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Elaine Fletcher Chapman
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When at home, I arrive at my desk at the appointed time, search for my fountain pen, locate my notebook and begin with date, location, the time of day, and sometimes the weather. Often I read my last entry: It feels like spring even though everything is dead or this morning the word, Selah or Chanel Le Veverns: 483 Vendetta or in Ghent where I raised my children. A few weeks ago Miriam O’Neal sent me a card from The Writer’s Series, on the front, “Dear Ella,” a pastel by Deborah DeWit Marchant, 1994. For several days after reading and rereading her note, I cut the card in half and taped it to the front and back of my notebook. The image of a desk, paper, lamp, and an unmade bed in the corner, blues against my purple notebook. On the back a quote by Thoreau, “The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with.” Most writers I know work from notebooks. I carry mine with me, as Jason Shinder was known to advise, along with a folder of poems I am currently revising. Even on my shorter commutes, I carry the pair. They remind me of my heart’s desire no matter what I am doing or where I am going. Is there a difference between a writer’s notebook, a journal, a commonplace book or a diary? I really don’t think so unless the intent is so named. They address the everyday, the quotidian. They may record lists of books read and unread, grocery lists, quotes, receipts, reviews, found objects, letters, beginnings of poems, lines of fiction, descriptions of art, memories, arguments with lovers, photographss, the flow of tides, phases of the moon, words and their origins, and often momentos. I keep a notebook of found objects. It begins with the poem Quarantine by Eavan Boland, then a reflection on the house fire, a collage of words, then Keats, I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the Heart's affections and the truth of Imagination, then poems by Mary Oliver and Charles Simic, an email from Stephan Sandy, a photo of The Gates in NYC, an eucalyptus leaf from California... ending with photographs of Three Ridges Wilderness. On my desk this very moment is Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary edited by her husband, Leonard Woolf and published by Harcourt Brace & Company originally in 1954, 1953. My copy is worn, dog-eared and marked. There are many pages bookmarked with odd scrapes of papers. On Tuesday, September 18th Virginia wrote, a thousand things to be written had I time: had I power. A very little writing uses up my capacity for writing. On Tuesday, December 20th she wrote, We are in the black heart of a terrific frost. And at the heart of all journals: On Saturday, February 27th she records, Who am I, what am I, and so on; these questions are always floating about in me: and... Continue reading
Posted Mar 22, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Most days my study doubles as zendo, as temple, as sanctuary each time I enter after I may or may not burn the incense. Bare feet on the floor, follow my breath, accept my mind as is: wild with thoughts, messages, grievances, and perhaps a moment or two of clarity. My robin-egg blue notebook open on my desk contains the date, time of day, a few words: gleanings from attempted stillness. Several months ago I began a season of Midrash, commentary on sacred text. This time, not the writing reflections on the first Buddhist nuns, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, not the Bhagavad-Gita. No, this time I chose The Psalms, read randomly. The Psalms of the Monastic: said, sung and chanted. And back to Thomas Merton as guide, using his published pamphlet, Praying the Psalms. In preparation I searched for books to illuminate and inspire my imagination. I found several but the one I kept coming back to was Poets on the Psalms edited by Lynn Domina published by Trinity Press in 2008. Domina decided after reading an anthology of essays by contemporary writers who had addressed one chapter of the bible to compile a book of essays written by poets about the Psalms. She invited poets to respond. She was astonished by the variety of responses and reactions. The range of experiences and reactions to the text astonished me, as well. Alicia Ostriker, Carl Phillips, Pattiann Rodgers among a few, write meaningful essays of discovery, both personal and scholarly, regarding the Psalms and it's influences. Diane Glancy's essay, Upon The Floods, tells of her driving for thousands of miles while listening to the Psalms, as part of her migration. She writes, I wanted strength for the unknown journey ahead. She discovered dislocation and disturbance. Her landscape transformed by what she heard as well as what she saw. I became more fascinated by what other poets expressed about the Psalms then the Psalms themselves. I kept feeling a lacking within myself. I downloaded a recording so I could listen to them during my weekly commute over the Chesapeake Bay and back. I repeatedly forgot to begin the recording, choosing silence for the journey over the bay. And there was the small problem of translations. I kept searching for a standard, a translation that I could enter and remain for an extended time. I discovered The Poet’s Book Of Psalms: The Complete Psalter as Rendered by Twenty-Five Poets from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries edited by Laurance Weider published by Oxford University Press. This enchanting book even includes Upon the Translation of the Psalms by John Donne. Now I read different translations and a few lines from a particular Psalm began to enter my poems here and there. I maintained a preference for King James as opposed to Christopher Smart, John Milton,or Thomas Wyatt. Sometimes I enjoyed a translation by Mary Sidney Herbert, perhaps because she was the only feminine voice. I experienced the intense range of emotions:... Continue reading
Posted Mar 21, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
Yesterday in the mail a large envelope arrived, return address American Academy of Poets. I had eagerly been awaiting the arrival of the new poster to mark National Poetry Month in April. Amazingly,one only has to request the poster ( in order to receive it. The subject of the poster: writing letters. It's beauty lies in the printed blue and beige stationary, envelopes, postmarks, pens and instructions printed off to the side: Write, about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful from the book Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Joan M. Burnham. Copyright 2000 by New World Library with permission to reprint. What poet or writer has not read these letters, taken seriously the advice given? I'm partial to Stephen Mitchell's translation and forward of Rilke's letters to Franz Xaver Kappus. I was pleased because reading letters written by writers has aways been part of my study. And at this moment in the side pocket of my notebook there are two slips of paper, each with a name and address written clearly, I am to write two letters this week, one to each person named. I will take my time and find the right stationary, write my note, then add a beautiful stamp. I may put a quote on the envelope. Each letter will by handwritten in ink. Every other week I meet with a small group of writers I have been working with for more than five years. This season we are reading Letters to Olga by Vaclav Havel, translated by Paul Wilson, embracing the personal and the particular. We draw each others names, then in turn write letters to one another, mostly handwritten on cards, small slips of paper, and formal stationary. Our intention is to follow the human impulse longing for connection and share the personal. Our letters honor the written word, our processes and our shared experience of our writing lives. Last week Betty wrote, When Julie reads her work, I hear mountains calling my name. When Diane reads I can sense the Red Sea parting. I wonder what people hear when I’m reading? Ruth writes, A week lived has no tidy line ruled straight between one day and the next. Diana writes, It’s a stuck in molasses grey day but I see a few brilliant yellow daffodils brightening things up. Vaclav Havel writes to his wife Olga, writing letters is a small ceremony. Yes, each letter, a small ceremony. Yes, and the reading of letters, ceremonial, as well. Among my favorite books of letters: One Art: Elizabeth Bishop, Letters selected and edited by Robert Giroux and A Wild Perfection: the selected letters of James Wright edited by Anne Wright and Saundra Rose Maley with Jonathan Blunk both published by Farrar, Strays and Giroux. I like particularly the literary connections between writers: James Wright's letters to James Dickey, Robert Bly and Donald Hall. His letters are newsy, full of literary discourse and struggles. He always... Continue reading
Posted Mar 20, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
A slight drizzle began a few minutes ago and birds arriving for spring settle here and there on the grass and next to the early daffodils blooming in a circle on the side yard. For many years I began my morning writing practice with haiku, three or four maybe five. Lately I’ve abandoned haiku for prose, a few lines about weather. Every day it is my intention to return. It is how I begin. Begin with nature, noticing what surrounds me, waking up my senses, embracing my mood. Most days I burn the rosewood incense brought home from Zen Mountain Monastery years ago. Let go of laundry, dishes in the sink, the puppy hopefully napping in the next room, bills unpaid, phone calls unanswered, family far away. Haiku brings me to the moment, this moment. I like the weaving: of season, of moon, of tides, of birds, of plants blooming or not, of feeling. I like counting syllables: 5-7-5. I fancy myself a formalist It’s a warming up, a settling down and in. It announces my arrival at my desk once again. Notebook open, pen in hand. I pause, revel in the solitude, stillness. Contemplation. I may or may not turn to one of my favorite books close by: Haiku- the sacred art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines by Margaret D. McGee, The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson & Issa edited by Robert Hass, Seeds from a Birch Tree: Writing Haiku and the Spiritual Journey by Clark Strand, On Love and Barley: Haiku of Basho translated by Lucien Stryk and of course, Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior and other Writings translated by Sam Hamill, my bible of sorts. Today I open Narrow Road to the Interior. Its form, haibun, a combination of haiku and prose. I reread: The sun and moon are eternal travelers. Even the years wander on. A lifetime adrift in a boat, or in old age leading a tired horse into the years, every day is a journey, and the journey itself is home. He leaves a verse by the door: Even this grass hut may be transformed into a doll’s house. And then: Spring passes and the birds cry out- tears in the eyes of fishes. Another pause, remembering my own note by the door before hiking Three Ridges Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail several years ago: Even this seaside room may be transformed into a temple of warm tears This marked the beginning of hiking the same trail in different seasons after the tradition of Basho. It was a trail I hiked over three decades at different stages of my life: as a young woman, as a mother with her children, with friends, alone. Lauren Artress writes to be pilgrims walking on a path, we need to participate in the dance between silence and image, ear and eye, inner and outer. We need to change our seeking into discovery, our drifting into Pilgrimage. Whenever I hiked Three Ridges I established a... Continue reading
Posted Mar 19, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
I live in a small rural town on the Eastern Shore of Virginia between sea and bay,only seven miles wide, mostly farm. My husband is the pastor of a fairly large church for the Eastern Shore. On any given Sunday there may be three or four generations of family members scattered about, sitting on pews together or singing in the choir. In the few years he has served this church, he has conducted over forty funerals. Actually, he has become known for his funerals. He poured creek water in the baptismal font, read poetry along with scriptures, and kneeled at every grave. He is accustomed to death while I am accustomed to attending to the grieving, my own and others. This past July, my father died. He lived across the bay, near the York River. We drove and then took the Surry Ferry to the rural cemetery where we stood in summer heat with cricket song singing the only hymns. By default, my husband ended up leading the service. Yet another funeral. All but one of my four brother’s spoke. I chose to read Jane Kenyon’s Let Evening Come. I needed poetry. When the time came to read, I lost my bearings and my husband walked toward me, extending his hand to mine. He gently led me to the podium. I held the thin volume of poems in my hands, looked to the few attending. No need for a marker, the book opened naturally to page 69. I read, holding back a thousand tears. The poem concludes with "God does not leave us comfortless" and I want it to be true. Sometimes I believe Jane, sometimes not. I do know I depend on poetry, especially Kenyon's clear images and felt words. Several months after my father’s death, a church member died unexpectantly of a heart attack. He was a waterman from Deep Creek who made his living catching crabs. Many times in the last few years we sat at his family’s kitchen table eating his soft shell crabs, a seasonal speciality. A day before Butch's funeral my husband asked, “Would you please read the poem you read at your father's funeral for Linda?” I hesitated. Yes, I had read this beloved poem many times to myself, in poetry workshops, at poetry readings and with others who were grieving, but never at a service in this small rural town. With reservation, I agreed. The sun that day was intense but there was a cold wind. A graveside service, one day before Christmas Eve. We hurridly left the house and I forgot my coat. I stood off to the side, cold and shaking slightly from the chill and nervousness. It was unlikely that people attending had heard the poem before. Did they even want a poem? But as the time came closer to read, I knew I could trust the crisp images, light passing through them. I knew the particulars would resonate with everyone. Yes, I see in the faces. Let dew... Continue reading
Posted Mar 18, 2013 at The Best American Poetry
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Mar 18, 2013