Featured Poet: Chitra Divakaruni

I have saved for last a poet whose work has been a tremendous inspiration to me for many years, both in fiction and in poetry.  She is an author who transcends the division of genre in ways that few can, to glide effortlessly between lyric and narrative.  She’s also one of the nicest and most generously kind human beings I’ve ever had the good fortune to know.

I first discovered Chitra Divakaruni’s work about sixteen or seventeen years ago when my friend Margaret gave me a copy of the novel Sister of My Heart for my birthday.  I loved it.  The tightly-woven narrative, the lush wordplay, the intimate descriptions of India (a place I’d always wanted to visit) and California (a place I adored living in part-time), the fascinating characters whose lives were, at that moment in my life, so different from and yet so similar to mine — all of these things made me fall in love with Chitra’s work.

From there I found her magic realist novel The Mistress of Spices, her short story collection The Unknown Errors of Our Lives, and her collection of poems, Leaving Yuba City.  Her work has been so influential on mine.

So today, to close our celebration of National Poetry Month, I would like to share with you the first poem from Leaving Yuba City (still one of my favorite books of poetry).  You can find Chitra Divakaruni’s official bio on her website here and connect with her on Facebook here.

Thank you to everyone who has made this month-long journey into poetry with us, and thank you to all the poets who have shared their work so graciously here on my blog.  It has been such a gift.  Thank you, thank you, thank you.

 

***

How I Became a Writer

 

I peel off the sweaty dank of dawn bedclothes,
tiptoe to the door, soft, soft,
so the gorilla with iron fingers that waits
in the next room won’t hear me.
Sidle out. Then I’m
running, but lightly, still on my toes,
glancing back until I reach
the kitchen, thin cement strip where mother
sits at her steel bonti slicing bitter gourd
into exact circles for lunch. She has bathed already
and her damp hair covers her back
like smoke, the wisped ends
curling a little. She smiles and hands me
chalk. Under the grease-dimmed bulb

her shadow dips toward me, velvets
the bare ground. “Write shosha,” she says
and shows me a cucumber, green light
sliding off its skin. “Write mulo.” Now
a daikon radish, white and gnarled, sprouting little hairs
as on an old lady’s chin. I make shapes
on the cement. It’s hard.
The tight circles of the lo
cramp up my fingers. Around us the household sleeps,

limbs gathered in, snout buried in stuff fur,
but restless, dreaming of onslaught.
Rasp of a snore, a cough,
the almost-mute fall of a pillow kicked away.
“Write mo-cha.” Her cool fingers
petal over mine like the layered red plantain flower
we are writing. “Curl the mo like this.” Her voice
pours into me like syrup of palm,
amber, unbroken. On the street, sudden

angry yells. Perhaps a fish-seller or a neighbor
servant. Behind us, a clatter.
Her hand stiffens over mine, stops.
We’re both listening for that heavy stumble,
metallic hiss of pee against toilet pan, that shout
arcing through the house like a rock, her name. But
it’s only the mynah, beating black wings against the ribs
of the cage, crying Krishna, Krishna.
We suck in

the safe air, we’re smiling. I’ve completed the cha
which hangs from its stem, perfect, ripe
as a summer mango. She pulls me to her,
hugs me. Her arms like river water, her throat
smelling of sandalwood. Her skin
like light, so lovely I almost do not see
the bruise
spreading its yellow over the bone. “That’s

wonderful,” she breathes into my hair
as the sun steps over the sill
and turns the room to rainbow. And I, my heart
a magenta balloon thrown up
into the sky, away
from iron fisted gorillas, from the stench of piss,
I know I’m going to be
the best, the happiest writer in the world.

 

Note

bonti:  Curved steel blade attached to a piece of wood. It is placed on the floor and used to cut vegetables, fish, etc.

Krishna:  The name of a Hindu deity symbolizing love. Pet birds are often taught to repeat the names of gods in the belief that it will bring luck to the household.

 

My Post About Hats on the Bayou City Magazine Blog

Don’t worry, poetry fans.  I’ll still be featuring another amazing poet tonight on this blog in celebration of National Poetry Month.  (For any readers who are new here, click on the Poetry tab to see an index of the past month’s featured poets.  It’s a real treat!)

But this morning I need to post something else, a companion piece to an article I wrote which launches today elsewhere on the Interwebz (link follows).  Enjoy!

***

When I was asked earlier this year to write a piece about hats for the Bayou City Magazine blog, I jumped at the chance. I love hats and think everyone should wear them if they want to.

 

Wearing cute hats makes us happy.  (photo by Kara Masharani)
Wearing cute hats makes us happy. (photo by Kara Masharani)

 

 

When I was a younger woman, I bemoaned the fashion choices that had led to the presumed demise of the excellent hat. When I suggested to some close friends that perhaps we should bring it back into fashion, I found the rumors of the hat’s death to be greatly exaggerated. Lots of people liked hats! Enjoyed wearing them, even! I was both excited and…confused.

If everyone thought hats were so great, why wasn’t anyone in my fair city wearing them?

There seem to be a couple of big obstacles to hats’ being a staple of women’s daily fashion. The first is the perception that wearing a hat is just too much hassle when one is getting ready for one’s day. The second, and this may be subconscious fuel for the first reason, is that it takes some chutzpah to make a visual statement like that. But everyone is capable of overcoming these little roadblocks.

 

Go for a wider brim to add a little drama to your look.  (photo by Kara Masharani)
Go for a wider brim to add a little drama to your look. (photo by Kara Masharani)

 

First, let go of the myth that hats will make your hair fall out; in actuality, they protect your hair and scalp from sun damage, which is more healthful. Also forget the idea that you need a dozen different chapeaux to have a solid hat wardrobe. You can, of course – and, um, I do – but it’s not required.

 

You wouldn't believe how easy it was to find this hat.  Go ahead -- guess where I got it.  (photo by Kara Masharani)
You wouldn’t believe how easy it was to find this hat. Go ahead — guess where I got it. (photo by Kara Masharani)

 

The Fashion Fridays series here on this blog was started in part as an effort to bring hats back into popular style. For more details on how to choose a hat for yourself and where in Houston you can go out wearing it, click on over to Bayou City Magazine to see my article.

Featured Poet: Christa Forster

Today’s poet is Christa Forster, a colleague whom I admire very much for her tremendous use of innovation in the classroom and for her ability to sustain an artistic career while teaching full-time and managing a household and family.  She’s an inspiration to me.

Here’s her official bio:  Christa Forster is a writer, teacher and performer living in Houston, TX. She earned her MFA from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and is the recipient of several Individual Artist Grants from City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Information about her most recent work can be found at http://ysidora.wordpress.com.

 

***

Axiom

 

In a mildewy booth, I drain Lone Stars
with a sculptor named Nestor and listen
to a local band thrashing in the rear
room. We’re bored. Nestor knows a spot —
an abandoned incinerator — you
have got to see this place, he says. We take
my Datsun to some forsaken ash-
wracked shell, spare boxcars stranded on broken
rails, weeds looming like The Dream. Near midnight
we’ve found the apocalyptic garden.
Nestor shows me the burnt out heart
of the place — scorched black swath
smearing a white concrete wall: trash
theater, he calls it. Who knows what type
of carcinogens still haunt this stage?
We leave and hit a bar that sells wine
after last call, drive 288 South to Surfside.
Dow Chemical dominates the shore.
Ditching our clothes, we rush the sea
blue as our tongues. Luminous plankton
galaxies surround us, shooting stars
within waves. Nestor cradles my body.
In the spangled darkness I can’t feel where
my own skin ends, where salt water begins.
After a spell, we’re wiped and return
to the car. When I flick on headlights
we’re shocked by hundreds of beached fish
littering the shore, looking dead, their slick
white bellies glinting in the quartz-halogen gaze.
Where did they come from? Nestor wants to drive.
I tell him I can do it. The wheels bump
over bodies as we head home.

 

 

Featured Poet: Alanna McAuley

Tonight I’m featuring the last of my former students in this series.  I just can’t help but be proud of them and the very cool writing things they’ve gone on to do.  They were strong writers when I first met them, and they’ve only grown in the years since they left my classroom.  Tonight’s writer really came into her own as a poet in her last semesters of high school when she began to experiment with language and form — and she remains, to this day, the only one of my students to ever attempt the curtal sonnet for an assignment in my class.  (And it was gorgeous.)

Alanna McAuley lives in Seattle, WA where she is learning to negotiate between her day job and her creative pursuits–the biggest lesson she’s learned so far is that the PNW has so much to offer to daydreamers! In her spare time, Alanna enjoys knitting, gardening, gazing at the mountains, and — of course —writing. Her poems have appeared in The Anthem and The Blue Earth Review

 

***

On Privacy

 

Upstairs in his office my father
and I discussed the nudist lifestyle.
We remained fully clothed while
scoffing at these colonies. Over his head

I saw the privacy hedges quiver
through the slats in the window blind.

This was the day my mother took a handsaw
to the twelve-foot boxwood intimidating
the backyard fence. Dad will be mad, she said.
He always thinks I take off too much,

but it always looks good. I told her
to stand back, and view the whole picture.

I expected any second for my father to throw open
the upstairs window, balking at the gap
between fence and foliage. I scurried about
collecting the branches like what’s left on the floor after a haircut.

The trees’ hacked wounds bleed sap. It coats my fingers.
A few doves observe the scene from the power lines.

 

Featured Poet: Conor McCarthy

Remember a couple of days ago when I posted the poem by Patricia McMahon and mentioned her son’s poem would be featured on here soon?  Well, today’s the day!  Conor McCarthy, whose first published book Just Add One Chinese Sister, which he co-wrote with McMahon, came out while he was still in high school.  And no one who had ever been his English teacher was remotely surprised, because I’m not sure I can believe there was ever a time, since he could first hold a pencil, when Conor didn’t have fearsome writing chops.

 

***

Negative Capability

 

And then I ask myself how should I begin,
Neither sitting on the edge of an ale-stained bed
Nor in some gilded room choking on translucent arms.
They tell you to go back to the beginning of things
Which has always meant to me that ragged repository
Of the heart—but they neglect to mention
That the things which shape themselves there get all
Muddled and fall off the edge of the world on the way
To the mind or to the tongue or to your ear.
And so you’ll see me, sails unfurled to some far harbour,
Unfurled in silence, though whether because I will not say, or cannot
I am unsure.

 

 

Featured Poet: Justin Jamail

You might notice something about today’s poet’s last name, and that is that it’s the same as my last name. That’s because today’s poet is my cousin, who is also a poet.  We have an enormous family with very, very few writers in it.  He and I are about six years apart (he’s younger), and technically he’s my second cousin, though in a family as large and, in some ways, as tightly-knit as ours, that isn’t really distant.  We weren’t close when we were children, but we became friends as adults.  He had been living on the east coast for years when I met him again, back home in Houston, at his father’s funeral.

Our aunt came up to me after the service in one of the rooms of the funeral home where the mourners were having a sort of mercy dinner and told me, “You know, your cousin Justin is a poet, too.  You should go talk to him about that.”

“Oh, no,” I replied.  “I don’t think this is the right time for that, do you?”

She leveled her patented I-know-better-than-you-and-am-going-to-tell-you-what-I-know-because-I-love-you look at me and said, “Frankly, today,” and she gestured around the crowded salon, “I think he’d rather talk about anything else.”

“Okay,” I sighed and gingerly walked up to him. I waited for him to finish the conversation he was having and when he turned to me, I said, “Hi, Justin. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m your cousin Angélique, and Aunt Barbara told me to come and tell you I’m a poet.”  Then I shook my head.  “We don’t have to talk about this now.”

“Oh yes, hello, that’s wonderful,” he said with genuine kindness.  Then he gently took my elbow and gestured to a nearby couch and said, “Please, come tell me all about yourself.”

The last decade, we haven’t lived anywhere close to each other and see each other only now and then, but I consider him a close cousin and a dear friend.

Here’s his official bio:  

Justin Jamail is from Houston, TX.  He lives with his wife, the playwright Amber Reed, in Tokyo.

 

***

Four Negronis in Singapore

 

When one thinks that recorded human history
has taken not more than seven or eight weeks,
and that even our sun, though an immense ball
of party talk, is a pygmy beside most of the furniture,
the figures of remotely viewed people begin to dwarf
this country’s houses into comparative insignificance.
The farthest source of commentary
that can be seen with the naked eye
this afternoon is a faint splotch
available in a few university libraries
so far away that its import takes a million
episodes to traverse the intervening glasses
of cool relief and fan-conditioned conquests.

 

Featured Poet: Patricia McMahon

Today’s featured poet is Patricia McMahon, who writes — aside from poetry — wonderful children’s literature, both fiction and non-fiction.  If you’d like to see her official bio on the Houghton Mifflin site, click here.  I first met her when her son Conor was in my 9th grade English class many moons ago, and I was delighted with her willingness to come and speak with my classes — more than once — about writing and being an author.  She’s someone I admire very much, and when my children were little, her non-fiction title Just Add One Chinese Sister (co-authored with Conor, in fact) was their favorite bedtime book.

 

***

Alchemy or
Perhaps a Love Poem

For my hot dog darling

 

Not to worry, honestly
my new found dear,
transmutation is not my normal line of work
nor would I be fool enough
to think there was ever a chance
that the gray from the sea shore
stone of yourself
could ever turn to gold.

No, this spell I’m weaving,
best say I’m giving a go,
this alchemist’s chant
has nothing to do with you.
I seek a different transformation
curious if the spell might even exist,
to turn this lover of soft metal
into a seeker after stone.