Holding on and Letting Go: A Year in the Life of a Book

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
~”Seasons of Love”, from Rent

Ann with the first book I unpacked

“I love the song “Seasons of Love,” and I remember humming along with it  well before I ever saw Rent.  The opening lines came back to me when I began to think about how to measure my first year with a published book. Was it really only a year ago that I had my opening reading on a cold February night at Zu Coffee in Annapolis? Cliff Lynn and Rocky Jones emceed the evening, with Cliff introducing the readers and Rocky providing music with his bongos. So many of my friends came to cheer me on, and I have special thanks to each of them. To Grace Cavalieri for her unfailing support and belief in my work, to Laura Shovan for her keen insight and good ear, and to Debby Kevin for her help with marketing and promotion.  My children were there at the first reading–Brian took care of video taping the reading and Christella sold the books for me so that I could talk to people while I signed copies for them.  The evening was magical, and I was humbled to have so many folks attend my first reading and buy my book, The Altar of Innocence.

I think that I could perhaps measure the year in friends–old friends who have celebrated with me and new friends that I’ve met while doing my readings in Baltimore, Annapolis, and DC.  To begin the list, I want to thank three good friends who are part of the meditation group that has become such a valuable part of my life.

Jane Nitsch and her husband, Gerry Cohee, have been steadfast in their support and love.  Jane and Gerry invited me to read my poems as I was shaping them and they offered both critique and support in a safe atmosphere. Additionally, they hosted my book party last May, graciously opening their home to many other friends who attended  my reading party. Thank you, Jane and Gerry.

Renee Rogers is another friend from the mediation group. Her special contribution came in the form of beautiful bookmarks that she designed and produced as party favors for all of the guests. The bookmarks are elegant and graceful, and now I give them  as a special treat included with every book I sell. Thank you, Renee.

Barbara Morrison invited me to read with her and to design a program  exploring memoir using our poetry. The program is called “Looking Back to Move Forward,” and we explore the themes of innocence, secrets, and burdens that emerge in both of our books. Barbara’s book, Terrarium, looks at her life through the lens of place. She does an amazing job of capturing both the joy and the sorrow of childhood as she leads readers to her favorite childhood haunts in Roland Park. Thank you, Barbara.

I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come to my readings and shared their stories with me. It is deeply humbling to write a book that delves into difficult personal and family issues–alcoholism, depression, and verbal abuse–and to find that my stories touch my readers’ lives and create a bridge of experience that we can share. No writer could ever ask for more.

Here’s a shout-out to all of my guest-bloggers who have so faithfully contributed their talents and stories, helping to expand my readers’ horizons with their fresh perspectives. Here’s to Patricia Van Amburg for her thoughtful guidance as my critique partner and for the many hours she has worked with me to refine my poetry. Here’s to Peter Brunn of New Day Campaign, who invited me to be part of his work of using the arts to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.

Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hamden
Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hampden

And lastly, here’s to my wonderful children, Brian and Christella Potts. They have always believed in my work and encouraged me to write poetry when no one else thought I could. Most importantly, Brian and Christella encouraged me to resist the urge to censor my story. I am so grateful for the advice that they both offered: “Mom, no one can tell you how to make your art.”  Thank you, Brian and Christella.

How do I measure my past year?

In friendships, and laughter, and fearless abandon. It was all about love.

Enjoy the music!

Letting Go With Myth and Poetry: Patricia Van Amburg

Patricia and I met when I worked as an adjunct writing instructor at Howard Community College in 2000. Since that time, we’ve become good friends while working on our poetry together and actings as guest or contributing editors for Little Patuxent Review.  Please check out the most recent issue of Little Patuxent Review and Patricia’s wonderful interview with poet Edgar Gabriel Silex. Thank you, Patricia, for this lovely post and for sharing your expertise about myth.

For the past several months, I have been guest editing the myth issue of the Little Patuxent Review at the same time that I have been reading posts about “holding on and letting go” in this blog—and thinking about ways that mythology does both.

Patricia VanAmburg
Patricia VanAmburg

My favorite female hero is the goddess Inanna of Sumer about 3,500 B.C.E. Like her more famous cousin Gilgamesh, Inanna travels a road that mythologist Joseph Campbell will later describe as “the hero’s journey.” While Gilgamesh treks the world seeking immortality, Inanna takes a more inward path seeking her greater Self. Ostensibly, she journeys to the underworld to pay her respects to her sister Ereshkigal whose husband, known only as the bull of heaven, has been slain by Gilgamesh. Ereshkigal’s identity is also a bit suspect as she may just be the dark side of Inanna. In any event, Inanna follows steps that Campbell identified as being those of the hero: answering a call, traversing boundaries, accepting trials, temptation and supernatural aid. At the gates of the underworld, Inanna must give up earthly attachment including jewels, garments—and even her skin.


Eventually, Inanna ascends back to the Great Above, as does her counterpart, Persephone, in the more familiar Greek myth of agricultural cycles and seasons. In that story, a young and naive Persephone is abducted into the underworld by Hades. Her mother Demeter, goddess of agriculture, searches her frantically while growth halts on the surface of earth. Eventually Zeus commands Persephone’s release so that Demeter can get back to the business of growing things. But Persephone has eaten three pomegranate seeds in the underworld, so must return to Hades for three months in the season of winter. As myths often do, this seasonal story wanders a bit to incorporate a theme of immortality when Demeter adopts a foster son during her frantic travels. The boy’s name is Demaphon; Demeter tries to make him immortal by dangling him over a sacred flame. As one would imagine, the child’s earthly mother has some problems with the procedure.

Persephone and Hades
Persephone and Hades

I would like to close this post with two poems. The first poem imagines holding on and letting go when two mothers struggle over the young Demaphon. And since I am writing this under a full December moon, the second is about the letting go that can happen at such a time. Winter moons have apt names like wolf or cold or hungry. The moon that heralds spring is sometimes called a worm moon in honor of turning the soil before planting. My favorites moons are balsamic. In astrology, that means they are less that 45 degrees behind the natal sun—moons of destiny, healing and rest—and the topic of my second poem.


Visions of Demeter dangling
darling Demaphon over fire
causes his startled mother
to lose her faith in the gods.

Metira’s startling lack of vision
causes disappointed Demeter
to turn her heel on earth and
lose her faith in humanity.

Envisioning mother burnout
human and divine
causes darling Demaphon
to lose his immortality;

A lovely vision in flame
Persephone awaits Demeter
eats three seeds and
forgets about spring.

Balsam Moon
Virgo Balsamic Moon 10/11/12 10.49pm ED

Balsam moon floating
in cruet of night
un-stoppered bottle
of branch silhouette
acidic only in vinegar
negative only in shadow box
of full, buoyant forgiveness
giveness of dark and trees
well of mercy and release
under a balsam moon.

Little Patuxent Review guest editor Patricia Jakovich VanAmburg has presented slide lectures on mythology for the 2014 Rep Stage production of Venus in Fur, the Howard Community College INSPIRES program on Cyprus, and the recent LPR salon Pulling Ariadne’s thread. She will be teaching a spring course on mythology for the Osher Program of Johns Hopkins University.

Need a Poetry Jumpstart?

I’m sitting in my office on a cold February afternoon, thinking about writing a poem. Not that I am writing one—I am only trying to find my way in. My usual tricks aren’t working—the ten random words, the visual journaling, the inspiring quotes. Nothing quite aligns with my mood. Has that ever happened to you as a writer? I know we all have our bag of tricks, our fail-safe techniques to deal with the blank page. But what do you do when nothing works in the moment you want to write?I remember when I first began offering writing workshops. I collected several books of writing exercises that I could try and eventually adapt to offer in my classes. But there is one book I always go back to for ideas: The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. What I love about Behn and Twichell’s book is that they asked actual poets for their best writing exercises and then collected the exercises in a concise handbook arranged by themes such as “Ladders to the Dark: the unconscious as goldmine”, “Who’s Talking and Why: the self and its subjects”, and “The Things of This World: image and metaphor”. All of these areas—the unconscious, the self, and image and metaphor—serve as familiar pillars to good poetry. We return to these areas again and again, always aiming higher, always in need of refinement.

The Gift of Hands
The Gift of Hands

Much as in learning to paint, one copies the work of Da Vinci and Rothko, in poetry, one looks to the work of Elizabeth Spires, Edward Hirsch, and Rita Dove. The exercise I have chosen to offer in today’s blog comes from poet Richard Jackson, author of Worlds Apart and Alive All Day. I chose this exercise because of the way it leads you into the subject layer by layer— beginning with describing something and then walking you through the prompt so that you can achieve a narrative while exploring something as ordinary as a pair of hands.

I’m going to try this exercise as well and I’ll post my poem in a few weeks. In the meantime, give this exercise a try—I’d love to see your results. Please send your poems and I can post them in a future blog for everyone to enjoy.

“Five Easy Pieces by Richard Jackson”

Begin by visualizing a person you know well, or inventing a new person. Then imagine where you might find this person. Now you’re ready to write!

Write one sentence about each statement below:

  • Describe the person’s hands.
  • Describe something he or she is doing with the hands.
  • Use a metaphor to say something about some exotic place.
  • Mention what you would ask the person in the context of 2 and 3, above.
  • The person looks up towards you, notices you are there, gives an answer that suggests he or she only gets part of what you asked. (taken from pg. 40, The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises for Those Who Teach)

Now that you have five sentences, go deeper. Try expanding each sentence into a stanza. Let the emotions and the exotic place take you somewhere new. You can reveal stories, use dialog. Most of all, enjoy the sojourn into your creative side.

Reform: The Need for Passion: Morna McDermott

I first met Morna McDermott through a Rethinking Schools’ article she wrote on using art for social change in education. Moran spoke about the power of art in helping teachers and students to have a voice in the debate over educational reform. I later did an interview with Morna in Little Patuxent Review and we have continued to support each other’s work ever since. Welcome, Morna!

“You find that that fire is passion/And there’s a door up ahead not a wall”
~Lou Reed, 1992

Art and education for me are passions. Passion evokes the entire self into an experience. Passion in general terms implies giving entirely of oneself (body and spirit if you will) to an act or an idea. The process requires complete immersion of the whole being, knowledge, feeling, memory, hopes, and fears, rather than the safety of aloof “objective” removal of self and observation. Do we create educational experiences for children that evoke passion? Or do we, as Wordsworth puts it, “murder to dissect?”

Morna McDermott at United Opt Out Event
Morna McDermott at United Opt Out Event

The world of real life education is filled with multiple voices from ordinary people struggling to create their own lives. As education professionals, we become no more than a lofty idea raised so high above the din that we cannot hear the music. We cut out those parts of their world that we’d rather not see. bell hooks [1] (1995) believes that our current educational crisis stems from, “the traditional technicist attitude of teachers who, unaware of the outside influences in students’ lives”, and thus ignores “their cries for relevance in their lives.” Instead of attending to those important influences, we dissect their lives, their motives, their experiences, to fit policies created in the mind’s eye of corporate billionaires who see children and teachers as nothing more than “human capital.”

When we do something with a passion, our spines tingle and our hearts race and we are completely immersed in the moment and our senses heightened. We remain attentive to the experience and nothing else. Not only are we more present and awake, we are somehow also merged more deeply into ourselves and yet equally part of the thing or persons that evokes the passion. The core of our education experiences, as acts of artistic passion, bring us into a dynamic interplay with something larger than ourselves. As an artist, it is necessary for me to say what otherwise can’t be said, to draw out the meaning I seek from the cracks in the cement and to seek untold possibilities from out of the darkness.

“As you pass through the fire…there are things you have to throw out” (Lou Reed, 1992).

Creation requires risk. It requires a willingness to let go of outcomes and immerse ourselves with a sense of faith in the process. Being an artist is nothing I do. Being an artist is something I am. Bringing ourselves as conscious creators into the equation means cutting loose from the anchors of absolute knowledge and singular visions. Art, the artist’s eye, and art as a way of being, offer us a means of creation rather than destruction. Art speaks to the soul. It is the language of poetry, metaphor, shape and form that allow us to face the task ahead by bringing forth into the light, the vital life force elements stuffed between the cracks of dead and static concrete. Art brings the language of understanding needed to anchor the journey where literal meaning cannot be exacted. To try renders us speechless, saying everything but what needs to be said, seen, or heard.

“There’s a bit of magic in everything/And then some loss to even things out” (Lou Reed, 1992).

As such, the artist and the medium become interchangeable. Can we envision an educational framework that immerses our children in such a way that they are empowered to transform both themselves and the world? Speaking of art in the postmodern era, Suzi Gablik (1991) [2]describes art as a re-constructive act that can transform society. What she writes of art I also see through the eyes of an educator. She argues that a society which breeds competition and separates individuals through hierarchies and power relationships also “leads to a deadening of empathy-the solitary, self-contained, self sufficient ego is not given to what David Michael Levin calls ‘enlightened listening’, a listening oriented towards the achievement of shared understanding“. To become consciously aware of this becomes a source of empowerment. It allows one to bring the imagination to the foreground of practice.

The educator- as- artist begins to envision new possibilities. Learning becomes an opus, through which the process of bringing together: self and other, our individual and collective passions as well as our voices, words and images, into a creative act of transformation. We are defined not so much by what we know but by the empty spaces between the lines. Real change is not adding to something. Education transformation will not come through an onslaught of “innovations” or ‘standards” sold to us by corporations and technology think-tanks. Education as transformation means we (as process and “product”) are altered at our core, our core of what we do every day and what we can envision.

[1] hooks, b. (1997). Wounds of Passion. New York: Henry Holt Press.
[1] Gablik, S. (1991/1995). The re-enchantment of art. New York: Thames & Hudson.
[1] hooks, b. (1997). Wounds of Passion. New York: Henry Holt Press.
[2] Gablik, S. (1991/1995). The re-enchantment of art. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Bio: Morna McDermott is one of the eight administrators for the national movement United Opt Out. She has been working in, with, and around public schools for over twenty years. Currently she is also a Professor at Towson University, in Maryland where she teaches various theory and methods courses in the College of Education. Her scholarship and research interests focus on democracy, social justice, and arts-informed inquiry in K-post secondary educational settings, and working with beginning and experienced educators. Her recent books include The Left Handed Curriculum: Creative Experiences for Empowering Teachers (2012), and An Activist Handbook for the Education Revolution (2014) She also writes for her blog www.educationalchemy.com. Her latest posts are titled  “If George Orwell ran an Education Conference, It Would Be This” and “Swindling Our Schools: Baltimore County Style.”