On Writing an Elegy in Real Time

I love the elegy, in both the expansive definition of "a poem about a loss" and its narrower, wrenching, "poem on the death of a friend." I am a very slow writer of poems, so I have never written one for a funeral. That is, until my dearest high school friend of 50 years, Linda Ecksmith, died this past month, and her husband asked if I would write a poem for the funeral, which would be happening in five days. Our mutual friend, Karen Wambach, standing behind him on the phone and having some sense of the task added, "Or read a poem. Even read a poem by somebody else."

I couldn't imagine writing one in that length of time.  I set, as I always do, to reading. (On a recent Facebook post, a poet called me "the poet who reads more than she writes." What? You all don't??) One group of elegies I re-read often is Seamus Heaney's cycle of sonnets on his mother's death, "Clearances." Auden's elegy to Yeats had some very useful lines, since Yeats died in a terribly cold month, and my friend, though she died in Atlanta, was coming home to be buried in a frigid Ohio February. While reading and re-reading elegies, I asked the Wom-po Listserv (a group for the discussion of Women's Poetry, which I have been a member of for over a decade) for suggestions. Many of its hundreds of members sent many suggestions and sent their own poems and their friends' poems. I was awash in beautiful elegies. Wompo's Patricia Fargnoli suggested Mary Oliver's "White Owl Flies into the Field" and many people suggested Patricia's "Duties of the Spirit," both of which I highly recommend to you if you are looking for beautiful poems to be read graveside. None quite fit, not even that many recommended Shelley, and I was so aware of the power of his elegies from work I did with small grade schoolers decades ago. 

I had studied the elegy in the early 1980s when I was a poet in the schools at Clinton Elementary in Canal Fulton. The children's beloved third grade classmate had just died of leukemia. The principal, Marc Crail, one of the wisest educators I have ever known, thought elegies would be a good lesson for the day. I studied up on classical English poetry, and Shelley, whom I read to the children--"Oh weep for Adonais, for he is dead"--, along with many other poets, Shelley was the one the children most took most to heart, took into their own remembrances of their friend. I recalled my college professor's lecture on the American elegy, "What to Make of a Diminished Thing" with references to "Bells for John Whiteside's Daughter" and Roethke's "Elegy for Jane." I looked up the classical form in The Princeton Anthology of Poetry and Poetics and recalled the three parts of the elegy: lamentation, praise, and consolation. But all that was a long time ago, and I had the distance of not knowing the deceased and being the teacher who was helping the children who did, and I never wrote a poem then.

But a few women poets emailed me, "You can do this. You can write this," and to them I am most grateful. I began by thinking I would write a cento, a form I love, which consists of lines borrowed from other poems. I had collected a lot of lines. But my cento was not coming together as the clock was ticking. 

Pressing in on me was the belief that we would all be standing graveside in a very very cold Ohio February, so I figured my poem had to be short. Shelley's "Adonais" is 17 pages long. I thought maybe one stanza for each of the three parts of the classical elegy, rather than five pages.

In the end, we were not graveside but still, in a cold, unheated stone building in the cemetery. The minister had already spoken in the funeral home, as had many many friends with wonderful stories of what a terrific, memorable human being Linda was. This last moment of tribute, for which twenty-carloads of people had driven through the city of Canton, had three parts: the reading of my poem, the a capella singing of a song by her college friend Eric Kristensen, and finally, the giving of a white rose to each person from Linda's husband, Peter Farranto.

The poem, which I will share below, bears traces of my cento idea with quotes from Jean Valentine, Seamus Heaney, and Thorton Wilder, as well as a whiffs from Auden on Yeats and "Lenox Hill" by Agha Shahid Ali.  I do not at all mean to suggest that my poem has the grand sweep or the linguistic ability of any of the poems or poets I have mentioned here, only that like the Beatles, I get by with a little help from my friends. I will be missing Linda's help for a long time:

Flowers Back Home in Winter

            An elegy for Linda Ecksmith
            April 17, 1951- January 23, 2018

So what use is poetry
in this ice-covered Ohio cemetery,
the mercury plunging at the end of this week,
coldest day so far—as our hearts plunged
last week, the ambulance siren wailing in Atlanta
and we, wailing by our phones and laptops
for her husband’s messages through the night
to the next afternoon, when she was finally gone,
with her pain, and ours began anew.

And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space her life had left had been emptied
into us to keep, it penetrated our memories,
opening like peonies, expanding: years of letters,
phone calls, emails, posts—such wit with words
that woman had. And stubborn? Honey, I mean
to tell you. Birds of paradise suddenly stand
among us: her bright laughter and smile,
then the wild flowers of her friends’ singing,
which she loved, the dishes she cooked up for us,
our abiding love of her, all unmatched
by Peter’s astounding, surrounding, lifting love.

The purpose of poetry is to offer consolation,
and I have little, would prefer a dirge. On Facebook,
she still lists her religion as a Skeptic,
and like her, I have no surety or certainty
to offer. But I wish for her the peace that passes
my poor understanding, and for you, if you wish
these perennials from the playwright which comfort
and sustain me, stolen and scattered like roses here at last:
Wasn’t it wonderful to have known
and loved her? What glory! What fun!
What goodness! What lovableness!


Book Launch for my new book,  Prison Terms

When I taught college classes and a creative writing workshop in prison for 18 years, I got
tired of hearing three myths about prisons from people who had never been in one. On March 4th, when I launch my new book of poems about that experience, I hope to introduce my guests to people who can help me lay those myths to rest. Along the way, I trust we will have a good time and raise some money for arts in prison.

The event will be at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, South Euclid-Lyndhurst Branch, at 2:00 p.m. It is free and open to the public. Refreshments, along with fine words, will be served. (Directions here.)

The groups who will be joining me will be the Oberlin Drama at Grafton (ODAG) program, the Kent State University Prisoner- Poets of ID13 program, and the Ohio Innocence Project. I will read a poem from the book, then each group will present a 5-minute intro to what they do. The rest of the event will be open to meeting, talking, snacking and selling Prison Terms, with all proceeds from the book going to the ODAG program. I hope we will also post on social media to raise awareness about Ohio's criminal injustice program and what the average person can do to be a part of improving it. 

I would like to credit the idea of raising funds and awareness through a book launch from an article in Rattle magazine's "Rust Belt" Issue (Fall 2017). There in an interview Detroit poet Ken Meisel says of his practice of donating book proceeds to charity:

I wanted a transactional process that served something bdyond just buying my book. the only way I could resolve that paradox was to give that money to charities, and each book will inform what charity I end up donating it to. So with Drunken Sweethearts, I giving the proceeds to a woman's shelter.


Some writers may balk at that idea, I know. We deserve to get paid for our work, blahblahblah. And we do. But long ago, I fell for Lewis Hyde's idea that poet's work is shadow work. Moreover, when I first walked into prison in 1984, I was very aware that both my college and I were profiting from the work we were doing in prison. Now, we really gave back. The education that The University of Findlay provided to the men at Lima Correctional 1984-2002 was stellar. Professors taught their hearts out. The degrees we granted the men were as solid as the degrees we gave on campus, taught by full-time faculty who put in extra time and provided extra activities. Still, I am not sure I would have even earned a tenured position if the college hadn't had that contract that took additional faculty. And I know the college library got new carpeting thank to that program. 

So I felt even then that I needed to give more, and that is why I started an extracurricular, unpaid non-credit creative writing workshop. It met at least once a month and in summers, met weekly with two weeks of daily meetings for performance practice. I brought in guest writers. (Thank you Jim Gorman, Gloria Naylor, Okantah, Devon McNamara, Joe Bruchac, Daniel Thompson, and so many other writers.) I brought in my sister, a performance professor, who directed the men in performance. Jazz professor Jack Taylor brought in music and accompanied some of the poets. The men went on to publish books, win PEN Prison Writer awards, and one memorable spring, three men who were out, performed with Paul and I at a academic conference in Omaha, where Jimmy Santiago Baca took us all out to dinner. 

I've had a 16 year hiatus in Massachusetts without any prison work, but now that I am home, I am back at it, visiting Marysville for a Piper Kerman reading last year, the Lima prison next week with Carole Elchert and Phil Sugden and sitting in at the ODAG program occasionally. The situation in prisons seems worse to me now, tenser, but the inmates continue to be grateful and supportive. I'd like to keep giving back.
For the record, the three myths were:

1) MYTH 1 - They all say they are innocent

In 18 years, I did not have inmates tell me they were innocent, except for one inmate, of whom my co-ordinator said, "He is the one person every other person in this institution knows is innocent." Bill served all the time on in sentence with a grace that is inconceivable to me. With us on Sunday will be FOUR exonerees from Ohio, all of whom served crushing sentences for crimes they did not commit. 

Recently, a famous crime writer said to me, "I imagine most of them have committed other crimes and got nailed with the one they didn't commit." I gasped. This is not the case. Many of the exonerees never were involved with crime at all but were the victims of unethical prosecutors, bad cops, coerced confessions, and paid witnesses. Please come and hear the stories of the four people who will be joining us from the Innocence Project.

2) MYTH 2 They all have it easy

The person who says this has never been in a state prison. I had to walk through the cafeteria twice a week, and every night, the smell of what passed for food nauseated me. I saw demeaning treatment of the inmates that was beyond what I would expect in a humane society. A Swede recently wrote, "In Sweden, we believe that losing your freedom is the punishment. It is not necessary to provide additional punishment." And yet punishment meted out, by other inmates and by prison employees and the institution itself is shocking. Volunteers who go into the prison see more of this than family members who never get beyond the visiting room. It's why it is important that volunteers are entering the prison to bear witness. ODAG brings audiences in from outside the prison to performances, also. And The KSU program is taking the men's work out for exhibit, as they did in February.

3) MYTH 3 - They don't have anything else to do (as in "Of course they do well in your course. They don't have anything else to do.")

This was never the case in our college program, where most of the men worked full-time and took college classes on top of their jobs and in the face of harassment and fear of violence erupting at any point. Some of them felt lucky to be in a dorm where the guard would let them sit up and do their studies in the cold bathroom, under the one light bulb available at night. I see the same diligence in Phyllis Gorfain's participants in the ODAG program, who are in college or work all day and arrive twice a week in her drama class. The men have plenty to do, and a lot of it is not nearly as difficult and not nearly as productive as Phyllis' productions of MacBeth, Hamlet, and Midsummer's Night Dream. And yet, there they are, studying the lines, sweating the memorization, arguing about meaning. 

If you are a writer who needs some grist for the mill or who is willing to meet and tweet or post that day, if you are a family member who has a loved one in prison, if you like engaged and engaging poetry, please join us on March 4th.