ODAG: Grafton Inmates Mount Another Terrific Theater Production

This week, I attended a special performance by a theater troupe at one of the Grafton, Ohio prisons. Entitled  ODAG Swagg II. Along with the general public, I had attended two previous productions by the troupe, one of Midsummers Night Dream and an original play titled, And Still I Rise, both excellent, but this third proved especially rife with emotion as it was a performance for family and friends, followed by a talk-back and then a pizza dinner.

At the sallyport before we went in, I introduced myself to a woman from Cleveland who told me who her brother was and that she had not seen him for ten years. (He says it's been 18 years.) I asked if she knew what he was performing, because I did. He was performing "Thumbelina," which I had heard in rehearsal and  found curious. He is a big, muscular man that one wouldn't expect to choose such a story. (Honestly, I wouldn't expect any inmate to CHOOSE that story.) But he precedes it with his childhood memory of loving Danny Kaye and Kaye's telling of the tale, and he himself has the quietest voice and the gentlest manner. "Yes," she said. "Thumbelina. It's a story we listened to together over and over on our record player."

Once in the makeshift theater, I ended up sitting next to another sister, whose brother I had also heard practice the poem he wrote (and re- and re-wrote) about who we should and should not fight for, strong in its stand for friends and neighbors supporting each other and not turning against each other in times of crisis, and not for fighting for the sake of fighting.

I also met a mother and son who told me -- as they had told others before-- what a relief it was to hear their son/brother involved in something so positive, something that made them feel such emotion, such joy, how they laughed at his antics in Midsummers Night Dream.

I must admit that as I sat in the audience that night, I watched these three families. The men delivered their lines to the audience but clearly spoke to family members; the siblings and parents and guardians sat in rapt attention. I could not take my eyes off the sister listening to "Thumbelina." I thought the delivery of "The quality of mercy" speech from Merchant of Venice was perfectly delivered. All of the acts were charged with meaning and emotion.

A man in the audience named Paul Hill Jr. from NROPI (National Rites of Passage Institute) wrote this summary of the show:

"Each actor performed a poem, speech, monologue, or song that he chose independently that weaved Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man” together with the actors’ performances into a life cycle story. 

 "ODAG Artistic Director Tracey Field who served as the Director of SWAGG 2, helped facilitate these remarkable men to express their intelligence, passion, and commitment in their very own ODAG SWAGG 2. The SWAGG sequence braided into “The Seven Ages of Men” included the works of Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Shakespeare, Hans Christian  Anderson,   Og Mandino, Michael Jackson, and one original piece by actor Dewey Oden.


"All the actors shared with the audience why they chose the various selections performed—many had to do with past and present life experiences and personal feelings about family, community, national and global issues. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of production and performances and chosen materials which were weaved with perfection."

 Afterward, there were big embraces between the brothers and sisters and lots of pizza and salad, sitting around tables talking about Cleveland and Youngstown and Akron.

I know there are those who believe that inmates should not be able to have such meaningful experiences. These are the people who believe in the death penalty, who believe our criminal justice system is fair, who believe in nothing but punishment. They can go to hell, as my Grandpa Young would say.

I side with Paul Hill Jr., who said this in the end: "I left a witness and believer in these guys and their future, the ODAG Project and the POWER of the ARTS—-thank you Phyllis Gorfain, Director for ODAG, Oberlin College and the GRC Staff."

The Best Days Are the First to Flee: My Antonia, Georgics, and the Canton Farmer's Market

So it all came together for me this weekend-- my poetry studies, finishing my latest audio book while I walk daily, food and farming and the losses that fall always reminds me of in all its gorgeous plentitude and flaming beauty. All this as I got to the Canton Farmer's Market for its last day of the season.

It was a bittersweet day. My dad, whose dementia has worsened, didn't want to go for the first time ever. Usually he and I go every Saturday in summer. He couldn't say why, just didn't want to go. (So I was relieved when the following day, he was willing to go out to supper.) Then too every Farmer's Market Day this year has been a reminder that my cousin, Bobbi Kendig John and her husband Gene John, whom we used to see every week, aren't here since they were murdered in their home about a year ago, one of the saddest losses in my life.

And yet, the day that began in pouring rain, cleared at 10 a.m. as I headed to the market alone, with gorgeous sunny skies, warm for an Ohio October day and there were most of the usual vendors, listed at the Canton Farmer's Market site:

Among them a few who posed for me:

Marvin and his wife of "Marvin's Garden," sell such down home bouquets of dahlias and sunflowers, and this week, the last little gladiolas and I usually buy a bunch or two here every week.

And the guy I think of as the original Muffin Man ("Oh do you know"), who tells me about his family member's healthy projects, this week about his son's desire to sell cotton candy made from organic sugar. The machine just arrived-- stayed tuned for zrootz organics!

And then, there were the folks from Arrowhead Orchards with apples and cider this week and their signature truck and smiling faces









There was the gang from Brenkle's who this week had a Cheddar
Cauliflower, an orange one, in contrast to the purple one of last week. Huge heads for $1.50. Lettuce all summer for $1 a very large head. Beets and their greens. I try to buy some produce from everyone, and this week from the Holmes Co. folks, I bought a single beautiful leek, & they gave me a flyer for a winter farmer's market that they will be at in Louisville.

*****
I've been studying the tradition of poetry about farming, Georgics, in Robert Hass's A Little Book on Form: An Exploration into the Formal Imagination of Poetry. I had heard the term but never realized it began with Virgil's four long poems, which Pablo Neruda called (with some admiration), "propaganda for the farming of the Roman countryside." I found Eavan Boland's poem "An Irish Georgic," which I love, including these lines:

If there is an ethic to the Georgic
let it be down to earth and literal
sifting, critical, and absolute devotion to a way of life.

But I can't imagine writing any Georgics. (Though choosing the Georgics font is my little joke here so I can say I wrote IN Georgics.) I am no farmer, just a gardener who wants to eat more heirloom tomatoes than she could otherwise afford.  No farmer, nor any of my kin, once my Pennsylvania Dutch grandparents who came to Ohio to farm lost their farm during the Great Depression and had to hit the road with thirteen children, my father the last one living.

Still, I so felt the pull of that life as I sobbed and walked and listened to, reading, finishing, (on audio) Willa Cather's My Antonia.  It is just an incredible tribute to the Midwestern farming life, to childhood friendships, to heartbreak and happiness. Speaking of friendships, my two Cather friends who study and teach Cather, Kevin Hearle and David Larson chimed in on my post about My Antonia. And on top of all that, it was the favorite novel of a former colleague and partner in poetry at UF, Marianna Hofer, who died last year, too. I thought of her with many of my steps, of those best days when she and Lu and Paul and I were causing trouble and teaching hard and having such fun out in the farmlands of northwest Ohio. I will be thinking of Antonia for a long time, looking up more Cather to read.

However, there is a lot of this season left yet, and I am back volunteering in prison, back in touch with Lu this week, who was in Findlay for an event where Rick Gebhardt, the man who hired us all and started the hard work and merriment and the widow of Bob Ewald, another merrymaker in the English Department. Paul and I still have to get out and buy apples, maybe get a ride to Mount Jeez at Malabar when more leaves turn.

I probably need to look up Keats and read an ode there also.

Here's to Autumn everybody!


#MySisterToo


After this week’s Kavanaugh hearings, I have begun re-remembering pieces of a #MeToo moment in the life of my sister, Daun Kendig. Right now, I am sure of all the pieces, but I am struck by how we have been acquiring vocabulary for these experiences, how, at the time, we didn’t even have the words for it.

I think of my sister Daun every day, but especially this week.  She was my best friend from the time she was born, when I was 21 months old, until she died of cancer at age 49.  So I am telling this for her.

Although she was my little sister, our relationship was more that of twins. I was a bit shorter, and we dressed similarly and even identically at times and were often taken as twins in public and sometimes confused when we were in high school, though I was never able to forget she was prettier, thinner, and more popular. She had a lot more dates than I did. 

On one of those dates, with a boy who was then her steady boyfriend, she went with him one evening to watch TV at his parents’ house, and during that time, he forced himself on her, as we say now. (I think: do people say this?) I don’t recall what we said then. According to her account, she fought back, but felt hopelessly pinned. He was a star football player and much bigger than Daun, who was five foot two and a hundred ten pounds at the time. She felt terrified and helpless and started to yell. Then, as she struggled, she heard his parents’ car pull into the drive.  And he heard the car. He pulled away from her and got up, and she felt relieved and frightened at the same time.

I don’t know when she told me this. I was away at college that year, and though we shared a lot of letters—not so many phone calls, which were so very expensive in 1970—I know she did not write the account to me, but told me the next time we were together. She also said that she told my mother, whose response shocked us both. My mother, who was normally supportive of her four children, said, “Well he is a football player. They are trained to take what they want.” 

That was supposed to explain it all. My mother liked this football player, liked the idea of my sister’s dating a football player, and to her dying day, Mom stayed close friends with man and his wife. My mother’s response is the one part of this story I do not comprehend to this day. But I hear it these days when I hear people say, “He was only seventeen,” and “That’s how teenage boys are.” 

I do not recall what I said to Daun, but I know I was much more supportive than my mother. And yet, I didn’t tell her to report it, to tell his parents, to tell anyone else. Rape was one thing, but this was—what? We didn’t even have a way to describe it, except in the long, prolonged descriptions like “he pressured her to do it, even though she didn’t want to do it.” (We didn’t even say, “He forced himself on her, even when she was protesting that she didn’t want sex.”) 

One difference between my sister and many women of the time, is that having lived through it, Daun took charge. This is not to say she “owned it,” as we would say now. I don’t recall that she ever talked to anyone else about her personal experience. However, she broke up with the boy, and within a few months, she was in college and on the state university speech team where she used the opportunity to research, write, and deliver a speech on rape in the U.S., a topic which was not all that hot in the early 70s, though coming into its own with the publication of Ms. magazine, which did cover the topic, and from which, I recall, she got some of the statistics she used in her speech. As she was preparing the speech, she and I talked a lot about rape, but it seemed at such a distance then. She had escaped it, she hadn’t been raped. She was okay, it seemed. She gave the speech a lot. 

Lately, I have struggled with the #Me Too Movement. In counterpoint to Daun’s experience, I have seen women’s abuse of the sexual harassment claim. I have seen them engage in sex freely to get what they wanted and then claim abuse if they didn’t get what they wanted. In a recent case, a colleague in academia recently saw one of his first-year male student’s life destroyed when a male classmate came forward to say he was being sexually harassed in emails by the other male. Then a female student came forward, saying the same: she was receiving sexual harassment in emails from the first man. The deans all believed her, and when they questioned the supposed perpetrator fairly aggressively, he dropped out of school. The dean had stated that he would be punished to the full extent campus policy when they could prove it. 

Once the student had dropped out, mid-semester, however, the police discovered that the IPO that was used for the emails belonged to the woman, who was harassing herself and the other member of the class, seemingly for the drama of it all. As nearly as my friend, the class professor, can tell, once the male student’s innocence was discovered, no one went looking for him. He never returned to class. And no punishment was levied against the woman, who, the dean explained “was just joking!!” The male student, was, by the way, from a working class minority family, whereas the woman had parents in high places.   

So I know the whole dynamic of charges in sexual abuse is so very wide open to abuse on both sides. 

I have continued, awkwardly, to try to define what happened to my sister. Back then we called it “almost raped,” but that didn’t seem an apt term. It seemed either you were raped, or you weren’t, and what was then referred to as “almost raped” seemed almost like a contradiction. The term “sexually harassed” and “physically abused” were years from coming into being, in our lives.  

Then, this week, on Facebook, of all places, someone added some perspective for me. A male friend posted: “To me, the force of the word ‘rape’ should be never be neutered in a context where it's not defined as a crime. If you're talking about two hormonal teenagers going at it, and then one of them stops and the other wants to keep going, but then stops as well . . . I get that--that's not ‘attempted rape.’ To me, any version of the word ‘rape’ is the same as any version of ‘murder.’ There's no ‘mild’ rape or ‘mild’ murder.”

His friend replied, “Dude if I come at you with a gun threatening to shoot you, I’ll be tried for assault with a deadly weapon and for attempted murder…. If a boy man handles your daughter and it’s only through happenstance that she gets away, that’s an attempted rape.”

“It’s only happenstance that she gets away,” struck me as the phrase I’d been needing to understand what had happened to Daun. My sister trapped in the basement, the parents’ car pulling in the drive. Ford on the bed, a male leaping and everyone falling off. Making a run for it. Happenstance. 

However, the analogy is not perfect. Not everyone who points a gun is tried for assault, for murder. Not every teenage sexual fumbling is attempted rape. But if she is trying to get away, and it's only happenstance that she does, she needs to know that is attempted rape.

Clerihews and CLE Poets, The Quick & The Dead

I haven't  blogged for awhile because --get this-- I've been trying to get some real writing done. And, this week, I unearthed 18 poems  from my "Half Baked Folder" and worked on revising. Among the cold pancakes, I found a handful of clerihews that I wrote across five days in a month where I stupidly agreed to join CCPL librarian Laurie Kincer in writing a poem a day. I'm not real fond of poems under duress, but I am fond of trying forms, which I don't think of as duress but sort of undress, er, dressing-- window dressing, dressing up, trying on, twirling around, giving it up as too expensive, sometimes finding a deal and buying it.

I came across Clerihews, which I had not yet tried and decided to have a go at a few. The clerihew, which our own Robert Wallace in Writing Poems defines as "a comic form of four lines of irregular length, of which the first line is the name of a famous person....The rhyme scheme is aabb; and part of the fun is rhyming on the proper name, as well as making a pointed comment on the personage." I should add that the form was made up by Edmund Clerihew Bentley when he was a school boy, and many of his strike me as sophomoric, like this:

Sir Humphrey Davy
Abominated gravy.
He lived in the odium
Of having discovered sodium
.


And yet, what I like about this poem is that it's factual-- at least the sodium part. I found in writing them myself that the trick is to state something accurate, specific, and not just a blow-off line for the sake of the rhyme. There is a lot more blahblahblah about clerihews online, especially at the Wikipedia entry, if you want to read more on the form and see more examples by the likes of Auden, Chesterton and others. (Still, all men, so it's time to take it up, dear Wompos).  

Mine tended toward the chatty (which is why I am struggling right now to write a decent haiku), so I really love this example by Paul Curry Steele that Robert Wallace gave:

Zane Grey
Struck pay
Dirt and
Quicksand.

Okay, so I have drafted twelve clerihews, all using Cleveland Poets. I keep tweaking them, but here they are for now, in alphabetical order.

 

CLERIHEWS ON CLE POETS

                          -- THE QUICK & THE DEAD 


Russell Atkins
won't write about catkins.
but on music and towers,
Cleveland buses and cemetery bowers.

George Bilgere
Presents “Wordplay” on air,
Good kisses printed on pages
And read on Garrison’s stages.

Dianne Borsenik,
Reading, cuts to the quick,
With her red hair, so dashing,
And her metaphors flashing.

John Burroughs
Reads his poems. His brow furrows.
Then he reads awhile,
Breaks out in a smile.

Cy Dostal
Could be hostile.
Till he felt you were a true poet.
Then he let you know it.

John Gabel
Had us all to his table.
He fed us and read us
And in all the Poets League chaos, he led us.

Susan Grimm
Is not a pseudonym.
Her poems “know their way around a knife”
Which is to say they cut strife.

Bob McDonough
Is gonna wanna
Refine this poem
Before he goes home.

Ray McNiece
Says, “I’ll read this piece
In the style of Kerouac.
I tell, you, it’s where it’s at."

Kevin Prufer
Is such a trooper.
His teaching, editing, and poems show such a sharp mind,
And then to boot—he’s kind.

Leonard Trawick
Announced to the crowd, “Say, pick
One of my Suhthun stories or two.
I’ll recite them to you.”

Alberta Turner
After workshops, looked sterner
Till here came her Manhattan with its cherry
And all of a sudden, she grew quite merry.









A Small Meditation on the Commerce, Relevance and Permanence of Writing in General and Poetry in Particular

I've just finished reading John Scalzi's Don't Live for Your Obituary: Advice, Commentary, and Personal Observations on Writing 2008-2017. He's an Ohio writer, always a plus for me, and I am a sucker for books on the writing life and I enjoyed most of the  465 pages, which read pretty fast, maybe because he writes pretty fast. ("Fifteen books in nine years"! the book flap notes.) And he makes a lot of money at it! An average of $100,000 a year for ten years, and, in the most recent year, $164,000, he reports in the first paragraph of the book.

There isn't a Table of Contents nor an Index here, and I don't remember much of the 465 pages, except that money seemed to come up a lot. But one blog post really stuck with me: "A Small Meditation on Art, Commerce, and Impermanence" from January 30, 2012. He begins with the list of best-selling books from 1912, a hundred years previously, to make the point that these books and their authors do not remain influential or even recognizable to readers today. And as far as I am concerned, he's right about that. I never heard of these 10 books, nor any of their authors either. And he goes on to say that writers shouldn't worry about permanence, but be concerned with being relevant here and now and maybe "make a living at it"  so they can remember in the end what fun they had.

In the 100-some comments that follow, many readers rise to the lack of bait (even though he suggest they not do this) and contend they love the work of Gene Stratton Porter, the top of this list, or one of the other forgotten best-selling authors of 1912. And in the loony way of blog commenters, several digress into the topic of how racist Moby Dick is. These are no doubt the same people who are horrified that Jonathon Swift wants to cook and serve Irish babies.

But I digress.

I am not a novelist. I am a poet. And while I am sure there must be some poets who earned $164,000 on their writing in 2012-- actually, I am not really all that sure of that, but there is always the "Comments" section here, if you'd like to weigh in, all you wealthy poets-- I am sure that it has been a long long time, maybe never, since books of poetry were on the list of best-selling books. There were none there in 2017, and of the top 20, only four were not novels. So it's not my wont to be very in tune with the best-selling novels. To be honest, I'm pretty oblivious to the top-selling anything. But I do read novels and nonfiction and poetry and lots of different gradations-- YA, children's, not so much genre, but my husband has that category covered for me and reports regularly.

And what Scalzi's list made me wonder was whether anyone kept track of memorable books of 1912. And what do you know, Wikipedia, among other sources did, and here are a few authors from their  list of literature first published in 1912. Among the fiction are books by: Joseph Conrad, Willa Cather, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Dreiser, Edna Ferber, Anatole France, Zane Grey, James Weldon Johnson, Franz Kafka (you've heard of him?), D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Mann, Katherine Mansfield, Saki, Tolstoy (though he died two years earlier), H.G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P.G. Wodehouse. In poetry, there is Amy Lowell and Tagore, and in nonfiction John Muir and Carl Jung.

None of them made the bestseller list. Some made a living at it.  I'm not sure they remembered all the writing as "fun," though most, if not all, wrote because, like Joan Didion, their "most absorbed and passionate hours [...were] spent arranging words on pieces of paper."

My point, really, is related to Scalzi's: that writers shouldn't worry about permanence. They should worry about relevance. I personally like how Czesław Miłosz defined relevance, that the writer's work "could be of use to at least one person in the struggle with him[her]self and the world." That's the audience poets tend to be going for, that one person who needs us. As Mary Oliver so wisely put it, "It isn't easy to make a living as a poet, but it's the best way to live in order to have a life.

Talking About Poems and Plagiarism: I Confess to Looting

My poem "Confessions of a Looter" came out today. It appears in my new poetry collection, Prison
(Cover art Phil Sugden)
Terms
. You can read it here.

It's in the latest issue of the online issue of Riddled with Arrows, a journal of metapoems and metafiction, or poems about writing poems and fiction about writing fiction. If you are as interested in this kind of literature as I am, read the editor's discussion of it-- with examples from Neruda and Heaney-- here.

It is a kind of literature banned and disparaged in many journal's submission guidelines, and while it isn't my main theme, I do love to read and write metapoems. Some of my friends may recall that I was actually the poetry editor for a very large academic journal that published poems about writing-- much to the chagrin of the high-powered academic theorists who also published in its pages. (The editor also deemed to publish essays by faculty at community colleges, which irked those same chagrined theorists no end.)

But I digress. I mean to write about this poem about writing. About sources and lifting and stealing. I wrote it around 1984, long before The Poetry Foundation asked why 2013 had become above an article by Ruth Graham about the outbreak of plagiarism in poetry ("Word Theft"), which is horrifying if you are a poet and probably meh if you're not. Since then, I did a lot of teaching about how to use sources without abusing them, the whole giving credit where credit is due idea. I do a lot of using sources in my poems. I write responses to poems, recently one titled "The Skirts" in response to Robert Pinsky's "Shirt" and one titled "Another Cut" after Plath's "Cut." And I quote other's phrases in my poems-- which is easier to attribute in a book of poems than on a singular poem, though italics help and quote marks.

And then this week, I read a wonderful chapter on "The Fallibility of Memory" in Oliver Sacks' last, posthumous book, The River of Consciousness. Sacks begins outside the realm of literature with his own faulty memory of a bombing in WWII that he was sure he experienced until his brother convinced him he did not. He also mentioned others' faulty memories, like Reagan's "distortion of memory," movingly recounting a story of a WWII bomber pilot as though a reality when in fact, it was the scene of a famous movie. My father, who suffers from dementia, started doing the same thing at about the same age as Reagan, telling stories out of WWII movies as thought they were his own. Unlike Reagan, who never saw battle, Dad in fact was a B-17 tailgunner, and he did see some awful battles in the 100th Bomb Group. His pilot used to say, "Dammit, his own stories are better than these. I wish he'd tell them."

Sacks goes on to talk about two types of "literary theft": cryptomnesia and plagiarism. The first in unintentional, and he gives two famous examples of those. One was committed by Helen Keller and one by Mark Twain. Both of them were aghast when they found out and apologized to their public for the offense and explained how it might have happened. The second type is intentional, and most people who commit it today tend to line up their lawyers and PR people to shout down the complaints, and if that doesn't work, they line up a lot of friends to sign a letter making excuses. They insist it isn't a big deal and never apologize. (Maybe because they have lawyers lined up behind them who won't let them.)

And in fact, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between cryptomnesia and plagiarism, so as I used to tell my students, keep notes.

In 1984 when I wrote the poem, I wanted to imagine a serious plagiarist who really really thought of himself as a thief, and I wanted to use the language of theft-- this was still before I had walked into prison and taught there for 18 years and heard the lively language of thievery, and still I found some authentic stuff, I found. The poem actually began with what is now its last line. The editor of Riddled with Arrows emailed me about the poem, "That's a killer last line."

So here is my real confession: I lifted that one line from an anthologized short story with a narrator who had to move a lot. I kept notes back then, but I have moved at least 10 times since then, and my notes got lost in the shuffle. I have no idea who the author was, nor the title of his story. I am telling you now. If you find it, let me know. I'd love to give credit where credit is due. 

An Occasional Poem for March 29, 2018


ON ADNAN SYED'S VACATED CONVICTION

          after Yeats

What do we need, now come to sense
but find the hefty wherewithal
to free this man free of offense
whose case holds many in its thrall—
but not for them, his eighteen years
that he has languished in the gaol,
but for his family’s worse fears,
let this not end in epic fail.
Let law’s worst errors be undone
so finally justice will prevail.

Yet “fumbling in a greasy till”
for one solved case will not undo
the system that we have here still,
so much of it is misconstrued,
too mistried, unfair, tortured, so
focused on the adversary
not any desire to follow
truth or facts, no emissary
of such so that in the ending
there is no end. We’re left wary.

And yet, we’ll chip away like this,
readers, thinkers, coming along,
while lying witness’ Judas kiss
can be unlied and right the wrong
as NGO’s and volunteers,
pro-bono lawyers and the press,
podcasters’ cell phones show up here,
search for the truth, provide redress.
Here’s to Rabia, Brown: Sayed--
on to Pelletier, Montgomery, and the rest!