Saturday, May 10, 2014

Speaking for my Self - Twelve women poets in their seventies and eighties - Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein

Today's book of poetry:
SPEAKING FOR MY SELF.  Twelve women poets in their seventies and eighties.  Edited by Sondra Zeidenstein.  Chicory Blue Press. Goshen, Conneticut.  2014.

Speaking for my Self is as advertised.  Twelve women speaking for themselves.  That all of these women are of a particular age is a curiosity, a framing method that serves a purpose - to give voice.

These are twelve strong poets and we are going to take a peek at all of them.

What happens when you bring together twelve very strong voices - it turns into a choir.  The women in Speaking for my Self are all very strong soloists, and Sondra Zeidenstein is some conductor.  As different as these voices may sometimes be, the music they create, like all choirs, is greater than the sum of its parts.

I've chosen to include one poem from each of the women in the Speaking for my Self.  Unfortunately I was unable to find video of all the poets.



This morning I'd like the drooping lilies
to right themselves
without me

but they need me to tie their long stems
to tall bamboo rods
so the large, gaudy red and yellow hybrids

won't lean over and hid
the smaller,
freckled pinks,

and so the rainstorm, predicted
for tonight, won't snap their stems or dash
their trumpet-like blooms to earth

before their time
which, for lilies, means not before
several weeks of dazzling show;

as for me at eighty, after a long,
lucky run, many full seasons,
is it before my time

to want, some days, to be less needed?—
especially not needed
as caretaker, rallying coach, captive ear

to my own tiresome,
fitful mind
and brooding old heart.


I wrote poetry often as a young girl, but the impulse went underground for years.  As a professor I often wrote about, and taught, other poets.  However, with the birth of a granddaughter when I was in my forties, the desire to write, pretty constantly, surfaced; and to write about intimate feelings and relationships.  Here poets like Sharon Olds and Adrienne Rich emboldened me.  Now, in my eighties, I seem to write primarily as a witness to my own aging—its adjustments, losses, difficult times and yes, simple pleasures, joys and yearnings.  My publications include a book-length collection, The Love Word (Chicory Blue Press, 2004) and various journals and anthologies including Prairie Schooner, Women's Review of Books, Salamander, Solo, Lilith, Spoon River Review, Kalliope, Family Reunion, Her Face in the Mirror.  I have given readings in libraries, bookstores and colleges in New England and New York.  Two of my poems have won prizes.



A Splotch of Yellow

Up here in bed, reading, writing, watching
the slow onset of spring, spying
a single yellow tulip crying by the fence,
the tide in the creek beyond
at the full, its mirror
solid, implacable, I recall
the hours and hours of wailing
night before last, the little boy,
away from home, inconsolable; his patient
parents, their murmuring

                          A scab
tears off memory: a night
forty years ago visiting my parents,
my little boy frantic, his angry
mother slapping, shaking him,
patience far in her future.

It's not that some things
are best forgotten; it's that
they can't be, that a change
of light, a splotch of yellow
he loved, can spring them from the deep fresh
and untarnished, unsullied, honed
only the sharper by time, by tide.
It's that we must live
with who we've been.


I have been writing poetry all my life—probably for seventy-five of my eighty-seven years.  I have written it through, and about, good times and bad.  Until relatively late in life, I wrote largely for myself and thought of myself in terms of my two major preoccupations: mother of two and editor of scholarly books.  When I retired in 1992,  however, I set to work on a memoir and began to take part in poetry workshops.  Now I consider myself a poet, though I'm happy still to be a mother and, now a grandmother.  I haven't published widely.  One poem was published in Barrow Street, and others have appeared in various nonprofit books: Five Hundred Tuesdays by the Wellfleet Writers Guild; World of Water, World of Sand: A Cape Cod Collection of Poetry, Fiction and Memoir; River Voices by the Poets of Stuyvesant Cove Park in New York City; and Offerings II, poems by members of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, also of New York City (I edited the last two of these publications).  In 2012, I self-published A Stairway Unfurling: A Lifetime of Poems.  Since I am still writing and have a backlog of poems, I am thinking of bringing out another volume next year.



We Love Those Best

We love those best whom we need the most.
Beaks open, baby lips nuzzling nipple,
until the heart, against its very form,
four closed chambers, is warmed by need
and opens like a bud, turns full-face flower
to another, letting love exit and
enter, a turn which exposes each
to rapture and uncertainty.


As a girl and young woman, I wrote very few poems, but I read fervently.  It seemed obvious then that to be a poet, you had to be male.  As a classical scholar, I taught Greek and Roman poets, and published articles on Horace and Ovid in academic journals.  I also published a book, a feminist cultural study of the Greco-Roman legacy in America, and essays in the New York Times.  Finally, twenty years ago when I was in my mid-fifties, I began to write my poetry and discovered a medium that admitted many selves.  Two poets I especially admire are Marie Ponsot, with whom I studied at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, and Wislawa Szymborska.  My work has appeared in Notre Dame Review, BORDERLANDS, Eclipse, Willow Springs, Peregrine, Salamander, and Spoon River Review, as well as in the anthologies Verse and Universe: Poems about Science and Mathematics, and Family Reunion: Poems about Parenting Grown Children.  My translation of Zuzanna Ginzanka, "Non omnis moriar" from the Polish (with Anita Safran), the first English translation of this poem, appeared on AgniOnline.  I have given readings in the Boston area and in New York City.  My first book of poetry, Text(isles), is forthcoming from Dos Madres Press.




Did your eyes flash terror when they hijacked your school bus,
one of the men snarling your name down the aisle,
scanning each innocent face before lighting on yours?
What images blazed just before the bullet
grazed your luminous brain, sweet Malala?
At the hospital did you have nightmares: Taliban
instead of your loved olive trees in the orchards
outside your father's classroom, a thousand
points of grief webbing your mother's face.
Or did you dream bright streaks shooting across
a black sky?  Not disembodied particles of dust
but flesh and blood women, subversive sisters
from the past? Were their stories familiar?
           A 17th century girl so bent on learning
she hid her body under boys' clothes to go to school.
           A Mexican nun, reproached in an open letter
by a bishop masked with a woman's name,
replied with a learned defense of girls'
and women's right to study.
           A female German mystic eleven centuries back
who depicted God as Female.

Why do we doubt the sky is filled with history?
At eleven, Malala, you blogged:
Why aren't girls allowed to learn?
I want to read books.  I want to write them.

Incandescent little rebel, you've already begun.


Writing—for me—is like feeling a constant friend from the other side helping me understand—gradually—what it means to be human.  It mines my unconscious and reveals to me the mystery that is Rita, joining me to other humans in the deepest way.  It is more permanent than contemplation, more personal than prayer.  I have loved this act since I was six, abandoned it in my late teens then returned to it with passion in my early forties.  Emily Dickinson was right: publication IS the auction of the mind, but I have sought to have my work read.  Fortunately two chapbooks, Unveiling (Chickory Blue Press) and Trying on Faces (Monkshood Press) as well as a full-length collection, Nesting Doll (University Press of Colorado) have been published.  "My Name Is Not Eve," my play that explores the stories of four survivors of domestic violence, was performed in Denver and other Colorado venues.  For the past 25 years I have facilitated weekly writing sessions in women's shelters. Still it is the act of putting words on paper that makes me able to live as a seeker in the beautiful/terrifying world, and in the end it is writing that sustains me.




I've been rehearsing
the next big thing:

like choosing and blooming at
the right college; like finding
the only man I've loved

and lived with
more than half
a century;

like giving body's
to infinitesimal

who've blossomed
from blastocysts

to three
particular people.
The daily signs—

ache of hoisting

bone and flesh
up stairs,

where once the right
word bounded

like a friendly dog
with a slightly
slimy ball.


A writer all my life, I rediscovered poetry in my old age.  My most recent book of poems, Breathing the West: Great Basin Poems, was published by Bottom Dog Press in the fall of 2012, the same year in which a chapbook, Driving Near the Old Federal Arsenal, was released by Finishing Line Press.  I published individual poems in the North American Review, Kestrel, The Fourth River, 5 AM, Grasslimb, Rune, Hot Metal Press and in Voices From the Attic and Come Together: Imagine Peace anthologies. I won the Wisteria Prize for poetry in 2006 from Paper Journey Press and I have published two earlier books of poetry, The Duration of Grief and Keep.  I have also published a book about nonviolent protest against nuclear bomb part makers, Mere Citizens: United, Civil and Disobedient; a biography, Hammer of Justice: Molly Rush and the Plowshares Eight; a novel, Stitches in Air: A Novel About Mozart's Mother and many articles, essays and reviews.



Wherever You Are, Lois Lane

Barbie, unwrapped this holiday season
by another million little girls,
ratio of waist to hips
defying anatomy around the world.
Consort Ken still tries to pass
and Clark-slash-Superman
flexes his muscles in the wings.

We rage on behalf of our sisters
behind the burqas, hijabs, veils,
who cannot vote or drive,
are saddened by those Utah wives
with hair rolled back
and skirts about their ankles.

Wherever you are, Lois Lane,
come out of hiding.
We need to talk.


I have been writing ever since I was six and learned how.  As a very young woman, I knew writing would be central to my life.  I think of myself primarily as a poet, but among my more than 100 published books there are also many of oral history and essay.  I also often use my photography in conjunction with the written word.  I was born in 1936, so came of age in a country besieged by McCarthyism and the chill it placed on creative expression.  Fortunately, I moved to Latin America in 1961, where I co-founded and edited a bilingual literary journal out of Mexico City for the following eight years.  Contact with poets south of the border and around the world, helped me extradite myself from the McCarthyist idea that made political poetry taboo.  In fact I do not believe there are political poems, only successful and unsuccessful ones.  A poem can be about anything if it is well made, if it take risks and surprises.  Now, as I age, I am freer to devote more time to my writing.  I have a very supportive partner, also an artist, and our relationship is centered on her painting and my writing.  I believe in the power of language to effect change in the world.  My most recent books of poetry are Stones Witness (University of Arizona Press, 2007), Ruins (University of New Mexico Press, 2011), Something's Wrong With the Cornfields (Skylight Press, 2011), Where Do We Go From Here? (Wings Press, 2012), and The Rhizome as a Field of Broken Bones (Wings Press, 2013).  Coming in September, also from Wings Press, will be Daughter of Lady Jaguar Shark.


Margaret Randall - interview



At the End of the Play

Twice this month I've cried
at the end of a play, for the men
become disarmed and tender.

It's not Blanche made me weep
in A Streetcar Named Desire,
it's the gentleman caller she'd hoped for
sobbing against the wall.

"Make yourself an angel,"
the Victorian doctor's wife asks of him
in a new play.  In the Next Room.

"Open your arms," and, like a child,
he does. In the snow he disrobes
for her.  For all of us.
My husband and I hold his nakedness

close as we walk home—our 57th year
further in  than we can climb out of.

"Let's have a brandy," he says.
"Yes, I'd like that," I answer.


As a sickly child I found order and comfort in poems.  As a mother and high school English teacher in Tennessee, I had the chance to bring that deep pleasure toward my life with others.  The year my mother died, in my mid-forties, I began steadily to write poems.  I sublet an apartment in NYC to study and work in a community of poets.  My 50th birthday I celebrated with a U.C. Berkeley trip to Greece and Sicily with Robert Bly followed by a summer workshop with Galway Kinnell and Sharon Olds. Not long after, Poets House was born and I was asked to serve on its board.  My poems began being published in periodicals and anthologies, and in 1996 my first book, I'll See You Thursday. 12 Floors Above the Earth was published in 2012, and a memoir Four Sublets: Becoming a Poet in New York in 2007.  In 1999 and 2003 my poems were included in The Best American Poetry.




     What this country needs is a good five cent cigar.
                              Thomas Riley Marshall

My father held a Corona Gigante
casually with three fingers.

My guardian uncle carried a short Churchill
in his mouth, wet, never lit.

Castro waved a Bolivar Fino like a flag,
bragging about power.

I loved to puff a cigarillo in the West Village
like "Vincent" Millay.  Inhaling desire.


After reading the poetry of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, at twelve I wrote my first poem about "a little 'ole tomcat jumpin' on a mouse."  From the beginning I wrote of oppression, partly because of the persecution in the world at large, and partly because of my identification with minorities arising out of being brought up by an aunt after my parents' early death when I was four.  My lost mother and father have functioned as my muse throughout my lifetime, as I have imagined and re-imagined them in my travels to England, Ireland, Russia, and other countries and associated them with literary figures like Isaac Babel and movie stars like Carole Lombard.  Present family has been a vital source for my poems as I have gone on to write about my son and daughter, two granddaughters and my brother, witness to our childhood.  Cultural figures and history are a source of creativity as well: Josephine Baker, George Gershwin, and Prohibition and poets from the Harlem Renaissance writers to Marina Tsteayeva, Paul Celan and Anna Akhmatova, among others.  Writing poetry has sustained me intellectually and emotionally as a source of pleasure from language and the intellectual process of revision, as a way of recovering and recreating my parents, and now, grown older, aging.  With poetry I found a community for the family I lost.  I have published seven chapbooks of poetry and three full-length books.  The two most recent books are American Rhapsody, CavanKerry Press, 2012 and Hurt, The Shadow, The Josephine Hopper Poems, Dom Madres Press, 2013.


Carole Stone - reading




The fat women in the Coney Island steam bath
               pinched my cheek and laughed at nothing,
sweat gleaming off their skin and coarse, curly hair,
               not a bone to be seen anywhere,

not in my aunt's long breasts, none in the flesh
              of my mother's belly. I grew up in the shelter
of kitchen gossip, amplitude nourished by yeasty smells,
              pillow of soft, rising dough, a feminine language

that taught me where the body begins, its armature
              concealed, its health augmented like good soup.
By sixth grade, I knew I was fat. I married a man
              with a flat stomach and an unrequited hunger.

The soup the Nazis fed him in their concentration camp
              was thin as silk, what floated there thinner still.
From the aunts and mothers I learned wisdom is liquid,
              rescue, a recipe they give to their daughters.

When the soup is done, I remove the bones,
              scoop out the glutinous marrow, every last shred.
I spread it on fresh rye bread. 
              I watch him eat, and my heart gets fat.


The physical act of writing took hold of me in first grade, with my earnest efforts to perfect my handwriting.  By fourth grade I was writing the class Halloween play, and at the age of 13, I was accused of plagiarism.  It never occurred to me to say I am a writer anymore than having to announce I am a girl, until the 60's, when I AM WOMAN became a political statement.  Yet it took me years to say when asked what I do, I am a poet.  I have published four books of poetry, the Invisible Telling Its Shaper, Fithian Press, 1997, Breathing Like A Jew, Chickory Blue Press, 1997, Carnal Fragrance, Red Hen Press, 2004, and Sacred Graffiti, Telbot Bach, 2010.  Among my awards are first prizes in the Poetry/LA Bicentennial Sculpture Gardens Reveiw, Mississippi Valley, Red Dancefloor and the dACenter for the Arts poetry contests.



Woman In Red Shoes

She nods, her head sinks
Into her bosom
Toward her red shoes
Dreamland finds her
Holding an empty A&W root beer bottle,
Her fingers letting go and the bottle
Falls.  Three times she lets go,
Three times a different passenger picks up
Her bottle, I'm the third, tucking it
Into her plastic sack with "Thank You" and a pink rose
Printed on it, holding a half-sandwhich
Wrapped in waxed paper
Her red hat capes her black hair, she
A picture of serenity filling her gold jacket
With half moons, her black handbag hanging
Over the right arm of her wheelchair
Her skin the color of dark-roast coffee
Attracts the eyes of others, watching
The empty bottle fall, watching its return
To the woman in red shoes, asleep
For the twenty-minute ride
From San Francisco to West Oakland
When she suddenly awakens and wheels
Through the door onto the platform,
Her full body singing


I have published three books of poetry plus a chapbook during the 40-plus years when my first collection, Dreams in Harrison Railroad Park, was released in 1977, the most-published book in Kelsey Press's history (four printings).  My following books are The Death of Long Steam Lady (Westside Press, 1986),  Stolen Moments (Chicory Blue Press, 1997) and Breakfast Lunch Dinner (Meridien PressWorks, 2012).  My poems and essays have appeared in numerous anthologies, journals and other publications.  I was co-featured in the documentary film, "Mitsuye and Nellie Asian American Poets," by Allie Light and Irving Saraf.  In 2011, I was honored by having a building named after me at my alma mater, Oakland High School, Oakland, Ca.  Two of my poems are engraved on public sites in San Francisco as part of the San Francisco Municipal Railway projects.  Retired as a Senior Analyst in Affirmative Action, I continue to write and journey into the night.


Nellie Wong - reading



In the Middle of the Night

Now that we've stopped "making love"
because my old bones hurt so
sometimes in the middle of the night
when you are asleep
and night lights make a path
for each of us through a different door
I wake heated by the moisture of our sleep
my nerves sparkling with delight
and am joined to the memory of our loving
wherever our skins touch
my hand on your shoulder or back
or between your thighs
just below your sleeping sex I do not stir.

By day I'm often cranky, irritated:
the paces of our brains uneven
we fail to remember in the same way
the history we share. We are often
                    But now when you
are sound asleep in the heated bed
out the winter window not a single sound
in the house an occasional chewing in the walls
hot air knocking its way through base board pipes
I have you
                   an interlude I keep thinking
we'll look back on—too soon—
as a lull, a plateau before the steepest climbing.
You do not feel my touch
do not hear me whisper  my darling, my darling
and I love you so much
love more insistent than clawing each other
in the greed of pleasure or the bliss of sleeping after sex
two as one.
                   I am all mouth, all skin
and yet there is no urgency, these nights
in our side by sideness, your body entrusted to mine
our breaths quiet, this reaching of my nerve endings
of my pores, all space between us closed.
I don't want to forget this in the days to come
of dying from each other. We have this.
I have it, this space sealed with tenderness.


I grew up on poetry.  From the age of three, I read anthologies of poems until their covers fell off and their pages bloated and frayed.  But I wrote nothing of my own.  Fiercely withdrawn, I couldn't even imagine that possibility.  I just read and studied and taught.  I started writing at the age of fifty, as the result of therapy; I burst open after a half century of repression, and have never stopped.  My early teachers and guides, models of woman's daring, were Honor Moore and Joan Larkin.  I have been a follower of Sharon Olds since she began publishing and have attended many week-long workshops, where she wrote with us, at Squaw Valley and Omega and on white water canoe retreats led by wilderness guide Beverly Antaeus.  I continued my education as a poet in poetry critiquing groups and with peer poets from whom I drew the courage to continue my sort of writing.  My poems have been published in journals and anthologies.  My poetry collections include A Detail in that Story and, most recently, Contraries.  I am editor of Family Reunion: Poems About Parenting Grown Children and A Wider Giving: Women Writing after a Long Silence.  I am publisher of Chicory Blue Press, focusing on the writing of older women.




A wet leaf glints in the sun
a jay calls out in the woods

Coolness touches my face
for a moment: this edge of joy

how it comes and goes, teasing
like the edge of foam that rides

the beach ahead of each wave
to be swallowed with a sigh

into wet sand until the next one
rises, and the next


Growing up tri-lingual made me deeply aware of language from early on.  I began writing poetry early—I still have a sonnet I wrote in 5th grade—and continued on and off into early adulthood.  Several fallow periods later, I began to write again, using poetry as a means of understanding my world, both exterior and interior, more deeply.  In old age, partly by being a member of a very insightful and supportive group of fellow-poets, I find myself more and more committed to my own writing.  And more open, too, to the pleasures of reading the work of other poets.  Among other influences, the poets I tend to turn to again and again include Elizabeth Bishop, Jane Hirshfield, Stanley Kunitz, Lisel Mueller, Sharon Olds, and Tomas Transtromer.  My most recent publication is a full-length collection, Mapping the Sands (Mayapple Press, 2010).  I am the author of two chapbook, Near Enough to Hear the Words (Pudding House Publications) and With Both Hands (Finishing Line Press).  A group of poems and an interview were featured in the anthology, A Wider Giving (Chicory Blue Press).  Other poems have appeared in a number of anthologies and journals.


Sondra Zeidenstein made me weep with her tender love poem, Margaret Randall has led a life of legend.  These are extraordinary women, or perhaps, just women, with voices.  

What do you get when you put twelve women of a particular age together and let them loose?  A choir of earned wisdom.  Almost a thousand years of living packed into this surprising and enligthning anthology.  It was real pleasure to spend time in their company.

"The word "honest" has been overused in reference to poetry, and yet I could find no other word to describe the authentic, fearless and universal gift of the poems.  I particularly love that these poems expose secrets: they let go of facts and emotions possibly hidden for a lifetime.  This anthology is a guidebook for how to live authentically.  All praise to these women and to editor Zeidenstein—our world is richer for their contributions."
     Cortney Davis, author of Leopold's Maneuvers


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.