Thursday, May 07, 2009
* I will be doing a reading with Elizabeth Kirschner in the fall.---Doug Holder/ Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene founder.
THE RED LINE
By Elizabeth Kirschner
Early morn and my eyes are like gun slits, swollen almost shut from the non-stop torrential weeping I did last night. Too much brain pain. Brain pain that knocks me off my feet, sometimes escalating at the speed of light until I’m hit with a bout of psychosis. Called “episodes” as if they were a popular TV series, I go far away from the world and into one where wolves are devouring my brains or demons are throttling me, choking me halfway to death.
These states of psychic intensity are what have landed me for the past five years in the psych ward behind the red line that’s six feet in front of the locked door that only visitors can cross, not patients. Red line like a goal one must get into in order to win the game. Red line from which I watched my then husband cross and go through the locked door, his shirt a small sail, his posture like that of a wounded God.
My first grand entrance into the psych ward coincided with my first psychic break. I went from being in a state of what I call classical despair, as though it were an art form, into the hellish belief that I was a dust baby, blown hither and yon, then switched in a moment long enough for my demons to snap their fingers, into the violent schema wherein I was wrestling with God in piss and shit in a sewer hole with the lid shut tight.
That first incident, over five years ago, happened on my son’s eleventh birthday. In delirium, I argued with my husband, told him I needed to make the birthday dinner and bake the cake before I would go anywhere. The kitchen knife held a strange allure, something to cut and be cut with, but off I went to the ER, a crazed Madam, a loony-tunes mother and wife.
I had been in just about every emergency room in Boston prior to that December day where the light was so severely cold it felt shrill. Seizures brought me there, seizures which I experienced countless times for four long years before they stopped and the madness erupted. And now, for over five years, the psychotic breaks have occurred, volcanic in nature, way too many times, some of which landed me back in the ER or the psych ward.
The lock-up, the nuthouse. So just what is life like behind the red line? Surely it merits being called an inferno. Surely it’s like living in a void slit in the side of time. It is a kind of incarceration where all the patients are players in a tragedy of Shakespearean proportion. It’s a haunted tunnel in which one hears anonymous screams or a wax museum, each of us rigid with pain. The “us” being a community of dying souls—the demented, tormented thrust into hell holes that are gaping wounds, the only comfort being that there is an “us.” None of us are alone—one patient walks the hallways hours on end, another caves into the lair of despair, still another talks out loud to no one, making elaborate plans—when to get one’s hair done or buy tickets to go to symphony—this “us” is a “we” and thus we share a huge common denominator; we are all touched in the head, a little kooky, or most politely, a bit too eccentric to exist anywhere else except behind the red line.
It’s just one more way of being devastated. That my first hospitalization occurred on my beloved son’s birthday is a heartbreak I will carry until I die. O how I longed to be back in the maternity ward laboring to give birth instead of wanting to create my own demise. How many times have I crowned on the cusp of death wherein the only word I can muster and master is die? I want to orchestrate my own death, I have written or said far too often, my only motto: annihilate the violated because my brand of madness is the result of severe childhood abuse committed by both of my parents. Abuse I buried in a cavern so deep I lived in a coma of unconsciousness that exploded into concussions of consciousness that came not prior to, but after my initial hospitalization. This much I know: abuse is taboo and I have been thoroughly schooled in the drama of trauma and know, as well, what it’s like to be was partially dead in the head for almost five decades.
That day in December I was, of course, in the ER for hours moving in and out of psychosis. Monkeys walked out of walls, a den of lions was ensnared beneath my bed which I told my biologist husband to tell them to go away. He did so, calmly, firmly, but imagine his terror at seeing his Elizabeth gone completely out of her mind.
Late that night I was finally admitted after being given a neurological test, one that I knew by rote from the seizure years. Then came the body check, the patting up and done like a cop searching for weapons. Off came my wedding ring, my good earrings. My hastily packed bag was thoroughly checked for sharps, cords, anything that could do me in even though I was already done in.
I had to wait for hours for my bedtime meds, was put on a new one called Risperadol which was meant to be “psychic glue.” I was just another Humpty Dumpty fallen from the wall and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again, but the new med did. Eons later, I’m now on three times as much of Risperadol and take three tabs of it whenever I have a psychic break and must wait while literally screaming my bloody head off until the drug kicks in. Once I was in a state so severe and prolonged, I downed a dozen tabs, landed in the psych ward again because I had taken an accidental overdose.
The first time I was admitted, voluntarily, I was given a private room, much to my relief. I cried myself to sleep in the wee hours while clutching my son’s favorite teddy bear. This bear has come with me every time I’ve been hospitalized as a kind of surrogate son. That son, as well as my doctor and dog keep me on, however precariously, on terra firma, that is until the next quake of madness hits me putting me once again on the verge of psychic extinction.
In the unit, the keepers and the kept are separated by a tidal abyss. The keepers check the kept every ten minutes round the clock, hand out the meds and make sure they’re taken, take one’s pulse and temperature every morning, have the keys that might let one free, but are used to lock the locked up ones in the shower where razors are verboten. They guard the halls and every morning, precisely at 4:00 a.m., I would awaken, pace the small stretch of hallway between my room and the guards until the community room opened at 6:00. Then I could go make tea, quietly pad back to bed in the flannel nightgown I wore morning, noon and night, and read the mythic Aneid in mythic madness.
The first morning I was there, I paced around the bed, then ended standing up on it, terrified, because I was sure the floor was swarming with poison insects whose bites could kill me. My Dantesque hell realm of insanity has put me in a minefield because I never know when I might land on a one and be blown away in pain so acute my only wish is a death wish.
Life among the deranged has had an equalizing effect. I often saw my agony reflected in someone else’s eyes such that I wanted to give that fellow sufferer a hug, but no touching was allowed in the unit. There are rules to be followed, a very strict list. If a rule was broken, one was sent, like a naughty child, to his or her room for very long time-outs. One man, a tailor, was never allowed to leave his room. He stood in the doorway during all his waking hours like a broken scarecrow and once I was scolded for talking with him. Upon my release, I gave him the rest of my paper and a pencil that I had scribbled fragments of poems on so he could draw suits and dresses. His look of gratitude was so profound I only wanted to sob.
In the lock-up the kept are kept busy by their keepers. One is not allowed was not allowed to stay in bed all day. In the morning we were counted before we could eat breakfast, then we went to groups all day and finally gather in the community room come evening to go round the circle and report one positive thing that had happened that day.
I remember crying a lot. I remember hiding quarters in a sock so I could make calls out on one of the two phones on the ward. I remember staring out the suicide-proof window in my room longing to fall to the pavement below. I was haunted by all the other half-mad, self-destructive poets—Lowell, Sexton, Berryman, Plath—and felt a sort of camaraderie with their ghosts. I felt that same camaraderie with the other patients. We were in it together, all taken out of the world because we were suicidal, crazed, debilitated—in short, not fit for society.
We had our own society. We were colleagues passing each other in the hallway, working together in groups, telling each other the specifics of whatever form of mental illness that kept us behind the red line. Mine was, is Borderline Personality Disorder, a diagnosis I didn’t know until after my release, one that came out of a survey test hundreds of questions long that I took soon after my arrival. It is a mood disorder, biologically-based that’s exacerbated by childhood trauma. One, two years after my first hospitalization, I remembered the primitive, primary truma, that is, of my mother whacking the back of my head with a baseball bat when I was three or four years old. I remember hitting the floor which had black and white tiles like a chessboard, me the pawn, she the ruthless queen holding me in checkmate. Years after that, while in an episode of great intensity, I recalled how my father decapitated my life-size doll in my playhouse, then told me that’s what would happen to me if I didn’t comply with him. These memories and other assorted, horrific ones, buried deeper than deep, are what made my childhood blocked out with blackouts and are what lead me to life behind the red line.
Being suicidal is what kept me in the lock-up. It is a holding tank, a halfway house between life and death, a hang out for lost souls, broken people, a cuckoo limbo. If I know what it’s like to be kept, then Somerville-based poet, Doug Holder, who has worked at a psychiatric hospital in the Boston area for years, knows what it’s like to be a keeper, or more kindly, a caregiver. Hence we share a particular knowledge, the flipped sides of a single coin and plan to give readings together, thus creating a dialogue, a crucial one about what it’s like to be at either end of the spectrum of life in the unit.
That I survived my childhood is a miracle. That God has put a pen in my hand is another one. I have written in line after line about the hellish dimensions of my illness and of life in the unit. I should have used red ink, blood-red, to ink the lines that have resulted in two collections of poetry. The first, My Life as a Doll, brought out by Autumn House Press in May ’08, is my survivor’s tale, a memoir in verse about my mother’s violence. The second book, not yet out but someday, one day will be, also by Autumn House is titled The Fire Bones and it chronicles my father’s sexual abuse. It is meant to be the companion book to My Life as a Doll.
Red lines then as scaffolding for my particular horror story. Yesterday, in the strangest of places—a car dealership—there was a huge poster that read, “Thou Shalt Seek the Red Line.” Eerie to find it there, to ponder its meaning, yet a vision soon came to me while walking by the sea of a red line encircling the earth with the whole human race, hand-in-hand, toeing it. Every one of us is susceptible to life behind that red line, many have crossed it either as the kept, the keepers or their loved ones and have felt just how universal suffering is. Let’s stand together then on the red line, linked by the beautiful ruins of our common humanity, by the faithful failings of flesh and by the brutal truths that tutor us until we break open and earn our angel wings so we can take flight from fright, lift up and lift off as free spirits in the grace that transforms us from being lost to that of being found.
~~Elizabeth Kirschner at firstname.lastname@example.org and www.elizabethkirschner.com.
PRESS RELEASE: THE RED LINE: Two Poets: A Psychiatric Patient/ A Mental Health Worker/ The Keeper/The Kept/ A Reading
Two poets with a common knowledge. Two points of view from a shared experience—the kept and the keeper—of life in the psych ward. Both know what it’s like to be behind the red line six feet from the locked door of the unit. One could cross over it, go home, the other could not. Hence poet Elizabeth Kirschner as one of the kept. Hence poet Doug Holder as one of the keepers. Two separate books—My Life as a Doll—by Kirschner brought out by Autumn House Press and From the Back Bay to the Back Ward
by Holder, Ibbeston Press, a pick of the month in the Small Press Review.
The lock-up, the ward. One reading. So just what goes on behind the red line? Kirschner’s book, nominated for the Lenore Marshall Prize, is a survivor’s tale, a memoir in verse which has devoted one of its four sections, “Tra-la-la,” to depicting in detail the Dantesque inferno of the unit. The other three are a harrowing account of the childhood abuse that later erupted into terrifying flights into madness which have led and still lead her to life behind the red line, that holding tank of the damned.
Here’s one excerpt from “Tra-la-la:”
O what a scanty things I was that winter
of winters when hellbent angels wanted to mate
with me, but I was an absentee and dreams
lunged out of me like rabid dogs and my scent—
burnt match, cursed cinder—trailed me
like a smoky mood. I abandoned myself
in the unit where there were no sharps, where
there were no cords, where I was checked
every ten minutes and my pulse was stolen.
Or this one from Holder’s exacting portraits of the kept:
She is on guard
for the vulpine machinations
of the silent, incessant voices
chattering in her cortex
a murderous Greek chorus
slapping at the hollows
of her skull.
from: “Lost Girl on the Psychiatric Ward”
Two distinct voices /The Poetry Reading/ Sept 9, 2009 7PM Porter Square Books Cambridge, Mass
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
By Carolyn Gregory
Copyright @ 2008
Carolyn Gregory creates a collection reverberating with greens that are hot and cool, with waters that signal renewal, with metamorphosed stories from everyday work life and poems to friends who she can’t let escape her vision and devotion. Gregory is not a “language” poet but there is not dearth of texture, metaphor or color in her texts. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Siren,” a Plath-like ode to solitude and demons held at bay or rather, put away, but still palpable, like the pain in “the middle of her back.” The Siren appears at night, with her “lover snoring lightly in a dream” – thus, of no help.
“Smiling, she mentioned the empty bottles
hidden in my closet.
She praised the narcotic, alcohol.
Perfumed poppies tumbled from her red lips
and fell across my blanket.
My back throbbed.
The moon grew big in its black egg cup”
The Siren it seems, is part of Gregory herself, the poet in her, the artist that awakens in the mysterious dark, and can lure sailors to their deaths. It is as if her double has appeared in the room reminding her of how she has become what she is. The Siren is also dangerous and must be let out.
“Instead, I opened the window
and let her float out
as ghosts do,
taking the pain with her
though I knew she’d be back.”
In “Sea Wish” it is a tumbling dark green lake or ocean which Gregory swims and finds “in the space between the waves” her muse, her lover. This becomes a vision of a real couple whose “wife bobs in the green, fifty yards off.” As a happy Shakespearean play, the couple will lie beside each other, happy, “one cool as a seal.” And Gregory affirms that:
“Her arm will wrap his back
as the waves tumble nearby,
as unbroken as love should not be broken
if there are vows of constancy and good faith.”
In a surrealist mode, Gregory offers the poem, “El Station Interior”
Wherein two men and a woman wait as snow falls for a train that never arrives.
One senses a Hopper-esque feel of the 40’s in her descriptions, a Chicago of the mind. It is a poem about a kind of mundane repetition, when one is going nowhere, dressed, nevertheless, for work and the City:
“Nothing moves through the turnstile.
No one joins these three at the elevated.
They have waited at this spot
every day for twenty years or
Steam drapes the glass panels
Of the exits
As the falling snow dissolves.”
For some reason this scene reminds me of an ART play about two women and a man in hell with only a Porter to help them in a slanting room, or about the day in Chicago when I walked out into the frost to see a sea of dead pigeons on the lawn. One could say it leaves one with a sense of disturbance or unease, but like in Hopper, the matte aloofness of the figures leaves them, also, somehow alone.
Gregory’s poems always sustain with graceful detail and emotional balance – never cliff-hang or become too precious or baroque. In this sense she walks a taut line between deep sentiment and keen observation.
There are a string of “office poems” in which she delves with sarcastic wit into the weird plane and painful hierarchy of the work-world. In “Office Mother” the mother is literally the son’s – or ship’s Captain’s – protector. In prim gray she watches over the fax and opens the door as her son tries to command his post. Beyond duty,
“She prays quietly all is right
for her son, the captain,
head of the crew,
throwing emails into Outlook,
and quelling rebellion.”
In taking on the voice of Robert Mapplethorpe, well known in New York circles as artist, sculptor and close friend of Patti Smith until his death in 1989, she paints some brilliant imagery starting out with the wry line: “Sure, I’ve always said that what’s erotic lives in the eye of the beholder.” Well, Patti Smith was much more than a “college kid “clutching a tiger lily” in his photos. They were close mates, confidantes and deeply influenced each other’s work. Besides, Patti Smith never went to college in the conventional sense but ran away from home to the Chelsea Hotel at a ripe young age. (See recent bio-pic “Dream of Life.”) Her ode to him, “The Coral Sea” – a poetical picture book – came out a few years ago. That’s my one bone to pick with this portrait of Mapplethorpe’s thinking and his art.
“My brown-toned irises open
like the body under light,
The red orchid flares like a sex badge
on palmetto spikes.”
It’s fun to pretend to get inside his head as his audience looks upon his work:
“My black nude leans on a pedestal,
curved muscles frozen in time.
Because he was so beautiful,
I loved him
But do the onlookers understand?” p 13
In ending his ghost ruminates:
“Looking down from death,
it’s hard to say what
these gallery people really think.
They see William Burroughs and Laurie Anderson,
they recognize Andy Warhol
by his pale vacant stare
but most of them ignore my humor and despair,
shocked instead by water sports.”
This is a rich collection, carefully crafted, and filled with beauty and wit.
There are far too many good poems to mention, but among my other favorites are “Hands,” “The Sea with No End,” “Raga,” and “The Night the Church Burned.” Carolyn Gregory works earnestly and patiently on her craft, with less bravado and compulsion than most poets poison themselves with. It is to her extreme credit that she has produced a whole book of wondrous treats.
Ibbetson St. Press
Lo’s next chapbook, “Not for Amnesia” is due out in the summer on Propaganda Press.
“Scenes from a Good Life”
Tebot Bach, Huntington Beach, CA
Review by Rene Schwiesow
In the beginning there was the moon and the sea and it is from this that “Scenes from a Good Life” springs.
Paul Kareem Tayyar an Iranian-American poet whose first book, “Everyday Magic,” was nominated for a Pushcart in 2007, takes us on a journey through a relationship with humanity.
He lulls us into receptiveness in “New World Moonlight,” waking us up in a new city as we stand alongside him observing the moon. And we find ourselves identifying with a man experiencing anonymity and the opportunity for the birth of beginnings.
His new life will be like here,
In this world where the moon
looks back at him, where the
night seems to go on forever,
where the only thing he knows
is that he knows no one,
except the moon and the sea.
After stretching our attention into wakefulness, Tayyer deftly takes us on a themed excursion from cotton candy escapades with his father to memories of a grandmother. Her fingertips, like the fingertips of so many homemakers, no longer felt the burn of hot plates as she served her family humming the tune of a blessed life, to the proof of the power of prayer in a Kirk Gibson homerun.
Later he speaks of mermaids and Loch Ness, of Bigfoot and aliens. He reminds us that a life lived in logic leaves little room for the dreams.
“You’re such a dreamer,” she chides
me, still surprised that I, responsible
in nearly all aspects of my life, can
be so wildly prey to the most fantastic
It is the illogical, the enigma, that can often draw us into relationship and Tayyer closes the deal easily.
But, though she would never admit
this, I think she likes this part of
me, this seriousness I have when I tell her
Martin Sheen was right when he,
back in the 70’s, declared his backyard
an available haven for spaceships.
When he finishes with
It shows that I have not surrendered
entirely to the logic and order of life
we’re standing in ovation to the need to see beyond the eclipse to the fantasies in life that burnish reality’s edges with light.
By the end of the book we are pleasantly weary from the images that have allowed us to view a little piece of our self through his writing. And we put the book aside, pull up the covers, and drift away remembering
When it ends the road slips back into what it always was,
a mirror for the rider to find himself within
Good-night Moon, indeed.
***Rene Schwiesow co-owns an online poetry forum (www.poemtrain.com) and is a co-host for The Art of Words: Mike Amado Memorial Poetry Series in Plymouth, MA. She is the author of Beginnings Beget Beginnings and A Year in the Quilt. Rene can be reached at email@example.com.
Within The Grand Scheme Joseph Veronneau, Snow in the Forecast by Dave L. Tickel, Poughkeepsie Icehouse // Reviews by Irene Koronas
Within The Grand Scheme
2009 Propaganda Press
alt.current @ gmail. com
$7 includes shipping in U.S.
Reviews by Irene Koronas
The poems are split into two themes; morose, (with good reason,) and relating specific relationships (with good reason)
“where her imperfection lies,
at the bottom of her pantleg
the one who claimed
that I was the first to
yet and but, yet still, Veronneau combines his poetic process, his way of expressions, with a tenderness that marries rant relative to morose relationships, a three some, a three way street, a three legged dog?
“…at the time
I was content to grip the waistline,
drag them down a bit, ass-revealed,
and undo myself in an equally dark light
that confined us between
the doorway of learning
and of what was given.”
The Grand Scheme is a small marvel, full of clarity and directness the reader will find intimate.
Again and again, propaganda press presents to the public the most wonderful chapbooks, poets, and writings, and this chapbook is another exceptional view into the unknown. Unknown in the sense that Veronneau gives his poems the punch, or slap across the back, a wake-up, surreal, rock and roll…
“The one imagines him, tap dancing
his way to the sky, stepping
into the falling snow like
shredded milk glass…”
Another must read, another perfect book of poems, another one to buy.
SNOW IN THE FORECAST
Dave L. Tickel
2009 Propaganda Press
alt.current @ gmail.com
$2 includes shipping in US
The voice in ‘snow in the Forecast’, is young, feisty, rebellious and smacks at the truth of being who the poet, characterizes, as, ‘the other’, the person who records the age lived in, in the exact present, even if not now. each poem is refreshingly on the edge, jumping off and bouncing into view the pages turn easily, one poem after the other, informs the reader about what is going on in the apartment next door or at least with that kid down the block. we listen, peek through the key hole, put a clear glass against the door and begin to understand the murmurings behind the walls. you won’t be disappointed if you buy this small book of poems.
“…I didn’t win any
awards, I wasn’t a
teacher/student at the college. Kurt
in the night auditorium on
the rock & roll stage…”
Anthony G. Herles
2009 Propaganda Press
$7 includes shipping U.S.
It’s like this, a couple enter the breakfast restaurant, make as much noise as possible; scrap the chairs across the hard tile floor, and loudly announce their presence. He talks about his intelligent observations, she speaks quietly about nothing in particular, just asking questions, to keep the focus off herself.
This is not the theme of this small book of short stories, but it is the reaction I get on opening the book and reading the first page. I am privy to what is usually private. the reader becomes captive to the stories, more or less, like eating pancakes, but, it is that ease drop, over easy eggs on toast, which entices me. I’m there and the story happens without the characters knowing I’m there. Herles is a story teller. He is handing us a slice of bread, buttered on one side.
Buy this book. The book will teach the reader what short stories can become.. There are four perfectly told, in repeatable form, stories, to chew on. No matter how you like your eggs or pancakes, guaranteed, you’ll eat with relish, all four tales and will want more.
“I never liked dogs, but when Mr. Wilson died,
I took Scraps.
Wilson (we never called him Mr. Wilson) had just backed his old Ford pickup to the dock for his usual order of five cakes of ice (300 pound blocks of ice), seven bags of crushed ice, and twelve bags of ice cubes. After turning off the motor, Wilson had a fatal heart attack and fell forward onto his steering wheel. The weight of his chest made the horn blow, but not too loud. Scraps, who was on the seat next to him, barked some, but not much and not very loud…”
Sunday, May 03, 2009
Philip B. Burnham Jr.: A Poet with a classical education who writes about ice cream.
Philip Burnham may have graduated Harvard, and acquired a PhD in Medieval History, but he still revels in the ordinary as well as the extraordinary in his work. Burnham, an educator at area secondary schools and Colleges for many years, writes as well about Baseball, Boston’s Redline and the search for ice cream as he does about a rarefied piece of art, or the mysteries of the universe. Burnham has published two poetry collections with Somerville’s Ibbetson Street Press: “Sailing From Boston,” “Housekeeping,” as well as a collection from the Cervena Barva Press: “Careful Scattering,” among others. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, and has been read on “Writer’s Almanac” on National Public radio. I spoke with Burnham on my Somerville Community Access TV show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: You say your poetry is structured in a way to create an ordered explanation of the world. Why is this necessary?
Philip Burnham: I think when I look at the world I try to make sense of it. When I write a poem it’s an attempt to take a little corner of my experience and reflect on it in some way. Hopefully I will understand it better and perhaps provide a window for someone else to understand it better.
DH: Is life unknowable?
PB: Some of it is unknowable. Ultimately the next few hours, tomorrow is unknowable. Love is indefinable, not unknowable.
DH: You started writing again after a long hiatus after the death of your wife. I remember you attended a workshop I was giving in Newton, Mass.
PB: For me it was a wonderful thing to come into your class. I think one of the things that may happen with you when your partner dies is there is a tremendous sense of isolation. One of the ways of working the isolation out is to write. But another way was to share that writing with other people. I wanted to find out if it was just my ranting and raving about my grief, of if it was something that struck a chord with other people.
DH: You were a poet in your younger days, right?
PB: In the 60’s and 70’s I wrote poetry that was accepted by a number of magazines. I think in my fantasy world I thought I would be a poet. But during this time I had a family to support and a life to lead, and I thought poetry wasn’t going to do it. I was more conservative then about taking a risk, and making a lifetime out of it. I knew people who did make a lifetime out of it, and they were teachers. I wasn’t in that breed.
DH: Do you regret the road you didn’t take?
PB: Well, the road not taken… (sigh)… you either make the leap of faith or not. I think I thought I was going to make a better researcher and scholar than a poet. That was really not true. I became a teacher. I taught high school and college. I taught history not poetry. In class I had the kids read things with cultural manifestations of different time periods. Every year we memorized the first 18 lines of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for instance. The kids loved it. They thought they were lead into a secret room.
DH: You have a classical education. Do you think that is needed to become a poet?
PB: I don’t think you have to have that exposure to be a poet. That exposure made me who I am. I had an “old” education for a new time. I have a greater appreciation for earlier poetry, than an appreciation for new poetry. I feel more comfortable with old forms. It is not what most people are into these days.
DH: Do you do a lot of revision? When do you give up on a poem?
PB: I don’t think I have ever written a poem that I didn’t revise. I have written poems that have come out quickly, in say 4 or 5 drafts. I always suspect that there are some things I can say better, so I try to go back. As I read it through I try to see if it sounds as natural as I want it to sound. And if it doesn’t I try to see what new words I can use that will make it more natural. Eight to twelve drafts is not surprising. It’s been said that poetry is never finished, it is just abandoned.
DH: You wrote a series of poems that are set on a Boston’s Redline subway that travels from the outskirts of Cambridge, all the way out to the suburbs of Braintree, Mass. You have scenes from different stages of your life, and all involve the pursuit of ice cream. What is the germ of the idea for this conceit?
PB: When you are in the subway, especially when you are a child, you look around and there are all these strange people. They are not people you see in your house or necessarily in your neighborhood. They are people in the city. Taking this form of transportation is magic for a kid. This might be your first exotic experience with public transportation—traveling in this enigmatic tube. I remember when I was a child in Cambridge, Mass. during WWII, no one had a car. There were very few cars on the street. People couldn’t afford them; we were just past the Great Depression, besides there was gas rationing. So we always took the subway. Later I remember visiting my future wife at Wheaton College via the subway. So the subway has been a way of measuring moments in my life.
You can’t look directly at people in the subway. But you can see their reflections in the window. You can also see yourself. So I saw myself growing up and changing on the subway.
DH: How about the ice cream?
PB: The ice cream got in there when as a child I took the Redline to Harvard Sq. and then took the yellow trolleys on Mass. Ave. Our stop in Cambridge was right outside the ice cream parlor Brigham’s. So the poem wasn’t only about the Redline, but how ice cream makes an entrance into my life at different times.
Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God
By Philip E. Burnham, Jr (Read on NPR’s Writer’s Almanac)
And on the ninth day, God
In His infinite playfulness
Grass green grass, sky blue sky,
Separated the infield from the outfield,
Formed a skin of clay,
Assigned bases of safety
On cardinal points of the compass
Circling the mountain of deliverance,
Fashioned a wandering moon
From a horse, a string and a gum tree,
Tempered weapons of ash,
Made gloves from the golden skin of sacrificial bulls,
Set stars alight in the Milky Way,
Divided the descendants of Cain and Abel into contenders,
Declared time out, time in, stepped back,
And thundered over all of creation:
"Assignment #1: Write a poem about Baseball and God" by Philip E. Burnham, Jr. from Housekeeping: Poems Out of the Ordinary. © Ibbetson Street Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission