Fellow poet Louis Cecile has posted a review of Dreaming of Lemon Trees: Selected Poems on his blog. Louis is the author of multiple collections of poetry, and his blog offers poetry and fiction book reviews.
I’d like to offer a book suggestion that would be a good read anytime but seems ideal for a pandemic—during an unprecedented time in human history when we are all contemplating our existence on this planet.
The book is a collection of poems inspired by a series of photographs captured by the author, Kathleen Kramer. I must state at the outset that I am biased; Kathleen is a friend and we have supported each other over the years through many writing projects.
I also wrote one of the blurbs on the back of the book, which is entitled Everything Matters (Yesteryear Publishing, 2020). But that’s not why I’m recommending this collection. I’m recommending it because of the quality of the writing, its universal message and the transcendent feeling the book delivers to the reader.
To better explain the book, I turn it over to Kathleen, who has agreed to answer some questions about the work. I highlighted some phrases that caught my attention.
Can you give a brief description of the book? What do you hope people will take away from it?
The book, Everything Matters, is a collection of poems and the photographs which inspired them. (So, I guess if I could be bold enough to call my simple photos art, this is a collection of ekphrastic poetry.) I’ve found that if I pay attention, there is often something about an object or a scene I may see that “catches” me. I’m guessing many others have found this, as well. Maybe as we mail a letter and are struck by the pattern of shadows on the steps of the Post Office. Or, at the bookstore, we catch sight of a book we used to read to our children 50 years ago. Or we see a little boy contemplating his first big snowfall. There’s something that has connected on a level deeper than the simply visual. So these photos and these poems were not planned nor conceived together, but arose later, paired, and out of a place within and, perhaps, a place “beyond” myself.
It’s my belief that creativity, whatever form it may take, is a gift from something greater than ourselves. We are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest. And I think our hope is that those who read or see or hear our work will be enlarged, too, and feel a personal connection that is important to them.
My observation: I love Kathleen’s statement that “we are enlarged by creating something beautiful, authentic, honest.” It’s the sense that art is a shared connection between the creator and the reader or audience, and both sides are required for a satisfying experience.
Can you describe how your work celebrates or gives heightened meaning to the ordinary moments of existence?
Almost 30 years ago, when I first began writing seriously—both plays and poetry—it was the “ordinary” life or the “ordinary” event that called to me. There always seemed, to me, to be something bigger that lived in that life or event. For lack of a better way to explain it, I believe there is a holiness at the heart of most ordinary things. Or, quoting Gerard Manley Hopkins, “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”
So I guess what I wish for is that by calling attention to the seemingly-simple—a moth on the window or a chocolate sprinkle fallen from an ice cream cone—the reader or listener to these poems will be led to see a holiness in their own lives and the lives of those around them.
What was the most challenging part of the process for you—writing the poems, taking the photographs or piecing the words and images together?
Truthfully, in most cases, the process seemed organic. Something in me responded to something I saw. I didn’t stop to think about it, I just took the photo. Then I waited for whatever “spoke” to me in that image to come to the surface. Sometimes it came within minutes, but usually it was hours, or even days or weeks, or months. Again, it seemed organic in that it happened in its own time, maybe like a baby robin hatching or a peony opening from its tight bud. So to answer your question, neither part—taking the photos or writing the poems—was particularly difficult—except for getting myself out of the way enough for the authentic to come forth.
Then, of course, there’s the re-writing, when it’s not always easy to let go of a phrase or a line that takes away from the integrity of the poem, regardless of how much I loved that particular phrase or line.
My observation: Her responses, “I didn’t stop to think about it” and “getting myself out of the way,” inspire me. The goal is simple—just create and don’t worry about the result. Trust the process and have faith that it will yield results.
How can reading poetry help people during a pandemic?
Perhaps the greatest benefits to reading poetry at this very challenging time is that poetry can take us out of ourselves into a larger consciousness while, at the same time, leading us deeper into that part of ourselves that is tender and receptive, hopefully affirming a wholeness that exists, regardless of the conditions around us.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers, no matter what genre they are writing?
I think writers come to write for many reasons. Some have to. By that, I mean that they don’t feel complete unless they write to explore life and to articulate, first for themselves, and then, hopefully, to share what they’ve written as a way to affirm their lives and to connect with the lives of others.
I guess there are some who write in the hope of recognition or fame. This isn’t an easy motive for me to relate to. Mostly because we all know how unlikely it is that many writers will achieve it. But also because to write with “the market” in mind, feels shallow, contrived, and unrewarding to the writer. But that’s me speaking from a place where this motivation never held much importance.
What I’m getting to, I think, is that an aspiring writer needs to be fearless, in a way, and bold in reaching for the heart of what he or she is moved to write. Be authentic. Strive to write what is true for you. At the same time, be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to write bad sentences, bad poems. You can delete them! Or rewrite them! And, as a beloved writing teacher used to say, “Get the censor off your shoulder.” I would add, “trust yourself, trust the process, and trust that something larger than yourself is at work.”
I am continuing to work my way through the book The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I am reading it from beginning to end, but I haven’t been consistent with reading it on a daily basis.
Yesterday I came across a passage worth sharing. To set it up: the time is July 1885, a few months after Vincent painted his master work depicting peasant life—The Potato Eaters (April 1885).
However, Vincent is still having trouble selling his work and his financial situation appears bleak. He writes to his brother Theo:
“I find myself faced with the necessity of being that most disagreeable of people, in other words of having to ask for money. And since I don’t think that sales will pick up in the next few days, the situation seems rather dire. But I put it to you, isn’t it better for both of us, après tout (after all), to work hard, no matter what problems that may entail, than to sit around philosophizing at a time like this?
I can’t foretell the future, Theo—but I do know the eternal law that all things change. Think back 10 years, and things were different, the circumstances, the mood of the people, in short everything. And 10 years hence much is bound to have changed again. But what one does remains—and one does not easily regret having done it. The more active one is, the better, and I would sooner have a failure than sit idle and do nothing.”
Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.
What inspires me about this passage is Vincent’s willingness to press on with his art, undeterred by his lack of success. The fire in him to create burns too intensely for him to abandon his avocation.
Here are a few thoughts as the calendar flips to 2020. I hope these musings do not seem like platitudes. I am giving in to reflection as a way to maintain perspective during this season of transition.
I am working on multiple side creative projects—in the genres of poetry, film, theater and memoir. Some may bear fruit in 2020; other may die on the vine.
With advancing age, declining health and the combination of full-time work and family responsibilities, I realize I am limited in what I can accomplish as an artist. And quite honestly, I wish I were not so driven, so fueled by ambition to write and attempt—yes, only attempt—to create art. I wonder: How many hours have I spent trying to attain my creative goals, and what have I sacrificed along the way?
But I have learned some lessons in pursuing my side projects, and these can be applied to anyone working toward a challenging goal—whether the person is an artist, entrepreneur or business owner.
This is just my opinion, but I believe effort beats intelligence and discipline is more important than talent. You have to show up and do the work every day. And it’s important to appreciate the process, to pause and acknowledge minor achievement as you inch toward fulfillment of your ultimate goal.
The biggest lesson I have learned is that desire does not dictate success. Striving does not always equal triumphing. In this life, your wishes will get trampled and your dreams denied. Accepting this reality means pressing on despite the inevitability of failure, while realizing you can’t control your fate. It means being okay with who you are in the moment and not who you need to be to consider yourself worthy. That’s the fallacy. You are already worthy. You have already achieved—even if your painting does not hang on a gallery wall or your product appear on a Walmart shelf.
I guess that’s it. At nearly 51 I see the truth of my latter years—I won’t achieve my childhood dreams. But the adult here recognizes the goodness of this mundane life—the opportunity to live and work and spend time with family. How lucky I am to just be here. To be an entrant, to earn a participant ribbon in this race.
I wish you much happiness and success in the new year.
And I will close with a couple of new, reflective poems related to the above topics:
This is the city where I learned to be an artist, waking at 5:30 a.m. every day to write—pecking away at poems that remained tucked inside the electronic hearth of my computer, never traveling the world, never finding an audience. This is where I learned that sometimes ambition and discipline are not enough, that there is no magic recipe for success. This is where I learned that you have to accept rejection and bear the shame of failure without getting deterred, rising again each morning to face the blank page—fully aware that your words may never be seen by other eyes. This is where I learned that although I may not be good enough, the compulsion to create demands that I write—no matter what. This is the city where I learned that for me being an artist was never a choice.
Shift in Thought
At some point
you have to
deal with the
Who you are
instead of the
Who you want to become.
By now the
form is fixed.
complete as is.
for anything more.
This summer I am reading The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. I had discovered the book when I was in graduate film school at American University in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. A woman from the Deep South who was pursuing her MFA in painting suggested I read it. It consists of letters Vincent wrote to his brother Theo, a Dutch art dealer.
And although the book was written in the 19th century, Vincent’s words never seem dated. In fact, I could pull inspirational quotes from the book on a nightly basis, and if Vincent were alive today, he might be the host of a motivational podcast.
Through his words, we see that despite his financial, romantic, mental and emotional struggles, Vincent persevered, sacrificing everything to express his creativity and to paint works of art that will endure as long as humans walk the earth.
This passage is dated September 24, 1880. Vincent has made the decision to become a full-time artist and he addresses Theo with this opening line: “Your letter has done me good and I thank you for having written to me in the way you have.”
He describes some art studies he is working on based on prints and etchings that Theo had sent him.
He writes, “These studies are demanding & sometimes the books are extremely tedious, but I think all the same that it’s doing me good to study them.”
The following passage then caught my attention and stirred my heart:
“So you see that I am working away hard, though for the moment it is not yielding particularly gratifying results. But I have every hope that these thorns will bear white blossoms in due course & that these apparently fruitless struggles are nothing but labour pains. First the pain, then the joy.”
Gogh, Vincent van, and Ronald. Leeuw. The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh. London: Allen Lane, Penguin Press, 1996. Print.
The words inspired me because as someone who works full-time and writes in my off hours, I rarely see progress; I often get discouraged because I spend hours working on projects that are rejected in the end. But still I press on.
And Vincent’s words are universal—they could be applied to people attempting to achieve a dream, as well as to anyone trying to survive the challenges of every day. I think about artists, actors, singers, students, teachers, entrepreneurs, couples and parents.
And fortunately—for both Vincent and for art lovers around the world—Vincent’s white blossoms did bloom in later years.
Sitting down to my computer this morning I felt compelled to do some freewriting, just to string together some sentences and see what would bubble to the surface. I have been preoccupied with finishing two poetry manuscripts that I hope will eventually see the light of day, along with editing an indie documentary film. As a result, I’ve had to take a break from working on my long-term memoir-in-progress, so I’ve missed writing prose.
I don’t have anything profound to say in this post, except something that will be obvious to many of you—that writers need to trick themselves into creating something, abandoning the editor voice in their heads and just letting the ideas rip. Writers need to give themselves permission to write bad sentences, bad paragraphs and bad first drafts—all of which can be fixed later.
On this morning, my three-year-old son is sleeping nearby, and I hope my tapping on the keyboard will not awaken him. The coffee pot is fired up and I am ready to face another day.
This freewriting exercise may not have been very productive; it yielded no potential literary heroines or ideas for publishable works. But seeing the clumps of words accrued on the computer screen still pleases me.
I also wanted to post something fresh because I’ve switched to a new theme—Ryu—after being inspired by seeing Muhammad Shahab’s clean and elegant blog.
I can’t seem to get enough of writer Charles Bukowski these days.
I then ran out to the library and checked out two poetry books by Bukowski—The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems and Come On In!: New Poems.
I don’t even read much poetry but I felt I needed more Bukowski books in the house, like I wanted to keep my friend around for a while. Bukowski seems less like a deceased author and more like a buddy spending his vacation with me. When I’m engrossed in a Bukowski work, I often picture him sitting in my living room and reading aloud from his book while taking sips of beer from a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon or Miller High Life.
Anyway, that’s just a fleeting image. The writing speaks for itself. And I’ve only read up to page 57 in The Flash of Lightning, but here’s a poem I found worthy of sharing. I hope you enjoy it too.
this special place of ourselves
sometimes explodes in our
I got a flat on the freeway yesterday,
changed the right rear wheel on the
the big rigs storming by,
slamming the sky
against my head and
it felt like I was clinging to the
edge of the earth,
30 minutes late for the first
but strangely, something
about the experience
was very much like emerging reluctantly
a second time
Bukowski, Charles. The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems. New York: Ecco (An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), 2004.
I also ran across an old interview with Bukowski in the New York Times in which he discusses his style of writing and being a lucky late bloomer.
My latest stumbled-upon literary discovery at Syracuse University’s Bird Library revealed a clue to a mystery I will never solve. But I was thrilled to find it pressed between the pages of William Saroyan’s The Assyrian and Other Stories.
I was searching through the stacks on the fifth floor one morning last week, before heading to work. I wanted to pick up ‘Tis by Frank McCourt and The Human Comedy by Saroyan. After I grabbed The Human Comedy I decided to peruse the large selection of other Saroyan books resting on the shelves nearby.
I flipped through The Assyrian and decided to check it out as well because the book contains an essay written by W.S. called The Writer on the Writing. In it he talks about his writing philosophy and the prolific short story work he produced in the mid to late 1930s.
I found his words to be inspiring.
He writes: “Anxiety at work is what tires a writer most. Writing without anxiety is certain to do the writer himself good; which takes me back to what it was I had hoped to achieve for myself when I wrote so many short stories in 1934-1939. I felt that it was right to just write them and turn them loose and not take myself or the stories too seriously. I had hoped to achieve an easier way for a man to write: that is, a more natural way.”
(Saroyan, William. The Assyrian and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1949. Print.)
He goes on to say the writer should have “implicit faith in himself, in his character, and in what he is apt to write. He must believe that it is possible for him to achieve writing as good as he might ever achieve by writing easily, swiftly and with gladness.”
However, the sage advice from Saroyan was not the only thing the book divulged.
Inside I found a 3×5 index card dated 9/30/03. A shopping list was written vertically in blue ballpoint ink on the unlined side of the card. The list was divided into two areas; one section had the word “CVS” next to it and listed the following items numerically:
3. candy!! (double exclamation points)
The second section mentioned “Carousel Saturday?”—pointing to a possible trip to the mall. Carousel Center was the former name of the Destiny USA mall in Syracuse. For this part the list read:
1. black turtleneck
2. penny loafers
4. handerchief (misspelled for handkerchief).
I tried to imagine the person who made out this list. Was it a man or a woman? I narrowed my hunches to either a young professor or a graduate student (both male) picking up some needed supplies and clothes at the beginning of a fall semester. Maybe this student was pursuing his MFA in creative writing. I pictured him with brown hair, a tall, thin frame and wearing his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers while reciting a manuscript at a cafe poetry reading.
Finding the list made me think that in another life I would have made a good library detective, sort of like Mr. Bookman (Philip Baker Hall) in that popular Seinfeld episode.
I’m not sure why these little discoveries inside books amuse me so much, but they do. Maybe my life is so boring I need to live vicariously through other people. Or maybe it’s just the element of surprise that excites me. It’s fun to uncover something that has been hidden in between the pages of a book for many years.
The only due-date stamp for The Assyrian and Other Stories is Oct. 24, 2003, so I wondered if I was the only person to open this book since then.
I also consider the index card a timeline marker for its owner. It proves he was here; this was a snapshot of his life on Sept. 30, 2003. He existed in a fixed place at a set time. He bought candy and tea and Advil and probably looked stylish in his black turtleneck, beret and penny loafers. He was alive and had dreams.
Our shopping list author is not the same person today. He is older and may have a wife and kids. Perhaps he applied the advice of Saroyan in his own creative work. Maybe he completed his MFA and now teaches creative writing at SU. Maybe he published his own short story collection or a couple of novels. Maybe I will find his books in circulation in this same library.
Unfortunately, maybe is as far as my investigation will take me. I’m left with only suppositions, as answers to the mystery of the index card and its owner elude me.