On or about April 1, the sixth issue of Quiltfolk is coming soon, everyone. The bad news is that you still have to wait a little bit; the good news is that she’s the best-yet issue of Quiltfolk and I’m honored to be a part of the team. It’s cool if you watch this teaser video like nine times while you wait for your copy of Issue 06 : Arizona. Friends, you will not believe what we found when we went to the desert to investigate quilts. Wow, wow, wow.
Hold onto your cowboy hats.
p.s. How about those red glasses on the blonde chick with the notebook?? I’m into it.
Memorial Day is often referred to as “the unofficial first day of summer.” Memorial Day was Monday and I suppose there is a sense of a changing of the guard, seasonally-speaking, but the actual first day of summer isn’t until June 20th. Seeing as it’s only the first of the month, we are very much still in spring. Officially.
I’m in no rush: Spring is my favorite season. The world gets washed in spring and after winter, we sorely need it. The smell of wet leaves, soaked garden beds, damp bark — that loamy, vegetal smell makes my heart break. I welcome the breaking. All over the city, the flowers are tender explosions that line the slicked streets and I don’t care that my sandals squish as I walk along. I’m alive.
On the way to the airport at 5 a.m. last weekend, riding the El, you cannot believe the sky I saw. A storm was coming in from the west making the sky a deep sapphire blue, almost purple around the edges. But the sun was coming up over the lake behind us and suddenly, all the metal storage warehouse buildings along the Orange line route were bathed in gold, dripping with the gold light of that early spring sun. The dark heaven behind them threw each bright square into even sharper relief. It took my breath away. Not even Monet could’ve captured what I saw through my train window. Only spring can deliver that kind of beauty in the first place.
Spring has a good reputation. It’s been known to inspire all kinds of things. Lovers. Poetry. Music. Hope.
If you need any of those things, if you need to rely on any of Spring’s gifts — pea shoots, caterpillars, rhubarb pie, breezes singing through your bedroom window, peonies — you can. Spring told me.
In the slam poetry world, there’s a famous saying: “The points are not the point. The point is poetry.”
This is usually said when a good poet gets beat by a bad one (something that happens with fair frequency in competitive performance poetry.) It’s kind of a “Better luck next time, buddy” thing to say, a condolence. But it’s also said because it’s true. The saying actually does get at the heart of the poetry slam. The idea behind the whole thing from the start was to get people to engage more directly and viscerally with poetry; who scored what or which poet won the night was never supposed to matter very much. (Note: When you’re the poet who won the night, it matters a lot.)
The picture up there is a process shot of my first-ever attempt at making a Bethlehem Star. The Bethlehem Star is an eight-pointed patchwork star and is notoriously tricky to pull off. For those who don’t do patchwork, it may look like I made this in the dark while drinking adult beverages, possibly blindfolded; the quilters out there will be able to see that I obviously just haven’t sewn together my eight “prongs,” yet. (Nor have I trimmed my dog-ears.) If I can get this post written in the next twenty minutes or so and still have some juice left, I’m going to try sewing it all together tonight and I might even try to cut my side pieces.
But quilters and non-quilters alike, take a look at those diamonds. The ones within one prong of the star. They’re not great. They’re not bad, but there are some jumps and some zig-zags, some places where the tips of the diamonds don’t kiss.* I may find that these eighth-of-an-inch imperfections add up to big problems by the time I go to set in my side pieces, and at that point, I’ll maybe have to un-sew things and make them fit better. I’m okay with that. I like to sew things accurately not because I’m a perfectionist or because I’m fussy, but because sewing is much more fun if you don’t have to keep fixing everything as you go along. Best practices make the process much more enjoyable overall.
However: If I find that my prongs work out and my set-ins work out, too, those not-perfect diamond points suit me fine. Because the points are not the point. The point is the quilt.
The point is the quilt.
I would rather have a quilt that I love, that is actively being made imperfectly, than a “perfect” quilt sitting in a box in my house, or a quilt that isn’t getting any love up there on the design wall. The points are not the point. My life is the point. The fabric that love, that’s the point. The quilt that I make that I will probably give to someone I love, that’s the point.
What else is there?
*Who ever said quilting wasn’t sexy? Ours is a world where diamonds kiss.
So it’s been over a year since I lived in Washington. Remember all that? Go back to November 2014 (you can click on the archives filter and get to it fastest that way) and read all about it. Heartbreak, unrest, rats. Cold.
I was looking for another poem for another reason and remembered that I wrote this one and never shared it. It’s called “A Brief: Washingtonian” and I rather like it. The meter does stay consistent throughout but you have to practice to get the emphasis on the proper word in some of the verses. (Believe me, I know; I worked on this a long time!)
I hope you enjoy this poem. It’s pretty melancholy but it’s also meant to be sort of sweet.
A Brief: Washingtonian
by Mary Fons (c) 2015
From my art deco castle, I surveyed the land The rivers, the sidewalks, Msr. L’Enfant’s plan; The rain days were my best days; I felt kingdom come; Connecticut Avenue an elephant’s trunk; I signed the thick lease on December the First, And I lived in that city and I watched from my perch.
When crinoline petticoat clouds would descend And wring out the water that they’d been washed in, The valley would deepen right in front of my eyes; I loved every tree and miss the mist so: It sifted the raindrops and slicked all the leaves, And I’d watch from my throne with a hot cup of tea.
“You live in Washington?” the people would say, “But how did you get there? and why would you stay?” (I slouched there in sadness, cast out of Chicago And New York left a rotted taste in my mouth; When I fell in D.C. I hit the ground gently; Not something you count on when you fall accidentally.)
Sovereign Washington straddles two states: The first offers mountains and wrought iron gates That open to Arlington’s coveted park; I saw storms roll in during burials there; Boys keep on dying; girls at graves must remain — Virginia’s for lovers and lovers love the rain.
The other half lives where Baltimore stays; For Maryland’s only the Beltway away; Colonist gentry ate plenty of land, But the pushed, angry fringes refuse to go silent; Molotov cocktails still light the sky, We’ve two hundred years of the Fourth of July.
Old Gore Vidal said that D.C. was dead; All of those legends in a rose garden bed; All the past generals we’re ordered to owe; Fathers who stand after years in the ground; All of these corpses, cemented in stone And we visit them, worship them, celebrate bones.
Young men in bowties walk to work on the Hill; Scotch-swilling yes-men have secrets to spill; They quench and they drench blue blazer lapels, They pinch all the a**es in reach of their booth; What hath the rules wrought, what shall become Of a nation divided, of the coming undone.
Still the hovering District has life stuffed inside; Buses and restaurants serving the tide Of young men and women with audible smiles; Lives here are mixed every way that can mean; Art anchors the landscape from border to line; Within days of arrival, I claimed all as mine
And furnished my life there and tastefully, too; My gorgeous appointment near the National Zoo; I mixed high and low and the ending result Was a chamber at once both cozy and gilded; I worked there and cooked there and looked at my hands I slept there and kept there and made all sorts of plans.
Then confused, I felt moved to leave D.C. behind; I could tell all the reasons, but oh, nevermind; I heid back to Chicago, the prodigal daughter; Welcomed, embraced, she never stopped loving me; My loyalty lives there — now returned, so do I, I was never much more than a Washington spy.
In May, cherry blossoms kiss rows of trees; I missed them that year (typical me); I’ll visit them, though, sometime in the future And try to remember what I needed that year; I’ll touch the perfume and I’ll be okay — And I’ll walk through the orchard, queen for a day.
A lemon’s a tragic figure, And we’ve all got juice on our hands; Without wish to understand it, We make lemony demands.
We clamor for slices and wedges, Ne’er valuing his or her whole — Unless there’s food to squeeze it on, A lemon rots within th’ bowl.
“Water with lemon,” we oft request; “Lemon with my fish!” While lemon must quell its agony And roundly reject the wish
To feel fingers peel away Its pockmarked, pithy skin, Exposing tender fruit meat, Poised to drip down someone’s chin.
Nay, this has never happened; (A lemon hardly peels!) Instead it’s razed into sour wafers With no regard to how that feels.
Tabbouleh, pound cake, salad dressing All need a touch of tart; For the chef to achieve th’ flavor profiles, It’s tang they must impart.
‘Course they won’t then toss the lemon in To whatever dish they serve; The lemon’s tossed into the bin, (The callousness, the nerve!)
But Lemon knows they cannot do it — It’s accepted this as fact; It has no life beyond a garnish, The squirt its closing act.
For when we choose a fruit to eat The lemon has no place; It offers only pain to man — It’s written on his face.
Lemon plays the outfield, always Never pitcher, never hitter, Forever weeping acid tears; And you wonder why it’s bitter.
*Hello! I thought I’d post a recently revised and updated version of The Lemon’s Lament tonight. Whenever life seems a bit on the bewildering side, writing fruit poetry makes everything better. This is an actual fact of honest truth in my life. Read this one aloud to someone you love who is nearby: husband, girlfriend, cat, plant! All of ’em at once!
Last week, my “Literary Animal” workshop — can you tell that I really love this class? — left the classroom to take a field trip across the street to the museum. Our assignment: Wander through the hallowed halls and be inspired by an animal in a work of art. From there, we were to write something. Sounds easy enough, right? Sure, except that writing something good is hard, even if — especially if? — it includes some cute little monkey on a Chinese vase dated 610 B.C.
The class fanned out once we were inside. Where did I go? Straight downstairs to Decorative Arts, of course. I thought I might find a cool animal carved into an ash sideboard from 1802, or maybe some jade rabbit on a chair.
I found those and more. There are so many animals in the things we make and paint and carve. We live in a world with animals and they show up, let me tell you. It’s really neat when you go looking for something and realize it’s all around you all the time (e.g., love, generosity, cats, etc.) But though I found lots of animals, nothing stopped me in my tracks until I saw Winslow Homer’s “Croquet Scene,” painted in 1866.
And there’s no animal in it.
Why do we respond to art? Why is it that sometimes, something just clicks into place when we see a painting or hear a song or see a quilt at a show and sometimes, we get nothin’. When I turned my head and saw that painting, my heart and brain flooded with understanding, familiarity, and something close to kinship.
It’s the woman. Do you know what I thought when I saw her? I thought — and this is basically verbatim thought process, here — “She hates where she is. She loathes croquet. She wants to go home. She’s newly married and is alienated from the family she married into. She’s looking at a field mouse and she wishes she were him.”
The animal in the picture isn’t in the picture. But that little field mouse is real.
So I decided to write about that. I tried some prose but I hated it. I decided to do a poem. But what kind? My approach was to do research on the time period and see what sort of poems were popular in 1866 when this picture was painted. I’ll spare you details of the legwork, but I will tell you that Helen Hunt Jackson was a poet popular at that time and I found a one-verse poem by Jackson with a fascinating (read: hard) rhyme scheme: ABABBACBADDADAA.
I know, right?? The prose might’ve been easier in the end. But nope: I went for it, and I’m so glad I did. I really love this little poem, even though it will continue to be polished. I do feel that I captured my heroine’s black mood and her longing for a simpler life. Like, real simple. Field mouse simple. Don’t you feel that way, sometimes?
The Field Mouse Inspired by Winslow Homer’s Croquet Scene, 1866.
(c) 2016 by Mary Fons
I’ve seen him twice, now, run past the ball
Near wicket three on th’ flattened grass
Of this scorching lawn. As we shift and stall
And wait for Ben to make his pass,
That nimble field mouse, cool and fast,
Dips through shade, finds waterfall;
I’d give my life to trade with him.
The petticoats and primers, yet another looking glass,
— Ben’s mother’s high tea protocol! —
Oh, for a tail and four silent feet
To streak as lightning through golden wheat
And leave behind this game and all
The family I must rise to meet.
We kings of beasts are mannered, tall—
But field mouse is free, if small.
I ought to be in bed already, but I went to see the Moth Storyslam on the south side and instead of getting the ride I thought I was getting, I rode a Divvy bike all the way home. It took about 45 minutes and when I got home, I was wired and hungry. Now I am tired and full of ice cream.
So tonight, a poem about what it’s like to ride a bike on the lakefront path in Chicago. Oh, the hours and hours of my life I have spent doing this. There’s nothing like it. (If you’re in love, it’s even better, but tonight I’m living proof that you don’t have to be in love to enjoy it.)
This poem is very old. I still perform it. But it’s probably circa 2006. I don’t split my lines up like this anymore; I had a thing with slashes at the time.
See you in Winterset.
THE BICYCLE POEM
bicycles are universal/but they are made for girls/they fill the space
some rock the basket/some ring the bell/some race/some ditch the Schwinn for the 21 speed/gotta get there mama/playing the fuel/the engine and transmission on metal thoroughbreds wrapped ‘round with rubber/we learned this as kids but these days it’s better/coming up on your left side
I think/therefore/I ride.
and there is another dimension/where it is always July/and I am always 25/pedaling fast on the lakefront path/grass stains on my knees/handfuls of skirt at my waist/ribbons laced between my fingers and kissing potential lit up on my lips
this is how I would come to you/so many nights in summer/you would get me/panting/at your door/but you never saw what came before I rang your bell/that was mine darling/the stillness at high speeds/the breeze that blew through me/waves that licked the shores on my left/trees with leaves like so many fans formed a canopy/tanned skin and bleached bone moved my bicycle toward you/two hearts leapt when I arrived/but I fell in love on the journey/one rotation at a time.
girls/ride to lovers and pick your dimension
the night sky/the skyline/lampposts at attention
give of your mind/your heart and the like
but ladies/when you get there:
I’ve written and rewritten this post three times. It’s too special, I’m too excited, and as a result, nothing is coming out right. That’s ironic, because the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) thinks I’m good enough at writing to let me into their Writing MFA program this fall. By then, I’d better have my act together because I’m officially enrolled.
It’s been terrible keeping this secret; I got my acceptance letter in March. Claus was here, and when I opened the envelope and saw the good news, it was like I had a rocket pack on. Claus caught me and spun me around and around.
I waited to tell you because I wanted to share this properly. It’s a big deal, and not just because the SAIC is one of the finest educational institutions in the world, which it is. It’s a big deal because my life is changing with this. I engineered it that way, really; one day last fall when I was in Iowa to film TV, I burst into tears in the middle of my mother’s kitchen and admitted to myself that I wanted to study writing. I couldn’t deny it any longer and I began to research grad programs that very day. It became clear right away that the SAIC was the only school for me. I didn’t apply anywhere else.
So, the Art Institute of Chicago is the big, famous art museum downtown with the cool lions out front. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago actually started first, way back in 1866. The art the founders collected for students to study became the museum.
At the SAIC, a grad student can study textile art, performance, art therapy, art restoration, sculpture, painting, arts journalism, art history, interior architecture, writing — there are other departments I’m not thinking of. What’s extraordinary about the SAIC (one of the many, many extraordinary things) is that they encourage interdisciplinary study. They want performers to take sculpture classes. They want writers to take textile arts classes. They are legendarily good at educating creative people because they understand how creative people learn (i.e., by doing, usually by doing many things that appear unrelated.)
I submitted portfolios to Writing, Textile Art, and Performance. I had all the materials for each program because my entire life is interdisciplinary. But I wanted writing. I decided that if I got into textiles or performance, I wouldn’t go. Even if I could take writing classes while technically studying fiber arts or stage stuff, it wasn’t enough. I wanted to be a Writing MFA candidate. From there, I could study my other loves. And I got my first choice. So now, I can.
The School has a longarm in the Textiles department. What will my quilts become, now that I’m going to be in art school? What might it mean to use quilts in, say, a one-woman play? Will I write a quilter’s memoir? Will I create my own poetry magazine and if I do, will there be patchwork quilts on the cover? I’ll tell you that if I make a poetry magazine, there most certainly will be quilts on the cover. These are the sorts of synergies that are sure to occur when I begin school. I cannot wait. I am counting days.
My job is not one you quit — and I have no intention of doing so. I’ve got teaching and speaking gigs scheduled into 2018. New fabric is coming out in a few months. The Quilt Scout is going strong, I’m making quilts like crazy, I’m working on a pattern project, I’m curating a quilt exhibit at Spring Quilt Festival, I’m on the board of the Study Center. My career in the quilt world isn’t going anywhere — but it is changing (you’ll see me less on TV, for example.) But you watch: these changes will be nothing short of wonderful. You’ll see it all happen, right here. (Psst: it’s all for you, anyway.)
I’m scared. It’s so expensive. I’m taking out loans. It’s two years. It’s gonna be hard. But if I don’t do it now, when?
Guess what?! I’m taking Spanish lessons this summer! Chica de Papel is “Papergirl” in Espanol!
Truth be told, I kinda want to learn French more than Spanish but here’s what I’m good at: making soup. Here’s what I’m not good at: foreign languages. When I think about sitting in a desk in Beginner French: Level 1 my scalp gets itchy. It’s too big of a leap. I figure I can prime my pumps with Spanish, see how I do, and then maybe approach French in a couple years. The bonus is that I’ll learn Spanish along the way! I love words and Spanish has a lot of pretty ones.
Plus, I’ve got training wheels because I took Spanish in high school like everyone else and I had enough Italian in college to order a caprese salad and say it right. (It’s pronounced ca-PRAY-zay, not ca-PREESE and that’s a fact.) When Claus and I were going to go to Peru, I surprised myself with how many palabras en espanol I remembered. I head into my 12-week course feeling like I’ve got enough of a basic idea of masculine/feminine agreements, pronouns, and those verbs’ conjugal visits to achieve success — and I think we can all agree “success” means me annoyingly using Spanish words all over my posts for awhile until I get it out of my system. ¿Qué esperas? La clase es muy caro.
What’s incredible is that this is happening at all. I’m never, ever home for long enough to do stuff like this. Why take a course in something if you’re going to have to miss four of the twelve classes for work? Pottery, hang-gliding, the art of Ethiopian cuisine — the bounty of classes and continuing education offered by Chicago often feels impossible for me to access. Well, this summer, I’m at the mesa. (That’s “table” in Spanish! I’m speaking Spanish!!)
And all of you, my flamencos elegantes y exitosos (my graceful and accomplished flamingos) will be my accountability partners. Don’t let me be squishy on this Spanish class thing. Check up on me. Make sure I’m doing my homework. I’m sure I’ll have lots of good cuentos to tell you and I apologize in advance for the silly poems I’ll write to practice my vocabulary. I can’t wait to write them, though.
There were fish, sharks, fish, strange plants, and 1.5 millions of gallons of water at the aquarium. In response to the Shedd, I’d like to post a poem I worked out this summer. It’s longer than most of my poems, but I hope you will read through it today and when someone asks you, “Did you read any poetry this week?” You can say, “Yes, I did.”
I much prefer a mountain range, which strikes me as more traversable; The ocean just strikes you with waves.
The “treasures of the sea,” to me, Are going silver (such foolish gold) Not proof of some grand, courageous adventure, Just wet and old.
We are to find an endless blue (or anything endless) a reflecting pool? This is madness and all madness should frighten you.
For lurking under sunset fire, just beyond the lovers’ sighs Are beasts with coal black eyes blind with only one own-only mind: survive
And longer than you, laughs the whale; Killer, indeed, and with a tail to crush you, As you clap and wave and save your photo.
All combers, Mind the suck down — that human-sized sucking sound; So much chum and lunchmeat now, First for the mighty maw that spied you (what’s red and white and red rolled over?) Blood becomes you ‘till you’re dispersed in that vast, mast-hungry pool adrift on the waves that lulled you Back when Cabo was not the site of your grisly end; The fishes catch the tissue last and any flecks of left eye that’s left — Are you finally out of the office
Further below, in depths we cannot fathom deep — translucents sleep Why they wake at all A question we ne’er allow to ask; Preferring such questions as: “Shall we take the pink umbrella, dear?” “Is Carol bringing Jake?”
The sea does not care The sea does not love Carol
But for heaven’s sake!” the swimmers scream, “Death’s not all the ocean! Think of schools and dolphin, Think of shells and oyster feasts!”
A grinning manatee emerging from misty black is a heart attack — You’d mess your pants and your electric fan; And if walls of undulating weeds or tangerine clowns are cool to you Fix them in your mind for five minutes down the line these lives, too, are over;
Such is the lifespan of sea color And what a drag!
The cleverest trick the ocean ever played Was convincing us of her placidity
There’s chaos in the drink — A jungle reversed, inverted earth Primeval monster bedlam, Time and zero memory locked in loggerheaded war; What in heaven’s name are you out there for
The sea does not love you
The sea married herself a long, long time ago and she’s kept a tight ship ever since
See how she takes out the garbage
See how she freezes her food See how she sweeps the floor See how she claps herself on the back, see how she races herself at the shore, one more touch, one more touch, one more touch, one more
Longtime readers will know that I enjoy writing poems about fruit. I can’t know how they truly feel about these poems about fruit, but I do think that if “longtime reader” does in fact describe them, they can’t think they’re too awful. I love, love writing them. Each poem has a different poetic structure (the cherry is getting a sonnet, but guess what: sonnets are hard) and each fruit has a different profile.
If you’re dying to read more, you can find my banana poem here, the lime poem here, and the cantaloupe poem here. If you click the “Poetry” tab in the blog, I’m sure you’ll find the rest of the ones I’ve posted so far.
And now, the latest. I wrote this on the plane ride from Des Moines to DC on Sunday. It just happened! I love it when it just happens. There’s some punctuation I need to iron out and there are always a few tweaks that come after a couple weeks, but for the most part, it’s ready. Fly, little poem!
The Lemon’s Lament
by Mary Fons
The lemon’s a tragic figure, And we’ve all got juice on our hands;
We make no effort to understand it —
Just lemony demands.
We grab dignity-sucking slices and wedges,
Ne’er value it as a whole;
Unless there’s a food to squeeze it on,
The lemon rots within the bowl.
“Water with lemon” we might request,
“Lemon with my fish”;
Lemon’s must divide or stoop to conquer,
And roundly reject their wish
To feel nimble fingers peel away
Bright, pock-marked, pithy skin,
Exposing tender fruitmeat,
Poised to drip down someone’s chin.
Nay, this has never happened,
(A lemon hardly peels!)
Instead it’s sliced into a dozen slices,
With no regard to how that feels.
Tabbouleh, pound cake, salad dressing
All need a touch of tart;
For the chef to achieve these flavor profiles,
Why, it’s tang they must impart —
‘Course they won’t then toss the lemon in
To whatever dish they serve;
The lemon’s tossed into the bin,
(The callousness, the nerve)
But Lemon knows they cannot do so —
Lemon accepts this as a fact;
It has no life beyond a garnish,
The squirt its closing act.
For when we all select a fruit to eat
The lemon has no place;
It offers only pain to man —
It’s written on his face.
Lemon plays the outfield, always
Never pitcher, never hitter,
Forever weeping acid tears;
And you wonder why it’s bitter.
Some time ago I found an image of a children’s book from the 1930’s that began, “A is for Anchor, B is for Boat.” It was so cool the way it went through the whole alphabet, telling a story in rhyme about a child’s ocean voyage. It was a deceptively simple structure; when I messed around with it a little I found it challenging to find an appropriate word to come out to the right number of syllables and rhyme with the next line and keep it all relating to one theme.
So I really wanted to seriously try my hand at something like it but had to put the project aside for awhile. I’ve also been wanting to write on the subject of money. Now that I have a chair to sit in, I picked it up again in my morning writing time. It’s been so fun and as tough as I thought it would be. But I’m finally happy with it after a week of work and I think you’ll like it, too. Read it out loud to a friend — it’s great fun.
A few quick notes:
1. “Regan” is pronounced “REE-gan,” referring to rich King Lear’s daughter.
2. For the letter “P,” you need to use your prurient imagination. I’ve censored the word here but the truth is, the word I chose is the perfect word for that letter and it has to stand. I apologize if you’re scandalized, but in a poem, every word is important.
3. For those uninitiated, “yayo” is cocaine.
Now you really wanna read it, right?? Have fun. I sure did.
Hi, Chicago peeps and anyone who wants to make a pilgrimage for poems and possibly Scotch.
I’m honored to be the feature poet at the legendary Green Mill Cocktail Lounge for the perhaps more legendary Uptown Poetry Slam on May 3rd. That’s a Sunday night. The open mic starts at 7pm, then I do a half-hour of my classics (!), plus new poems and a couple covers, too. If I had more time, I’d absolutely love to do Prufrock, but that would be downright indulgent. After my set it’s time for the slam.
If you’ve never been to the Green Mill for the slam, you have not lived. Oh, I mean it. That’s not hyperbole. There is nothing like the show at the Mill, a blend of poetry, bloodsport, make-you-cry beauty, and possibly Scotch. It’s hilarious. It’s not too long (7pm-10pm, tops), and the Green Mill itself is gorgeous and historical. If it was good enough for Al Capone, it’s good enough for us, right? You could make a night of it and stay for the jazz trio that comes in after the show. And hey, I know many people have dreamed of reading a poem at a microphone. This is your chance.
So come over. Get there early for a seat. I’d like to see lots of friends, of course, old and new. It’s a powerful, humbling thing to have a half-hour at the Mill microphone and I intend to kill it.
Today, a poetry lesson. I promise you will like it and when you are done reading this, you will be smarter and as you roll the poem around in your head, you might even cry the tears you cry when great art pokes you in the eye. I get misty every time I recite this poem at hand; I can’t be the only one.
Here is our text, which is a stand-alone part of a much larger poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. I hesitate to give you the title because it’s terrifying, but here you go:
In Memoriam A. H. H. OBIIT MDCCCXXXIII: 27
I envy not in any moods The captive void of noble rage, The linnet born within the cage That never knew the summer woods:
I envy not the beast that takes His license in the field of time; Unfetter’d by the sense of crime, To whom a conscience never wakes;
Nor, what may count itself as blest, The heart that never plighted troth But stagnates in the weeds of sloth; Nor any want-begotten rest.
I hold it true, whate’er befall; I feel it, when I sorrow most; ‘Tis better to have loved and lost Than never to have loved at all.
By the end there, you surely smiled and thought, “Ah, yes!” or “That’s where that comes from, then!”
Okay, now let’s take a look at this thing. This is my personal analysis, born of reading and re-reading this for the past month as I worked on memorizing it.
In the first stanza, Ten-Ten ask us to consider the prisoner who doesn’t care he’s in prison, or the bird (linnet = bird) who is in a birdcage but doesn’t really mind because she’s never been outside. The man and the bird are like, “Whatever, this is fine.” Tennyson says he’d rather be a captive psychotically enraged that he’s in jail because he misses his wife or his family; he’d rather be a bird devastated that she’s been trapped, aching for the beauty she knew outside.
In the next stanza, the poet tells us he’d rather be a psycho axe-murderer who has a conscience. To be a psychopath axe-murderer who has no sense of his crimes would be somehow more horrible. As a criminal, it would be far more painful to understand all the horrible things you’ve done, but at least you’d be more human.
And in the third stanza, Ol’ Tenny says that the people who say, “Love! Who needs it! I’d rather be alone and not cry than put myself out there and get stomped. No, no love for me. I’ll just stay inside and have my cheese and crumpets, son.” Well, the poet doesn’t think much of these people. He doesn’t want to be like them because they suck.
No, in the fourth stanza, our narrator tells us just what he wants — and he second line is the one that makes my chest ache every time because it’s this aside. He’s making his point and he pauses to say, “And look, I feel this way even when I’m in it, even when the breakup is happening, even when she says she doesn’t love me anymore, even when I miss her, even when I sorrow most — even then…”
You don’t need me to analyze the last two lines. You understand him, don’t you.
My intention is to post on the ol’ PG at least six times a week and usually do. The past couple weeks have been a little thin, though I think I’m back in the saddle. The trouble is not that I haven’t had anything to say: I have too much.
I’m soaked with words lately. Work is going along, I’ve been traveling, etc., but my nose has been poked into a book at every opportunity. The 250-page journal I began two months ago is nearly out of pages. Poetry has been coursing through my veins. I’ve re-memorized Eliot’s Prufrock and have been reciting it as I tidy up the house or wheel my luggage to the train. I brushed up all my Parker. I’m planning to pull out my favorite Philip Larkin pieces and make sure I’ve got them down pat and I’m 90% on my favorite James Dickey poem, The Sheep Child. (Read that instead of the paper tomorrow morning. You’ll weep into your Cheerios and it will be totally worth it.)
I could be satisfied by the presence of these gems in my head. But those words have company, however shabby; I’m turning out new poems at a clip I haven’t seen for years. I don’t believe in writer’s block, and the concept of some hot muse coming to see you (or not) is for entertainment purposes only. But I’m the first to admit that sometimes the poetry is with thee, sometimeseth iteth noteth. Trying to force poetry is like trying to force yourself to paint a beautiful portrait. You can only do the best you can do: it’s either there that day or it isn’t, and even a lifetime of technique may not save you. So you wait and hope you have a few more portraits in you.
If I were a full-time writer, I think I’d go absolutely nuts. If the full-time living in my head didn’t kill me, the poverty would. But I think about Scottish poet William Soutar a lot. He was going about his life, doing his thing, making big plans. He loved poetry so much and wrote it when he could. Well, when he was around thirty, he was diagnosed with spondylitis, a disease that would paralyze him and render him bedridden for the rest of his life.
When he got the diagnosis, Soutar stood a moment and then said, “Now I can be a poet.” He didn’t have any excuses anymore. He was free to do what he needed to do.
A song on the radio mentioned a motorcycle and it reminded me of something in a galaxy far away.
In 2004, I went on a slam poetry tour of the west coast. My friend Ezekiel went, too; he went to protect me (Ezekiel Brown is an imposing fellow with a heart of gold) and he filmed the whole thing, too, all the way from Portland down to L.A. That there is footage of this adventure makes me wistful, curious, and horrified all at the same time, which is an interesting emotional experience. I’ve been out of the slam scene for so long, I’m not sure if folks are still doing tours like these, but in the early aughts, it was a hot thing to do. They weren’t lucrative; you ended up spending money, not making it, because travel cost a lot and you’d only make a couple hundred bucks at the gigs, if that. But what fun, what fun.
Ezekiel and I were in San Francisco. I had done my set at a slam and it must’ve gone well because we were in a celebratory mood. We went to a bar on the Haight. I was a tender twenty-four. Can you believe it? I’m sure I was wearing ripped jeans and an army jacket, talking about originality, spirituality, and all the other alities twenty-somethings talk about with zero authority and fiery conviction.
Then he walked in.
You could put a book of Alan Ginsburg poems to my neck and I wouldn’t be able to tell you his name but I remember exactly what he was wearing: leather motorcycle gear, top to bottom. Not Harley Davidson motorcycle, but like, drag racing motorcycle stuff. Motocross, is it? I don’t know, but he was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in my entire life. Tousled sandy hair. Two-day beard scruff. He looked like freakin’ ad for Gucci cologne, all sleepy grin and swagger. Sex, okay? He looked like sex.
“Ezekiel!” I hissed. “Good jumping Jehoshaphat…! That man is beautiful.” (Pretty sure “jumpin’ Jehoshaphat” were not the words I used at that moment.) Ezekiel looked at me. I was not a strumpet; there was something different happened, something crazed in my eye. “I dare you to go talk to him,” Ezekiel said. “Double dog dare.” I watched the man sit at the bar and melted into a pool of butter. After the rest of my pilsner and Ezekiel’s goading, I did go talk to him.
I marched right up to that fellow and lord knows what I said, but I did something right, because before too long, we were having a pleasant conversation. I would steal glances back at Ezekiel with huge eyeballs and point to the guy and be like, “Can you?? Are you??? Holy Haight Ashbury!!!” Motocross Guy was nice. He wasn’t terribly smart, but at twenty-four, neither was I; really, we were perfectly matched.
The night passed into the hour where decisions are made. Motocross Guy asked me did I want to come to his place for a drink. Yep. Let’s do it. I checked in with Ezekiel, who was summarily impressed that I had just successfully picked up someone at a bar. (I’ll have you know this was the one and only time in my life I have done this, not only because I can say I’m battin’ 1000, but also because I doubt I top this experience, ever.)
We walked outside. “Here,” he said, handing me his motorcycle helmet. “Put this on.” It had not occurred to me that a man in full motorcycle gear was dressed that way because he had arrived on a motorcycle. But there his bike was, beautiful, parked right there in front. The machine was pure testosterone. Slick, fast, hot — kinda like him. He got on the bike and told me to get on and hold onto him. Before I could take a breath, we peeled out of the parking spot and sped into the San Francisco night.
Not all cities are beautiful, but San Francisco is a jewel. If you’ve ever been to there, you know it is a city of hills. Those hills mean village lights shine from shelves below and above you; the Bay is endless and the Golden Gate watches over all the good citizens. We flew. We climbed up and up, then fast down, zipping around corners and zagging the switchbacks. It was a good thing I was behind the fellow and wearing a helmet because my mouth was hanging open the whole time.
“More! More!!” I shouted. “Can we ride a little longer? Show me more!”
I had never been on a motorcycle in my life, not because I hadn’t had the opportunity. One of my and my family’s dearest friends, Jeremiah, had died in a motorcycle accident at twenty-four. I was twenty at the time, in college, when that had happened. Taking this ride wasn’t just fun and risky, it was a terrifying leap into the life I missed so terribly. It didn’t make sense. It was a stupid, dangerous idea — and one I couldn’t have resisted for anything and still cannot explain.
We got to his place. The evening ran its course. In the morning, I rubbed my eyes and I saw the ketchup packets and the stale Chinese takeout on his kitchen table. These sorts of interactions are not what they’re cracked up to be, you realize, due to the eternal fact that morning follows evening. He offered to take me down to where Ezekiel and I were staying, which was gentlemanly of him. I was so happy I could ride on the back of the bike again, I don’t think I drank the orange juice he gave me.
On the way back, he was showing off and got stopped by a cop for speeding. It was one of the most awkward moments in my life and it might still make his list, too: I hopped off the bike as the policeman came up. Getting a ticket takes time. It was getting late in the day. I didn’t even know this person’s last name; he didn’t know mine. We had no connection to each other, really. I said, “Um, well… Hm. I think… I think the train is over there?” Motocross Guy was like, “Oh… Yeah. Yeah, you don’t have to stick around for this… Um… Well, that was great. I’ll… I’ll see you around.”
He got his license out for the cop and I bought a train ticket and there you go.
I feel so grateful to have a blog. Because I can share stories like this one with more than three people.
If you’ve been reading the past few days, you know I was in Chicago several days over the past week to perform poetry and teach writing workshops in a number of schools. I’m home in DC now, where it is about six degrees warmer. I have named each of those six degrees because I cherish them like I might my very own children.
One of the schools I visited is an affluent one. Real affluent.The parents who send their kids to the school are affluent, the neighborhoods these families live in are affluent neighborhoods, and the school, which is private, is therefore well-heeled by default. It’s breathtaking to see. The student body — remarkably diverse, I’ll note — has in-school yoga classes, an organic lunch program, and all kinds of autonomy in their day, as far as I could tell. On the walls of one hallway, I checked out the art on the walls: there was a sign that said, “All these pictures were made by code!” Meaning that the kids are coding, for one thing, and through their coding are creating fractals on paper. When I was their age, I think we melted crayons between wax paper. And I thought that was great.
There were cups of grapes on trays for the kids in case they needed a snack en route from like, Spanish XVI and microbiology. Did I mention this is a middle school? I have to make sure I say that the students are delightful. They’re engaged, polite, and 100-watt bright, every last one. I’ve been the school many times and it’s a joy, but it’s also disorienting.
At the beginning of my workshops, the teacher in the room will pass out sticky-back name tags so that I can call on the kids by name. Miss Tully (not her real name) was handing them out when a concerned-looking young man raised his hand.
“Miss Tully?” he said.
“I can’t put this name tag on my sweater. This is cashmere.”
I had been looking down at my lesson plan, but upon hearing this my head snapped up. “This is cashmere”? Did that ten-year-old boy just say that he couldn’t put a name tag on his sweater because it’s cashmere? My eyes were big as dinner plates. And the kid was not being a jerk. He’s ten. He was worried his cashmere sweater would get jacked up if he put on his name tag. He’s just doing him.
I’m at Washington, DC’s palatial, awe-inspiring Union Station, waiting for my Amtrak to Richmond, VA. I’m lecturing and teaching tomorrow and very much looking forward to it; not only do I get to earn a living in a soul-affirming way, I get to hang out in Union Station and then take a train for a couple hours, which is neat. I feel a bit lightheaded and dizzy today, but who cares when there is actual gold leaf on the domed ceiling high above my head. If I pass out I’ll get a great visual before everything goes dark.
Next week is almost entirely on the road. QuiltCon approacheth in Austin but before and after that, I’ll be in Chicago doing a number of poetry gigs for high schools and one middle school. In February and April every year there is lots of creative writing programming in schools in the Chicagoland area. You could say I’m on the circuit; I’ve been a visiting writer-performer at these sorts of events for many years, now.
Because I get paid to do them, they are jobs. But barely, because I love them so much. The gigs typically consist of me performing poems and reading stuff I’ve written in a big auditorium; sometimes I teach a workshop or two. There’s one high school I love the best — I feel like I shouldn’t say which one but you know who you are — because the students are incredible and the teachers are fiercely invested in their jobs. When I tried to figure out how many years in a row I’ve been to this particular Writer’s Week, I got pale: I think it’s nine. Nine years has zapped past me? Oh, boy.
Each year I do school poetry/writing gigs — and this goes for all the schools — I try to do something totally different. Last year, I climbed up on a ladder and set a poem on fire. I do a Neo play where I kiss a student (on the cheek) and one year I put on big sunglasses at one point and covered a Lady Gaga song as though it were a poem, which it is. This year, because I’m feeling mortal, I’ve decided to treat the gig at my favorite school as though it were my last ever. I certainly hope it is not, but I asked myself: “If I never got to come back to this school that I love so much, what would I tell these people?”
Giving a physical gift to an audience member makes a huge impact; I learned this from my years as a Neo-Futurist. But I don’t want to give a gift to one person in the audience; I want to give a gift to every last one. So what I’ve done is copy off little cards that say what I would say to these students if I never saw them again. But giving a slip of paper is lame and since I happen to be a quilter with way, way too much fabric in my scrap bag(s), I am stitching fabric to the back of every card (see scan above.) There are, um, thousands of these to be made. I’m about halfway through the stack. After I get back from Richmond, before I go to Chicago, I’m gonna have to race to finish them.
But it’s worth it. I’ll make some tea. I’ll turn on my podcasts. I have a lot of other work to do on Tuesday, but I’ll make it. Not every student will care about these cards, and I know that. Plenty will get tossed in the garbage, which is lousy, but come on: it’s high school.
Sorry I didn’t do a spoiler alert to those students who read PaperGirl. But I promise my “show” will be good and hey, if you care to, you can make a little space in your wallet ahead of time.
Eternally true statements are hard to properly credit. Time is one big VitaMix, chopping, sluicing, pureeing all the words. The phrase, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal,” for example, has been attributed to Pablo Picasso, T.S. Eliot, Stravinsky, Faulkner, and many others. Does it matter who said it? Not really — unless you’re a guy named Joe Smith and you said it and never got credit. That would be kinda sad.
There’s a statement I love that I thought belonged to Mark Twain. He wrote a letter to a friend, the story goes, and said, essentially, “I apologize for the length of this letter; if I had had more time, it would’ve been shorter.” What he meant, of course, is that it takes longer to write tighter, better sentences than loosey-goosey, long, unfocused ones. It takes far more time to put all one’s thoughts onto a single handwritten page than it does to type half those thoughts in a small novel. As it turns out, it may not have been Twain at all who said that; I looked it up and the “shorter letter more time” concept might have come to us by way of our man Blaise Pascal or George Bernard Shaw. Whoever said it, however they did, they were right.
This post is proof. Here’s why.
I rode in a taxi this morning for about thirty-five minutes. The sky in D.C. is grey; it’s a blustery February day, a Monday. In my cab, I craned my neck all around to look at what we were driving past; I’m still soaking in all the places and sights and streets of this town and riding in a taxi is great for sightseeing, for bearing-finding. We drove east on Constitution, and that meant we went right by the Washington Monument, right by the Museum of Natural History, and then we passed the National Gallery, and so many more Beaux-Arts buildings standing white and pristine in the dull, sunless sky.
There was a lot of traffic, so we stopped a lot and for many minutes at a time. Right before the Washington Monument, I looked out the window and saw an extraordinary sight. There was a park on our right, many hundreds of yards from the street. The trees in the park were tall, tall, tall, and spindly — and leafless, of course. They were all skinny and went so high up; they were needles. And deep in the tree line (is that right? the tree line?) was a woman in a well-cut, fine red coat. The shade of the coat was not tomato, nor cherry, nor brick, but cardinal red, so precisely cardinal red that she looked as natural as could be in the trees there, as though she were the bird itself.
I saw her and thought, “She must have a dog.” Because this woman was standing there in the trees and looking up; it would have made sense for her to be waiting for her dog to finish doing its business. But I squinted and saw she had no pet. She was just standing amongst the trees, looking up at the sky, I guess, regarding it. Considering it, all by herself, on Monday morning, near the tallest structure in this entire city. Black birds flew. A car horn sounded. I watched her as long as I could, waiting to see if I could discern what she was doing, standing so still and alone in that park. The cab began to pull forward and I began to lose sight of the woman. Then, the car we got behind was playing a Bob Dylan song loud enough it was like the taxi driver had turned on the radio in our car.
What this post should be is a poem. I should go write a poem about female cardinal, the needle trees, and Bob Dylan; I should work on a poem about the white of the stones in the monuments against the pewter sky in a city I’m falling in love with. But I don’t have time. It would take a long time to write that poem properly. But I can’t do nothing. I can’t forget it. I can’t put it out of my mind. So loosey-goosey it is, PaperGirl is the clearinghouse for my experience this morning.
On this Monday, let us pause for poetry. Have you ever read Elisabeth Bishop’s poems? I’m only now discovering them. Have you ever seen a sandpiper hopping around on a beach? I hadn’t until I read this poem written by Bishop in 1956.
The roaring alongside he takes for granted,
and that every so often the world is bound to shake.
He runs, he runs to the south, finical, awkward,
in a state of controlled panic, a student of Blake.
The beach hisses like fat. On his left, a sheet
of interrupting water comes and goes
and glazes over his dark and brittle feet.
He runs, he runs straight through it, watching his toes.
– Watching, rather, the spaces of sand between them
where (no detail too small) the Atlantic drains
rapidly backwards and downwards. As he runs,
he stares at the dragging grains.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn’t tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,
looking for something, something, something.
Poor bird, he is obsessed!
The millions of grains are black, white, tan, and gray
mixed with quartz grains, rose and amethyst.
“Can I have a another cooky first? You tell long stories.”
“Here. Anything else?”
“Good. Okay, then, PaperGirl. Well, once upon a time, long ago, I wrote a poem.”
“What was it called?”
“I’m getting to it. It was called ‘The Paper Poem,’ and it was an extended metaphor about the nature of existence being fragile like paper, but beautiful, too, like paper is beautiful.”
“Before your time.”
“Oh. Your poem sounds cool, grandma.”
“I liked it. Other people liked it, too, and I performed it in many places all over the country.”
“Like in Bismark?”
“No, never actually in Bismark, I don’t think. Maybe. It was a long time ago. Anyway, there’s a verse where I say ‘I will be your paper girl,’ and that’s where ‘PaperGirl’ comes from.”
“What’s the verse?”
“You want to hear the whole verse?”
“Is it long?”
“No, it’s not long. It’s the second-to-last verse of the poem and it goes like this:
But if you are a paper doll, too, then I shall know you on sight,
And if you are with me, come with me tonight; I will match up our bodies
by the tears in our arms —
We will form paper barricades against matchstick harm;
I will make paper love to you for as long as I can in this shreddable world;
I will be your paper girl.
“That’s nice, grandma.”
“And you named your blog that because of that poem?”
“Yes. And PaperGirl is the name of my LLC, too. And that small island I bought. And the Beaux Arts building you like so much in Paris. And my foundation in Dubai and all the vineyards in Spain. Everything in my empire, it’s all under the PaperGirl umbrella.”
“I wanna go to the zoo and see a rhinoceros.”
“Get your coat.”
[NOTE: I’ve been asked lately why the blog is called what it is, so it seemed fair to offer this again, an entry originally posted on this date.]
At Heather’s house, I’ve been reading from a Dorothy Parker anthology and a book of Emily Dickinson poems. I don’t have much time before we have to leave for the second day of the Quilty shoot (which is going well) but I made a poem in the time I had.
Being in Chicago is hard. I miss this place very much. New York is not taking, I’m afraid. More on that later. For now, a poem about the day I left.
June 1st, 2014
by Mary Fons
We sped down Lakeshore Drive that day —
The train giving way to a taxi drive —
Me and my luggage were whisked away,
Around a quarter to five.
Through grimy windows my eyes did see
Steel and glass buildings standing so sure;
Chicago’s a hard and imposing city,
But its heart is pure.
What have I done to my favoritest lover;
Leaving like this, my purse grabbed in haste;
Off to new visions and a new city’s cover,
What a waste.
For mercy and grace, I shall grovel and beg,
Come June, when weather is fair;
Chicago, lash at at the back of my leg
It proves you care.