A normal-rare event

On July tenth, there was a rare island of normalcy.

Or an almost normal version of a rare event.

I participated in a live poetry reading in conjunction with the Empty the Inkpots exhibit at the Vestal Museum. The reading was part of the Summer Art Festival, a collaboration of the Museum and the Vestal Public Library. Several of the poets from the Binghamton Poetry Project who have work included in Empty the Inkpots read from the stage/deck at the Museum with the audience arrayed in scattered chairs and benches and on the lawn. It was the first time in many months that I have participated in a live-and-in-person poetry reading. It had been even longer since I had had to read with a microphone. The amplification was useful because the museum is near a busy roadway.

I chose not to read the poem I had on display, which is about the early months of the pandemic; it is available at the link above. Instead, I read three poems from my manuscript about the North Adams, Massachusetts where I grew up. “Conveyance” appeared in the spring 2021 anthology of the Binghamton Poetry Project. The other two poems, “North Adams Public Library” and “Monroe Bridge Mail”, are currently unpublished so I won’t share them here.

I was very happy with the reading on a number of counts. First, there were people in the audience who came at my invitation, including one who saw my Facebook announcement of the event. Second, though I was nervous before, I was reasonably comfortable during the reading, even managing the microphone adjustment without much trouble. Third, the reading was well-appreciated by our audience. We had six poets, with diverse styles and viewpoints, represented. We read in alphabetical order. Uncharacteristically, I was not first, which was helpful for me. I like to read early in the order, but I’m better at reading second than first. I was also grateful that the most experienced poet and performer was last as it gave a strong finish to event. No one should have to follow J. Barrett Wolf at a reading!

Lastly, I was pleased to receive personal compliments after the reading from family and friends, some of whom are also poets. What was most heart-warming was that a woman that I did not know came up to me afterward and told me how much she enjoyed my poems and asked where she could find my work. Of course, I don’t have any books of my own out, but I was able to give her my paper copies of my poems, which included my bio for the exhibit and the address for Top of JC’s Mind.

The reading was an island of normalcy not only because of the pandemic but also because most of my time these days has been wrapped up in dealing with the care of my 96-year-old dad who is currently in a rehab/skilled nursing facility after a fall and ensuing complications. It’s why it has taken me so long to post about the reading.

It’s also why, for the first time in years, I am not registered for the current sessions of the Binghamton Poetry Project. I am usually visiting my father in the early evenings. Even if another family member is available to visit, I can’t predict if I will have any creativity/brainpower left late in the day.

It’s made the reading that much more important as a reminder that my poetry life is still there, waiting for me to go back to it when things are more settled.

Someday.

Nat’l Poetry Month overtime

The poetry reading series from the Broome County Arts Council and WordPlace at the Bundy Museum that began with National Poetry Month in April has gone into overtime! This week’s offering is available here, along with the prior weeks’ readings.

Featured this week are Robert Ruane, Joshua Lewis, Merrill Douglas, and Joshua Grosse, who is a Binghamton University undergraduate. I appreciate hearing from one of the younger voices in our local poetry community.

I first met Bob Ruane through the Binghamton Poetry Project but have also seen him at various Catholic social justice gatherings over the years. Bob has an amazing memory, what we would have called in my New England hometown having “a mind like a steel trap.” His poems overflow with details of what he sees and hears. He currently has a poem on display at the Vestal Museum as part of the Empty the Inkpots exhibit in conjunction with the Binghamton Poetry Project.

Josh Lewis earned his PhD from Binghamton University and has facilitated poetry writing workshops through the Broome County Arts Council. My attendance at these is how we became acquainted. He edited and contributed to Transformations, a collaborative chapbook by some of the BCAC poets, which became available almost exactly a year ago. He has recently started a new blog, The Rain Healer.

Merrill Douglas is one of the stalwarts of the Grapevine Group, my local poet-friends who meet regularly to workshop our poems. We first met, though, when her son and one of my daughters were in middle school together, back in the days before I was writing. Merrill is a very astute reader and always gives me very insightful editorial suggestions. I especially admire her ability to choose just the right details and imagery to draw the reader into her poems. I was pleased that Barrett chose to ask her about her use of detail in the Q&A segment after she reads. I’m pleased to share links to samples of her work, as well as the all-important link to order her chapbook Parking Meters into Mermaids, here. Local folks can also find her book in the BCAC Artisan Gallery and in the Museum Shop at the Bundy.

Enjoy!

Binghamton Poetry Project reading and anthology – spring 2021

Seven years ago, I began participating in the Binghamton Poetry Project, a community outreach program of the Binghamton Center for Writers. Binghamton University graduate students facilitate free poetry writing workshops for children, teens, and adults. With the pandemic, sessions have had to move online, as have our readings and anthologies.

We had our spring reading and anthology launch today. I contributed three poems to the anthology, which you can find here. I read the poem “Conveyance” from the anthology, as well as “Meanwhile…” from my collection manuscript and “SARS-CoV-2: A Novel Coronavirus” which is currently on display as part of the Empty the Inkpots exhibit at the Vestal Museum.

I had very little formal instruction in poetry when I was in school, so I appreciate all the lessons in the craft of poetry that I have learned through the Binghamton Poetry Project. For example, in this last set of sessions I learned about zeugma, a device which I used in “Conveyance.”

I especially appreciate connecting with my local poetry community, not only the graduate students and participants but the wider poetry community in our area. When I was looking for a year-round poetry workshop to share feedback on my work, Heather Dorn, who was then the assistant director of BPP, connected me with what is now the Grapevine Group. I rely on the Grapevine poets to help me see what I need to refine in my poems. Seeing their work in progress has taught me so much about writing and revising. I’ve also learned how to give and receive constructive criticism. I can sometimes even manage to figure out the truest path when I get suggestions that directly contradict each other!

I hope that the Binghamton Poetry Project will continue for many years to come. BPP is supported by grants and is blessed with an ever-evolving set of Binghamton University graduate students serving as facilitators and administrators. I know there will always being poets in our community wanting to write, learn, connect, and share the gift of poetry.

National Poetry Month continues

I have been posting about the Broome County (NY) Arts Council’s celebration of poetry, including last week’s reading in which I was featured. This week’s installment is now available and can be found here, along with the prior weeks’ readings.

This week features three of my local poet-friends, Jessica Dubey, Burt Myers, and J. Barrett Wolf, along with Ithaca-area poet and professor Jerry Mirskin.

Jessica, Burt, and Barrett are all part of the Grapevine Group, the poetry circle with which I meet regularly to workshop poems. Burt is the one among us who writes formal poetry most often. He is very attuned to the rhymes and rhythms of lines, which you can hear in the reading and which is helpful to me when we are workshopping because I am not very conscious of those elements when I write.

Barrett, as poet-in-residence at the Bundy Museum and the founder of The Word Place, is one of the sponsors of this reading series and has appeared in each session to ask the poets questions after they read. It was wonderful to hear him read some of his work this week. I was glad that the other poets got to ask him some questions after his reading because I love hearing poets talk about their work and it would have been a shame if they had skipped over that part.

I’m happy to say that Jessica and I share not only Grapevine Group but also the Binghamton Poetry Project and the Boiler House Poets Collective in common. Her poetry is brutally honest and searing. I also admire her use of metaphor. Her first chapbook will be published next year. I’ll be sure to post about it here when it is available for pre-order.

While April is almost over, the BCAC is carrying the reading series into May, so check back next week for the next installment.

Nat’l Poetry Month celebration with me!

I posted here and here about the first two readings from the Broome County Arts Council in celebration of National Poetry Month. I am pleased to announce that this week, I am featured along with Rindi Tas and kohloa, two poets whom I met through the Binghamton Poetry Project. We were scheduled to be joined by another BPP poet, Anita Shipway, but technical difficulties prevented Anita from joining us. The recording of the reading and our bios are available here.

I’m not sure how I came to be invited to participate in this series but I was honored to be asked. And excited. And nervous. This is my first time as a featured reader with a Q&A component and I was anxious to do a good job, knowing that most of the readers in the series are much more experienced, knowledgeable, and academically credentialed than I. I asked poet-friends to review my selections and practiced my reading, recording myself on Zoom to see how I sounded and looked. I plead guilty to over-thinking and over-preparing, but it kept me a lot calmer when we recorded.

I possibly babbled a bit answering Barrett’s questions. Barrett is part of the Grapevine Group, my local circle of poets who meet on a regular basis to workshop our poems, so we are used to “talking shop” together, but I’m not used to interacting with him in a formal setting. He asked thoughtful questions that flowed from the choices I had made for the reading but I am not great at thinking on my feet, so you all can be the judge on whether I made sense or not.

Because I didn’t take up poetry as a serious pursuit until recent years, I am not that well-known or widely published. I decided to do a mini-sampler of the kinds of poems I tend to write, realizing that I would be an unknown quantity to most prospective listeners. Of the four poems I read, only one is published. It appeared in the Nov. 2020 anthology of the Binghamton Poetry Project and can be viewed here.

The recording should be available on the BCAC website at the link at the end of the first paragraph, at least for the next few weeks. It will also be broadcast locally on the Bundy Museum’s radio station WBDY-FM radio (99.5 FM). Because I’m not sure how long BCAC will have the webpage active, I’m embedding the youtube link here, which I think will be permanent:

If you choose to give the reading a listen, I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to comment here or on the Top of JC’s Mind Facebook page. If you want to send me a private message at topofjcsmind@gmail.com, please put a comment on this post telling me to check for it so it doesn’t get lost among the various digests and posts sent there. My inbox is out of control!

Nat’l Poetry Month Part 2

The second installment of the Broome County (NY) Arts Council (BCAC) series to celebrate National Poetry Month is now available here. This week features readings and discussion with Nicole Santalucia, Wendy Stewart, Mike Foldes, and Joshua Lindebaum.

I owe two of these poets a particular debt of gratitude.

When Nicole Santalucia, who is a Broome County native, returned to do graduate work at the state university, she founded the Binghamton Poetry Project (BPP). I first heard about BPP when Nicole read at a 2013 National Poetry Month episode of Off the Page, a radio program hosted by Bill Jaker on WSKG, our local public broadcasting radio station. Off the Page invited listeners to send in poems to their website and I was thrilled when they chose to read mine on the air! I began attending BPP’s free community poetry workshops for the general public, led by Binghamton University graduate students, in spring 2014. The connections I made there, particularly with Heather Dorn who has been a workshop leader, assistant director, and director of BPP, led to my joining the Grapevine Group, my local poetry critique group which you will hear more about shortly, and Sappho’s Circle, a women’s poetry circle which is, sadly, not currently active. The BCAC supports BPP through grants, so I was able to connect with them, as well. I was even invited to contribute a poem to BCAC’s Heart of the Arts award dinner in 2016. (Video here and text here.) I don’t think any of that would have happened without Nicole Santalucia and the Binghamton Poetry Project, so I owe her a huge thank you.

A shout-out also to Wendy Stewart, who is a member of the aforementioned Grapevine Group. Wendy always offers thoughtful advice on my poems and is supportive of me when I am being insecure, which happens with some frequency. Sometimes, we joke that she is just being Canadian!

I love the way Wendy uses language. I’ve learned a lot of new vocabulary from her. She is also masterful in the way she juxtaposes seemingly unrelated things so that we are invited to make connections we otherwise would not. She often uses her sly wit and penchant for understatement, both in her writing and in conversation, in a way that I admire, although cannot emulate.

Thank you, Wendy!

I hope you enjoy the recording. I’ll be back next week when I will be one of the featured poets.

Celebrate National Poetry Month!

In the United States, April is National Poetry month.

Broome County Arts Council (BCAC) is joining the celebration by hosting a series of virtual poetry readings by poets with ties to our area. The first reading, featuring Elizabeth Cohen, Dante Di Stefano, and Andrei Guruianu is available here.

Enjoy!

I’ll be back with additional posts as the celebration continues, including a more extensive post the week that I am featured along with other poets from the Binghamton Poetry Project.

Binghamton Poetry Project Fall 2020 anthology and reading

Due to the pandemic, the Binghamton Poetry Project has moved to Zoom for 2020. For each of our spring, summer, and fall seasons, we did five sessions of poem study and prompts, followed by a reading via Zoom. For the fall, our directors at Binghamton University have re-imagined our anthologies, which had been distributed in print at our in-person readings in prior years, as a digital publication. You can find the anthology at the Binghamton Poetry Project site here: https://thebinghamtonpoetryproject.wordpress.com/fall-2020-anthology/

One of the 2020 innovations from the Binghamton Poetry Project was to offer two different workshops, one for beginners and one for more experienced poets. I was part of the latter group. I enjoyed working with our instructor Shin Watanabe, who is a PhD student at Binghamton University. I also appreciated the opportunity to connect with the other community poets who attended, some of whom I have known for years in person and others of whom I have only met via Zoom. One of the advantages of Zoom meetings is that we have been able to include poets who are further afield, including some from the Ithaca area.

All three of the poems I chose for the anthology were written in response to Shin’s prompts based on our reading for that session. I thought it might be interesting to include how these poems came to be written; one of the advantages of taking a class or workshop is that you generate poems that otherwise would not have been written were it not for the prompts.

That being said, this first poem is one that was conceived before the prompt, as it will eventually be part of the collection about the North Adams, Massachusetts area that I have been working on for several years. The prompt was about employing interesting adjectives, based on our study of The Colossus by Sylvia Plath.

Navigating North Adams for MWS

Google maps had no street-view
for the addresses you had unearthed
through Ancestry.com
in the year since we each lost
our mothers May-days apart.
We were excited to discover
your great-grandmother

as a young Scottish immigrant
lived in the city where I also had roots.
As I drove the two hundred miles there,
I thought of you,
ten times further away,
of the photos I would send
so we could imagine

your ancestors and mine crossing
paths, setting in motion
our friendship generations on.
I navigated the streets too steep,
narrow, and unassuming
for the google-cars that take wrap-around
photos to satisfy the curious or nostalgic.

When Jeanie lived at 34 Jackson
did she cross Eagle
and walk with Ruth down
Bracewell toward the school?
When did the neighbors
at 27 Hudson put
up a sign, Established

in 1860? Surely
not back then, when
the hillside houses
were only middle-aged.
Did she sled down
Veazie with Mary
who lived parallel

on Williams? Did the imprint
of these ancestral
connections somehow
draw us to each
other as college roommates,
forty-year friends clinging
to each other on steep climbs?

The next poem was an experiment with line breaks, based on our discussion of Charles Bukowski’s Fingernails; Nostrils; Shoelaces.

Two and a half hours

The line stretched from
St. Paul’s Church down
the block to the library
voters spread six feet apart
waiting for
their turn to enter
go downstairs
wait
give their
name, sign the
tablet with a
disinfected stylus
watch the printer spit out
their ballot
sequester together in a
cubicle, completely fill in the
bubbles for their
choices with a
black felt pen
feed their ballot into the
machine, wait for
confirmation, walk back to
their car
go home and
hope.

This final poem is a failed attempt at the American Sublime, a la Hart Crane’s The Bridge: To Brooklyn Bridge. I think I managed a bit of the awe component, though.

For Jillian Grace

On my screen, you appear
smaller than your 2.9 kilos –
kilos because, from the start,
you are a British baby,
unlike your older sister, born
in the same upstate New York
hospital as your mother,
just miles from where
I, bleary-eyed at dawn,
stare at your first photos.

Your dark hair peeks
from under the knit cap
meant to keep you warm
as you adjust to air,
not the tiny ocean
that had been your home
for thirty-seven weeks,
your cheeks rosy
against the white blankets
and Winnie-the-Pooh sleeper.

I long to cradle you,
to breathe your newborn scent,
stroke your soft skin,
feel your fingers
wrap one of mine,
hum quiet lullabies,
claim you as my granddaughter,
but you are thirty-five hundred miles
and a pandemic
away.

I hope you will take a look at our anthology. Feel free to comment here or on the Binghamton Poetry Project site. Enjoy!

the pleasures and dangers of poetry readings

One of the opportunities that has arisen during the pandemic is the easy availability of poetry readings, as many institutions have re-imagined their live readings as online events.

I admit that I wasn’t in the habit of going to a lot of readings in-person before the pandemic. They are usually in the evenings and I try to keep as much evening time reserved for family as possible, so it was difficult for me to commit to the transport time plus the reading time. That is less of a factor now that I can attend and still be at home, in case something comes up that needs my immediate attention.

I’ve had the opportunity to attend a virtual book launch for fellow Boiler House Poets Collective member Erica Bodwell’s Crown of Wild. I heard one of my Smith College poetry godmothers Anne Harding Woodworth read from her new book Trouble, as well as her previous books. I’ve tuned into readings sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center and the Binghamton University Center for Writers. I have even participated in an online reading with the Binghamton Poetry Project.

It’s been wonderful to hear poets reading their work and I’ve also appreciated the opportunity to hear poets speak about their lives and work in interviews or question and answer sessions.

I admit, though, that these discussions, particularly when they take place in academic settings, can shake my sense of myself as a poet.

I consider myself to be a community poet, meaning that my work is informed by my experiences much more so than by my academic background. While I have been blessed with learning about craft through the Binghamton Poetry Project, the Broome County Arts Council, Sappho’s Circle, and my poet-friends of the Grapevine Group and Boiler House Poets Collective, the last time that poetry was a significant part of my academic work was in grammar school, many decades ago. I’ve also learned a lot by reading different poets.

In comments in their readings, poets that I admire talk about the wonders of writing in forms like sonnets or villanelles and how this focuses their writing.

I’ve tried variously to write in form. I’ve never managed to write a traditional sonnet or villanelle that was worth making it out of my notebook.

The thought of trying to write a decent sestina is enough to make me break out in hives.

I do a bit better with forms that have made their way into English from Japan. I have written some successful haiku, tanka, and haibun. I am especially fond of tanka and have included several in my chapbook manuscript, which is still in circulation with publishers and amassing an impressive list of rejections. (Note to self: send more submissions.)

When I am feeling shaken about not having formal training, an English major, or an MFA with all their attendant skills and expertise, I try to remember the times that my poet-friends have reassured me that, although my poetry is different, it is still worthwhile – and that I am indeed a poet.

Now if I can just find those presses and publishers that agree…

a pandemic paradox

Over the past several years of spending a lot of time as a caregiver, I’ve valiantly tried to cut down the size of my email inbox, which is often overflowing with news, newsletters, and calls to action from various charitable, social justice, and environmental causes, along with personal and poetry-related emails. Even with my diligent attempts, I routinely handle over a hundred emails a day, which is still a lot, so I am unsubscribing from even more email lists and trying to avoid signing too many petitions which lead to my being on even more lists.

Paradoxically, as we have been avoiding in-person meetings over these last months, my inbox is full of invitations to connect via Zoom or Go to Webinar or some other platform. Instead of having fewer demands on my time, there seem to be more.

I can’t keep up.

In order to create some semblance of order, I’ve decided to narrow the selection of online events that I will accept. Of course, I will continue with my local poetry circle, which I call the Grapevine Group after the cafe where we used to meet pre-pandemic. I am also looking forward to the five-week summer session of the Binghamton Poetry Project, which, for the first time, is breaking into a beginner and a more experienced section. I am also signed up for six summer sessions with a local spirituality center that has had to re-convene virtually rather than offering in-person programs and retreats.

Beyond that, I plan to accept a very limited number of educational/advocacy meetings on social/environmental justice to keep informed and to take directed action. I am heartened by the increasing convergence of climate/environmental justice with racial/economic justice and want to advocate for effective change.

Beyond that, I hope to say “No” and continue to unsubscribe so that I have more time to accomplish what I need to and respond to ever-shifting circumstances.

(She writes, hoping she can actually manage to do so.)