August 30, 2015

Elizabeth Alexander's Memoir Connects to Readers

via NPR
You may know the acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander from her reading at President Obama's 2009 swearing-in ceremony.

Alexander, who teaches at Yale, published a new book earlier this year — but it's not poetry. The Light of the World is a memoir of the 16 years she shared with her husband Ficre, until his sudden death a few years ago.

He died of cardiac arrest while running on a treadmill at home, just before his 50th birthday, leaving behind Alexander and their two sons. Since the book came out, Alexander says, she finds herself in the role of collector; people present her with objects as a way of responding to her loss — pictures, letters, stories and more.

She tells NPR's Michele Norris that nothing had prepared her for this. "I never imagined — in fact, I was quite certain I would never write a memoir. My own sense of privacy was too powerful," she says. "When I sat down to write, I didn't sit down to write this. I simply wrote as an extension of my hand, as an extension of my body, trying to stay absolutely grounded with my hand on a table, with my feet on the ground, planted on an Earth that had so suddenly seemed unstable."

August 15, 2015

Prompt: Directions Home

Years ago, I was interested to see a feature in The Saturday Review each issue that was called "Writer's Desk." The idea was simple. It showed a writer's actual desk and explained a bit about how they worked there. I always thought that I might gain some insight into writing or writers by knowing about the how and where of their writing. It is a questionable theory, but when I visit a writer's home I am still interested in seeing their writing space.

Thinking about Charles Bukowski's battered desk looking over the Los Angeles harbor or Raymond Carver staring out his Port Angeles, Washington window across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and thinking about going fishing, did give me a bit of a sense about their writing.

So, I looked at Emily Dickinson's home and Wallace Steven's house looking for clues. I walked through Walt Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey looking for signs of his ecstatic poems, wandering spirit and curiosity.

I was interested to see that a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, was used during National Poetry Month as a writing prompt about home.

Juan Felipe Herrera reads “Five Directions to My House” as part of National Poetry Month 2014.

Five Directions to My House

1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance
2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds
3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor
4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets
5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now
6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.

Actually, I was more interested in the responses to his poem by students. Here are two of the poems written in response to Herrea's poem.

Six Ways to the Sky by Leyla, age 9

Turn around go to the end of the long bridge
Into the wave of clouds under the colorless arch
Under the heat of the center core.
Over the peregrine falcon flying fast as the race car
Out of the endless underwater cave
Around the wheel of fortune, around, around, around the wheel.
I said six, said six like a rainbow says seven.

Five Minutes to My House by Ilyssa, age 18

the mountain cradles the rising sun as it leaves
a warm pink collection of colors in the air.
Bright, brutal sunlight turns the sky on
like an electrical switch and the sky becomes

the staccato of a wood pecker tapping on my roof
in the morning stirs me awake.

an endless stretch of rocks and dirt, harsh
to the eyes, a barren desolate land.

a dead bunny carcass lies on the newly
paved road, it ran towards the wheels of a
car. Now, it’s left behind a sore sight
for all except hungry lone scavengers.

time, time slips through the fingers like
yellow grains of sand left behind on a beach.
Even time moves slowly in this eternal home.

Your writing prompt is to write a poem that gives directions (in any format) to your house or any particular house - including the home of a poet - take a look at my earlier post about writer's homes.

Submissions to this prompt are due by September 6, 2015.

August 13, 2015

At Home With Poets and Writers

Does Robert Frost's Franconia, NH home fit his poetry?

The Saturday Review used to include a Writer's Desk page with a photo and brief piece about where a writer did their writing. Those writers included Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. That led me to explore both in person and online the homes of other writers. Perhaps, looking at a writer's writing space gives some clues to what they wrote or how they wrote. Perhaps.

Take a peek at the homes of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Paul Dunbar and Walt Whitman.

President Abraham Lincoln had written a poem about his home, which opens with this stanza

My childhood home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

and ends with this:

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.

The boathouse in Wales where Dylan Thomas spent the last 4 years of his life. did a feature on the home in poetry in which they say the home can be a "mythic, imagined place, the location of childhood memories, or the brick-and-mortar remainder of a broken relationship. It can represent the proverbial 'room of one’s own,' the simple pleasures of eating and gardening, or hold the drudgery of chores."

Stanley Kunitz said in an interview that, “There was a cloud that hung over our house in Worcester, Massachusetts and it took me almost fifty years or more before I could face it in a poem [The Portrait].”

The "cloud" was formed by the deaths of his father who publicly committed suicide weeks before Kunitz’s birth, and the death of his stepfather and both of his sisters.

W.H. Auden wrote a collection, About the House in which the home becomes an extension of the self.

I suppose I must be quite at home in the world of poetry, because I got 9 out of 10 correct on The Guardian's quiz about poets' houses.Any guesses about what writers used these homes?

I used to believe that I could be a better and more productive writer if I had an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. I suspect many of you have fantasized about having a place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.

There is no good evidence that those places actually do inspire writers or allow them to focus, and there are plenty of writers who work in cities and at home surrounded by distractions. 

If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work, American Writers at Home and Writers' Houses.

We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing. I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Pad and paper, or fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer? I like seeing where writers work.