Remembering Dick Allen, 1939-2017: Everyday Magic, Day 922

What impressed me first was his sestina, a very challenging kind of poem he wrote after hanging with a bunch of us fellow state poets laureate at a lingering dinner at a Concord, New Hampshire Holiday Inn restaurant. A dozen of us gathered from Louisiana to Texas for the Poets & Politics conference to first travel around the small state, giving readings with local poets, then present together for conference-goers.

The only problem was, that aside from the conference organizers, there were only a handful of conference-goers. We filled the open space with getting to know each other, and those three evenings spent lingering for hours over dinner were some of the most delightful of my life. We talked poetry of course, but also about our kids, how we got to or stayed in the states where we lived, and what we regretted and embraced in how we juggled writing with the other aspects of our lives. But mostly, we laughed, and somehow caught the wave of making air quotes with our fingers for every noun in a sentence one long night over chicken parmesan and garlic knots.

Dick was quirky, approachable, and full of stories, wit, and a kind of peaceful presence only matched by his passion for all things poetry.  The next evening he shared the sestina he had just written, and we raised our glasses to him after he read it to us, all of us blown away that he could turn such a spectacular poem out in such short order. What makes sestinas hard to write is that 1) they’re long — 39 lines, and 2) you have to repeat in a very complex pattern the ending word to a line in each stanza. It’s a little like putting together a 1,000-piece puzzle without a picture of what it should look like while juggling six words (repeated at the  end of lines in various formations). It probably takes most people, even very experienced poets, weeks to write a sestina, and blessings of the gods to write a great one. Yet he wrote “If You Visit Our Country,” which he also read on Prairie Home Companion, and is also published in my poet laureate memoir, a book Dick kindly blurbed, Poem on the Range. 

I was so impressed by Dick that I invited him to be a keynote speaker at the Transformative Language Art Network’s Power of Words conference in 2013 at Pendle Hill near Philadelphia. We had a tight budget and could only offer him an amount that probably just covered travel for his and his wife, poet and fiction writer L. N. Allen, but he kindly accepted our offer, then showed up to give one of the most powerful talks on poetry and life I’ve ever heard, plus a wonderful workshop. But what I remember most was taking a walk with Dick to look at the oldest beech tree  in Pennsylvania, which towered over the very tall and tree-like Allen. We stood in wonder at the base of this grandmother tree, placing our hands on it, and looking up. The size and presence of this being was so awesome that we stopped talking and just smiled at each other, then after a while, walked back, talking about what a gift this moment was.

Not only did he and his wife give so much goodness to the conference, but he wrote Callid, the then-coordinator of the TLA Network, and myself the best notes of our lives, which has the same kind of wild and enthusiastic sentences that threads together in some of his shining poems, thanking us, among other things, “….for the quiet path to the small pond with the fountain and the willow I took Saturday afternoon, for what may be the best brownies of my life, in addition to fabulous breakfasts; for the huge writing expertise of those in my workshop, for the terrific audience response to my poems, for the flashlights we didn’t need when the lights went on, for the ever present care and devotion to the written art, for storytelling and transformations,  for the chocolate bar and the parking space and places to meditate everywhere, thank you!”

Dick knew a lot about gratitude, and attending to the moment. A long-time student, and through his own way of being in the world and his poetry, teacher of Zen Buddhism, he showed up fully at conferences and in email exchanges also.  I just looked over a bevy of emails in which we joked about New England versus Kansas, and Dick sent along photos of wide-perspective Kansas highways leading to a steady point, surrounded by flatlands, which he said he especially loved, while I joked back, “Our state is so big that we can fit two New Englands in it and still have room for New Jersey.” When I sent him photos of our town’s gorgeous maples turning deep red and orange, he responded, “Don’t you realize there are no maple trees in Kansas? You’re living in a hallucination and need to drink some dark sunflower coffee.” We went on to write about our grown children, and in his case, the miracle of the grandchild he didn’t expect and now adores. His love for Kansas and New England was as real as his support for a younger poet — surely I’m one of many he reached out in various ways.

He knew how to bring just the right touch and tone to the most difficult curves of our time also, just like he did in the poem he wrote in response to the Sandy Hook school shooting, “Solace.” You can hear him reading this tender and powerful poem here.

He’s also one of the featured state poet in the self-paced online class “Truth to Power: Poetry for Our Times with Poets Laureate” I put together for the Transformative Language Arts Network, and we were just emailing about at the end of November when I asked him to share a bunch of poems, writing reflections, writing prompts, and many  links to his work. Not only did he give (again) freely, but he wrote me of the class, “That’s a great thing to do and an honor to be asked.”

The real deal is that Dick was a truly great poet — one of the foremost poets of our time — with an immensely generous and loving heart and a brave and clear mind. In one of our stretches of correspondence, he shared what he called “Gerund Phase Sonnets” — each 14 lines long like a sonnet, but loosely rhymed, all describing a process, some parables too. He wrote of these sonnets, “The form is a vessel, perhaps comparable to Emily Dickinson’s use of simple quatrains, freeing the poet to concentrate on theme and subject and/or to be led by the easy rhymes and American speech patterns of lines of varying length into unexpected places.” And here’s one of the sonnets about solving a Koan (more on what that is here).

Solving the Koan

Logically, you can’t do this. Illogically,

you can throw cold water on a alley cat

or bite your eyeballs. Solving a koan

is like kneeling beside a car, trying to change a flat

with a single potato chip. Two might do it. Mind you,

a koan isn’t a riddle,

a puff on an Old Gold, ringing of a liberty bell,

but a cat and a fiddle

and the cow jumping over Kansas. You must

go haywire and be calm at once,

stare at a blank wall and contemplate

ripples spreading across a bowl of Jell-O. Chance

plays a part in it, but mainly

to solve a koan you must simply Be.

I’m grateful for getting to know him, and sad he’s suddenly gone, having died Tuesday after a heart attack on Christmas. What he’s left behind are many poems I’ll return to with fresh eyes, remembering what he showed me and reflecting on what his poems illustrate about how to simply be while overflowing with compassion, humor, intelligence, and vitality.

****

Here’s more on Dick, including some excerpts from an abandoned interview, four poems in the online journal Superstition, a lovely poem entitled “If You Get There Before I Do,”  and Dick’s website, in which he writes in “A Cautionary Tale” that the say to live entails this: “You walk a little. You stop. You hurt./ Then You go on.”  Be sure to watch him talk about puns and read the poem “The Horse Knows the Way” (riffing off Frost’s “Stopping in the Woods on a Snowy Evening”), in which he shows his humor and adept way with language. You can see more of his poems here. Finally, enjoy this short tribute video in the Herald Courant.

Photo of state poets laureate, from left: Dave Parsons, Texas; JoAnn Balingit, Delaware; Bruce Dethlefsen, Wisconsin; Lisa Starr, Rhode Island; the late Walter Butts, New Hampshire; Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina; Dick Allen, Connecticut; Julie Kane, Louisiana; and sitting, Carolyn Kreiter-Foronda, Virginia; and yours truly, Kansas.

Mending Old Quilts: Everyday Magic, Day 918

A growing pile of old quilts has been staring at me for months, and in the last week, I finally succumbed to the call of the fabric. You see, these quilts held us and our history for so many years, and to see them tattering away without a fight was just wrong. Yet for a long time, I couldn’t figure out what to do to mend the torn squares or disintegrating borders of color and texture.

Some might say to toss quilts with dozens of tears in them, but each quilt, just like each life, has its own story.  Woody and Janet, our cousins, made one of them for me when I was undergoing chemo. Then they sent the quilt to people in our Jewish community so that they could knot the ties in the center of each square while adding their wishes for my recovery. I made several the other quilts over long stretches, the oldest one when Forest, now 22, was a newborn, and I was teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University. I carried cut pieces of fabric with me to long meetings where I listened and sewed, the voices of people from many native nations piercing my heart and the heart of the quilt too.

So how to mend a broken quilt? After a little research, I considered the options of cutting the quilts up to make pillows or even a lampshade or two, but I never wanted to violate the quilts I had spent hours making and dreaming under, washing after an animal or kid threw up on them, or unfurling from the linen closet for the first truly cold night each November. Yet the directions I read for repairing them seemed unduly complicated and beyond my patience and ability.

Then it occurred to me: I could mend the quilts the same way I make quilts (and do most things), with my usual sewing repertoire of trial and error (and a seam ripper nearby).  At the same time, I suddenly got hungry to re-organize my years of fabric, which gave me lots of good ideas on what to put aside for which quilt. Lucky for me, I tend toward batik fabric which tends to look okay next to itself in many variations.

My technique was simple: cut out a square or rectangle of fabric that somewhat matches (or at least doesn’t clash), iron down the edges with a quarter inch turned under, pin it to where it goes in the quilt, and sew like crazy. Then wonderful sewing maven I know mentioned Frankenstein-stitching back and forth over little tears, and I doubled my repertoire.

The results may not be pretty, especially since I’m not all that skilled at sewing straight lines or prone to map out things too carefully. Basically, I sew like I write: fast and sloppy first drafts with lots of revisions. Yet in the end, the repaired quilt (as well as the revised text) blankets me into new dreams. It also feels really good to take something ripped and worn, and give it some new life, reminding me that even in what’s far from perfect or somewhat-falling-apart, when it comes to eeking out a Wabi-Sabi solution, I have all I need right on hand.

If this writing speaks to you, get a copy of Caryn’s new book, Everyday Magic: Fieldnotes on the Mundane and Miraculousbased on over 10 years of this blog. Details here.

When Miriam Finishes Wandering the Desert: Everyday Magic, Day 911

Late last night, as I sent my novel Miriam’s Well to my wonderful publisher, Steve Semken of Ice Cube Press, I reworked a summary of this 500-plus page book that’s been at the heart of my writing life for 13 years:

In this modern day retelling of the biblical story, Miriam wanders the political and spiritual desert of a changing America, torn between her roots as the Jewish daughter of a Black father and white mother, her yearning for home, and her brothers, Aaron, a successful New York City attorney, and Moses, a Kansas autistic artist. An astonishing cook and singer, Miriam has a knack for showing up to feed and help people at at landmark events, including People’s Park during the Summer of Love, the Wounded Knee encampment in South Dakota, the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, the Oklahoma City terrorist attack, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. As she seeks the promised land, she shows her people, and eventually herself, how to turn the chaos and despair of our times into music, meals, and meaning.

The amazing painting (sunset on the Platte River) by Anne Burkholder that will be on the cover of the novel.

This morning, waking up to the first day in the many years when I wasn’t finishing this book, I realized, that for all intensive purposes, the Miriam of my imagination is done wandering the desert. I got off easy compared to biblical Miriam’s 40 years of wandering, after which she never even got to the promised land (at least in that telling of her life). I’ve gotten lost, and eventually found, in many sentences in the writing and revision of the book, thanks to my tried-and-true process of writing what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” then reworking my words for eons. I’ve read the in-process book in entirety aloud to Ken twice, and parts of it to Brave Voice participants occasionally, but from here on, the “in-process” part of the process is finished.

It’s a strange feeling to complete a big book that takes everything you think you can do, and asks of you to do more and go farther. So many times, I couldn’t figure out how to develop a scene, flesh out a curve in the plot, or show, with greater transparency but still enough mystery, who a character is. As I tell my students and workshop participants, sometimes you just have to tell yourself you’re not just smart enough to write something at the moment, shrug it off, write something else, then return to the page. Also, writing is a way of knowing: my hands on the keyboard had led me often to language that was far beyond me thinking into words.

Now I’m sitting on the porch in the rain during a morning thunderstorm, reminding myself I don’t need to rework something in the book that I loved writing so much. Despite the glory of being finished, I’m sad. Then I remind myself: I’m only leaving the writing of it. I’ll be doing readings from this novel for anyone who will listen for years, and I’ll be talking at length about its nuances, and what might happen to Miriam after the end of the novel (although I wish I fully knew). Of course, there will be many more times to proofread the book, even after the advance copies are printed and distributed this fall in time for us to garner some reviews for a Passover 2018 release date.

In time, just like Miriam, I’ll be done wandering, and in the case of such a long-term project, wondering how to shape each paragraph, lift and close each chapter. Miriam will find her next story, and so will I.

Please Help Me Find Cover Art For Miriam's Well, My New Novel: Everyday Magic, Day 900

I’m looking for art for the cover of my novel Miriam’s Well, coming out from Ice Cube Press when the clock strikes 2018. This 12-year-in-the-making novel is about biblical Miriam and her brothers Aaron and Moses, but it’s set in the U.S. and has Miriam wandering the spiritual, political, and cultural desert and lushness of this country for 40 years, starting her wandering in People’s Park in 1969. I describe the book as somewhat like Forrest-Gump-Meets-The-Red-Tent. I’m looking for original art to use that resonates with Miriam, her well (way of feeding people and keeping up their spirits during the long haul), wandering, seeking home, the kaleidoscope of family and life, or any related theme. Little caveat: ain’t nobody getting any advance on this book, so I don’t have a budget for art, but I can pay the artist with extensive gratitude, a big pile of books, his/her/their profile at the end of the book, and other ways to share more about this wondrous artist. Thank you for your help! Below is a longer synopsis of the novel. If you know of any art – photography, painting, pastels, sculpture, quilting, etc. — that might fit, please email me at carynmirriamgoldberg@gmail.com. Thanks for reading this far and considering what images would do the trick!

Miriam’s Well Synopsis

From a young age Miriam sees visions she can’t cope with or stop. Growing up Jewish in Brooklyn with Aaron, her boy genius brother, her black father and white mother, she finds her place in the world best through singing and feeding people, much like her biblical namesake. That sense of belonging is shattered when, as a teenager, her worst nightmares come true. After her high-strung mother gives birth to a third child, Moses, who is more Miriam’s than her mother’s, the family moves to Israel. Caught in a freak accident during the Six-Day War, Miriam’s father is killed, her mother disengages from the family, and Kansas relatives take Moses away from her. Shattered and lost, Miriam and Aaron return to their old house in Brooklyn, now owned by their aunt and uncle, to piece together their future. Miriam embarks upon an opposite journey than her career-driven brother Aaron as she takes to the open road.

For the next 40 years, Miriam wanders, yearning for home and meaning while dwelling in the edges of America. She feeds a giant house full of hippies in Berkeley, attends women’s Black Panther meetings in Oakland, and sneaks into Wounded Knee during the 1973 occupation to cook for everyone. She sings to people at soup kitchens in Denver, homeless shelters in New York City, and a San Francisco hospice during the peak of the AIDS epidemic. She even bakes the Cuban bread the leaders of Key West throw at U.S. government officials when the city tries to secede from America in 1982.

Many of the places Miriam lives, first on her own, and later with her half-Lakota, half-Italian husband Joseph, and their daughter Laura, are geographically, politically or spiritually on the edge of America, from Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine to the beaches of Key West to an extreme west Texas small town. She tries to salvage a relationship at an Idaho back-to-the-land commune, leads women’s rituals at a feminist potato farm (Mrs. Potato Head) in Utah, and runs a cafe at an Alabama ecovillage. Working with the homeless or the hungry, at-risk L.A. Teenagers or overlooked New York City elders, Miriam reaches beyond the edges of her upbringing.

Miriam is continually plagued by her visions and driven by an unquenchable desire to save people while puzzling over what do with her own family. She helps a man search hospitals for his wife after the Oklahoma City bombing, rescues a a teen who overdosed during the Whittier-Narrows earthquake, runs toward the World Trade Center during 9/11, and feeds hundreds after Hurricane Katrina–all to the fury and fear of her family. Her many visits with Moses in western Kansas teach her that she can’t rescue her autistic brother from his quiet life among evangelical Christians, but she can dwell with him there. She can’t live the life her brother Aaron wants for her, but over decades, she helps him recover his own visions. She can’t stop missing her father, but over time that deep yearning changes from overwhelming roar to dull ache. After decades of avoiding, blaming, and distancing from her mother, Miriam discovers Batty isn’t who Miriam thought she was, and her family is intact in a mosaic she never could have imaged.

Much to her own surprise, Miriam finds home in a kaleidoscope of family and friends, healing in the middle of cancer, and peace in the thin places between the world lost and the new land on the other side of her wandering.

Save the Humanities!: Everyday Magic, Day 894

Photo by Stephen Locke, used with permission

The kids were already in the front seats when I arrived at the Coffey County Library branch in Gridley, Kansas to present “Kansas Weather in Life, Literature, and Photography,” a Kansas Humanities Council (KHC) program. In this town of 341 people, the library is the place to be, and not just for kids. By the time I began, people aged 9 to 90 filled seats, ready to take in Kansas poetry and photography (via Stephen Locke) about how our extreme weather shapes our lives and builds our character. We also shared their stories of communities coming together in the face of wild storms, close calls, beautiful vistas, and what our weather tells us about who we all.

One of many KHC programs, Water/Ways focuses on the impact of water (and by extension, weather) on our history, traditions, daily lives, and in the face of climate change, our very future. Such programs also bring together communities, helping us find the essential dialogue, diversity, and unity that is the bedrock of democracy.

Now a wild storm is threatening all of America, especially far-flung rural areas where there is little to no funding for arts and humanities programs except from state humanities councils. With the current U.S. president calling for eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities, programs like the one I just did, that bring together people to share stories of hard-won wisdom and emerging visions, would vanish. As well, we would lose initiatives such as KHC’s “Migration Stories” on the experience of Africans in Midwestern communities, “Freedom of Speech in Kansas” on the importance of free speech,  “FLIKS” promoting short documentaries on unique stories in our state, a vibrant speaker’s bureau, a long-standing book discussion program that has reached people in every corner of the state, and the state poet laureate program (which is completely funded by private donors).

I’ve had the honor of being roving scholar with KHC since 1994, as a book discussion leader, speaker’s bureau presenter, and the 2009-13 Kansas poet laureate. Living in a 400-mile-wide state, I’ve rambled many miles to talk about everything from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars, books that give us intimate portraits of American history, from African-American communities in the Everglades in the 1920s (Huston), to Japanese-American communities before, during and after internment in the 1940s (Guterson). Such discussions help all of us grapple with our collective identity as Americans.

I’ve driven through snowstorms and ecstatic displays of lighting, up and down the Flint Hills by starlight, and across the high plains on startlingly bright mornings to meet Kansans of all ages eager to talk about what the humanities tell them of how to live with greater verve and meaning. In traveling far and wide to also talk about books with Jewish content, such as Alfred Kazin’s Walker in the City, I’ve shared traditions and history of my own faith, and by extension, participated in powerful interfaith dialogues about life and literature.

I’m a humanities scholar because I believe in face-to-face dialogue, community-building that includes many perspectives, and intergenerational exchanges about lessons learned or ahead of us. I love how humanities councils enable us to mek connections between urban and rural residents, and people of various faiths, ethnicities, and histories so that we can truly engage in forming “a more perfect union,” as stated in the preamble to our constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

To keep forming that more perfect union–along with safeguarding justice, tranquility, liberty, and yes, even prosperity–we must save the humanities, which provide us the gathering ground to more deeply understand our birthright along with ways to learn how to better be true to ourselves and our communities.

If you believe in the humanities–in other words, please contact your legislators today. Here’s a link to find contact information. And join us at humanities programs wherever you live: here’s a link to find your state humanities council. It’s so easy to tear down programs that give us greater vision, and so hard to build such programs. Let’s not lose what helps makes us more human.