People often say that it takes a village to raise a child…and the same is true of putting out a book of poetry. I’d like to thank just a few of the people in my “village” who helped me to write, complete, and publish Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration.
Patricia Van Amburg~I’m so grateful for her unfailing keen eye when critiquing my work. She helped me to shape many of my poems.
Grace Cavalieri~Grace was there every step of the way with her support and thoughtful comments on my work. She offered to host my launch reading with her inimitable style.
Brian Potts~My son, who did the headshot for the cover.
Christella Potts~My daughter, who designed the logo for my imprint.
Betty May~An author, playwright, and all around force of nature who inspired me to work in the prisons.
Linda Moghadam~My partner for three years and the person most responsible for my work in the prisons.
Thank you, everyone, for your kindness and support. Blessings to all of you!
In a few days, I’ll begin readings from my third poetry collection Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. I’ve been thinking a lot about the trajectory of my three books and how they each reveal an aspect of something I care deeply about.
The Altar of Innocence, my first collection, deals with my experiences growing up in a home where my mother struggled with depression and alcohol abuse and then my own journey through depression and chronic pain which opened the portal to leaving my abusive husband. My second collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, takes a deep-dive into the lives of teachers and children who are navigating the pitfalls and whirlpools of the current education system. Shorthand for themes: abuse, emotional distress, and education challenges.
Those themes of abuse, emotional distress, and education challenges coalesce in my third book Once You’re Inside: Poems Exploring Incarceration. Here’s what one of the counselors told me about the general state of the current prison population:
“Most incarcerated people have a number of factors in common—abuse, for one. Sexual, verbal, physical, emotional— add in hearty helpings of neglect, abandonment, illiteracy, and dropping out of school.” Suffering inflicted at the hands of caregivers. Pain and rage stored deep inside, erupting in every direction. “A lot of folks struggle mightily over how to live in the world without earning money illegally. Some report anxiety attacks thinking about how they can be in the world without pimping and selling drugs.”
So there’s the connection. I guess you could say I recognized the pain that the incarcerated people carry because I’ve been around that kind of pain since I was a child. All three books are my attempt to tell the stories that need to be told. The depressed mother who can’t cope. The child who’s frightened because she doesn’t know how to help her mother. The student who’s very bright, but struggles to learn to read. The teen who’s despondent because of all the pain he lives with. The incarcerated person who feels abandoned.
There are many ways to bring about change in society–many pressure points, as I like to call them–legislation, demonstrations, articles, plays, novels, and poems. Most especially poems because they carry to weight of powerful emotions and stories in concentrated form.
Here’s the title poem. I hope you’ll find the poems in the collection both moving and informative. Maybe you’ll even be moved to find a pressure point where you can take some action.
Hope on Hold
Once you’re inside
ignore the wreckage of time,
the lined faces of men gray with age,
the once-cagey 16-year-old,
the disorganized shuffle of papers, of rules, of feet.
The torpor of boredom
thick as dreams of honey on toast.
Once you’re inside every smile is suspect,
every glance a risk.
Even hope tucks into a corner
when these doors groan closed.
Join me for my launch reading on October 6th at 7pm.
It’s my hope that by sharing stories about the men and women I met in prison, I can help to create a dialog among my readers to reimagine how we treat people who break the law. After working in the prisons for awhile, I could see that what the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative Bryan Stevenson says is well worth all of us remembering:
“Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”
One of the many hats I wear is as a co-facilitator for Wilde Readings Poetry Series in Columbia, Maryland. This week, I acted as host for a husband and wife poetry duo who are also well-known authors and literature professors–Ned Balbo and Jane Satterfield. Their work compliments each other in that they both write about nature, but Ned prefers formal poetry and Jane is more comfortable in free-verse. I’ve chosen two poems to showcase their work, both with a nature theme-but of course, there’s more hidden in the lines. If you’re inclined to settle in for a longer visit, take a look at the video of their reading. You’ll be glad you stayed!
“Tiny bees found in woman’s eye, feeding off tears” (CNN, April 10, 2019): “She thinks the insects blew into her eye at a relative’s grave site when she visited it with her family.” Known as sweat bees, they are attracted to the salt in human sweat.
Stranger than it appears, four bees living off her tears sought brief shelter in her eye where they stayed, impossibly.
Before whose grave did she kneel? What discomfort did she feel? Specks of dirt she’d brushed away seemed to linger stubbornly.
In the dark beneath the lid four bees fed on tears and hid, stinging her with constant pain— flecks of ash or burning rain.
Still, she knelt and cleared the weeds, swept the grave site, planted seeds in remembrance of the dead— tears withheld and tears shed.
It’s said the eye swelled up— Through the slit lamp’s microscope, a doctor, shocked, could see small legs wriggling to be free:
bees behind the eye, half trapped . . . One by one, the doctor slipped each one out; the four bees hovered, caged in labs. Their host recovered.
There are others who insist she got used to them at last; that the bees live in her eye, sheltered, to this very day,
nourished by her tears, their sting milder than the pain we bring to each loss we hold inside— tears we cannot shed or hide.
Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s Poet Laureate, interviewed me for her long-running radio podcast called The Poet and the Poem. Sharing the voices of Maryland’s poets is one of Grace’s goals for her work as our state’s laureate. I’ve known Grace for over ten years and feel blessed to call her a friend. Her generosity of spirit shies through in this broadcast where she kindly invited me to share my work.
I took a poetry class with Chad Frame, the Emeritus poet laureate of Montgomery County, PA back in June. Chad provided many challenges for us–such as writing found poetry, shape poetry, and centos, to name a few. By far, I thought that the golden shovel form was the most opaque, and I dreaded trying my hand.
Terrance Hayes originated the Golden Shovel form when he wrote two poems as homages to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “We Real Cool.” He wrote one poem in 1981 and one in 1991 and both of them use the words in Brooks’ poem as the last word of each line in the Hayes poem.
From “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
We real cool. We/left school. We
And here are the first correlating lines of the 1981 Hayes’ poem
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
So what you get if you read down the final word of each line in the Hayes’ poem are the lines in Brooks’ poem.
I wrote my poem with a one line from a David Whyte poem called “Sweet Darkness” because I’ve used the line as a piece of guiding wisdom for many years: “Anything or anyone that does not bring you alive is too small for you.”
A few words about process. I wrote the words down the right side of an 8×11″ sheet of paper and just went for it. I actually pleased with the results.
Inner Compass It could rain anything during the night—leaves or maybe you dream of anyone
speaking a riddle that you can answer. In what language does a cardinal call? I yearn for time not designed by Tech gods who bring endless yet useless updates to you. None of them will keep you alive until your imagination is free to understand that too many things feel small because a cramped vision is useless for the world that calls to you.
I’d love to hear from you if you decide to jump in! Drop me a line.
On January 10, 2020, Morna McNulty exhibited her collection of photos from deserted spots in and around Ellicott City, MD. I read from my three poetry collections, and my son, Brian Potts, accompanied me on a variety of percussion instruments. We had a great turnout! Everyone enjoyed the art, poetry, music, and refreshments. Here are a couple of photos from the event. Enjoy and hope to see you next time!
In 2018, I participated in a Baltimore storytelling event called Stoop Stories, hosted by Jessica Henkin and Laura Wexler. At that event, all of us told a story about drugs: addiction, accidents, recreation, and recovery. Here’s a link to my story (at 11:54) where I talk about how a car accident saved my life.
Memories are full of many images, and none are more powerful than the voices of those people in our lives whom we’ve loved and who have challenged us. Ann Bracken and Ann Quinn will read from their collections of poetry dealing with memories whose power has shaped them and influenced their writing journeys. Come for an inspiring evening of poetry and conversation with two local authors.
Ann Bracken, an activist with a pen, who grew up in Catonsville, has authored two poetry collections, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroomand The Altar of Innocence, serves as a contributing editor for Little Patuxent Review, and co-facilitates the Wilde Readings Poetry Series. Her poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in anthologies and journals, including Bared: Contemporary Poetry & Art on Bras & Breasts, Fledgling Rag, and Gargoyle. Ann’s poetry has garnered two Pushcart Prize nominations and her advocacy work centers around arts-based interventions for mental health and prison reform. Website: www.annbrackenauthor.com
Church member Ann Quinn, who has led a bi-monthly Writer’s Group at CPC for the past five years, is a poet and essayist, editor, teacher, mentor, mother, and classical clarinetist. In her poetry collection, Final Deployment,published by Finishing Line Press, the child of a Vietnam War naval aviator matures into motherhood and experiences the death of her own mother. These poems remind us of what nature teaches about death’s necessity and its potential for transfiguration. Ann’s award-winning work has been published in Potomac Review, Little Patuxent Review, Vietnam War Poetry, Haibun Today, andSnapdragon, and is included in the anthology Red Sky: Poetry on the Global Epidemic of Violence Against Women. She conducts writing workshops and music camps, volunteers in schools and libraries, and plays in a symphony orchestra. Ann holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Pacific Lutheran University and lives in Catonsville, Maryland with her family. Visit her at www.annquinn.net
Join us for this inspiring evening of creative listening and conversation. The authors will have copies of their books for sale, and refreshments will be served.
I have a few summer events scheduled as well as one for September. I’ll have more details and registration links once they are posted. Hope to see you in a class soon!
Thanks to everyone who came to the Roland Park reading. You were a great crowd, and I appreciate your support!
Hamilton Street Club, June 5, 2019, Baltimore 12pm-2pm
I will discuss and read poetry from my 2015 volume, The Altar of Innocence, which explores ideas associated with family secrets and trauma and the many ways a family is affected by the serious emotional struggles of other family members. Because I have training and wide experience in using poetry and the arts in healing, I will also discuss how poetry and journaling can be used to reach those who struggle with the all-too-common human experiences of severe emotional distress.
Currere Exchange: Conference in Oxford, Ohio June 12-14, 2019
I’ll be presenting a proposal for an art installation exploring my mother’s journey to conquer her nearly 40 years of depression and anxiety. Using a variety of artifacts, including letters, prescription records, and insurance forms, I detail my mother’s journey and raise questions about the nature of depression and the current models of treatment.
Jump-start Your Creative Writing: East Columbia Library, September 11, 2019 1-2:30pm (registration details coming soon)
Do you have stories inside just begging to be told? Do lots of great ideas fill your imagination? Is there something you want to say but you don’t know where to begin? Then this class is for you. Ann Bracken has published numerous essays, interviews and two books of poetry since she began her writing career. During this class, students will explore a variety of basic techniques to enhance any type of creative writing you want to pursue, including memoir, fiction, and poetry. In this class, we’ll explore and practice using image and figurative language, specific and concrete details, and varying the pacing and rhythm of lines and sentences. All of these techniques can help to propel your writing from good to great.
Ann Quinn and I will be reading from our collections on April 4, 2019, at the Roland Park Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library from 6:30 -8pm. More information is available if you click on the link below. Hope to see you there!
Voices That Are Always With Us: Memories are full of many images, and none are more powerful than the voices of those people in our lives whom we’ve loved and who have challenged us. Ann Bracken and Ann Quinn will read from their collections of poetry dealing with memories whose power has shaped them and inspired their writing journeys. Come for an evening of poetry and conversation with two local authors.