Last week, West Chester Poetry Conference Founder Dana Gioia was named Poet Laureate of California. I am not here to pass judgment on the man or the poetry (Noting in passing that I love the triolet sequence “A Country Wife,” if nothing else) but I do want to call attention to the remarkable omission of Gioia’s achievement in co-founding the West Chester Poetry Conference from the bio in the article covering his selection.
As others have said to me, maybe this isn’t such a big deal? After all, who in California would have heard of West Chester? Maybe it just wasn’t relevant to the people involved?
Why has West Chester Poetry Conference Founder Dana Gioia scrubbed this fact out of his bio?
Let’s be fair here: all writers continually tinker with our bios. Sheesh, as an editor, I can’t tell you how often a Barefoot Muse Press book or a new issue of the Raintown Review is about to go to press and I get a request to change a bio.
But to remove the fact that you co-founded (with Mike Peich) an important Poetry Conference which ran successfully for 20 years suggests to me that you might have insider knowledge about a soon to be breaking scandal.
A media guru I admire told me not that long ago, “Make sure all your great content is on your blog, rather than on Facebook or on some random networking site, because that way you own it and it’s always there for you.” How right he was!
That’s why, when I was contacted recently by a Philadelphia Inquirer journalist writing a story about the resurrection of the West Chester Poetry Conference, even though I was at the fields watching my younger daughter’s JV field hockey game, I was able to make some salient points and then say, “Go search my blog on West Chester. That should give you everything you need.”
I invite readers of this blog to do that exact same thing. You will find some positive posts, from Kim’s era, and then the outraged, horrified reaction to her reassignment, and then the more measured stuff I’ve been posting since Kim and I created Poetry by the Sea.
Obviously I did not conceal my alignment with Poetry by the Sea from the journalist, but she did choose not to mention it in her article, which got some tongues wagging. Hey guys, not my call!
I’ve also been getting some grief over on Eratosphere with people who are naturally big fans of Sam Gwynn and want the West Chester Conference back. I’m fine with that, too. I actually wish they would engage more. I want to discuss the issues involved whereas they just want me to shut up and stop making them feel bad about wanting to attend the WCU conference, notwithstanding how badly the administration treated Kim.
Not this girl.
Animals Are Passing From Our Lives by Philip Levine
It’s wonderful how I jog
on four honed-down ivory toes
my massive buttocks slipping
like oiled parts with each light step.
I’m to market. I can smell
the sour, grooved block, I can smell
the blade that opens the hole
and the pudgy white fingers
that shake out the intestines
like a hankie. In my dreams
the snouts drool on the marble,
suffering children, suffering flies,
suffering the consumers
who won’t meet their steady eyes
for fear they could see. The boy
who drives me along believes
that any moment I’ll fall
on my side and drum my toes
like a typewriter or squeal
and shit like a new housewife
or that I’ll turn like a beast
cleverly to hook his teeth
with my teeth. No. Not this pig.
I have never made it a secret either that my loyalty to Kim Bridgford is 100% solid, or that this colors my motives in many of the things that I write and do. I happen to think she’s an amazing human being, and I am awed by the fact that she managed to put together the Poetry by the Sea Conference in under eight months, providing our community with a place to assemble after West Chester University abruptly moved Kim out of the Directorship, closed the Poetry Center, and cancelled the conference.
West Chester University has decided it wants to run the conference again in 2016, and this vast, corrupt institution has money to throw at the problem of making it happen. It sounds as if the scholarships will be plentiful, and panelists and chairs are invited to apply. They are counting on the fact that members of our community have short memories and are naturally forgiving people, inclined to give second chances.
Let me make something very clear: there has been NO resolution to what happened last September. The situation has not changed a whit, in fact. There is still legal action pending between Kim and WCU, which means she can still say nothing about what happened. There are still well-founded rumors of financial mismanagement at the Poetry Center, which is still the most credible reason for the sudden action. Remember: you can’t audit a body that no longer exists. Remember: Kim did nothing wrong and WCU mistreated her shamelessly. That still happened.
Make no mistake: if you allow WCU to buy back the conference with all this still hanging over its head, you are demonstrating the exact opposite of loyalty to Kim Bridgford, even if you believe you are only doing it out of loyalty to new part-time Artistic Director, Sam Gwynn. (Side note: In my opinion Sam is just a future victim of West Chester University and is not to blame for his role in this drama, but please consider the ramifications of the fact that his new part-time position has no authority to call for any kind of financial review.)
In September 2006 I suffered a Transient Ischemic Attack. I was 38, a non-smoker, otherwise in good health and of normal weight, so my only risk factor was the use of the oral contraceptive pill, Yasmin, which I had been on for four years at that point. Because that didn’t seem like ENOUGH of a risk factor to my doctors at the time, they conducted some tests and determined that in addition, I had a large Patent Foramen Ovale (hole in my heart) and a cystic ovary. This led to a year of medical procedures (including heart surgery) and general health discomfort which you can read about here and here and here.
The Bad Drug Yasmin
Re-reading my blog entries from that period it’s clear that at some point before May 2007 I had become convinced that the main villain of the piece was the bad drug Yasmin. I was at the forefront of women attempting to publicize their experiences and insist that the side effects of Yasmin included higher risk of a stroke-type event. Not surprisingly I was eventually contacted by lawyers who wanted to include me in a class action lawsuit against Bayer, the pharmaceutical giant responsible for Yasmin and its sister drug, Yaz.
They are now supposedly willing to settle some money (again without admitting liability) on some women who suffered ATEs (Arterial Thromboembolism). (Hint: a TIA is usually the result of ATE, not VTE.) So it’s perhaps not surprising that after 9 years last week my lawyers got in touch wanting me to sign some papers and such.
Effect of My PFO
Here’s the thing though, (and I apologize if this is too much medical science) the presence of a PFO permits a VTE to become an ATE. In other words the hole in my heart may well have permitted a blood clot which would naturally have been in the venous system to pass across to the chamber of the heart that pumped it up in an artery to my brain, causing the TIA. Yes, the lawyers know this. I have given them all the paperwork.
I don’t really care about the money. I just want justice and publicity, so that women don’t continue to take the bad drug Yasmin, which, incredibly, is still on the market.
Today I did my monthly stint at Care One, Moorestown, working with poetry and Alzheimer’s. When these sessions go well I find a deep satisfaction in seeing the residents stimulated and involved—I have recorded such experiences in poems like “Welcome Visitors,” the last poem in The Stolen From.
Unfortunately, there are days like today when the sessions do not go so well, and I thought it might be helpful to others working with this population for me to record some thoughts about the challenges of working with Alzheimers.
My four years experience has made it very clear to me that the disease progresses at startlingly different rates in different individuals. I do my Creative Writing workshops in the community that houses the least severely impaired residents, and a couple of the participants have been with me since the beginning, without any noticeable further deterioration in their faculties. I have a great relationship with these people and I know they enjoy the sessions.
However, sometimes, new residents arrive and it becomes clear after only a couple of months that they need to be moved to one of the communities which offers more support (and less stimulation.) As John Zeisel explains in his highly recommended book I’m Still Here: A New Philosophy of Alzheimer’s Care, before one can start to communicate in a meaningful and therapeutic way with an Alzheimer’s patient, they need to be soothed and calm. Therefore the circumstances in which the patient is housed need to be adjusted so that they are as soothing and calming as possible. Unfortunately, one upset individual creates an atmosphere of unrest that rapidly transmits itself to all present. Behaviors include generalized cries for help, verbal assaults which may be directed at everyone or at specific residents, “escape-seeking,” and invasion of personal space.
None of this is conducive to reading and discussing poetry, or using it to stimulate recollections and creativity.
Unfortunately, as was explained to me today (a session during which at least 3 community residents showed one of the above behaviors, leading to disruptive exchanges between them, staff, and other residents) the staff encounter resistance from relatives when they propose moving an individual to a more support-driven community—a form of denial which is completely at odds with that individual’s needs, not to mention those of others in the community.
As an outsider, I can’t do anything about that. I have developed my own acronym to ensure MY behavior is as consistent as possible with the outcomes we are all trying to achieve.
Challenges of Working with Alzheimers: PARSE
Persevere: the participating residents feel that their experience is being disrupted and they are losing out if I pause because the noise level from non-participating residents, for example, makes it difficult to continue. So I simply adjust my own volume so I can be heard.
Accept: if I myself start to become upset at the interruptions, that only adds to the general level of upset in the room. I try to look completely unfazed.
Redirect: I say things like “Let’s get back to the poem now!” or to an individual “John, why don’t you sit down so we can keep talking about the ideas.”
Smile: the smile is universal body language for “everything’s okay.” Regardless of how I’m feeling about what’s happening, I try to keep a reassuring smile in place at all times.
Encourage: I encourage positive behaviors by always rewarding contributions: “Yes, that’s a great thought, Sarah! Let me write that down.” “Wow! You’re so good at coming up with rhymes, Josie! That will be a great one to use!”
Then I go home, write a blog entry, and pour a large glass of wine.
The Raintown Review Anthology has, believe it or not, been underway since 2009, yes, since the earliest days of the new editorial team consisting of myself and Associate Editor Quincy R. Lehr. (We’ve since welcomed on board Assistant Editor Jeff Holt, of course, as well.)
It was Quincy who volunteered to keep an ongoing file of our pick of the poems from each issue—the poems that surprised us, revitalized us, or brought tears to our eyes (Okay, that was mostly me.) All I did was agree to the plan, say yeah or nay to a few poems, and confirm that when we felt ready, Barefoot Muse Press would publish and administer it.
We felt ready early this year. We got the manuscript planned, Jeff invited the poets whose poems we wanted to publish (most of whom responded with an eager yes), and we even arranged to have the launch reading at Poetry by the Sea 2015.
And then, in March, my mum got sick and passed away a month later. Needless to say, the plans for the Raintown Review anthology went on hold. It was hard enough for me to be in England for 5 weeks looking after my Dad and coping with my mum’s hospitalization, while trying to distance teach my Poetry & Math class at Stockton, and continuing to manage the website and the registration for the Poetry by the Sea conference. Everyone was naturally very understanding, and the reading for the anthology at the conference went ahead with no physical book in sight!
But now at last the physical book of the Raintown Review anthology IS in sight! I’ve been working on the layout and the cover design today, as you can see, and the preliminary pre-order page is now up on the Barefoot Muse website. (Pre-order for $12 or $10 for additional contributor copies.) And, ladies and gentlemen, I am psyched, because the one thing you already know about the Raintown Review anthology—just look at that contributor list!—is that the poems are shockingly good.
The West Chester Poetry Conference 2016 will take place from June 8 to June 11, 2016, or so we were told in an email which seemed stunningly oblivious to any possible sense of ill-feeling among its recipients. Meanwhile the Poetry by the Sea Conference is confirmed for May 24 to May 28, 2016. If you have the time, the money, and the inclination, you can go to both. Unfortunately, most of us are constrained by at least one of those factors. My own inclination is NOT to darken the doors of the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016, 2017 or any other year; nevertheless, I’ll try to compare what you can expect from the two conferences.
West Chester Poetry Conference 2016
The West Chester University Poetry Center website simply says, “More details coming soon.” The email tells us that “Ann Mascherino…was appointed in March 2015 as the College of Arts & Sciences Outreach Business Manager” and that they “hope to soon appoint an Artistic Director” of the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016 — here’s the job advertisement for the position posted on July 15, 2015. Apart from that, all we know for sure is that Pat Valdata and Jeff Hardin, the deserving winners of the Donald Justice Prize “will be honored publicly” at the West Chester Poetry Conference 2016. What else can we extrapolate from previous conferences and the events of last fall? We know what the accommodation and the food are like, but it’s difficult to get a sense for the direction in which this conference will go. There isn’t a single named poet currently associated with the 2016 conference, not even the keynote, and nothing has been said about poetry at all. I think it’s also fair to say not only that a number of previous attendees and faculty will boycott the conference on principle because of how Kim was treated, but also that the demographic of these boycotters will be skewed younger, more female, and more non-white when compared to the non-boycotters. In other words the conference faculty and participants will likely return to its 1994 base of older, white men.
Poetry by the Sea 2016
If you attended Poetry by the Sea 2015 you already have a very good idea what next year’s conference will be like, although you can rest assured that there will also be changes reflecting feedback that the Board have received.
Some confirmed speakers for Poetry by the Sea 2016 include our second keynote speaker, Kimiko Hahn, and X. J. Kennedy who will give a spotlight reading as well as participate in a panel on Humorous Song. Alex Pepple will be on a book publishing panel; Julie Kane will chair a panel on Poetry & Cognition, and Marilyn Nelson, a Young Adult panel. New books featured include The Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar by Quincy R. Lehr. Some confirmed returning faculty include Steven Schneider, Jehanne Dubrow, A.E. Stallings, Dick Davis, Tom Cable, Rafael Campo, and Patricia Smith.
You know me, and you know the role I played in defending Kim last fall, and in putting the conference together. Of course I’m biased! But you also know I’m passionate about poetry and committed to diversity and equality, like Kim Bridgford, and like Poetry by the Sea. The West Chester Poetry Conference 2016, on the other hand, is likely to be committed to regaining the out-dated status quo that Kim unsettled.
When people pick up a copy of my chapbook, The Stolen From, or of the anthology I edited, Forgetting Home, their natural assumption is that I have first hand experience of the nightmare that is losing a loved one to this hateful condition. But that is not how these two books came about.
The truth is that in May 2011 I received a call from an association called Arts Horizons of New Jersey, asking me if I would be interested in running poetry workshops in a group home for older adults living with Dementia and Alzheimers. Although I didn’t have the first clue what this would entail, I agreed to give it a try. Over four years later I have visited the home, CareOne in Moorestown, almost every month and while I wouldn’t call what I do there poetry workshops exactly, I’m certainly working with poetry and Alzheimers.
The Power of Poetry to Engage Memory
Organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project have long recognized that poetry is an exceedingly useful way of connecting to the memories of a person suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. The fact is that the memories we lay down in our childhood and teenage years are among the most resilient, and for many of us that is when we are having poetry read to us in elementary school, or studying poetry in high school.
The poems that work the best in this way are the most oft-quoted Shakespeare sonnets, the most memorable Emily Dickinson poems, and “popular” classics like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” or, most notably, “A Visit from St Nicholas” by Clement Clark Moore. (I recorded a true story of a resident’s reaction to this piece in my poem “Welcome Visitors,” the last poem in The Stolen From.)
The act of being able to remember such well-known poems makes residents feel empowered and gives them some semblance of normality.
The Power of Poetry to Prompt Storytelling
But poems don’t have to be famous to help these older adults connect with their memories. What I typically do at the beginning of each session is read 4-6 poems written around a similar theme. Then I use that theme to attempt to draw out recollections and stories from the older adults listening to the poems. At a training session given by the National Center for Creative Aging I learned how photographs could be used in this way, and it seemed to me that poetry could be equally as powerful. Themes I have used include the various Holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Veteran’s Day, Mother’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day etc.), seasons, places, food, schooldays, careers, and so on. Sometimes, the theme successfully generates quite long recollections which I honor by writing down. Sometimes I have to prompt recollections by asking open-ended questions e.g. “How did your family celebrate Halloween?”, “What career or jobs did you enjoy doing most?” “What did you like best about the New Jersey shore?” Again, I honor the memories by writing them down.
Sharing their own stories bolsters the residents’ sense of identity and self-esteem. Being involved in the discussions makes them feel less isolated and generates a sense of well being.
The Power of Poetry to Encourage Creativity
Finally, we write a poem together. I would be lying if I said that the residents actively write the poem, but the poem uses their valuable input and takes shape on the easel in front of them. There are several types of poem that I have found most effective in this setting:
The Acrostic — For example, if our discussion has generated a list of careers/jobs the residents enjoyed (Secretary, Teacher, Realtor etc.) I write the word vertically down the page and encourage them to call out words or phrases for each letter that describe someone who might have that career.
Haiku — I don’t insist these be 5-7-5 syllables, just that they make a short-long-short pattern on the page. These can often be constructed directly using the memories written down earlier.
Monorhymes — The capacity to generate rhymes for a given word is unrelated to memory. I give them a word and collect suggestions for rhymes, then we write the poem and try to use as many of the suggestions as possible.
Participating in a creative/intellectual exercise gives the residents a sense of accomplishment plus they have fun!
So, the workshops inspired me to write poems about my observations, and I decided to self-publish these as the chapbook, The Stolen From, plus the experience gave me a connection to Alzheimer’s, and I decided to do what I could to help alleviate the suffering by publishing the anthology Forgetting Home. Meanwhile, I still go along to CareOne every month, where some of the residents have been there since I started. They may not be able to tell you my name, but they do know that they enjoy what we do.
At the National Portrait Gallery earlier today, I was delighted to run into Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709), one of the inspirations for a Sisters & Courtesans poem. Married to Roger Palmer, she bore the king at least five children. but then the king did have fourteen children by several different women, although no legitimate heir. Above is her Peter Lely portrait. (Also on display were portraits of Nell Gwynne, perhaps the Merry Monarch’s most famous mistress and supposedly the only one who loved him for himself and not his position, and Louise de Keroualle.)
My Life as One of King Charles II’s Mistresses
There is a portrait of me—I look pretty,
perhaps a little too much skin on show,
but Peter Lely captured me, a glow
I had when twenty, mischievous and witty.
I could have had my pick of the whole city,
but then, the king was quite the man, you know.
And for the seven months he was my beau
I was content. Indeed, it was a pity
my husband found us out, and sent me down
to his estate a hundred miles from town.
But, silver linings! When the black plague struck
I wasn’t there. Nor was I, with more luck,
when our fine mansion burned down to the ground.
My husband’s corpse, alas, was never found.
“History is more or less bunk,” said Henry Ford famously, and so, quite often, did my father, a graduate in History from Bristol University. His actions typically belied his words—he would be pushing our eclectic collection of Edwardian silver napkin rings around on our Elizabethan oak dining table, attempting to explain the military tactics of a famous battle, his eyes gleaming.
What he meant was, “Don’t study History, study Physics.” This may stun readers who know me now, but I was an obedient girl back then, and so I did as I was told. I dropped History as soon as I could for the sciences, and went on to study for a Masters degree in Chemical Engineering at Imperial College, London. And everything else, as they say, is history.
Except it isn’t. I continued to be fascinated by history and to read history texts and historical novels—the well-written kind like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. My favorite period is, indeed, the Tudors and Elizabethan England, but I am also borderline obsessed with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and with the early years of the Colonies. I married a man who loves History—his obsession is with the Founding Fathers and Political History—and our bookshelves are full of history books. Then five years ago I became involved with the Mezzo Cammin Women Poets Timeline, founded by Dr. Kim Bridgford.
About half of the fifty-plus essays about women poets currently on the Timeline concern American or British late twentieth century or contemporary poets, whose cultural context requires little explanation. But the rest span a broad swathe of historical eras from the dark ages to the second world war, and come from cultures as diverse as T’ang Dynasty China and Fourteenth Century Paris. A historical background is essential to these poets’ biographies.
I am a housewife, of sorts, and something else began to be clear to me as I co-ordinated essays on poets such as Kassia, Hildegard of Bingen, and Veronica Franco (pictured above.) Before Anne Bradstreet, housewives really didn’t write poetry. They didn’t have time. Women’s poetry up until the 17th century is almost entirely represented by women who had chosen a religious vocation, were royal or extremely wealthy, or existed on the margins of polite society—entertainers, mistresses, and women who otherwise used their bodies as currency. The idea behind Sisters & Courtesans was born.
Why Write Female Historical Persona Poems as Sonnets?
As I explain in Female Historical Persona and Character Poems, it’s not enough to decide who you are going to write about, you also have to determine how you are going to write about them. For me the super-flexible sonnet was the obvious choice, partly because sonnets are sexy, and sex plays a huge role in Sisters & Courtesans (not always just in the Courtesan corner either!) To illustrate my thought process further, here’s “My Life as an Honest Courtesan in Venice” (loosely based around Franco and her contemporary Gaspara Stampa):
I must confess that I can barely walk
in these new shoes, the platforms are so high.
Advancing regally, I pause to talk
(and rest) when an acquaintance passes by.
These split brocaded sleeves force me to hold
my arms spread out as if I mean to fly.
My heavy pendant heart is solid gold.
I hope it’s the epitome of class—
for that’s the point of all this, so I’m told.
I may be nouveau riche, but I can pass.
Don’t ever dare to lump me in with whores
with their thin skirts and ornaments of brass.
And as for those new sumptuary laws
I am exempted by a special clause.
Female historical persona poems need to wear their history much more lightly than the courtesan wears her ridiculous fashion in the poem above, and the sonnet forces the writer to do this. In approximately 140 syllables there simply isn’t room to explain the role of the Honest Courtesan and how she differed from a street whore. But this is where the persona becomes helpful. Because the poem is in the voice of the courtesan, and she is reflecting on her position in society and what it takes to maintain it, we can get a sense of the full historical context from her insecurity and vanity. And if you want to know more about sumptuary laws, you can always google them!
I wanted to create a Timeline of my own with Sisters & Courtesans, not of women poets—very few of the personae claim to be poets themselves—but of the history of women having control over their decisions, whether those decisions primarily affect their lives or their bodies, and of the correlation between control and happiness.
Other people can be the judge of whether or not I succeeded, but my Dad loves the book, and that means a great deal.