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Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

 

 

 

Last month, I read “When I Was Straight” from my collection of poetry by the same name published by Insight To Riot Press in 1995.  I read at Jim Cory’s poetry salon in Philadelphia.  Jim was the founder of the collective.  Below is a photograph from Thom Nickels book “Literary Philadelphia” of founding members of the press, Jim Cory, CAConrad and myself. It felt good to remember/revive that incendiary rage!

 

 

literary-philadelphia

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For the past several years, I’ve been attending a Unitarian Universalist Church that has a tradition of Poetry Sunday.  Each week, poetry is included in the service. I was delighted to find out that a long time favorite of mine, Mary Oliver is a UU and that her poetry is often used. Of course, many other poets — from Rumi to contemporary poets — are often used also. One Sunday a year is dedicated to poetry’s role in UU and all spirituality.

For me especially — since I started my writing life as a poet — poetry represents a sense of the sacred (and the profane has a place in that!)

This year’s theme was empowerment — and I was honored to read from my collection “a woman alone” chronicling my trip to Greece. I read the following two poems:

a woman alone
hears the cooing of pigeons
and the flap of wings
folding air;
she hears Cathedral bells
answering one another;
and morning light
sputtering traffic
into existence; a
woman alone is a city
awakening.

a woman alone lives
in the house
of the double ax;
she enters her own labyrinth
and comes out amazed;
she is the minotaur
the earth womb
turned to a monster;
she is her own silver thread
leading herself to the center
of the maze that is her,
a woman alone.

 

Anne Arfaa, another featured poet this year, also read on the theme of empowerment. Listening to her, I was taken on a trip down memory lane. Anne and I were in a feminist writing group for many years — and from that we became fellow travelers on the road of life.

 

 

Last year, I was one of organizers of Poetry Sunday and here I am talking about the poetry of the late poet Audre Lorde who prophetically wrote “Poetry is not a luxury.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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previously in The Huffington Post

I have to admit that I find history fascinating.

This hasn’t always been the case.

I first came across history in the way that most of us are “fed” history. It was forced on me, it was exclusive, and it was boring. In fact, my high school history teacher was nicknamed “Boring Barry.” I don’t remember much, if anything, that he taught us. No doubt it was just more of the same thing — the white, male, heterosexual, view of the world. Facts and figures. Dates of wars.

But as a young adult, I discovered Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. I used this book, first published in 1980, extensively when researching my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters.

Although my book ended up being more of a personal one — chronicling my family history that dovetailed with the labor movement, feminism (my mother was first generation, I was second), and coming out as a lesbian in the early 1980s.

I’ve seen a lot of history — especially in the LGBT movement. But even so, I find it helpful to have a refresher now and then. This is particularly true with LGBT history — which sadly to say has been erased with a few notable exceptions. It was in this spirit that I read three books on history. It made me reflect that knowing your history is necessary — but reading about it can also be enjoyable.

In The Right Side of History, 100 Years of LGBTQI Activism by Adrian Brooks (Cleis Press; 2015), which is put together as a collection of lively essays, many by well-known LGBT activist, writers and public figures, including Barney Frank, I learned more than a few things.

I was particularly taken with New York Times bestselling author Patricia Nell Warren’s essay on Bayard Rustin. Rustin spoke out about gay rights in the 1940s and he went on to become a major Civil Rights activist and Dr. Martin Luther King’s right hand man. Warren gets to the heart of why history is important when she writes about teaching LGBT students of color in Los Angeles who “were hungry to know that they had some towering historical role models like Rustin.”

“To a black kid who was one of the school district student commissioners at the time, I gave a copy of a biography about Rustin. He devoured the book and told me that he cried all the way through it.

“‘It’s just awesome,” the student said, “that an openly gay black man was Martin Luther King’s head guy.’”

Mark Segal’s book And Then I Danced (Akashic Books; 2015) is a historic memoir, chronicling his life in the LGBT political scene in Philadelphia where he the founder and the head of the Philadelphia Gay News, New York where he lived for a time, and on the national front. In addition to chronicling his role in LGBT history, including his important and pioneering role in housing for low-income LGBT seniors, Segal also presents his personal and family life in a warm, engaging manner and this writing extends to his interactions with public figures. Writing about meeting Hillary Clinton for the first time, Segal says:

“She gave me a warm hug and said, ‘You’re more tenacious than me!’
Coming from her, it was the ultimate compliment.”

In Literary Philadelphia (The History Press; 2015) by Thom Nickels, I particularly enjoyed the insights that Nickels a gay writer and activist provides. This includes the mention of Walt Whitman (the bearded poet was a familiar site on Market Street), along with lesser known gay writers along with non-LGBT Philadelphia literati such as James Michener and Pearl S. Buck.

In the chapter called “Poetdelphia,” he writes about poet Jim Cory and quotes him extensively about his stumbling across The Mentor Book of Major American Poets:

“‘It was sacred text. It explained everything. I still have it. Five year later, it was all about the Beats and Bohemian rebellion. Fast-forward ten years and a lot of what I was writing was gay poetry. In my sixties, I write in different modes to satisfy different ends. Short poems appeal because of the challenge of getting something complicated into seven lines, cut-ups and collage because they’re fun and with any luck can be fun for the reader too.’”

Jim and I were part of a poetry collective that he founded in the early to mid-nineties called Insight To Riot Press. We published the late Alexandra Grilikhes (among others) who is mentioned in the book. Nickels muses “If Philly poet Alexandra Grilikhes were alive today, would her various poems to female lovers in books like The Reveries …be deemed too risqué?”

In this same chapter, I was surprised to come across a photo of myself, Jim Cory, and poet CAConrad (also an Insight To Riot! collective member) taken in 1994. We all look much younger.

You know what they say. It’s a small world.

 

previously in The Huffington Post

literary-philadelphia

 

 

 

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I presented this at the Unitarian Universalist Church as part of  Poetry Sunday” where I am a lay minister. The segment is also on YouTube. Unitarian Universalism is a faith that encompasses all religious/spiritual backgrounds (including atheism, agnosticism and Buddhism) in a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”)

"Poetry Is Not A Luxury" on church sign, Janet Mason standing next to it

“Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This is a quote from Audre Lorde, the self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet,” who dedicated her art and life to social justice. Audre lived from 1934 to 1992.

I first came across her work in the early 1980s. I was in my twenties and was a freshly minted lesbian-feminist. I was fortunate to come out in a diverse cultural and political women’s community — which is what we called it then — which described a community based on the values of feminism and included lesbians, bisexual and heterosexual women and men of all stripes. I was fortunate to have seen Audre read in person several times, including in Philadelphia and at the Audre Lorde “I Am Your Sister” conference in Boston held in 1990 two years before she died of cancer at the age of 58.

Audre Lorde authored 15 books of poetry and prose.  She was Poet Laureate of New York State from 1991 to 1992.  She was a major poet. But because of racism, homophobia, and sexism, she was not taught in  the 1970s in the public high schools when I was a student. Audre Lorde’s work is powerful and is about empowerment.  If she had been taught, I know for a fact that her work would have saved plenty of lives. 

When I read her book Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches first published by The Crossing Press in 1984, it became a kind of bible for me.  All of her essays held resonance for me — especially “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” and “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.”

But I always returned to her essay “Poetry Is Not a Luxury”.  I’m going to share a few excerpts with you:

…..”it is through poetry that we give name to those ideas which are — until the poem — nameless and formless, about to be birthed, but already felt.  That distillation of experience from which true poetry springs births thought as dream births concept, as feeling births idea, as knowledge births (precedes) understanding.

…..

“For each of us …. , there is a dark place within, where hidden and growing our true spirit rises, ‘Beautifully/and tough as chestnut/stanchions against our nightmare of weakness/’ … and of impotence.

These places of possibility within ourselves are dark because they are ancient and hidden; they have survived and grown strong through that darkness.  Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling. The … place of power within each of us is neither white nor surface; it is dark, it is ancient and it is deep.”

“…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

When I am lucky, I find myself coming full circle with that wonderment I experienced when young — now combined with the wisdom of my years.  Revisiting Audre Lorde’s essay through a Unitarian Universalist lens was one of those experiences.  While this essay could evoke any of the UU Seven Principles, to me it is particularly evocative of the first:  “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Poetry is something that has always made me feel more fully alive. It sheds new light on our commonalities and differences.  It enters the mystery and enlarges what is possible.

For this reason, “Poetry Is Not A Luxury.”

This piece was originally on OpEdNews

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Janet Mason reading poetry at PII Gallery

Friday night, I was part of a group poetry reading at PII Gallery in Old City.  The marathon reading was organized by poetry maestro Dave Worrell who brought together 17 poets who read a total of 47 poems.  As the poets moved back and forth from room to room, I mentioned to fellow poet Bill van Buskirk  that this is good for poets — to be together to be moving. Bill replied that he agreed: “if the poets get in a rut, then what is the world coming to?”    Below are some photos of the event and a short poem that I read in honor of the artwork on the walls. 

Mike Cohen reading poetry

       

(from  a woman alone)

she colors her own fields
wide open with purple
and yellow bowing
to a prism of green
swept away
in a stampede
of poppies
a woman alone is
wild and red.

–Janet Mason

Barry and Ruth and Horses

Lester Mobley poet

Poetry marathon at PII Gallery

Sarah Gray Beal reading poetry from phone

poster in window of PII Gallery

Dave Worrell at PII

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In celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Anna Crusis Women’s Choir (the feminist choir in Philadelphia and one of the nation’s longest standing feminist choruses) — I found pieces of myself. They weren’t forgotten — but rather strengthened by being in the company of women who have known me for decades.

That’s what community is all about.

The concert was billed as reclaiming the f-word — and joking to my partner I wondered which f-word they were talking about.  Both came up — and on the screen at the concert!  I realized that for me, the two major f-words are somewhere synonymous. My first chapbook of poetry was called “A Fucking Brief History of Fucking” from Insight To Riot Press (my favorite line was and still is ‘the dickless dyke fuck’).  I was delighted to be in the company of women who remembered me from my poem Boobs Away! — which I performed with the choir twice around 2005 at the Friends School in Center City Philadelphia and at the large Episcopalian Church in West Philadelphia. Boobs Away! is written on a broadside based on a breast portrait by the artist Clarity Haynes.  Clarity went to women’s music festivals where she painted breast portraits of women.  The portraits were and are a powerful statement — undoubtedly, my inspiration for the Boobs Away! — which includes the lines

…. The boobs refuse to be replaced by imposters /  one boob, two boobs, double mastectomies, phantom boobs, third nipple boobs// Boobs All! //BIG BAD BOOBS// ….

I guess you could say it was kind of a rant.  I don’t have a link a video of me reading the poem — but I hear that such a video does exist — but recently I put the image of the broadside, along with my published books on my You Tube banner of my channel that show cases my new work (Janet Mason, novelist).  You can click here to see the image.

We went to the Saturday evening Anna Crusis Concert.  Here are some photos from the powerful event and from the F-word celebratory weekend. Enjoy!

Anna Crusis F-words on screen behind choirAnna Crusis choir sings Hildegard Von Bingham, mosaic on screen behind choir Jane Hulting, past conductor, in center

Anna Crusis current member in silhouette

Anna Crusis with tree on screen behind them

Anna Crusis after party at October Gallery

Anna Crusis choir -- quote on screen behind themgroup at party --with Janet Mason

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In recognition of President Obama’s historic announcement on immigration reform, I’m reposting this piece that first appeared in The Huffington Post.

 

Like many LGBT Americans, I was profoundly moved by President Obama’s recognition of gays and lesbians in his inaugural speech. Even my straight-talking retired postal worker partner who usually has something to say about everything (when it comes to gay rights, her usual comment is “it’s about time”) sat quietly in front of the television taking it all in. It is about time and it is still amazing.

There were quite a few historic firsts at the inaugural ceremony, but the highlight for me was the inaugural poem by Richard Blanco, the first Hispanic and the first openly gay poet to recite a poem at a presidential inauguration. For me a poem is a slowing down of time, an opening, and a good poem always presents a teaching moment, that is once in a while life-altering, and leaves you experiencing the world differently.

There were two such moments within Blanco’s poem, “One Today,” and with the help of thecamera panning the immediate crowd, we can see the immediacy of those moments on the listeners. The first was when, Blanco recited the words “…. on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives– to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem.”

The camera panned to Michelle Obama who looked up from her poetic reverie and opened her eyes when Blanco mentioned his mother. The look in her eyes was solemn, one that appeared to be based in compassion and identification.

The second teaching moment occurred closer to the end of the poem when Blanco was reading the words, “Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me…” And then the camera panned to Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor. Shortly after the phrase “buenos dias,” he twitched. In all fairness, Cantor may have been twitching all day — it was cold and he couldn’t simply sit in his warm home and turn off the television like so many other Republicans undoubtedly did. And it could have been worse. If Blanco had read a poem with explicitly gay content, Rep. Cantor might have done more than twitch.

I had been wondering, how Cantor and Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) could stand there and listen to Blanco’s poem and not be moved by it. I was profoundly moved. I was the first in my family to go to college and I was close to my mother. When I began to write my book Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters (Bella Books 2012), I was primarily a poet. And even though I haven’t written poetry in years, I still have poetic sensibilities.

I wrote Tea Leaves to make some sense of losing my mother to cancer and being, along with my father, one of her primary caretakers. I also explore my working class background in this book, in particular writing about grandmother’s life who was a spinner in a textile mill in Philadelphia.

It is because of my class consciousness that Blanco’s poem resonated so strongly with me. Many immigrants have taken jobs that others would not do and whether it was picking fruit, packing meat, bagging groceries, or taking care of other people’s children they provide the services that this country could not do without. Then if they are “illegal,” they are deported or at least must always live in fear of deportation. Don’t we owe it to them to provide them with citizenship?

This week, both parties plan to introduce overhauled immigration legislation and they have the opportunity to do the right thing. Cantor, predictably, is solidly against immigration reform. His record speaks for itself. In 2007, he voted to declare English as the official language of the United States. In 2006, he voted yes on building a fence along the Mexican border.

More recently, Cantor was consistent in his conservative views in voting against enforcing anti-gay hate crimes in 2009, and in 2012 stated that taxpayer money should never be used to “kill innocent life” and in 2011 he voted in favor of banning federal health coverage that includes abortion.

There has been much talk about how Republicans lost the Hispanic and female vote in the Presidential election — and how they have to appeal to these groups of voters if they want to have a future as a viable party. While I have found these discussions interesting, I am not personally invested in the Republicans improving their lot.

But I do think that Republicans should do the right thing on immigration reform.

And if they do, then maybe some credit can be given Richard Blanco’s poetic moment.

In short, we are more alike than different. And if you doubt that, remember Blanco’s one word sentence,

Breathe.

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