Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Poetry Pedicure

I had a great time at my grandson's school, Joan and the Giant Pencil with Jeremy Bleich, hot off his fabulous music composed for Circus Luminous.  We performed for 75 4th graders and five teachers.
I felt rather high after the great kids and questions and the fun of reciting poetry to children, and so I decided on a pedicure, my second in the birthday series of cash from my dear sister-in-law, and third that I remember in my life.  You may know that my mother had a beauty salon for forty years and I spent many a day there.  Manicures I recall, the pink slip of soap in the molded dish.  The colors I got to choose, heady for a girl.  I always get a whiff of mother when I enter a beauty emporium of any kind.

Once, when my mother visited my writing workshop Alexia LaFortune said to her, "Beti, my Jungian analyst said the beauty shop is the last temple to the Goddess."  My mother, not missing a beat, and not know what a Jungian anything was, said, "That's nice."  She also responded promptly to Natalie Goldberg who asked her if she was a feminist.  My mother reported, why yes, she was the first woman on the Pennsylvania board of Cosmetology. Also, she let operators wear Bermuda shorts to work on hot days.

So here I am, toes in the water, the only one in Linda's nails.  There is a Vietnamese soap opera on the TV and lots of conversation I haven't a shred of an iota of a clue about.  I had told the kids that morning that poetry is written in many languages and cultures, all over the world, and read them poems from Spain, New Mexico, Chicago, New York, and the Pacific NW.  I said to Jenny, my person of the moment, isn't it amazing all the languages?

The next person to come in the nail salon was Francine, a woman who had taken my writing class
twice.  She sat next to me and I told her this was the real experience, sitting next to a friend, our feet in the hands of strangers, mine the woman called Jenny (note: that was my Hungarian grandmother's name, surely not her original one either) and a young man called Hung for Francine.  The weird coupling of privilege with pleasure is comfortable to some, but not to me.  I wandered off to let my toes dry and I overheard Francine saying the nicest things about me.  When I came back to chat with her she had found out that the man doing her pedicure was a poet.  His real name is Dzukaka and he could not be published in Vietnam since his poems are political. Poets don't make money, he informed me, and so this was his livelihood.  He asked me if I worked full time at university, and I don't. I asked him if he knew any poets in Albuquerque where the van of people who work at Linda's commute from, and he said no.  There are, according to Hung, 10,000 Vietnamese in Albuquerque. Hung began writing at age 10, is now 28 and has been in the US 12 years. He wrote about 10,000 poems.  I am wondering if the number 10,000 means "a lot" as in 10,000 joys, 10,000 sorrows of Buddhism.

He recommended the Story of Kieu, the most famous poem in Vietnam and 300 years old.  You can look Dazukaka up and see his blog in Vietnamese.  I also found a site, "How Vietnamese are You" and found out I'm not so much Vietnamese, but I do share a sense of humor.  We talked a bit about the difference between personal and political poetry. He finds the personal boring.  I mentioned PEN, and organization that is international in scope.  Who knows if his poetry is strong, since I don't have even the flimsiest pink soap of a clue and Google translator may not be enough here.

I felt again that poetry connection I live for, from the kids, head to foot.  Francine and I met for lunch, her favorite restaurant in town which is, but of course, Vietnamese. Though my friend Robin Reider spent a cold year teaching English in Vietnam, I did my form of travel.  Foot in hand, shiny red toes, a little bit curious and not so patriotic as matriotic again.  Here's my poem for Dzukaka:

10,000 Toes

It's everywhere, the urge
I felt it with my foot
in another's hand, scraped,
painted, like a new car, the odd
and kind pedicure.  I treated myself
to time, my foot as an excuse.

A woman sits down next to me, a friend,
feet she cannot reach in the hands
of a young man.  On TV a Vietnamese
soap opera on loud, perhaps the volume
another language has in our lack
of understanding.

This young man here twelve years
seeking asylum in a city as odd
and kind as Albuquerque.
He is a poet, writes political poetry,
no interest in love and its scrapings,
odd and kind and in broken

language over both our feet, we talk
money and time.  All the while
the show on the shop TV, my mother's own
shop long gone and Vietnam, that war we
protested while death fought death and shriek
of Agent Orange. Fate and geography.

I write of love, uncomfortable, pampered
love.  He promises to send me poems
in a language I can't read and Hung,
that is his name, Hung takes an hour
to complete her feet. After,  she and I meet
for Vietnamese food.  She treats.

My husband joins us.  All the old ghosts,
chuckle in their loud green language
of greed and loss. Now laid to rest.
Loud as soap opera from the past.
Mint, cilantro, lime, a sauce for dipping.
And Hung? 10,000 toes. 10,000 joys and sorrows.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Still PL after all these years

I am counting down, months to blast off into civilian life again.  I am hoping I don't go into a worm hole of depression.  I think I will try to live the PL life after, not emeritus but as Michelle Holland says of me, "Poet Laureate ad nauseam."  I think she is my friend, I think we are laughing still.

I have two PL moments to document, the unseen and hidden.  The first one I was coming out of REI in the fashionable Railyard.  I love the Railyard, it is as close as a trip to the Northwest as I got this year.
It seems sort of Pike's Market/Vancouverish/ Portlandy. Anyhow, I am standing there and a man and his daughter and I start talking.  Somehow, and I don't know how, the topic comes around to me being the Poet Laureate.  Oh, I may have given the topic a gentle nudge in that direction.  And the old guy, grampa to the child, says Robert Frost lived in his old neighborhood.  And we start reciting "Whose Woods These Are I think I know." Between the two of us we get the entire poem and the little girl is awestruck.  She is six and so I give her my just about favorite poem:

"Now I am six
as clever as clever.
I want to be six
forever and ever."

It is by A. A. Milne who is also the Winnie the Pooh guy.  I have changed it to "Now I am sixty."
It works for me.  Anyhow, that was a PL moment and i had a recent one this week that may get away.
It is also Railyard, in the Flying Star.  I am meeting Mike for tea after my day at the Santa Fe Girls' School and his in construction.  As I walk in I pass a group of maybe six women all knitting away, a sweet sight.
I used to knit. I made gargantuan mittens with an orange deer sprawled across them, as if shot and draped across the hood of a truck.  I made a rainbow hippie sweater with a belt for my first pregnancy, all wool, sure wish I had it now.  I made a little hooded pancho for my girl, Corina, golden with a burgundy and green stripe, it looked like football colors but with a fringe.

When I sat down to read poems from the girls' school, the first poem was called "Marvelous Mittens."
The young poet, Thandiwah, had recently written one on turning cartwheels that knocked by very un-hand-knitted socks off.  This one was sweet to and when Mike joined me I felt a PL moment coming on.
I went over to the knitters and asked if I could read them a poem. They said okay, and some one even knew my name.  This is what I read:

Marvelous Mittens

Years before today my great grandmom met me.
Then I'll just assume she knit like crazy.
Light blue yarn flying
cream white dashing in and out.
Her accuracy in hand size is uncanny.
The wool is soft
and fluffs in every direction
Although they seem perfect
for playing and fighting in the snow
they'll get wet almost instantly.
And although she is lost
I feel close to her again
when I wear my wonderful
marvelous mittens.

The women loved it and Mike was really enjoying the PL me. The women invited me to join them, every Monday at one.  I don't even know how to cast on anymore.

I couldn't sleep all night, I loved another student poem so much.
Sometimes a poem haunts me all night, and this one by Gabriela did.

What is that in which you ask?
Where am I going?

I am going to the western land,
where my pride and joy both stand.

Yes I am going to the western land.

I am going where the Indians
catch their own hide,
and horses wait quietly ready to ride.

yes I am going to the western land.
I travel by horse not having a stack,
with only water and the clothes on my back.

Yes I am going to the western land.
Yes I am going to the western land,
where my pride and joy both  stand.

Yes I am going to the western land.

I am going to a place where all
men and women are free,
where children dance and play
with glee.

Yes I am going to the western land.

Yes I am going to the western land.
yes I am,
yes I am.

Both poems printed with permission of the poets.

So even in the night the PL is at work.   The local paper had a picture of my back and my long braid at the Española Farmers' Market biggest vegetable and best poem contest.   I like that.  There is a saying I heard about famous people, "The bigger the front the bigger the back."  It's the shadow again, that pesky real estate developer of hidden darkness.

I think casting the enthusiastic gift into community is the biggest help I could give any young poet.
Poetry is the medicine and the cure.  I offer it to people around me even if they don't want it.  Today at the pool an old guy started by complaining about his shoulder, then about stucco and soon we were at The Rapture.  I should have pulled the PL card on him.  Or recited e e cummings, "i thank you god for most this amazing day" or some other poetry jujitsu.  I retreated, leaving a wake of language in the pool.
Poetry is my rapture, small "r."

I am thinking of taking up knitting again.  I need  a back-up plan for apres- PL.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Calligrapher to the Queen & to Me

I have been teaching at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu since 1991.  Some years I was there only a week, and for many years over six weeks.  In 1994 I happened to be there teaching poetry while another group consisting of master calligraphers was also working away.  I heard that the calligrapher for the queen of England, Donald jackson, was among them. Of course, being curious, I would watch to see what he ate in the cafeteria line and then we crossed pools at Ojo Caliente when both classes were chilling by soaking in iron pools, soda, or arsenic.  I wrote a little series called "In Praise of Calligraphers" and along with my student writing read to the calligraphers at a farewell gathering.

I made several calligraphy friends, Diana Stetson, Rose who made a piece of my poem into a work now at the Books Arts Collection in Rochester, and the famed Mary Lou Cook.  I got to teach a gang of eight calligraphers and assign them a project to work on with their own writing, a skill that scribes often leave to others. Fourteen years passed.

This week I attended a talk by the very same Donald Jackson, in town from Wales for the museum opening of his St. John's Bible project.  For the first time in 500 years he assembled a group of scribes to hand letter and illuminate a bible.  Now, I am not a huge bible person.  I like studying torah with certain rabbinic types but it's not something I generally do.  Donald's light approach to a weighty subject won me over, at the slide show and lecture at the Lensic (thanks Frances McCain and Bob Martin) and I couldn't sleep.  The images from the book of Revelation including the inner horses of the Apocalypse, the Aids Virus, nuclear power plants, and computer generated zig zag lines portraying the human voice got under my skin, as only my skin can be gotten under. Jung's Red Book, also a masterpiece of lettering and imagery though from a very different impulse has been recently published and came to mind.

The next day I proposed to Michael that we actually go see the bible, after the bribe of a lunch of enchiladas at The Shed, red.  And the added promise of a movie afterwards.  He acquiesced and we toured the St. John's Bible show at the New Mexico Museum of History, right off the plaza.  What Jackson thought would take seven years took fourteen.  Six scribes and 1,150 velum  pages later, with 160 illuminations, the ink still drying, the bible is here. Forty pages of it on display.  Jackson said to bring a magnifying glass, so layered and detailed are the images,  Some bear the fingerprints of the artist.

The show, a world class exhibit, you need to sidle up to spend time, and come back for more time. It is displayed in a way that works for me, and encircled by New Mexico photographers from many faiths, black and white takes on sacred space and place.  Two of my favorite of many favorite moments in the show: How to deal with a forgotten line? A little graphic symbol, a bird or a bee, holds the dropped line on a pulley below the text, and indicates where it belong.  It is called "points of return."  In the entire project there were only nine.

Secondly, in 1994, and at Ghost Ranch, Donald Jackson acknowledged his dream and did a large collage which he showed to the folks at St. John's in Minnesota and on display here. When I emerged from viewing the show,  I heard that Mr. Jackson was in the cafe, but just then ran into some dear poet friends.  As we talked,  I wanted to be polite and not dis them for paparazzi invasion of privacy to this dear calligrapher. I was not sure I should really harangue him, as they wandered past and headed off downstairs.

I lost Donald and his wife, did some running around the museum and thought, maybe they are in Tom Leech's Palace Press.  He, after all, invited them and masterminded the project on this end.  As we stepped into the Palace Press offices, Tom Leech said, "I was just printing your poem. " Donald Jackson was indeed there with his wife, Mabel.  When I explained that I was a poet at Ghost Ranch from that time, you would have thought I was a long lost friend.  He said he thought he recognized me.  He recalled me, and the poets.  He never had a classical education, was trained in the craft of lettering and so loves poetry from a distance. I read him the stanza of my little poem where he was mentioned. I also mentioned the Rumi line he reminded me of, "Do something huge. Build an ark." This project is valuable not only for the magnificent work, but for the model of a man envisioning and completing.  I felt complete in getting to appreciate Donald in person, and felt the energy reciprocated.

Michael was amazed by the synchronicity.  I was amazed that I wasn't star-struck at all.  It felt the warmth of this encounter, and the fact that we never know what impressions we leave in the world.
We impressed each other, not in the sense of fame or stature, but like wax takes an imprint.  Mabel even gave me a hug.  I know now that was Jackson's only visit to the red mesa and vistas so powerful at Ghost Ranch.  I know that I must risk imposing myself on others, because he was truly happy to see me, as was I to catch them before they left.  Tom Leech too, was glad we met and introduced me as the Poet Laureate.  Just when I thought I had lost my PL mo-jo it returned.  We missed the movie, Shalom Aleichem, but since I was levitating anyhow we levitated over to friends of the Library.  My dear volunteer, Kate Oldroyd, was at the desk and I found three books I had on my mental list.  Three.
Qué milagro.

It was a perfect day for a bookish girl grown bookish woman.  Here's my poem from 1994:

In Praise of Calligraphers

For the master calligraphers gathered at Ghost Ranch

1. Seeds from Persia
and Hindustan.  The poet Rabindranath
Tagore is my calligrapher.

2. Jolly calligraphers eat alfalfa sprouts
and wander through rock canyons
refusing to write one word ghosts speak.

3.  I love calligraphers
who gather and rejoice
in fine mountain air.
They translate the joy
right off the rocks.

4.  When I come back
may I be a calligrapher
with fine hand and wild heart,
with fine hand and empty eye,
with fine hand indelible.

5.  When I wake up tomorrow
the calligraphers will be rejoicing
that morning brings light
to illuminate their manuscripts.

6.  I know nothing about calligraphers.
I have never been married to one.
And my poor penmanship makes
no excuses.  My sloppy hand is glad
that in this world, somewhere
steadiness and an edge.

 7.  When calligraphers gather
poets sleep better
and the axis of planet earth
tilts like a lower case “l.”

8.  A fine fettle of calligraphers.
The Queen of England’s calligrapher
in the hot tub at Ojo Caliente.
Cast a cold eye on life,
on death, calligraphers pass by.

9.  There is a longing I never knew
I had.  Between dancers and hand sewn
volumes, among golden pots and sleepers,
a poet wishes the hand of a calligrapher
could be grafted, gift to gift.

10. At night twenty calligraphers
dream of apples and dry leaves.
Their hands are insured against theft
like Rolls Royces.  The God that writes also writes. 
The Good hand works both ways.

11. Among twenty calligraphers
the only thing that moves
is the foot of a crow.

12. I am stealing looks
at the calligraphers
who sit in clusters
eating custard and fresh mustard.
They live my unlived life, untrod
path down a white scroll of time.

13. Kissing a calligrapher,
I once fell headlong into gesture
And stance, not sure
if I were dancing or the dance.

14.  God bless all calligraphers
and fare thee well.  May your ink ever
flow in the dark fissures of visual pleasure.