Monthly Archive for November, 2011

Possible Futures: Poetry, Puerto Rico and Adoption with David-Glen Smith

Headshot Poet David Glen Smith

Poet David Glen Smith

Your poem “Learning Spanish” provides a sensual recreation of the experience of immersion in a foreign language morphing familiar via the body—here through the lens of love and fatherhood and the translation into body rhythms. Can you talk to us about this rich braided layering of history, family history, and future? How you arrived at your metaphors and the process of writing this poem?

For a number of years, after many attempts at learning conversational Spanish, I reached the conclusion all languages are musical in origin, and my approaches conflicted with developing a poetic understanding of the phrasing—sometimes, on a basic level, there is a satisfaction just listening to a group of people absorbed in their cultural conversations without my comprehension of the words: the meaning transforms to music. From that starting ground I wanted to describe the sensation of a persona’s developing understanding of another language through a close relationship: a partner born from another culture. And the persona’s need for his child to understand the background of both parents, both cultures.

Likewise the process of creative thought is similar to language comprehension— in the sense writers often drown themselves in a collection of impressions and sensations in order to sort out and organize the flow of relevant themes and emotional impact to provide their readers. In this poem’s case, by mirroring the experience of language and creativity I opened myself to a wide assortment of material I needed to weave into a specific tapestry of information.

On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I discovered how vast the quantity of history and literature and music were hidden from me, through no one’s fault but my own. Borrowing from my experiences of San Juan —the copper-blue cobble stones for instance, the carts of candy and chipped ice, the older men playing dominos in the town square— I discovered my persona would likewise be alien to the past life experiences of his partner as well as the average day-to-day speech of an unknown city. Once I acknowledged that fact, the watery metaphors quickly swept over the poem.

In “As A Figure of Hermes” the narrator open with the writer’s dilemma: “A moment of confrontation: me and the blank paper,” dilemma enough without the presence of a child to raise and love and imagine a life for over the rest of one’s days. Eventually the narrator latches onto the metaphor of Hermes, sliding into reverie about mortal son. Can you speak to the relationship between fatherhood and writing? How has fatherhood come to bear on your writing life?

With the experience of becoming a father last year, and the whole process of the adoption of our son Brendan, I quickly fell into a mode of redefining myself. Almost immediately a whole new understanding of my goals and aspirations emerged—I know it sounds cliché, but once the title of Father is attributed to you, a strange mindset develops without warning: no matter how much mental preparation you are supplied.

The poem in particular was a projection of a future possibility once Brendan reached his middle teen years—written before a birth mother had even matched with us. What I find interesting, although the projection of him as a dark-haired boy is inaccurate, my fear of a loss of communication with him is very similar to the fear of losing touch with my creative energies. Once, in the mid Nineties, I experienced a long spell of writer’s block, partly self-imposed, partly circumstance. My fear if the blank page echoes my fear of Brendan not understanding the creative energy of a writer-father.

“Without hesitation, / shove kindling and kerosene-soaked-rags / under the foundations of any structure / binding your slender body to the past” opens your powerful poem, “I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges.” This poem strikes me as the kind of letter, as a poet, I would hope to find in my “baby book” (or, from the prenatal birth classes parents of our generation might attend, where one is often asked to write a letter to one’s future child). Can you talk to us about the inspiration behind this poem?

The “Burning Bridges” poem is another example of writing which appeared before we were matched with the birth-mother. It was the first full length poem I wrote addressing my son as an actuality, rather than a possibility due to the fact we were processing the paperwork and profile information for the agency. As you mentioned, it is a letter “exercise” I heard about years before as a means of developing ideas into something stronger and more stable.

Most of the inspiration is based off negative experiences from my immediate past—mainly a one-time corporate employer telling me to not burn any bridges in my exit interview. This of course only made me burn a huge pyre when I left the company to pursue my writing and editing positions. I pray he is never put into such situations of corporate middle management—or ill-advised authority figures—which of course became the backbone of the poem itself.

Furthermore I did not want to bind him to any expectations of my own. Certainly I want him to be involved with the creative arts in same fashion, but it will have to be up to his own choosing, not mine.

Most importantly, I wanted to prepare him in a sense for the opposition he will bump into later in life due to the fact his parents are in a same-sex relationship. I hate that expression; it sums up the situation in a very cold, clinical fashion. Regardless of that fact, I want him to be able to see beyond the definitions and restrictions society often places on diverse thoughts, diverse ideas, to hold firmly to his opinions and live according to a moral code based on his own choice construction, and analytical process.

How do the practices of sketching and writing compete/complement your imagination’s processes?

At one time my sketching was more intensive, more of a ritualized practice which helped explore new ideas—during the drawing process I discovered that the development of new schemes with a different manner of expression brought new focus to writing. However, with Brendan’s birth, my regular practice of drawing and painting has stopped temporarily. Once the demands of raising him lessen slightly, or offer windows of opportunities, I’ll start the process again, exploring a way of bridging the two different fields into one project. I have partially generated a series of Japanese tanka verses partnered with ink-brush illustrations—a project only half realized at the moment. As it stands currently, what resulted is that my two selves, illustrator and poet, tend to argue who is in control of the output. Oftentimes the original idea seems to suffer between the two extremes. A compromise needs to be built between the two aspects of my personality.

Any writing mentors you wish to share with us?

When earning my MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College, then affiliated with Norwich University, I was fortunate to work with three established writers of merit: Susan Mitchell, Lynda Hull, and Mark Doty. Each of the trio, with their unique methods, did instill a better sense of direction for my writing. Through their individual approaches I strengthened my style of building connections between a variety of themes and story-lines. I always admired the manner their particular styles braid more than one conceit through one body of work. Some quick examples from their creative efforts I often use in my classes: Hull, “Ornithology;” Mitchell, “Havana Birth;” Doty, “Tiara.”

There is much talk recently about the validity of a higher degree in creative writing; at the time I was working towards my own, I felt a strong connection to the concept of guided study for developing a stronger sense of self, a stronger sense of craft. It is not a direction suited for everyone. On a practical level, I chose the MFA specifically to enable me to have a background for teaching university-level courses. On a more emotional approach, I needed to learn how to feel comfortable in my own skin and how to be honest with my own personal experiences.

We understand you are at work on a new series of poems, Quintet, with a unique structure. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Quintet is a manuscript, near completion, which explores numerous interior monologues. I do like the idea of a tight “concept album” in the music industry—in a tongue in cheek manner I created the same idea for a poetry collection. In this sense, the full narrative of a five member modern jazz group is heard. Edgar Lee Masters’ book Spoon River Anthology proved a valid inspiration ever since I read it in high school. In my case, the thoughts and impressions of the band are shown in a manner mirroring the sixties jazz be-bop movement, sudden solo improvisations popping into the middle of a memory without warning. The verses appear alternating between a tight, traditional form and an abstract, expressionistic pattern on the page. In this manner I follow the Modernists from the Twentieth Century, their rebellion against expectation and strict definition.

David-Glen Smith’s work appeared in various magazines including:Assaracus (where “I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges” first appeared), The Centrifugal Eye, ffrrfr, Houston Literary Review, Lady Jane Miscellany, Louisville Review, Mid-America Review, Saltwater Quarterly, Slant, The Steel-Toe Review,and The Write Room. In addition, a recent print anthology titled Ganymede-Unfinished accepted two of his poems. Currently residing in Cypress, Texas with his partner of ten years, they recently adopted a baby boy, a welcome edition in their lives: new topics and inspirations for poetry projects. Smith teaches English Literature at both Wharton County Junior College and Lone Star College-CyFair. He received his MFA at Vermont College, and his MA at the University of MO at St. Louis. For more information visit his website.

Learning Spanish, As a Figure of Hermes, I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges: Three Poems by Poet David Glen Smith

Learning Spanish

1.
It’s too easy to fall
into the ancient sea of your family’s
conversations, into the phrases
of their language— woven with birds
and paper roses.

I lean into the current
of their thoughts,
into the flood of indecipherable
rhythms, the latin root
heavy as cobblestones originally imported

from Spain, copper-blue stones
which served as counter weights on trade ships
arriving from the Old World, sent to balance
the absence, the expectation for cargo on return
trips: dark rum, raw sugarcane, aboriginal slaves.

2.
Later, my throat mumbles words
which you drop on my tongue, casual as communion:
camisa,
               tabillero,
                              portada—

the syllables jostle in my mouth,
between my incisors as chips of ice,
or homemade candies—membrillo de mangó—
sweets purchased from a middle-aged woman
with a pushcart in a courtyard of Old San Juan.

The tart pricklings accent against
the roof of the mouth, the double vowels heavy
as two empty rowboats
which brush against each other
at the water’s edge,

and pull back, both caught in a short sway,
in unison, the same manner your parents
move about their narrow kitchen, a casual salsa,
following rituals and patterns
of making cafe con leche. Then,

they simmer pink beans
with chunks of stewed gourd,
while on the counter a stalk of green plantains arches,
leans forward to a ripeness,
leans forward to listen

to your parents humming
an unrecognizable lyric with the radio,
a washed-out blue tune,
the same color of the streets in the capital-city,
which run as streams of faded beryl.

3.
When I practice phrases
my phonetics falter, they arch and unwind
the language into nonsensical syllables,
the words transform to awkward birds
settling into the evening

spilling out a chorus of blue-black voices,
the sounds clutter wires along crossroads,
verbs jostle for placement around wide-eyed nouns,
misplaced adjectives seek new positions to roost
along the established hierarchy on cable-lines.

Yet there are times, rare moments,
when you forget and pour over me
a pitcher full of indecipherable phrases,
sudden shock of cold water,
or a broken levee of vocabulary,

similar sensations to my waking in the night
to find you rocking the baby in full parental mode,
whispering Spanish lullabies. I lean forward
to listen, drunk on lack of sleep,
and watch your body sway in a private tide,

a personal conversation. And my ears recognize a few
isolated words— take in scattered phrases.

As a Figure of Hermes

A moment of confrontation:
me and the blank paper.
So I breathe. Fidget with the seat.

Adjust placement of the pen
in the hand and stare at the lamp
to expect miracles—or to simply wait

for inspiration to arrive
as a figure of Hermes, god of messages
and proclamations. Young, dark-haired,

olive complexion— the eternal youth appearing
as a reinvention of my son:
his unkempt hair, a rough unshaven face,

brimming with assertiveness
after soccer practice, smelling of green youth
and over confidence—

I want this figure to personify my work,
my athletic poems stacked in slightly
disorganized piles on my desk.

I want my boy to represent an appropriate,
valid body of work which explains
my creative process, my desire for writing,

yes—my raison d’être. Go ahead. State the fact I want too much
as I daydream, glancing outside my study window,
watching my neighbors settling into their lives

and their chores, sorting trash for the weekly pickup
or sweeping their wet driveways clear of the leaves
floating around the subdivision,

and here I am falling into images of the mundane
in order to fill out the page with material
that may turn into something other when the mood

returns. A time when Brendan is less averse
to fatherly affection: my son with his facial expressions
slightly wind-burned from the rush of

falling through the skies, freckles across his shoulders,
wings on his ankles, a figure of mid-summer himself,
god of thieves and alphabets, delivering me a note

from the Muses, offering a stronger sense of direction
and greater sense of self worth, acute awareness of
my writing career as it stumbles along with my notations,

as I jump from the deep edge of the pool
without paying attention to how deep the water
actually is. When my awkward body hits the surface

it submerges as a stone
into the furiously cold waters.
A new horizon expands overhead—

which brings me back, almost full circle,
leaping headfirst into a project without
a scope of the territory or full knowledge of the exact

limitations of theme or topic.
Only a revision of the unknowable future
in my hands—my head filled with

a want of my son to turn,
look back, and maybe,
just maybe

gain a full understanding of me
with a rush of winged epiphanies—
yet, without further declarations from the world. 

Or without formal edicts of fate.
Or the domed heavens spiraling persistently
above our heads. Silent. Without purpose.

I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges

Without hesitation,
shove kindling and kerosene-soaked-rags
under the foundations of any structure
binding your slender body to the past,
incinerate the litany of misguided perceptions,
broken advice, miscalculated directions
which led you down dead-end gravel roads
at dusk, where even technology fails
to establish a connection to your self worth,
self validation.

Without regret, fulminate,
strike bundles of matches, cup the small flames close,
and shield the fever against your chest,
then light all combustible materials within reach,
the cracked plywood planks
built across the river of your life—
fuel the developing fox fires
with tinder and last year’s seasoned branches—
collect brushwood to throw into the pyre
with glorious affirmation.

Without looking back,
acknowledge the ash which rains down as soft snow
and the sheets of fire which expand, licking up
further beyond any flash point. Encourage the blaze,
to vesicate, sear lumber and stone—
without turning, you must visualize the heat
at your back, blistering the nape of your neck,
singing the tips of your coal black hair, and then,
only then, step away. Motion forward—keeping your eyes
centered to the cool darkness ahead.

David-Glen Smith’s work appeared in various magazines including:Assaracus (where “I Tell My Son to Burn Down All Bridges” first appeared), The Centrifugal Eye, ffrrfr, Houston Literary Review, Lady Jane Miscellany, Louisville Review, Mid-America Review, Saltwater Quarterly, Slant, The Steel-Toe Review,and The Write Room. In addition, a recent print anthology titled Ganymede-Unfinished accepted two of his poems. Currently residing in Cypress, Texas with his partner of ten years, they recently adopted a baby boy, a welcome edition in their lives: new topics and inspirations for poetry projects. Smith teaches English Literature at both Wharton County Junior College and Lone Star College-CyFair. He received his MFA at Vermont College, and his MA at the University of MO at St. Louis. For more information visit his website.

Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents with Poet Lisa Rizzo

Lisa Rizzo poet teacher headshot

Lisa Rizzo

Editor’s Note: I first heard Lisa read “Daughters” at a Women on Writing (WOW) conference in the Bay Area three years ago and thought the poem belonged here at The Fertile Source; no coincidence then, that several days into this summer’s 2011 A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) Writing retreat, I found myself sharing breakfast with Lisa, talking poetry. Once we realized our earlier connection—that we’d first met at WOW–I had the opportunity to ask her again for the poem, along with “Uneasy Grace” and “Childhood”. I left in Lisa’s nods to me (forgive the indulgence), drinking in a little return acknowledgment for the time and hours spent here, with gratitude.  Enjoy—Tania Pryputniewicz

I read these poems looking at the question of foregoing motherhood as a series, assuming a common narrator. As a trio, they present a moving look at the process of such a decision, and oddly enough, the dual finality and opportunity to connect in other ways. The childless narrator of “Uneasy Grace,” in reference to the gift of time with her niece, ends the poem on a haunting question, “What other spirit could I need?” Can you talk to us about how the process of writing poetry might lend itself to such decision? (Or what does poetry offer that other forms might not?)

For me, poetry is about being brutally honest with myself.  When writing a poem, I can’t hide from myself, but rather have to face myself head-on.  A friend just wrote to me: “You manage to tear out parts of yourself and stand back and appreciate them.  I wanted to say analyze, but that is too harsh.” That is exactly what I want to do with my poems! So perhaps this art form has allowed me not just to accept my childless stay – a decision that in our society is often suspect, but to embrace it as a positive thing.

It amazes me how many words referring to spirit or religion I use in my poems.  As I described in this poem, I have a real quandary about what I think of spirituality. It’s one of those gray areas in my life I prefer not to analyze too much, even though I write about my unresolved feelings all the time.  In the same way, foregoing motherhood kind of crept up on me unawares.  I think I had made the decision long before I realized it.  As with most women, it was and is a difficult thing to explain.  I do know that it was only after I became comfortable with my life without children that I decided to become a teacher.  Are those two events related?  I’m not sure, but I do think the progression rather interesting.

In a delightful turn, nested within “Uneasy Grace,” we witness the lineage of poetry itself passed from aunt to niece as they compose haiku together. Can you talk to us about the role poetry plays for you in your daily life?

I find it interesting that you used the word “nested” in your question – it brings us back to the idea of mother/caretaker.  Thinking about this makes me realize just how much poetry is intertwined with my interactions with the children in my life.  I’m lucky that I get to share in both sides of the poetic dance in my writing as well as with my day job. Being a middle school teacher, while challenging to my writing life in many ways, also allows me to share my love of poetry with the young people whom I teach.  Adolescents are just awakening to their own place in the world and as a result, they are learning the power of words. So many of them love poetry.  I enjoy the interplay between us when we read and write poetry together.  It is that sense of wonder that I got when I wrote the haikus with my niece that day in church.

How did you arrive at the metaphor of the ribbon (appearing in both “Childhood” and “Daughters”) and were there other metaphors you considered along the way?

Until you asked this question, I had never even noticed the connection of the ribbon metaphor in both poems.  Isn’t that amazing? I love it that other people can see things that I as the poet don’t!  To be honest, I’m not sure how I came up with these metaphors.  I do know that in both poems I was exploring the idea of where I come from, how my background and family has influenced who I am today.  Those ribbons hold me to the past while giving me enough “line” to move on into my future.  This is something I write about often.

Have you encountered work by other writers along this topic line that you’d recommend to us? Any desire to address the range of ways you see mothering still finding expression despite a decision to forego having a child (either in your life or the lives of others)?

This is a very interesting question. I really have not come across poems along this line. Once at a poetry reading, another poet read a poem about her unborn children, but that is really the only one I can think of.  I believe this is such a sensitive topic in our society that many women don’t talk about it – or if they do talk about not having children, they have to excuse themselves. I know I have to be careful not to do that myself.  I think this is why the poem “Daughters” has such an impact whenever I read it – I am always amazed at the deep emotions it seems to stir in other women.  I feel quite honored by some of the stories women have shared with me after hearing this poem.

In “Childhood,” the lines “my future self tucked / dormant and waiting/ packed for my journey” struck me as an eloquent ovarian metaphor, in the context of the green suitcase the child is carrying. Can you talk to us about the process of writing this poem?

The photograph (view here) I wrote about is one of the most evocative images of myself that I have.  It’s hanging on my bedroom wall right now. There is just something about the look on my little four-year old face that draws me back to it.  I looked so hopeful about the world around me, yet also a little afraid.  (The way I still feel most of the time even today!)  Another very provocative part of the photo is the small fragment of my childhood friend that appears behind me.  This has always intrigued me because she was wearing what appears to be an identical dress.  Because so little of her can be seen, it looks almost like a ghost image.  And why was I carrying a suitcase?  I wrote this poem when I was just beginning to take myself seriously as a writer.   The idea that this poet self was there all along comforted me.

Any writing mentors you wish to share with us?

 My most important mentor is Charlotte Muse (her real name!).  She’s a local poet with whom I have been taking poetry workshops for many years. She is an amazing teacher; gentle and encouraging while at the same time incredibly honest in her criticism. I credit her encouragement in helping me overcome my nagging self-doubt about my poetry.

And then there are all the amazing women writers I met at AROHO (like you, Tania!).  I now consider every one of those women to be mentors.  Since attending that retreat, the support I received there has helped me find a new commitment to my identity as a writer.

 How do you balance teaching and writing?

With much effort and difficulty!  It is always a struggle to meld these two parts of my life so that I don’t feel like they are at war with each other.  To be a teacher means to be on stage for most of the day, a very extraverted activity.  Then I often don’t have any energy left when I go home to tap into the introverted poet in me.  Since coming home from AROHO, I’ve done a better job because I won’t let myself off the hook as much when it comes to carving out time for my writing.  When I was at Ghost Ranch, I bought a stone that had an image carved into it.  There were many of them with various images.  The first one I was drawn to had a carving of a half moon/half sun.  When I read the description of what this image was supposed to represent, it said it showed an eclipse. This is symbolizes power and union.  I think it is a perfect metaphor for how I am trying to balance the union between these two sides of myself.

 What are you currently working on?

I am working on a variety of things.  As far as my poetry, I am currently at work on a series of poems about my trip to the Serengeti this past summer.  Being there was awe-inspiring.  I am also trying to “outline” a vision for a poetry manuscript that I hope to write.  I truly hate outlines, but I want to be more intentional about finding the connections between my poems so they work together to form a book.  So far, that means a great deal of musing but little black and white on the page!

Recently I started my own blog Poet Teacher Seeks World.  I never thought I would blog (I do hate how we have made this a verb) until I met you, Tania.  Also, I’m working on our collaborative interview project, AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.  Again, this is a new type of venture for me and I am enjoying it immensely.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her work has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Writing for Our Lives, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx JournalIn the Poem an Ocean is her first chapbook publication.  She recently entered the “blogosphere” with her blog Poet Teacher Seeks World and the collaborative project AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.

April 14, 2014 update:  Here’s an additional Interview with Lisa Rizzo at The California Journal of Women Writers by Marcia Meier.

Childhood, Daughters, Uneasy Grace: Three Poems by Lisa Rizzo

Childhood

I begin with a photograph:
find a face
much like my present one
peeping out
shy, unsure of its welcome.
A tree stands behind –
shading scrub yard and gray steps.
My dress white
organdy.
On my head
a hat of plain straw
with black band and flowers.
Its yellow ribbon grasps
my neck firmly.
On the back I read:
“Lisa in Mt. Pleasant 1960?”
The question repeated
in my face.

In the upper left corner –
on the half hidden porch
a snippet of another girl
in a white dress
in a straw hat.
Since she has no face
I imagine her to be
my shadow
refusing to cooperate.
The smile I can see –
half formed,
head dipped
seeming to say: “Please.”
Carried in my hand
a child’s round suit case.
It is green.
Into this
my future self tucked
dormant and waiting,
packed for my journey.

Daughters

I bear a thin red ribbon
around my wrist. This flows
from me to my mother
and back. I am
the eldest daughter of
an eldest daughter of
an eldest daughter.
This embrace I can never
unwind. Instead I
have chosen to cut my own
daughter free – the bond
never begun.

On my 38th birthday gazing
at a bowl of daffodils I
forced to bloom, I conceded
I would never have a child.
I shed no tears, but simply felt
hot wax seal the ribbon’s end.

I am a woman
who will never have children,
who never expected to fall in love
with the sweet hair and baby grasp
of her brother’s daughter.
Still I have no tears, only
now I understand what
I have foregone.

Uneasy Grace

Ensnared into church by my mother’s faith
and Christmas wishes:
that old Methodist feeling of
remorse and regret
blended with a tinge of guilt.
Uncomfortable tug of a past
that no longer fits
even if I might want it.
Sitting silent during prayers
so I don’t feel a liar.

And then a gift:
My brother and his daughter
slid into the pew,
she in her little girl finery:
spangly dress and slippers
I brought her from Istanbul,
their cardboard soles soggy
with Portland rain.
She and I amused ourselves with
counting hymns and syllables
for haiku:

Winter is wonder.
Winter is snowflakes in the air.
Winter is cocoa.
By Felicity Grace, age 9

Winter is wonder.
When mist marries mountainside
Cedars sprinkle stars.
By Lisa Grace, age 51

What other spirit could I need?
This is something I know how to hold.

Lisa Rizzo is a poet and middle school language arts teacher who manages to combine her love of words and poetry with her day job. She was born in Texas, grew up in Chicago and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.  Her work has appeared in such journals as The Lucid Stone, 13th Moon, Writing for Our Lives, Earth’s Daughters, Bellowing Ark and Calyx JournalIn the Poem an Ocean is her first chapbook publication.  “Childhood” was previously published in 13th Moon; “Daughters” previously appeared in Writing for Our Lives. All three poems published here today also appeared in In the Poem an Ocean. Rizzo recently entered the “blogosphere” with her blog Poet Teacher Seeks World and the collaborative project AROHO Speaks: Writer to Writer.

Read our interview with Lisa Rizzo conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Celebrating the Foregoing of Motherhood: Poetry in the Service of Spiritual Quandary, Lineage, and Teaching Adolescents.

 




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