Vinings

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt
I guess like most writers I’d like to defeat time. I’d like the dead to live on forever, along with some trees, flowers, birds and insects I’ve known.

 At some point a seed was planted, and it continues to sprout through my eyes, my ears, my mouth—even my nose (that bloodhound for the troubles of others), which sniffs out jasmine fragrance in late April or early May and then wants to memorialize it, make it live forever on the white page.

 Tendrils shoot wildly from every experience—for instance, this afternoon, a ride on the bus—a short journey from 28th and I to 9th and J. At the bus stop a small dark woman with twins in the stroller parked beside her coughs up a cloud of frosty breathings.

On the bus headed south, an elderly man in a flannel shirt claps his wrinkled hands together, shivering; the skin shines a little, the veins crinkle.

 Two seats behind him a teenager with Praying Hands tattoos and a gold ring through his left eyebrow winks at the girl across from him, then exhales curses at no one in particular.

 Their stories sprout everywhere inside me: vinings.

The Coach has Classes of Sixty

by Publius

The coach has classes of sixty.   That’s OK, though, because some of our language classes, say Advanced Chinese, have four kids, so our average high school class size is 32, the exact state maximum.    The coach is holding down his end of the arithmetic average.   Anyway, three weeks ago the school closed the gym for renovations, so the coach and his kids are now housed down the hall in a classroom built for thirty with only twenty desks.   Needless to say, there’s no basketball court in that classroom.

So this morning, first thing Monday, I hear the coach say to another teacher that the district finally started the renovations in the gym.   “They did an hour’s worth of work last Friday, and have scheduled an hour’s worth of work once a week for the next fifteen weeks.”

Some days I come so close to asking …

My lunch gang has a jar where we save for our end of year party.   We charge a quarter each time someone asks a how or a why question.   Me and the art teacher just throw in a five now and again.

Which reminds me of the computer class without computers.   When I taught middle school near here, I noticed one day that all the kids are going around with cardboard boxes.   Big ones.   With one whole side cut-out, a big hole.   They mention that a computer class just started.   I don’t get it, but I know better than to ask.   Later, during my free period, I walk by the new computer class.   First I see the board, and there’s a very detailed assignment about going from one URL to another and like that.   Then a few steps more and I can see the kids.   There are no computers.   The kids are intently staring into the holes in the cardboard boxes set-up in from of them.   That’s the computer — the box with the hole.   The hole is like the screen.   They have cardboard mice with a string to the box, cardboard keypads, and they’re staring into the hole and typing and moving the mouse and the teacher is telling them, “Once you get to such and such a page, remain there.   There will be an icon marked Continue but do not, I repeat, do not …”

Floating Off the Page

 
Poetry needs immediacy. Just about everyone agrees about this, hence so much writing in 1st person, present tense. What is less commonly considered in poetry’s demand for intimacy and just as real intimacy is difficult between real people, the intimacy between the poet and poem is equally challenging. This means honing in, bearing down upon the pen. Absolute fidelity is required. If we don’t bear down on the pen, go into the poetic experience so intensely that everything else disappears, we risk words floating off the page. For me my concentration must be so total, I risk shattering as if the page were a sheet of glass, a magnifying glass in which I must see the poem as pure transparency.
 

Intimacy begs for passion. Passion is what drives the wheel and poetry is circular more than linear, a round that resounds. I am utterly passionate about my work and I spend more time going at it, into it, through it than I do in any other area of my waking like. When I encounter words like detachment, I hear a guillotine drop. A severing occurs, words become disembodied, just parts of speech tossed about like body parts.

Everyday I make love with language, try to flesh it out ever so sensually. There’s an eroticism involved. Lovers know this. They muse into each other until nothing stands between them. That’s the secret—disappearing into the passion of the poem’s moment in time and that’s all we have, moments in time. Surrender is involved—to the light, the darkness and everything in between.

Distance. That’s another word that scares me. How many of us were taught we need to gain distance from our most intense experiences? Once again, I see words floating off the page. Poetry needs to driven, riveted to the very heart of our deepest, most powerful, most human acts. Doing this may feel like the flesh is being ripped off our bones, but backing off may lead to lines of steel. It’s easy to back off. Even my dog knows that command, but to stay in, truly in, ah that’s really something.

In Stanley Kunitz’s beautiful, absolutely intimate poem called “Touch Me” he asks, “what makes the engine go?” Immediately he responds with “desire, desire, desire.” He posits the cricket as the small machine that makes the engine go. Poets, then, as crickets making a solitary music by which they hope to mate with the world.

Nun

by John Samuel Tieman, Ph. D.

I was always disappointed that I wasn’t beaten during high school.   That’s because I’m Catholic.   Catholics are supposed to be beaten by nuns, or at least have little scars on our knuckles to prove that we took piano lessons.

So it was with some relief that yesterday I had this recovered memory.

The nuns hated their lives and, therefore, us.   Such was the 60’s at Mercy High School.    Which made us quiet in church and submissive in school.   Except for Mario DiAngelo.   DiAngelo was forever giving shit in Religion Class to Sister Mary Immaculata.   Questioned everything.   So one day when he asks about the sex lives of popes, she takes her breviary and, with a swing worth of the St. Louis Cardinals, smacks him so hard her prayer book explodes.   I mean her whole prayer life explodes over DiAngelo.   Leaving him dazed and deeply religious.

Thinking About Irina Ratushinskaya

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’m not quite sure what got me thinking about Irina Ratushinskaya recently but something did, and brought back how closely I followed her work during the Eighties; poets all over the world took her case very personally. Many of us wrote letters protesting her imprisonment and asking for her release. (Here is a link to an appeal in the New York Review of Books on June 30, 1983: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/6168 )

Arrested in 1982 for her involvement with the human rights movement and for writing poems that were considered anti-Soviet propaganda, she was tried and sentenced to seven years hard labor and five years of internal exile; almost immediately she was sent to a labor camp where she lived as a “zek” and continued secretly to write poems by carving them into bars of soap, memorizing them, and then destroying the evidence by washing them away. (She also copied poems in minuscule script onto strips of paper which she managed to smuggle out; a number of these were published in the 1984 collection Poems and later in Pencil Letter.) Reagan and Gorbachev negotiated her release in October, 1986, an agreement timed to warm things for the summit in Reykjavik. Ratushinskaya’s Soviet citizenship was revoked; physically frail after years of harsh camp conditions, she emigrated to the U.S., where she lived for two years (as the poet-in-residence at Northwestern University) before moving to London, and then finally back home to Russia in the late nineties. A book of her poems, Beyond the Limit, came out in 1987, shortly after her release; Gray is the Color of Hope, a memoir, appeared in 1988. If you haven’t read these, you should.

Since then Ratushinskaya has published a number of volumes, including Wind of the Journey, poems in Russian and English from Cornerstone Press (2000), translated by Lydia Razran Stone. Here is poem 35 from that collection:

    The cock has sung
    But angel horns are still.
    We live on a narrow ledge above
    The precipice of time.
    We sense the end is near.
    But, heedless, children run.
    There are no dreams that will
    Assuage their urge to fly.
    What power then is this?
    Drawing them to the abyss?

I also located a number of new poems in the May 2008 issue of The International Literary Quarterly: http://www.interlitq.org/issue3/irina_ratushinskaya/bio.php

Why do I think of her now? Perhaps because we still have so much to learn from the Russian poets—not just Ratushinskaya but also Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva. In this time of inflammatory talk radio hosts and shows, and of senators who shout “You lie!” to the president in the middle of a congressional address, I say to myself, let us look to the Russian poets and be both heartened and instructed.

_____

Lesson Plan: From An Inner City High School

by Publius

There are a lot of reasons to quit this job.   Kate did.   I don’t blame her.   But of all the reasons to quit this job, the three best are depression, humiliation and rage.

A freshman turns in the homework.   I look at his t-shirt, and see a disarming photo of a nice looking young man.   Then the script below the photo reads —

R. I. P. Kooley

01/22/90 – 09/18/09

It’s depressing.   I read about this killing in the paper.   A drive-by.   Kids killing kids.   I ask.   The freshman tells me that Kooley was his cousin.   Then he changes the subject.   He looks at a picture of my wife and me, a picture on my desk.   I tell him how it’s a shot of a particularly pleasant memory.   He tells me how he’ll never get married.   “Too much drama.”   He changes the subject, but the topic is still sadness.

And this happens all the time.   So far, I’ve lost two students to drive-bys.

That’s one reason to quit.

Dan studied archeology.   At lunch, he regales us with exotic yarns of the Middle East.   He thought about continuing in that field, but wanted a family and time for a family.   “Kids instead of digs.”   Now, he’s got two little girls, but not much sleep.

Dan was publicly humiliated yesterday for the high crime of tardiness.   Five minutes late in the morning, he still had more than enough time until students arrived.   But, in front of several of us, he was mortified by the principal.   At lunch he tells how he’s again considering that doctorate he never got.   “Why should I put up with this?”

‘If not you,’ I say, ‘then who?’   People talk about reforming inner city schools.   But only a few are actually willing to work in them — and that’s all that really counts.   Reformers annoy us more than help us.  We’re aided neither by uplifting liberals nor condescending conservatives.

There are about 200 job openings in the district today.   We used to have 65 teachers in my school.   We’re down to 25 teachers, although we still have the same number of students, 800 and change.   Each of us teaches two extra classes, and gets one break once every other day.   There are many subjects we simply no longer teach.

Thus we come to Publius’ Rule # 57:  If you’re not depressed at times, if you’re not incensed at other times, then you’re not engaged.

Kate was rookie of the year last year.   Great start.   But she feels rage, because she’s bullied by the boss.   The boss writes her disciplinary letters, we call them “nasty-grams”, every morning for a week.   So yesterday she just says Fuck this! So I write –

    teacher ed.
    we haven’t said ‘pedagogy’ in decades
    we’ve theories about seating charts
    playground is a duty like lunch or hall
    we’re hideous as dictionaries or yellow
    shirts in fluorescent lights
    near an intersection of broken glass we ride
    an elevator that once smelled of the best of intentions
    so when I heard you just said Fuck This! and walked
    out just like that
    I loosened my tie and graded a theme
    and wrote Fuck An A, Kate! on a paper

Life Lived in the Open Wound

by Elizabeth Kirschner

I’ve lived most of my life, particularly my writing life which is a significant amount of time each day even on weekends and yes, holidays, too, in what I call the open wound. I don’t think I am alone in this, but believe the poetic disposition is particularly tuned into wounds. Some may have been incurred in adult life, others engendered in childhood. I have many wounds from my beginnings, practically since conception, as both my parents were abusive. They were masterful in their capacity to be brutal.

All of us are among the walking wounded, but for the poet, wounds are wombs where poems take root. Sometimes I see my soul, literally so, as a wounded web and consider that my work is to transform that web into a cocoon. Poems incubate in these cocoons, sometimes for years, even decades, till suddenly a wing appears. That wing is the word and the forward motion of that wing is to migrate. Poems, then, as winged migrations. Some migrations are exhilarating, others so exhausting the wings feel leaden and the labor is all about survival for both poem and poet.

The journeys are long and when we imagine the treks of birds and butterflies it seems impossible that these tiny creatures can travel such distances. Poems, too, must go the distance and when they do, it’s breathtaking, even the darkest of poems is utterly breathtaking.

Wound as womb I want to say, wound as womb in which seeds tick. That tick, tick, ticking is what creates the poem’s rhythm and cadence, the poem’s musicality, a trait too often overlooked. I was first trained as a singer so the study of music preceded the study of poetry. I sang all the time, but when I truly encountered poetry for the first time some thirty-five years ago, I knew that all I wanted to do was sing on the page. My wounds, then, are also musical. A scar can’t sing, but a wound can as it has both voice and a story to tell.

In the end, that’s the gift wounds bring us—a story set to song. If I ignore my mortal woundedness, I risk ignoring my humanity. Imagine the wound as sacred. Imagine the wound as schooling us. For me, that’s where the pull of the poem is and if I can manage living in the open wound, I can also believe in healing.

Wounds can blossom, flower in time, through time, over time and at this moment I see the battered child I once was as a flower girl attending the wedding, the till death-do-us-part wedding that married me to poetry with complete fidelity. Finally I see the wound as a vow. I once wrote, make love with your wounds, and I do that, just that, day after day, year after year and the consummation, my friends, is beautiful.