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This morning, I took part in Poetry Sunday, a Unitarian Universalist summer service that is a tradition. In my talk, I reflected on the nature of love and read from my recently completed novel The Unicorn, The Mystery. I also read a poem by Sappho and read my own work that it inspired (“Sapphics for Aphrodite”).

The YouTube video of my talk  is below. The complete text of my talk is below that.  The service took place at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration on Stenton Ave. in Philadelphia.

 

 

There are many types of love. I explore the many types of love in the novel that I just completed The Unicorn, The Mystery which I am going to read from briefly:

 “The point I was going to make is that romantic love is far from the most important type of love,” said the Priest with his usual authority. “Christians believe that pure love—the kind of love that is selfless and creates goodness—is the way that God loves us. This is why the saying, ‘love you neighbor’ is so important. There are numerous references to this in the Bible. But the most important is from the Gospel According to Mark in which he says ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than this.

“This kind of love is called ‘agape,’” continued the priest. “Agape is the highest form of pure, selfless love. It is the kind of love that God has for us—and the kind of love that we strive to have for our fellow man.”

“I recognize the word,” I replied. “It’s Ancient Greek, from the time of Homer.”

The Priest narrowed his eyes.

 Of course, many of the great poets have been inspired by romantic love, especially the Greeks.  But some may argue–and I do–that love (regardless of the kind of love) is the inspiration for all poetry.

Sappho statue

 

 

One of the poets from antiquity who greatly inspired me was Sappho, who lived around 600 B.C.E.  Of course, she lived before labels but many of Sappho’s love poems were written to women.  And she was technically a Lesbian since she lived on the Isle of Lesbos, now called Lesvos.  Most of what is left from Sappho is in fragments. One of the complete poems that survived is her “Hymn to Aphrodite” which I’ll read now: 

 

On your dazzling throne. Aphrodite,
Sly eternal daughter of Zeus,
I beg you: do not crush me
With grief

 But come to me now – as once
You heard my far cry, and yielded,
slipping from your
father’s house 

to yoke the birds to your gold
chariot, and came.  Handsome sparrows
brought you swiftly to
the dark earth, 

their wings whipping the middle sky
Happy, with deathless lips, you smiled:
“What is wrong, Sappho, why have
You called me? 

What does your mad heart desire?
Whom shall I make love you,
Who is turning her back
on you? 

Let her run away, soon she’ll chase you;
Refuse your gifts, soon she’ll give them.
She will love you, though
unwillingly.”

 Then come to me now and free me
From fearful agony.  Labor
for my mad heart, and be
my ally.

 

Almost twenty years ago, when I took a pilgrimage to Greece, including a stay in Sappho’s birthplace of Skala Eressos, a beach town on the Isle of Lesvos, I wrote the following response to Sappho’s hymn to the goddess of love.  The title is “Sapphics for Aphrodite” —

 

Aphrodite, in your blazing chariot,
I do not ask to be loved by anyone
against her will, to be fled from
or to be pursued. 

I do not ask for anything that will
sever my breath with anguish; I do not wish
to destroy or to be destroyed.
I do not wish for 

anything other than for the stars to blaze
in my pulse until breaking, shattered, and
incandescent, I am consumed: the moon’s rays
intent upon me. 

Aphrodite this is all I ask of you,
you who hold the Fates in my hands,
and you, of the golden winged chariot, in
whose temple I burn.

 

The priest in my novel has a point. Romantic love can have its limitations.  But love is love – regardless of what it is called. And love can lead to goodness.

 

Namaste

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After hearing about the controversy on Samantha’s B’s Full Frontal, I decided to repost this blogpost featuring my poem, “The Cunt Sonnet.”  I originally wrote it in about 1992 when I attended The Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado.  It was so long ago that Allen Ginsberg, alive and well, was on the panel when the poem was read by the theatrical Bobbie Louise Hawkins.

I heard that the word cunt — as in that “feckless cunt” — is regularly used in Canada (where Samantha is from) and in Europe.  “Cunt” has a long and regal history.  (Obviously Samantha was upset by the news — and justifiable so.) Let’s give her another chance.  And let’s take back the word in the United States!

The cunts are coming, the cunts are coming!”

 

I heard that recently, on Face Book that there were some derogatory references going around containing the word “cunt.” Someone remembered my poem from the old days, “The Cunt Sonnet,” which I posted below. I came of age in a woman-affirming lesbian feminist community. No doubt that entered my thinking when I wrote “The Cunt Sonnet”. Now, more than a quarter of a century ago, I was at Naropa Institute for the summer in Boulder Colorado (when Allen Ginsberg was still there) when I was inspired to write the poem.  After one of the faculty members, the writer Bobbie Louise Hawkins, read it on the farewell panel, I took a bow as “the cunt who wrote it.” Indeed.  It is always time to reclaim the word “cunt” — perhaps now more than ever.

 

 

The Cunt Sonnet

The cathedral of my cunt is a real cunt-nundrum:
what and who it wants often I do not.vaginal art five calla lily
since the days of the cunt-iforms,
ancient Persia and Babylon,
this had been engraved in stone.
Still the English midwives,
those working class cunt-esses,
call a cunt a cunt.
Hark their cries in the dark night:
The cunts are coming!
The cunts are coming!
Join the cunt-ilinguists.
Scream it on the tastebuds of our common cunts
as they rise in my cunty swagger
for I am a cunting woman by day and by night
when those invited and not enter my dreams:
Cunts all, I embrace them warmly.
With my woman, cunt-ilingus is our pleasure boat
Sometimes slippery canoe or runaway yacht.
Each morning I hasten to salute:
My cunt-ry tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty.

by Janet Mason

first published in When I Was Straight, poems by Janet Mason from Insight To Riot Press (1995)

 

thanks to CA Conrad for encouraging me to submit to EOAGH, A Journal of the Arts

(CA may have been the guest editor at the time)

https://chax.org/eoagh/issue3/issuethree/mason.html

 

To learn more about my novel THEY, a biblical tale of secret genders (just published by Adelaide Books New York/Lisbon), click here.
Amazon THEY

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Recently, my partner, Barbara, and I went to see our old friend CA Conrad when he came to the Kelly Writer’s House at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.  CA was reading from his latest book While Standing in Line for Death from Wave Books. You can watch him reading a poem on YouTube (below) and see more photos of the reading below that.

 

 

ca Barbara and me

 

Frank Sherlock and new poet laur

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Last week or so we bid our final goodbyes to Lili Bita who died in a tragic accident.  Lila was a talented actress, writer, and pianist who I knew through my partner Barbara McPherson who drummed with Lili at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival for nearly twenty-years. The following is an early collaboration between Lili and Barbara in Lili’s production of Medea.

Below the YouTube video is a creative obituary and a poem that I received on a poetry e-mail list. You can scroll down to read more.

 

 

Lili Bita, a prominent figure in Philadelphia’s cultural life for more than thirty years as an author and actress and whose career won international acclaim, passed away on February 12.  Lili, a native of Greece, emigrated to the United States after performing leading roles on the Greek stage, including ancient drama, Shakespeare, Ibsen, O’Neill, and others.  With her one-woman shows, “The Greek Woman Through the Ages,” “Body Light,” and “Freedom or Death,” she toured widely in America and abroad, and as Artistic Director of the Theater Cooperative, which she founded with her husband and collaborator, Robert Zaller, she was a fixture for nearly two decades at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  The Greek government sent her to India in 1995 as an ambassador of Hellenism, and in 2014 she was inducted into the Hellenic Authors Society, the oldest and most prestigious literary organization in Greece, in recognition of her lifetime achievement.

Lili was the author of a score of books of verse, fiction, memoir, and literary translation, which won praise from such figures as Nikos Kazantzakis and Anais Nin.  Her last six books, including her collected love poems, Fleshfire, were published by Somerset Hall Press of Boston, from which they are available.  Commemorative events for Lili are being planned for the Rotunda, the Manayunk Arts Center, and other venues.

 Lili was a figure admired and beloved in equal measure, and her passion for life, love, and the exercise of her art was equaled as well by her care, kindness, and generosity of heart and spirit.  The poem she concluded all her public readings with was “Credo”:

The young pines
guard the narrow path
to the grotto.
The sea greets us with a blast of emerald
and a hidden tremor of wings.
The air is vivid with dawn.
You slide into my crotch.
A wave breaks over my breasts.
Slow poison bleeds into my veins.

When I was a girl
I believed that men and women
copulate only once
because their ecstasy
must kill them.
The stones grind into my back.
Nakedness is not enough.
The spilled entrails
the crushed bones
the blood and urine mixed
and drunk into the earth
would not be enough.

Before I knew
the facts of life
I believed that men and women
copulate only once
and die of their pleasure.

Make me believe it again.

 

lili bita darkness

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I had the honor of hearing my long time friend, the wise poet Maria Fama read from her most recent book — Other Nations an animal journal — last fall at The Free Library of Philadelphia — the Fumo Family Library branch.

I recorded two of the poems.  You can watch the video below.  The first poem is about whale watching and the second is about Maria’s family and history — and a rooster.

 

 

Other Nations poetry Maria Fama

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I hear the recently, on Face Book that there were some derogatory references going around containing the word “cunt.” Someone remembered my poem from the old days, “The Cunt Sonnet,” which I posted below. I came of age in a woman-affirming lesbian feminist community. No doubt that entered my thinking when I wrote “The Cunt Sonnet”. Now, more than a quarter of a century ago, I was at Naropa Institute for the summer in Boulder Colorado (when Allen Ginsberg was still there) when I was inspired to write the poem.  After one of the faculty members, the writer Bobbie Louise Hawkins, read it on the farewell panel, I took a bow as “the cunt who wrote it.” Indeed.  It is always time to reclaim the word “cunt” — perhaps now more than ever.

 

 

The Cunt Sonnet

The cathedral of my cunt is a real cunt-nundrum:
what and who it wants often I do not.vaginal art five calla lily
since the days of the cunt-iforms,
ancient Persia and Babylon,
this had been engraved in stone.
Still the English midwives,
those working class cunt-esses,
call a cunt a cunt.
Hark their cries in the dark night:
The cunts are coming!
The cunts are coming!
Join the cunt-ilinguists.
Scream it on the tastebuds of our common cunts
as they rise in my cunty swagger
for I am a cunting woman by day and by night
when those invited and not enter my dreams:
Cunts all, I embrace them warmly.
With my woman, cunt-ilingus is our pleasure boat
Sometimes slippery canoe or runaway yacht.
Each morning I hasten to salute:
My cunt-ry tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty.

by Janet Mason

first published in When I Was Straight, poems by Janet Mason from Insight To Riot Press (1995)

 

thanks to CA Conrad for encouraging me to submit to EOAGH, A Journal of the Arts

(CA may have been the guest editor at the time)

https://chax.org/eoagh/issue3/issuethree/mason.html

 

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This morning, Sunday August 13th, I co-led a Unitarian Universalist tradition called Poetry Sunday.  This is one of my favorite services because we are privileged to hear so many voices from the congregation as people read their own work and the poetry of other poets.  For this service, I wrote a reflection and read from my new novel titled Pictures and talked briefly about the early environmentalist and poet’s poet Robinson Jeffers. You can see my reflection below on the YouTube video or read the reflection below that.

If you are interested in reading/viewing other published excerpts of Pictures click here.

For more published excerpts of Pictures, click here.

For a post about previous UU Poetry Sundays, including a YouTube video of my reflection on the late poet Audre Lorde, click here.

 

 

Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. As Unitarian Universalists, how can our faith inform our actions to remedy and mitigate global warming/climate change? We declare by this Statement of Conscience that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.

–Threat of Global Warming/Climate Change, Unitarian Universalist Statement of Conscience

 

I was having lunch with my old friend and my first publisher the poet Jim Cory when the name Robinson Jeffers came up.  I was telling Jim about the novel I was revising, called Pictures, and about a party that my characters were attending at the home of the fine art photographer Edward Weston in 1926 in Carmel ,California.  It is a fictional depiction of historical people, most of them artists of varying kinds. Jim said that the poet Robinson Jeffers lived in Carmel at that time, and he most definitely would have been at the party.

I found out later that Weston photographed Jeffers. Robinson Jeffers by Edward Weston

My friend Jim then went on to describe Jeffers as a pioneering environmentalist/ climate justice activist, poet, seer.

I went home and promptly reserved the books of Jeffers from the library and opened one of his poetry books to “Distant Rainfall” – I’ll read it here – “Like mourning women veiled to the feet/ Tall slender rainstorms walk slowly against/ gray cloud along the far verge./ The ocean is green where the river empties,/   Dull gray between the points of the headlands,/ purple where the women walk,/ What do they want? Whom are they mourning?/ What hero’s dust in the urn between the/ two hands hidden in the veil?/ Titaness after Titaness proudly/ Bearing her tender magnificent sorrow/ at her heart,/ the lost battle’s beauty.”

I read a little more about Robinson Jeffers – who is truly fascinating – and then I was inspired to add several passages about him to my novel, Pictures, including the following passage where my character is hiking the cliffs of Carmel, California, overlooking the Pacific when he spots Jeffers:

 

Edward was usually looking for images. He imagined that Robinson was doing the same thing  — or looking for inspiration, doing whatever poets did.  Usually they just nodded or when they were close they exchanged a few words.  Edward had a feeling that Robinson was more reclusive than he was.  It was true that art required the artist to be alone, and that human beings were a distraction (unless they sat still and silent for a portrait).  One time, Edward had spotted Robinson on a trail above him, staring out at the ocean as the mist, turning into rain, rolled toward the shore.  The man’s gaze had been so intent, so singularly focused, that Edward was mesmerized. He wondered what was going through the man’s mind.  Did he see things in the mist — did he see leviathan women walking along the surface of the ocean as they heralded the storm.  Were the women his muses? Or was the mist itself the muse as it became rain — the wetness part of the mystery that became poetry.  As Edward stared, he was captivated by the cragginess of the poet’s face. He seemed to be as rough hewn as the rocks behind him. To look at him was as startling as seeing sheer cliff walls disappearing into sea. One day, thought Weston, I will photograph him.

 

Briefly, John Robinson Jeffers was an American poet known for his work on the region of Big Sur on the central coast of California.  Today he is considered an icon of the environmental movement. His father was a Presbyterian minister and his mother a biblical scholar. He is known as a poets’ poet and has been written about by other poets such as Adrienne Rich.

In these surreal days of having to insist that science is real, it’s good to remember Jeffers.

Science is real and so is the mystery.

 

–Namaste–

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