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This month I am participating in The Sealy Challenge by reading a poetry book each day. Today’s book is An Oral History of Covid-19 in Poems gathered by Sarah Donovan of Ohio State University. Sarah curates Ethical ELA with an Open Write event each month. During the month of April, she posts a prompt each day. In the spring of 2020, the daily writing was a way for teachers isolated by the pandemic to connect through writing. We wrote poetry to process this unusual time. Sarah and her colleagues decided to preserve this work in an oral history project. Through that project, they conducted interviews by zoom and collected submitted poems into a collection. The book is free to read online or you can purchase a book copy for the cost of printing. (Link to Free Press Book.)

The thread that holds this collection together is the shared experience of teaching in 2020. Many of the poems are narrative while some follow forms.

I’ve chosen two poems to feature today.

Elms on Death Row

DENISE HILL

Three trees stand solemnly
in a row just as planted
nearly one hundred years ago

Each tendril root
tapped deeply into place
somnolently holding to earth

Craggy rough bark
like aged hands so many
life stories harbored there

Each now marked: a bright red dot
some roughshod city worker
sprayed just doing his job

Their days are numbered
soon hewn to stumps
then those ground flush

I place my hand on one
breathe in breath out
say “Thank you”

then the next: Thank you.
then the next: Thank you.

Lest they go from this world
unappreciated for all
they have provided.

Thank you.

I relate to this poem as I have experience the chopping down of trees for development. Haven’t we all? I feel sad for the marked trees. Denise captures that feeling well. I love how she decides to deal with this sadness, not by ranting, but by gratitude. This poem also holds together as a metaphor poem for Covid. The illness strikes some with little or no symptoms while others are very ill and die. Senseless deaths. Like the Elms, they leave behind their stories.

Washing Hands

SCOTT MCCLOSKEY

They say that all poems are
political; all poems are
an expression of freedom
against oppression are
innately radical.  Their
mere “existence is
resistance.”

But not this one.

This one is just about me
washing my hands
and how sometimes I lose
count, so I need to start
over to ensure that
I’ve done it for the proper
length of time.

Hands lathered up, I stare
out the kitchen window
at the neighbor’s house,
at my neighbor who, although
it’s the middle of December,
and sure, it is unseasonably
warm, looks to be planting fake
flowers in the sills outside
of her windows.

This is the same neighbor
who was surprised when her
racist lawn ornaments were
stolen this past summer
when yet more videos
of atrocities and injustices
were going viral,

which, of course, makes me
scrub more vigorously, thinking
of the UPS package that came,
the actual reason that I’m standing
here in the kitchen —
Was that one thousand seventeen
or eighteen? —

So, I apply more soap from the
hands free dispenser, and
watch, transfixed, as she carefully,
artistically even, places various
colors and kinds together, creating,
to her mind at least, a pleasing
arrangement, taking more care
and effort to arrange these fake
flowers than she has ever
afforded her neighbors.

And I just wanted to wash my
hands, wanted to not (potentially)
infect my wife or myself, wanted
to simply go about my business,
maybe read a little, grade an essay
or two,

but I keep thinking
about the sad fact that
cultivation does take
time and effort and
persistence, and,
for some, it really
is easier to arrange
plastic flowers

than to plant
and nurture
live ones.

In Scott’s poem about washing hands, I appreciate how he sets up the poem as an ordinary moment, not a political poem “not this one” and yet, it becomes more and more filled with emotion, and in the end, imparts wisdom with an extended metaphor in “plastic flowers.”

I hope I can continue this daily blogging practice around a different poetry book each day, but realistically, “cultivation takes time and effort”, as Scott McCloskey says. I’ll take it day by day. Thanks for reading.

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I first heard of Ilya Kaminsky in a Poetry Unbound podcast episode. Commentator Pádraig Ó Tuama said he read Deaf Republic three times on the airplane flying home to Dublin. Three times! I thought that would not be me. I don’t usually read books more than once, but when I bought it on Kindle, I had to read it at least twice to have any kind of understanding. In pulling together this post, I’ve read many of the poems a third time.

Deaf Republic is not a book of poems for kids or for the faint of heart, even. It was a difficult book. Violence and sex are not topics I choose to read, but I became intrigued by the characterization of deafness and sign language. The townspeople, after witnessing the shooting of a deaf boy, use an assumed deafness and create a sign language as opposition to the occupying forces.

I’ve learned that Ilya Kaminsky is deaf himself. It’s important to know this when listening to him read. I had a chance to see him present in the Poetry Teachers Institute from the Poetry Foundation last week.

The poem I’ve chosen to feature today is “Alfonso Stands Answerable”.

Alfonso Stands Answerable

My people, you were really something fucking fine
on the morning of first arrests:

our men, once frightened, bound to their beds, now stand up like human masts—
deafness passes through us like a police whistle.

Here then I
testify:

each of us
comes home, shouts at a wall, at a stove, at a refrigerator, at himself. Forgive me, I

was not honest with you,
life—

to you I stand answerable.
I run etcetera with my legs and my hands etcetera I run down Vasenka Street etcetera—

Whoever listens:
thank you for the feather on my tongue,

thank you for our argument that ends, thank you for deafness,
Lord, such fire

from a match you never lit.

Ilya Kaminsky, Deaf Republic

There is so much to notice in this poem. I notice the varying line lengths, first person narrative, and a strong simile is “deafness passes through us like a police whistle.”

A craft move that I would not consider in my own poetry because of the possibility of confusion is the direct address to different characters outside of the poem. “I was not honest with you, life–” and then “Whoever listens” To whom is the narrator testifying to? me, the reader? or the enemy?

I also wonder about the word “etcetera” repeated. I like the way it sounds when read aloud. But why, when the line means the same without the word?

This poem lands with power. As a poet, I rarely hit that mark.

I wonder about using this poem to teach poetry. For my students, I would remove the curse word and draw attention to repetition as a craft move and wonder about the word “answerable”. What does it mean? Why is the narrator answerable?

Honestly, the more I wonder about, the less I know. I probably need to read the book again.

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When something comes across my radar multiple times, I pay attention. This is the first year I’ve heard of the Sealy Challenge. It is a challenge to read a poetry book each day in the month of August. I read poetry books for more than one purpose.

  1. To enjoy lyrical language
  2. To inform my own writing practice
  3. To get ideas for teaching

The first book I read was Jacqueline Woodson’s Before the Ever After which accomplishes all three goals.

I picked up the book at a new local independent bookstore, and it was signed! Ha! What a find!

Before the Ever After is a middle grade novel-in-verse. To read a review, click here.

For my take on the Sealy Challenge, I’d like feature one poem and respond to it.

This poem captures a few themes of the verse novel. ZJ’s father is suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and his friends help him through the struggle. Football is a major topic, but ZJ is a musician and has troubled feelings about football due to his father’s illness. The repetition of “Used to” effectively communicates ZJ’s continued struggle about how things used to be before his father was ill.

Craft moves I love in this poem are the repetition (anaphora) of “Used to be” as well as that ending. “Just feels like that.” becomes “Just. Feels. Like. That.” This craft move is something I can try in my own writing and I can show kids how to use it with effectiveness.

Jacqueline Woodson, while being a master of craft, does not overuse any literary element. It just feels natural. It’s. Just. Natural.

Pin on winkies

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Poetry Friday round-up is with Becky at Sloth Reads.

Two weeks in covid times is a lifetime, time enough for the Delta variant to quickly invade my territory. It has taken a few weeks for the CDC to catch up to this invasion and to adjust guidelines. From our own family’s experience we knew a few things before they did. The virus Can infect someone who is vaccinated. The virus Can be spread by vaccinated people. And the vaccine Does protect from grave illness. My 90 year-old mother-in-law was vaccinated in January and February. Two weeks ago she started coughing. She took a rapid antigen test that showed she was positive for Covid-19. Today she is fine. She’s back to swimming daily and has only an occasional cough lingering. No hospitalization was necessary. We aren’t even sure if her case was counted in the long run; however, in these last two weeks, CDC has taken an about-face. And we are glad they have.

In my anger over this viral outbreak, I wrote a villanelle for an Ethical ELA Open Write prompt. The Seven Poetry Sisters put out a villanelle challenge for this month, so I asked for critique from my writing group and revised. A villanelle is a challenging form. I used Rita Dove’s Testimony, 1968 as a jumping off place.

This poem is a jeremiad. (prolonged lamentation or complaint, originating from Jeremiah whose Biblical book is lamentations)

Delta Invasion

Who comforts me now that the virus has broken?
Numbers mean nothing now that you’re ill.
Anger invades my trust, hope lost or stolen.

We thought our lives safe to reopen,
but Delta arrived with its own stubborn will.
Who comforts me now? The virus has broken

through the vaccine’s promised protection.
Credence is shattered on CDC’s sill.
Anger invades my trust in hope; lost or stolen.

Safe, unsafe rules are misspoken
as dispersed droplets aim to kill.
Who comforts me now that the virus has broken?

Our lines of defense should be woken
to what we now know is out there still.
Anger crumbles trust as hope is lost or stolen.

Some still reject life-saving vaccination
yet your nagging cough didn’t kill
what comforts me now is the virus has broken
and relief restores trust. Hope not lost or stolen. 

Margaret Simon, 2021
Don’t trash those masks. Time to wear them again.

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I’ve noticed recently on my morning walks that the crepe myrtle trees are doing something weird, shedding their bark. Surely this is something they do yearly, but I’ve never noticed it. Of course, I googled it.

As all Crepe Myrtles grow and mature, they shed last year’s bark, revealing a colorful, mottled bark beneath. Once the tree has reached full maturity, several years after planting… you are in for a real show. Sit back and enjoy the unique texture and coloration that shows up on their wood once the bark is shed. Because the Crepe Myrtle is a deciduous tree, it sheds all its leaves during the winter, leaving behind the beautiful bark on the tree which makes it a centerpiece in many winter landscapes.

McDonald Garden Center Blog

I took a few pictures with my phone, but I wasn’t satisfied with the artistry of the photos. So I text my friend, teacher-photographer Lory Landry.

“Do you have any good pictures of the peeling bark of crepe myrtles? I love how you see things and photograph them with an artistic eye.”

“I don’t think so. If I knew where some were off hand, I could take some.”

Not a full hour later, she texted me 8 close ups. I had a hard time choosing. This was our next exchange.

Crepe Myrtle Bark by Lory Landry.
On Instagram @leauxlandry

When Sun warms Earth,
Myrtle knows to shed her skin
and show her inside beauty.

Margaret Simon, draft

Leave a small poem in the comments. Be kind in your response to others. Share your inside beauty.

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Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for creating an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write and share.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

This is not where I usually write, but I’m trying it out–the coffee shop where jazz is playing and the hum of the refrigerators sound like the cicadas in my yard. A young couple chat quietly. She’s wearing athletic shorts and a “Friends” long sleeved t-shirt. He’s got on jeans and a ball cap. She’s talking and playing with the straw in her cup. He leans in, nods and laughs. She is a natural beauty, long black hair, tanned skin, perfect teeth. Someone’s daughter. Someone’s sister.

While I watch this couple, I am trying not to look by the window where two women sit in the comfy chairs talking with their hands. Literally. There are no sounds, only signs. I once knew some sign language, but as with any language you do not practice, the ability fades with time. No matter. What they are talking about is none of my business. I can sit and listen with my eyes. Notice the beauty of expression without words.

I recently read Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book Whereabouts. Lahiri’s writing fascinated me because there was no defined setting even though you always had a sense for where she was. The narrator does not identify herself or anyone else by name. Lahiri breaks the rules about novels without blinking an eye. She takes us to wherever she is and we go willingly. Like sitting here in this coffee shop observing and being present to the moment when nothing much happened.

The writer’s greatest chance may be devotion to the passing fragment.

It is small, but it is pure, and it may hold compact infinity.

Kim Stafford, The Muses Among Us

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Poetry Friday round-up is with Kat Apel down under with snails and cats and #petpicpoems

I have a new creative obsession outlet: zentangle poems. I signed up for art card exchange with Amy Souza at Spark . I have a pocket Buddha reader. The pages are small (2″ x 3″) and full of wonderful Zen words in which to create small poems. Here are the art cards I sent out.

The winds, coming and going
free
See beyond reality,
illusion, vision, dream
beyond the realm of words.
(Zentangle Buddha Poem #1)

Disentangling truth
can free you.
Understand sweetness.
Trust the self.
Nothing exists forever.
(Zentangle Buddha Poem #2)
Find truth
in a tangle–
hopelessly question
Understand the tangle-truth.
(Zentangle Buddha Poem #3)
How brightly you will shine!
You are yourself.
You, wherever you are.
(Zentangle Buddha Poem #4)
You will know
the scent of sandalwood
against the weed.

My sister is an artist. (You can find her on Instagram at bethsaxena_art.) Beth sent me this folded book with the message “This book wants to be a poem.” I’ve had it for a while. She painted in blank spaces just the right size for Zentangle Buddha Poems.

The womb is pure and free.
Wonder indeed
entered
is calm insight
and truth.

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This summer it has rained every day here in South Louisiana. The effects of climate change are here, warmer air, warmer oceans, more water vapor=more rain. We are waterlogged. However, the plants seem to love it. The trees are greener than ever, covered in resurrection fern that only turns green when it is wet. I’ve managed a daily walk between downpours. I took this picture yesterday of the bark on one of our oak trees.

Live Oak, photo by Margaret Simon

There’s imagery here, metaphor maybe? Find your own way into a small poem and leave it in the comments. Be sure to respond to other writers with encouraging words.

This old tree frosted
white with lichen brightens
a trail to fairy heaven

Margaret Simon, haiku draft

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Thank you to Two Writing Teachers for creating an amazing community of writers and a safe, welcoming space to write and share.

Covid numbers are rising in our community. It’s invaded my family. We thought we were doing everything right. We are all vaccinated. Apparently, the Delta variant doesn’t care. The good news is no one is very sick. The vaccine is doing its job. Needless to say it’s rocked my world. We thought we knew. Now we know nothing. Keep masking up, my friends. This awful ride isn’t over yet.

Trying to replace some sense of control, I planted a tree. I’ve been nurturing a red buckeye for years. My friend Jim gave me a seedling. I’ve kept it in a pot, then a bigger pot and a bigger one, but now it’s in the ground. I hope the roots are ready.

In January, my friend Marion died from an aggressive cancer. I did not get to say goodbye. Before her death, she and her daughter Robin cleaned out her yarn supply. They gifted me with two large boxes that I placed in a closet upstairs. I wasn’t ready to open them. Robin had asked that we plant a tree to memorialize Marion. When I planted the red buckeye, I thought of Marion and the yarn, so I opened one of the boxes. I found a piece of knitting and wrapped it and placed it in the hole before placing the tree. A simple gesture that I am writing about here, so I can remember.

red buckeye

Marion was a writer. We met in a writing group once a month for at least 18 years. The poem “Last Words” by Rita Dove appeared in The New Yorker shortly after her death. This poem was just what Marion would have said.

Let the end come
as the best parts of living have come
unsought and undeserved
inconvenient

now that’s a good death.

Rita Dove, read the full poem here.

In the Open Write at Ethical ELA, Tracie McCormick prompted us to write a Golden Shovel. Here’s my Golden Shovel for Marion.

Bury the Knitting
(Golden Shovel for Marion using the striking line from Rita Dove, “Let the end come as the best parts of living.”

I bury the knitting; Let
dirt fall like rain on the
stitches of your gentle hands. The end
came too soon. I come
to this tree today to pray as
you did. The
roots will ravel around the best
parts
of a daily life of
love and care-filled living.

Margaret Simon, draft

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Poetry Friday round-up is with my friend and writing group partner, Molly Hogan at Nix the Comfort Zone

One of the best things about summer is having time to be creative. I’ve enjoyed designing collages on marbleized notebooks as well as writing poems for the Summer Poem Swap, coordinated by Tabatha Yeatts. The third exchange I sent off a notebook to Tabatha herself. And she gifted me with a poetic zine, Today’s Poem (after me, after Cheryl Dumesnil’s Today’s Sermon.)

More about making a zine from Tabatha here.

I love this personal-to-me poem, especially the line about toy phones. I’ve been answering a lot of toy phones lately with my little grands, and I love how this one line captures the Joy of being with them in just a few words. The magic of poetry! Thanks, Tabatha, for organizing this fun and meaningful exchange and for being my partner for this round.

Today’s Poem, zine by Tabatha Yeatts

Today’s poem
riffles through a pile of
to-do lists,
looking for blank paper

Today’s poem
answers calls
from toy phones

Today’s poem
hears sunflowers’
reminders to feed the birds

Today’s poem
clicks like a typewriter
while it’s napping

 Today’s poem
refracts a rainbow
into your bathwater

Today’s poem
runs back and forth
through an imaginary sprinkler

Today’s poem
fills your tank
and walks you to your car

Tabatha Yeatts, (for Margaret Simon, Summer Poem Swap 2021)

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