NaPoWriMo 2020 – Day 7: Lenting

Today’s National Poetry Writing Month prompt asks us to use a news headline as a jumping off point. I chose to go with the one about the chap giving up solid food (and subsisting on beer only) for Lent this year. Enjoy:

**
The body aches
for absolution,
for forgiveness
from the weight
brought by past seasons
of surfeiting,
the man I carry
around my waist.
So I offer this,
a libation of liquid
to quell the sounds
of my inner monolouge.

Poetry As Therapy: A Brief Listening (and Reading) List

My grand plan for Lent this year was to post a poem a day using the Church of England’s #LiveLent reflections as a jumping-off point,  but life happened (we lost G and then went into a full COVID-19 related shutdown) and I ended up stuck on 17 days. Poetry as prayer seemed like a good idea given the difficult season of faith I was in, in which prayer felt alien. It is not an entirely novel idea as I found out with more than a few essays reflecting on the subject, two examples being these excellent pieces at Talking Writing and The Millions. There is a rich history of the poetic form in various religious writing and in their associated rites; some might even argue that the enduring allure of the King James Version of the Bible has more to do with the cadence of its words than anything else. Come to think of it, the Psalms sometimes read like the brain dumps of a conflicted person, like transcripts of therapy sessions.

Whatever arguments for or against prayer one might make, anything which helps us wrestle with our deepest darkest pains and the weight of life has its merits and given what the world is dealing with at the moment, we all need that in some shape or form. In a sense it is therapy.

Fortuitously, April is National Poetry Writing Month, and the daily prompts from NaPoWriMo.net have helped me get back to writing again which has led me down the rabbit hole of finding (and revisiting) various projects related to poetry as therapy. A brief list though, so feel free to point me in the direction of any others in this vein. Enjoy.

  1. Poetry Unbound (Pádraig Ó Tuama/ On Being): From the podcast description – “Immerse yourself in a single poem, guided by Pádraig Ó Tuama. Short and unhurried; contemplative and energizing”. My personal favourites include episodes featuring Joy Harjo,  Faisal Mohyuddin and Leanne O’Sullivan. Pádraig Ó Tuama’s Poets.org archive is also worth a read.
  2. Lifelines (Malcolm Doney and Martin Wroe): From the podcast description – “A poem a day through Lent.  A poem read by the poet and followed with a moments reflection on where the poem came from … and where it’s going.” It all began from a book which is also worth a read.
  3. The Poetry Pharmacy (William Sieghart): The book and the Intelligence Squared conversation are worth every dime and every second spent not least for the range of emotions they cover and the stellar cast that discussed the book on the Intelligence Squared conversation. A second edition of the book is in print, as is an actual (physical) store.
  4. Steph Burt’s TED Talk Why People Need Poetry: “We’re all going to die — and poems can help us live with that.”

NaPoWriMo 2020 Day 5 – Morning

For Day 5 of National Poetry Writing Month, the prompt is to write something aligned with “Twenty Little Poetry Projects,” originally developed by Jim Simmerman. Here goes (very loosely interpreted):

***
The sun parts
the curtain of the night
its light like a knife
cutting through the crust
of bleary eyes.

In its wake comes
the sound of birds waking –
a mellifluous melody
and tribute to the
muscle memory of
the cycle of life
and time.

A reminder that
as day follows night
you’ll get through.

NaPoWriMo 2020 – Day 3: Live Anyway..

For Day 3 of National Poetry Writing Month. Today’s prompt is to make a list of ten words, and use Rhymezone to build a bank of words for use in a poem.. Here goes.

***
Without a care
the sparrow flits
between the trees
oblivious of the need
to fret for bread
or bed but returns
each day to its nest,
its place of rest
from the coming
and the going –
from first light
to the gloaming –
and the cycling
of the seasons
as they decay;
birth and death,
being and becoming.

The heart bears
the weight of anxiety,
the pressure
of the need
to sate the thirsts
of the body
and the soul
for touch
and for knowing
and the gnawing pain
of failing and falling
and doubting.

In the end
we trade the caul
first for a shawl
and then the shroud
of dissolution.
So live anyway.

NaPoWriMo2020 – Day 2: Place

Place, for NaPoWriMo2020 Day 2, the prompt being to write a poem about a place. My old house on the corner of 3rd and 39th with its stubborn grass and red earth came to mind. I miss it! 

***
I carry your memories in my heart,
the bright tint of your red earth
whipped to fine dust
by the Harmattan wind,
the whistle of your tall pines,
the smell of your freshly cut grass
in the aftermath of mowing.
I remember the sound of cocks crowing
the call of the muezzin, piercing
the morning air like a knife
and cherish the memories
of small things, of peace,
of beauty and of simple days.

NaPoWriMo2020 – Day 1: Peeling

And so in the midst of all that’s broken in the world, its Day One of National Poetry Writing Month for 2020. Today’s prompt is to write a self-portrait poem in which you make a specific action a metaphor for your life. My choice is life as peeling onions.

***
When it all
falls apart,
like a ball
of yarn
slowly unravelling,
the wind whispers
in my ear: this is
how life is,
an onion, complex
in its layers
each hiding and
being hidden,
drawing tears
as its juices
released in
a flash rise.
In the stinging
we remember
the promise
of savoury things
where in the present
bland things lie.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #4: On Woolf on Cavendish

This week’s assignment offered a choice of character depictions. I opted to go with reviewing Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, The Duchess of Newcastle, from The Common Reader First SeriesIts subject is Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle. I very much enjoyed getting to learn about her. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

***

It is difficult to come away from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the life of Margaret Cavendish with anything but a sense of admiration for the person the Duchess of Newcastle was: a libertarian who lived life on her own terms, a prodigious thinker, prolific writer and designer, all-round force of nature and perhaps proto-feminist. What is even more remarkable about her life is the context within which it was lived, times which seen from the lofty, enlightened heights of our 21st-century sofas seem like the dark ages. Given the latitude to explore and later express a non traditional interpretation of the roles of daughter and wife by both her mother and husband, we get the sense that virtually every thought she had was encouraged and articulated in some shape or form with no attempt to self-censure. It helped perhaps that there were no children to encumber her free spirit. Given Virginia Woolf’s own life and character – and reputation for being a free spirit of sorts too  – the largely positive portrayal here does beg the question of objectivity given the tendency in all of us to eulogise those who inspire us and worship them as heroes.

How then could one look to build a balanced, more nuanced view of her life and work? As a starting point, one could perhaps look to see what the opinions of her contemporaries were. The consensus appears to be that she was considered a maverick of sorts, an assessment which lives on in her ‘Mad Madge’ nickname. What we know of the societal context and the social mores of the time suggest that this assessment errs on the more negative side of Virginia Woolf’s. No surprise there as even in our day those who benefit from societal power structures tend to take a dim view of non-conformists as mavericks and upstarts. That this is the view which survives is thus a backhanded compliment of sorts and casts a positive light on her legacy.

A second task would be to ascertain how much of her work survives in the various archives. A search in the national archives website identifies over 700 items which suggest that there was enough interest in her work to preserve it. Tracking down a few of these works and where they are stored would constitute a valuable activity, both for the works themselves but also the prestige of the collections which house them. That her life and legacy are the subject of a number of ‘serious’ academic investigations is also another indicator of the heft of the ideas which she espoused.

A third prong to the investigation would be to attempt to assess what debt current thinkers and philosophers owe to her by how much she is referenced and how ideas she raised have been incorporated into their works.

My belief is that each of these prongs taken together would help build a composite picture of the life of the Duchess of Newcastle. From the little I have seen already, I am beginning to side with Virginia Woolf.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…