solstice greetings, december 2013

Greetings from Washington, DC,

This post is my biennial solstice message, sent to 5-600 friends all over the world

What’s been on my radar a lot these days is the recent passing of Nelson Mandela at age 95.  As we all know, he was one of the truly great men of our time, arguably the most important force in the fall of Apartheid and the creation of a democratic South Africa.  The part of his story that resonates the most for me  is the fact that he completely changed his personality and approach to politics during his 27 years in prison.  In a poem about the hard-labor lime quarry on the notorious Robben Island, I once speculated that This may be where Mandela remade himself/through the acts of teaching and hauling limestone/from an angry fire-breathing radical/into a calm, Sphinx-like Zen-master of change.”  Would that we all could, like Madiba (as he was called) find the inner strength to resist anger and retaliation and act with forgiveness and graciousness.  Would that we knew how he learned how to do that.

With these thoughts swirling, the poems fell into place very quickly –

from (Poet Becoming) by South African poet Antjie Krog

when dusk implodes in our midst
silence feeds down from a freight of stars
poetry comes         coming from a crackling
of languages, accents, memory, translations

From Poem by US poet Muriel Rukeyser

As the light darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves. . .

From Dreams, by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska

So what can they tell us, the writers of dreambooks. . .
if anything fits,
it’s accidental,
and for one reason only,
That in our dreamings,
in their shadowings and gleamings
in their multiplings, inconceiveablings
in their haphazardings and widescatterings
at times even a clear-cut meaning
may slip through

from The Last Vibrations by Timothy Donnelly

thought, leaves, houses; the last vibrations
faded to be remembered, in a place we would never
finish imagining: and it was there we began

For all of us, may the new year be filled with reaching beyond ourselves with silence, crackling of languages and constructions of peaceful reconciliations.  And if we can let ourselves embrace stillness, maybe, just maybe, our dreamings of inconceiveablings might lead us to places that we are still imagining, places where we may begin. Again.

 With warmest best wishes to you and your families for a restful holiday season.



solstice greetings, june 2013

We’re coming up onto the June solstice, which marks the shortest day of the year in the southern hemisphere and the longest day of the year in the northern.  It also marks my biennial solstice message, almost a dozen years’ worth of snippets of poetry and a few hopefully-not-boring observations sent to friends and colleagues all over the world.

Rather than deciding on a through-line or theme and finding poems to fit, I dip in and out of poetry books until the theme – in a way – reveals itself.  This time, the poems that resonated were about the process of poetry, how the words come together in sometimes mysterious ways; and once together, don’t explain reality but capture it.  Not answers, but questions, perhaps, or observations that might lead to a bit of awareness of something we couldn’t articulate before.  Poets find words to bear witness, to illuminate the untamed, to give voice to that which is only known behind the silences within us all.

From ‘The Cities Inside Us’ from Alberto Ríos, who was born in the US side of Nogales, a border town that, in many ways, is one city cut in half by an international border.

We live in secret cities

And we travel unmapped roads


We speak words between us that we recognize

But which cannot be looked up.


They are our words.

They come from very far inside our mouths.


You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city

Inside us, and inside us


Mahmoud Darwish was the de facto poet laureate of Palestine, someone whose work evolved from highly political to astoundingly lyrical over the years.  This is from “To a Young Poet”

Truth is white, write over it

with a crow’s ink.

Truth is black, write over it

with a mirage’s light.


True confession: with fear and trembling, am including an excerpt of one of my own pieces, and justify (to myself) including it because it’s a tribute to a South African playwright and a South African poet/journalist who were vocal and unafraid during Apartheid.  From “For Athol Fugard and Antjie Krog (from ‘Out of Robben Island’)”:

Gratitude is too small a word

for the momentary glimpses

into the heart of your wondrous

and wounded country …

                         ….you wrote

hard truths and pushed them

into the limestone quarry


of the world and forced us

to look in spite of the glare. 

Darkness hides behind darkness


and does not love the bright

stiletto of truth that pierces

the grief between us all.


 British poet Philip Gross’s “Mappa Mundi” maps the world as a place where storytelling is an essential part of our individual and collective DNA.  An excerpt:


In the land of migratory words

we glance up, come the season, at telegraph wires

of syllables in edgy silhouette against a moving sky

like code, unscrambling. Any day now, they’ll fall into place

and be uttered.


From an essay by British poet Julia Casterton:

Poems show us that we are both more and less than human, that we’re part of the cosmos and part of the chaos, and that everything is a part of everything else.

With warmest best wishes to you and your families.  May winter (or summer) be filled with new words migrating to secret places, may we embrace the cosmos and the chaos simultaneously, may we find ways to gaze with clear and firm eyes through mirages at truths that are hard to look at and harder to articulate – truths that will illuminate, if only for a moment, the web of grief and grace that binds us all together as we travel into a future that is even brighter than the present.

how short is a short story?

Lydia Davis just won the Man Booker International Prize for her body of work, mostly short stories, mostly very short.  One terrific example:

Her story “Idea for a Short Documentary Film” in the 2009 “Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” reads, in its entirety:

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”

specific and snarky submission guidelines

Submission guidelines from the Australian lit mag Ampersand

FICTION: Fiction submissions should have no discernible genre. While the fiction editor enjoys writing that plays with form and conventions, it is widely known that each time a vampire story is written, somewhere an orphan dies.

NON-FICTION: Nonfiction submissions should not be terrible. They should also be interesting. If you want to tell us about a rewarding personal experience, do not. That is why god invented friends.

POETRY: As always, aesthetic trumps subject matter. Poetry is probably not the proper venue through which to vent your frustration over the loss of your latest relationship or anger at the opposite sex. For every nature poem received, the poetry editor will refuse to recycle something.

The Lawyer’s Ink

Flash Non-Fiction just published in the online Literary Journal Crack the Spine

The lawyer’s ink

It all changes with the prison tattoos.

During boarding the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles, the tall lanky man folds himself into the adjacent seat. Behind slightly greasy dirty-blonde hair, his eyes are hooded, and slyly (perhaps shyly?) scan what surrounds.  Not unfriendly, yet coiled at his core is a subtle electric physical wariness like a cobra, rather like a blue-eyed cobra.  Later, soft tapping on a Mactop brings to focus his hands and what are clearly prison tattoos. Not gang symbols – an initial on the left hand and a Celtic-ish graphic on the right. Connect the dots of fuzzy outlines, crude art, the particular blue coming only from the ink of cheap ballpoints: he’s been in the joint. Though, to be sure, it’s not just tats – the wary eyes and energy: the stigmata even the ink-free acquire behind bars.  There’s a huge disconnect, though: he’s a lawyer, in Oz keynoting at a conference on restorative justice. He’s articulate and witty, insightful enough to jump from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission to a community program for gangs in East LA without batting a (hooded) eye.  Such a blend of humor, compassion, drive, and smarts are not the usual makeup of ex-cons, and the unspoken code does not allow asking what the crime was or even if he was in the joint. No matter, it seems clear he was, perhaps studied law while inside, then continued outside, and there you have it. 

Many hour later, as he exits the plane at LAX, carrying the computer case in his right hand, the quasi-Celtic tattoo comes into focus again, though the color is now subtle, the edges now sharp and clean

Lost (and after)

Prose poem published online in January in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Issue 5

Lost (and after)

Wandering around a new city, guided by a mix of serendipity and minimal sense of direction.  In the old section of Bratislava, a cracked church bell strikes five: the train is leaving soon and the station is in what direction and how far away?   Left seems right, and as the iPod on shuffle switches to a song by Mouse on Mars, the narrow medieval street bumps into a once elegant, now faded, boulevard, and a few hundred meters away is the weekly demonstration by the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo in memory of the Argentine disappeared. Trying to glide past the stage guarded by bored police, just beyond it’s all of a sudden a hilly area, in the distance above the buildings loom the minarets of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque. Walking downhill toward sea level, around a bend the middle-eastern residential architecture segues into middle-European industrial, unexpected in a city that claims to be as cosmopolitan as Vienna, home to that giant Ferris Wheel peeking above a factory.  A different bell tower strikes six, warm and most likely the mother church at St. Stephens, yet the sun is setting, and the dog-barks get colder with the falling thermometer.  As the night folds in, a car casually slowing on the mostly dark and deserted street brings an even stronger frisson of fear. Dead end ahead, left turn only, dance through the pack of the skater-dudes, and there it is, the bodega named ‘Bodega’ just to the right of the Bratislava Central Station.  Perhaps the return train got lost as well: the sight of it is as welcoming as the sparkling eyes of the pierced and tatted girl running toward her purple-mohawked skater boy.

solstice greetings, december 2012

It’s a few days before the solstice – winter in the northern hemisphere, summer in the southern, so it’s time for my biennial email to a large number of friends and colleagues all over the world, something I’ve been doing since 2001.  It’s a terrific way to keep in touch and see how everyone is doing.  This is one of those times when the world at large seems, at least seen through my own lens, to be in a jagged and fractious state.  There are lots of hostilities in our political and social dialogue and it’s easy to become discouraged about prospects for positive change.  It’s times like this when clear-eyed optimism is a radical (yet necessary) stance, and when small acts can affect lives more than we can know.

And so often, it’s our poets who find the correct few words to cut through all the chatter and clutter:

From Palestinian/American Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Kindness”:

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. . .
only kindness . . . raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

From US poet Lissa Kiernan’s “The Art of Hurricanes”, (which describes Hurricane Sandy as A Picasso eye, pulling the world apart), writing on a moment in New York City:

We were awkward with our neighbors, who invoked chain saws wielded with kindness. It’s nothing, they said, when we tried to push money into their hands.

From “Sweetness” by US poet Stephen Dunn
           Just when it has seemed I couldn’t bear

                        one more friend

waking with a tumor, one more maniac

with a perfect reason, often a sweetness

            has come

and changed nothing in the world

except the way I stumbled through it . . . .

            Often a sweetness comes

as if on loan, stays just long enough

to make sense of what means to be alive.

From Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s brilliant long poem “The Hoopoe”, which lyrically paints this almost mythic bird as the guide for his people (but really all people) toward freedom, both inner and outer:
          O heart. . . flood with life so you can embrace the impossible, and you see it.
With warmest best wishes for the holiday season to you and your families, with hopes that the new year finds pockets of sweetness and grace (perhaps even our own) rising above our crowded lives.  And maybe even, in a moment of great stillness with all our senses fully open, (and if we’re very lucky) a desert bird with an orange crest might appear and offer to help guide us to unexpected adventures and kindness.