Poetry roundup

May 24th, 2012

I’m headed to the US tomorrow for a few days of pure nothing followed by five days of pure poetry – I’ll be attending a workshop run by Ellen Bass, Marie Howe, and Dorianne Laux. So in honor of that, here’s a poem from each of them:

Dead Butterfly” by Ellen Bass.

The Moment” by Marie Howe.

Gold” by Dorianne Laux.


Poetry roundup

May 17th, 2012

A few poetry links for you this week:

I loved this poem at Poets.org: “Gather” by Rose McLarney.

I’m a fan of Kelli Russell Agodon’s Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, so it was nice to see her poem “Reading The Book of Orgasms at Mount St. Helens” in Waccamaw Journal.

While you’re at Waccamaw, be sure to read “One Long Leaving” by Marie-Elizabeth Mali as well.

Then hop over to The Rumpus for “between the wolf and the dog” by Davis McCombs. You’re welcome.

Enjoy! And as always, what are you reading this week?

Of peacocks and pianos

May 14th, 2012

I read this post on Sandra Beasley’s blog a couple of weeks ago, about writing about more than what is already inside your head, about infusing your writing with information gleaned from research. Beasley wrote about the peacocks at the zoo near where she lives, and how seeing the peacocks led her to read about peacocks – to research peacocks – so that when she sat down to write a poem about peacocks she actually knew something about peacocks. (In this spirit, Marge Piercy once told me the best books a writer can own are field guides.) Beasley wrote in her post, in what is possibly the best pithy summation ever: “Write what you know, yes. But know things beyond your own navel.” (Go read the whole post, it’s worth it).

That came back to me today as I was reading Andrea Barrett’s short story “The Particles” in the current issue of Tin House. The story involves more genetics and the intellectual development of the field of genetics – the story hinges on the science of genetics – than she possibly could have “known” until she went looking to know it so that her story might ring true. So that her story could exist at all, frankly. And now, as I’m writing this, a line in the acknowledgements of Claudia Emerson’s poetry collection Figure Studies comes to mind: “and a special thanks to Bruce Dalzell, who burned a piano for me on the banks of the Hocking River in Athens, Ohio, so I could conduct research.” She burned a piano. For, presumably, the poem “Piano Fire” in Figure Studies, in which the burning of the piano occupies ten lines of a thirty line poem, Claudia Emerson found somebody to burn a piano for her, so that she could write lines like this

when true ivory burns the flame is playful,
quick and green. And in the ash, last lessons:

and get the colors right.

Let’s get the colors right, people. Poets, essayists, fiction writers of all stripes: let us burn our figurative pianos.

What are my intentions? I don’t know. Do you?

May 11th, 2012

I’ve got at least four posts about dual citizenship simmering in my head – events are conspiring to make me think about this rather a lot: I have almost completed my application for Swiss citizenship and I should be able to pop that baby in the mail on Monday (long, long time readers might remember that this was on my to-do list about, oh, five years ago…); the whole Michele Bachmann gets-then-withdraws-Swiss citizenship saga (I could write about twenty posts about that alone); and this charming change in wording on the form I have to fill out as an American living abroad when I request a federal election ballot:

the new form leaves civilian voters only these choices: “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I intend to return”; or “I am a U.S. citizen residing outside the U.S., and I do not intend to return.” The Pentagon office says it needs the information to help election officials decide whether to send out just federal ballots or federal and local ballots.

You can read the full story here (and here’s a shout out to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette for having that story not behind a pay wall).

I cannot answer that question. People living abroad on a time-defined work contract might reasonably be able to answer that question, or at least to attempt to answer it in good faith, but I cannot answer that question. I married a Swiss man. We’re living here right now and life is good. R has a good job that he likes and the boys are growing up having a relationship with their only living grandparents and SB is thriving in his hockey program and for now, we’re here. We’re here for the foreseeable future if only because R’s parents are getting older and I don’t want to take the boys away from their grandparents unless there’s really no choice. But that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t return one day. I’d love to live in the US again, but it depends on so much more than us just wanting it doesn’t it? I mean, we’d need to find the right job in the right place with the right timing – R’s parents aren’t getting any younger and I treasure these years the four of them, grandparents and grandchildren, have together. It’s exactly what Lucy Stensland Laederich of the Federation of Women’s Clubs Overseas says in the article:

At least half the group’s 15,000 members, she said, are living abroad not “because we wanted to, but because of marriage, employment, studies, NGO or church work, etc. I very frankly have no idea which of those two boxes to check because I do not ‘intend’ to return nor do I not ‘intend’ to return.”

Exactly. I don’t know what my intentions are here because I don’t have intentions, I have a life. Who among you can say you intend to remain in the state in which you currently reside forever? We’re living our lives, expats, the same as everybody else: our messy uncertain unpredictable human lives. I don’t intend to stay here forever, but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t intend to go back to the U.S., but that doesn’t mean I won’t. I don’t intend to do anything but live the life that my family is building.

And say, for whatever reason, life plays out so that I don’t return to the U.S. to live. Do I then forfeit my right to my homeland? Do I forfeit my right to cast a vote for elected officials who pass laws that I as an American must obey no matter where in the world I live (hello, financial reporting requirements, I’m looking at you; hello registering my sons for the draft, I’m looking at you)? Am I less American? Do I love my country less? I suppose there are plenty of people who would answer yes to that last question but it’s so much more complicated than that when you’re in an international marriage. People with seven children have love enough for all of them, is it so hard to imagine that I have love enough for two countries, two languages, two different skies?

I’m living my life, finding my footing and making mistakes the same as everybody else. What are my intentions? To love my children, to be a better wife, to be a good person, to write just one perfect poem, to take one kid from falling down ten times in four minutes to skating backwards all the way across the rink. These are my intentions. Where will I do these things? My god, I have no idea. Does it matter?

Poetry roundup

May 10th, 2012

Some poems for you this week:

From Poets.org, “Making a Fist” by Naomi Shihab Nye. Because I love Naomi Shihab Nye.

From Guernica, “How to Write a Love Poem” by Traci Brimhall. Because everything Traci Brimhall touches turns to gold. What, you’re not reading Traci Brimhall? What’s wrong with you? (By the way, you can order this poem as a chapbook here.)

Also from Guernica, “Nocturne” by Meena Alexander. Because I’m just discovering this poet and I like to share new (to me, anyway) discoveries.

And from The Poetry Foundation, “It is not so much that I miss you” by Dorothea Grossman. Because that final line!

What are you reading this week?

My Swiss life (post 4)

May 7th, 2012

I can’t remember the last time I dreaded going into an evening knowing it would be a crowd of Swiss folks speaking dialekt, I can’t remember the last time that gave me paralyzing anxiety. I remember the first time, the worst time. It’s been ten years, but I can still remember when I first arrived in Switzerland, that first summer when I had been in Switzerland for six months and R and I went to a barbeque hosted by Old Friend of R. I remember perfectly not understanding anything, not being able to follow the conversation let alone take part it in, I remember feeling lost and left out. The barbeque was at Old Friend’s farm, and the farm cat had just had a little of kitten in the barn and I remember leaving the tables where everybody was eating and talking and going to the barn and watching the kittens for half an hour. Using the kittens as an excuse to go hide.

Friday night was the end of season dinner for the Small Boy’s hockey team, an evening full of Swiss parents and Swiss kids. I looked forward to it all week, and when we showed up, a bit late, and walked into the crowd of people sitting outside enjoying the weather we immediately started saying hello and chatting and greeting. So many different people to talk to, so many conversations to move in and out of. I chatted in German all night (everybody speaks to me in Swiss and  – and I love this part so much – nobody asks anymore if I understand when they speak Swiss, nobody asks if they should switch to German). When R and I finally left it was only because Boychen simply had to get home to bed. I would have happily stayed longer, I would have happily moved from table to table chatting with different people. Finally, finally an evening full of Swiss language and Swiss people and I fit in. Oh sure, I still speak “written German”, I still sometimes won’t understand a single phrase or expression, but I fit in. I belong. I’m one of the crowd.

It didn’t take the full ten years, though it took longer than I care to admit. But I’m here now. Sometimes it takes a long time to find your footing in your new expat life. Sometimes, it might be best to cut your losses and return home. Sometimes that’s not an option. Or it’s an option but you know in your heart it’s not a good one. And then you just have to keep trying, keep finding new possibilities, keep looking down different roads. Sometimes it’s just a waiting game. Sometimes you’ll find the way yourself, and sometimes your children will lead you.

You can read more “My Swiss Life” posts here, here, and here.

May Day

May 4th, 2012

Tuesday was May Day, which in Switzerland is celebrated either with water cannons or maypoles, depending. I prefer the maypole version myself, but it seems to be a dying tradition, at least around where I live. This year there is one maypole in our village:

This would have been put up during the night, by a boy who is sweet on a girl who lives in this building and a handful of his friends because it’s not something you can do alone. It’s pretty hard to tell from my pictures, but that maypole is of one piece. That is, it is a pine tree (well, a conifer of some variety) that has been cut down, the branches removed and the bark shaved until the tip, which remains green and is decorated with streamers. It has then been mounted, and whoever it is that’s sweet on this girl is lucky because there is a lamppost right in front of her house so the boy and his friends simply bound it to the lamppost.

If there had been nothing to bind the maypole to, the boys would have had to fashion some kind of stand, and probably dig a hole to boot. All in the middle of the night. A placard is on the pole, with the girl’s name carved on it.

I keep saying “boy” but if you look at the work involved, I’m talking about older boys. This isn’t something a middle-schooler would do. R put up a maypole for a girl once, when he was 18. If I remember the story right – and he’s not here right now for me to ask – another boy had beaten him to the girl’s house and there was a maypole there already, so R and his friends took it down, which is apparently what you do when you’re in a maypole competition to get a girl’s attention. The last pole standing at dawn wins. So boys – young men? I never know what to call that age group (I’ve got 10 years to figure it out I guess) – need to put their maypoles up under cover of darkness, but not too early in the night because then there’s a bigger chance that another boy will come along and knock your pole down. But I would imagine they can’t wait until too close to dawn because putting up a maypole seems like an awful lot of work and must take a while. And make some noise.

The maypole is put up anonymously and will remain up all month; at the end of the month the boy and his gang of helpers show up at the girl’s door and she makes them a spaghetti dinner. I imagine by then she’s got a pretty good guess as to who put up the maypole, but I suppose there are always some surprises May 31st. If SB ever does this for a girl (and I’ve got a few guesses already as to who the girl would be) I feel sort of sorry for her because imagine having to cook a spaghetti dinner for five 18 year old hockey players. Who would even have that much spaghetti in the house?

But as I’ve said, the tradition seems to be dying out. There were definitely more maypoles going up when I first moved here. Maybe by the time SB and Boychen are old enough to do this, it simply won’t be the thing to do anymore. That would be a bit of a shame.

What happened on May Day where you live?