Poem-A-Day: A. E. Stallings

I recently saw this poem and it just knocked me out. The author, A. E. Stallings, generously allowed me to share it with you here.

In an environment where some writers may feel a tension between wanting to give voice to a marginalized perspective and not having the right to assume that perspective, Stallings’ poem creates a space for empathy and understanding and compassion and guilt without being heavy-handed. On a more technical note, I’m impressed by the poet’s use of rhyme and meter to create the even but not even, symmetrical but somehow “listing,” feeling of riding waves on the ocean.

Below the poem, find the poet’s own commentary on it. This poem first appeared in Literary Matters, and it later appeared in Women’s Voices for Change along with Stallings’ commentary.

***

Empathy

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant. I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

***

“I am trying to remember exactly when I wrote this—it seems to have been published in September of 2015 but must have been written in the summer. My son did indeed have a broken arm, and my daughter was a six-year old who was fearless on the beach but with little in the way of swimming skills. The civil war in Syria was starting to become more visible in Athens—there had been a number of people, mainly families camped and protesting in the main square, Syntagma, until the police whisked them off one night. My husband is a journalist and had gone on Coast Guard patrols in the Eastern Aegean as these flimsy dinghies started coming in greater numbers. He had interviewed people who had been in the water for hours. (In one case, a woman had managed to save a baby, but not another child, who slipped her grasp.) That famous photo of the drowned toddler (Alan Kurdi) was shared widely in September of that year, but that was only one image, and this poem would have been written before that, I believe. Local news and social media sites often showed images of the drowned—kids my own kids’ ages, in similar clothes.

“By January of 2016, an average of ten people a day were drowning—again, often children, with one day seeing thirty-nine deaths. And of course not everyone was even found or declared missing. That was after this poem was written, but this sense that children were drowning in the same water we swam in haunted me all summer, the sense of the Aegean as dangerous and full of death as well as wine-dark or Santorini blue, and that the same element that caressed my children pulled others under. I had dreams about making that crossing. It was maybe that heightened sense of vigilance and danger you just have as a parent of young children, the way you can’t avoid reading terrible news stories about mishaps and accidents.

“But I did not want to write from the point of view of people undergoing this—that felt false to me; in a way I felt it was unimaginable and I wanted to keep that sense—and I wanted to engage with the very difficulty of writing about it. Empathy is derived from the Greek, of course, but it has almost the opposite meaning in Modern Greek to its English denotation—to feel in or towards someone and thus perhaps to feel against them. (The English word is itself a relatively recent coinage, with a pseudo-Greek lineage out of the German translation—before that, I suppose we had only “sympathy”—to feel or suffer “with” someone.) The poem was written relatively quickly, and I wanted to make sure in revision not to smooth the rough edges, the odd off-rhyme or rhythmic off-kilterness. I don’t normally end a poem so flatly, on such a bald statement, but I wanted that gambit here. And I wanted the poem to be published and distributed quickly—it spoke to the moment—which was why I was very glad it was taken by the (then-new) online magazine, Literary Matters.”

—  A. E. Stallings

***

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville 1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, Hapax (TriQuarterly 2000), and Olives (TriQuarterly 2012), as wells as verse translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics 2018) and Lucretius’s The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics 2009). A new book of poetry, Like, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Press in the fall. Stallings is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and is a teacher beloved of students all over the world. Visit her website and order her most recent book here.

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Poem-A-Day: Jeannie Gambill

My children are eleven and about-to-be-thirteen. Sometimes I wonder whether I will ever stop worrying about them. I’m confident the answer is likely no.

Sometimes at school events, I test this. I’ve been teaching at this school for eighteen years. They’ve been attending this school since they were four. They treat the campus — which, after all, is a comparatively safe one most of the time — like they have the run of it. This is not uncommon among faculty children who have grown up within its walls and gates.

But I still worry. Part of me wants to walk them to their building every morning and pick them up from it after school. (I don’t, though, not anymore.) And sometimes when we go to a game, I even let them run off and play — excuse me, “hang out” — with their friends on the other side of the fields, and I plant myself in the bleachers as if it were the only place I wanted to be.

On such occasions I like to tell my friends I’m snapping off a helicopter blade.

At the last reading I gave, several poets were presenting their work, and one of them, Jeannie Gambill, read this one. It resonated, to say the least.

I sometimes think I will start to relax when my kids are past the age of twenty-five. Jeannie assures me this will not be the case.

***

Directive
to a grown daughter

When you ride your motorcycle
wear your helmet.
Not the half helmet.
Wear your full helmet
always.
When you go out on your motorcycle
take only streets
where
there are no cars
no trucks
no buses
no other moving vehicles.
Do not go out in the rain.
Never on the freeways.
When you decide instead
to go on your bicycle
be faithful to all of these
instructions. The routes
you’ve shown us you take to work
through neighborhoods
on your bicycle, there are
cars parked on these narrow
streets. Be careful. It’s hard
to see you.
Your motorcycle surely lost
from view when you are in traffic.
Do not go into the traffic.
Do not go anyplace where
there is danger. Stay
blocks away from any vehicle
in which the driver
is un-focused. Please say
you will do these things.
When you train on the highways
in the hills   when you want
the challenge   need the long
stretch   the cumulative miles
when you bike into the hills

when you take your bicycle
round the curve   slow
on the upward incline
and   down   down   gaining speed
the curve   go round the curve
go round and down the hill’s
curve     not too fast.
When you line it out
the song of you
adhere please
to this
entreaty.

***

Jeannie Gambill’s poetry has appeared in Gulf Coast, Cenizo, The Weight of Addition: An Anthology of Texas Poetry, Untameable City: Poems on the Nature of Houston, and the Texas Poetry Calendars of 2011 and 2012. She was recipient of the 2011 Dana Award for Poetry, and a winner in the Artlines Competition (2012). She has been a featured poet in Houston’s Public Poetry Reading Series and was a finalist in the Ruth G. Hardman/Nimrod Poetry Competition. She lives in Bellaire, Texas.

National Poetry Month — Day 17

Today is my daughter’s birthday, and I’m one of those moms who makes her kids’ birthday cakes herself most of the time. One year, when the Fairy Princess Badass was very little, I came up with a chocolate cake hack for her birthday, and since I wasn’t sure whether it would end up being a nightmarish mess or something absolutely wonderful, I called it Chocolate Disaster Cake.

The only disaster was the impact it had on everyone who was trying to diet.

This cake has been the most popular dessert I’ve made for seven or eight years now. My aunt suggested Continue reading “National Poetry Month — Day 17”

Women Writers Wednesday 1/14/15

It can be really wonderful, when we have the chance, to review a book by someone we know and care about, because we want to share what we love with the world. It’s even better when we know the author of said book because we read the book, love it, reach out, and the author (until then a stranger) reaches back.

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Mom To Mom, Teacher To Teacher, Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Erin Lindsay McCabe

by Jennifer Wolfe of mamawolfe

 

It’s a good sign when you meet someone for the first time and you’re dressed in identical outfits. I guess Erin Lindsay McCabe and I were both more than a little excited the northern California heat had broken and jeans were finally not too hot and sticky to wear out for coffee. Our denim paired with cream-colored lace shirts and sandals, we giggled as we looked at each other in person for the first time. This synchronicity started off what would prove to be a delightful Sunday morning chatting about parenting, teaching, writing, and her latest book, I Shall Be Near To You, as we sipped organic coffee (me) and spicy chai (her) and nibbled on freshly made pumpkin muffins and bear claws. I found Erin to be as real as her Civil War character Rosetta as mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer, we filled three hours in a little bakery/coffee shop in northern California, the start of what I know will be a new friendship – mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer.

I first ‘met’ Erin when I devoured her Civil War era book, I Shall Be Near To You, over the summer. I’ll admit, I was on a historical fiction kick and jumped at hers after seeing the cover – loved it – and was enticed by the love-story angle of the title. After only a few pages, I adored the main characters, feisty Rosetta and tender Jeremiah – and knew I had to tweet the author right away:

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe So excited to start#ishallbeneartoyou by @erinlindsmccabe I love Rosetta already! #books #civilwar

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Oh I’m so glad you ❤ Rosetta! (Me too!)

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe Oh yes, I’m hooked! Love how you so tenderly portrayed their ‘practice’ – refreshing #ishallbeneartoyou

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Aw, gotta love Jeremiah too. ; )

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe oh yes. He surprised me with his sweetness.

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe just finished#ishallbeneartoyou Wiping away the tears. ❤️

Yes, I devoured this book…and was thrilled to meet a new author who was so eager to talk about her book, her characters, and life as a writing mom. And then life interrupted…

So on that somewhat smoky Sunday morning, inside a brightly lit café near the Sierra foothills, we picked up where we left off, and found threads of motherhood, teaching, and writing peppering our three hour conversation.

 

Erin Lindsay McCabe and Jennifer Wolfe

 

On motherhood:

I think every writer-mom wonders how a published author ever finds the time to make a book a reality. Turns out, Erin wrote the entire draft of I Shall Be Near To You before her son was born, and spent the early years of his life editing, rewriting, and submitting for publication. We talked about the writer/mom life-balance: so hard to juggle that precious time between naps and preschool and play dates, and the palpable awareness of being present during those years — all years, really — when our children are under our wings. Now working on her next novel, Erin notices an acute change in her writing/editing practice, and devoutly sticks to her ‘1,000 words-a-day’ commitment, something she credits to Anne Lamott and found enormously helpful after reading Bird By Bird. “It’s the doing,” Erin shared with me. “Start with 250 words, then 400, 500, and 1,000.”

 

On teaching:

I love meeting teachers, especially English teachers. They just GET my life. They understand what it’s like to balance motherhood and work, they understand how emotionally and physically draining it is to teach all day and then come home with stacks of papers to grade. Erin GETS it – she spent years working as a high school English teacher in the Bay Area, and then again as a community college writing professor. She understands the challenge of attempting to squeeze out an ounce of creativity before daybreak, or most often for her, late into the night. I had to laugh when she mentioned her good fortune that her three-year-old was a night owl — I actually craved those moments when my own two babies were tucked into bed at night and I could choose between grading and writing!

Our conversations circled around how to teach controversial novels, what was just the right amount of feedback to give students, and how we wished our kids would dig deeper into their writing and not give up with a first draft. Her inclusion of ‘hot topics’ in I Shall Be Near To You, such as homosexuality, war, young love, and even profanity have caused some controversy for a few of her readers, but for me, her choices not only provided a realistic story line and characterizations, but also shrunk the time between the Civil War and what humanity is still dealing with today. I loved making the teacher-writer connection, and her eagerness to jump right back into teacher-mode was evident when we started to chat about writing – our writing.

 

On writing:

Erin knew how much I adored I Shall Be Near To You before I met her, and after listening to our conversation swirl in and out of motherhood and teaching, I realized how closely woven her life was with the book and characters; it actually made me love it more! As a lover of historical fiction, I couldn’t wait to ask her how she approached the idea of historical accuracy – something I know requires not only tremendous research, but also carries with it tremendous risk that historians will dismiss her story as too fictionalized. Turns out, the idea that the story of her real-life main character, Rosetta, would be lost due to errors in historical accuracy was foremost on her mind during the writing and editing process. Erin’s choices to depict battle scenes as accurately as possible not only added depth and grittiness to the finished novel, but also were the hardest to write: after writing each battle scene she described herself as being in a ‘dark place’. She found herself attempting to balance just the right amount of detail for authenticity with the numbness that would come with an overabundance of the gore that Civil War soldiers experienced. Interestingly, she intentionally chose not to directly include slavery in the novel, feeling that after ten years of reading and researching the ‘real’ Rosetta’s letters written during the Civil War, it wasn’t part of what she recorded and therefore not authentic to the character’s story.

Our coffee drained, pastries long gone, and families wondering if we’d ever come home, Erin and I ended our mom-teacher-writer conversation with hugs and expectations: new writing, new conversations, new friendship. What a lovely morning, what a lovely writer.

 

I Shall Be Near To You book cover

 

You absolutely don’t want to miss I Shall Be Near To You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s ‘extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Union Army, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.’ Now out in paperback!

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Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. A huge believer in love, health, and hope with a colossal amount of emotionally-charged inquisitiveness – throwbacks to her youth spent watching and listening to every 80s punk band imaginable –  Jennifer attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons. Jennifer reflects on life’s lessons on her blog, mamawolfe, as well as on  TwitterFacebookInstagram, and Goodreads.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

 

Cover Reveal for the New Anthology!!!

Hey there!  I have something exciting to share with you all: the front cover of The Milk of Female Kindness: An Anthology of Honest Motherhood.

Milk of Female Kindness front cover

For more information about this book, click here.

I’m so excited to be included in this project, which contains a couple of my poems and a couple of my essays.

Click here to purchase the anthology from Amazon, or contact me directly at forest.of.diamonds@gmail.com for a signed copy.

 

Fashion Friday 10/11/13

It’s costume season around here — probably where you are, too, if you’re somewhere that celebrates or even acknowledges Hallowe’en. October is a big deal around here, and especially in our home. We love Hallowe’en. We love costumes and dressing up. I come from a family who always celebrated that holiday well, until a tragedy happened on a particular Hallowe’en in my youth. (Read about it here.)  And now, the holiday is back.

Tiny Beowulf agonized for a couple of weeks that Continue reading “Fashion Friday 10/11/13”

Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything

Having grown up in a large family with dozens of younger cousins and siblings around all the time lulled me, as I plowed blindly into adulthood, into thinking that I was something of an authority on the juvenile human.  From countless hours minding my younger relatives to the slew of babysitting jobs I had in high school and college, I garnered a feeling of intelligence about children which caused my breeding friends to Continue reading “Open Apology in Advance to My Pregnant or Expectant Friends When I Give Them Advice About Anything”