Poetry is coming for you in the middle of the night and there is no escape

Because I was emulating my big sister—who worked on her high school literary magazine—I started writing poems in 7th grade. No one made me do it.  I enjoyed it. I did it on my own time. By the time 8th grade rolled around, I had a whole bunch of poems stockpiled. So when I saw an ad in Smithsonian or some such asking if I would like to become a published writer, I thought, hell, yeah! And sent the whole litter off to to the P.O. Box listed in the ad.

What I didn’t realize: it was a vanity press. Being a tween and all, I was broke and couldn’t afford the fee, but thanks to the the flattering letter they sent me—and the very tactful feedback of my aunt Sue, who read that really terrible manuscript and knew better than to tell a hypersensitive kid their poetry sucked—I just doubled down on the whole poetry thing.

Some of those poems were less terrible than others, and so I sent a few to the PTA Reflections contest in 8th grade. Partly it was out of laziness, because I already had them (and so wouldn’t have to do the homework), partly because I really, really chafed against having to write to a theme. And of  course, the Reflections theme was always some variation on “What American means to me.” Even at 13, I found it impossible to stomach writing a rah-rah essay about America, because I didn’t feel rah-rah about this country’s politics at all. I did win Reflections in 6th grade, but only because I amended my essay (which was about a homeless guy who frequented our local grocery store and handed out dead leaves to poeple), with a conniving explanation of how I actually was writing to a patriotic theme, even though it didn’t look like it. I was more surprised than anyone when it actually won. Especially because it had the horrible title “The Leaf Man of Albertson’s.” My dad accused me of plagarizing the title of movie The Bird Man of Alcatraz, which I assured him I had never seen. (He didn’t believe me.)

So I submitted a poem about graffiti and one about….um, I don’t remember what the second one was about. I know they were both moony and mawkish, and the images were cliched. They didn’t even get an honorable mention, of course. I didn’t worry about it too much. I got out of some homework, and I got out of having to write something that turned my stomach.

Which is why I was shocked, even more shocked than when I got a certificate for the Leaf Man story, when one of the judges sent me a letter. She told me that I was disqualified for the reason I got disqualified pretty much every year in Reflections—I didn’t stick to the theme. But she told me to keep writing, that she would’ve picked my poems had it not been for the theme thing. And she sent me $20, too. This was SO MUCH BETTER than winning Reflections. I didn’t have the humiliating experience of parading in front of a school assembly to accept one of those stupid certificates. Ha ha, and I got money, too! Money my Mom did not realize I was holidng in my hand, so I was free to do whatever I wanted with it.

So what did I do? Did I put that $20 in my college fund like a sensible lass? Hell no. I called my best friend Chrissy, who lived up the street, and we went down to the ZCMI mall and bought $10 worth of saltwater taffy. Unfortunately I picked some very peppery peppermint taffy (someone obvioiusly went a little wild with the flavoring oil) and we had tears running down our faces before we made it four pieces into the bag.

With the other $10 I bought a copy of Crass’ The Feeding of the 5,000. Not because I had been eyeing it, or knew anything about it. Because the cool kids I looked up to at school all had Crass logos on their torn-up Levis jackets. For me, it turned out to be the sonic equivalent of that caustic peppermint taffy. At 13, I was still too much of a little kid—and a prudish little kid at that—to metabolize something like Crass. Chrissy and I ended up playing frisbee with the record out in front of my house (my mom didn’t enjoy listening to it either … Crass and Einsturzende Neubauten’s “Habler Mensch” both got banned from the turntable). But I kept the sleeve and read the liner notes. I saw that the drummer was a person named Penny Rimbaud. What an odd name, I thought. I couldn’t tell if it was a male Penny or a female Penny. I really liked the way that name sounded. It stuck in my head.

So a few months later, while standing in B. Dalton (I know, I know! Give me a break—I was 13 and living in Utah, OK?) I saw a blue spine with the word RIMBAUD on it. It was poetry, which I was still a little intimidated by, but I pulled the book off the shelf and opened it up to a random page. I read “The Poet on the Subject of Flowers.” Even though I was the same prudish little kid, I was completely blown away and impressed that they would let someone use the phrase “enema bag” in a poem, especially when describing a lily. Then I read “The Drunken Boat,” and that was it. I saved up my lunch money and bought the book. It had white scars on the spine because I pretty much read the whole damn thing while I was saving up to buy it.

It wasn’t long after that I had a dream I was an adult, filing out a tax form, with the word “poet,” written in the space where it asks for your occupation. I remember looking at it and thinking, “OK, I’m good with that. It could be worse!”

Now, I did listen to that Crass record a few times. As a wussy 13-year-old, the only song I ever really managed to take a liking to was “They’ve got a bomb.” I felt this sentiment deeply then, because the Cold War was still on. Even as a dumb kid, I realized that the white space in the middle of the song—right after the phrase “waiting for the flash”—was pure genius. Because when you have your whole life in front of you and you’re mortally afraid of being sizzled up by an atomic bomb, you feel that white space acutely, every day.

Now we’re back in the same idiotic place. I am so sad and sorry that song is so relevant again. And I have been thinking about all the 13- and 14-year-old-kids who have just started writing poems, who are now very afraid, thanks to the New New Cold War. I’m pissed on their behalf. I’m afraid for them. I’m afraid for all of us. And I am finally tough enough to listen to Crass. In fact, I’ve found some solace in listening to Crass lately. (I haven’t tried ZCMI’s peppermint taffy a second time. Maybe I’d find it a bit more agreeable the second time ’round, too?). And I am rededicating my energies to finding a way to make art that empowers people,  like that Crass record empowered me.

Even though a vanity press gave me the chutzpah to keep writing poetry (well, my aunt, actually, but an official-looking piece of letterhead never hurts), it was Penny Rimbaud who accidentally connected me to Arthur Rimbaud. And as I followed Arthur’s trail, I found Charles Baudelaire, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, H.D., Langston Hughes, Yeats, Mark Strand, May Swenson, and a thousand other psychopomps who changed the very structure of my brain. At 18, I bonded with a person who became a lifelong friend (another poet) because he saw five different translations of Rimbaud in my bookcase. For a long time, I’ve been really sad that I didn’t save the letter from the Reflections judge. I would like to write her a thank-you note, and tell her that hey! It worked—I still write. You got a return on your 20 bucks. I’ve also thought about making a pilgrimage to Dial House to say thank you to Crass for sealing my fate as one of those happily doomed souls who is hopelessly in love with poetry, the reading of it and the writing of it.

Maybe I don’t need to. Maybe the magic just worked the way it was supposed to work. Maybe all I need to do is stay true to that magic, to be loyal to it by continuing to read, and continuing to write.

Psychic Postcard Predictions

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This came in the mail yesterday, with an uncancelled Forever stamp in its upper right-hand corner. The text on the back reads:

XVI. THE TOWER. Stability. You may have lost someone or something but you will gain from it. Feeling stable in body and mind. Closure. Good stance. Solid. 

The message (not written longhand, printed on a sticker):

Psychic Postcard Predictions. Dust devils, brown belts, clotheslines, bland vanilla cookies, red cars, marble pillar. 

Along the margin was info on the maker, an Etsy seller named Madame Woo Woo. Sadly, looks like she’s no longer selling on Etsy, or making these postcards.

Oddly enough, this was not the only Tarot object that landed in my mailbox this week. I finally broke down and bought myself the only good-looking Tarot t-shirt I have ever found—it was handmade in Modena, Italy:

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You can’t see it in the photo, but it’s got those cut-n-rolled 1980s sleeves and collar—sort of Flashdance, mashing up dancer’s improvisatonal workout clothes and rock ‘n’ roll street style. The Tarot shirts I’ve found in the States are awful—Zazzle Beefy-Ts with a square card image slapped awkwardly in the middle. So I was over the moon to find this one. (The shop is drawflowers, and they have a lot of other great stuff, if you want to check it out. Looks like this was the last of their Tarot shirts, though.) I’ll probably only wear it on special occasions, so I don’t wear it out, and never on airplanes—I’m sure TSA would get wired about boobs on a shirt, even though they’re just circles on a woodcut.

So that is my tarot-by-mail reading this week. Very intense! Standing between the destruction of the Tower of Babel and the heart of the universe. The Tower I can’t help but relate to the Clemens Mansion Fire. The World, well, as a famous philosopher once said, the world is all that is the case. On Sunday, it was looking like this would be a trainwreck of a week, but somehow everything just worked out. And it worked out neatly enough that I was able to hit all my deadlines at work, churn out a freelance piece, finish my artist’s fellowship application for RAC, and get through final proofs today in time to take my Summer Friday and leave at 12:30. Of course I also got lost in the parking lot near Wal-Mart in Richmond Heights when I stopped on an errand. And in my desperate marching back and forth, vainly searching for my Subaru, I was forced to make multiple passes near a guy in a beat-up muscle car smoking the strongest-smelling pot I’ve ever whiffed. The car was red. And I’d bet money that this red-eyed guy in a red car was most certainly, most definitely, wearing a brown belt.

 

Tiny Mixtape for a Raincloud, and a Drop in Temperature

At 4 p.m. today, an AmerenUE bill slipped into my mailbox. I opened it, and what happened? I frowned. I might’ve cried a little. It’s been hot. My determination to get a grant from St. Louis City for solar panels just ratcheted up to 10. My motivation to apply the lessons of Sim Van der Ryn’s Integral Urban House just ratcheted up to 10, too. Maybe 11. At the very least, we need a new damn A/C unit.

It’s going to rain tonight and tomorrow night. The highs will hover in the mid-80s. Soon. Sky, my armpits thank you. Sky, my tomatoes thank you. Thank you for deciding not to be so hot. In gratitude, I offer you a definitely exuberant, slightly sloppy mixtape:

The Ugliest Possum on Helen Street

This photo will horrify a lot of people. C’est La Vie. Photo by Thom Fletcher, taken through the back kitchen door window at Casa Russell-Fletcher.

That’s the back of my head. And yes, that is a possum. I can imagine all the shrieking that is happening as people look at this picture—all the possum haters! You are the majority. This is what happened the other night when I went out to feed our feral cat, Devi. (I’ll save her backstory for another post.) Before Devi could get to the food, this very young opossum scrambled over the edge of the porch, trucked over and literally ate her lunch. Honestly, it happened so quickly it shocked me, and I was afraid to move. I feel charitable towards possums—I didn’t grow up with them, so they are exotic to me, and I’ve always found them to be gentle little beasts—but I know most people find them repugnant. This little guy has been hanging around our yard for a month or so. It’s pretty wild out there, with raspberry bushes and a bird feeder that drops a lot of sunflower seeds, so the possums show up uninvited. I actually find possums to be kind of cute (again, not a popular opinion) but I’ll say as a possum admirer, this poor little guy is definitely on the homely side of the possum spectrum. He is scrawny, has a patchy coat, weird-looking spots on his tail, and exceptionally beady eyes (and all possums have beady eyes, so that is really saying something). He is just magnificently ugly. Maybe that’s why I felt kind of protective of him and didn’t shoo him away. Next time, I will. At the moment, everyone on Helen is traumatized and feeling like they need to seize the day. You can’t blame a possum for wanting to seize the day, right? Even Devi agreed, sitting there frozen on the porch just like me, watching the ugliest possum on Helen Street devour what was rightfully hers.

After the Fire

Bird on a wire, a few days after the Clemens fire, temperature 101. Photo by Thom Fletcher

I was born on a Monday, which apparently means I am full of grace. (So much for the wisdom of Mother Goose.) That nursery rhyme further elaborates that Wednesday’s child is full of woe; maybe that’s why I have always been suspicious of Wednesdays.

On July 12, our neighborhood had a very bad Wednesday:

That’s my neighbor, Mr. Bell, being interviewed in front of my house. Those are my bushes, and my shabby-looking irises. (Hey, it’s been a hot summer!) Somehow I managed to sleep through that insane fire, and firemen pouring water on the roof, and mulitple emergency vehicles going up and down the street, and Fox 2 shooting in front of my steps. I woke up at 6 a.m. as usual, and smelled smoke. I panicked, assuming I’d left the stove on. But it was off. Standing in the kitchen, I saw a firetruck through the back window, and guessed it was a nearby house—we have an uncanny number of house fires in North St. Louis. Thom went outside, came back in, and said, “It’s the Clemens Mansion.”

Not a warehouse, as the fire department first thought. But a building about that big, for sure.

The odd thing: St. Louis Magazine (my employer) ran an in-depth piece on the history of the house a few weeks before it burned. Somehow I’d missed the fact that James Clemens—Mark Twain’s uncle—built the house for his late wife, Eliza, who’d died of cholera. Her face is all over the house: in the lintels, in the paster ceiling medallions, everywhere. Here are Paul Poiret’s images for the Library of Congress’ Historical American Buildings Survey, circa 1960:

As you can see, it was looking a bit scratchy and worse for wear even back then. Though the driveway into the grounds was at the end of my street, and was totally open and unboarded, I never went in. Though I saw plenty of little goth kids strolling in and out of there to get their UrbEx photos. The first time I set foot in there was after the fire, when reporters showed up after several days of neighbors agitating at the Health Department and Paul McKee—both had been mum about cleanup. Though the boiler and such had been remediated for asbestos, the roof had not; that’s why there are huge chunks of black, unburnt asbesots debris all over the neighborhood. All over. The EPA made a dispersion map, and my street, Helen, was right in the middle of an angry red blob that indicated we were ground zero for most of the debris, but the stuff blew over Highway 70 and maybe as far as the Mississippi River.

The Clemens Mansion was always a ghost mansion, a gothic tribute to a dead woman, every architectural detail a momento mori. Its burning feels like a cremation, Eliza Clemens’ ashes everywhere.  This new age person says that asbestos is a “spiritual vacuum cleaner,” absorbing negative energy, though it never discharges or heals it. My poor neighborhood has seen plenty of negative energy, and it is easy for me to imagine all of that bad energy concentrated in that toxic roof. Maybe Thom was more right than he knew when he said that the debris reminded him of the final (yes, truly awkward) scene of Time Bandits:

“It’s evil! Don’t touch it!” That’s the first rule about asbestos. Also: DO NOT WEAR SHOES IN THE HOUSE. I bought myself a pair of ugly mint green polka dot boots from Rural King, two sizes two big so that I can slip them off and on without touching them.

I don’t have a grass yard; there’s a serviceberry tree, an elderberry bush, mulch and more mulch, purple coneflowers, lavender, hydrangeas … I don’t know how they are going to truly clean up our yard, because they can’t just use a vacuum like on the lawns and grass lots. The men in moon suits are expected to arrive soon, but who knows if they’ll really get us back to the point where we have a clean, safe space. So I continue to go outside in my ugly polka dotted boots. I wear them when I step out on to the back porch to throw stuff in the recycling bin and the compost bucket. I wear them when I go out in the yard to feed the feral cat that has adopted us. I wear them when I fill the birdfeeder, as I wonder whether I should even be filling the bird feeder, should I be attracting birds to a yard full of asbestos ash? I watch dozens and dozens of bees visiting my mint and chamomile plants. I watch hummingbirds feeding off the pineapple sage flowers. I can’t pull the plants out to discourage the wildlife because it’s contaminated, so I can’t touch it. I can’t make the bees go away, or the hummingbirds. They see flowers, and they are going to visit them. There is a baby opossum living under our hydrangeas—he stood three inches away from me the other night. I am terrified for my neighbors and my neighbors’ kids. I worry for everyone and everything, down to the tiny little sweat bees swirling around my flowers, down to the weeds and the ants.

It’s hard to explain how awful it is to suddenly have your sanctuary turned into a SuperFund site. To have all the things that previously brought you delight—all the neighbors and birds and the butterflies and flowering plants—suddenly transformed into things that worry you and make you sick at heart. Not long after the fire, my purple coneflowers started turning brown and dropping petals. Is it because it’s 100+ degrees outside? Or are they being poisoned? What will happen to our outdoor cat? What are we breathing? Have we tracked this stuff into our house unwittingly? Is it all over our floors, our clothes, our bedsheets? We were told to wipe things down with paper towels, put those in a sealed plastic bag, and call the EPA to pick them up—paper towels with dust on them, suddenly toxic waste. I started the summer off by treating myself to tickets to Opera Theatre’s production of The Trial, based on Franz Kafka’s novel of the same name. Little did I know that it was not just going to be a trip to the opera—that this summer, Kafka would become my Virgil, my psychopomp.

 

Lead the Way, Mimosa (Unless You End Up as Rorshach Bats)

In a little less than an hour, I’ll make the (insanely short) drive over to Firecracker Press, or rather Central Print, their nonprofit educational arm. I signed up for a letterpress class, and yes, it’s going to be really rudimentary. I have my hair pulled back in a ponytail, so that it doesn’t get caught in the press, and I’m wearing my grubbiest jeans. Tonight, we bring a picture of our favorite leaf – I don’t really have a favorite leaf, but one of my favorite trees is Mimosa pudica. If I had to pick a part of the plant I was most fond of, I’d pick the flowers, which are fuzzy and weird and bright pink, and smell like perfume and ginger ale. But the leaves are interesting, too – mimosa’s also known as sleepy plant or sensitive plant because the leaves shutter together when you touch them (they do the same thing when it gets dark). They are also ferny and prehistoric-looking, really beautiful, as you can see:

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EPSON scanner image

Mimosa pudica

I’ve probably set myself up for failure by picking something complicated with lots of tiny fronds instead of, say, a catalpa leaf, which is just shaped like an upside-down heart. We’ll see if what I end up with looks less like a leaf and more like one big ink smudge, like a Rorschach card.

Postscript! 

So here is my very first attempt at a woodblock (well, it’s a linoleum print; easier to carve than wood, so I got off easy). Yeah, I tackled something too complicated for a beginner. I was really panicking as we were all carving, because I couldn’t make the tools do quite what I wanted them to do. I didn’t get the background clean enough, ask there is a lot of what printmakers refer to as “noise.” Matty, our wonderful teacher, called this “rustic,” which maybe is a nice way to say “primitive,” but I feel happy that this actually turned out looking like something because I wasn’t so sure it would. I was trying to work from a drawing I’d brought, and got really frustrated because it didn’t look exactly like my source image. Then I realized I just had to trust my hand, and things went a bit more smoothly. I didn’t really like my final drawing, and so ended up almost re-drawing the image with the tools. Not ideal. I kind of lost my way, and I also wasn’t sure how my marks would translate to the final print. I have to say, though, as a left-handed person who mostly writes and hasn’t done any printmaking at all, I am very happy that my final prints did not look like schmutzy Rorschach bats. This looks more like a thistle or an Armistice poppy than a mimosa branch, but it looks like something, and a botanical something, too! So, I’m happy. My homework now is to track down linoleum blocks, carving tools, and to think up a big project and a little project. Getting the stuff will be easy. Trying to figure out what I want to do with those tools will not be easy…

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Making Space

In October, we moved into a house. It’s the first time I’ve ever had my name on a mortgage. This house is modest by average American standards – 1800 square feet  – but it feels huge, because we’ve been living in a 625-sf apartment for the last two years. I guess I’m impressed that we managed, as two adult humans, to live in such a small space, but I’m relieved to have a bit more room to float around in. I wrote my last chapbook at the kitchen table; it doubled as my work desk. Though I got a running start on it in our apartment prior to that, which was in O’Fallon Park, and at 1,000 s.f., it was large enough to allow for two office spaces. This is me, figuring out where to hang stuff in that room:

408166_10150612530874929_1812925092_nAs you can see, the walls were very red. It was one of those half-rooms you see at the top of the stairs in St. Louis two-family flats, pretty much just space for my desk and a chair. There was also a very, very small closet, which I outfitted with shelves and put my books inside it. For the six or so months we were there, I was insanely productive. The neighborhood leaked into my poems, high, low, and sideways; and I think maybe the poems I wrote during that period sound like they were written in a small, red room.

So, this is my new office; the opposite, really. It’s not huge, but the ceilings are high and the walls are painted a very calm, meditative blue.

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It’s the same desk that lived in the red room. And some of the ephemera over the desk is from that era, too; it survived two years in storage in a friend’s rehab. There’s also a closet, but one I can put spare clothes and art supplies in, because there is room for an actual bookcase.

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This came with the house. It’s home to all of my poetry books now, including a bunch that I had not seen for two years, because they were taped inside plastic tubs and squirreled away in the back room of a third-story house (a room that had no windows, I might add…it’s a rehab, after all).

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This is the wall behind my desk; the poster is by artist and herbalist Michael Ford, in memory of herbalist Juliette de Baïracli Levy, who is one of my heroes. On the little glass shelf over Juliette, there are three terra cotta pots, which I seeded today with valerian, white evening primrose, and calendula.

My tiny red office was a bit like an oven. (And yes, it was even hot like an oven – we were there in 2012, the summer that temps hovered around 107 for more than a week, and didn’t get much cooler from there.) This new space feels like what my imagination wants a cloud chamber or star chamber to be, like a room where clouds or stars park themselves for a bit. (Those two things, in actuality, are not places one would want to spend any time in at all.) The first week this room became functional, I turned out three poems (not bad ones, either, though they need more revision for sure). But this space seems to be more conducive to stories. Since I’ve moved in, I’ve found a growing chorus of characters appearing in my head; they seem to have no intention of leaving me alone. Apparently this calm, blue workspace is meant to be the place where I sit and transcribe what they tell me.

On Tuesday, I’m starting a class at Firecracker Press, so my hope is that I can figure out how to design and print covers in order to put out those stories as a series of linked, individual chapbooks. Sort of like how Dickens used to do it, in serial form, or like the old Penny Dreadfuls. I’ve even been looking around for tabletop platen presses on Ebay, but I need to learn how to use one first. And in the spirit of Juliette Levy I guess, I’ve been researching how to make ink out of shaggy mane mushrooms, pokeberries, and black walnuts. Those messy ink-making operations will have to take place in another room entirely…or maybe even out on the back porch.