Writer, Reader, Reviewer


Then What the Hell's a Poem For?

Posted by nancyfreund11 on February 5, 2017 at 4:05 PM


Lufthansa Flight Home, Airport Lounge

Nancy Freund

Dried apricot, smoked Gouda

She let me wash her hands

Cabernet Sauvignon

When the water finally warmed,

she smiled and said ooh…

Big fat raisins


Hugged my mom good-bye

she held me tight

her shoulder blades

her ribs

her hands clasped round my back

Fat-free angel cake

Here’s a poem I wrote. I write poems when I’m feeling something with an inescapable intensity, and I just don’t know how to otherwise deal with it. I don’t do drugs. I’m not a runner. Not much for meditation. I’m a writer. This one was probably the most intense and inescapable and personal of any sets of a dozen lines I’ve ever written. I wrote it for myself because I needed to just get it out of me and put it somewhere.

And then I thought well, maybe this can help someone else, the way writing it down helped me, so I sent it to the one place I’d be so proud to have it printed that it would be worth it. Worth the possibility that I was betraying myself, abandoning my mother, maybe bringing shame to my family, in writing these words down in this little notebook I haul around. (Shame, abandonment, betrayal, per Dr. Christiane Northrup, the trifecta of terrible… right? So you get it? This magazine is worth it). The New Yorker. My friend Lucy had sent a poem to The New Yorker recently, a similarly difficult one to write and submit, I think, and she was moved and gratified by the editor’s kind-hearted rejection of it. Anyone who writes can tell you what encouragement a kind-hearted rejection is. So I took heart and I sent mine off.

I waited. I knew the likelihood was this poem would be rejected – not necessarily in a kind-hearted way – but I was still pleased I wrote it (I’d needed to write it), and pleased I’d sent it. When I reread it (past tense, reread, but also, interestingly present tense) it puts me there in that moment that I wrote it, and it keeps it for me, uncorrupted, so I can move myself forward. That’s what writing poetry is for me, most of the time, finding a way to move forward. Reading poems, my own and other people’s, does that for me too.

That was July. Right before my mother’s 76th birthday. Months then went by and I found myself in Florida for the Key West Literary Seminar and five-day writers’ workshop that followed. The Seminar was totally NOT my normal writer thing. The theme was “Revealing Power: the Literature of Politics.” Boy, was there a lot about the connection between courage and power. Without courage, without a sort-of sense of screw-it-I’m-doing-it, there is nothing else. The keynote speech was by Pulitzer-winning biographer Robert Caro on Lyndon B. Johnson’s decision to push forward JFK’s civil rights movement, despite it being a loser’s game. Johnson supposedly said to his naysayers, to hell with it, I’m pursuing this, otherwise, what the hells’ the presidency for?

LBJ was president when I was born one icy January night in New York City, when no taxi wanted to pick up my mother, swaddled in all kinds of coats and bedding after her water broke and I was trying to emerge. I grew up knowing that night was during LBJ’s term, but from Robert Caro’s speech in Key West, I learned more about LBJ than I’d ever known before. I took note. What the hell’s the presidency for?

Following the seminar, my workshop was with Billy Collins, prior two-time U.S. Poet Laureate – a poet I’ve admired for years. I first knew his work through Patty Digh and her blog “37 Days.” If you’ve never read her, do. If you’ve never read her gush about Billy Collins, do. You’ll have an inkling about how filled up with love for the universe I was when I was accepted into this workshop. I love a lot of different kinds of poetry, but the simplicity, the straight-shooting-ness, the kind-heartedness of Billy Collins’ verses really rank. And I knew I’d learn a lot from him about what works and what doesn’t with poetry. I’ve taken many workshops with many different poets. When I first was accepted into Creative Writing at UCLA a hundred years ago, it was through poetry. The first online course or “mooc” I did a few years ago was UPenn’s Modern Poetry course with Al Filreis. It was excellent. I’m one of the little minority of freaks in this world who take this stuff pretty seriously. Nonetheless, for me, the real deal with poetry has always been elusive.

I love Dorianne Laux and Gertrude Stein and Maya Angelou (though I just learned no, no, we scorn those who revere her… ) and Eminem and Naomi Shihab Nye and e.e. cummings and Ezra Pound and NWA. The Sugarhill Gang. Pink Floyd. Sharon Olds, of course. Maurice Sagoff and Steve Scafidi, Ginsberg and Bukowski, Shel Silverstein, and Dylan. Yes, that would be Dylan of the Bob variety. I’m not ashamed to say that. And screw it, I fucking love Maya Angelou, that poem, “And Still I Rise,” come on! Like with all art (and wine?) I like what I like – but I’m no judge of readership. So yeah, I sent my poem to The New Yorker, knowing if they took it, I would not know why, and if they rejected it, I would not know why – except, of course, you know – odds. All I ever fully know with writing is what gets me in the gut – and in that, sure, I can tell you why.

My friend Liz is one of the finest poets I know, and she loves Billy Collins. I asked her what work to bring to the workshop, and she said bring your best. So I did. One of them, I’d decided, is those lines above. The night before I was set to read it to my new associates and our guru, The New Yorker turned it down. Form rejection – no kindness. I was eager to learn why.

In the morning, boy, I learned it. The reasons were hard to hear, yet no doubt true. If you read those lines above and they did nothing for you, you are not alone. Or if you read the lines above and thought weird, awkward, it should have been like THIS or THAT or SOMETHING ELSE, you’re not alone. I knew it even then, that the feedback was on target. Invaluable and clear. Billy Collins said cryptically at the end of the group shredding of my poem, “well, you could tinker with it if you like” (implying don’t bother) “or you could scrap it and write something else,” implying probably a better idea, if you must do something with this… though really, what’s the point… but for ME, there really is a point, and so that’s what I’m doing now. I’m writing something else.

And I’m putting those lines up there to start because I accept the fact that this isn’t publishable elsewhere, so I might as well launch this little boat myself online. Because it matters. Even small sets of lines that don’t seem to come together actually can float. I am certain of this.

Our workshop began with a lecture on poetry – it has to follow form and can’t just be self-expression. Also, a poem doesn’t end when the poet ends it, but when the reader quits reading. The poet’s goal is to make sure the reader doesn’t call it quits before the poet meant to. Also, no deal breakers in your poem, like a mention of a Greek or Roman God or Mom or Dad or Dad’s Hammer or Mom’s Apron or anything sentimental. If that’s in there, your poem’s toast. Also, there should be an intimacy between the poet-persona and the reader. Just the two of you. Don’t crowd the poem with a bunch of other characters messing with that intimacy. Uh-oh… I’ve been known to invite a crowd, I’ll confess. My second published poem in The Istanbul Review was about a literary orgy. This stuff’s fun! But no, oops. Sorry, no, it’s not. It’s damaging to intimacy. The reader needs to know the writer’s speaking just to him or her, that the poet’s saying “love me.” I took a lot of notes. I drew hearts around the “love me.” I was learning loads!

Then we moved to mini-introductions. We were to say what we wished to gain from the time we’d spend together. Not where we were from or where we’d studied or who’d published us or any posturing stuff, though plenty of us snuck those details in, I noted. My wish was to figure out the filters… how much context to layer in for clarity and how much to leave out. I think that’s the thing that defines the elusivity I mentioned. Apparently elusivity is not a word, by the way. Whatever – it is now! I want to create an artful blend of elusivity and clarity to bring a gut check to my reader, if the words work that way for them. And if they don’t, so be it. Already, I suspected perhaps I’m not a poet. I’m not a Billy Collins style poet.

Once the introductions were complete and wishes wished, we were told okay, read your poem, just dive in, let it fly. No chaperoning. So when I read mine – and also, you’ll note, when I put it on the page here – I didn’t add a line of explanation before its launch.

Pretty unanimously, they didn’t get the lines above. Where is this? She’s having lunch? What the hell kind of lunch, this is weird, blending foods with this emotional stuff, where’s the chicken? Where’s the beef? Why this specific wine? The one line about “she let me wash her hands” is the only part that seems to be a poem, that’s where your poem is, the word mom is a deal-breaker, it’s overly sentimental, if you have to write a poem about your mother, use mother, never mom. Also, your tone should be consistent, your tone is your contract with your reader, and you’ve made no contract here. And your line breaks make no sense. Without structure, there’s no poem. It doesn’t have to be a villanelle or a sonnet or rhyming iambs, but it’s lacking form. Also, why the cheese? All these foods are weird and big fat raisins. Looks like you’re expressing something here… (see my early note… self-expression, knell of poem death), and finally… the summation you could tinker if you like.

I said well, do you guys want to know what it is? Maybe you can help me re-title it if that alone might help. And I told them. Lufthansa lounge between flights, not very long ago. You know the smorgasbord of finger foods you take from the buffet, all fabulous and appetizing but you always end up with a weird blend on your little plate, and I was there and my back was killing me (I’m just adding this now, I didn’t tell them this) but it was, it was absolutely killing me, and I was sitting there in my Lulu Lemon trousers that kind of look ok for business class long-haul travel, and there’s that piece of fucking fat free angel cake, and I’m trying to stretch my back out, how I’m sitting all contortionist in this stupid chair, trying not to call attention to myself, but it is really agonizing, and who would ever want angel-food cake to be fat free unless they have an eating disorder like my mom, who I just hugged goodbye before I flew to LAX and her hands are claws now, she’s shrinking into herself, even though she’s finally eating more, it’s that angel cake, the stupid angel cake that’s going to make me sob, and if I start in this airport lounge, I’m never going to stop. They’re even getting her to drink Ensure if they give her the right straw, at least she hugged me, she really hugged me, and it seems a benefit of the dementia – she’s been there one full week now and I have to go home to my family, my own family, I can’t stay here, I have to go, I have my own family now half a world away, and I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again, I don’t know what’s coming next, this woman, this tiny woman with those claws around my back is not my mother, she’s my mom. She was. She still is. At least now she’s not concerned about her weight. The decades’ long vegetarian is now eating beef stew, albeit with her fingers, those sloppy, filthy fingers I’m helping wash, and she’s so fucking tiny now, this woman whose thigh I used to hold, whose every word I hung on all my life, who I might have just hugged goodbye for a final time. And I’m staring at this fucking square of Gouda and it’s this perfect one-inch block of orange cheese that’s now the thing that wants to make me cry. And Billy Collins said, where is that? Your mother? And I said Santa Barbara. And he said, no, where is it in the poem, the eating disorder?

And I said, I see your point. It isn’t there.

But what I need to say, the reason I’m writing all this now, is those lines got me breathing deeply in that lounge instead of sobbing, and they got me on the plane and through all those many miles and they got me looking forward to that conference in Florida and back to my parents’ house again a few months after that, and they do that for me now. One hour ago, I just booked my next long-haul on Lufthansa and I think maybe THIS is why I’m finally able to write this “something” now. My highest hope for when I go is she’ll still be there and she’ll light up when she sees me. And when I write a poem, whether we can call it that or not, it’ll express this sort of thing for me. And if it might deliver some of this to someone else somehow, well, that would be beautiful and good and worth its publication on paper or just right here, this is every bit as valuable, this small delivery right here, and I truly hope it might. Because otherwise, what the hell’s a poem for?

Check out Maya Angelou's "And Still I Rise"

Categories: writing & publishing, education & literacy, mental health

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Reply Meg Hamilton
7:31 PM on February 5, 2017 
My mom has borderline personality disorder and dementia. I started crying halfway through the poem -- I knew exactly what it was about, and it was perfect. Maybe the poem doesn't need to be edited....maybe it's just meant for a very special few people who need to read it.
Reply Nancy Freund
5:43 AM on February 6, 2017 
Thank you, Meg, SO much.
Meg Hamilton says...
My mom has borderline personality disorder and dementia. I started crying halfway through the poem -- I knew exactly what it was about, and it was perfect. Maybe the poem doesn't need to be edited....maybe it's just meant for a very special few people who need to read it.
Reply Patricia
8:11 AM on February 6, 2017 
I love the intimacy with which you write. I've always found that lines in a poem linger on me in a way prose does not. How much easier it it is to recall them and think about how well it defines moments you go through. It gives me a sense of shared complicity, togetherness. Reading your lines have helped cope with difficult moments marking the onset of early dementia in a close relative. Thank you for sharing Nancy! Xx
Reply Tara Giroud
10:13 AM on February 6, 2017 
So many thoughts for me here. First, it's so brave to open up about these things. I am not a poet, but I am and maybe we're the same kind. I have written poetry since i was a kid and even now, when I can't think clearly, putting words down that have a sort of flow with a hint of a rhythm or movement and everything I feel at that moment is the only thing I can do. I can't breathe right or make my kids lunch or vacuum up last night's spaghetti from beneath the table until I just spew it all out. I don't know about rules or form or connecting to readers or saying mother instead of what she really is, but honestly, it's that sort of thing that makes me think that there's poetry and then there's poetry. There's a textbook and then there's feeling. Maybe there are some guidelines that can help a poet express herself the way she is imagining it in her head, but then I once heard a poet say that poets aren't trying to express themselves, they are trying to find themselves (or something like that). And for me, if someone is going to hang me up on semantics, then someone is missing the point. Maybe that's me. When I read your poem I imagined a woman on a flight, trying to make sense of the array of snacks in her in-flight snacks pack while struggling to make sense of a difficult goodbye-- one thing in order and defined and the other thing left in question. Anyway, it sounds brutal, what you went through in the Keys. But I love that you wrote those experiences and that they helped you move forward. Sorry to go on and on, but I also agree with Meg who said sometimes lines are for the people who need to read them. Best of luck to you
Reply Mary
10:42 AM on February 6, 2017 
Oh Nancy. I'm crying reading your post. I SAW IT in the poem, the eating disorder. I KNEW, with the fat-free angel food cake, because my mom was just like that. My mother - no, my MOM - just died. I am so grateful she didn't have dementia, but man oh man I thought it would be such a relief if she was finally able to let go of how much she hated her body. And poetry is not self-expression? Who died and made them God? Fuck that shit. Poetry is whatever the hell you want it to be. Who gives a shit if it's published or if it finds a reader to get down and dirty with? It's yours. I HATE this kind of writing workshop stuff that is all about how to get attention for yourself. Hello! That is NOT why we write. Or at least not why I write. It's your life, you get to decide what matters to you.
Reply Jennifer Bew Orr
4:40 AM on February 7, 2017 
It's such a powerful posting that you've given. It inspires a lot in the way of response, but I won't even try here. When I lost my dad I guess I didn't write a poem. But it hurt to know that a friend of mine had thought that I somehow wasn't there enough, for him. And I wondered how she thought I could think of anything else. And how she could not understand that my father wanted for me to be that ocean away with my young daughter, seeing to it that she would have a good life. My dad was the first person I told that when pregnancy was supposedly impossible for me, that I was carrying a child. And for the rest of my life Nancy, that child will also be him. The man who protected me being forever protected by me. You give your mom to us, and we know you in that moment, and there is nothing better to do with words than that. So yes, I cry, again. And feel lucky, to be linked this way, with you.
Reply Karen
9:01 AM on February 7, 2017 
Well said. I've had similar workshop experiences over similar, heart-felt poems of mine.
Reply Marina Sofia
5:05 PM on February 7, 2017 
This was... well, quite an experience to read. I was slightly puzzled but also intrigued by your poem. It certainly made me want to read it again and again, to try and get its meaning, which not all poems do. But your wonderful prose outburst was even more immediate and heartfelt. I wonder if there is any way to combine the two... I can see a haibun (prose poem with a haiku summary) or other possibilities. Piffle about poetry not being allowed to be self-expression - my goodness, then not only have I, but so many other far better poets than me have been doing it all wrong!
I hope you find the right words for your poem or the next or the amended version (not tinkered...). And the comfort and hope in the words.
Reply Liz Boquet
4:30 AM on February 11, 2017 
Exactly. Nancy, I don't know how you managed to surface the words for what poetry does for the soul from such a depth. It wasn't you. It wasn't your poem, either. In some workshops, readers' souls seem to swim in different pools; some cannot be bothered to climb out of their own pool, risk a chill by crossing over to your pool and just jump in and join us in the deep end. The really good workshops are when we all strip naked and jump in the warm jacuzzi and can laugh or cry in the bubbles.

"Hugged my mom good-bye
she held me tight
her shoulder blades
her ribs
her hands clasped round my back
Fat-free angel cake"