I am writing this piece on the 33rd day of the partial government shutdown. My husband, a man who quietly does his work but probably has more knowledge about water and its capabilities than anyone in the universe, is furloughed. He has not been paid in over four weeks.
I am worried. I am sad. Most of all, I am angry. I am so angry that I am jealous of the kindergarteners I see who throw themselves on the floor, yell, scream, and run down the hallways halting all school business until what it is they need to say and feel is complete.
I have tried to write about this, but everything that comes out is disrespectful. It is whiny, with no form at all. So the other day, when I was mapping out poetry posts for Monday prompts, I came across L.L. Barkat’s Jealous Poem Stacks. I clicked on it, hoping to find a way to feel something other than anger. Instead, I learned she welcomes these emotional “red flags.”
“It’s true. I love this red flag: jealousy,” she admits in her first sentence. She goes on to write, “Jealousy is that piquing of the soul: ‘I’m not happy. I want. Why not me?’ It’s a key which I never, ever throw away (nor chide myself for). You could say I honor emotions for what they try to tell me — rather than judging them, feeling guilty, or sweeping them aside. As humans, we’re built to feel. I like to pay attention.”
Okay, fine, I thought. I’ll pay attention to my anger. Now what? I need to do something with it. Enter the Jealous Poem Stacks. L.L. writes down words she loved from poems she was jealous of. She makes a stack — not a poem — but, as she writes, it is the beginning of something.
I liked that. Creating the beginning of something sounded good, playful even. I’d just received a copy of my friend Melissa Reeser Poulin’s new chapbook, Rupture, Light, and thought maybe she’d have some words that would help me name how I feel. I used that book and Frederick Buechner’s Speak What We Feel: Not What We Ought to Say, a book my dad gave me for Christmas in 2001, to help me with my Angry Poem Stack. What I came up with is a mash-up of words from Melissa, Buechner, Mark Twain, and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Each carries work,
whether it fits
in a lifetime
The twilight chases round me,
My head is bowed before
You don’t need
to wait through
By and by, as the days and
weeks go on, first he
misses this, then that,
then the other thing.
Does nobody see?
they swallow the night
the gray wakes on my chest
I shake with it
In the introduction to his book, Buechner writes, “It takes a certain kind of unguardedness, for one thing, a willingness to run risks, including the risk of making a fool of yourself.” I believe when he says it, he means writing vulnerably. He calls writers who do this “vein-opening writers.” And in Melissa’s words about rumination, on bringing her chapbook forth, she writes, “I felt that I would not be able to write new poems until these poems had arrived safely in the world.”
I understand both of these sentiments: the urgency to write and the acceptance that I will make myself a fool. It seems that to pay attention, to be swept away with the heftiness of emotion, is the foolish beginning we all need in order to create the story that must be told.
You don’t have to be angry or jealous to write a poem stack, but this week pay attention to an emotion that is difficult to express or feel. Read through your favorite poems and books, and pull words and phrases that help you begin something.
Thanks to everyone who participated in last week’s poetry prompt. Here’s one from Laura Brown that we enjoyed:
Cabin on a hill.
Two people and one dog walk
their land’s wild edges.
—Laura Lynn Brown
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Callie Feyen has such a knack for telling personal stories that transcend her own life. In my years in publishing, I’ve seen how hard that is—but she makes it seem effortless, and her book is such a pleasure. It’s funny, it’s warm, it’s enlightening. Callie writes about two of the most important things in life—books and clothes—in utterly delightful and truly moving ways. I’m impressed by how non-gimmicky and fresh her writing is. I love this book.
—Sarah Smith, Executive Editor Prevention magazine; former Executive Editor Redbook magazine
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