Take a Poetry Break with Jane Satterfield and Ned Balbo

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!

Portuguese Man o’ War by Jane Satterfield

Full sail, a feat

of stylized rigging,

armed frigate, eating machine

whose armadas blow ashore

through warming currents,

to cooler coasts off Amagansett,

up the Atlantic as far north as the Bay of Fundy,

The Isle of Man—and I

who envisioned your technicolor

rays only in Our Amazing World’s

slick pages, centerpiece of

danger and display—how you swim

up unbidden, struck chord

like the wail of sirens, the warning

and the all-clear, the stark list

of grocery stash guaranteeing

post-atomic household survival. So you drop

that fine-spun glass pane

at the first sign of surface threat

to submerge or travel dark, lucent pools—

O blue bottle, spilled ink—

Even dead you deliver a sting.

The bees: A fable

by Ned Balbo

January 22, 2021

“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.

Using Poetry to Explore the Prison Experience

This essay originally appeared in the Currere Exchange, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2020.

While I’m no longer able to volunteer inside of a prison, I’m continuing my advocacy work by mentoring a writer who is incarcerated in a Maryland prison. If you’re interested, check out the Justice Arts Coalition’s pARTner Project for more details.

In 2015, my editor at Little Patuxent Review gave me an assignment I wanted to refuse; she asked me to interview a professor who ran a writing group—in a prison—and then to visit the prison and interview the men. The woman who ran the group—Professor M., a sociology professor at a major research institution who’d volunteered in the prison for seven years—spoke very positively about the men who participated in her group. Near the end of our interview, she shared a program with me for a literary day of the arts where the men had performed their original poems, stories, and songs. Their faces looked young and happy, which was a complete surprise to me. Professor M. assured me that I’d like the men, and her parting words were especially compelling: “There’s no one else that I’d rather spend a few hours with in a discussion.” I was intrigued, but frightened to go into a prison. My mind buzzed with all of the common middle-class stereotypes about “those people” behind bars and how they might act. “Those people”: school drop outs, drug dealers, hustlers, maybe even murderers. At that time, I had driven by the prison only once and never had the slightest desire to volunteer there. Several of my writer colleagues worked in prisons, and while I admired them, I had kept my distance, partly out of fear and partly because my protective shell had begun to crack as I learned about the prison industrial complex and the school-to-prison pipeline.

Many of my former high school students had brushes with the juvenile justice system, but none of them were especially “bad” kids. Instead, they were kids who had tough home lives or who had made really poor, impulsive decisions or who’d been unfairly targeted by a biased system that landed them in the lap of the law. Deep down, my spirit realized that, if I were to go into a prison and meet the men, I’d probably form a bond with them. Up to that moment, I’d walled myself off from that possibility, but my interview with Professor M. had piqued my curiosity.

Once my security clearance came through, I accompanied Professor M. to meet her writing group. Along with a lone pad of paper and a single pen, I’d brought a copy of my first poetry book, The Altar of Innocence, for the men to read and share. I thought they could relate to my story about drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce. Ninety minutes were allotted to interview five men, so I’d prepared questions about something that I wanted to know and understand better: Who were you when you came here? and Who are you now? I wasn’t allowed to have a recording device and couldn’t take any pictures, so I wrote notes on everything I experienced in order to capture the look and feel of the prison. My hastily scribbled sentences contained every detail that I could observe—the yellow X on the elevator floor designating the spot where no one could stand for fear of stalling the elevator, the insulation peeling off of the pipes in the hallway, the black metal peeking through chipped paint on the bars, the smell of bleach in the hallway outside the school, the song-like Baltimore and foreign dialects of the guards—and most of all, the men in the writing group.

Each one of them greeted me with a smile and shook my hand to welcome me to the group. Professor M. had told them why I was coming and then gave them a bit of my background—college lecturer, writer, and former high school teacher.

After about 15 minutes of introductions and chatting, we got started with the business of the interviews. The men sat around a large, rectangular table, each with a black and white composition book that held his writing. I didn’t think we’d have time for sharing, but it was good to see that they’d come prepared. I made notes about the physical condition of the room and copied down the quote written in neat cursive on wide yellow bulletin board paper that served as the backdrop on the stage. “Education is a passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it.”

I was impressed by the men’s good manners and calm demeanors. They laughed and joked with one another and shared stories with Professor M. and me. I felt much more relaxed than I’d imagined, and I was totally enthralled with all that the men had to share about their lives.

Here is a sample of what they told me. All of the men’s names throughout the manuscript have been changed to preserve their anonymity.

“I was misguided. I had no sense of self-worth. I grew up without any guidance. I’d say I was a lost individual. I was only reading at about the 7th grade level. I did some dumb things. I’ve been here since I was 15, and now I’m 28. Who I am now is a happy individual. I’m striving to be a better person—educated, moral, all that. I’m working on my character. I meditate, pray, work on my attitude. I want to contribute in a positive way. Part of what helps me is reading. When I read words, and I didn’t know what they meant, I went and got a dictionary. The idea that I could learn on my own was a spark.”~ Ryan, from East Baltimore

Read the rest of the story on the Currere Exchange website.

A Conversation About Poetry

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.

The endless procession of time

Taking on the Challenge of Something New

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.

Candle in the dark

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. 

An Evening of the Arts

before reading
Ann, Morna, and Brian chatting before the show

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!

drummer
Brian Potts on the drums

Reblogging: Little Patuxent Review’s Reading at the Writer’s Center

Hope to see lots of folks there for this special event!

Annual Reading on March 17 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda

Rucker cover

Little Patuxent Review will host its annual reading of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at 2 p.m. on March 17 at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. The reading will feature contributors to our most recent issue, including five members of the Black Ladies Brunch Collective, as well as LPR editors and Ian Anderson, the editor of Mason Jar Press, an independent press in Baltimore.

A reception will follow the reading. Our lineup:

  • Daien Guo, fiction
  • Ann Bracken, interview with artist Paul Rucker
  • Steven Leyva, poetry
  • Maria Termini, nonfiction (read by Desirée Magney)
  • Ian Anderson, fiction

And from the Black Ladies Brunch Collective:

  • Saida Agostini, poetry
  • Anya Creightney, poetry
  • Teri Ellen Cross Davis, poetry
  • Tafisha A. Edwards, poetry
  • Katy Richey, poetry

The Writer’s Center in Bethesda is at 4508 Walsh St, Chevy Chase, MD 20815.

Warrior Writer: An Interview with Drew Cameron for Memorial Day

Author’s Note: This interview was previously published in July, 2008, in  The Museletter, a publication of the National Association for Poetry Therapy.

Updated 2015 bio from drew Cameron’s website Warrior Writers: I am a second-generation hand papermaker, trained forester and former Army soldier. I co-founded the Combat Paper Project and have been facilitating workshops with veterans and the community in which they transform military uniforms into handmade paper, prints, books and art since 2007. The portable workshop has reached thousands of people throughout the country in 29 states and more than 125 workshops. My work is represented in 33 public collections and has been shown numerous times including at the Corcoran Gallery, Courtauld Institute, Library of Congress, Museum of Contemporary Craft and Craft and Folk Art Museum among others. Combat Paper is now operating in four locations: New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California, with open and ongoing programming. I am based in San Francisco at Shotwell Paper Mill and continue to practice papermaking, teach and encourage others to do the same.

Drew Cameron, 25, lives in Burlington, Vermont. He served in the United States Army beginning in August 2000 for four years on active duty and subsequently served two years in the Vermont National Guard, separating in August of 2006. As part of his healing work from the trauma of the Iraq War, Drew participated in a therapeutic writing program called Warrior Writers. Out of that came his idea to create Combat Paper, paper made from the uniforms of people who served in Iraq. Drew and his fellow vets have produced numerous journals and two books of poetry from the combined Warrior Writers and Combat Paper programs.

Ann Bracken: Tell me about Iraq.

Drew Cameron: The reality was a lot more chaotic, more callous [than what is portrayed in the media]. And when we weren’t fighting, we’d get in our trucks and tool around the country. We were young guys with lots of bravado; we got complacent. We got very comfortable and did whatever we wanted. We got a kick out of stupid things.

AB: What do you mean, stupid things?

DC: We acted in what they (the officers) called a “show of force.” Guys would get a real kick out of it. You know, we’d drive fast. We’d go out with a number of trucks, all loaded up. If a car was in our way, we’d just push it to the side of the road or run it off the road. We had our sunglasses on and usually had our rifles hanging out of the windows, at the ready. The idea was that if we were really tough and looked like we were ready for a fight, people would be deterred. Instead, people felt harassed, brutalized, hurt and hunted. Innocent people were hurt or driven over. It was a real provocation. But when I got home, I told myself I had nothing to feel bad about since I had never killed anyone.

AB: You said you thought you had nothing to feel bad about since you never killed anyone. Are these the kinds of thing that people would feel bad about when they came home?

DC: Yes, most definitely. I am very fortunate that I never killed anyone. But that kind of behavior is a provocation. And those are the kinds of memories that play in your mind over and over, the kinds of things that wake you up at night. Even worse that that, many people will have a single horrible ex-

Drew Cameron

perience that will play out over and over in their minds. They’ll replay it and replay it, trying to make some sense of it and there is no sense in it.

AB: Describe how writing about your experiences has helped you. How has it helped others?

DC: I went from being quiet and all alone to being involved in art and helping my fellow vets. I am trying to bring about some kind of change through my work, through the art. Cre- ating art comes from a good place inside. This work is also a political statement. My friends come here to the paper studio and hang out. This project of writing and then making paper out of our uniforms spurs a very positive, creative, releasing activity. It’s cathartic for those who get involved in both the writing and the act of making paper. And the healing that happens is not forced. The people are really doing it themselves.

They [vets] come in here and start talking, making pa- per, doing art and the ideas just start bouncing around. And I’m in my studio, which used to be a place for me to hole up in and spend a lot of time alone. Now it’s a place where I just love to bring people in. I can be generous with this and I

6 The Museletter

want to continue in that vein. I went from being quiet and unable to relate to anyone to someone who brings his friends in here and can offer this opportunity to someone just home from Iraq. This healing is important and no one should have to do it alone.

AB: It really is an amazing transformative act to cut up your old uniforms and then use them to make paper for your journals. How did this idea come about?

DC: The story of the soldier, the Marine, the man, the woman, and the journeys within the military service in a time a war is our basis for the project. Creating handmade paper editions of the book and facilitating papermaking with my fellow veterans eventually led to using our combat uniforms. The story of the fiber, the blood, sweat and tears, the months of hardship and brutal violence are held within those old uni- forms. The uniforms often become inhabitants of closets or boxes in the attic. Reclaiming that association of subordina- tion, of warfare and service into something collective and beautiful is our inspiration.

AB: What would you like to see come out of your experi- ence? What do you want people to know?

DC: I want people to know that when we come home, we vets don’t fit in. Everything has changed. We’ve changed. I’ve been slapped in the face with a set of circumstances and I have a lot of choices as to how I can deal with them. I was sent to fight in an illegal, unjust, immoral war. I can wither away. I can reenlist. I can resist. I can organize. I have choices. I chose to write about it, reflect on my experiences, and move forward trying to do something different with my life.

AB: Can you share a writing exercise that was especially helpful for you?

DC: Sure. Here is what I wrote in my first writing workshop with Warrior Writers.

Warrior Writers has been an impetus for me, recollecting old letters and my overseas journal to pick apart the memories that I would carry on paper. Going back to a place that I have left over four years ago. Trying to remember, regard- less there hasn’t been a day that has gone by in the time since when I haven’t though about it. 1,460 days of thinking about war. I feel as though we must go to the beginning to tear apart the shroud of numbness. We have to find the way back, understand it, dig in and continue; there are no short cuts with this.

When I first moved here I didn’t want to be known as a veteran, I would ask my partner not to tell people. I didn’t

think it necessary, nor did I want to be known as Drew the Army guy. Pushing away from the experience only manifested it in undesirable ways. My affliction isn’t flashbacks or in- trusive thoughts, drug use or violent behavior. My affliction is nothing. Absolutely nothing. I didn’t feel, hate, love, fear, or even care. My life was a monotone of going through the motions, I so very wanted to be emotional. I know in my train- ing I enabled myself to build various walls. Methodically constructing walls takes time and effort, it is an effective way to enable positioning one’s self against the brutality of com- bat. Unfortunately they do not teach a soldier how to deconstruct these walls. This is my charge, to find the foun- dations, to understand them and perhaps permit myself to move in—there will be no moving on.

AB: What is the message you’d like readers to take away?

DC: It’s so important that you’re here. We’re nothing with- out a broader push of people in society. There are many dif- ferent components to culture writing, art, the fine arts, com- bat paper. We can encourage others to do this, to participate in this shared experience. We can influence people by inspir- ing others. There are many small things we can do. For me, it’s a unique opportunity. Before, I never spoke about being a vet. Now, it’s a big part of who I am.

The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

A Blessing for Freedom: John O’Donohue

In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, I am dedicating this post to my Celtic hero, John O’Donohue, poet, author, and scholar.

I first encountered O’Donohue’s work in the beautiful book he wrote about friendship, Anam Cara. O’Donohue explains that anam car is a Gaelic word that means soul friend.  An anam cara is not a lover, but rather someone with whom you have a rich and nourishing connection. In his clear and musical prose, O’Donohue explores the beauty of friendship and the riches it offers to all of us. He also takes the reader on a journey into the Celtic world of the soul and its relationship to beauty, growth, and aging. Sprinkled through his beautiful book, O’Donohue shares his poems, many of them written as blessings.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The Cliffs of Moher

Anam Cara introduced me to O’Donohue’s poetry, and because I wanted to read more, I bought his book To Bless the Space Between Us, the last book he published before his death in 2008. Celtic spirituality is rich with prayers of blessing for every occasion, including the start of the day, new beginnings, courage, exhaustion, and illness. I’d like to share one of my favorite poems which I think is especially appropriate for where we are today.  I hope you enjoy John O’Donohue’s inspiring poem, “For Freedom.”

For Freedom

As a bird soars high
In the free holding of the wind,
Clear of the certainty of the ground,
Opening the imagination of wind.
Into the grace of emptiness,
May your life awaken
To the call of its freedom.

As the ocean absolves itself
Of the expectations of land,
Approaching only
In the form of waves
That fill and please and fall
With such gradual elegance
As to make of the limit
A sonorous threshold
Whose music echoes back along
The give and strain of memory,
Thus may your heart know the patience,
That can draw infinity from limitation.

As the embrace of the earth
Welcomes all who call death,
Taking deep into itself
The tight solitude of a seed,
Allowing it time
To shed the grip of former form
And give way to a deeper generosity
That will one day send it forth,
A tree into springtime,
May all that holds you
Fall from its hungry ledge
Into the fecund surge of your heart.

Shape-Shift Reality With Words

Poets and writers know the importance of choosing the precise word to describe a character or a feeling. Those choices are purposeful and usually the result of many revisions. But does that kind of careful approach to language have real-life applications?  Linguists think it does.

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A study on the use of words and metaphors to describe a problem has revealed some important information about how the words we choose can shape both the problem and the solution.  Mitch Moxley, the author of a  Slate magazine article called “Can Language Influence Our Perception of Reality?” gives an example to illustrate his point. Suppose you describe the economy as being stalled. What do you do?  Jump-start it, of course, just like a car. A quick, rough solution. But what if you describe the economy as ailing? That word conjures up images of sick people who need long-term care and attention. As a policy maker, you begin to look at different kinds of  solutions rather than a quick-fix. A simple shift in language moves the solution in a very different direction. For more information and a deeper explanation of the University of California San Diego study on linguistics by Professor Lera Boroditsky, take a look at Moxley’s article.

As someone who studied linguistics in college, I am keenly aware of the power of word-choice to shape perceptions and attitudes. That’s why I object so strongly to using business language to describe people. And when I read that some college administrators refered to students as output, I knew I had to write about it. It was as if the language was reducing the people in the classrooms to products coming off of an assembly line. And I reject that notion of education.  My new book, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, features this poem about the harm of using business language to talk about education–a deeply human and individualized process. The poem, “Value Added Teachers” was first published in New Verse News. I hope you enjoy it.

Value Added Teachers

She feels frustrated
as she rumbles around in cramped offices
with all the people shouting
Words don’t matter.

Especially when she hears graduates
of the university
referred to as output.

When people become output
there’s no need for nurture.
Sewage pipes have output,
as do factories that churn out row after row
of standardized parts.

In cramped classrooms and windowless lecture halls
teachers are gauged by their productivity–
here every human complexity is reduced
to a series of data points, quantified and measured
success or failure—positive or negative output.

These days she no longer relishes
seeing joy or surprise or the flash
of an ah-ha moment on her students’ faces.
Instead of planning for a field-trip to the meadow
for a sensory experience,
she spends time trying to quantify
commitment, measure amazement,
and determine a cut score for
how much inspiration one needs
for a journey into the unknown.

The launch reading for No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom is on February 24th at Zu Coffee in Annapolis, MD, from 6:30-8:30 pm. Co-feature is Diane Wilson Bond and the event is hosted by The Poet Experience.