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Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

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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Recently we went to see A Quiet Passion — the movie about Emily Dickinson.  The role of Emily was played by Cynthia Nixon. While there was some wonderful acting in the film — including by Cynthia Nixon and while anything that brings notice to Emily Dickinson’s life, the film left us feeling that some things never change.  There was such an absence of any lesbian content – including Emily’s long-term relationship with her sister-in-law Susan (written about in the New Yorker decades ago by Emily’s niece and Susan’s daughter — who described Emily as a “valiant knight” to her mother — that I returned to my earlier work on Emily Dickinson.  A longer essay titled, “The American Sappho: In Pursuit of a Lesbian Emily Dickinson” that I wrote was published in the Vol. 3, Number 3 2002 edition of the Harrington Lesbian Fiction Quarterly (now out of print).

My shorter essays on Emily Dickinson is reprinted below.

It was previously published on Technodyke.com and aired on This Way Out, the Los Angeles-based lesbian and gay radio syndicate that airs across the U.S. and in 22 countries abroad.

Emily Dickinson and I did not hit it off on the first date. That is to say that on introduction to her work, I saw her–or rather was taught to see her–as a lady like poet writing of hearts and flowers, tendrils and vines, the stuff of which had absolutely nothing to do with my life. In junior high when I came across Dickinson’s work, I was already a hell on wheels hard drinking adolescent, a product of my 1970s working class environment that put me on a collision course headed toward disaster.

Emily Dickinson color

It was my love of language that got me through. I’ve often heard it said that poetry serves no purpose. Perhaps that is true if one takes a completely materialistic and emotionally bankrupt view of life. But the fact is that two lines of poetry saved my life: Shakespeare’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow/ creeps through this petty pace from day to day.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that I could recite this part of Hamlet at will, even if I was on my way to being blasted or hung over from the night before, embedded in my mind that I would have a tomorrow. A tomorrow was not a petty thing to have: a few of my friends didn’t make it.

I wonder if things could have been different, for myself and for the close-knit gang of teenage girls I hung out with. I wonder if a Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson could have halted our self-destruction and consequently saved a few young lives. It took a few more years for me to grow up, stop drinking and come out as a Lesbian. And when I did I found myself falling head over heels in love with poetry. Emily Dickinson was someone I returned to again and again. There was something clever, yet profound, in her verses that I memorized. The lines were deeply personal, as if they had been written just for me. I found her public personae intriguing. She was portrayed as a spinster, a recluse dressed in white, the eternal virgin who had nothing to do with men.

A few more years passed and I went to visit the Dickinson homestead in Amherst Massachusetts. I was there with a group of friends, some of whom lived in the area and were just visiting her home for the first time. It was ironic really– there we were a room full of Lesbian poets listening to the tour guide’s official wrap about the cloistered and asexual Emily Dickinson, trapped in her father’s house. There was something sinister about the house, foreboding. But behind the house, in the flower garden, was a beautiful wash of colors. And as I sat in the garden, on a white wrought iron bench, I peered through a shady grove to the neighboring house. I remember it being painted in the glowing hues of peach, at once golden and pink. There was something mysterious about this house, set back as it was from the road, directly approachable from the Dickinson homestead. If I were Emily I could not have resisted its magic lure.

I found out later that this house is where Susan Huntington Dickinson lived. She was Emily’s sister-in-law, married to Emily’s brother, Austin, and she was the love of Emily Dickinson’s life. She was Muse to Emily, her intended reader, thoughtful critic and, by more than a few accounts, she was Emily’s lover. In correspondence to Susan, Emily wrote that Susan was “imagination” itself. The two women were close friends for 40 years, and they lived next door to each other for 30 of those years.

In “Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson” (from Paris Press), the editors, Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, point out that over the course of their lifelong friendship and love affair, Emily sent countless numbers of letters, poems and a form of writing that Emily came to call the letter poem. And on many of these letters, placed for Susan to see when she unfolded them, Emily had written her careful instructions: “Open me carefully.”

Emily Dickinson lived at the end of the Victorian-era in New England from 1830 to 1886. After her death, any mention of Susan was carefully removed from her poetry and this essential body of correspondence was neglected. Still, even with this erasure of Susan’s name, which Emily had written at the top of so many of her poems, it is obvious that they are essentially Lesbian love poems. Consider, for example, the piece that begins with the line “Her breast is fit for pearls…”

“Susan, / Her breast is fit for pearls, / But I was not a “Diver”– / Her brow is fit for thrones / But I have not a crest, / Her heart is fit for home– / I–a Sparrow–build there / Sweet of twigs and twine / My perennial nest. / —Emily”

In Victorian New England, Emily Dickinson certainly could not mention her most intimate body parts. But she did a pretty good job of using the birds and bees as metaphor: “These days of heaven bring you nearer and nearer, and every bird that sings, and every bud that blooms, does but remind me more of that garden unseen, awaiting the hand that tills it. Dear Susie, when you come, how many boundless blossoms among the silent beds!”

To separate Emily Dickinson from her Lesbian passions is a cruel and unnecessary act. Not only does it do a disservice to Emily’s poetic genius, but it also deprives her readers of a deeper comprehension of Emily and therefore of a deeper understanding of themselves. That’s what literature, at its best, does. It leads us home.

It really doesn’t matter if Emily Dickinson ever made love with a woman. (Although my guess is that she did and most likely did so rather skillfully.) What matters is that she experienced deep rending passion, that must at times, under the circumstances, have been painful.

A Lesbian reading of Emily Dickinson places her firmly in the center of her own page. When I think back on my visit to her house, I can see her clearly now, sitting down at her desk after her daily chores were done, as she smoothed the white folds of her skirt and picks up her quilled pen. As she writes, her cheeks are ablaze with longing and desire, that essential Lesbian desire.

 

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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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