on Friday past. This morning they introduced Lorca back to me. They invented and re-mixed. They found the break in Lorca’s music, looped it and re-imagined it. I could go on and on and share five or six of the more prodigious efforts from these young people (who are still struggling with expression in this, their second language), but it dawned on me that I have the good fortune every day to be part of the narrative evidence that states definitively that poetry is now, has been and always will be, alive and on the rise. Let me be clear; my instinct was to be dismissive of Mr. Ingraham, but I am betting that Mr. Ingraham does not get the gift that I got this morning, and get so often because I teach theatre and Creative Writing to young people.
Of course Mr. Ingraham’s article has graphs, has ‘irrefutable’ numbers, which suggest that less people read poetry now than ever. While I found some of his choices of reading the data to be flawed, I’m not interested in entering that struggle. Toni Morrison, one of the most lyric and lyrical poets of our time reminded us recently that some conversations are just designed to take us away from our work, and so we must remember our work and not indulge those conversations. Instead here is my work:
My mother introduced me to poems; the first of those being the poems of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Edward Kamau Braithwaite. Later she drove home the message of the significance of my being a black boy in the world with the poems of Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, Derek Walcott and others that I then found on my own. I migrated to the U.S. from Trinidad and Tobago when I was 19, and all my attempts at art and verse ceased. It was another seven years before a friend dragged me late one winter night into a pre-gentrification abandoned building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to hear poets do their thing. I was watching ESPN. I almost didn’t go. I left there that night, went home and immediately began writing again. That night (drumroll for the saccharin cliché), poetry saved my life, though it was many more years before I understood my desperate leap and grab at it. It was (and still is) a way for me to understand my world and make sense of its madness by bearing witness, by asking improbable questions, by remembering and re-mixing so that I can consistently draw lines between one aspect of myself and another, one aspect of my reality and another – and often when those realities seem so implausible as to appear surreal.
Put another way; for many of us it is impossible to go to anything but poetry in the world that has given us Trayvon Martin, Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Acai Gurley, Oscar Grant, Kimani Gray, Katrina, Gentrification, the West Bank, the GOP, 2 million incarcerated, private prisons, and the myriad other violences visited on us, and so we know that poetry isn’t ever dead. The question of course, is why the haste to bury it every few years or so. What does poetry do that someone is so often ready to declare it obsolete? The sadness of course is that often these prognosticators come from within our gates, but it is perhaps instructive that when they do, they are often on the waning side of their lives, careers and influence.
I know this blog entry will not be enough to stave off the next set of trumpet blowers marching around poetry’s citadel, but for those of us who need the comfort of being reminded that it’s all good, I want to let you know that in America this week, on the South Side of Chicago, a nine year old who speaks English as a second language, wrote this:
In the sky there’s nobody asleep./ I live in Earth./ a man finding a door to exist./ And my voices make fire or find refuge in one…
Let’s talk about some poetry for the next few days, shall we? It appears there is so much of it to consider.
Alternatively Titled: Liberal Victories, Radical Failures
In January of 2015, Javier Zamora, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and I started the Undocupoets Petition to protest first book contest discrimination. We launched an article online with Apogee Journal, displaying the names of 400+ poets, publishers, academics (who stand in solidarity with us). We stood up to ask that submission guidelines no longer read “proof of US citizenship or permanent residency.” Many people opened their ears and hearts. Many people supported us in this endeavor.
The Lambda Literary Foundation launched an interview with Wo Chan, VIDA launched an interview with Cristian Flores Garcia, and Fusion News interviewed Marcelo, Javier, and me. The news of these articles was covered thoroughly by the Poetry Foundation, Coldfront Magazine, and others (such as this wonderful blog post by Miguel Morales)… We were also inspired by the outreach of poets such as Jennifer Tamayo (who is currently working on another article about Undocupoets) and the words of Janine Joseph in her recent article Undocumented, and Riding Shotgun. Also, worthy of mention is the Undocupoets Petition Reading which was hosted at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop and drew a large audience. A lot of media was produced by, with, and for Undocupoets in these past few months.
In the coming months, I will also be helping to edit an issue of the Southern Humanities Review, dedicated to Undocumented Writers. We (as a collective of poets) are also submitting some panel proposals for various conferences at the moment. This is all to say–
All of the articles, activities, voices helped contribute to some major changes within the poetry community. Here are all of the publishers / organizations which have responded to the Undocupoets campaign–
CHANGES PUBLICLY ANNOUNCED
Letras Latinas(Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, Red Hen Poetry Prize): Manuscripts must be of original poetry, in English, by one poet who resides in the United States.
Yale University Press (Yale Series of Younger Poets): The competition is open to emerging poets who have not previously published a book of poetry and who reside in the United States.
Poetry Foundation (Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellowships): Applicants must reside in the U.S.
Persea Books (Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry): U.S. Citizen and/or currently residing in the United States.
Crab Orchard: All unpublished, original collections of poems written in English by a U.S. citizen, permanent resident, or person who has DACA/TPS status are eligible.
BOA Editions (A. Poulin Jr. Poetry Prize): Entrants must be a legal resident of the U.S. or have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or Legal Permanent Status (LPS).
Academy of American Poets (Walt Whitman, etc.): U.S. Citizen / resident of the United States for a ten-year period prior to the submission deadline or January 1 of the prize year for those awards that have no application process, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Legal Permanent Status (LPS), or any subsequent categories designated by the U.S. authorities as conferring similar enhanced status upon non-citizens living in the United States.
CHANGES PRIVATELY ANNOUNCED
Sarabande Books (The Kathryn A. Morton Prize in Poetry): Sarah Gorham stated that all Undocupoets will be able to apply for subsequent contests. The new guideline wording will be announced when the next submission season opens.
Poetry Society of America (Chapbook Fellowship): Brett Fletcher Lauer stated that the guidelines for this contest would change from “US Resident” to “US citizens or any person currently residing within the US” during the summer of 2015; when new chapbook submissions are opened.
American Poetry Review (Honickman First Book Prize in Poetry): Elizabeth Escanlon stated that all Undocupoets will be able to apply for the subsequent contests. The language agreed upon is “Applicants must reside in US.” This announcement will be made public when the new call for submissions is announced.
National Poetry Series: Stephanie Stio stated that the organization will be making changes to their guidelines in consideration to undocumented poets shortly (within the next couple of weeks). The wording of these changes has not been decided yet.
The submission guidelines of many contests are more open than they used to be. We want to celebrate the work that our community has accomplished. We want to rejoice at the resilience and strength of all Undocupoets. We also want to acknowledge that the new guidelines are still not completely inclusive.
Marcelo, Javier, and I are fighting (in solidarity with our community) for the complete inclusion of all Undocupoets. We will not forget about our friends who have been deported from the US and are finding their ways back into the country. We will not forget about our friends who are living in the U.S. (without DACA, TPS, LPS). We are constantly thinking about all of the poets, people who are coming and will continue to come into this country undocumented. Our long-term goal for this project is still to completely eliminate any documentation check in poetry, asking for forms of government identification.
We want all Undocupoets to know that your words and thoughts are valuable. We want all Undocupoets to know that your struggle is seen, acknowledged. We want all Undocupoets to know that, if you are able to submit to one of these contests (or any other contest) then do so. We will fight with you, for you, if ever feel that you’re being silenced. Seriously. You are not alone. We are yours in this struggle. We celebrate your resistance and perseverance, above all else. We thank all of the Undocupoets who helped us make these HUGE changes in the poetry community. And we thank all of the publishers who have worked to make more inclusive guidelines. Gracias Gracias Gracias.
My mother was a grade school teacher for over 30 years. She taught both 3rd grade and kindergarten in the public school system and was one of those teachers who changed the display outside of her class room for every season and holiday. She made intricate murals that were quite beautiful and imaginative. She used craft paper, felt, and cotton fluff and whatever else was on hand and would cut out shapes with scissors and paste them to the background. I seem to remember helping her but I'm not certain that I did.
My mother was also a talented seamstress: She made aprons and a new set of kitchen curtains for every season. She made a play-circus tent that fit over a card table. She made fake-fur slip covers for giant rolls of bubble wrap that we used for seating (my father was a plastics salesman and Sealed Air was one of his customers). She knew how to mend things and taught me how to do the same. ("Mend" is such an antique word.) She sewed our Halloween costumes and matching outfits for my sisters and me. A lot of cross-stitch and rick rack were involved.
This is all to say that in addition to working with her mind, my mother loved working with her hands; it breaks my heart that she is unable to do so anymore because of her severe arthritis. It is only with great difficulty that she can unscrew a bottle or open a bag of frozen vegetables. Plus, she's in constant pain. "You don't know the half of it," she said, when I asked her how bad it had gotten.
When I read about the relief that marijuana brings to arthritis sufferers I was eager to find a way for my mother to try it. I didn't want her to get high -- she lives alone -- so the usual delivery systems were not an option. There were recipes online for a tincture that could be applied topically but I had no way of controlling the strength or safety of something I would concoct myself. I've followed the medical marijuana scene closely and am impressed with what the communities are coming up with in California, Seattle, and Colorado. While medical marijuana is now legal in New York, the rules are so complicated and arcane that it will likely be years before anyone can experience its benefits.
Then, a year or so ago friends visited from San Francisco. Turned out that they knew someone who knew the person behind "Doc Green's Pain Relief Cream." A few weeks after our friends returned home, a well disguised package arrived with a 4 oz jar of lavender scented theapeutic cream inside. My mother's early April birthday seemed the perfect occassion for her to give it a try.
The cream has a silky texture and is lightly scented. "It feels lovely when I put it on," says my mother. And yes, it helps a lot with the pain. She's began by using it on her shoulder but lately has needed it for her hands and wrists. Sometimes, it's the only thing that works when the unbearable pain keeps her awake.
I've since discovered new sources for marijuana based healing balms, cooked up in home kitchens by forward-thinking generous entrepreneurs. It angers me that such a useful product is not readily available.
(This is an update of a post previously publish in April, 2013.)
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.