24
Jul 14

The Earth Needs Our Poems

The news around the world is particularly grim lately, with the horrors of war and violence at the forefront of our minds. In the face of such senselessness, it seems fair to ask: Does poetry matter? Can it make a difference? 

I think about this a lot in the context of my writing on climate change. And I keep returning to the same conclusion. That poetry opens up spaces in the human imagination that didn’t exist before. It is a way of processing and making sense of the incomprehensible. And when it can’t make sense, it complicates. Like a diamond, poetry is a many-sided, shining thing. It reflects, refracts, reveals, conceals. And it is necessary. When all we seem to have left is outrage, when we reach for words and none are to be found, when all is helpless… poetry sings, hums beneath the surface. Even before it gives us words, it offers its music. And that music can soothe and heal, even if only temporarily.

With that I invite you to a special event this Saturday night in Philly. I’ll be reading poems with a group of wonderful poets, some of whom contributed to the anthology The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water. Please come listen to these voices of imagination and reason as we share poems of and for the Earth. Because the Earth needs more poems. We need more poems. 

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Johnson, VT. Photo by Hila Ratzabi.

Saturday, July 26, 7:00pm.
For the Love of This Blue Planet: an Evening of Eco-Poetry, featuring Hila Ratzabi, Anne-Adele Wight, MaryAnn Miller, and contributors to The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water: Elliott batTzedek, Lori Wilson, Sam Hall, and Lisa Wujnovich (co-editor).
 
Contemporary poets write on, in and through water to examine humans’ responsibility to this endangered resource. These poets calm, quench, transport, cleanse as they protest derogation and mourn drowning. Editors Lisa Wujnovich and Brandi Katherine Herrera achieve a fluid weave of innovative and contemplative poets to usher in climate change. The poems in The Lake Rises: poems to and for our bodies of water reach coast-to-coast, asking readers to drink a diversity of voices that resonate with each other in astounding ways. Some splash. Some sink. Simple narratives and experimental structures become meditative sieves readers can flow through to renew awareness.


10
Jul 14

The Next Big Thing: Poems on Climate Change

Thank you to poet Ti Kendrick Hall for tagging me in the Next Big Thing! I realize now as I’m writing this that I was tagged once before, a year ago, but at that time I wrote about the story behind founding the Red Sofa Salon & Poetry Workshop. This time I could probably talk forever about my current poetry book project, and I’m excited to share!

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Welcome Home, by Vaughn Bell, photo courtesy of the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education

1) What are you working on?

The short answer is that I am working on a book of poems that addresses climate change. The poems respond to recent news reports, speak in the voice of the Inuit goddess Sedna, imagine how humans might evolve to respond climate change, sound out a cry of grief and anger, and even occasionally engage in satire as a way of processing the psychological effects of knowledge of climate change. It’s a large, ambitious obsession of a project. It’s the first time I’ve ever written poems that actually have an identifiable theme.

2) How does your work differ from others’ in the same genre?

Since starting this project I became aware of the existence of the “ecopoetry” sub-genre. I started reading as much as I could find that fell into that category, and discovered amazing books, like Redstart: An Ecological Poetics, by Forrest Gander, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, edited by Camille Dungy, and Eco Language Reader, edited by Brenda Ijima, among many others. Much work that is considered “ecopoetry” is experimental in style and form. I was inspired to experiment formally in a few poems, but I know that much of the poems in the manuscript are fairly straightforward in terms of their shape and style. So my poems differ from other forms of ecopoetry in that they are not incredibly formally inventive. However, the use of Inuit mythology in this manuscript, specifically the story of Sedna the Arctic sea goddess, is different than other poetry I’ve come across. Sedna has taken on a life of her own in these poems, showing up all over the world, like a superhero, taking revenge on us humans for our folly in destroying the planet. I’m proud of that and excited to see where she will lead me next.

3) Why do you write what you do?

Hurricane Sandy broke open this well of poems for me. At the time I didn’t realize that’s what was happening, but as months passed after the hurricane, I realized my poems were taking on a strange and anxious tenor. It was also the first time in a long time that I was really writing a lot of poems and feeling motivated in my writing. I’ve always cared about the environment, but for some reason it was only after Hurricane Sandy (perhaps because it was so close to home, here in Philly and my hometown Queens, New York) that I really felt terrified about the imminence of climate change.

4) How does your process work?

It’s very interesting to me to be writing into a book of a poems that has a clear theme, as I’ve never done this before. Having a theme is quite helpful, because even when I’m stuck I have material to fall back on in which to go deeper. I’ve been collecting lots of sources for reading––books, articles, etc.––to educate myself about climate change. I scan news articles, follow climate change news on Twitter, and I look for stories that pique my interest. I’ve been reading all kinds of indigenous mythology and have been weaving that into the poetry. My goal as I continue is to push myself in terms of how poetic form can lead me to deeper psychological investigations of the topic and to more profound explorations of my own and our society’s fear of what is happening right now to our planet.

If you’d like to stay in touch and get updates on my most recent publications, readings, and Red Sofa workshop and reading series announcements, please subscribe to my e-newsletter.

Passing along the torch to the next few “Next Big Things”… Look out for Yasmin Belkhyr next week!

Yasmin Belkhyr is a writer in NYC. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in PANK, Word Riot, the Adroit Journal and SOFTBLOW. She is also the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of Winter Tangerine Review. She will soon move to South Africa and write poems about honeydew and heat. You can see more of her work at yasminbelkhyr.com and her blog is wildflowerveins.tumblr.com.

 


19
Sep 13

A Day in the Life: Here’s What a Day of Writing Poetry Looks Like

In my last post I talked about taking myself on as a client, trying to schedule my own writing time while working as a busy freelance editor––which is easier said than done. In the mean time, I had been wanting to visit The Head and the Hand Press, a local small press that also functions as a writing space. I am already a member of the awesome co-working space Indy Hall, but the buzzing atmosphere there tends to inspire me to hustle and bustle with my freelancing business and not to sit quietly and write. I liked the idea that I could go to this other place where I could spend the day only working on my own writing.

Last Wednesday I found myself with a rare day off. I wasn’t expecting a new project to arrive until Thursday and I just completed another one. No more excuses, I told myself: make it your writing day. So here’s my account of how it went down.

11:00am: Leave the house. Yes, my day sometimes starts this late. Though I recently challenged myself to start waking up much earlier to get to the gym, last week I was on my waking-up-late schedule.

11:00–11:45am: Flier for the Red Sofa. Since I’d just had postcards printed for my poetry workshop, I went around my neighborhood in West Philly distributing them to advertise. Writing day has yet to actually begin.

11:45am–12:00pm: Drive to The Head and the Hand, which is located in Fishtown. This involves getting on the I-95 North, which as a native New Yorker I find amazing and bizarre: I can take the highway to get from one neighborhood to another in Philly.

12:00pm: Arrive at The Head and the Hand. Off a raggedy looking street, I see the icon on the door.

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12:05pm: I enter up a staircase. The place is very quiet. This is alarming at first, but then I remember that this is a good thing. This is what I came here for.

12:10pm: I am greeted by Claire, the creative manager. I immediately get into a conversation with her and ask for a tour of the place. There’s no way I’m about to start writing yet.

12:30pm: After the tour and more chatting, I decide that I have procrastinated enough. I set up my laptop at one of the adorable, hand-made writing desks. I take a moment to let it all sink in, just looking at my writing space: the light, clean wood, the little yellow flower in a jar. I smile to myself and inhale deeply. This is what having time and space to write feels like.

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12:40pm: I take out the book I brought with me for poetry inspiration: Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples. I have been reading books of indigenous mythology as a way to help me write poems that address climate change (more on that in future posts).

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2:00pm: I have read and read and read story after story just waiting for a spark, and it finally comes. I land on a striking image and decide it’s time to follow its lead. I set the timer for 30 minutes and begin to write.

2:30pm: I have written a poem.

2:35pm: And it’s damn good.

2:40pm: I keep writing past the timer.

2:45pm: I finish up my hand-written draft and type it into a Word doc.

2:50pm: Bask in the glow of a really solid first draft.

2:55pm: Revise that draft a bit.

3:00pm: Notice someone else has entered the room, a fellow writer and editor who is also a member of Indy Hall.

4:00pm: Get “lunch” with said writer/editor at Soup Kitchen. Yum. We chat about our former publishing jobs in New York, about what we’re writing and what we’ve been editing.

5:00pm: Head back to Head and the Hand for more reading. No more writing happens today, but that one poem took a lot out of me. This is hard for people who don’t write poems to understand, I think.

6:00pm: I see a tweet from Twitter-and-now-real-life friend Trina, saying that she is at Head and the Hand. I turn around and she’s right behind me at the desk across the room. We giggle and take a picture together that later surfaces on Instagram. I marvel at the Internet.

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6:10pm: Now the space is starting to fill up with writers. I feel cool cause I’ve been writing ALL DAY. But of course by writing I mean mostly reading all day, with 45 minutes of actual writing.

8:00pm: Everyone gathers for Workshop Wednesday. We snack on Oreo cookies and red wine. We chat about the latest Woody Allen film, which is awesome by the way. We chat about the whole history of Woody Allen films. I somehow start preaching about my love for creative non-fiction. Head and the Hand editor Linda Gallant passionately explains why the narrative arc of Breaking Bad is brilliant. I tell myself I need to get back into that show, even though it scares me. I talk about how Maria Popova is going to speak at Kelly Writers House next week and that she has the best website ever. Claire agrees. We gush.

10:45pm: I get in the car to go home. The feeling that comes after having written––not unlike the feeling after exercise––settles into my brain, a sweet and quiet buzz. I have spent more time reading and talking today than writing. But that’s all a part of the writing process. And I wrote. A damn good poem, I’d say.

 


02
Sep 13

(Re)Introduction: Blogging My Beautiful Mess

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Rainy Labor Day, Philadelphia

I’m sitting here in my home office on a rainy Labor Day in Philadelphia, my fat cat splayed across the desk as I type my way into meaning. I’m finding my way back into blogging after a few starts and stops. I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with blogging, and I blame it on Montaigne. If you’ve never had the pleasure of being introduced to Montaigne’s essays, please stop reading this blog immediately and go read them.

I remember attending an AWP panel a few years ago about essay writing and the Internet and how Montaigne might be described as the first blogger (or proto-blogger). I love that idea, but I’m hard-pressed to find a contemporary Montaigne in the blogosphere (though if you know of one, link away!). It was holding myself up to that standard that made me feel I couldn’t blog. Montaigne’s essays are fresh, beautiful, insightful meanderings of the mind. His topics are at times mundane, quirky, and profound. He allowed himself to follow trains of thought without worrying about where they would lead.

If you read advice about blogging, you’re often told to find a niche. What if someone had told that to Montaigne? He definitely did not have a niche. He wrote about very random stuff, but it wasn’t the stuff itself that was interesting but the way he allowed his mind to wander across the page. Nevertheless, I came back to the idea of blogging because I actually do have somewhat of a niche, or at least a clear topic.

I am going to blog about my writing process. This is something I’ve resisted for some time. As an editor, I tend to be overly critical of my own work. The idea of revealing the messier parts of my work and myself is scary. I fret over my poems, and I wouldn’t dare keep a 30/30 blog in April (30 poems in 30 days) and show the world my horrible first drafts (though now that I’ve said so, maybe it will be an interesting challenge). But at the same time, there’s something valuable in allowing oneself to get closer to the mess. Writing can be scary, difficult, intimidating. I’m often paralyzed by my own fears of not writing a really great poem so much so that I won’t write for a while (though one book has helped me immensely with embracing this fear: Writing from the Inside Out).

So here’s what I’m doing. I’m working on a book of poems that respond to climate change. It’s weird to say it out loud. Saying it out loud means I’m beholden to it, and I’m telling the world it matters. It does matter. It’s just taken me some time to get used to the fact that I really have something to say. I’m going to blog about this project to keep myself on track and to examine aspects of the writing process, to see what I learn along the way, and what might be useful to others.

As I listen to the rain coming down here in Philadelphia, the awkward rhythm of drops tapping on the roof, I’m thinking about nature as both chaotic and patterned, like the mind. I’m reminding myself that I, too, am a beautiful mess, full of thunder, splashing this way and that. And I’m going to put that beautiful mess on the page and see what comes.