My dog and I used to race each other on the road in front of the house. One of us always cheated.
It was me. I cheated. Every time.
It’s because one of us always won.
That was not me. Not once.
We’d walk to the end of the driveway and start our run from there. Except she is a dog and constantly distracted by some smell. She would wander off into the ditch to check on who’d passed through the culvert and it was then, when she wasn’t looking, I’d take off like a fastball thrown by a girl-arm–in other words–for all I was worth. Our neighbor’s mailbox was the finish line. She’d catch on and tear after me. I’d make it about 30 yards before she caught me, passed me, loping along with her huge wolf grin and squinty eyes, ear flaps flying in the wind. She beat me every time.
Those were our glory days. To be honest, my glory days were never that glorious. I’ve never been a fast runner and it’s never been a problem for The Jo Dog to keep up. Plenty of time for her to stop and sniff. She used to run circles around me. There. I admitted it.
We’ve both slowed down since then, and a couple of years ago I retired The Jo from running with me, altogether. It was a forced retirement, I can assure you. Now when I tie on my shoes and head for the door, she gives me the big eyes and flying-nun ears. Every cell in her body poised to spring to the door when I tell her “come on.” And when I don’t say the words… oh god, I can’t even bear to look at her.
I love running with my dog. My dog lives to run with me. Seriously, it’s the reason she exists on the planet. That, and to consume yummie chummies. Ask her. I hate that she’s too old (13) to go anymore. But today was a beautiful day. So I caved. I told her the magic words: “come on.”
Neither poets nor scientists have ever recorded the full measure of such joy as that which exists in the heart of dog that gets to go.
We went to the nearby Junior High and I galloped my little donkey gait around the track, she stayed in the center of the grass wandering back and forth, keeping her eye on me, cutting across the middle to meet up with me. It was kinda like how we used to be. But now I run circles around her.
Afterwards, my knee hurt. My knee always hurts. When I bend it. When I don’t bend it. When I rub it. When I don’t rub it. When I look it and call it stupid. It hurts. Feels great when I run. Hurts when I stop. Weird.
I’ve tried to think what I did to it, some huge catastrophic event that has damaged the works, bike accident, bad fall taking a ski jump, (ha), ice pick through the kneecap. I don’t really remember any of these things happening. I watched my dog do her best stiff-legged run of pure happiness today and realized that the only thing wrong with my knee is the catastrophe of circling the sun 48 times.
We’re getting old. The way things work, she’ll probably go down before me. But not gently. We both have aches and cranky joints. We both just want to run for as long as we can.
We didn’t race each other today. Those days are long gone. But the fattened-up September sun did shine on us, made our shadows long and slender and for at least a couple of miles today we were a little bit glorious.
On the spectrum of things I hate, ranging from downright despicable to death is better than dealing with this, it goes like this:
vacuum the house
eat a lychee nut
go to church
write an artist’s statement
shake hands with George Bush and/or Dick Cheney
touch a spider
Honestly, you’d have to threaten me with a spider to get me to touch a spider. As for Bush and Cheney, they surely don’t like me, either. Alas.
Then there’s the artist’s statement. Evidently, I can write a hundred page play, no problemo! But ask me to write my “artist’s statement” in five hundred words or less and I got nothing. I’ve been working on applications for writers’ residencies all day. I know I am not the first or the last writer who hates these things. I’ve spent hours on this–hours I could have spent on, oh I don’t know, my actual writing.
But whereas spiders are just pure evil, artist’s statements are more of the necessary kind. So I will endeavor to persevere on this application for a writer’s residency instead of working on a play or a poem. In the meantime I offer my ars poetica, from a few years ago, my first attempt at my explanation of myself as an artist. I read it from time to time, just to remind myself.
For instance nothing in this world
not me making the poem or you
You know what poetry is to me,
God made a rabbit
set it in the grass,
Devil made a popgun
shot him in the ass
and goddamn if you don’t laugh.
It’s a poem, after all,
you’re supposed to.
Someone said of you once:
you are an apple unpicked
on the highest branch where harvesters
couldn’t reach you
up there where
the winds of heaven mix forever
with a sweet emotion
a place you and I converge
thee mine, I thine
and I ask you take my hand, take this, my body,
and years ago and years from now
when any of us true in love but truly writes,
it won’t matter if it’s Sappho or Jesus,
Shelley or Shakespeare or the man in a white apron
packing salt around a fresh leg of pork
for a six month cure in the cooler.
The words came from you,
they belong to you.
Tomorrow the Leopards run out in the open for others to see. Tomorrow, director and actors and designers will gather around my kitchen table with the newly printed scripts in their hands and read words I wrote out loud for the first time. Tomorrow, my play comes alive.
But while the anticipation is killing me, there’s also this bittersweet sense of saying goodbye forever to a world that only I knew of, to people that only I had met, to the story that only I knew.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled as hell to hear my play read tomorrow. I wrote it with the intention of wanting to share it.
Playwrights live for this day.
My cast is amazing. My director brilliant. The designer, she’s out to blow our minds with her visual interpretation and mythic space. This first table read is the necessary and exciting step in collaboration as the play moves toward its workshop production in October. The play is ready, so ready to open its borders to other inhabitants.
Still, we never forget, we knew each other first and best. Yes, I’m talking about the play as if it were a “self” apart from myself, at the same time claiming it as a part of myself.
Tonight, I think about those initial inklings that made me write the play in the first place. I think about the hours I spent just staring at it, seriously just staring, staring, god all I’m doing is just staring at it because I don’t know what the hell it wants to be. I think about all the scenes I’ve deleted–in the case of this play, I think I’ve deleted far more pages than I’ve kept. (The old write 50 pages at night and cut it down to 4 the next morning scenario.) I think of my main character standing in a pool of light in my mind’s stage asking:
“How can I go on?”
All these months writing I’ve been trying to answer that question for her and for myself. And now the day is almost here when we hear that answer.
Tomorrow, I introduce my play, Come to me, Leopards. My Leopards, Jolianne, Sydney, Annia, Evelyn and Sharon will run through the woods together, fleet and strong, calling out to each other with new voices. My job tomorrow is to be the playwright and listen, to keep up with them and figure out exactly where they’re going before they get there.
I have a poem I’ve been working on for 13 years. I pull it out every other year or so, tinker it some and get it wrong some more.
For 13 years I’ve been getting it wrong. It’s a terrible poem, but I think of it more than I think of the poems I consider successful. Why?
Because it drives me nuts I can’t get it finished? Maybe.
The Birth of the Sun
It begins like this: a boy
opens a Ziploc bag to set free a bright fish
the quick in the water’s dark profundity
I think it’s more likely that I enjoy the puzzle. I keep worrying the central metaphor, thinking this time I’ll understand.
he stars the pond with flakes of food
the blazing fish whirling in tight wheels
burns beneath the calm, turning and turning fish
small yellow sprocket winding
bright gear driving, golden hub
a singular genius loopdeloop of lucky quark
Nope. Not this time. I always get lost in the spinning. Maybe the damn fish just needs to hold still.
I still don’t know what I’m trying to say and tonight I really don’t care. What I am grateful for is the freedom to get it wrong again and again and nobody died and no world economies fell and I don’t have to give up my lucky pencil because I wrote a bad poem. 13 years becomes 14 years. I am faithful in my failure.
Poem for a Small Meat Shop
for Mit, Rudy and Son of Rudy
Monday morning always a zoo,
freight rolling in and the restaurants calling in
out of sirloins, out of tenderloins, out of pork chops
for godsakes and now it’s up to you
to stand hours cutting
the day into 8oz portions to replenish
the larder behind a city’s appetite for the weekend.
You work for the wage and live by the yield
and take five at the next coffee break
when you wipe your hands on your apron,
lean your hip against the cutting table
to cross your arms and listen
to the other meatcutter’s joke about the guy…
but the damn phone never quits ringing
and across town some executive chef
is clear out of bulk sausage
and the whole fucking world
is going to come to a bad end
if it’s not delivered before lunch.
Pick up your knife.
You belong to a class of people
named for a verb, to a trade of men
stained with blood. The red
on these steaks is vital, brilliant,
against white mylar, the only color
in the whole damn place.
400 each center cut tops.
You made them.
“Mother, we haven’t had anything to eat today,” said the three miners from Mexico, “or yesterday, or the day before, and we are dead broke.”
I said it would be remarkable to find a miner any other way. I said I had enough money to get them plenty to eat, but to be sure and steer clear of the charity organizations .
I said, “I can tell you where you can go and get filled up. Go down to the saloon and get a free lunch, and they will give you a schooner of beer to wash it down. I will have a meeting on the street tonight, and as this is the tourist season the collection will be good and I will give it to you.
We had a collection of eighteen dollars that night, and I gave them five dollars apiece and kept three dollars to get something to eat.
Then we saw a gang coming down the street and they were hammering each other. I asked a policeman what the trouble was. He said it was a row about Jesus.
I said, “Who’s in it?”
He said, “The Salvation Army and the Volunteers are fighting about Jesus.”
I said, “that is a hell of a way to fight for Jesus. Why don’t you arrest them?”
He said it would not do because there were fighting for Jesus.
They had beaten each other and the women had pulled each other’s hair out. They were fighting to see which side Jesus belonged to. While they were hammering each other the collection that had been taken up rolled on the street. I jumped in and rescued the coin.
When I had some coin I didn’t have to fight for or talk for, but got it by bending my back a little, I said to the policeman: “Don’t you want a drink on Jesus?”
He said, “By God, I do!”
So we went to a restaurant and got supper and some beer, and if any fellow wanted to get an extra jag on we were ready to pay for it because we had Jesus’s money.
–Mary “Mother Jones” Harris
Speech at the annual convention
of United Mine Workers of America, 1909
Happy Labor Day weekend, everyone.
Thank you to all the unions, organizers, workers, agitators, liberals and lawmakers who finally pulled their heads out of the owners’ asses to give us a day to celebrate people who work.
And thank you, too, to everyone who has encouraged me and commented and viewed my blog in my inaugural week. I’m enjoying the conversation.
When I was in poem school, the myth–now realize poets hold myth as ultimate reality–so therefore the truth we used to tell about ourselves was according to the theory of six degrees of separation we have all at one time been intimate with Walt Whitman. I’m not quite sure how it works. His atoms into our atoms. Six degrees of sex. Looking backwards, body to body to body to body to body to the Great Ecstatic Poet.
Me and Walt.
You and Walt.
Your mom and dad and Walt. Wow.
Your great aunt Myrtle in her grave crumbling and becoming earth and Walt. (Way to go, Aunt Myrtle!)
Sex aside, when I read Whitman’s poems, they enter my body and soul. It’s poetry. It’s going to be intimate. For me, his poems are the song of us all. We are Whitman and he is us.
We imagine Whitman as the old grizzled poet, white beard and soulful eyes. What if we thought of him in terms of his voice and not his photograph. Below is a clip of the voice of Walt Whitman–well his voice as I hear it now. Listen to this young Whitman singing his song to us:
That young Whitman in the recording is my nephew in fourth grade. He’d asked to borrow my copy of Leaves of Grass. He wanted to take it school for show and tell. They were doing a unit on poetry. He wanted to show it to a girl but he would never admit that.
When I read Whitman now, that’s the voice I hear in my head. He’s young and discovering each word, exultant in the gallop of his lines, his tone like a clear bell chiming in our midst.
Here’s the text, the first page of Leaves of Grass, the 1855 edition.
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes….the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume…. it has no taste of the distillation….it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever….I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echos, ripples, and buzzed whispers…. loveroot, silkthread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration….the beating of my heart….the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belched words of my voice….words loosed to the eddies of the wind,
Gary Garrison, Creative Director of the Dramatist’s Guild asked that question a couple of years ago at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez, Alaska. He was talking to a room of us playwrights, our notebooks open on our laps to jot down his advice to us on how to be a playwright, but really he was talking to us about how to just be.
So we wrote it down, the worst thing, the most hurtful judgment anyone ever had the balls to say to our face.
–You always write poetry.
I really don’t remember who said it, or even what play it was about, but it came in those exact words. And I have a clear memory image of a hand tossing my script on a table they way you take your grocery receipt out of the bag and toss it in the garbage as you put away the milk. My play was difficult, weird, had too many monologues (I know! I know!) and was just a bunch of writing. This person had had enough of my wordy birdy ways. It was poetry. It wasn’t a play.
I was a young playwright so of course I apologized and went home wishing I could just quit that poetry shit and write a real play. And believe me I have written plenty of plays that are difficult, weird, had way too many monologues and were just a bunch of writing. Yeah. I’ve even showed that crap to people. Yikes.
Garrison didn’t leave us there, brow beaten under someone else’s opinion–indeed, the state of brow-beatedness does not even exist in Garrison’s universe. Do yourself a favor, and look him up, if you don’t know him.
“Now write down the best thing anyone has ever said about your writing?”
–You always write poetry.
I didn’t know it until he asked us to put into words. The worst thing anyone ever has ever said to me about my writing is also the best thing anyone has ever said to me about my writing. My strength is my weakness. My weakness my strength. Something like that. A two-sided coin. A two-headed monster. Two-Face, the nemesis of Batman. Two roads diverging in a yellow wood.
See what I did there?
It all comes down to the coin toss. Heads: I write poetry/Tails: you read poetry.
Someone I knew died last night. Suddenly. Heart attack. His passing leaves an empty space in our community.
I didn’t know him well, but that’s beside the point. He was kind and creative and made the coolest puppets I’d ever seen. Each one was a work of art, distinct in their detail and personality. I used to wonder what his house looked like with a crowd of his creation filling it. If they all talked at once, what a fabulous cacophony!
He always encouraged me in my writing. Whenever he saw one of my plays he always made it a point to send a message congratulating me. That meant a lot. I know he’d seen a helluva lot of plays.
He was a member of the IATSE union, worked in the wings at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. When I attended plays there I could always see his distinct outline moving set pieces in the blue dark of the scene-change light. When he found out my play Rush was going to go up there this February, he messaged me to congratulate me and we made plans to celebrate with a beer at Darwins, his hangout pub right around the corner.
It’s the little things like that you look forward to. Sure, my play is going up, there’ll be opening night stuff happening, all the big deal stuff going on, but I thought it was really great that one of crew, one of the “cool” people in our theatre world, wanted to have a beer with me.
That beer is still going to happen. Anyone who wants to join me, Feb 14, yes, valentines, can lift a pint to Buzz Schwall and all the people who’ve touched our lives. All the people we miss.
Here in the Valley Between
Everything today asks the same question,
the great mystery our lives:
How long do we have here?
Across the inlet, two volcanoes
stare into the east, their steep faces
bathed in the soft light of this particular earth day.
But what of evening? when the sun
fires the atmosphere
and the inferno remembers
why it is here among us
–Creation and Destruction–
How audacious I am
brushing my teeth against decay, boiling water
for an egg three minutes from now, telling a friend I will attend
the Breast Cancer luncheon next Wednesday.
Tomorrow and tomorrow
and the day after that, I have plans
here in the valley between two volcanoes.
Probably not tonight, but eventually
they’ll shatter our sky. Let’s agree now to look
for each other in the morning.
Think of it as a green forest
where sun travels through
on no particular path,
with no real destination but the whole day itself.
There is song, the smell of earth,
a small table of water where the moon spreads her writings.
Each leaf is a green-lidded eye.
Love who you love. There is nothing
that does not see you.