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December 5, 2017 / jennrudsit

2017 Pushcart announcement

November 29, 2017 / jennrudsit

Environmental Art

by Hannah Cobb

Im sitting with the 4-year-old I nanny at his familys dining room table. I have a piece of printer paper balanced on the illuminated screen of my phone and I am tracing an image of  Tinkerbell that I got from a Google Image search.

You forgot her feet.Benson comments.

I didnt forget them. I just ran out of paper. Its okay that her feet arent in the picture,I try to explain. “Not all pictures have feet in them.

Benson is insistent. But how will she stand on the pirate ship?

I sigh and erase the bottoms of the legs that were leading off the paper, and taper the legs awkwardly into points. Now Tinkerbell doesnt look like she has legs or feet. Benson seems satisfied. This is not the first time I have noticed that he and I have different ideas about art.

I slide the paper off of my phone and begin adding background embellishments in hopes that these will distract from the awkward legs. I write a quote from the movie in cursive along the long side of the paper, and begin to add a swath of stars to wind around the figure. This is good. The picture might still have a hope of looking like those Disney character drawings I see when I wander through Pinterest. Before I can finish the star banner, Benson interrupts me again.

Why are you drawing that?

Its the background. It looks pretty!

She doesnt need a background. Im going to cut her out and put her on my pirate ship!

I pause.

Can I cut her out now?

Reluctantly, I hand my attempt at a masterpiece over to the wrath of Bensons scissors. What else can I do? It seems wrong somehow to fight with a four-year-old over artistic differences.

IMG_0458Ive been doing a lot of babysitting and nannying recently with a number of different families. Invariably, this means Ive been doing a lot of art projects, and most of those projects have been under close scrutiny. Adults seem much more willing than children to just accept the fact that I am not skilled at visual art. Ive noticed, however, that children have definite ideas about what my drawings should look like, and they nearly always ask me to give up control and let them make the decisions. This is invariably frustrating to me, even though I know that no matter what I draw, the picture will just be crumpled up somewhere by the end of the day.

Ive been wondering recently about artists who can give up control in this way, which has led me to think about a 1970s art movement called Environmental Art.Environmental artists created works on an enormous scale, and released their creations to the influence of time and nature. Spiral Jetty in the Great Salt Lake is one that never fails to capture my imagination. Created by Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty is a manmade shore of land that extends into the lake before curling back on itself, becoming a spiral. The water level of the Great Salt Lake is subject to extreme fluctuations because the lake has no natural outlets besides evaporation. Because of this, some time after the jetty was built, the lake level rose, and the jetty was submerged completely.

Theres a unique kind of beauty and loss manifest in pouring your time and energy into a thing and then releasing that thing to the ravages of what you cant control. In the early 2000s, the lake receded again and the jetty re-emerged: intact, but changed by salt deposits from the lake. Smithson had died by the time the jetty surfaced, but I think he would have experienced great joy and wonder at seeing what the lake had wrought on his imagined landscape.

Environmental art can teach us that art always is, to some extent, a willing collaboration between ourselves and the environment that surrounds us. And yes, sometimes that environment includes assertive four-year-olds.

Lately I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about a branch of theological inquiry known as Theopoetics. One of the things that Theopoetics does well is to create a space for new articulations of God. While traditional theology can sometimes err on the side of trying to make everything fit neatly into familiar philosophical boxes, Theopoetics aims to look directly into the mystery of God and to leave space for wonder.

One Theopoetic thinker, Richard Kearney, writes about the necessity of what he calls radical hospitalityin creating Theopoetic spaces. In his Theopoetics Primer, Way to Water, L. Callid Keefe-Perry writes, [Kearneys] call is one of invitation to walk in a place of hospitality and welcoming, even when the welcomed guest may prove hostile. Making the choice for faith may indeed be frightening and unpredictable, but hospitality may well call us to that.

Spiral Jetty demonstrates a kind of implicit hospitality. Rather than trying to keep the environment out of his creative efforts, Smithson invited wind and sun and fluctuating lake levels to be a part of the creative picture. In doing this, he provides a unique opportunity for his viewers: inviting them to become participators, and to look directly into the mysteries that surround us.

I keep discovering that the road to God and the road to art intertwine more than I had ever expected them to. The more I try to pursue a creative life, the more I am discovering the necessity of a kind of hospitality to mystery and uncertainty. If I try to control all the factors of my creative expressions, the thing I create ends up being little more than a portrait of my own insecurities.

Jesus said Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.I wonder if such purity could be evident in simply welcoming the stranger: the foreign idea, the unknown person, the things outside of our control even the child with strong artistic opinions. Perhaps one way of finding God in our own lives is by finding the beauty that arises when we give up our grand artistic visions and allow the intrusions of what is unfamiliar.

Hannah Cobb graduated from Whitworth University with a double major in English and Theology, as well as a minor in computer science. She is still trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up, but it will probably involve poetry in some way. In the meantime, she is working at a thrift store and nannying for two families. You can follow her on Twitter @HannahTheCobb.

November 15, 2017 / jennrudsit

Time, Memory, and the Myth of Progress

by Amanda C. R. Clark

In our post-postmodern culture, text and image are increasingly fractured. Disciplines such as literary studies and art history are segregated and kept at a distance; Starbucks and Apple logos sans text are reduced to little more than semiotic cliché. Let us turn to an old friend and ask the physical book within time: “Are we trapped within our modern understanding of the progression of time, even if we are tethered in time, as we may often believe ourselves to be?”

In Werner Herzog’s 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams we are offered a meditation on the passage of time perceived in a modern context. The filmmaker explores the incredible Paleolithic animal art found in the Chauvet Cave in southern France.[1] Jean-Michel Geneste, Director of the Chauvet Cave Research Project, is quoted in the film, saying: “to inscribe the memory on very specific and odd things like walls…. It’s a way of communication between humans and with the future.” In other words, it’s an intentionally delayed message. The cave waits for us, now, here, thousands of years later, to tell us something.

Beneath the documentary structure of the film is a metanarrative that interrogates the purpose and inescapably time-rooted nature of visual art as it is experienced. Regarding how and why—and when—art should be viewed, this film broaches existential questions: Herzog’s improbable yet tantalizing mystical musings let us ponder if something made in millennia past might have reached an intended purpose for us in our present age. Might time, rather than being linear, be more akin to an accordion-folded book collapsed upon itself? As Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore lobbied in their 1967 work, The Medium is the Massage, Western print culture based on the Roman alphabet is fixed in a linear concept of time, marching one letter after another, indefinitely. Like soldiers, this construction generates and sustains our contemporary concept of progress.[2]  But is it progress?  Are we progressing toward something worth reaching?

Maura Picciau quotes an anonymous author who states that a book as akin to the flow of water: “By changing what flows into what stays still, the book denies the image of time. Its surface is not superficial, its plot is not linear, and its time is not irreversible.”[3] The book waits as the caves at Chauvet wait—what is within remains in darkness and quiet—and anticipates us individually, personally. The physical book may or may not participate in the “flat, neutral surface” of linear alphabet-like progression; the book’s writer is free from such strictures, allowing creativity to flow as creatively as his or her mind allows, unfettered. The power of the physical book is thus not in its linearity but in its conception and flexibility. With the rise of the internet, the Renaissance ideal of one-point perspective—wherein “I” is the source of the gaze upon the world—has been reversed. The “I” is no longer the lookout for viewing a receding vanishing point, but has itself become that point. We self-gaze, trapped in chronology, dreaming of destinations. What emerges is a multiplicity of terminals. A reader of a book may flip through the text, open a book at random in the middle, or explore other variations of use. Have we lost our footing, ostensibly “freed” from the linear worldview once personified by the alphabet?

As humans, we can reference only the past; the future recedes infinitely before us. John Lewis Gaddis considered this as both dominating and dominated.[4] Without our past stored and retrievable, we are unequipped to prepare for the unknown future found now, and now, and now, the future being future and the present being future-immediate. Being human is an art. We must apply limited information broadly; we are stargazers on a cloudy evening. The end-goal of this game is the betterment of humanity both on the micro and macro levels, and the game pieces are the records of human lived experience, stored, retrieved, and consulted.

[1] Werner Herzog, Erik Nelson, Adrienne Ciuffo, Peter Zeitlinger, Joe Bini, Maya Hawke, Ernst Reijseger, et al, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, documentary video, 90 minutes (Los Angeles: Creative Differences Productions, Inc, 2011).

[2] See McLuhan and Fiore, The Medium is the Massage. The ironic titular typo, “massage,” was retained by McLuhan deliberately.

[3] Maura Picciau, “Between the Rooms and the Shelves, Disturbing Objects,” in Il Libro Come Opera d’Arte: Avanguardie Italiane del Novecento nel Panorama Internaionale, The Book as a Work of Art: The Italian Avant-Gardes in the Twentieth Century as Part of the International Panorama, by Giorgio Maffei e Maura Picciau (Mantova, Italy, 2008), 21.

[4] See John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Amanda C. R. Clark is Library Director at Whitworth University. She has published in areas of architecture, biography, book arts, and the significance of books. Clark holds a PhD in library and information sciences from the University of Alabama.

November 1, 2017 / jennrudsit

Pynchon in the Age of Paranoia

by Nick Avery

Whether you lean right or left just admit it. Admit that you’ve taken a kind of pleasure from those push notifications informing you of the next scandal, tweet, or email. Admit that you watched every Sean Spicer press briefing with a bag of popcorn and a cherry soda by your side. Admit that you’ve entertained the idea that Ted Cruz might be the Zodiac Killer. Admission is the first step. The second? Read some Pynchon.

I prescribe the reclusive, enigmatic, and, to be honest, quite exasperating author Thomas Pynchon as a way to calm the nerves. Specifically, I recommend The Crying of Lot 49 (Pynchon Draught) or Inherent Vice (Pynchon Lite), works I’ve read over the past two summers that have assisted in my own personal navigation of what the nation currently finds itself in: a postmodern romp.

For the term “postmodern” as used here, I refer to the literary movement specifically, which emphasizes—among other narrative techniques—parody, pastiche (an imitation of several forms or genres), and paranoia. Considering our current moment, it would appear there’s no getting around our postmodern predicament at this point. The President is a former reality TV star, the U.S. has theoretically ceded its role as the leader of the free world, and the specter of a foreign power looms over the country. Sounds almost like the lampoon of a Michael Crichton novel (minus the time travel, of course) more than a real, present reality.

This is why I believe Pynchon is so apt for living in the supposed “post-fact” world. Not only is the author the king of paranoia (which may extend to his personal life, considering he hasn’t really been seen since the 60s), but he also utilizes the concept of entropy in many of his works. It would be impossible to fully flesh out the particular nuances and cleverness of utilizing thermodynamic principles to portray predictability within a given narrative system in 500-750 words. So, instead, we could simplify the definition as it pertains to Pynchon and our current political situation as follows: there is always randomness within a structure.

In essence, Pynchon’s fiction—like so many great postmodern writers—bucks the idea that you can truly know the system and all of its parts. This necessarily leads to an overall sense of paranoia (If you don’t know every facet of the government, for example, who’s to say the Illuminate doesn’t run the deep state? The only authority would be the government, whom you necessarily cannot trust because you can’t account for outliers who may, in fact, be part of the Illuminate. As you can see, it spirals pretty quickly.).  Hopefully you’re already seeing the parallels I’m trying to establish between Pynchon and the symbiotic paranoia that attaches itself to uncertainty, a prevalent state at this point in time.

But perhaps what is most important about Pynchon in the age of paranoia is that his works don’t drown the reader in apathy or nihilism when confronting systemic uncertainty. Instead, Pynchon presents a playful fiction, one that continues on despite the waves of unknowable variables that ripple throughout his works. Indeed, whether in Oedipa Maas’ quest to uncover the plotting of a mail distribution conspiracy in The Crying of Lot 49 or the dazed and confused work of P.I. Doc Sportello in the soft-boiled Inherent Vice, Pynchon’s writing is saturated in characters and plot complexities that are silly, absurd, and—if you can wade through the puns and references to erudite subject matter—profoundly amusing.

What, then, separates this type of fiction from the entertainment experience aforementioned in P1? Well, for one, there is a type of literary nourishment that comes from highly acclaimed writing that simply cannot be found in a 24-hour news cycle. More importantly, however, there is something (call it a release, catharsis, or whatever is most comfortable for you) about embracing narrative absurdity while facing an absurd reality that is quite freeing. I don’t mean to say that you should search for escapism. Quite the contrary, literature allows us to build empathic connection with a literary subject which, if not providing a narrative strategy for survival, allows us to at least say, “They got through it and so can I.”

So, yes, get your fix of sensationalism before nuclear war. Or you could dive into some Pynchon and get some sort of grasp on what John Barth called the Literature of Replenishment. Or you could go back to reading about how Kid Rock fooled the GOP into thinking that he was running for Senate. You are autonomous, after all.

October 18, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Why Fantasy Novels Should be on Your Reading List

by Nicolas White and Sara Whitestone

“Fairy tales are more than true – not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.” – Neil Gaiman paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton

Tucked away in a corner of my local coffee shop, there is a framed picture of Frodo, the hero of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic, The Lord of the Rings. Each customer that sees the image smiles and laughs. But when the barista is asked why a fantasy hero is displayed on a coffee counter, his answer is always: “Because Frodo gives hope to us all.”

Frodo didn’t start out as a hero, but when faced with the monumental task of destroying The One Ring, he never backed down and never lost hope. This tale of Frodo’s perseverance and sacrifice has inspired multiple generations of readers to be strong, brave, and true.

This is the power of fantasy. As we read, we experience the struggles and triumphs of our other-world friends. Then when our minds return home from adventuring, we bring back the lessons we have learned. And our moral courage is strengthened in our own reality.

But why does that twinkle in Frodo’s eye catch my attention every time I’m in line for my coffee? Why does his story raise my spirits? Fantasy is both inspiring and evocative in large part because of its separation from our world (and all its normalcy). Wizards and trolls and epic quests give us adventures so different from our daily lives that we are able to forget our troubles and lose ourselves in acts and scenes of grandeur. These outlets of imagination free us to be heroes and heroines saving the day, and not for a paycheck or social status, but simply because it is the right thing to do.

When I first read The Lord of the Rings as a child (and again six more times over the next three years), Frodo became one of my most important role models. Although he was just an average hobbit and didn’t even desire to be a hero, when the quest was set before him, Frodo took it on willingly. No matter how difficult his journey was or the sacrifices he had to accept along the way, Frodo was willing to make hard decisions when he knew they were right. His unwavering hope, despite what seemed certain failure, is something I cannot forget. And I have been trying to replicate it ever since.

But real life doesn’t always give us the The Lord of the Rings’ clear differentiation between good and evil. While Frodo had the support of many brave companions, we are often faced with people who, though they may be bosses, friends, or even family, might contradict what we know is right. But here, too, fantasy can provide relatable heroes who teach us and encourage us to stand up for justice, no matter what those around us say.

In The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley, the main character Hari faces disrespect and prejudice at every turn. But she never quavers in her moral fiber. In one climactic moment of tension, Hari even directly defies the king, because she knows that she must do the right thing, even without his blessing. Fantasy reminds us that a principled decision is not often an easy one. But it is always the correct one.

Even though I try to be like Hari and fight for what is good, I am a real, flesh and blood human, and there are moments when I take the easy way out. Sometimes I don’t make the right decisions, and this causes hurt to myself and others around me. Even in recognition of this shortcoming, the other-world of fantasy is a powerful tool for my growth.

Sitting down in the coffee shop with my mug, I notice another customer reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, a recent novel that seems to be flying off the shelves of bookstores. When compared to the moral fortitude of Hari or Frodo, the protagonist of this story pales in his qualifications as a hero. Kvothe is a deeply flawed character. He often creates his own problems because of his arrogance and poor decisions. But for every misdeed, the author makes it a point to show his character dealing with the consequences of his actions—and then learning from those consequences while also growing into a better person.

Fantasy can guide us not only through clear-cut examples of those who are upright, but also through characters who stumble on their way towards truth.

The next time I walk through the door of my local coffee shop and see Frodo smiling in his corner on the counter, I’ll smile back and thank him for reminding me to be joyful during my wait in line for a caffeine fix. And his picture will remind me that I don’t read fantasy to escape my problems, instead, I use those other-worlds to arm myself to live better—to be better—in my own world.

Then I’ll settle into my chair at the coffee shop, reach into my satchel, and pull out the first book in a new fantasy series. And the reading will bring me hope.

Recommended fantasy reading:
L’Engle, M., A Wrinkle in Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind in the Door
Brave and true—and human.

LeGuin, U., The Earthsea Trilogy
Dark, deep, and full of hope.

Lewis, C.S., The Chronicles of Narnia
Treat yourself to these again and again . . .

Lewis, C.S., Till We Have Faces
The myth of Psyche, retold—every adult should read this book at least once in their lives.

Lowry, L. The Giver
Don’t let the bad movie based on this book dissuade you. The Giver is one of the best works of fantasy/science fiction ever written.

MacDonald, G., The Princess and the Goblin
A timeless classic for both children and adults.

McKilip, P., Riddle-Master
For when you just want to change your shape for a while.

McKinley, R., The Blue Sword
How Hari reluctantly discovers who she is and then saves the world—because of, or in spite of —it all.

Rothfuss, P., The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear
Great beach reading—long and engrossing.

Stroud, J., Bartimaeus Trilogy
A politician, a demon, and an anarchist unexpectedly star in one of the most biting and poignant tales of corruption and redemption the genre has to offer.

Tolkien, J.R.R., The Lord of the Rings
Nope, having watched the movies doesn’t count.

Tumer, M.W., The Queen’s Thief Series
Fulfilling your duties to your queen, country, and god doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and excitement along the way.

Nicolas White is Sara Whitestone’s son. He inherited his love of fantasy from his mother, who was reading fairytales to him before he could walk. As an adult Nicolas is creating his own adventure, working both in coffee and as an editor in Brooklyn. Reading fantasy is what helps him stay sane in the city.

Sara Whitestone is a novelist-in-progress, an essayist-in-practice, and an un-tortured-poet-in-process. Her words and artwork have appeared in many print and online magazines and journals, and her current project is a fictional autobiography titled Counting. But who knows? Maybe she’ll write an epic fantasy with her son someday. To learn more about Whitestone’s inner and outer adventures, visit sarawhitestone.com and follow her on Twitter @sarawhitestone.

October 5, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Conversation of a Lifetime

by Karen Bjork Kubin

How do you pick the next book you will read? Do you read for love? For knowledge? Out of duty? I myself am a somewhat undisciplined reader. Life is short. Mostly I follow my heart. Sometimes I buy or borrow books I consider “shoulds:” should own, should read, should be able to speak about intelligently. But what I finally sit down with almost always comes down to something else. Not that I necessarily know what that something else is—the book just calls to me. I answer in hope of a deep conversation.

Sarah Nelson writes about the conversations between one’s life and the books one is reading in her memoir So Many Books, So Little Time: A Passionate Year of Reading. Like her, I find the conversation between life and books fascinating. There is always some kind of rich interplay between why I choose a book (the questions I’ve been asking, the problems I am chewing on, where my longing lies) and how the book speaks back into my life. Sometimes it is a balm, sometimes it offers strength, sometimes it is a disruption. Often it provides insight or encouragement. Certainly the list of books and authors to whom I feel eternally grateful keeps growing.

During the summer, especially, I find this interplay augmented by travel, as place adds a third layer to the mix. The combinations can be potent. Take Sense and Sensibility, which I read for the first time many years ago on a trip north from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into Canada. Storms followed our car all day but never caught us, culminating in a night lit almost continuously with heat lightning. It was my first Jane Austen, part of an attempt to make up for all the literature classes I missed as a music student in college, and I was expecting something dry. Instead I was struck by the flashes of humor and pure enjoyment of the story. And I had time to enjoy it—my 22 month-old son was at a happy, easy stage and my daughter was two months from being born. Everything seemed new, and I felt an intense awakening of the mind as well as new hopes for my family. I believe my mind was flying as fast as our car. I determined on that trip to share my love of reading with my children as long as possible.

I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake years later on vacation at a family camp in a different part of Michigan’s U.P. My kids were getting older, and as they started to differentiate themselves from the family, I found I also had to see myself in new ways, both connected to and separate from those I loved most. Once in a while I found myself walking through pine trees alone, not constantly needed. At night, while everyone else slept, I read voraciously. The pages illuminated by the light of my cellphone, the sounds of my children’s breathing mingling in the background, I hungered to see how Gogol Ganguli would untangle the ties of family and tradition and self. I had become someone who read from the perspective of both parent and child, and this book was bringing up questions I had not yet thought to ask.

Maybe a Fox, by Kathi Appelt and Alison McGhee, was the first book I read after foot surgery last summer. It is a beautiful, beautiful book about loss and love, that likely hit even harder than it might have because of my weakened physical state—confined to my bed, foot elevated, in pain and on medication. Not traveling in this instance, but still outside of my normal realm. Begun as a read-aloud with my 9 year-old, she found it too painful for reading before bed, and so I finished it alone and felt both the loneliness and the connection to my daughter amplified. One of the authors, Alison McGhee, was a teacher of mine in high school, and someone I now consider a friend and mentor. Recognizing her voice within the pages, even as it mingled with another’s, served as counterpoint to the loneliness of the reading—I truly felt guided-through.

I started Li-Young Lee’s book of poetry, Behind My Eyes, on an overnight flight to meet up with my family after a week at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Glen itself is a heightened experience, and by the end of the week I was exhausted—head and heart so full of words and ideas I hardly knew what to do with them. As with Maybe a Fox, I read in something of a dream state. Poetry, for me, is an experience of understanding and not understanding at the same time. Letting each poem both sink in and flow over. Diving into these particular poems was a deepening of the questions, conversations, and readings I heard and took part in throughout the past week. As I flew through the air away from that sacred space, I read with the hope that what was in my head and heart would not fly away, but stay and grow.

I read Wintering by Peter Geye just recently on another trip north, this time to pick up my son after a year away at an arts boarding school. The book is still fresh, not-yet-settled within me, but as our family was deeply immersed in conversations about the future and adulthood and how-best-to-get-there, I was deeply moved by the bonds of love in this book, and the importance of our stories. I was moved, too, by how it spoke to my own struggle with desperately wanting my children’s transition to adulthood to be smooth and easy, against the knowledge that it is impossible, that strength is not nurtured by ease.

Looking back on these books, and the times, places, and states of mind in which I read them, I am struck less by specific details of the books than by the experience and feel of them. Flashes of delight, searching in the dark, trying to grasp my own thoughts and questions. Together they form something new and move forward with me to the next moment, and to the next book that calls.

A violinist by training, Karen Bjork Kubin works as a free-lance musician, teacher, and conductor in a small Midwestern city. Her poems and essays have appeared in Rock & Sling, Whale Road Review, Off the Coast, How to Pack for Church Camp, and American Suzuki Journal, among other publications, including an upcoming poem in the Main Street Rag Anthology Of Burgers and Barrooms. She blogs occasionally about life, art, and other things at kbkubin.blogspot.com.

September 28, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Poetry as Antidote to Apathy

by Kathryn Smith

I am tired of violence. I am tired of lies and hateful rhetoric. I am tired, but it’s not time to go to sleep. It is time to wake up. These three poetry collections are the antithesis of lazy summer reading. These books shun complacency. These are books to stay awake by.

The Big Book of Exit Strategies, by Jamaal May, Alice James Books, 2016.

“It’s funny, she says,
how many people are shocked by this shooting
and the next and next and the next.

She doesn’t mean funny as in funny, but funny
as in blood soup tastes funny when you stir in soil.”

The first time I read these lines, which open Jamaal May’s poem “The Gun Joke,” it was the day of, or maybe the day after, an act of newsmaking gun violence. It’s funny, in the way May’s poem says “It’s funny,” that I don’t remember now which shooting it was. I think I might have been Philando Castile, a black man in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was shot in his car by police while his girlfriend and young child sat by and watched, helpless to stop what was happening. But I don’t remember for certain. They blur together, these acts, and this is part of the terrible joke of May’s poem, from his second collection, The Big Book of Exit Strategies. May’s poems are as lyrical as they are wrenching, and they will open your eyes to a world that is both terrible and beautiful.

olioOlio, by Tyehimba Jess, Wave Books 2016.

Tyehimba Jess’s latest poetry collection was on my reading list even before it won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize. I wanted to read it because of two words I remembered from a friend’s recommendation: conjoined twins.

Among the many personas Jess adopts in Olio, he speaks from the points of view of Millie and Christine McKoy, known as Millie-Christine, conjoined twins born into slavery in 1851. Like much of Olio, these poems are sonnets, but get this: Like the twins, the sonnets are conjoined. Each poem contains two voices, some lines individual, some lines shared, so that each of these sonnets can be read three ways: Millie’s version, Christine’s version, and the combined version.

Jess employs these voices and the voices of other freed slaves and musicians to create his Olio, which he defines in an introductory note as both “a miscellaneous mixture” and “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.”

Olio is a textbook of poetic forms, a lesson on slavery’s history and its continuing reverberations, an homage to musicians in the Black tradition, and a collection of remarkable poems.

directedbydesireDirected by Desire: The Collected Poems of June Jordan, by June Jordan, Copper Canyon Press, 2005.

Directed by Desire collects June Jordan’s poetry from 1969 through 2001, a career’s worth of  unapologetically political yet deeply personal verse — poems about being, as “Poem About My Rights” puts it, “wrong the wrong sex the wrong age / the wrong skin the wrong nose the wrong hair the / wrong need the wrong dream the wrong geographic / the wrong sartorial.”

While this book isn’t new, it’s undeniably timely. I took comfort in Jordan’s poems in the first few months following the presidential election. Maybe “comfort” isn’t the right word. I steeped myself in her poems. I let their cadence propel me as I struggled to find a way forward in what felt like a surreal new reality. I read her fearless words and willed myself to feel less afraid.

While unflinching in its honesty, Jordan’s deftly crafted poetry manages to instill a sense of hope, to offer up the energy to face the world even while grieving war, rape, discrimination, and oppression.

Kathryn Smith’s first full-length poetry collection, Book of Exodus, will be published by Scablands Books this fall. www.kathrynsmithpoetry.com.

September 21, 2017 / jennrudsit

Postpartum

by Abbie Smith

“In the evening, in the morning, and at noonday, I will complain and lament, and he will hear my voice.” Psalm 55:17[1]

Home in 20,” his text read. “k. love you. even tho i burnt the lasagna.”

Prior to having kids I judged parents who snapped at their kids. Now I empathize, and beg for the grace to be compassionate and slow to anger. My two children have taken me to the brink of a boiling point I didn’t know was there.

My days feel erasable so I’m writing in pencil. The long-awaited letter came. “With sincere respect, your manuscript is not a fit for our publishing house,” the editor told me in pitch-black Times New Roman. “Screw your respectful publishing house,” my flesh snapped back, spinning in rejection, questioning my worth and worthiness. I didn’t know how meaningless my life as a mom felt until opening that envelope; I didn’t know that book proposal held a convincing assurance that my days mattered. And now they don’t. Maybe I don’t. My pity party can last about thirty minutes and then two little people will wake wanting cheeks wiped and Cheerios poured in a bowl, which feels like anyone with half a brain could do.

It’s been one of those weeks. My son, Eden, can’t fall asleep. Normally his five-month-old frame would sleep till summer if I let him. This evening he’s restless, as if aware of a world not right, feeling crammed into a space not intended as home. I hold his tears, their authenticity reaching in to mine.

Postpartum depression has rudely interrupted my life. It’s been dark and scary and paralyzing, hollow and anxious, all in one breath. I went on medication. My friend Stephanie told me that was brave.

About three months after Eden’s birth, I realized it was more than newborn fog. A toothpick could lean the wrong way and I’d end up sad, scared and anxious. With few  commitments, even, my limit felt tapped, always at my edge. Removed and apathetic, I tended robotically to Elliana’s and Eden’s needs, desperate for Micah’s return from work. I wasn’t tempted to drive off a road, per se, but there were certainly times I wouldn’t have been surprised if I did. “Oh that I had the wings of a dove!” my soul empathized with the Psalmist, “I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.[2] Happy, giggly, intimate moments happened, but only about 3% of the time. When I called my OB, the on-call nurse responded with a sarcastic version of, “What are the symptoms that would make you think you have post-partum?” I started crying and hung-up. The nurse who called back was a gem and applauded me for having the courage to reach out.

Eden rocks in my arms and I cry out to God for reprieve from the depression, and the spinach that’s had me down with food poisoning, and the friend who told me today of her crumbling marriage. I remember Micah talking about Isaiah 53:11 as we lay in bed last night. I imagine it was interesting, but was honestly half-asleep and don’t remember. This morning I looked it up again.

“Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.”

An astounding prophecy about Jesus and motherhood. Out of the blind anguish of my soul, Father, you are healing my sight. Tedious and stubborn though the process, you are teaching me to see and be satisfied. But Daddy, the growth feels painstakingly slow.

Gray-navy eyes searched my blue, as if for a quiet corner of the ocean after an exhausting storm. Eden’s body was calm on my chest now, forehead nuzzled in my cheek. He has set your feet in a spacious place[3], God said. Weeping may spend the night, but there is joy in the morning[4]. Moisture rolled from my eyes, as if Eden’s eyes had spoken to mine. As if they’d said, “Home is not all the way here yet, and it’s gonna be okay.”

Eden and I lay in this gaze for a while. Then I served burnt lasagna and told Micah again that I loved him.

The above is an excerpt from Abbie Smith’s new book, Stretch Marks I Wasn’t Expecting, a memoir on early marriage and motherhood, releasing this month with Kalos Press. She’s a graduate of Talbot Seminary’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Soul Care and works alongside her husband as the caretakers of Wesley Gardens Retreat in Savannah, Georgia. They have three children, one of whom they recently traveled to India to adopt. Please visit Abbie at www.abbiesmith.net.

[1] This translation is from The New Jerusalem Bible, as noted in Phyllis Tickle’s, The Divine Hours, Prayers for Summertime.

[2] Psalm 55:6-8

[3] Psalm 31:8

[4] Psalm 30:5

August 30, 2017 / jennrudsit

Summer Reading: Water I Gladly Drank

 

by Julie Riddle

This isn’t about summer reading, but about how reading returned to me the summers of my college years and rendered them anew. I worked four summers for the U.S. Forest Service, and was based at the ranger station near my hometown of Troy, Montana. During chilly early mornings and hot, hazy afternoons my boss and I cleaned a route of campgrounds throughout the county – we picked up trash, and hosed down the insides of outhouses and poured glugs of a foul-smelling liquid down their holes to mask the fouler-smelling human waste heaped at the bottom of pits I avoided looking into.

My third summer with the Forest Service I was made the leader of a riparian-mapping crew. Two co-workers and I, wearing hard hats, long-sleeved shirts, jeans, leather gloves, and leather boots wedged into clumsy hipwaders, hiked (or crawled) the length of mountain streams, mapping their banks and the surrounding vegetation.

In late July through August each summer my daily work would be interrupted when I was summoned to join crews fighting wildfires sweeping across mountainsides in northwestern Montana, as well as in Idaho, Washington, Nevada and northern California. I kept a bulging backpack at the ready so I could leave at a moment’s notice. Sometimes I was gone for a few hours, sometimes for up to 10 days. A few times I worked alongside shackled prison crews, and once I called my parents from a payphone at a fairground after working a 44-hour shift; my crew was the first to respond to the fire and we had arrived in the middle of the night. When my parents asked where I was, I looked around dumbly and said, “I don’t know…somewhere in California.”

I was fresh out of high school when I started the Forest Service job. I soon learned that Spike, my campground crew boss, was hilarious and shockingly profane. During those summers I also learned how to drive a stick shift and how to fell trees with a chainsaw. I rode in a helicopter for the first time, and dragged a skinned, human-looking bear carcass from a river. I learned to identify native plants, read a topographic map, and evaluate the effects of stream erosion caused by clear-cutting. At wildfire-fighting camp I learned how to back-burn with a drip torch and wield a Pulaski, and how to locate hotspots by hovering my bare palm slowly over ash.

As entertaining as some of these stories might be, I have not written about my summers with the Forest Service. I sensed, but hadn’t been able to express, deeper significance in my experiences, and so these memories remained colorful anecdotes I used to share with family and friends, but seldom think of now.

But then, this spring, The Writer’s Almanac featured the following poem by Wendell Berry:

VII.

What a wonder I was
when I was young, as I learn
by the stern privilege
of being old: how regardlessly
I stepped the rough pathways
of the hillside woods,
treaded hardly thinking
the tumbled stairways
of the steep stream, and worked
unaching hard days
thoughtful only of the work,
the passing light, the heat, the cool
water I gladly drank.

(“VII.” by Wendell Berry from A Small Porch)

As I read the poem’s final line my chest ached and I felt briefly stunned at the recognition Berry had raised in me, twinged with gratitude and wonder and a quick stab of grief. Berry’s poem distilled the meaning of those four summers into the clarity of spring water cupped in my hand, and elicited poignancy like the hotspots my palm had sensed hovering over ash. Berry, a prolific poet and novelist, and an environmental activist, lives in Kentucky and is now 83 years old. Yet he articulated for me a time when I (of curious mind, able body, and vital spirit then) lived connected and attuned to the natural world.

After reading the poem, I remembered once, while mapping a stream, stepping from shaded forest into a small meadow, lush and glinting with sun-dappled aspen, the stream winding quiet and slow between low, grassy banks. I stopped and stared, feeling as though I had just stumbled into Eden. The crew and I did our work and ate our lunch there. I didn’t want to leave. We had traveled veining roads high into the mountains to reach the stream, and I knew I would not come back. It seemed, in fact, that the meadow would disappear as soon as we left it, too beautiful and tranquil to be of this world. Berry’s poem restored this fleeting Eden for me. I hope that place still exists, wherever it may be, even though I can never return.

Julie Riddle is the creative-nonfiction editor for Rock & Sling and the craft-essay editor for Brevity. She works as senior writer for marketing and development at Whitworth University and is the author of the memoir The Solace of Stones: Finding a Way through Wilderness (University of Nebraska Press). Learn more at www.julieriddle.net.

August 17, 2017 / jennrudsit

Meet Rock & Sling’s New Web Editor

by Jennifer Rudsit

My favorite thing about blogs, and about Rock & Sling in particular, is that they create a space for dialogue. Blogs are accessible and easy to share, connecting people from around the world who wouldn’t otherwise coexist in the same space. I especially respect Rock & Sling’s desire to “continue to be a hallmark of quality writing, embracing broad differences in experience—spiritual, cultural, or political….We hope to serve as a forum for an open and vigorous intellectual and artistic discussion, and a meeting place between those elements of our world that are often so diametric.” As divisive as the world feels right now, working with a blog that allows writers to bear witness to that divide while also creating respectful discussion around it is refreshing and necessary.

Each contributor for Rock & Sling submits engaging, valuable work that spans a huge spread of topics, and it is humbling and exciting for me to work with each of them. Like books, blog posts plunge me into a perspective different than my own, but in a way that is immediate, a compact chunk of text to absorb while taking the bus to work, multitasking during a Netflix binge, or sitting on a park bench during my lunch break. The great posts divert me from my comfort zone, helping me see myself, my community, my life, in new ways, sending me back into my day with a subtle shift in perspective, a gentle (or not so gentle) nudge to keep chewing on this new idea.

As I’ve read and worked with Rock & Sling, a lot of the posts have resonated with different threads in my own life. Lyle Enright’s piece, “Make it New: Prayer” was posted while I was attempting to revamp my own spiritual life, processing what “make it new” meant for me. “Sweet Child, You Are Loved,” by Julie Riddle, spoke of an experience I have never gone through, but shared words of comfort and wisdom that heal regardless of the situation, words that I desperately needed to hear. And the Summer Reading Series, currently happening on the blog, helped get me excited about reading again, during a time when I struggled to get into almost every book I started.

I hope Rock & Sling can become, or continue to be, a place where you feel engaged, challenged, comforted, and heard; a place where you begin seeing threads from your own life put into words by others.

If you are interested in becoming a contributor for the Rock & Sling blog, please contact Jennifer Rudsit at jennhruds@gmail.com with a writing sample and a paragraph about your writing interests and experiences. We are always looking for writers who will bear witness to this world, people engaged with art, music, books, politics, faith, doubt, and everything in-between.

Jennifer Rudsit is a recent Whitworth English Department grad. During her time at Whitworth she was an Editorial Assistant for Rock & Sling, and has been the Assistant Web Editor for the blog this past year. She is currently an Administrative Assistant at Pacific Northwest Ballet. Her hobbies include wandering around Seattle Center on her work breaks, looking up knitting patterns on Etsy, and frantically attempting to complete the Seattle Public Library’s Summer Book Bingo.