Delighted to introduce my Cross-Border Conversations Interview Series. Astute observations on inspiration, community and the vocation of writing from Ayelet Tsabari, Valerie Trueblood, and Yael Neeman in Maisonneuve Magazine: https://maisonneuve.org/post/2018/07/29/cross-border-conversations-yael-neeman-valerie-tru/
Perhaps the best reason I’ve ever heard for not attending a book launch came from Sergeant Steve White, Seattle Police Canine Unit, who couldn’t make my first event at Elliott Bay Books because he had a last minute triple homicide come in. The life of a K9 Cop is full of the unexpected, and they learn to roll with whatever comes their way.
It was a great pleasure to see Steve at our event at Third Place Books. I know the audience appreciated his willingness to answer questions about his dogs. I so enjoyed meeting his wife Jennifer and talking to them both about their work and her own writing projects. Thank you!
More collaborative joy! Our most recent Farmer’s Market reading of Sustenance was truly a gift of an event, with recent refugee families who were BC Nutrition coupon recipients shopping at the market and joining us to listen to a poem, with poets bringing their best work to share, with a spirit of community that brought several of us to tears.
I also met Sustenace contributor Leef Evans, artist and poet, who came with a painting as a gift. Sustenance is that spirit of giving, of making art and sharing it, of unexpected and stunning generosity. Thank you Leef. Thank you all for being part of Sustenance:
And what joy to see this excellent review of Sustenance in The Ormsby Review: https://bcbooklook.com/2018/06/28/food-for-thought-2/#more-35014
It is a great joy to work with artists in other disciplines. David and Jordan Doody painted one of my favorite paintings of all time, and then gave me permission to use a reprint of it on the cover of Marry & Burn. Here's David holding the book in front of the painting:
BC BookWorld and The Ormsby Review work tirelessly to support local BC Writers. I'm grateful for this review: https://bcbooklook.com/2018/05/30/going-to-the-dogs-4/
I’m reading with the great poet Russell Thornton at SFU Lunch Poems, May 16th:
Tricksters, film rights and Indigenous anti-pipeline activists--my interview with the marvelous Eden Robinson live now at Cascadia Magazine
Merna Hecht, Poet Laureate of Vashon Island, WA, reads at the Nat Bailey Farmers' Market, Vancouver, BC: Photo Credit Kevin Spenst
Interview: Merna Ann Hecht, by Rachel Rose
What compelled you to begin writing poems?
I was blessed with a grandfather who played the banjo and mandolin; who loved to sing, tell stories, and recite beloved poems; and who was a devoted and skilled gardener! His delight in poetry, song, story and the bounty of the earth caught and held my imagination from a young age. Under his influence, I began writing poems at age seven, most often about the natural world which kept me entranced through my childhood. By age thirteen, I was delving into many different poets who opened my eyes and heart to the beauty and suffering of the world and I’ve not stopped turning these pages. Poetry is the place where I locate the tenderness, splendor and sorrow we all share. It speaks for what otherwise seems unsayable. I am so fortunate to have to have long been immersed in it.
How do you define success as a writer? How do you deal with setbacks or failure?
If what I write can surprise a reader or listener, if it can spark a sense of recognition and meaning for them, I consider that “success.” It has everything to do with establishing mutuality and connections, of enlivening the unseen threads that bind us together. I strive for that elusive balance of avoiding what I consider confessional poetry and steering clear of writing that lacks spirit or mystery. This means a critical kind of letting go of my own self-consciousness and inner critic. It means listening deeply and patiently to what the poem wants from me, not to what I want from it. The setbacks are many—time crunches, writer’s block, intentions and longings that don’t translate to the page—the only way I know to deal with this is to keep at it by finding quiet space and paying scrupulous attention to what is being called forth. I love what the late and wonderful poet, William Stafford said, “Lower your standards and keep going.” Advice I try to take.
Do you have a literary community that is a source of strength and inspiration for you? How did you create or find that community, and how do you nurture it?
When the current U.S. president was elected, and as he chose his cabinet members, I felt a sense of panic and despair. I was alarmed that principles of social justice, civil and human rights and basic decency would be seriously undermined. I wanted to find a nourishing and meaningful way to address what was happening and decided to start a women’s poetry group. This group of six women has become a source of solace and camaraderie more than I could have anticipated. Our monthly meetings mix gratitude, humor and hopeful spirit with the bone deep honesty of outrage and deep sorrow. Also, my position as poet laureate in the small island community where I live has given me an insider’s view to a truly lovely community of poets and poetry lovers. I was not aware of how intact and cohesive this was until taking on this role. And, I’m fortunate in developing friendships with poets and writers in and beyond North America, including this new found connection with you, Rachel! These mostly long distance relationships further a sense of solidarity and community—knowing that writers “everywhere” are speaking “truth to power” through works of protest and witness for peace and justice.
What are your current preoccupations as a poet?
How can I count the ways!! My first preoccupation is as a teaching artist. I am honored and privileged to have worked for the past seven years with high school aged refugees and immigrants from many places of war and untenable circumstances around the world. I am continually asking myself if I’m doing enough to bring their voices to the community. I’m preoccupied with how to bring marginalized voices into the center of community life to help engender welcoming, inclusive communities. Also, I must admit that whatever I’m writing—a praise poem to a political protest poem—food often appears somewhere within at least one stanza. Finally, I so often grapple with how to create “political” poems that address the many heartbreaking challenges of our times and that speak to what is most humane and compassionate within each of us. How do I avoid writing a polemic or a rant which I don’t want to do, and find a way to express grief and tenderness within a poem that also abhors war and injustice?
Will you share two of your poems with us and maybe talk a little about their origins?
I chose this poem because it refers to what I said about bringing my lifelong love for growing and preparing food into much of what I write. I have the good fortune of harvesting what grows on the land where I live—blueberries, plums, apples, pears, and a vivid array of vegetables, herbs and flowers. Often, when in the kitchen immersed in the joy of food preparation my thoughts take flight from the fragrant present to the irony that at the same moment such suffering and loss are occurring. I attempt to grapple with these disparities in the poem.
Steam curls itself into my kitchen windows,
dampens and sugars the air,
the canning vat volcanic.
I know this rhythm,
the importance of timing,
five minutes needed
to process fruit at sea level.
You will fare well in my kitchen,
where a cornmeal dumpling
with freshly picked blueberries
puckered beneath golden crust
surprises you with cardamom,
lime, and cassis,
for keeping the hungry mouth
of the world’s pain
on the other side
of the kitchen door,
yet, when my timer rings
I know a different device for keeping time
is calibrated to the minute’s explosion,
and in a kitchen halfway across the world
another woman’s spices and hopes
are ground down to nothing.
It takes a cornmeal dumpling 20 minutes
at 375 degrees, blast of warmth
in my face, leaning into the oven,
while a car bomb,
with incinerating heat
closes in on open stalls,
market baskets filled with olives,
almonds and eggplants scatter,
women and children run for shelter.
Why not get lost in what we love,
the world hurts us anyway.
How else to provide
a feathered taste of sweetness,
but to allow a morning’s work
to shine through glass jars,
this pinch of unviolated joy,
while I know the ingredients
for violence, that haunt the world,
are without measure.
This poem comes directly from my work with high school age refugees and immigrants. I want to continue to weave their voices into what I write as I do in this poem. I wrote it to honor their spirit of hope for a more peaceful world and to give readers a sense of their courage and depth.
Peace Dove in the Classroom of Young Refugees
All wars are wars against children
I thought your wings were blown
to random feathers
from landmines and drones,
but there you are, cradled in poems
written by the children of war,
your outline drawn from their hope.
Born to the firestorms of our times
these children have arrived from angry borders,
yet Abyan, from Somalia, finds a place for you
in her lines, When the winds come down,
the hijabs fly up, like the wings
of a butterfly reaching the clouds,
like white doves bring peace to the world.
Istrabraq, also from Somalia,
tells a different story, writes,
Red is the tears that never dry
when I remember heavy blood
all over the bumpy street of Mogadishu.
It is the dream of the sleepless
when I think of small children
and pregnant mothers dying
for no reason.
I think of Picasso, whose furious hands
raced to paint the grief of bombing
after Guernica, spreading the dark
shadows of total war
over his huge, frantic canvas,
who later recovered his childlike self,
and drew his white dove, her pure heart
breaking and soaring into the moment
of each displaced child’s dreams.
I do not show these children of war
the young boy in today’s paper,
he walks in a bloated parade of refugees
knocking at the hardened gates
of closed borders,
they would want to give him
something to believe in,
alive with grass and sun
and the thick milk of well-being,
they would touch his loneliness with their own.
Dedicated scribes, they trace the wings
with care, write of the dove as if bringing her to life,
wings like a flag
for a peaceful country,
white as the clouds
in the sky, moving slowly
white wings, the sound of an angel,
the sound of hope.
Curious bystander, I will not tell them
I fear the delicate wings are broken,
that I wonder if they can teach me
to trust this white bird Picasso once rendered
who flies whole and holy
through most every poem they write,
to trust she will bring the cease fires
and the long awaited openings.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Fieschi-Rose