Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Dad -- This one's for you

The other day I was rummaging through a bureau drawer in my bedroom and found an envelope addressed to Robin Smith-Johnson, Poet. It was from my dad. The sight of that envelope almost moved me to tears because today (Nov. 27) marks the two-year anniversary of his death at eighty-eight years old.  Wendell Everett Smith was always my biggest supporter, especially when it came to writing. He was a critical reader, but a fair one of my many manuscripts. He and my mom also came to my poetry readings even when the weather was nasty or they were tired from doing an antique show.

My dad was known for his funny bone and tall tales. He was a writer of short pieces he called “Wendell’s briefs.” I loved the scope of his vision from writing about black labs in the cabs of Cape pick-up trucks to moving prose about the beauty and nature of Cape Cod. He loved Nickerson State Park in Brewster, MA and my family’s tradition was to celebrate his birthday there every June. He loved the written word and, of course, books.

Recently I asked my mother about the evolution of her antique business to one that included books. She laughed. “Well, first your Dad sneaked in one shelf of books. Little by little, those shelves multiplied until we had to say we were sellers of antiques and books.” When I was growing up, there were always books to read. On a Saturday afternoon, I would climb to the second floor of “The Incredible Barn” (on Main St. in Orleans, MA) where the books were kept and find something good to read. Paired with a juicy apple, this was my idea of heaven.

In a few weeks, I’ll finally have a copy of my first book of poems. It’s called “Dream of the Antique Dealer’s Daughter.” I wish my dad could have been here to read my poems and share the thrill of holding my book in his hands. If I could speak to him again, I would thank him for giving me a love for words. 

A quote by Umberto Eco seems tailor-made for my father: “I believe that what we become depends on what our fathers teach us at odd moments, when they aren't trying to teach us. We are formed by little scraps of wisdom.”

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Finding the Sublime through the Senses

        Writing a poem is sometimes like diving into deep water. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time. Whether I’m staring at a blank page or a blank computer screen, the experience is the same. I’m never quite sure what’s going to happen next.
            One thing that grounds me is using sensory description. I often tell my English students to use their five senses when writing; for example, I’ll say “What do you see, hear, smell, taste or feel?” It has become my working mantra. I hope that if they take away one thing from my class, it will be the memory of this refrain. My other frequent suggestion to them is to “be specific” and to name things.
            In one poem about an old woman, I tried to show what she looked like:
She is not who you think.
This woman is toothless, her mouth a scar
in her leatherback face.
Her lip curls up like a claw.
You might catch sight of her
at the grocery store.
Bag lady. Tramp. Old Bones.
I wanted to capture the visceral feelings of encountering her by giving some idea of what she looked like. In fact, this poem (“Old Bones”) was paired with paintings of the elderly by Betty Jamieson last spring at an exhibit at Highfield Hall in Falmouth.
            In another poem, I described the feel of a sculpted head that once resided in my parents’ antique shop: “I want to run my hand over it/as one might touch a gravestone/or an old tree, bent with many storms,/or even a horse put to pasture,/leaning its weight against me,/nuzzling my palm with its soft nose.”
            Sometimes I try to include how something sounds. My poem “The Let Down” is one of several poems in a fairy tale sequence. This particular poem echoes the story of Rapunzel with her long hair flowing out of a tower window. In this sequence, I describe the witch:  “Bone face,/voice like a creaking door, it called,/“Let down your hair.” This is followed by “It climbed, pulling my hair tight around its claws,/effort heard in the grinding of its teeth./I dreamed scissors to end the daily siege.” I wanted to capture the
 harsh sounds of an evil presence bent on destruction through my choice of words.
             In my poem “Way Station,” a woman is longing for her lover. I use the sense of

smell to highlight her feelings of isolation: “A whiff of oil from the harbor makes her think of hunger.” In another poem about childhood (“Twelve”), I bring in the sense of taste: “On waking, I ran to the bathroom,/so thirsty I couldn’t wait/to gulp down the cold water.”
            In all these instances, I worked to make my poems come alive by touching on one
 of the senses. As Nietzsche once said, “All evidence of truth come only from the senses.”



Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Mutual Muses VII

Last evening I had the pleasure of attending the potluck dinner for the seventh season of Mutual Muses of Cape Cod.  Every spring there is an exhibit at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth that pairs artists and poets. This is my third year participating in this creative and inspirational event. 

How it works: In November, artists and poets meet for a light meal, conversation and wine. After the festivities, each poet picks a manila envelope with a copy of the art work which will inspire a poem and each artist draws a white envelope with a poem enclosed from which they will paint (or sculpt) a piece of art. In the past, I have written poems to accompany paintings by Jamie Wolf and Vittoria Sault. This year I drew a beautiful pendant created by local artist Carole Johnson.  In an interesting twist, she received a copy of my poem “The Get Away” last year and made a pin inspired by my poem. Now, it’s my turn to use her art as the impetus for a new poem.

Usually, I place the print of the piece I’ll be working with on the piano in the living room. During the winter months I live with it. Come early spring, it’s time for me to come out of hibernation and write my poem. Once submitted, it’s a short wait until the night of the opening reception and poetry reading. The night is one of magic where poets, artists and friends meet in a mad scramble to view the exhibit and then find seats for the reading. Lauren Wolk, assistant director of the Cultural Center and participating poet, is the emcee for the evening.

Since there are typically fifty artists paired with fifty poets, the reading is a study in organized chaos. Each poet can read one poem and then must introduce the next poet in line. Names are called alphabetically. It’s a whirlwind evening, so I like to go back to the Cultural Center at a quieter time and spend an hour or two savoring the pairing of visual and literary art. Each poem is posted next to the artwork it inspired and vice versa. It is a transformative experience to see all the pieces arranged over four rooms. There is also a fluffy resident cat in attendance for a quick pat or scratch behind the ears.

All in all, it is a wonderful experience and I look forward to living with Carole’s creation and getting ideas for a new poem.