Why I Write ~ Karen Head

WHY I WRITE ~ Karen Head

Why do I write? Good question because writing is pretty shitty business. Lots of people imagine writers living the glamorous life; you know, being on Oprah and all that. However, the actual day in/day out reality of writing is anything but glamorous. It is hard and solitary work, which is why most people have the good sense not to do it. While my friends are out at the movies, or drinking martinis :-), or wasting time (I mean networking) online, I am facing a new blank page that must be filled. It’s my job. And, yes, my friends do work (many of them very hard), but work stays at work, and, frankly, they make lots of money for their efforts. So, I correct myself: writing is not my job, it is my vocation.

Writing is also a world filled with rejection, even if you are good. For every poem I submit to journals, I get about twenty rejected. It took me three years to find a publisher for my most recent book, Sassing, and then I waited another two years to see it in print. This year I have given dozens of readings. I have not, however, sold dozens of books. I like to tell myself that poetry books are a luxury, and in this economy people cannot afford such things. Deep down I know that this explanation is fiction—something I wish I could write because more people read it.

When I was six, I began writing poems. Each week I would ask my mother to mail my poem to the editor of the children’s art page in the local newspaper. Every Sunday, I would be disappointed when my work had not been selected. After almost a year, I finally found one of my poems. It is the only piece I’ve ever written that I can actually recite. I include it here for its first publication in 37 years.

Brownies are very nice,
although they play a lot,
they also work
and I should know
because I am Brownie
as you can see.

My other love at the time was scouting, hence the topic. What makes this story more than a quaint bit of nostalgia is the admission my mother made when I was 27.  Apparently, she hadn’t thought much of my poems, didn’t think they’d get published, and so she hadn’t actually mailed any of the previous entries. Despite being able to use this information to guilt my mother when I need to, it was really a great early lesson; mom did a good thing without realizing it. Ill-informed though I was, I made the decision (at only 6!) to write no matter what, and that commitment has carried me through all the rejections, the solitary times, the hard work.

So, back to the original question: I write because I have something to say—something that poetry can help me express in ways that exposition cannot. I write because I hope that what I say will resonate with at least one other person. I write because not writing would be on par with not breathing. And just in case Oprah happens to read this, a little glamour would be welcome, especially if it gets a few more people reading poetry.


Healthcare Bills: House Version & Senate Version

Now, time for articles on the much discussed topic.  You’ll find articles from various organizations/news outlets, such as the American Cancer Society, American Diabetes Association, and more.

In a letter to Senate leaders, ACS CAN, the advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, said the proposed legislation includes a number of strong provisions that would significantly improve the health care system for cancer patients by refocusing the system to emphasize prevention; guaranteeing quality, affordable coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions; reducing the cost burden on families; eliminating lifetime coverage limits; covering routine health costs for those who enroll in clinical trials; and emphasizing patients’ quality of life.


In the battle to control spiraling prescription drug costs, the Senate made an advance and a retreat late Tuesday as it pledged to close the infamous “doughnut hole” coverage gap in Medicare Part D even as it voted to kill a measure that would have permitted Americans to buy cheaper drugs from other countries such as Canada.

AARP had pushed aggressively for the Senate’s health care reform bill to close the Part D coverage gap and to allow the importation of less expensive drugs.


American Dental Association Urges Senate to Reject Proposal to Tax Cosmetic Procedures: In keeping with its long-standing policy opposing taxes on dental procedures, the American Dental Association today sent a letter to all members of the Senate, asking them to reject a proposal to enact a 5-percent excise tax on cosmetic surgery.


The Need for Health Care Reform:  When people with diabetes face a health care system that leaves them without adequate coverage, or any coverage at all, they often forgo the care needed to prevent, delay or slow diabetes progression. Without adequate care, too many suffer needlessly from preventable life-limiting or life-threatening complications, and require more expensive care later.


While the Senate focused attention Thursday on the defense spending bill until the wee hours of the morning, Senate Republicans began to put pressure on another area to stop the healthcare reform bill. A current GOP governor and four GOP senators, who were once governors (from New Hampshire, Idaho, Nebraska, and Tennessee), said they oppose the “unfunded mandate” of Medicaid expansion included in the bill.


We learned today from the Congressional Budget Office that this bill will reduce the deficit by $132 billion over the first decade, and more than $1 trillion in the decade after that. That makes it the biggest deficit-reduction effort in over a decade. All while expanding coverage to 30 million more Americans.

But bringing down the deficit and expanding coverage are only part of what insurance reform will do. And today the Senate introduced a package of changes to their bill that will make critical progress in ensuring competition, providing affordable choices, and holding the insurance companies accountable.

Double Ds: Patricia Smith

Patricia Smith joins the Double Ds!

Smith’s fifth book of poetry, Blood Dazzler (Coffee House Press) was a 2008 National Book Award Finalist.  She is also the author of Teahouse of the Almighty (Coffee House Press), a National Poetry Series winner, the Best Poetry Book of 2006 on About.com, and a 2007 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and Paterson Poetry Prize winner; Close to Death (Zoland Books), Big Towns, Big Talk(Zoland) and Life According to Motown (Tia Chucha). Her poems have appeared in Poetry, The Paris Review, poemmemoirstory, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, the Chautauqua Literary Journal, TriQuarterly, and other journals.

Denise Asks:
What is your favorite song?

Patricia Smith:
My favorite song is Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Ooh, Baby Baby.” Since I’m a Motown baby, I grew up hearing men beg in rhythm, and this is the ultimate on-his-knees entreaty, all served up in Smoke’s creamy falsetto. Also, the song never fails to whiz me back in time, right to those confounding and crystalline days of my youth.

Dustin Asks:
Can you share the story of how a few poems turned into Blood Dazzler?

Patricia Smith:
During Katrina, the story that touched me most—the one I couldn’t, refused to, file among the litany of what my husband and I began to call the “awful anecdotes,” was the story of the 34 nursing home residents left to die in St. Bernard’s Parish. I write often in persona, and I became obsessed with resurrecting the voices of those lost men and women. I decided to write a poem in 34 stanzas, intending each stanza to say, very simply, “I was. I still am.”

Son don’t rise,
daughter don’t know enough to dial a phone.
Gets harder to remember
how my womb folded because of them,
how all of me lumbered with their foolish weight.
See what they have done, how hard and sweet they done dropped me here?

During the crafting of “34,” I wrote in a kind of fever, as if I was being urged forward by strangers. I was driven by a restless and agonizing visual, the sight of bodies floating in the darkness, bumping lazily against doors, beds, wheelchairs and walls—a languid and lumbering dance.

No more of us,
stunned and silent on the skin of this sea,
this thunderous wet.
We bob and bounce and spin slow,
draped in an odd sparkle.

“34” was the manuscript’s very first breath, although I didn’t know it at the time. I fully intended it to be a single poem, a tribute I felt was necessary if I was to remain fully invested in the possibilities of my work. “34” would probably have become an important part of my next manuscript, but I certainly didn’t see it as the heartbeat of a work revolving solely around Katrina.

Then something happened.

First I was scheduled for a reading at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival in the winter of 2007. Jeffrey McDaniel and I were the two “Café Night” readers, chosen primarily for our ability to perform poetry with some semblance of enthusiasm. The registrants at the conference were there to study with Thomas Lux, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Mark Doty, Heather McHugh and other notable, well-known poets. Although I’d taught at the conference previously, my role that year was to provide late-night entertainment to students weary from workshopping all day.

“34” was a relatively new poem, but I’d gotten some very interesting responses whenever I included it in a reading. Since I feel that every poetry reading is essentially a conversation, I would often approach audience members afterward to discuss their thoughts about and reactions to particular poems.

During the Palm Beach reading, I had reached the tenth or eleventh stanza of “34” when I noticed a distinct restlessness in the crowd. A few people were averting their eyes, staring off into the distance and shifting uncomfortably in their seats. I’ve always been starkly aware of my audience, and invested in presenting work at is—at the very least—engaging, so I was troubled by what I saw. I decided that I’d mingle with the crowd once the reading was over, try and find out why “34” was having such an adverse effect on this group of listeners.

One woman, decked out in the Palm Beach uniform of pink silk tracksuit and glaringly white sneakers, seemed particularly uneasy. In fact, as I approached her to chat, I got the distinct impression that she was considering making a run for it.

And this is what she said, verbatim, when I asked (after a few introductory and, on her part, stiff pleasantries) what had troubled her about hearing poems set in post-Katrina New Orleans :

“Well….uh…they just had Mardi Gras, didn’t they? Things are better now. I mean, saw some pictures on CNN.”

It was at that moment that I realized that not everyone had felt it necessary to process the horrors of Hurricane Katrina. For some it remained a pesky, persistent scar, wrecking the sleek American landscape. Time had passed. This story was best filed away.

Since New Orleans and surrounding devastated regions were seldom in the news anymore, people who felt that way were no longer forced to look closely at what had happened,

at what was still happening. They refused to hear poor people, tossed out of cramped trailers, begging their country to notice. They no longer chose to notice to anything outside of the sad, manufactured gaiety of the French Quarter. They didn’t want to be reminded of our country’s gross ineptitude, or listen again to the mumbled apologies of a clueless leader. There were those who refused to acknowledge a stark reality—an era, indeed an entire culture, had been sacrificed to the water.

It was then I vowed to continue writing, open my mind to other voices affected by the hurricane. Katrina is a story that should ever be far from the public consciousness, no matter how uncomfortable its continued, tortured existence makes us. I want it to stay in our minds, insisting to be reckoned with, to remind us of what nature, and human beings, are capable of.

“My Mother’s Love” by James Allen Hall

James Allen Hall, specifically “My Mother’s Love,” has been on my mind as of late.  Maybe he’s been on my mind because I meant to share “My Mother’s Love” months ago. (Unfortunately, procrastination has one hell of an ugly grip on me.)  I had the distinct pleasure hearing and meeting Allen when he read at the ’09 Decatur Book Festival.  Telling you that his reading was a treat is a severe understatement.

My Mother’s Love

My mother feeds the multitudes of abandoned cats
that live in the field behind our office.  Every sundown
she untangles fur, feline lineages.  She names each one.
And though they are legion, she does not forget.
She administers heartworm medicine to one hundred
feral cats. She cradles them. Imagine her
frenzy, then, the day the bulldozers come,
a sudden god-congress in the air.
The cats hunker in their homes in the ground.
The bulldozers being their awful roll. My mother,
at field’s edge, waves her arms, a decoy.
She stands in front of the men and their stomachs,
big rollers of flesh.  She does not move, she shouts
until their faces dampen with her spit.  She hears the earth
fill with mewling. She digs, she saves thirty-two cats that day,
then takes them home, bathes then, speaks to them calmly
even as they claw up and down her arms.  I’m her
witness.  I’m buried in this story, down in the place
where collapse is inevitable, where love is
only love is it makes you bleed.

~ from Now You’re the Enemy

WHY I WRITE ~ Oliver de la Paz

WHY I WRITE ~ Oliver de la Paz

Initially, I wrote poetry because I hated math and because of spite. I was thirteen. I couldn’t fathom the symbolism of the multiplication sign or the precarious dot, balancing above and below a bar to signify division. It was the year before my class at the local, private Catholic school “graduated” and joined the ranks of the public junior high. My teacher who was a Benedictine nun, lambasted me for my stupidity with the multiplication tables. She’d proceed down the rows with her thumbs hitched to her bra straps, and she’d decree who was holy and who was damned. As far as she was concerned, it was her job to mold us into shining examples for the public school ranks. It seemed like mission work. I was the dunderhead who would never “measure up.” She thought the best motivational tool for me would be ridicule. It didn’t work.

So my father brought home several math workbooks that further distanced me from the world of empirical data. Rather, I crept into the world of books. Reading was my escape, and so I would read for hours to flee from the dreaded workbooks that often waited for me after dinner and the disapproval of the Benedictines in the morning. Nothing drives a child away from math more than the initial ridicule followed by the psychological bludgeoning of workbooks. The hours were long and the pencils were ever sharpened.

Eventually, our class moved beyond the math unit and plunged headlong into the writing unit. The sister gave us several creative writing assignments. One of them was to write a poem, and so I set out to write a poem. But I didn’t want to write the silly poem that the nun had assigned. Out of spite, I wanted to write something that would stir her the way I was stirred by my own books. I wanted to write something that would bring her to tears, thus causing her to feel bad for the pain she had inflicted upon me. I wanted to write something that would instill in her such a self-shame because of her inability to see the genius in her midst. I wanted to be fêted, pampered, and benevolent.

My parents are voracious readers of crime novels and biography, so it’s odd to think back on it now, but I remember pulling The Collected Poems of Robert Penn Warren from their modest library. Next to the Ann Rule paperbacks was the hardcover book with a slightly tan cover. They had subscribed to Readers’ Digest the minute they set foot in the country, as part of a rite-of-passage. They believed that in order to be a part of this new country, they must subscribe to the narratives of this country, and so we’d receive the weekly periodical in all its abridged narrative glory. And yes, in retrospect, I think it odd that most of the stories that my parents read involved grisly but true murders. Anyway, one of the perks of a subscription to Readers’ Digest was a selection of books from a catalog. My guess is that’s how Robert Penn Warren wound up in our library. In order to help me with the poetry assignment, I thumbed through his poems and was enthralled. Minutes. Hours. I don’t know how much time passed, but I remember leafing through parts of the book as I began my homework. I don’t remember much about the poem that I wrote, or whether I borrowed liberally from Penn Warren. Whether it was a poem that brought tears to my teacher, or whether it caused her to rethink her initial judgment about my stupidity, I truly can’t remember. What I do remember, though, was the act of writing the poem. That the once sharp pencils were made dull by the end. And that I was happy with the work.

Now, I don’t write because of my feelings towards math or out of spite. I don’t harbor the grudges that pushed me beyond the precipice of grade school into junior high. Nor do I sink deep into the funk of my younger days where the classroom was lonely place and where solace was found beyond the mathematics workbooks passed down to me out of an earnest love and worry. Yes, as a child such feelings drove me to the desk, but they are motives no longer. I write because the mystery of the line break still puzzles me. Thrills me. I love the critical thinking involved in a poem—the joining of disparate images or memories into a narrative that coheres.  And I write because the stories of this country surround me everyday but may not be the stories of my family. I want to discover their stories. I write because at the desk, minutes pass so quickly into hours and days. And finally, when a poem is crafted, I feel elated—like I’ve solved a problem. Like time has stopped. Like I’ve solved for X.