Category: poetry

What Coaxes: Protests and Poetry

The poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote:

 I will protest all my life . . . but I’m a person who makes … and I have decided that whenever I protest . . . I will make something — I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something.”

Muriel Rukeyser’s words really resonate with me these days. The urge to protest racism, bigotry and hatred feels so urgent to me. And yet, my artist self doesn’t want to be left out. I figure it’s time to make something: a peach crisp that we take to a potluck. A remounting of Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, at Richmond Civic Theatre with a lovely group of people. (More about that later). A handful of words that tell a story.

There’s tension, of course, between grappling with life-and-death problems and creating something tender and beautiful. It can be hard to justify making art when people’s basic needs aren’t being met. But I think protest and poetry alike can be about making space for compassion and humility, calling people out–and calling people in.

Both require moxie to believe in the possibility of hope.

Now, sometimes the art is clumsy and fails to connect to its audience. Sometimes it has a life-span of a mayfly. But it’s through the act of creating that we can imagine a different, better world. One that we occasionally can even dream into reality.

Here is a new poem I’ve been working on this summer. It’s my own way of grappling with what can coax us to open up to ideas or people or places that challenge us. I’d like to share it with you.

What Coaxes

A closed fist can neither
give or accept the gift. Can’t

clasp another hand
to hoist the body out of

its history. Won’t find the way
to a mother’s arm at midnight

as her son bleeds out for want
of holding. Or wave as

my car passes your truck.
And certainly not stroke

the smooth head of a yellow dog
who searches out violets after rain.

This is what Agnes told me
before describing her work with

prisoners in St. Louis
performing Shakespeare.

What entices small petals to
open April mornings or swing

the car door ajar to receive
passengers? This remains a mystery

to the mother who opens
her eyes without seeing,

words in blank verse neatly tied
into two hard knots that lay

in the lap. Fists the same size
as our beating iambic hearts.

What coaxes empty hands
petal by petal, tears and doors?

What act of surprising ourselves with hope
will finally hold?

                                               —Jennie Kiffmeyer

Maybe you feel like making something, too, in the spirit of Muriel Rukeyser? If so, please consider telling us about it here in the comments section. I’d love to read it.

Picture: “Violets in the Rain” by Maia C. (https://flic.kr/p/nCk2Dz)

 

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Prompt: Checking Walt Whitman’s Watch

I have been thinking of Walt Whitman all day and how much I miss that dear, bearded, crazy mess of a man. Who, I like to imagine, hugged everyone he met with the same tearful exuberance I feel seeing a sandhill crane open and close its wings. Through his poetry, he enfolds us in his embrace, his words, his song and then releases us into the air.

But of course Walt left the party before I ever had the chance to meet him. And what did he leave behind anyway? Leaves of grass, songs hummed to himself, a wristwatch to count the hours we might look for God as we sit on the boardwalk, sipping iced tea?

Why just today, I found a letter he sent lying in the street. My address smudged. It was sent in care of Walt, signed “Love, God.”

Who did he think he was fooling? It is so clearly his handwriting even if (he says) he was taking dictation.

Here is what it said:

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?

I see something of God in each hour of the twenty-four, and each

moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in

the glass;

I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is

signed by God’s name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that others will

punctually come forever and ever.”

–Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

An SASE is included. He is waiting for a reply.

I love Whitman’s idea of seeing “something of God in each hour of the twenty-four.” A couple weeks ago the prompt “Overheard Inspiration” was to be someone on whom nothing is lost. This week let’s take it a step further.

Prompt: For one day, pause each hour you are awake and watch for wherever there is a stirring for you. You may call that stirring something divine or not, but it should be an action or an image or a scent that holds your attention that points to More. Put words to it. Only a line or two and then post it here.

I am excited to hear what will happen on your watch.

IMAGE: Walt Whitman, ca.1860-1865 by Matthew Brady. Series: Mathew Brady Photographs of Civil War-Era Personalities and Scenes, compiled 1921 – 1940, documenting the period 1860 – 1865
Currently housed at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.

DIY

As writers, we are experts at do-it-yourself. We can make mother-and-son heartbreaks, clumps of yellow daffodils, and a chiffon cake left out in the rain–all before breakfast. The only limits are those we place upon ourselves. No subject matter is too grand or hum drum. Think of Emily Dickinson and her instructions to us on how to make a prairie.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

Essayist and poet Wendell Berry took his own advice in “How To Be a Poet.” “The song is instruction in how to sing,” another poet, Dean Young, tells us in his excellent book, The Art of Recklessness. Chances are you write because at some tender age you encountered a story or a play or a poem that didn’t just talk to you, but opened the way for you to talk back. What we end up writing is the song and the instructions both.

Which brings me to this week’s prompt.

Write your own instructions on how to be a poet or a pilgrim. How to hail a cab or ice a cake. How to make a star wink or that same star howl back at the one who wishes upon it.

Not sure how to start? Take Berry’s advice:

Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a poem that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
    — from “How To Be a Poet”
Happy Writing!

About the Keeping the Appointment Challenge! Check in each week, grab the prompt and go. New prompts will be posted on Tuesday. Find a quiet place and write in response to the prompt for 15-30 minutes. Only after you have something on paper, take a look or a listen to other examples if you like. Wait a day or three and reread what you wrote. Revise for 30 minutes or so. If you want, post what you wrote. We would love to see it–and we promise to keep our own editing selves to our selves! In other words, this blog is a place to share your work, not to “fix” the work of others. We receive it with the open, generous mind of a fellow-writer and reader. Comments are welcome as are words of thanks.