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.



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.





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.


Featured Poet: Paul Otremba

Several years ago, when I hadn’t been doing much writing and was near crazy with the frustration of not having enough time to do it, my husband wisely insisted I take a poetry workshop over the summer to get myself back into writing regularly.  I hadn’t produced any poems for years, though, having focused almost exclusively on fiction since my son was born three years earlier — when I could focus, that is, which wasn’t much.  I was unhappy, steadily denying a vital part of who I am by allowing myself to be busy with other work.

Poetry, Aaron reminded me, was something I could do in relatively short pieces; the manuscripts were bite-sized compared to the novel I was trying to write.  I could draft and workshop and revise and edit and be done without taking years and years to finish something.  (I suppose it must seem, to an observer, like a poem is the closest to instant gratification this craft achieves.  I suppose, in a way, it can be.)

Anyway, the poetry workshop I signed up for that summer was led by Paul Otremba, and it was cathartic and intellectually nourishing in the best of ways.  Without abandoning fiction, I became a poet again; I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it.  That summer was wonderful, geeking out about language every week in Paul’s class.

Paul Otremba is the author of two poetry collections, The Currency (Four Way Books 2009) and the forthcoming Pax Americana (Four Way Books 2015), which will include the poem posted here today. His poems have recently appeared or are forthcoming in such places as Witness, Southwest Review, Hotel Amerika, Green Mountains Review, Third Coast, and The Minnesota Review. He teaches creative writing at Rice University. His website, where he also writes about poetry and cooking, is http://paulotremba.com.


The Hive

– “To the Age Its Art, to Art Its Freedom”


New techniques, material
layers, so a body
of work glued together—we found

that break showing honey.
Oh, Vienna, you cannot move!
But always in the same period-dress

gardens and words
feel stepped on.
Their progressions curdle

behind our profiles
like eggs, or an obvious Typhon
if only you know the handshakes

for entrance to the dance.
And Mal? Your strings
still echo full of wolves.

At the end of the day
they call us where?
Just some hope a cue summons

within you. Here, I submit
a list of my complaints.
I did but taste the field.


Featured Poet: William Shakespeare

Today is one of the more commonly accepted birthdates for William Shakespeare, so he gets a turn here on the blog tonight.  Happy 450th, Will!  Isn’t that a milestone?

I thought about posting one of my favorite of his sonnets, the one we used as a reading at our wedding, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments…”  But then I thought that might be too expected, and instead I considered some of my personal history with the bard.  Don’t worry, I won’t go into it all here.  Ain’t nobody got time for that!  But I do want to share one anecdote.

When I was in high school, my boyfriend took me to see Henry V at the cinema.  At the time, all I really knew of Shakespeare was Romeo and Juliet and scraps here and there of historical data and maybe a play fragment or two.  I had heard of Othello and Hamlet and Macbeth but hadn’t read them yet.  I had heard of The Taming of the Shrew because Moonlighting had done an episode called “Atomic Shakespeare” that my parents had recorded on their VCR and let me watch one day when I was home, sick, from school — since I’d already watched it at my grandparents’ house with my aunt.

I had no familiarity with any of Shakespeare’s histories at all.

So this boy took me to see Henry V because a friend of his had told him how good it was.  As far as mainstream American audiences were concerned, this was our first really good look at a young and really good-looking Kenneth Branagh.  And, in my memory, the movie was an unusually modern and accessible Shakespeare Film.

I fell, a little headfirst, in love.

Not with my boyfriend.  Not even with Branagh, though I did come out of the movie with a little bit of a crush on him.  Not with Judi Dench’s acting, though it was marvelous, and not with Christian Bale — then a teenager and adorable to my eyes because he was about my age and also, clearly, a really good actor.  (I felt sickened looking at his character’s corpse on the battlefield.)

I fell in love with language.  With the manipulation of it by Derek Jacobi, the Chorus.  With Brian Blessed’s enormous stage presence when he said, “Tennis balls, my liege” — a line that still cracks me up when I think about it.  With the overwrought and latently anxious descriptions of “a most excellent horse.”  With Emma Thompson trying to say “neck.”  With the two bishops whispering conspiratorially in a torchlit corridor at the very beginning of the film.  With Lord Scrope, whom I felt so bad for because I was a teen and susceptible to his gothic face, and I was heartbroken by his betrayal, and I felt torn when they arrested him, though his treason be “another fall of man.”

The part that stunned me the most, though, was that even though I’d never read the play, watching the movie, I understood nearly every sentence.  And it was here that I began to understand why Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen more than read.  The idea that language could make more sense to me — to me, a lifelong avid reader whose favorite toys as a child were actually books — that it could be more familiar to my brain on a stage rather than on a page was startling to say the least.

Henry V broke open a floodgate for me, and with every piece of Shakespeare I read after that, I was able to read more and translate less as I went along.  My self-confidence flourished.

So instead of sharing one of the many technically astute, even perfect, sonnets (such tiny masterpieces), I want to present here a part of Henry V.  So many glorious speeches to choose from — Hal was the first motivational speaker I ever knew — and the one I’ve picked is the very first one in the play, the Prologue.  It’s about what actors do on a stage in front of an audience, yes, but it’s also about what we as writers do, embroidering stories on the imagination, creating something, everything, from nothing but incorporeal thought.

It’s Derek Jacobi in a black trenchcoat, backstage, lighting a single wooden match.

Oh, a Muse of fire, indeed.


O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraisèd spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.


Featured Poet: Michele Battiste

I met Michele Battiste about twelve years ago at the Nimrod conference in Tulsa, and at the poetry reading that Saturday afternoon, she read this amazing poem, and I fell in love with it.  Since today is Earth Day, I wanted to share it.  (And by the way, Happy Earth Day!  Please do something wonderful for the planet all week.)

Michele Battiste is the author of two poetry collections: Ink for an Odd Cartography (2009) and Uprising (2013), both from Black Lawrence Press. She is also the author of four chapbooks, the most recent of which is Lineage (Binge Press, 2012).  Her poems have appeared in journals and magazines such as American Poetry Review, Beloit Poetry Review,  Anti-The Awl, and Verse Daily, and her reviews have appeared in Rain TaxiOpen Letters Monthly, and Rattle.

She has received grants, awards, and residencies from The Center for the American West, AWP, the Jerome Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Poetry Society of Virginia, and the Blue Mountain Center. Michele has taught creative writing and literature at Wichita State University, the University of Colorado, and Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, but she currently raises funds for nonprofits undoing corporate evil.


Precita Park, April 22


For once it’s warm enough to uncover skin and I
do normal things.  Like this.  A festival.  Two buses
and dozens of walked blocks to get here, but it was
either this or laundry.  Wash the kitchen floor.  We
all make choices and the ad said Earth Day.  Free.

Eleven months ago you said come to San Francisco.
I said no.  You asked why not and I had no reason
other than it made no sense to haul my mother’s
bedroom set 3,000 miles and so.  Here.  Precita Park
in the Mission’s heart and only four porta-johns for
a crowd of thousands.  Most drinking beer.  We all
make choices and I could shed my sweater, shoes.
Uncover skin.  I always complain about the cold but
you love this city.

A rock icon takes the stage to back a sit-com star
preaching bio-fuel, woodless paper, travel mugs and
I want to call my mom.  My parents share Earth Day
with their anniversary, not by choice, by chance.
And so by chance I confuse ecology with devotion
and act accordingly.  Compost food scraps.  Reuse
plastic sandwich bags.  I never planned to stay past
the year.

An eco-singer asks us all to touch the earth and I do,
thinking somewhere, sometime today you’ll touch
it, too, but for now I’m part of something larger
than self-inflicted circumstance: sequestered
redwoods, Leonard Peltier and marijuana for purely
medicinal purposes.  B.E. Smith walked point in
Vietnam and today he’s walking point in the drug
war.  Served time for self-medicating post-traumatic
stress.  We all make sacrifices for something larger
than ourselves, or should, and see, I’m learning
something.  It’s warm enough today and I’m
forgiving you for leaving.

I do normal things.  Yesterday I made cornbread, I
watch lovers all the time, I walked miles to see a
rock star read someone else’s speech.  Sign
petitions, mailing lists.  I wasn’t ever staying past a
year but you love this city.  Hated leaving.  I only
hate the fog, hate it some times.  You said come,
never love, but maybe I did, and we all make
choices.  Turn away when we should.  I wanted to
see redwoods and you took me to the forest before
you left.

The microphone cuts out and celebrities are
jumping up and down in the crowd to hold our
attention.  In San Francisco nothing seems odd
except, for once, I’m warm, thinking of devotion
when I should be thinking pesticides, buying
products made from hemp.  Be a little more

Today is Earth Day and I’m barefoot in Precita
Park, forgiving.  Yesterday, walking home from
market, loaded down with cageless eggs and local
milk, I turned onto our block.  Twilight caught the
windows of every house and transformed the street
to strange, unfamiliar.  For a moment, I thought I
had it wrong.  Thought I turned too early.  Or too