Tag Archives: poetry

Here comes Pinktober, the thing about a little cancer

Here comes October, or as a lot of my BC friends call it, Pinktober. That’s not in a revving up for awareness month kind of way. That’s in more of a, oh here it comes again, I want to hide from all things pink, kind of way. Honestly, I used to be okay with it. I used think that all the pink was okay if it meant there was a constant conversation about breast cancer, but I do believe now that it has turned from awareness to a marketing tool. Some of the things I’ve seen going pink in the name of breast cancer have been truly hilarious. A week or so ago, I was at the grocery store and happened to be walking up the liquor aisle when I saw the signature pink ribbon on a bottle of alcohol. I can’t remember what kind, but it made me stop and laugh. On one level I thought, now this has gone way too far. On another level, having been through chemo (think of your worst hangover and multiply it by 100), I found it more fitting than perhaps any other product donning the pink ribbon.

On a personal level, I’ve always loved fall the most of all seasons. It was always the start of anticipating the holidays. Now, October is the start of something different. I don’t despise it. I still love fall, but now pink proliferates with the changing colors of leaves, and I begin to think about the sequence of events that changed my life forever. It all happened leading up to holidays seven years ago. I was starting my second semester of grad school, working

Yeah, that's a bathing suit, or part of one anyway.

Yeah, that’s a bathing suit, or part of one anyway.

full-time and raising two elementary school aged kids. I was invincible…and very busy. Then I found a lump on my right breast the Monday after I returned home from my second semester residency, the same day I cried in the car as I heard Leroy Sievers’ “My Cancer” commentary on NPR, the one about how he was coming up on another Thanksgiving, something he was told almost a year earlier not to expect with his terminal diagnosis. I had no clue as I was listening and driving home to my own discovery how much of an impact that commentary would have on me. A few weeks later, on Dec. 17, I got the confirmation. The doc said, “Well, you have a little cancer,” not “You have cancer” or “It’s definitely cancer,” but “You have a little cancer” as if saying it was little would make it seem smaller than the vast black hole it felt like at the time. Of course, it never felt little. It still feels big. It feels big because each year women I know only because of breast cancer, women who like me were diagnosed at a young age, are losing the battle, the most recent just this week. Each time I see another photo scroll across my news feed with a vibrant smile and the description in past tense of a life lived as our most recent loss was described “legendary” I realize how big it really is, how pink ribbons on products can’t scratch the surface of awareness, how awareness is knowing these women even through a few posts on a Facebook page, how awareness is not races, not ribbons, but hearing the real voices behind the struggle, seeing the faces, knowing that cancer is a bitch at any age, but now a boy has to rely on the memory of his senses, pictures, videos, and the clearer memories of others to keep hold of his mom. Nothing about that is little. Nothing about that easy to still process, though, as Melissa Etheridge puts it, the pain is miles behind me and the fear is a docile beast. It’s a beast nonetheless.

All of this brings me to writing, to poetry in fact. I had a breakthrough. My poetry manuscript has had a metamorphosis. It began as a chapbook with poems that lacked a clear focus. In the last several months I have worked through the “little cancer” in poems, not so much the having it part as the how to live with the persistent understanding of time, or time as a character that can no longer be hidden or tucked away. I have been writing through the “little cancer” for a while in fits and starts, but I think I see a direction in a full manuscript rather than a chapbook and I have a working title now that comes from a poem once titled “Trying on a Bathing Suit” about the first time trying on a bathing suit after surgery. Now, the poem is titled “The Persistence of a Bathing Suit.” The revision of the poem makes reference to Salvador Dali’s painting “The Persistence of Memory.” Here are the last few stanzas of the poem:

I feel the weight of

this suit now as it

sits like a weathered

shroud in my hand,

dangles like the melting

clock draped over a limb

in Dali’s painting

“The Persistence of Memory.”

What really persists

is the memory of that

flash of light, the opalescent

sparkle of blue and pink,

that lingered in that infinite

space between forgetting

and remember we all must die.

I set the suit on the seat

where it might look at its

own sad reflection for a while

until the store clerk

retrieves it at the end

of the day.

The “Persistence of a Bathing Suit” is now the working title of the collection. It will be dedicated to all the Young Survival Coalition women, the ones in our memories and the ones who don’t need a proliferation of pink to understand awareness, because they live awareness every single day. Continue reading

Food and poems intersect in a barn on a hill

francine j. harris

My two worlds have intersected in an old wooden barn with one big window covered in opaque paper allowing light to fall on a stage where poets read and musicians played alongside chickens. The barn belongs to Tilian Farm Development Center, a place that gives new farmers a head start on the road to owning their own farms. A couple of the farmers are friends we have gotten to know through writing and through our food cart venture, which has put us right in the heart of the local food movement in Ann Arbor.

I couldn’t help but feel like I was more where I wanted to be than I ever have been. My friend Deedra and her husband, Bill, own Honest Eats Farm, one of the Tilian Farms. She took me on a tour and picked a sugar snap pea off the vine for me to eat. There is nothing more sweet, nothing more satisfying that so simple burst of goodness. Growing up, I was so far away from that. The nearest I got was our annual berry picking adventures.

The event was A Bard Sings Out II, a benefit for the Tilian program. Featured among the group of poets were some of my local favorites,

Winter Sessions

Francine j. harris, Aaron McCollough and Keith Taylor, who headlined. I won’t do it justice trying to describe what it’s like to hear poets read in a barn like that. I only know that something felt so right about hearing the words move through that setting, those succulent sweet words mixed and nurtured, watered and weeded, much like the sustenance growing in the field beyond the barn.

Our friend, Nick Wilkinson, who owns A2 Pizza Pi, the cart that sits right next to ours at Mark’s Carts, took some of that sustenance and cooked wood-fired pizzas for everyone who attended. Nick makes the most delicious artisanal pizza and he has always used ingredients from another of Tilian’s farms, Green Things Farm, owned by Nate and Jill Lada.

Sitting outside with the pizza cooking and the music of the string band Winter Sessions filtering from the barn, it felt like a dream, a good dream where all my senses are heightened. I can smell the smokiness of all that good food cooking. I can ingest the images fed to me by great poets who care about things like sustainability and land and the small organic farmer in the farm to table mix. If my pictures look fuzzy, it’s because I don’t have the latest and greatest gadget. I have the anti-gadget. Or, it could be because dreams have that kind of fuzzy glow to them, that kind of “yes, it happened but you can’t really prove it” feeling. Well, as it turns it did happen. I hope to spend a little more time out there, perhaps helping my friend Deedra. Word has it she needs helps pulling weeds. I like pulling weeds.

In gratitude

I most likely will not win NaNoWriMo, but I’ve won already. I’ve won in that I have a running start on a new novel, one that has been in my head a year or two, one that I will keep working through in hopes of finishing it a lot sooner than 10 years. That brings me to gratitude. While there is so much rejection in being a writer, there are things that keep us going. I like, especially this week, to focus from time to time on the little steps forward that I am grateful for.

The following is a list of the things I am currently grateful for in this writing life:

1. The many new and old friends I have that inspire me and my writing with their own. This is a solitary pursuit for sure, but there is a community built so steadfastly around it.

2. The seed of a little novel “Sometimes the Smallest Things” was planted ten years ago with immediate encouragement by author Betsy Cox at Bear River Writer’s Conference. I scrapped for bits of time between raising children and working full time in order to massage every word and every scene. That took every bit of ten years. I finally have a full and what for now is a complete manuscript, complete enough to be sending it out into the world. It is getting some notice, so we will see what 2012 brings, but for now I am happy to have completed it.

3. I have been fortunate to dive into my passions this year. I am teaching, now, which I have longed to do since finishing my MFA. Because I am teaching, I get more time with my writing and my family.

4. This year, I have had some writing success. A couple of my poems appeared in publications. The first was Driftwood 10. The second, which I recently received my contributor’s copy, was a cool little book called Bigger Than They Appear: An Anthology of Very Short Poems.

5. I stay connected with my old writing job by still being able to write  feature articles for the magazine Homefront, my favorite part of the job. I also get to write a poem specific to the center photo spread of each issue.

6. I am able to merge my love of food with my love of words in my online post as the Ann Arbor Cooking Examiner.

7. I am always grateful for my family and the support they give me in pursuit of this crazy ass dream.

Words as food

I eat words, not in the sense that we all know, not the “eat your words” sense. No, words to me are like the very sustenance I get from sitting at a table filled with the warm delights of a hearty meal. Recently, I had forgotten how wonderful words tasted. I had forgotten how nourishing they were.

I suppose, like anything, too much of a good thing can make you sick. I had too much. I went from writing for work to writing for work and school to writing to make a few bucks. In essence, all I did was write, and I wasn’t writing what nourished me as much as writing what needed to be written. I’d made myself sick in a sense. I was tired. Dark circles appeared under my eyes. Then there was the crossroads. At some point not so long ago, I wondered if I’d ever again write anything new or anything that might get me excited. I had moments when I thought I’d gotten inspiration, but then I stopped. I couldn’t get a single new spark to flash in my creative core. There was no energy to keep a spark going anyway. I thought being in a critique group was the answer. I thought going to fancy literary events would be the answer. None of it worked like it used to. I’d definitely hit a low point in my writing, a low point I never imagined I would ever hit.

Recently, though, I heard parts of the speech Steve Jobs gave to Stanford University graduates. This is not a reflection of anything I think about Apple or Jobs himself. No, I just heard his words at a time when I needed them. In his speech, he talked about being at a low point in his career and life. He talked about how he went back to the beginning, returned to where everything had started, to where everything was exciting and new again, to where he felt hungry again. As I heard that, I knew I knew what I needed to do. I needed the hunger again. I needed it from the beginning, from before the MFA, from before the 12 years of newspaper writing, from before the handful of awards and publications. I needed to savor the flavors of words again.

That wasn’t going to happen in a critique group or in a career focused solely on mass producing copy. No, what I found was that I had to go back to a group much like the one where it all began, a group that inspired me to keep my hand moving across the page, that nurtured those first sparks of inspiration and saw them for what they are–food and nourishment meant to keep the light of inspiration burning.

I found just such a group, finally. They are  a talented and exciting bunch, but most of all they are a hungry bunch. They are as hungry as I am to taste those words, to try them in various flavors. I remember now how words taste–savory and sweet in all the best ways possible. Mostly, I remember why I started writing words. I realize now that I’d starve without them.

I want to be in there! A meditation on persistance and solitude

This is Rita. I snapped a photo of Rita a couple of days ago. She and her owners and sister visited the food courtyard where my food cart business is located. Her sister was too shy to be photographed, but Rita desperately wanted to be inside the courtyard and didn’t seem to care who was taking a picture of her.

The photo, one, makes me laugh, and, two, makes me think of my own “outside looking in” scenario. That scenario being that post MFA I feel more on the perimeter of the writing world than I did before I had the MFA. I’m sure that’s mostly my own doing. I’m mostly just trying to figure out where that MFA thing fits into my life now that I am no longer on campus. I don’t have the community I had readily available during my MFA, and as I’ve searched to build  a new community it has been somewhat difficult to fit in.

I realized recently that perhaps I don’t have to fit in, that perhaps I just need to accept that writing is a solitary thing and that I need to be doing it in solitude and not in a community. I also realized that I have been trying, somewhat like Rita, too hard to get past the gate that allows me to fit into that community. It all is a waste of precious time and precious energy. Writing does not mean talking about writing or being with writers. It doesn’t even mean having your book published or having an agent. It means actually sitting down with a pen and paper or a computer and diving deep into the lives of characters or the snapshot of a moment captured in a poem. I am ever so grateful to have people in my life who know nothing about writing but somehow seem to get what I am doing. In my quest to get inside the gate, I have probably lost sight of this the most.

With all the hoopla surrounding the book and movie “The Help,” which I have not read or seen, yet, I was reminded that the community I am in is the community I need to do what I am doing and persevere. Independently of each other, my dear husband, Jay, and my mother somehow caught wind of Kathryn Stockett’s many rejections through a couple of her recent interviews. Jay cornered me in the food cart, which isn’t hard to do since it is a six-foot by ten-foot stainless steel box. He asked me how many rejections my novel had received. I told him 20, so far. He said well you have about 40 more to go to get to that woman who wrote “The Help.” Not more than a day or so later my mom called and left a message on my phone telling me all about this article she read on Kathryn Stockett and how many rejections she had and that I just had to keep sending my book out.

Sure, in some sense I know all this stuff, but to me these are moments of clarity that help me see through the fog of insecurity and help me move through the fog of all the chatter about what a “writer” needs. I know deeply that I am supposed to be doing this writing thing, just as Rita knows deeply she should be inside the courtyard enjoying a little pork belly and scratch behind the ear. I realized in this moment of clarity that all this energy that I have spent sticking my nose through the gate has been mostly energy spent on fear, the fear of not making it in the one thing I know deeply I am supposed to be doing. I realized all the different ways I have attempted to get through that gate have been distractions. As much as I loved the newspaper, even that was a distraction, that was a crutch keeping me safe, keeping me from diving into this life that I don’t necessarily feel I have chosen. Perhaps getting the MFA was another safety route, as much as I wanted to do it.

So, I sit here at my desk. I sit here in my writing life of brief moments of peace and solitude to work on turning those metal bars of fear into dust.

In Limbo, but writing again

It feels like I am in limbo between two worlds. I left my job of nearly 12 years a little over a week ago, a writing job, to jump into a life of food. We are now just waiting for the rain to subside, so we can get cement in at our little courtyard where our mobile kitchen will sit for spring, summer and fall.

There are moments when I feel like this is one of the craziest things I have ever done. What business do I have opening a restaurant, a renegade mobile kitchen at that? Then there are moments when I feel very strongly, for some reason, that this is what I need to be doing. This is what we, my husband and executive chef and I, need to be doing.

I guess the act of creating this business from the ground up has reinvigorated my writing. I am

Here we are in our mobile kitchen

doing more of the writing I like to do. It’s not that I didn’t like the writing I did at my job, but I wrote all day and then tried to write more when I got home, and I got to point where it was too much.

While I was feeling a little down on writing a couple months ago, I did learn that two of my poems were accepted for publication in two different publications. That was a nice bit of news. I really felt the frustration with writing melting away when I attended the Midwest Literary Walk a few weekends ago. I heard some great poets read, read a couple of my poems, and got a chance to hear my friends’ band October Babies play.

In a week, I’ll be spending my days prepping, cooking and selling some great food at Debajo del Sol. I’ll be spending my days outside in Ann Arbor, hanging out with my husband. This week, we’ll move our stuff into Union Hall Kitchen, and begin the process of getting ready to open. It’s exciting and scary all at once, but Jay has done his homework. He’s really pulled all of this together. It’s his vision, and I’m so excited to be a part of it coming to fruition.

Well, enough rambling, I’ve got some writing to do.

Patience and brick walls

A bird calls outside my window. Our big golden retriever lies on the couch after pleading in her mellow dramatic “I’ll place my muzzle on the couch and stare at her until she says I can get up on the couch” kind of way. At least she’s a polite golden retriever. Are there any who aren’t polite? Maybe a few but not ours. My tabby cat is sprawled on the arm of my husband’s empty recliner. It is an unusually quiet morning and soon I will begin working on my novel. I figured I would blog, since it has been more than a month since my last post.

I think for a time I was all out of words. Maybe it was the never ending snow, or the fact that we have moved to two issues of the newspaper a week, or the fact that my husband and I are starting a new food business, my head has not been in writing. It happens. I had great momentum coming out of the New Year starting blocks. I felt ready to take on anything– freelance writing, novel writing, everything writing. When I last left you I was sending a partial to an agent. Well, that didn’t go the way I had hoped. At the time, it felt devastating. I’m not sure why. I know this game. I get a lot of rejection. I think it was the timing of all of it. The news came when winter felt the coldest and harshest, and I just went into hibernation mode, like I always do at that time of year. Call it the winter blues or seasonal affective disorder, what it really means is that I just shut down and do the bare minimum needed to get by in winter, i.e. going to work, getting kids to school (when there is school), and maybe cleaning a little. I always figured it came down to hating winter, but really it is just a part of the winter cycle. I’m not so different from a bear. I just don’t get to stop what I’m doing and sleep until spring. Instead, I scale back and complain a little about driving through the snow. I realize now that I have always been fighting the fact that winter is a time of rest, thinking I always have to do, do, do.

In the midst of fighting all that and trying to maintain my do, do, doing, I became conflicted about writing, mostly because I have been doing too many writing assignments and not enough writing fiction and poetry. I thought perhaps I wanted to freelance and stay home and write. It’s not that it’s too much work. It’s just that it’s using up my words for something I can’t get my heart behind. My priority is to no longer do that to the detriment of the writing I am passionate about. That doesn’t mean I’ll stop blogging or freelancing altogether. It just means I want to get this book done. I’m back at rewrites and finding that indeed the novel might need a little bit more tweaking. I don’t see the previous submissions as wasted time. I feel this perhaps is part of the process, especially for a first novel. For a long time I’ve heard the word “patience” like a whisper in my ears. I keep thinking of something Randy Pausch said about brick walls and how they are there to keep those who don’t want it bad enough out. So, for now I just keep focusing on patience and brick walls.