Methods and Muses

When I write poetry, it is a beautiful, strange experience.

Poems can begin with something I see- a movement or gesture, an insect or tree, a collection of colors or an image in a dream. Poems are inspired by what I hear- a story from a friend, a child’s question, a café conversation, wind, waves and songbirds. I hear lines in the morning, when I first wake up, or in the late afternoon, just before sunset. The softness of the light and the quiet make this possible.

Whether they arrive through sight or sound, I pay attention. I grab my favorite tools:  a No. 2 pencil, a Precise V5 Rolling Ball Extra Fine pen, my 7”x 9” Blueline journal or my MacBook Air. (On special occasions, I use my turquoise Remington or my black Remington 5, but mostly I keep these polished and parked like some people do with vintage cars. They’re so pretty).

With tools in hand, I listen, following what feels out of the ordinary, looking for connections, signs and symbols, researching until, as my good friend June says, I am ‘way down deep in the rabbit hole.’ I compose as I do this, jotting down whatever comes, trusting the raw process, polishing as I go. Then, once poems are ready, (after being edited a million times) I send them out, and sometimes… I get published. Yay!

Below are cottontail trips that led to some of the poems within my chapbook, Galaxy Around My Neck. This collection-in-progress is about family, childhood, nature, love and loss. It’s about coming to terms with our fragile existence, remembering our connection to the cosmos and honoring significant places on this big, beautiful planet.

Anything But Simple

When I was little, my Mom sewed my clothes. I was fascinated by how she could make flat fabric into something that would fit around my body. I loved the pattern paper, the thin tissue, how complicated it looked with all the arrows and words. I loved how fabric sounded when my Mom cut through it. I remember feeling a combination of fear and awe whenever she pinned cloth onto me. She kept the pins in her mouth as she did this, and she could even talk without swallowing her weird metal teeth. She was a super heroine.

I sat down and wrote this poem in one day. This rarely happens. I submitted it to 3Elements Literary Review, a groovy on-line journal that tasks writers with incorporating three specific words into their poems, and they published it for their Spring 2016 edition.

Here’s a stanza from “Anything But Simple”:

How much a sleeve, before it is a sleeve
resembles a plot line. Arm measured,
cloth cut, exposition begins at the wrist.
A French fold, added ruffle, or lace tells us
this is the story of a girl, and her mother
pinning fabric.

Sacraments

When my niece Hannah was 7 years old, she asked me if I would be coming to her Holy Communion. Because she was a child who often pondered deep questions, I thought she was asking me to clarify my thoughts on faith. After politely listening to my philosophical answer, she said, “Ok, but Aunt Shella, are you coming to my party or not?” Sometimes even the most brilliant nieces just want to have fun.

This moment with Hannah inspired me, so I decided to write a poem capturing vignettes related to my Catholic upbringing. It grew into an assemblage, and in 2015, thanks to Jen O'Hagan, editor of In My Father's House, a collection of personal experiences of faith and religion, it was published.

Please enjoy a stanza from “Sacraments”:

The tomboy is put away for the occasion
(if God is the Father
Jesus the son
is the Holy Spirit the Mom?)
of getting married to God.

Tangerine

My brothers and I have always been in love with trees. We grew up in both Wisconsin and Florida where we spent countless hours running around woods or swamps. Trees were our refuge.

A few years ago, Michael called me for one of our chats. Somewhere in the conversation, he let me know that his tangerine tree had died. His voice was incredibly sad. I wanted to write something for him, to honor his tree and a few of our childhood trees.

To write this poem I used references to: Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax and Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. I also summoned the textures and smells of shagbark hickory, oak, chokecherry and tangerine trees.

While I was in D.C., I was a member of the Federal Poets critique group, and each year they published a literary journal, The Federal Poet. My poem was accepted for their Spring 2012 edition.

Here’s a stanza from “Tangerine”:

As children, we covered our eyes
when a chainsaw took the ‘bunk bed’ oak.
Having slept on her giving limbs, her bark
on our skin, always the scent of wood,
her bright surface, our private terrace,
we mourned her loss as a friend.

Roadside Saint

I used to road trip a lot.

I drove across the U.S. on restless excursions-from Florida to the Midwest, across the Southwest through the Deep South, up the Mid Atlantic to the upper Eastern Seaboard, and back again- many, many times. I rode with friends and lovers, meeting great new people in cities and small towns. I hiked canyons, prairies, and forests and learned to appreciate the natural beauty of our country.

Ditches fascinated me. If you spend enough time on the road, you notice how broken things have their own way of shining and appearing quite beautiful. People are broken too. We break apart ourselves, and we break each other’s hearts. We are a fragile species.

For “Roadside Saint,” I drew inspiration from ditches, and I combined stained glass windows, Greek myths, statues of saints and jigsaw puzzles to form the poem.

Kalliope, A Journal of Women's Literature & Art published my poem in Vol. 29, No. 1, 2007. Kalliope also honored me with the Sue Saniel Elkind Poetry Contest Award.

Please enjoy a stanza from “Roadside Saint” (formerly titled, “Narcissistic”):

You wear a light blue dress

stitched with the broken chips

of somebody's rearview mirror.
Sunlight jumps from the ditch,

I scoop up the shards, and narcissistic,
I swivel your hips to see my face
moving back and forth

across the sky of your body.

Artifacts

I had a conversation with a friend when I was 13 years old. We were talking about the universe, trying to comprehend the nature of infinity.

Around middle school, our brains start to develop the ability to analyze broader topics. We form opinions and theories of how things work in the world, and in a good way, we are challenged and a bit confused.

To complete this poem, I used images of jacks, pennies and railroad tracks. Phoebe, An Interdisciplinary Journal of Feminist Scholarship, Theory, and Aesthetics, (now Praxis, Journal of Gender & Cultural Critiques) published it in Vol.14, No.1 & 2, 2002.

Here’s a stanza from “Artifacts”:

How we’d toss those little red balls up
swipe metal stars into our fists
click them against pavement
drop them through hooped fingers
and slide them into caves…
how we made a game of juggling stars