Friday, May 27, 2011

Grieving Through Poetry, Poetry Readings and Yoga Classes

It has been almost two months since my Aunt Dora passed. What would have been her 103 birthday on June 8th is approaching both quickly and slowly. I return to my once-regular life in bits and pieces: yoga classes, writing and poetry readings.

Even though I used to go to yoga classes three times a week, it took me a while to return after my aunt died. The first time I got close, I walked past the many gardens in our neighborhood. The peonies, irises, and gingko buds were too much for me in the damp spring air. There was so much life blooming in the blurry fog of morning. Beauty without my aunt seemed wrong. I started to cry and turned back towards home.

When I eventually did feel strong enough to return, I was reminded to “honor the present,” as I was in March. I blogged about that then, before my aunt passed, but after others had.This return to my own body, after helping to physically care for my aunt on her hospice bed, was necessary. It had been hard to even shower or pull on socks, thinking of mortality. I did cry when I returned home, but it was a more cleansing and less fearful cry.

Since Aunt Dora fell ill in late March, I’ve been writing countless lyric and prose poems about the experience. I’ve re-read the letters that I wrote to her and written her new ones. These poems, therapeutic and personal, may or may not be edited for publication. The important thing is that I continue to find my voice and actively sort through the mysteries of this life. It has been easy – necessary, I’d add - to write, but not easy to edit or share the work. Sometimes I cry when I write and sometimes I don’t. I can divulge, and then delete, thoughts that need to be exhumed.

Other people’s work, however, hasn’t been easy to approach. I fear the beauty and truth in their work that will cause the stone of grief to drop back into my stomach. I am torn between wanting to remember every detail about my aunt and her dying while also wanting to forget. One day, I hope, I will find a medium between the two.

Attending Robert Hass’ reading at the Folger wasn’t easy. I was very aware of the fact that it was my first poetry reading since my aunt passed. While my aunt rarely read poetry and perhaps never attended a poetry reading where I wasn’t featured (she was so supportive!), the beauty, and attention to the present inherent in true art is daunting to me. Hass’ gentle translations, insight into our species’ and planet’s mortality did catch my breath at times.

And I held it in. Absorbing the beauty. We need the beauty and truth in art to heal. It isn’t easy and it cannot be rushed. But it can happen. 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Literature of Mourning

If nothing else, literature of mourning helps readers to understand their emotions and join a community of those who have experienced the same vacuum after a loss.

In this slow grieving period after losing my aunt, I’ve found the most comfort in three books:

Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diaries 
Anne Carson’s Nox 
Kevin Young’s edited poetry anthology The Art of Losing 

The business of creating art from grief is a sticky, although necessary, one. In Mourning Diaries, Barthes writes, “I don’t want to talk about it, for fear of making literature out of it – or without being sure of not doing so – although as a matter of fact literature originates within these truths” (23). His book is a collection of notes, at times fragments, that was not intentionally organized for publication. He wrote these notes after his mother passed. A few of the original notes were published on the New Yorker’s blog.  His haunting observations, memories and facing of his sadness offer both literature and truth to the reader.

Like Barthes, Carson focuses on one relative. She elegizes through memories, drawings, pictures, letters, history and myth, altered dictionary definitions of ancient Greek words and creates a memory book her brother who was mostly absent throughout her life. The absence, then and after his passing, is present throughout the text. To add to the intimacy, Nox was published as one continuous sheet and placed in a box. (See the box and scroll in this short video.)

In the review of Nox in the New Yorker, O’Rourke reminds us:  “Grief is paradoxical: you know you must let go and yet letting go cannot happen immediately. The literature of mourning enacts that dilemma; its solace is mainly in the ritual of remembering the dead and then saying, There is no solace and also, This has been going on a long time.”

Kevin Young, after losing his father suddenly, edited The Art of Losing, an anthology of poems of grief and healing. I am sure that I am not the only one to want to thank you for doing so. He has gathered together classic and contemporary poets under the headings of Reckoning, Regret, Remembrance, Ritual, Recovery and Redemption (there are additional lists in the back of the book.) As if grieving together with the reader, we move through the wide range of emotions. He reminds us in the introduction, “Though dedicated to the dead, in a crucial way elegies are written for the living.” You can hear him read some of his own poems on NPR.

There are many more books on the same subject, of course. I remember poet Laure-Anne Bosselaar telling our MFA poetry workshop at Sarah Lawrence that most poems come from a sense of longing. How could we not write about our grief? I’ve listed these books and others in my Amazon store

What other books would you recommend?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Poetry Dress in Pictures

Thank you to poet and teacher Hannah Baker-Siroty for taking these great pictures of the Poetry Dress. I wish I could have been there, but this is the next best thing. The project was organized by Danielle Jones-Pruett and featured at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival  earlier this month.

For a more about the dress, a list of the participants and my poem, please read my earlier post on the Poetry Dress. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Janelle Adsit's Creative Writing Pedagogy Bibliography

Thank you to Janelle Adsit, English PhD candidate at SUNY Albany, for today’s guest blog about the Creative Writing Pedagogy Bibliography  she created and maintains. It serves writing teachers and writers well. 

I’m quite happy to have met Janelle at the annual NeMLA conference this spring. We were on a panel together about community in the composition classroom. 


I hope that those who are working in the field of creative writing will find the bibliography useful. It lists many of the articles and books on creative writing pedagogy published since 1980. I am thrilled that these creative writing pedagogy sources can be included in Dr. Rebecca Moore Howard's excellent collection of bibliographies; her website is a valuable resource for those who are interested in English studies, composition and rhetoric.

I compiled this bibliography for my master's thesis, which I completed at Colorado State University under the direction of Dr. Sue Doe. My thesis consists of two main parts: 1) a review of recent creative writing pedagogy literature and 2) an investigation of the aesthetic criteria promoted by six frequently used poetry- and fiction-writing, college-level textbooks. One article from my thesis is forthcoming from Continuum Press in an anthology titled Dispatches from the Classroom.

It's always great to hear from others who are working in the field of creative writing studies. Feel free to email me with questions or just to say hello. I try to keep the bibliography up to date, so I invite readers to send me the citation information for any sources that I am missing: ja677282(at)albany(dot)edu.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not take this opportunity to thank Naomi Lederer for her help in compiling this bibliography. The Colorado State University community is very fortunate to have Professor Lederer's expertise.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Guest Blogger: Gale Griffiths’ Letters to a Young Child

Whether we write emails or hand written letters, letter writing continues to fascinate us. Thank you to my former student Gale Griffiths for today’s guest post about her mother’s letters written in A. A. Milne’s style.

Gale Griffiths is a mother, a painter, and an illustrator. She attended the Philadelphia College of Art for four years and has recently attended classes at the Northampton Community College in an effort to continue her studies and improve her job prospects in education. She has worked in a variety of administrative positions in art museums, architectural firms, and retail as well as an assistant teacher in day care.

Letters to a Young Child

When I was very young, there was a period of time in which I was separated from my family and lived with my aunts, uncles and cousins in California. My mother kept in contact through letters. To me, the oldest, she wrote very much in the spirit of our favorite children's author, A. A. Milne. She was Christopher Robin, and I was her most "Faithful Knight," Winnie the Pooh. In this way she was able to keep alive the precious moments she used to read Milne's books to me and my siblings, and the amazing and fanciful world of the enchanted forest that he created through his characters, Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Tiger, Kanga and Roo. She started each of her letters with the salutation, "Dear Pooh," and always ended with:

        "GON OUT




            C. R."

The occasion for the letters was due to my mother's hospitalization in a mental institution. This was during a time when it was still possible to have someone committed by family members for a protracted number of years if a family doctor felt it was advisable. Since my mother did not work outside the home, it was not a financial hardship for our family, although it was certainly a psychological hardship for her four young children and my father. Because my father did go to work each day, he was unable to care for us in a way that my mother liked. Initially, she enlisted her own family to care for us, spreading us out into four separate homes, as it would have been too much of a burden for us to be together in one. This arrangement did not last very long as each one of us soon grew sick of being separated from each other and our father.

These letters were what my mother could offer me from so far away and from a place she could not leave until she was deemed "well." They were gifts that kept me afloat during this extremely confusing and sad period of my life. I have embraced art as a result of this experience when I discovered at a very young age how terribly powerful it can be. It continues to save my life every day.

I lived for her letters just as I had lived through these books thanks to A. A. Milne and E. A. Shepard's ability to create this fabulous world that helped to preserve the essential bonds we form in childhood. I learned how different life is as a child from the adult life we will eventually grow into when at the end of The House at Pooh Corner Christopher Robin exhorts Pooh to never forget him and to understand him, as he goes off to boarding school.  We cried as we became aware of the bittersweet passage from childhood towards adulthood. Through his books, A. A. Milne and E. A. Shepard, his fabulous illustrator, manage to keep childhood alive in our hearts and memories and inspire us to make something of them so they may continue to live on and our creative spirits can breathe and rise above the harshness of reality, and as one of my favorite painting teachers once said, hold reality at bay.

You might also be interested in Abe Louise Young’s recent post, Writing to Louise,  or my recent post on letters my aunt preserved.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Robert Hass Poetry Reading @The Folger Shakespeare Theater & Writing Prompt

After seeing Mary Karr and Lyrae Van Clief-Stephanon at the Folger Shakespeare Theater earlier this year, I returned to the beautiful space on Monday night to hear Robert Hass read. Robert Hass is a former U.S. Poet Laureate, active poet, translator, and professor at the University of California – Berkeley. (For more, read his biography on the Poetry Foundation’s website.)


Hass read a number of his translations of the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese poets. As a speaker of few Polish words, Hass worked closely with the poet and other Polish speakers. When asked about translating poetry from a language he doesn’t know intimately, he joked that it is “like making love with gloves on. You’re never quite sure what’s happening.”

Hass shared stories about working with closely with Milosz in California. One story, about a series of poems that began both “Oh!” and “O!”, had Hass wondering which one Milosz intended. While discussing which one might have a longer, more thoughtful exclamation vs. a more spontaneous response, Milosz said, “Life is so short that anything you can say, ‘oh!’ about, you should.”

Writing Prompt

During the question answer period, Hass answered a question about his theory of writing. He recounted seeing an interview with Henri Cartier-Bresson in which the photographer was asked about his theory of photographing. Cartier-Bresson held his hands up and mimicked taking a picture as he shrugged. Hass said that he has the same view of writing. After hearing the interview, he was inspired to write a daily series of prose poems, only some of which developed into full poems, in which he captured scenes from everyday life.

Hass recommended trying this exercise: Everyday, sit somewhere and record exactly what you experience with your five senses. The attention to the present, your surroundings, language, light, etc., will help you to become a stronger writer.

Writing Suggestion

Regarding writing, he also recommended writing at different times of the day. Many authors will have set schedules (for example, writing for a certain number of hours every morning), but he has found that trying different periods of the day allows him different kinds of insight in his poetry.

The breadth of Hass’ knowledge is rooted not only in poetry, but also the natural world. A kind, thoughtful and engaging storyteller, his reading was both invigorating and inspiring. At one point, he described poetry as "catching lightening in a jar." He's a poet I can believe in.

You can watch him read poetry at the Dodge Poetry Festival on Youtube

I look forward to attending readings at the Folger next fall. See you there? 

Monday, May 16, 2011

Poetry the Movie

Have you seen Poetry? Not the literary journal or the genre, but the movie.

When I saw it a few months ago at the lovely Avalon Theatre in Maryland, I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into. The preview and the title suggest that this Korean movie would focus on the main character’s poetry writing class and her new relationship to the world because of her attention to it. Instead, there’s a death, a grandson’s crime and Alzheimer’s to consider.

I left the movie disappointed that I hadn’t been treated to an all-poetry-fest of a movie.

But now I think differently. The movie has continued to haunt me. As Andrew O’Hehir wrote in the Salon review, “the story is about Mija, and how she confronts both this turning point in her grandson's life and her own illness (not to mention a society that prefers to sweep all such crimes and tragedies under the rug).” There was so much to the plot and its relationship to a wider world beyond the movie. 

The characters and visual attention to the surroundings, which I could focus on even while reading the subtitles, have stayed with me. I wonder about the ending and the ultimate role that poetry can play while confronting personal and public tragedy. My own writing has something to learn from this both foreign and familiar tale. 

It was a beautiful, although difficult, movie. Have you seen it? I’d love to read your thoughts about it. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Pop Rivet" Chosen as one of '30 Poems to Inspire" in Narrative

Thanks to Narrative Magazine for choosing my poem “Pop Rivet” as one of the “30 Poems to Inspire” series! What amazing company to be in… I hope you’ll click around and read these lovely poems that will continue to be posted through July 15th.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Poem on The Poetry Dress @ The Massachusetts Poetry Festival

I am very excited to have a poem on The Poetry Dress at the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in Salem from May 12 – 14. Read below for more information, including my poem. Maybe you’d like to RSVP on the Facebook event? The poetry festival looks fantastic and I’m sorry to miss it.

The Poetry Dress is a collaborative art project featuring work by established and emerging poets as a way to showcase the layers of female voices in contemporary poetry. It will be on display during the Massachusetts Poetry Festival in downtown Salem.  Thank you to Danielle Jones-Pruett for putting this together.

Participants include: Liz Abrams-Morley, Diane Averill, Naomi Ayala, Hannah Baker-Siroty, Catherine Bancroft, Julie Batten, Judith Baumel, Adrian Blevins, Rosalind Brenner, Pamela Haskew Brunson, Sage Cohen, Suzanne Coker, Martha Collins, Erika Dreifus, Mary Gilman, Betsy Gomez, Danielle Goncalves, Michele Harris, Andra Hibbert, Alison Hicks, Krysten Hill, Lisa Hiton, Jennifer Jean, Danielle Jones-Pruett, Tosha Jupiter, Pamela Kallimanis, Paula Hardy Kangelos, Meg Kearney, Molly Sutton Kiefer, Suji Kwock Kim, Crystal Koe, Cindy Veach, Irene Latham, Jacquelyn Malone, Amy Marengo, Jennifer Martelli, Jill McDonough, Molly McGuire, Colleen Michaels, Chloe Yelena Miller, Jean Monahan, Nadia Nurhussein, Lisa Olstein, January O’Neil, Catherine Parnell, Dawn Paul, Barbara Perez, Joyce Peseroff, Kay Peters, Kathleen Raddatz, Hila Ratzabi, Betsy Retallack, Karen Rigby, Lynn Roberts, Bonnie Roberts, Rachel Roberts, Maxine Scates, Tara Skurtu, Amy Small-McKinney, Janet Spangler, Lindsay Steuber, Tess Taylor, Kim Triedman, Lesley Valdes, Melissa Varnavas, Angela Voras-Hills, Ingrid Wendt, Joleen Westerdale, Leslie Williams, Margaret Young, Jessica Young, and Rachel Zucker.

I wrote Duccio’s Gold five years ago after visiting the MFA in Boston. I spent some time looking closely at the gold in this Italian triptych from the early 1300s. Like many of my poems, this one considers the power of art as a means to understand the world and my aunt, who passed this year.

Duccio’s Gold
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

is sky and earth, but not sea.
Punched, tugged with tools, it suspends
angels. They are here, also everywhere.

I mimic that thin gold with oil; the brush
spreads color unevenly. Three pears
exist in this heaven of brushstrokes and platter.

Italians still lives: natura morta.

The fruit seeds rest for repotting.

My ninety-eight year old aunt sits back in her chair.
I want to reanimate her—
paint her blond hair pushed to one side by the Atlantic wind,

dye the dress she wore at her mother’s funeral.
Don’t wear mourner’s black for me, her mother said.
These stories are here,

also everywhere.

Stay tuned for pictures of the dress from the festival!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Winner Announced!

Thank you to everyone who joined my new Writing Coach Facebook Page. I promised on Friday to offer one free hour of writing coaching to a randomly selected fan out of the first fifty who joined.

The winner is... drum roll please... J Corey Conner! Congratulations, J! You are welcome to schedule your session immediately, save it for up to one year from today or offer it to a friend. Please email me (chloemiller(at)gmail(dot)com) to discuss the details.

This was so much fun that I will do another drawing once we reach 100 and then 200 fans. Thank *you* for helping to make this possible.

If you haven't yet joined us on Facebook for conversations about writing and related updates, I hope you will.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Come on Over to our *New* Facebook Page!

I'm excited to announce our new Writing Coach Facebook Page! I look forward to sharing links and discussing writing with you there.

Once we reach 50 "likes," I"ll be giving away a free hour of writing coaching (valued @ $100.00) to a randomly selected person. I hope you'll help spread the word!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Preservation: Writing Letters

I hand wrote letters to my Aunt Dora for years. She typed her responses on an electric typewriter, as she learned to do during a short secretarial course years ago. There was a period, when I first moved to Italy in 1996, when she even emailed me on a “mail station.”

Almost 103 years old, Aunt Dora recently passed. Helping to clean out her house, I discovered a drawer filled with many of my letters. There were those that I wrote to her from summer camp in rural New Jersey as a middle schooler, postcards from my recent honeymoon in Greece, and everything in-between. I had uncovered half of our ongoing conversation, preserved in a drawer.

The process of writing has always helped me to better understand the world and myself. Writing letters – that is, knowing that someone would read them and answer – placed me firmly on one side of a dialogue. There is always the same hope with work yet-to-be-published, but without a loved one on the other side, there’s little guarantee.

The longest letters are those I wrote from Smith College in Massachusetts and Florence, Italy, when I was a year long study abroad student and later worked as an adult. In the letters, I asked my aunt questions about her daily life and described what I was doing and thinking about. I shared details about the language, meals, even the troubles of doing laundry in a foreign country. She’d write back, answering my questions, offering some gossip and always advice.

The letters weren’t our only communication. Aunt Dora would call me, regardless of whether I was in New Jersey or Italy, to check to see what time I received an email or a piece of mail. In fact, many of my letters are noted with a “rec’vd” date that she wrote on the envelope. Precision was important to her. Looking through the letters that she sent me, I see where she erased errors and re-typed the word correctly. She took time to write exactly what she meant.

I wrote the most recent postcards in large print with Sharpie markers. As Aunt Dora would say, I “broke up the monotony” of her days sitting by the window waiting for few visitors. I wished I could visit her more often, but I was no longer living in the same state. The letters, phone calls, and visits every few months would have to stand in. I regularly mailed her short notes and she responded in kind. We proved that distance could be shortened by staying in touch.

Every day around noon I think about calling her to say hello. It is hard to break a regular habit and, if her phone weren’t disconnected, I might, accidently or purposely, continue to do. 

I am, quite simply, heartbroken without her.

I cannot talk to her, but I take some solace in writing to and about her. As poet Abe Louise Young wrote here recently about her grandmother, “I’m writing to her still.” 

I always tell my students and remind myself that writing is a form of communication. I believe this. Write to each other. The time that it takes to think, write, revise and then send, through the postal service or an email provider, creates something that can be preserved. My aunt and your loved one may not be here to answer, but they continue on in us, by influencing our own words. Let them speak. 

Who do you write to?

Monday, May 2, 2011

Inside Higher Ed: Landing Online Teaching Jobs

Thanks to Inside Higher Ed for publishing my recent article, Landing Online Teaching Jobs. It is the second in a series about teaching online.

I’ve been teaching primarily online for the last three years. As I continue to learn how to improve my online teaching skills, I enjoy it even more. 

Have you taught online? What career advice would you offer?