When I read from the book’s second section (which deals with my own breast cancer experience), I spoke about the conditions of survival and the ways in which we remember how to live. I also mentioned that October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month—a time to remember and a time to hope for a cure. Spoken word poet Taylor Mali read after I did and noted that he lost his mom to breast cancer; he then read a poem about his mom that he dedicated to her and to me—a lovely, spontaneous gesture.
After the reading, a lady I’d never met before asked me to sign her program and said my words would remain with her (that’s her with me in the photo above). On the way out of the building, a group of young people came up to me and thanked me for the reading—several shook my hand, and one said that his mother is a survivor and that he could hear her “life” in my poems. Later, in NJPAC’s lobby area, two ladies asked me to sign their copies of What Matters (I remembered seeing them at the reading). One told me that she, too, is a survivor and how much my poems meant to her. In the book tent, a man came up to me and said that his wife is a survivor and that after hearing my poems he understands better what she went through. He said he was going home after the festival to give her a big hug and a copy of my book (I admit to the tears in my eyes.) These were all reactions that I couldn't possibly have anticipated.
Reading at the Dodge Festival was a special honor, and I send my sincerest thanks to Martin Farawell, Dodge Poetry Program Director, for inviting me to be part of such an exceptional poetry celebration. As always, the Festival brought people together and reminded us that poetry is about addressing the human condition deeply and, in the process, confirming that we’re all brothers and sisters—that we’re not alone. I’m so very grateful!
This week, I’d like you to write about a magical moment in your life. There’s no formula for such moments, most come unplanned and unexpected, and are all the more meaningful for that. As Jane Kenyon wrote in her poem “Happiness,”
There’s just no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet …
The experience you write about this week may be a major one (falling in love, your wedding, the birth of a child, a long-time goal achieved, surviving a challenge) or it may be a small moment of joy (a detail in the happiness of your larger life). Your moment may be part of a continuum as in “Painting” by my dear friend and distinguished poet Ed Romond:
I still hear his voice urging
me to bring the brush back
to blend the paint into one
continuous stroke of green.
I don’t know why after 50 years
these words remain
like lyrics of a favorite song
but I keep seeing that Saturday …
This week, you’re called to remember and to write. Dig deeply into your heart’s archives and look around you (perhaps the leaves’ changing colors, a certain song, a photograph, or a souvenir tucked away in a dresser drawer will bring a special moment back to you).
Here are five tips:
1. Don’t simply tell a story (remember, this is a poem, not a journal entry, and you’ll need to avoid writing from a prose impulse as you move from the personal to the universal).
2. Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense). Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing” (gerunds).
3. Avoid over-use of adjectives
4. Eliminate prepositions whenever you can (i.e., the sky’s length rather than the length of the sky).
5. Don’t over-write—watch out for too many details, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long. And remember what Dylan Thomas wrote, “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … you’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps … so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”