Archive for the 'fatherhood' Category

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Father Witness, Birth vs. God: An Interview with Poet Jim Richards

Poet Jim Richards

Jim Richards

An extreme state of ambivalence towards pregnancy is explored in “Mother of Three.” One of the things I most enjoyed about these three poems is the fearlessness with which God and birth are broached and prodded—here, what it means to bring a fourth child into a home overflowing with three (and praying for some kind of redemption despite adversity). What happens for you during the process of writing poems like these? Any surprises in process or line of questioning/reasoning?

My wife, Debbie, describes deciding to get pregnant like deciding to have the stomach flu for nine months. Her “morning” sickness occurs around the clock and throughout her pregnancy. Food becomes revolting. Things as simple as answering the phone make her vomit. Once, after a particularly difficult day of pregnancy, I came into the bathroom when she had just finished vomiting. I put my hand on her back and asked her, “What can I do to help?” Her reply was, “Just go away” then she spit into the toilet.

What can a husband do in this situation? Nothing, was the answer. My suffering was to watch my wife suffer. In the poem, I conflate this experience with that of the God of the New Testament as he watches his son suffer death by crucifixion. Christ claimed that he died to bring life. In a way, so do women when they “lay down their lives” for their children. That’s the paradox I wanted to explore in the poem: the joy that comes through sorrow as it pertains to child bearing, at a moment when sorrow is tipping the scale.

Similarly, in “On Your Birthday,” there’s an honest look at patterns of communication in a relationship. Though hard in some ways, there’s also a tenderness that comes across.
I see you in a chair, your faced washed / With the sorrow of post-partum, wanting to glow / In the eyes of the newborn in your arms, / And wondering how. How do you choose which moments to depict in a poem? Other inspiring poems about relationship dynamics that you’ve encountered in your reading history?

These poems are unusually autobiographical and sincere for me, including “On Your Birthday.” The occasion and the memory you quote here are actual. While Debbie was rocking our first baby, from the other room I heard her whisper to the child, “Do you think I’m beautiful?” This helped me understand a measure of what she was feeling. I try to identify (or sometimes invent) moments like these that are common yet overlooked, and then try to represent them honestly. Frost’s “Home Burial,” Kinnell’s “After Making Love We Hear Footsteps,” Rich’s “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers,” Swenson’s “Feel Me to Do Right,” and Li-Young Lee’s Rose are models for me.

Can you talk about the process of writing, “Poem for a New Father?” Again, I’m struck by the way you map out the psychological territory a new father might find himself crossing when his wife gives birth: “A predator circles, patient as death.” Can you talk to us about that line, or others in the poem?

Again autobiographical, this poem was written for my brother after his first daughter, Grace, was born. It explores the question, “What might a man go through when his wife goes through childbirth?” For me, the experience is animalistic: the bearing down, the pushing, breathing, grunting; the pain and screaming; the blood and fluids; the indifference of the doctors and nurses for whom the ritual has become routine. The line you refer to tries to create this impression with an image of an animal bearing young in the wild while a predator watches. At any moment, mother or newborn may die. It’s that kind of emotional intensity I felt as I witnessed the birth of my children. I try to capture it in the poem as a way of empathizing with my brother.

How does your faith, and questions around it, enter your poetry?

My faith is so much a part of who I am I don’t know if I can answer this question with any real insight or objectivity. I was raised in a religious home by parents who were raised in religious homes, and so on throughout my ancestry. Quite honestly, I don’t think I’m capable of truly understanding what it’s like to live, think, or write without a perspective of faith. I believe in God and life after death and this influences every aspect of my life, including writing. It often inhibits my writing and makes me insecure because I worry that many readers may see me as naïve or old fashioned, and I’m probably both.

I struggle with the question: How can I believe and yet write in a way that will interest those who don’t believe? I don’t want to limit my audience to those who share my faith, but am I capable of writing poems of interest to those who don’t? I suppose many writers deal with this kind of struggle—how to reach beyond their own experience or identity to a wider world.

When did you start writing poetry? Any mentors you wish to discuss?

When I was in college on a study abroad in London my roommate asked if I wanted to go and hear Seamus Heaney give a reading. I had no idea who he was and passed on the invitation. Later that year I came across Heaney’s “Digging” in an anthology and loved it, especially its sound and imagery. Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that there was such a thing as a living poet. The next semester I registered for a senior seminar in contemporary poetry, and I’ve been trying to write poetry ever since. My poet-teachers have been my mentors: Lance Larsen, Susan E. Howe, Lesli Norris, Ed Hirsch, Adam Zagajewski, Mark Doty, Marie Howe. Ten years after passing on the invitation to hear Heaney, I heard him read “Digging” in Houston. Redemption at last.

What are you currently working on?

I’ve recently completed a novel about a little boy whose mother loses a baby and has a nervous breakdown. The little boy believes the mother has literally lost the baby and is determined to find it as that seems to be the solution to his family’s woes. He searches for the baby wherever he goes.

How did you come to lead student tours in Mexico? Anything writing related to that tour? Are you able to write on such trips at all?

The university needed a new person to lead the tour, they asked me, and I said yes. We take about thirty-six students on the tour and travel through some of the world’s most beautiful and mysterious places. I teach a creative writing class in conjunction with the tour and the students write poems, stories, and essays related to their experiences. The demands and details of the travel plans keep me from getting much writing done, but I do keep a daily record. And a bird list—I saw a russet-crowned mot mot and boat-billed flycatcher today!

Jim Richards completed a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston and now teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho in the Upper-Snake River Valley. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Texas Review, Literature and Belief, Poet Lore, and Contemporary American Voices. An avid runner, he writes about his progress toward completing fifty marathons in fifty states at

Jim Richards: Mother of Three, On Your Birthday, and Poem for a New Father

Mother of Three

And pregnant. Two pink lines
on the indicator stick you balanced
on the edge of the sink—one line

for happiness, one for hell—tip
when I touch them, and fall.
This means: you, mornings, evenings,

bent on the bathroom floor,
prayer spewing from your mouth
while three believers cry to you their god

their god: why have you forsaken us?
This means: you curled in bed, cut off
from the unlucky who have never never

never made life like you make it.
This means: I want to end it all
with an image of redemption: new heart,

new body, new face. But I know,
you know, we know just what this means:
our mouths cannot make the words.

On Your Birthday

Today is your birthday, and I’ve done nothing
In preparation to celebrate that moment
Twenty-eight years ago when you came
Through wet pain and warm darkness
Into light, into the first breath of a life
That would eventually and thankfully merge
With mine own. I’m a fool to think a few lines
Written an hour before we meet for lunch
Could make up for what I have failed to do.
Still I write, not knowing why, exactly;
Perhaps because the words I try to find
Are easier to find when I imagine your face
And bring you here beside me for a moment.
You’re sweet, and will forgive me, I know;
It is the way your birthdays have always been,
Swallowed up in the care of home and children.
I see you in a chair, your faced washed
With the sorrow of post-partum, wanting to glow
In the eyes of the newborn in your arms,
And wondering how. I see you kneeling
At the bedside in the dark hours of the morning,
Your prayers drowned out by the infant’s wail.
I see you with a needle in your leg, hours
And hours on the bed, and the burning foreshadow
Of scars growing across your body. I see you.
You are here with me now, for a moment
and I am supposed to say happy birthday.
In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.
Happy birthday, my Love, in sorrow.

Poem for a New Father

Something with the water breaks
inside a man. Did you feel it?
A fresh outpouring, a clarity
rising through bedrock, swelling
through roots and soil, spilling
into the sun. Silent and painless

at first. Then it grows. Did you feel it?
Something with muscles aches
inside a man—contractions
make marriage more animal.
Sweet beast, your life-mate
drops her young in darkness

and a predator circles as patient
as death. Not time, not hours
can tell what fear it makes
for a man to be helpless against
his foe. Two lives that he loves
sink deep into a place where he

can never go. Brother, beast,
I was with you, when your loves
went down, when you were left
alone. I know how much it takes
to hold a hand that’s letting go.
But water, blood, and spirit

come, dust makes a living soul,
and soon it is grace you’re holding
in your hands, a face you know
you’ve never known. It is then,
just then, that something wakes

inside a man, did you feel it?

Jim Richards completed a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing at the University of Houston and now teaches at Brigham Young University-Idaho in the Upper-Snake River Valley. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in the Texas Review, Literature and Belief, Poet Lore, and Contemporary American Voices. An avid runner, he writes about his progress toward completing fifty marathons in fifty states at

Read our interview with Jim Richards conducted by Tania Pryputniewicz, Father Witness: Birth vs. God, an Interview with poet Jim Richards.



 An essay by Cameron Witbeck

Every month, I pray for blood.

            Every month I pray to God that my girlfriend is not pregnant. And every month she bleeds.

            I pray because I am afraid. I am afraid because I do not know. I can’t see the future.

            When I was a kid, I wished that I could smell rain in the air like the Indians in old Westerns. I imagined that the rain smelled like wind flowing over fallen trees, like rust and dirt.

            I still wish I could do that, smell the rain in the air before it falls, before grey clouds cover the sun. I still wish I could always know before. I wish I could know how many days that I have left before I die. I want to know the volume of blood that I will lose. I want to see every moment of pain and loss in the world before it happens. I want to know so I can prepare, so I can defend myself and those I love.

            But I can’t. I can’t know these things because I am not a diviner. I have no magic. All I have is the past.



            I was fifteen. I was a freshman and I was sitting behind the high school before the Friday night football game.

            Up above me, the sky was a tumultuous gray with ripples and shards of dark blue cut deep into the clouds like scars. The wind pushed orange and red leaves across the green hill where I was sitting. Behind me, I could hear the crowd gathered at the game. The small pieces of individual voices were lost, ground up, and smeared together in one inseparable roar competing against the howling wind.

I looked out across the endless forest that bordered my school to the north, and across the fields that surrounded the rest. Nothing seemed alive. It was as if the earth was waiting for sleep, for the cold, white funeral shroud of winter.

            I stood up, brushing my hands down the back of my jeans to clean off the dirt and grass. I walked the fence lining the football field. I used the space in the fence that all of the students used to get out of paying admission.

            Sara was waiting for me in the stands. She was dressed all in white. I loved her. She read Hemingway and Faulkner. Her eyes were grey, and never fully open. Her light pink lips turned slightly downward. She was small and frail. When she moved, she walked with fear, as though she felt that at any moment a building would fall, a dog would bark, a gun would fire.

            When she saw me, she waved and made room for me to sit down.

             “Where were you?” she asked.

            “Just out,” I said, “Thinking.”

            “Do you want the rest of my coffee?” she asked, holding out the white, Styrofoam cup. The rim of the cup was smeared with the faint pink of her lipstick.

            “No,” I said, smiling at her.

            I wanted to tell her that I loved her. I wanted to hold her in my arms and feel her shoulders beneath her clothing. I wanted her dark hair mixed in with mine. I wanted the small bones of her fingers between my own.

            I didn’t do anything. She didn’t want me to. I had told her that I loved her, and she had told me that I didn’t. She had told me that I couldn’t love her. She said that we were friends, that we could never be more than that.

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better. I loved with the passion, rage, and confusion of someone who was beginning to learn what love was, and how much it could hurt.

            I sat beside her on the cold metal of the bleachers. She offered me her blanket. We sat beneath the white fleece as we watched the football game distractedly.

            She was silent. I could tell something was wrong. I spent minutes that seemed to turn into hours, days, rotations of the earth, trying to force myself to ask what was wrong.

            “James broke up with me this morning,” she said.

            “I heard that,” I said. We were not looking at each other. We watched as the red and white shapes of football players blurred and collided with each other against the green grass of the field.

            “Why?” I asked.

            We were enveloped in the pulse of a hundred conversations droning all around us. And yet, I felt as if I had never been so alone. Sara seemed like she was a thousand miles away.

            “Because I’m pregnant,” she said.

            “You’re pregnant?”

            “I’m going to take care of it,” her voice was like metal. Her words were like gears grinding into motion, moving on, and never stopping.

            “Take care of it?”

            “My mom made me an appointment for tomorrow morning,” she said. “I’m scared.”

She didn’t sound afraid. She didn’t sound like anything. She looked at me and the glare of the flood-lights above the football field was caught in the tears rimming her eyes, like two slivers of light embedded in her skin.

            “You’ll be okay,” I said.

            “Can you go with me? My mom is coming, but I need someone,” she said.

            “Sara… I can’t… I’m sorry.”

            “Why?” she asked.

            I said nothing. I thought about the white room I’d have to wait in. I thought about her absence from the room. The silence. The other people waiting. I thought about the waiting. The endless waiting until she returned to the room. I tried to imagine what she would look like. I couldn’t.

            I thought of James. He had hurt her and I wanted to scar his face. I wanted to break his bones. I wanted to make him bleed.

            “It’s okay,” she said, leaning against me in the cold air. It was dark by then, and the black, starless sky seemed infinite and terrifying.

            “Can I call you tomorrow?” she asked. “After.”

            “Yes,” I said, “Yes. Please call me.”

            We spent the rest of the game in silence, and in spite of everything, the lines of her body felt perfect against mine.

            As we left, rain fell out of the black sky. I held her once again before she left. And when she was gone, I could feel the rain washing her away from me.

            When I got home, I took out the bottle of Southern Comfort that my best friend had given me over the summer. I opened my window and lit incense. I took out a pack of cigarillos I had stolen from Walgreens. I turned off all the lights and sat in the dark with the burning ember of my cigarillo floating in the blackness. The bitter yet rosy liquor made me feel warm.  

            I went to my bed, covered my eyes with my hands, and prayed.

            Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

            I prayed until I fell asleep.

            Sara called the next day at one in the afternoon.

            “Hey…” she said. Her voice was soft and weak. It sounded like she wasn’t there, as if she was speaking across the room at a phone hanging on the wall.

            “You okay?” I said.

            “No. The doctor said,” she began. “He said that I might never be able to have children.”

            She was silent before continuing in the cold, metallic voice I had heard at the game. She talked about complications, about the possibility of scar tissue. She was so small. The doctor had said that nothing was certain.

            “It’ll be okay,” I said, “I love you.”

            “Don’t Cameron. Just. Please. Don’t.”

            “I’m sorry. It’ll be okay. Okay?” I said, but she said nothing. “Sara? It’ll be okay. It’ll be okay.”

            I was fifteen. I didn’t know any better.



            Sara and I fell apart. We stopped calling, or even talking to each other. We reminded each other of what had happened. She moved away sophomore year, and I left the year after that.

            The last time I saw her was a few years ago. She was walking with some guy at a grocery store. I hid behind another aisle. I didn’t know what to say to her. What could I have said?

            I heard she married that guy.

            For years, I would lay awake in bed and think about Sara and the child she never had. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like. I imagined that he would have been a boy. He wasn’t mine, but I imagined that he had my blond hair, my blue eyes, and Sara’s small bones and down-turned lips. I gave him so many names that I have forgotten them all.

            When I met my girlfriend three years ago, I began to imagine introducing them to each other in a park as we laughed and smiled beneath trees. I imagined him sleeping between her and I, as the sun burned behind the shades of a bedroom in some distant city.          

But these are just fantasies.

            I am 23 now. He would have been 8 years old this spring.

            But he never was. I failed to fight for him. I failed to ask Sara to reconsider. He stains me like the small drops of blood on white sheets that I pray for every month.

            I pray for blood because I am afraid that I will fail again. I have no magic. The rain still surprises me.  When it falls, I wonder how I can protect someone I love from the world. How can I protect them from deep water and wild dogs, from hunger and pain and death and loss?

            I pray because I don’t know how; because I will never know how.

            All I know is that someday, I will have to try. Someday, I will stop praying. And no matter what comes, I will have to try.

Cameron Witbeck is a 23 year old writer from Michigan. He works as an associate poetry editor for Passages North literary magazine and studies in the MFA program at Northern Michigan University. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Cream City Review, Camroc Review, Strongverse and others.

Ultrasound and Skull Tectonics

Two Poems by Christopher Flowers


At six weeks we knew you as little
more than ethereal storm lingering
over pitch ocean. Your eye,
that of a great white-black, eternally
dilated. Pupillary halo
teasing shoreline.

The absence of thunder.

Delivery of your forecast
is cause for inquiry. Have they weathered
the piercing deluge of a full-bodied
tempest? Do they know
what it is to cling-to rely
on an obscure beacon,

elusive cadence on veiled horizon?

Skull Tectonics

You strained, and there was a fleshy
knoll-a crown covered in nimbi
wisps. Hours later, the conclusion
was drawn: pelvic difficulties.

I, shuffling nervously in scrubs
and surgical mask, clenched
(fists, molars, memories) outside
cool-tiled room.

Inside, you shivered, smiled
as I fumbled cameras upon entry,
gawked at the arrival-tributaries
of blood, vigorous towel work,

sudden animation of ashy limbs-
a sharp cry. Measuring, weighing,
counting. The implicit mystery
in something as simple as skull


Poetry by Christopher Flowers has appeared in Main Street Rag, Iodine, Ideomancer, and others. Read his recent poetry posted at the sci-fi E-zine Ideomancer.

Read Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Flowers, “The Common Ground of Emotion under Adversity: Witness/Father/Poet Christopher Flowers on ‘Ultrasound’ and ‘Skull Tectonics'”.

The Courtyard and To The Unfertilized Eggs in My Ovaries

Two Poems by Michelle Bonczek

The Courtyard

She appears from behind
a white pillar, a lamplighter
and I swear

small flames lift from her candles
like fireflies toward stars.
What she wears is not important.

She crosses the grass in the rain.
For hours I’ve watched puddles gush from the awning
of a monastery brewery. The bells won’t stop ringing.

My blood lightens with pilsner
and the fried cheese and onions remind me
of my husband’s breath, his nightmares, those spiders,

his screaming
for his mother from the center of our bed.
When I try to hold him and tell him

everything is okay, he flails, his body only
half-awake and therefore forgive-able but still
I taste iron on my lips.

Once, we crossed a threshold:
he said I hate you and I knew I would never
let him take it back. Back then,

I’d rip my bitten nails down the runway of my neck
to feel anything but what we were doing to each other.
Scars and tissues,

smashed glass, stained walls,
the crescent moon dent in the bedroom door.
Those small white scars

on his hands like ghosts
from the year he washed dishes at the Bistro.
The stink of wet clothes in front of the basement fan.

If he were here right now
we’d be feeding each other olives, pretending to be in love.
We’d be talking Kafka in Czech, I’m certain, I might

lay my head on his shoulder, in that cove the size of a fist
he said I fit perfectly, I’d be ignoring the discomfort
that came with laughter and talk of kids, anything to do

with the body felt unnatural with him,
sharpened my heart into granite. Kids,
the ones we will never have,

the ones I could never imagine into being,
not in all those years our hands held each other’s.
How I wish they could see the tree in this courtyard,

our little girls with their big brown eyes
and the rain sticking to the grass
like fire.

To the Unfertilized Eggs in my Ovaries

I am running in circles around this track that is a perfect oval, an imperfect circle like the cells on the tip of my cervix making waves, rocking my inner world with mutiny. Little eggs, this will be the second time I let doctors pry me open and go exploring with their metal spears and cotton swabs, their big eyes in search of the possible something causing havoc in an empty womb that might one day be your home. They keep it tidy in case you ever arrive. Last time this is what was found: an extended colon, an un-explainable infection in the intestine—they lasered it back into the void. No human life here. No endometriosis either. Only a surplus of slippery walls and then, scar tissue. And now, pre-cancerous cells, little houses for cancer. Look what grows in the absence of you. When I spread my legs and line my heels up with the rims of their silver stirrups I feel like I am delivering a joke. When they do what they do in there they do it for you, my dear future fertility. What does this to do with me? A woman who does not want children visits doctors who treat her body like a will. I leave you strange world, a baby kangaroo. A monkey. A pocket watch. A woman who does want children, no matter what the health of her ovaries, uterus, cervix, might never get pregnant. There are no guarantees and I’m tired of housekeeping, of making beds for no one. Life is, after all, my love loves to say, 99 percent a mystery. Little eggs, you probably know more. Little eggs, there are hundreds of thousands of you, your own colony of bumbling vessels, humming promises. One hundred years ago, you’d all be done for, proverbial sand in wind and I’d be too old to nest you. Yet today, I am told a woman who has never been pregnant faces greater risks of disease—a sentence for not becoming a mother. A body held hostage. I can’t get myself pregnant. I can barely write poems anymore. This afternoon, to relax, I made cherry shortbread cookies, cut the cold butter into the flour and sugar with two knives and a fork. Chopped the maraschinos after pulling their stems, mixed their red flesh into the breadcrumb-like mixture, added three drops of red food coloring, white chocolate chips. Pressed the dough, which looked like what I’ve seen pass out from between my legs, smooth, into a ball the size of a head, my hands aching. I cut the ball evenly into 60 pieces and rolled each onto a baking sheet, and using the bottom of a water glass, being careful not to break it, I flattened each ball into an individual pink moon, 60 perfect circles rising in my oven.

Michelle Bonczek’s poetry has appeared in many journals and magazines, including Crazyhorse, Cream City Review, Green Mountains Review, Margie, Orion, and The Progressive. In 2009 she was the recipient of the Jane Kenyon Award in poetry through Water~Stone Review. She is currently an Assistant Professor of English at Lebanon Valley College where she teaches poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and American Literature.

Read poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz’s interview with Michelle here.


by Daniel Ruefman

When I sign the adoption papers
I linger in the black December
dying in decimeters.

I feel him lay curl bottomed
ear against my chest

I soothe, I coo, I kiss.
his Lilliputian digits

curl around my own and
soon our time is spent

and I leave this moment,
the father to son.

I’m sorry
I’m not sorry

as forever drops
the bottom of the mail bin.

When I stop hating myself
I hear a man
rattle his racket against

a chain link enclosure of the tennis courts;
I smell the perfume of charcoal

and fresh burst hotdogs;
I feel the earth beneath me,

the sour grass,
knotted between my fingers,

and I see him,
toddling down the path

at the water’s edge,
beneath the willows

idling by soccer pitch
rolling in the crab grass

chortling, screaming,
rising, waiting, falling

with the father I gave him.

When I graduate
I drink in this moment,
that moment

and taste a hundred thousand
this and that moments that led me

through the mean and the mild,
and I give thanks

for the season’s drink
for the dying moments

for the life I have
for the life I have given—

for the purpose loving
and letting go.

Daniel Ruefman is a Lecturer in the Writing and Linguistics Department at Georgia Southern University and has recently completed his Ph.D. in Composition and TESOL at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. His poetry has appeared in several journals, but most recently in The Tonopah Review, SLAB, and Temenos.

Missing an Umbilical and Cancer Sex

Poems by Timothy Black

Missing an Umbilical

I am under water, and my son
is underwater. His hair floats like snakes,
like a tombed medusa’s. The plunge in
erased air from every inch of him.
He tilts back, under the water, and he floats
with his belly to the bright sky. I think,
This is amazing. He looks just like an embryo.
I want to reach out and touch him,
feel his skin wrapped in water
to make sure he’s real and still mine.
His father could come at any time.
Could plunge his hand
beneath the surface and grab
for his hair, grab a handful of snakes.
My son pushes off the bottom
and breaks the surface before me.
I stay submerged,
imagining a world without him.

Cancer Sex

 On most nights we lay there
swaddled in doubt,
but not delusions.
The dark
would press in at us,
or float at the end of day
like a question mark.
On most
nights, need would still be counted
as need, met only with the clasp
of sweaty hands. I
with my penis
and she with vagina and clit
we would lie, trying to ignore
marriage’s only real mandate.
On other nights
we would cover up with quilts
and ignore the fueling
locomotive with its black,
thick smoke and iron
wanting to be released
from its sooty black birth.
I would kiss her then,
and she would kiss back-
becoming more than cancer,
at long last mindless and carnal.
At the end I would always
withdraw. Terrified
of pumping
sickness into
my barren wife.



Timothy Black’s first poetic novella, Connecticut Shade, is in its second printing through WSC Press. He teaches poetry at Wayne State College, and is a Cave Canem Fellow. He lives in Wakefield, Nebraska with his wife and two sons.

Timothy’s work has appeared in the anthologies The Logan House Anthology of 21st Century American Poetry, The Great American Roadshow, and Words Like Rain. He has been published in The Platte Valley Review and at, has poems forthcoming in Breadcrumb Scabs, Clean Sheets and Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine and has won an Academy of American Poets prize for his poem “Heavy Freight.”

Please check out what poetry editor Tania Pryputniewicz calls a “freakin’ awesome” interview with Timothy Black on She Writes.

Dreaming as the Summers Die

An essay by Terri Elders

“Still she haunts me”-Lewis Carroll

I figured something special might be happening that July morning in l948 when Mama appeared in the bedroom doorway, brandishing her boar-bristled hairbrush in one hand, my not-too-faded red plaid dress in the other.

“Skip the shorts and shirt today,” she said, handing me the dress. “Company’s coming for lunch.”

“Who?” I asked, puzzled. I couldn’t think of anybody important enough to wear my Sunday dress for, but I slipped into it, and stood quietly while Mama tugged the brush through my snarls.

I had just turned eleven. No longer in pigtails, I hadn’t yet mastered pin curls. So I wore my hair shoulder length and loose around my face, with bangs that forever needed trimming. Maybe I’d learn to set it with bobby pins before I started junior high that fall.

I waited for Mama to answer. “It’s Nana,” she finally said. “Nana, and maybe Jean.” I looked up sharply. Jean was my “real” mother, and I hadn’t seen her for years. I glanced across the bedroom at my older sister. Patti and I, just a year apart in age, had been adopted by our “real” father’s sister and her husband in l942, when we were five and six. Patti yawned, and then threw me a wink. Nearly a teen, she was more interested in boys than family gossip.

“Can I go over to Jimmy’s?” I asked, as Mama patted my bangs into place.

“Okay. I’ll send Patti over to get you when they get here. Just don’t get too dirty.”

Jimmy lived three doors down and was my best friend. The two of us would climb a towering maple tree to his roof where we would sit for hours, endlessly arguing. I favored the Brooklyn Dodgers and Doris Day. Jimmy loved the Giants and Peggy Lee. I liked Jack Benny, he Fred Allen. Though we rarely agreed, we relished our debates.

A few days earlier we had perched on the roof to watch the July 4 fireworks from the Los Angeles Coliseum. Some evenings we sat up there for hours with Jimmy’s telescope, searching for UFOs. We even argued about the merits of the planets. I favored Jupiter, he Mars.

I’d be glad to see Nana, Jean’s mother, who always wore sweet gardenia perfume and talked about how she conferred with spirits at her spiritualist church. But I barely remembered Jean. I knew my Daddy Al, of course, Mama’s brother, because he visited from time to time. Jean, though, was just a shadowy background figure, referred to in disapproving whispers. She drank, I’d heard. Or she had mental problems, whatever those might be.

She and Daddy Al had ma Continue reading ‘Dreaming as the Summers Die’

Birth Day

by Stephanie Tames


On the Epiphany my father went fishing. It was the day I was born, January 6, the day the Maji reached the Christ child in Bethlehem laden with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He drove to the Chesapeake Bay to an area he favored with a rock jetty, carefully picked his way along the sharp-edged rocks until he found one flat enough on one side to make a comfortable seat, and settled his gear and canvas bag into various crevices nearby. It was a bright and windy day, neither too gusty nor too cold, a perfect day for winter fishing for striped bass. The surf pounded against the rocks but it was still low tide when my father arrived so the spray from the plumes of cold salt water did not reach him. He kept a careful watch on the tide and the sea’s slow progress as it covered the rock jetty. He had come close many times to being stranded on the jetty as the tide rose and it was too cold that January day to risk getting soaked by the winter sea.

The story has become a family favorite. Everyone thinks it’s funny: as soon as he was told my birth meant another girl – the third in a row – my father gathered up his fishing gear and took off for the two hour drive to the bay. I guess he thought that since family and friends were watching his two older daughters and son he could take advantage of the time. He loved fishing.

I don’t think my mother thought the story was funny. Whenever it was repeated she would set her jaw tight and her lips would thin into what for my mother was neither smile nor frown but the expression she assumed often and which I imagined meant she was somewhere deep inside her head. She would stare at my father who would be telling this story, acting like he was George Burns on stage before an adoring audience.

I can imagine other families with this story: the father, like mine, guffawing, puffing out his chest as he told how it was just another kid, no big deal, the mother interrupting, telling her side like she was Gracie Allen, how she was screaming with labor pains and told him to get the hell away from her and he took her literally; how he’ll pay for that trip for the rest of his life (audience laughs), how he was really only gone a half-day and was back by evening visiting time to take all the children to see their mother and lovely baby sister with long dark hair.


My mother says that she and my father agreed on two children: a boy and a girl. And it happened. My brother came first, then a few years later, my oldest sister. My mother was happy. But just three months after my sister was born, my mother found herself pregnant again. She was depressed. Her health suffered. So when the baby came she asked but was denied a simple operation to tie her fallopian tubes, to wrap the tubes with thread pulled tight like a present so sperm swimming with speed and purpose can not reach the waiting egg. For my mother, it was the only thing she ever wanted.

She knew then she couldn’t take any chances. And she didn’t. But the diaphragm failed her and so did counting the days when an egg floated inside her and she was pregnant again. My father liked the idea of a big family; it was proof of his virility although he would have preferred that his virility made baby boys instead of girls.

After I was born my mother asked again, she said she begged, but the doctor refused to tie her tubes and two years later my brother was born. Whether it was her pleading that softened her doctor’s heart or my brother’s congenital heart defect, my mother finally left the hospital happy: three gifts, a boy and a knot around each of her tiny tubes.


We wanted to be Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon. It was the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and we talked endlessly in a fog of pot about giving up our pampered city lives to live in communes, bake bread, reject the values that made our parents complacent and uninformed. We went to protest rallies, experimented with drugs, and took many lovers to beds on old mattresses thrown on bare wooden floors. We didn’t think about birth control. At least at first. But one friend, then another, got pregnant and we realized we didn’t want to be Ladies of the Canyon just then.

They must have sensed my mother as a kindred spirit, these young women, friends of mine but mostly of my older sisters, who always ended up at our house where my mother would help them not have babies. You had to know how to work the system and you had to have money. My mother had both. All it took was a psychiatrist who would certify that a pregnancy would be detrimental to the mental health of the mother and a doctor willing to perform the procedure. In the city it was easy to find both. It took time, however, and once it was too late. It was my cousin and she had come to live with us the year before. She hadn’t been getting along with her mother, my mother’s sister, but she fit perfectly in our big house and big, loud family, until she got pregnant. The other girls came to our house in their flowing long skirts and layers of beaded necklaces, sat at the kitchen table, and gave my mother all the details. But my cousin waited, withdrew. She didn’t want to tell her story. I don’t know why. Her mother came to take her back to South Carolina where she stayed indoors so the neighhbors wouldn’t know what she had done. There’s an old proverb: “a small town is a vast hell.” The next time we saw her she said she never looked at the baby, that it was wrapped up tight in a white blanket and given to someone waiting nearby, that the nurses gave her pills to dry the milk in her full breasts and sent her home. She didn’t come back to live with us.

My mother and I didn’t talk about whether or not I was having sex, or whether she approved. All she wanted was to make sure I wouldn’t get pregnant. I guess she didn’t trust birth control pills or trust that I would take them. She talked to her doctor and together they decided I should go to the hospital for a procedure and while there the doctor would place a tiny piece of metal shaped like a “t” in my uterus. There was no need for remembering. Pregnancy would never be an issue.

That night, still groggy from the hospital, I had a dream where I opened the front case of the big grandfather clock in the hall of my parents’ house and out tumbled hundreds of chubby naked babies smothering me under their weight.


It’s barely a twinkle in his father’s eye, that’s what the doctor said to me from his seat between my legs. All I could see were eyes: his head was hidden under a white cap pulled low over his forehead. I could see his mouth forming words behind a mask that came up well over the bridge of his nose and tied high on the back of his head. He was old. It was his eyes, the only thing I could see, that told me how long he had lived.

The waiting area was crowded. There weren’t enough seats, people stood, leaning against walls. Some were so young, others looked old and worn out. Boyfriends and husbands and maybe some brothers looked uncomfortable, out of place. They kept pushing their sweaty palms down the front of their pants like they were trying to wipe away this place and glancing at the clock on the wall, counting down the hours until they’d be out in the pure light of the day away from the oppressive room, outside where they could finally breathe deeply and fill their lungs full to bursting, relieved that for them it was over.

The week before I had come in my Joan & David heels and Evan Picone suit and carried a small jar of pee in my purse. My purse was the same color as my shoes. You had to have a test before they’d put you on the schedule. I walked from the subway station but couldn’t find the office. Now I was late for work and my feet hurt. I was afraid my pee had gone bad but I had to give it to them, hand my little jar to the young woman at the counter and ask please if they would confirm what I already knew. When I walked in everyone shifted, looked up from the magazines they weren’t really reading or stopped their whispered conversations. I felt their furtive gazes. We all knew why we were there. The next week as I sat in the room in those same seats waiting my turn, I looked at every new face that came through the door and watched as unsteady hands held out jars of pee as bright as the sun.

You don’t have to take off all your clothes. Just from the waist down, that’s what they say, but leave your socks on because your feet will get cold. Lay down on the table and put your feet in the stirrups. You’re draped in white. I looked down my sheet-covered body between my legs and could see the doctor’s head, his mouth moving under his mask but I couldn’t hear anything he was saying. I looked at the nurse, she took my hand, said it was alright.  That night I dreamed again of the grandfather clock and babies, all plump arms and legs like tootsie rolls, tumbling out and spreading across the floor.


When we got married, my husband and I didn’t talk about if we would have children, or when. There were a lot of things about our lives together we didn’t discuss. I had long since given up the tiny “t” in my uterus, been on and off various brands of birth control pills, used condoms and diaphragms, not used anything. Didn’t really think about it. I dressed in my suits, high heels and matching bag, went to work every day happy with my job, the paycheck, the way I felt. When it happened, I knew immediately and I knew it wasn’t right. Like my mother I did not want it, did not want it in the deepest part of my being.

I don’t remember how we made the decision. I don’t remember what my husband thought, if he needed convincing, if I threatened to leave, if I screamed and cried.  I know he didn’t make the decision. It was me. Just me. I knew that it wasn’t a twinkle in my eye. I don’t know if it was in his.


In Japan women visit Buddhist temples to pray to mizuko jizo, tiny statuettes that represent the babies they aborted.  It’s not that they brood over whether they made the proper decision to have an abortion but to help the spirit safely cross the river that separates the worlds of life and death. Sometimes women dress the mizuko figurines like newborns and pour water over them to quench their thirst.

My mother was afraid of the water but she went with my father to the bay to fish and after some time she came to love fishing, too, although she never lost her fear, a fear of drowning of one sort or the other.

When I was young I liked to stand at the edge of the surf and feel the pull of the water and the sinking sand under my feet and dream that the earth wanted me and to prove it with each wave I sank deeper as the earth drew me to its core. I wasn’t afraid of filling my lungs with sand and salty water. But before I slipped beneath the surface I pulled myself from the earth’s sucking hold and dove into the waves and played in the surf as my father stood fishing nearby.  Later, he taught me to fish and I too came to love standing by the water and casting my line as far as I could, from one world to the next.

Stephanie Tames is a writer, longleaf pine needle artist, and yoga instructor living in southeastern Georgia. Her publications include Self, Parenting, the Washington Post, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. She has essays forthcoming in the Nature Conservancy Magazine. She is also a regular commentator on Georgia Public Radio.)

Lydia Stewart on child abuse, parenting, and children’s rights

In 2008 Sonoma County received 10,051 calls to their child abuse hotline. 2,638 reports were serious enough to require investigation. 174 children were removed from unsafe and abusive homes.


April is Child Abuse Awareness Month in the United States. One organization that works directly with families and children on this issue is the Santa Rosa based non-profit California Parenting Institute (CPI). Lydia Stewart has been on the Board of Directors for the past 8 years and board secretary for a year.  A recipient of the CPI Volunteer of the Year Award, Lydia lives in Sonoma County with her husband and three boys. Lydia started off by admitting she’d just recently stopped referring to CPI as a non-profit agency, but a “social profit” agency. By the end of the interview, I understood what she meant, given CPI’s array of community class offerings from Teen Parenting to A Star is Born to Parenting with an Ex-partner.


How did you become involved with the California Parenting Institute?


When my first son was 6 months old, I took an infant massage class offered by CPI. I was interested in taking parenting classes, but I noticed they were all listed to run for times during the day. So I said, “Why don’t you call yourselves a stay-at-home parenting organization?  How are working dads or moms ever going to be able to take your classes?”


The instructor I made the comment to said, “Why don’t you join our board? We could really use someone with that kind of direct input…” And so I did (join the board). Making weekend and night classes available was my first focus-and now we offer night and weekend courses.


And while I’ve always loved being a stay at home mom, I’ve noticed that one’s focus is limited. You still want to feel like you’re able to do something and be able to broaden your focus. Volunteering at CPI makes me feel I’m making a difference in the whole community and in the world at large.


Can you talk about some of your favorite projects you’ve been involved with?


We started a program called “Open Closet” with the understanding that we served a broad spectrum of families from the wealthy to the homeless. For awhile we had a 1000 square foot warehouse our parent educators could walk into and pick and choose items from high chairs, strollers and books to toys and pacifiers for families in need. A family, for example, might be just about to get their children back from foster care and need furnishings or equipment for the children or even clothing for the parents.


At the end of the year we’d have a garage sale, earning up to $2000 dollars we reinvested in CPI to broaden our offerings. “Open Closet” not only gave people the opportunity to give, but provided relief to families in need. We no longer run open closet because two years ago we merged with another non-profit, Children’s Care Counseling, and found we needed to use that space for offices. Now in addition to parent classes, we are able to offer therapy. We have 12 licensed therapists ranging in cost from free to a sliding scale. We get many referrals for severely abused children. We have the ability to send licensed therapists for in-home visits for parents and children in a variety of traumatic situations.  For example, in a recent incident involving a car accident in which both parents were seriously injured while the children looked on from the back seat, CPI was able to send a therapist to the home.


We also have a literacy program, work with the Boys and Girls Club at Southwest Health Clinic, and provide space for the Breastfeeding Coalition of Sonoma County (which does advocacy work and employs lactation specialists). Some of our classes include Dad’s classes for teenage Dads, and Raising Daughters, Raising Sons; we also host Teen Mom classes at Southwest Health Clinic in Santa Rosa. In addition, we provide supervised visits for parents who do not have custody of their children so they can visit in a safe, supervised space. Our “Star is born” program helps families with their newborn infants up until that infant has become 2 years old. You can take a class at 0-3 months, bring your baby and get to know other moms while you learn about ages and stages and child development. Classes continue for 3-6 month olds, 6-12, and 12-18 month olds, and you can form your relationships with other moms. As we all know, it is those relationships that help you get through motherhood.


We do a lot of advocacy work, lobbying for children’s rights. Birth certificate fees are the only monies in California earmarked specifically for preventative care for children. Our Executive Director, Robin Bowen, presented at the legislature and drew attention to how important it was to reserve this money for preventative care like the classes offered at CPI. Grace Harris, Director of Programs, is also a part of the Sonoma County Mental Health Coalition on behalf of children’s mental health.


How do most families come to be served by CPI’s programs?


Some are court ordered. Some come on their own; they may have lost their kids, or be a family going through divorce, or simply struggling with one particular issue (positive discipline, sibling rivalry, tantrums; maybe they have a new baby and want information on how to be a better parent).  Most of the Sonoma County judges will order parents filing for divorce to take one of our courses, such as Parenting with an

Ex-partner which helps people learn how to parent as divorced partners. Through the Kid’s Turn program, therapy is available to everyone in the family.


A good number of women come our way via The Living Room, which is a Women’s Day shelter, as part of getting back on their feet. The Living Room opens at 6 a.m. to provide breakfast, then offers lunch as well, since most shelters aren’t able to offer much past a bed to sleep in. Computers are on-site for the women to use while they put their lives back in order.


Where do you see CPI heading?


Given the economy, we’ve had to lay some people off and cut some programs. Donations are down. But the backbone is here-I mean, CPI has been here for over 30 years. We are able to still offer services. And here’s an interesting fact: 80 percent of all donations come from people who make less than $50,000 a year, so often those with money don’t donate.  And you have to think about the trickle down to families and children: as the economy goes bad, the need for our services becomes greater.  When the money is gone, parents have less patience and there’s likely more yelling, more temper flares. So it is sad we actually have more kids we need to see and less money to pay the caregivers.


Can you share an inspiring story or two with us?


As you know, April is Child Abuse Awareness month. Once we invited Victor Rivers to speak to a room full of health professionals, sheriffs, detectives, etc. Rivers, an actor well known for his role as the Hulk, spoke about his childhood during which he was severely abused (tortured, hidden in the closet, his food withheld).  His message was that it takes only one person to change a child’s life. For him it was a teacher who told him he was valuable. Today he is a father and a successful hero.


Another speaker we featured once was the father of a son murdered in a gang execution. The son, while delivering pizzas as a college student, was killed by a 14 year old gang member. At first, the father, a world banker, was angry. Then he started thinking about it: “You know it was my responsibility too…what am I doing to help these kids who feel they have no other opportunity. I am just working and giving my kids what they need…We are actually responsible for all children…” And this father eventually became best friends with the grandfather of the 14 year old who killed his son and the two of them lecture together on forgiveness.  The 14 year old was the youngest boy ever tried as an adult. The father has forgiven him and made it clear the day he gets out of prison there is a job waiting for him in his firm.


You can take a tragedy and make it joyous, and make something good of it. You get to choose when something bad happens to you how you want it to play out.


Can you share a story or two about individual client successes at CPI?


I can refer you to Director of Programs Grace Harris, MFT. Here are two stories from her files:


1. One mother we visited earlier in the year after referral from a medical provider seemed anxious and worried.  She said she was losing patience with her son and he wouldn’t listen to her.  It turned out that this mother was grieving after the death of her own mother in [another country].  She had wanted to go see her, but was in the process of getting her permanent residency papers and was told she could not leave the country.  Our parent educator referred her to a Spanish speaking hospice provider to help her deal with her grief and the mother found that quite helpful.  The mother later admitted she was not playing with her son as much as she did before the death and she felt guilty about that.  Our parent educator told her about going to the library with her curious son and also gave her ways she could let him help her around the house.  It really helped their relationship improve.  As the mother began to feel better she was encouraged to participate in our Kindgergym classes.  This gave her an opportunity to meet other mothers.  By the time the holidays arrived, she was feeling a lot better and was able to bring a traditional dish [from her country] to the Kindergym Posadas celebration and to tell everyone how much she loved that dish when her mother made it for her.


The case that most touched me this year was that of a mother who had been an addict from the age of 13. She became pregnant when she was 27 and although she was very bonded to her daughter, she struggled to overcome her addiction to drugs. Her daughter was placed in foster care and then in kinship care with an aunt. The mother continued in her recovery program and began to take classes at CPI. She has been clean and sober for 2 years and requested extra help with her now 7 year old daughter. The mother felt very guilty about the years her daughter had spent in alternate care and thus, had a hard time setting limits with her when she behaved badly. She wanted her daughter to know that she really loved her. The mom benefited by viewing [a video] about Positive Relationships. She did not have a model of affection and positive attention. She learned to really pay attention to her daughter when she wanted to tell her something. She loved learning to praise the positive things her daughter did and said it was easy to find those things. “She is polite to other adults, she gets herself ready for school in the morning on time and she helps me pack her  lunch.” She also was “getting used to” sitting close to her on the sofa when they are watching movies together. Mom also bought some board games they could play together and found out that her daughter still enjoyed being read to.


Mom also learned that she could guide her behavior by giving clear and calm instructions. She learned how to think of consequences that would fit misbehavior and how to apply those consequences consistently. When her daughter really misbehaved, she enforced time outs in her room. Mom continues to be committed to being clear about her directions. She said she now understood that being a mom meant “being the one who makes the rules.”


This mother and her young daughter are doing amazingly well. They have a close and affectionate relationship. The daughter feels safe in her home with her mom and the mother feels more confident in her role as a parent. The mother is grateful that she was given more than one chance to be in a recovery program and feels that parenting support has let her turn herself in to a good mom. Our parent educator described this mom as “very caring and responsive to  suggestions and feedback.” She believes this mom and her daughter will continue to have a happy and fulfilling life together.

–Grace Harris, MFT

Director of Programs, CPI


Any personal experiences for you Lydia, with your work over the years you’d like to share?


I had an experience once with Open Closet. This family got their kids back, and I helped them move in their furniture. I felt that sense of one degree of separation. This mother had started using drugs at 13, got pregnant at 15, made a few bad choices. I just felt how close it was: I could have been her. That was really hard. But it sure made me happy to come home to my husband and my kids and my duplex.


What is your vision for you?


Every time a paying job position comes up I consider it, but I still have young children. In two years maybe I’ll be ready! I feel like as a stay-at-home, you don’t always see the opportunities.  But let me end with a quote which hangs in my kitchen above my sink where I can see it and remember it, not only about my child, but all children. Every year we have a Harvest Dinner and Live and Silent Auction at Rodney Strong Vineyard to raise money for CPI where we give out a 100 Year Award, which consists of this framed verse: A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, the car I drove, the kind of clothes I wore, but the world may be much different because I was important in the life of a child.”


Lydia Stewart will be speaking at The Twin Hills Union School District Faculty Meeting and the PTA  to present all the upcoming activities for the month at CPI and will be hosting an informational outreach table at the 2010 Non-Profit Conference by the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County: March 26, 2010 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel. For more information on the conference: call the Volunteer Center: 573-3399


For Child Abuse Prevention Month, CPI will be offering a number of free events, such as Disciplining without Spanking, Grandparents Parenting Again Luncheon, and the Toolbox Class. Speaker Robin Karr-Morse, author of Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence, “offers a shocking but empowering message: to understand violent behavior, we must look earlier, before adolescence, before grade school, before preschool-to the cradle.” For more information on Karr-Morses’s presentation, email


CALIFORNIA PARENTING INSTITUTE “Happy Childhoods Last a Lifetime”

Grace Harris, Director of Programs

3650 Standish Avenue

Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707)585-6108 x 103



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