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Forum student editors Jesse Senzer and Kristie Barlas recently met with author Judy Halebsky to discuss her newest book of poems Spring and a Thousand Years, and her relationship to past poets as well as the craft itself. The full video interview with Halebsky, and her reading of her poem “Portage” is available on the Forum Magazine blog at forumccsf.org This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jesse Senzer: I wanted to give you an opportunity to introduce yourself. I know that we’re both interested in how you got into writing specifically.
Judy Halebsky: I grew up on the east coast of Canada, and I moved to California when I was twenty-two to study poetry at Mills College. And after that I lived in Japan as a student twice, and also I did a degree in Performance Studies at UC Davis.
So how did I get into writing… I always had an aesthetic interest. And it was through just really loving reading poems and loving writing in my journal that I developed a practice in poetry.
Senzer: That’s interesting, so you find that you gravitate more towards poetry specifically than other genres of writing?
Halebsky: Very specifically. Because it’s a relationship with the poetic moment, or the aesthetic experience. I think I could connect that with a visual art moment of a painting more so than a developed narrative of a novel. Also, one of the big parts of me writing poems is reading poems. It’s almost like I’m having a conversation in that way—that’s also part of my path in poetry. So, I think of writing as a studio-based practice.
Senzer: Right, like a fine art.
Halebsky: Yeah, something I do physically: written in relation to me like a physical practice. So I’m writing physically. Things that nourish poetry writing are like, running and walking and dancing. It’s kind of a body-mind state of perception, or experience.
Senzer: Like writing as a physical act, or physical expression.
Halebsky: Yeah, and kind of cultivating a connection to the inner contemplation, or inner synergy that allows for an articulation of embodied experience. So like, we experience the world in our body, and making the poem isn’t necessarily like describing that experience, but it’s creating a way for someone else to have that experience.
Senzer: So that leads me to questions I wanted to ask you about your new book Spring and a Thousand Years. I was wondering if you could tell us how you discovered Basho. You traced the literary forms that that influenced him, right?
Halebsky: So Matsuo Basho is the most famous haiku poet, and we think about Basho as the originator of haiku. He lived more than three hundred years ago, and one of the really important parts of his writing was traveling. He was influenced by Buddhism, and the idea of like, life is a journey and we should not be overly attached to our material possessions. A lot of his most famous work is through writing as traveling, and he felt that when he’s traveling it’s an interior journey as well as exterior journey. And it heightens many of the things that are true about our life—that our life is temporary, that I feel like I’m living in this house permanently, but really it’s temporary and can end at any moment. And that we need to diminish our attachment to material things, and that’s kind of heightened when you have to go on a trip and carry everything you own in a backpack.
So I got into Basho, and I was living in Japan and studying Japanese literature, and I started to realize that I had a very oversimplified understanding of haiku. I loved to study it and learn a lot of the complexity and philosophy of the form. I traveled to the places in Japan, where he went and wrote his most famous poems, and there’s a kind of tradition in haiku of “poem places,” so you go to Matsushima in northern Japan with its beautiful pine islands and there’s all these poetic associations, and a poet goes there and writes a poem, and then a hundred years later another poet goes there and writes a poem in conversation with the other poems that have been written there. So it’s important for me to go to those same places and see the places those poems are written from, and also write my own writing out of this.
Senzer: Can you talk about your reference to poetry as a field guide? I’m wondering if there’s sort of a dual interpretation for that statement: that a “field guide” could refer to physically traveling, but it could also refer to interacting with writers, both past and present. Sort of a field guide to other artists as well?
Halebsky: I think we come to poetry—as both readers and writers of poetry—to make our life better. I think when I am alive in my writing practice I’m also most attuned to the moments of my life, and the emotional relationships in my life. So I actually look to poetry to help me make my life more vivid, and to live the best life that I can. There’s a way that I’m looking to poetry as instructions and guidance in my daily life. It’s a side view in a way, but it’s a side view that allows me to interpret those instructions in a way that’s meaningful to me, and can be resonant with me in a way that has much more depth and meaning than maybe more direct instructions from a self-help book. I think poetry is a way to be in the world.
And then I also think there’s another layer of trying to make meaning, the way a field guide gives you material to name and remember and organize. We have writing and language, which is a tool, but it’s an imperfect tool. And so much of our work of writing is to use the tools we have to really articulate our experience, so they’re kind of imperfect. And the art is in making the words and finding the words with these limited tools. So a field guide can give you more tools to do that, in the same way as looking at a dictionary or thesaurus. As was really important in this book: like an index of geological terms and concepts; to have other theories and concepts that exist, and apply them to our emotional experience as a way to try and understand our own lives.
Kristie Barlas: I’m interested if you feel like when you’re writing your poems, like say for this collection Spring and a Thousand Years, do you think of them as reflections of your own exploration? As a field guide to moving through the world? Just your interpretation of how to be in life? Or are there some messages that you hope readers will also learn from your experiences, and your poems?
Halebsky: Oh, nice question, um… I think my concerns are about creating an aesthetic resonance. So I would say I’m more looking to create a sensory experience or… some kind of music-like experience rather than teaching readers anything. I’m more trying to make some kind of contrast that opens up a moment of illumination.
Barlas: A lot of your poems really focus just on the observations. So do you find that your practice is embodying that aesthetic resonance? Do you have to remove any personal subjectivity in your poems? If you were say, not writing for the collection, would you naturally include more of your own emotions?
Halebsky: I do like to have little bits of narrative that are kind of like scaffolding to connect these sensory experiences. And I’m looking to kind of tap into an unconscious state, which I think is my unconscious making the poem—my conscious mind is not as good at doing that at all, and might actually kind of mess it up. I think there’s a poem that wants to be revealed, and I’m trying to first access that poem, and kind of carry it along, or bring it to fruition. My conscious mind is going to mess that up, so if I start writing thinking, “Oh, I really want to tell this story” or, “I had this funny thing happen” like that’s a good place to start, but if I finish there it’s usually not a good poem. Starting in an energetic place is great, but the energy of the poem needs to come out through the writing process rather than my preconceived idea of what the poem might be.
Barlas: When you were looking at poems from Basho and translating poems as well, I think you called it “bridging time and space,” the past with the present. So, if you look at finding meaning in things like donuts or Zumba, and also the ocean, what were some of the concepts that stood out to you that affirm the things in life we already know to be true?
Halebsky: I think it’s a process of discovery. I would say the things we already know to be true, for me, are assumptions. And in the writing process often they’re revealed as not true, or they’re revealed as misrepresented. And that’s part of what I think can be resonant about writing. That can be the energy of the poem. That we think of something like “true love is forever” and we think of this idea that we hear all over the place, and then you try to write about that, and the experience of that in my body is different from the shared perceptions we have of that.
The space between the dictionary meaning of the word, and our associated meanings with it. Meanings we can imbue with it, and what is implied, and what it reveals about our condition. I think there’s something resonant in us when we find a contradiction, or when we find that our experiences in the body are different than how we socially imagine they’re supposed to be.
Barlas: I think it’s also interesting that you’re kind of switching the tradition from communicating with the poet from the past as a response. You’re bringing them into your response to kind of see your world, and I think that’s a really fun twist on it. I’d love to hear what inspired you to write [the poem “Portage”] in particular.
Halebsky: So there’s a couple influences. I moved to Oakland, California because my father had such romantic ideas of the San Francisco Bay Area, and he was stationed here at Travis Air Force Base. It was really his love for the Bay Area that brought me to live here. So, part of the poem starts with the protests following the murder of Eric Gardner. I live right off of Telegraph Avenue, and I’m not really engaged with any particular group that was organizing those protests, but I was able to just join them because they would come right by. I was really honored and moved to be part of those protests, so that was one moment inspiring that poem.
But also talking in memory of my father about dreams he held. My father really worked a lot in his life to envision what an equitable society would be, or could be. I think that’s part of like, don’t tell my father that we haven’t reached his dream yet. And also thinking about the life he lived, and the loss of cultural knowledge between my grandparents and me. My father only spoke English, but it wasn’t the language his parents spoke. When he went to school, he failed kindergarten and then they only spoke English at home. So I only learned English from him, and the idea of a portage is when you carry a canoe over dry land between bodies of water. Kind of like a lineage of what we carry with us, and how when the boat is on the water, it can have all this contact, but when you carry it over dry land you can only bring so little with you, was also an important inspiration in that poem. I think a lot of us in the United States have that eraser and cultural loss, and also this making-a-new-culture, which maybe I’m looking for more resonant and complex ideas and cultural practices to engage with.
Judy Halebsky currently directs the MFA program at Dominican University. She lives in Oakland, Ca with her spouse and their two-year-old daughter. For more on her work and to purchase her latest book Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged) from the University of Arkansas Press, visit judyhalebsky.com
To view Judy’s poems you can can click on the links below
Let me ask of you, if I may,
with the aid of the Muse who has guided me thus far,
along the path I have travelled,
which intersected yours, as you may recall,
when the Sun shone brighter in the sky, stars were fixed,
and storm clouds were another person’s shadow,
about a matter of some concern, personally;
an imposition I would not think to assert,
without having known you, in the time when words had left
the time we no longer mention, except by the most oblique of references
conscious of the sorrow underlying our efforts to survive, persevere,
looking into the mirror of our souls, finding there no well of insight, no
center within the iris,
no plumb line between our heads and our hearts, yet
we needed to take,
grasping at air with our tongues,
still bleeding from vain attempts
to quell the instinctual need
to howl at the Moon’s craters’ lightness; albeida;
starring at our fates, dust in cold orbit
I find myself these days poised, unsteady;
as if reaching for balance: blindfolded; a snail crawling the length of a straight
razor; an island under siege from all directions, with the volcano
birds’ beaks thrashing my Promethean liver; severed fingers in buttered bowls;
bards’ slit maws’ gargles, a baobab adrift at sea;
out of place –
It is not about the bedbugs of life, I think; (certainly) therefore, in grids; I made my peace
with a cockroach, a pumice stone, and an iron griddle; have seen the Grand
Canyon, Niagara Falls, and the cathedral of Notre Dame – before the fire;
more than mere trifles, less
“Which wishy-washy witch wishes wishbones well”, was whispered once, wistfully.
Are you distracted yet, again?
Is this the point on the line when the circular becomes perpendicular, properly
Meet you halfway,
yours can be the bigger half,
but the last word is still
uncertain, albeit ineffable, they say, . . .
So, we’ll dispense with the
squaring the edges at the horizon of introspection, calling
the surf to retreat, wishing good tidings, prizing drift-would with all Kant,
at least for a mo(re)-ment; an extended pause, a hiatus between assignments of being
Why haven’t you answered my dream mail?
I inhale, you exhale
We have the same birthday
We share the same fingerprints We should not be so incommunicado, eh?
I look forward to your reply, Or will we each be left, alter-half-egos?
Thomas A. E. Hesketh was born in Toronto, Canada, on a cusp, last millennium; none of it his fault. Most of what has happened to him has happened to others, too. He enjoys poetry because of its verbal range, except the caesuras, and chess, which is non-verbal, except the regicide.
“Hatchling” (Poetry) by Temme von Lackum Dedlow
Forum: How did you start writing?
Dedlow: Writing has been a creative and emotional outlet for me for probably nearly as long as I’ve been able to produce words. I owe a lot of that to early encouragement from family (related and not) and mentors, notably a first grade teacher with a knack for getting poetry out of six and seven-year-olds.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I wish I had a pithier response for this, but a list of writers whose language and stories have stayed with me would have to include Monica Furlong, Zora Neale Hurston, Karen Joy Fowler, Ocean Vuong, Charlotte Brontë, and Ralph Ellison.
What was the inspiration for this poem?
The impetus was a prompt to free write about a lingering memory; the subject of the poem is an experience I had working in the field a few years back that stuck with me. The egg in question was a wood duck’s.
What drew you to write this as a poem as opposed to a short story?
There’s certainly a narrative element here, but the way this came out onto the page—maybe because it was such a brief, vivid experience, maybe because it felt so personal—seemed more suited to the form. I never really considered trying to shape it into a short story.
This poem is so remarkably visceral. Could you describe your approach to writing the sensory details?
I think a lot of this comes down to the memory itself of what I experienced as a very visceral moment, but my usual approach is to write more, and cut that down to what’s working for me, which I definitely did in this case. I also use a thesaurus to scan for words that feel most true to the image.
“Angel of Chill” (Visual Art) by Veronica Voss-Macomber
Forum: We absolutely love this piece! It is so original — what inspired you to create it?
Voss-Macomber: I was inspired by my love of illuminated manuscripts (Sixth Century to 1600s) for their display initials, elaborate designs and, as well, with prayer cards because of their “ability” to provide the holder of said card with spiritual comfort and fortitude.
Then add to this mix my LOVE of COFFEE(!!!), stained glass windows, the beautiful ocean, and my use of humor to deal with very trying times (like the past year or so), and the result is a prayer card I made for myself that makes me smile and I hope brings a bit of levity to others.
Is this work part of a series? If so, can you tell us about it?
I definitely have given thought to creating a calendar of angels with their accompanying prayers, but I will see, as I am in the midst of a few other creative projects that are tugging at me to complete.
I do have similar work, but only regarding the materials I use to create with. I like to work with mixed media– that is combining “analog” media– watercolors, pen and ink art with digital media (Photoshop, Illustrator, Procreate…)
Where do you get inspiration from?
I am inspired by the great outdoors/nature (shout out to San Bruno Mountain), the ocean (any body of water, really), seeing a hummingbird, ALL art periods, current news, history, conversations on art, the creative process and that thing called life with loved ones (a BIG shout out to my husband, and to Diane and Elaine), recipes with cheesecake or salted caramel in them and, of course, when I am drinking coffee and that comforting cup is warming up my hands– my creativity is lit!
Are you working on anything else right now? Tell us about it!Some of what I am working on now are two short animation films (you can find my older videos on my YouTube channel), developing a web comic series that I hope to transition to a printed graphic novel. I am, also, continuing to work on my comic strip “The Mortal Coil Cafe” which was published in the Guardsman Spring 2019. But right now, I am working on finishing my second cup of coffee. Ahhh, bliss!
Nestled in between where Chinatown ends and North Beach begins is a humble-looking bookstore — now infamous for its progressive politics, arts, and literature. Growing up in San Francisco, I spent every Saturday morning accompanying my parents on their grocery-shopping trips in Chinatown. We’d park on Broadway Street, near the strip clubs and tourists, and walk down towards Pacific Avenue where I’d see the sign: City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Truth be told, I hated going to Chinatown as a child. I thought it was crowded and loud, but on good days (and when there was time) my parents would end our trips with a visit to City Lights. We never bought anything and the only stories I was interested in reading back then were The Baby Sitter’s Club but I still loved getting a peek at this foreign world — a world of adults, creativity, and curiosity. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in 1953, he probably never expected a young Chinese girl to find refuge there. Similarly, I never expected Ferlinghetti to make marks on my life and yet he has time and time again.
As a teenager, I no longer had any desire to spend weekends with my parents. And so, my visits to Chinatown and City Lights ended. At the time, I was a student at Balboa High School and a voracious reader. However, even though I loved fiction, I did not understand the point of poetry. Or at least I felt that way until Mr. Wilcox, my English teacher, distributed a poem to us called “What Could She Say to the Fantastic Foolybear…,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti:
What could she say to the fantastic foolyber
and what could she say to brother
and what could she say
to the cat with future feet
and what could she say to mother
after that time that she lay lush
among the lolly flower
on that hot riverbank
where ferns fell away in the broken air
of the breath of her lover
and birds went mad
and threw themselves from trees
to taste still hot upon the ground
the spilled sperm seed
I was awe-struck by how Ferlinghetti could so succinctly describe the complexities and pangs of being an adolescent girl. To this day, I am impressed by how he was able to convey the strangeness of puberty and illustrate how challenging it is to not exactly be a child anymore and yet not know how to grapple with seemingly adult things such as sexual relationships. I read “Foolybear…” during a time in my life where I felt very alone and yet, Ferlinghetti seemed to understand me. Through this experience, I began to see that poetry can cultivate empathy and offer viewpoints on the world. To keep things short: This is the poem that made me fall in love with poetry. This is the poem that made me want to read more poems and I never stopped. I went on to study English Literature at CCSF and UC Davis and began writing poetry of my own.
Ferlinghetti has done much more than simply write a poem that influenced my life path. He supported countless San Francisco-based writers, published Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” was arrested for publishing “Howl,” fought for our First Amendment rights in court due to “Howl,” and continued to publish the writing of outsiders even after the frenetic media attention of the Beats era passed. He relentlessly cultivated a literary culture where freedom of expression, community-building, and rebellion are valued over academic prestige and individual reputation. Ferlinghetti augmented the DNA of San Francisco’s literary landscape, and San Francisco as a whole, for the better. Although I am devastated by his death, I am inspired to continue his legacy by contributing to the community we have here today. I hope that others are inspired as well. In “I Am Waiting,” Ferlinghetti wrote, “I am waiting/for a rebirth of wonder” — let’s not keep him waiting any longer. Let’s take the blueprint that he crafted for us and create something beautiful.
Alison Zheng was born and raised in San Francisco, CA. She’s a former Poetry Editor for City College of San Francisco’s Forum and a Poetry Reader at Non.Plus Lit. She has been published in Honey Literary, Sine Theta Mag, Sidereal Mag, and more. She received her BA in English Literature with an emphasis in Criticism & Theory from University of California, Davis. She will be starting her MFA – Poetry at University of San Francisco in Fall 2021 as a Lawrence Ferlinghetti Fellow.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum1
«The Earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind their parents, every man wants to write a book, and it is evident that the end of the world is fast approaching». Assyrian Tablet from 2,800 BC2
It was a sunny day in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Kids played loudly in the yard, while a group of elderly women sat on the bench, watching disapprovingly.
“Do you remember Bakhytzhamal’s youngest son? Well, he died!” – said Katira-apai3 to her neighbor on the bench4 with a strong disapproval of the fact in her voice.
“Oh my God!” – sluggishly responded the neighbor, – “What happened? Drug overdose?”
There was no doubt, of course, that the deceased was a drug addict. How could it be any different? Only close relatives were free of suspicion. Well, not entirely free…
“Some kind of illness, I think” – said Katira-apai.
“Sure. Drug addiction leads to sickness” – nodded the neighbor, pleased with her rightness – “We should go and offer our condolences. When is the funeral?”
“There will be no funeral”
“Yeah… Bakhytzhamal had everything planned, invited all the relatives and neighbors, the mullah… And her son ran away!”
“What do you mean “ran away”? He was alive?!”
“No, he died. But he didn’t want to be buried. Said, that it’s boring”
“Astaghfirullah!5 How is it possible! What a shame! What a disgrace for a family!”
“Right! Young people are so ill-mannered these days! Bakhytzhamal is exhausted worrying about it. The relatives arrived, mullah arrived, and they even brought the sacrificial sheep. And the boy just ran away! He found a job, can you believe it?”
“Well, they didn’t allow him to work. Dead people can’t work. It’s against the law”
The elderly women sat silently for a while, shaking their heads. First, he died. Then he fled. And finally, he lost his job! The youth have completely gone out of hands!
“And what happened then?”
“Well… They tried to persuade him, scolded him. Begged him not to disgrace the family and pass away peacefully. But he just wouldn’t listen to them!”
“Absolutely no respect for the elders! It’s all this television!” – said the neighbor bitterly.
“Yes! It was so different in Stalin’s time!” – agreed Katira-apai.
“What will people think! What example for children he sets!” – continued to lament the old lady neighbor.
“And that’s not even it! Then he went to Japan! Said that he wants to help them with Fukushima, since radiation is no threat to him now” – Katira-apai didn’t know where Japan is, but she did know that it’s definitely not a place for decent people to be.
“I always knew that nothing good will come out of him. He was always hanging out with Russian kids at school. Bad influence!”
“Yes… What’s happening to this world?”
“The Judgment Day is coming! I saw it on TV, a psychic said that the end of the world is coming!”
The old ladies switched to another topic, forgetting the ne’er young man. The day went on as usual.
1 Latin “Speak no ill of the dead”
2 This quote is quite popular, but is a fake; Assyrian Empire was founded only 300 years later.
3 Apai – Kazakh honorific suffix, used when addressing elderly women.
4 Elderly women in Kazakhstan usually spend their time sitting on the bench near their homes, gossiping and chatting, as portrayed in this short story
5Arabic “I seek forgiveness from Allah”. A common Muslim expression.
Yeldar Zhurgenov is a psychotherapist born and raised in Almaty, Kazakhstan and currently living and working in San Francisco, USA. Yeldar works with vulnerable population in Tenderloin neighborhood. When not working, he enjoys reading science fiction and dabbles in writing short stories himself occasionally.
I loved school; impatient for school breaks to end; first day of school was another Christmas, new textbooks, new teachers, new clothes and shoes, finally, a new lunch pail. My love of learning grew as I aged into a firm belief that learning was lifelong; if you stop learning you are dead. I loved school, but school did not love me.
7th grade, Round Pond School for Negro Children, Clarksville Tennessee, 1962
Class began with its morning rituals, a solemn Lord’s Prayer; all heads bowed with Mrs. Barnes, the principal and teacher, leading the prayer. I wondered if she was really into the prayer or if she was eyeballing the room for sinners not praying. I dare not to raise my head to confirm my suspicion, risking that her gaze might fall on me. The next ritual was the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag followed by punishment. Punishment was done in front of the entire class. The condemned would come to stand in front of the class and at the side of Mrs. Barnes desk; stand with one hand outward, palm up, Mrs. Barnes would administer one swat with a rubber strap, the condemned could not flinch; flinching angered Mrs. Barnes; the condemned were not allowed to cry; children tears angered Mrs. Barnes. One demonstration of this punishment kept a whole class silent and obedient forever.
I witnessed one such punishment; an older girl in the school was observed over the weekend keeping company with a soldier from Fort Campbell just across the state line with Kentucky; standing bravely with one palm up she took the swat without flinching; she returned to her desk, laid her face down into the folds of her arms resting on the desk; she hid her tears and muffled her crying. Mrs. Barnes was an old-fashioned, country teacher that everyone feared and hated. Except my father; one day he picked me up from school, he did not get out of his truck. Mrs. Barnes was angry; all parents came into her classroom to genuflect before her (the talented tenth); she knew them all by first name; all called her Mrs. Barnes in return. She said to me, “you tell Oscar I am mad at him for not coming in to pay his respects.” I told my father this; to my pleasant surprise he said, “I don’t like Mrs. Barnes, when I come to pick you up, you don’t have to say nothing to her; just come on out and get in the truck.” He hated her and was not afraid to say so, unlike so many other adults. I was proud of him that day. For many at this time teachers and preachers stood above reproach. A child who dared to do otherwise would be scolded to stay out of “grown folks’ business.”
I had one very close call with Mrs. Barnes. I was the student with top grades. She called me to her desk; addressing all the class she said, “Donald works hard and gets good grades. So, he will take this ax, holding up for all to see, he will go into the woods to find a Christmas tree for the school.” I went with much trepidation; I didn’t know much about the woods behind the school. However, I spotted a perfect tree right next door across from the meadow playground. My thinking was I could cut down this tree, go off and hide a bit, then triumphantly return dragging the tree behind. I got in two good whacks with the ax; then a woman came excitedly out of the house, “Boy.…boy what are you doing?” I replied, “Mrs. Barnes sent me out to cut down a Christmas tree for the school.” She replied, “I am sure she didn’t want you to chop down my tree! I am going to tell Mrs. Barnes about you. Now git.” I waited and waited for Mrs. Barnes to call me to the front, and say, “Our neighbor said you tried to chop down her tree. Stand still with your palm out. You better not flinch or cry.” But the neighbor, to my great relief, did not report me. Mrs. Barnes lived inside my head for a long time, so did my father’s comforting words.
It was soon after this close call with the rubber strap that a white school board official came to our school for an inspection. Mrs. Barnes showed him around the three classrooms, the kitchen with dining area. She did not introduce him to anybody, not even the other two teachers; he was not introduced to the children or the kitchen lady. Mrs. Barnes was giving him an incredible Uncle Tom performance; big smile, slightly bowed head and lots of“Yes, sa, No, sa.” I was disgusted. She lorded over peasants and factory workers and their children as a superior, educated Negro. None of these peasants and factory workers would do such a public display of Uncle Tom behavior; their dignity would not allow them to do such a thing in front of their own children. I cannot remember a thing I learned in Mrs. Barnes class, but I did not lose my love of school.
There is, however, one recurring memory of Mrs. Barnes that comes back to me at strange times. Mrs. Barnes walked into the classroom with the shocking announcement, “Children, President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. You’ll have to walk straight home, don’t wait on the bus to come. When you get home stay inside until the grown-ups get home.” My younger sister and I walked down the gravel road leading to home. She says to me, “What are we going to do if we see a white person?” I replied we will hide in the woods; follow the creek back home.
9th grade, Dana Junior High School, San Pedro, California, 1966
I presented my report card to my mother. My grades were always good. But I told her I was disappointed because I did not make it to the honor roll again; this was at a time when the honor roll meant more than a bumper sticker; honor roll meant your name on a display for all in the school to see. I explained to her how hard I worked to get all A’s; then one teacher gave me a B+. She said to me, “Dem white folks don’t want a black boy on their honor roll.” I just sat dejected; then she said, “Donald, it is not enough to be just as good as the white folks, you got to be better than them.” For years after I carried a resentment towards these teachers who denied me what I had earned. I did not want to believe what my mother had said, but I knew that she was right; the teacher who gave me the B+ had graded all my class work with the highest grade but gave a final grade of B+. My love of school remained with me. Apparently, I am not alone with this. I was talking to a friend I enjoyed talking to. He was an ambitious black student around this same time in Florida, “My mother told me the same thing. She said you got to be twice as smart as the whites. And don’t expect any acknowledgment of this. White folks will not admit to this.” I conclude that ambitious, capable black youth were not prepared for further education; they were ignored.
10th grade San Pedro High School, San Pedro, California, 1968
On the first day of school following the assassination of Martin Luther King the class was called to stand and pledge allegiance to the Flag; half the class, both black and white students, remained seated and silent. The teacher looked around the classroom but didn’t insist that any student join him if they clearly did not want to. He proceeded in leading those who stood with hand over heart in a lackluster recital. This spontaneous protest went on for a week or so. I was sent to the principal’s office because I would not stop my protest. The principal asked me if I will give up and recite the Pledge. I told him that I will never stand for or recite the Pledge again. I was suspended from school. At this time getting sent home from school was a big deal with the youth dreading how to explain to an upset parent why you were sent home. But my mother said, “Good! You let dem white folks know where you stand.” I felt a moment of euphoria, then she went on,”… it’s in God’s hands now. God will punish them for what they have done.” I didn’t want any help from God. What I wanted was what other black youth wanted; I wanted a gun. King’s pacifism was a control mechanism over angry black youth; Malcolm X’s disciples and the Black Panther Party call for armed self-defense was gaining an audience amongst black youth. Thirty-eight Panthers were shot down, murdered, by the bloody FBI COINTELPRO without firing a shot in return in most cases. This was the fulfillment of a promise made by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that if Negro youth wanted to become revolutionaries, they should understand they will be dead revolutionaries.
I loved school, but school didn’t love me. I never went back to school after this humiliating suspension. My formal education ended here in the 10th grade; I’m self-taught. I joined the revolutionary movement for socialism. It became my school; my love of education returns full measure.
Don Collier is a retired railroad worker with a lifetime itch to write. After retirement, he pulled out old story drafts and wrote new stories.
“Sestina, is that a family name?” people ask about my youngest daughter’s middle name.
Usually, I plunge into the literal definition of the word; it’s a poetic form—six stanzas, each with six lines, the end words fixed and rotating. Or, I summarize Elizabeth Bishop’s 1965 poem: a grandchild sits with her grandmother in the kitchen, the grandma cutting bread. The child drawing. Outside, it’s raining. The kitchen is warm and safe. But already the tears have been planted. Grief will soon bloom. In the meantime, the grandma sings; the grandchild draws another “inscrutable” house, one difficult to understand or interpret.
This then leads me to tell my story: I was an English major and am now an English teacher. A homesick, insecure undergraduate, I read for connection and comfort, even in my analytical literature seminars. Luckily, I had a professor who championed the reader’s response, who told us stories of his life to help us process and connect to modern writers. His continual refrain: “seek the disinterested pursuit of the good, the true, and the beautiful.” All these years later, I can’t remember if he was talking about the characters, the writers, or us—the young student readers. It was in his class—the one that ultimately saved me from dropping out of college and returning home, the one that turned me from a disengaged business major to a hopeless literature romantic—that I encountered Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.” George and Barbara Perkins’ Contemporary American Literature anthology provided no context for the poem. As a novice reader, I did not know—or even think—to look for a pattern in the poem; therefore, I merely assumed Sestina was the name of the young granddaughter in the poem. As I look at my battered anthology now, I see my class notes. That a sestina is a poem with repeating words.
While I didn’t pick up on the pattern, I felt so connected to “Sestina.” It named the unnamable: the heavy air that hung throughout my childhood. As I reread this poem now, I see my “Sestina” is just a “child.” As one who grew up living with my grandparents, I was struck by the relationship between the grandmother and what I assumed was the granddaughter, Sestina. At eighteen, I could not put into words what struck me. I just knew that the poem felt like home.
My house with my grandmother did not look like this one; my grandma did not drink tea, although the Mr. Coffeemaker pot seemed always half-full full, tepid black coffee drained from it all day. She did not consult an almanac or even a cookbook for all the family sweets she would bake in our burnt-orange stove. Yet, it’s the mood of the poem, the sense that life is passing by, that we just have this moment, this idea that this little granddaughter felt something unnamable in the air–something with the smell of metallic tears— that I could connect with. My grandmother’s mother died when my grandma was just thirteen, her mother, my great grandmother, just thirty-two. As my sister and I lived with my mother and grandparents, these ages loomed above us: would we lose our mother when she was 32? If only we had an almanac to consult.
When my mom turned 33, I think my sister and I, ages six and four, likely heaved a sigh; the air felt lighter. Still, though, I had to get to thirteen: would my mother die before then? Thankfully, she didn’t. But my neighbor Lindsay’s mom did. Todd’s dad, too. Would this looming fate strike me? Even though we were the only ones on the block with divorced parents and live-in grandparents, my grandma continually told us that we were so lucky to have our mother. And me, so scared that she would be whisked away from me, just as hers was.
Perhaps its Sestina’s poise and calm as she sits drawing that inscrutable house that captured me when I first read the poem; she does not seem scared as she plants the tears in the garden of her Crayola house. She seems resigned to the fate before her; perhaps the almanac helps—giving insight to the sadnesses ahead.
What if my grandma had an almanac when she was not my grandma, but a thirteen-year-old girl who had just lost her mother in the early 1940s when things were not explained, especially in first-generation, working class Italian families? What if she knew that she would marry the love of her life and be married for fifty-one years? Have four kids and live to see her great-grandchildren? Would that have helped her cope with her mother’s death, that grief? Perhaps it is this question that has pursued me all these years: if this fate ever struck me or my girls, could we ever recover from such grief?
When I was pregnant, I read a lot of Anna Quindlen, who, at 19, also lost her mother. Her mother’s loss hangs, bird-like, over each piece of her writing. The fear does not seem to draw Quindlen away from the present moment, but sink her into it: in moments of despair, she finds goodness and hope and humanity. And in some ways, that is how I read Sestina; she’s aware that the tears and sadness will come, but in the present moment there is tea. There is rain. There is the grandma. There is the marvel stove. There is love and safety in the small, warm kitchen.
All these years I’ve read “Sestina” as me. I was the granddaughter in the kitchen. What, though, if Sestina was really my grandmother? Perhaps I imagine my grandmother and her mother in a warm kitchen in the September rain in a crumbling Chicago apartment, tear-shaped onions dance on the stove, jazz hovers in the air. In this ordinary moment, they are transcendent. They are safe, and so am I. My Sestina, my grandmother as a child, knew her fate and she faced it with dignity and grace and resilience.
Now, when people ask, about my daughter’s middle name, I tell them: it’s a family name.
No matter what happens, I know that if I combine butter and water in a pan and bring it to a simmer, the two will eventually come together, forming a lovely emulsified sauce.
I can, with great certainty, confirm that with enough vigor, cream will whip into stiff solid peaks. And further, that if I continue to whisk, the fat and liquid will separate, into butter and buttermilk respectively.
I cannot emphasize enough how grounding it is, when the world does not make sense, to understand that a boiled egg will be runny at six minutes, jammy at eight, and fully set at ten.
Or, if nothing else, to be able to rely on radishes to taste their best in spring when the earth is green and wet.
Or how soothing it is to watch sugar melt in a pot, gradually taking on richer tones of amber and knowing full well that this browning is exponential. That it will burn before I know it.
When the future feels unclear, I’ll make bread, knowing that patience will pay off.
Knowing that I can lean into flour and water. Knowing that I can trust the dough to rise.
Perhaps I’ll roast a chicken, finding comfort in needing no more than salt and a hot oven to ensure crisp skin and dependably juicy flesh.
I’ll wash and dry lettuce leaves, a tedious but vital practice, then dress them in oil and vinegar just until they glisten but not until they sop.
I always set the table with good plates and a silver fork. On occasion, a single glass of wine.
Other times I am not hungry. In these moments, tea steps in.
When nothing else seems to add up, chamomile and honey still do.