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.
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!
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.
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-
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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,
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.
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.
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.
When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience. That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem “How the Stars Get in Your Bones” by Jan Richardson. We all agreed that this poem captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day. We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.
How the Stars Get in Your Bones
A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.
And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
who can say what day it happened?—
See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.
See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.
Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.
I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.
This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.
Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015 when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Michael joined me, along with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante. Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.
The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.
I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.
One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.
Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.
The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.
For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.
How I respond to student writing
When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.
For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”
The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.
For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.
Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.
Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.