Poems are letters

“All poems are letters,” Diane Wakowski writes in Toward a New Poetry, “the poet a letter writer addressing himself to his friends.”

When I work with yoga teachers and poets on what I call “knowing poems,” familiarizing themselves enough to memorize a poem or recite it fluently, I encourage them to think of sharing the poem as sharing a part of themselves.

This is what we do in letters, address someone with news of what matters to us. So much of effective teaching and performance hinges on the ability of the speaker to connect with her audience, as a letter writer connects with a recipient.

Wakowski goes on to say that letters are intermediaries. So are poems.

They are communiques, bridging, like an extended hand, the distance between people.

Emily Dickinson writes a poem that “is my letter to the world/that never wrote to me; the simple news that nature told with tender majesty.”

Richard Hugo wrote letters to friends as poems as others did and do including Luis Omar Salinas, Ted Kooser, Joann Kyger and Gary Snyder.

April iris along the Greybeard Trail, Black Mountain, NC. Photo by Matt Weiser
April iris along the Greybeard Trail, Black Mountain, NC. Photo by Matt Weiser

When reading a poem to an audience, whether you’re giving a formal presentation or closing a yoga class, think of the poem as a letter.

If it’s not your own poem, be sure to name the poet who wrote it. And pause for a moment to consider what the writing entailed, taking time from the day to put thoughts down on paper, then sharing it.

Sharing a poem, you’re bringing more people into a common experience of recorded impressions.

Think of conjuring across time, through your voice, every instance of the poem’s sharing.

This poem was inspired by my Ohio pen pal, artist Theresa Williams.

Following my model, consider writing a poem now.

What does it take to prepare yourself to write a letter, a missive? Follow the trail of your thoughts, setting the words like footsteps on the page.

Coaching poets long-distance on their poems, I find the slow exchange through the mail to be more effective than email exchanges with phone calls. The sustained attention required by paper and pen becomes a contemplation.

If I can help you access your voice, spoken or on the page, through your yoga teaching or poetry, essay or fiction writing, please drop me a line at alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com. We’ll make it happen.

Moments and meditations

        I have continued, for almost a year now, capturing a daily moment – mostly in quatrain form.  Thank you for introducing this practice to me; it has been life-altering!  I am still not a “good meditator,” but this practice seems to bring a meditative quality into my days.
Out of the blue, a Day Poems student shared these words with me last week. Of course her comments made this teacher’s day! And, curious, I found in the dictionary’s serene sanctuary that moment derives from the same word as momentum, having to do with movement.

 

Both poetry and yoga are localized, moment-by-moment endeavors. 

They rely on knowledge of community, the community of words and the body, the community of people who share these interests, the community of the natural world that is both companion and provider. Yesterday, I heard Gary Ferguson on West Virginia Public Radio saying that ancients believed that beauty, community and mystery are essential for health. In addition to being community activities, poetry and yoga tap beauty and mystery.

And meditation clears the heart and mind to receive mysteries of beauty and community. 

 

Meditate derives from the word for measure; we measure moments through meditation. With Day Poems, small poems accrue to form a log of a life lived. I devised the process as a way of attending to the world outside of ourselves while maintaining sensitivity to unique perspectives. It is a form of meditation.

Think also of walking meditation: steps measure a passage through time. If we start by counting the steps, often the numbers fall away. Similarly with swimming. It’s enough to be moving. Forward, yes, because that’s the way we face, but not necessarily toward a destination.

Purely for movement’s sake. As the tidal rise and fall of the breath is the movement of life.

Yoga can also be experienced as a moving meditation, inviting a sense of  flow or ease. This needn’t be elaborate. One motion loved by my students of all ages is a rhythmic combo of a gentle lean into the legs with arms along.

A technique I use to introduce people who are new to breath awareness is to track the breath by silently saying the word and on inhalation and 1 on exhalation, continuing to and2, and3….

Pause and try it for yourself now, counting to 12.

That practice was inspired by Martha Graham. In Blood Memory she mentions how a dance starts by landing on the and.  It makes sense to me in the dance of life: we are always in motion with the breath, even when we are sleeping.

In this way we are not so different from the shark that sways to keep from sinking.

With and, we join with all who’ve ever breathed. In counting the exhalation we intentionally link that precious breath.

We expend our breath as we pay attention. There’s no “good” or “bad” in that. It just is.

Revise a poem, revision a life

Revise. To look again.

Five years ago, I submitted a full-length poetry manuscript to a respected press. It was accepted. Soon now, the book will be out. (Yay!) Some of the poems included go back a ways.

Imagine having all your favorite clothes dating back 15-20 years in your current closet.

(Maybe you do. If so, go take a look!)

Re-reading the manuscript poems is like taking out those favorite clothes, holding them up to the mirror, remembering what happened and who I talked with when I wore them, maybe trying them on to see how they fit, even doing a little altering. Carefully re-placed on their hangers, the clothes are arranged in the closet so that each piece has a place and fits in as part of a whole. I can add a few more items of clothing. What will they be?

Revising writing means looking at detail honestly so that you can add and take away for the sake of the whole. It also means leaving well enough alone. It’s a process of reconsidering. What a terrific opportunity.

An activity labeled with re- as the prefix means we are getting another chance, a do- over, an again, a re-freshment.

Certainly, this week, having re-turned my hometown of Washington, DC after decades away, every step on the sidewalk is a re-working, an updating to merge who I’ve become with who I was.

When I lead poetry workshops, we are often re-calling events to re-cord them. “Record” relates to the word cor, heart. How mind-boggling that we can hold the past in the present and re-make it.

This is one way we heal.

“Healing” derives from an Old English word hǣlan, which means to re-store to sound health. We have the power through art to synthesize all that has occurred. In sharing our art, formally or informally, we encourage others to revise their lives with healing in mind.

What looks differently to you than it did yesterday? How are you in a state of perpetual revisioning?

Surely, letting go and welcoming in are two sides of the same silver coin of change.

 

 

 

Expectations

Of the four students who attended last Saturday’s Day Poems workshop in Coloma, California, two were returning and two were brand new to poetry. Gathered around a picnic table in the shaded backyard at the American River Conservancy, we figured out how a poem happens, how it achieves an effect.

We looked especially at tension between the sentence and the line in free verse poems and how space on the page creates room for silence, mystery and questions.

When it was their turn to try it, I suggested the students view writing a poem like taking a stroll: you have a general direction in mind and you’re willing to follow where the path of curiosity takes you. We reflected on how writing (and reading) poetry can be scary: one has to let go of expectation.

Yoga also requires release of expectation. In class, I ask students to be willing to be surprised by what they feel as they sit with their breath, what they find in the shape of a pose, or how they choose to move when reawakening from savasana.

This week, my husband, dog and I have been traveling through as many as three states a day as we make our way from Sacramento to a new home in Washington, DC. My movement practice has been limited to simple stretches and my meditation practice to a few minutes cross-legged on a motel bed before sleep.

From a physical standpoint, this week has been more no-ga than yoga. But, oh, the mental aspect….

At the center of a true yoga practice is taking action without expectation of, or attachment to, results. I thought I had this dialed in: entering any forward bend I have to stay open in my mind because I am not particularly open in my hamstrings, and my pelvis likes to pull off-center in response to a little curve in the low spine. Some days, the sensation in a bend is one of aahhh; other days it’s aargh. Unless I let go. And then it just is.

Or, as teachers know, you plan a class for eight people and four show, or twenty-four. In the words of the teachers’ teacher Madeline Hunter, one has to “monitor and adjust.” Or, in the words of poet Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft agley.” That’s okay, right? Modeling letting go of expectations is what I do.

Turns out I’m not the master I took myself to be on expectation-free living.

On this road trip, I find I have expectations all the time. I’ll think a place is going to be one way and it’s another. I don’t think I am picturing how it will be, but when I get there I find myself saying, “I didn’t expect….”

There are wonderful surprises:

  • a note on the office door saying, “Coffee’s ready for you. Come in.” the morning after staying at the cleanest, quietest, most modest motel in Wells, Nevada (a stone’s throw from a brothel called “Bella”)
  • strong, strong, I mean fairytale strength, winds in Utah and Wyoming
  • a bakery in Green River, Wyoming that stayed open until 6 pm (we were there at 5:30!)
    • their delicious strawberry jam
      • and white bread
  • a bluebird on a trail at Medicine Bow National Forest
  • the suitable emptiness of Red Cloud, Nebraska, Willa Cather’s home
  • finding cheese curds at the local grocery in Smith Center, Kansas
    • learning that the dog likes them, too,
      • and that they make a decent make-shift dinner with California almonds while watching “Nashville” on a boxy old TV
  • brick-lined streets of Marysville, Kansas where the rare black squirrel lives
    • the town’s hard-hitting and entertaining independent weekly newspaper
      • with a story on the out-going Kansas poet laureate
        • who also teaches yoga!
  • harvested fields filled with purple flowers throughout Kansas
    • falling in love with this center of the United States
  • red buds blooming bright among grey trunks of bare-branched trees from Nebraska through Illinois
    • and purple lilac
      • and more purple lilac
        • and white lilac blooming
  • the Mississippi River wider than I ever remember
  • the first-rate wifi connection at this Comfort Inn I write from in Zanesville, Ohio
    • their powdered hot chocolate which tastes so good
      • and even better with the last of the yummy Thermal, California dates

As we drive and drive, Wordsworth’s poem Surprised by Joy keeps coming to mind. For me, joy is often fueled by surprises of beauty. Beauty seems to defy expectation. I guess it’s the wonder of it, that it exists and reveals itself to a listening eye and an open ear. (Not a typo!)

It’s not all roses out on the highway. We’ve seen desperate people with cardboard signs, farms up for auction, roadkill, smokestacks, tire tracks that lead to roadside shrines.

Wordsworth is surprised to feel joy after experiencing a deep loss. Leaving a place is a loss: the farther I pull away from what and who I’ve known the more this strikes me. Maybe the surprises of birds, flavors, rivers and kindnesses feel more profound because of this. And maybe, come to think of it, my word choice is off as I take it all in. Instead of, “I didn’t expect…” I will say to myself, “I am delighted that….”

And this comes back around to reading and writing poetry, practicing yoga and living life: the willingness to be delighted. We must remain open to the simultaneity of letting go and letting in. This means doing without too much desiring, accepting without clinging, simply receiving without a garnish of fear.

Closing our eyes and feeling what is. Welcoming what we’re able.

 

 

Third Spaces

Third Spaces (ThS) are places that are neither home nor work environments and that we go to for companionship, to learn and to have fun. Most television shows feature a Third Space; many are set in them, often a pub. For yoga folk, the ThS is usually a studio.

Before It’s All Yoga was my workplace, it was my ThS, and so it always remained in some ways for me. When I took a colleague’s class, the gold and sage green room metaphorically held both desk and bar stool as I learned and laughed and sometimes cried under the guidance of another. When teaching a class, the space served as exploratorium, the narrow foyer funneling in students curious about what could happen in an hour.

My job: prep, facilitate and let change occur.

A ThS can be as simple as the square card tables my Meditation, Movement and Verse students gathered around. It can be the all-purpose room at an assisted living facility, chairs lined up for seated yoga, or a conference room transformed into practice space, lights dimmed, gym towels spread on the carpet.

We find our Third Spaces and they find us. 

postcard
A favorite space: the American River.

Are you at home or at work right now? Can you picture your Third Space? Or are you in it?

I urge you to take a moment to acknowledge that space and the people, as well as any non-human animals, who make that space available. Maybe your favorite hiking spot, the public pool, your journal or sketchpad, a friend’s back patio? Define it for yourself. Then pull it out for a moment from the hubbub of life, hold it like a jewel in the light. Appreciate.

And if you ever have to say farewell to your ThS, don’t despair.

It’s better to have loved and lost a Third Space than never to have loved one at all.

Receive and release. Receive and release. This is a tidal rhythm of life.

During my transition from Sacramento to Washington, DC, lines from the Judy Halebsky poem “The Ohno Studio” have kept me company.

in this studio

I have laid down my fears

I have been easily hurt

snow melts, flowers bloom

there is getting up off the floor

the third pine

the ground, the sky, the space between

this is where I have danced

this is where I leave you from

After I taught my final class at It’s All Yoga, and the last hugs were distributed to students returning to their homes and work, I stood in the middle of the studio to whisper, “Thank you” from the very bottom of my heart.

And in that final class was a student new to the studio. When she learned that I was moving, she asked a friend from DC to recommend studios then sent me an email with those recs and a well wish. I’d never met her before that night and may not see her again. What was my ThS is her ThS now. This is how it happens.

Heart

Apparently by the time most of us notice a tree dying it has been suffering for awhile.

In the March 31 article Climate Change Threatens to Kill Off More Aspen Forests by 2050s, Scientists Say, a researcher explains how a tree has “a kind of heart attack” when dry ground leads to air bubbles forming in the tiny tubes that carry water through the tree.

Imagine the flow of life within hundreds of trees in a forest. Imagine that stopping. Our earth may look very different in another hundred years.

Much of what I do as a yoga teacher is offer palliative care. I help others understand the body and its links with the mind; we work together to alleviate pain, to find rest and ease. But yoga isn’t a cure.

Poetry operates in a similar way, offering solace by making meaning of experience, capturing in the amber of words the joys and losses of life.

What matters most, whether we practice it through yoga or poetry, music or business, raising children or saving animals, is peace. How can we foster peace?

The more peace we find within and with and without ourselves may allow us to expand our circles of compassion. There are many means. For me, it’s through practicing and teaching yoga and poetry, through meditation, breathing and strengthening the body, connecting with others.

The trees, and the communities they support (that’s all life on earth, folks), depend on us to make peaceful choices.

We have so much power as human beings, over ourselves and other lives. This scientist’s analogy of the trees’ circulatory systems stopping up like the arteries of a heart serves as a reminder to have more, more heart that is. It’s okay. Hug a tree!

 

 

 

 

 

Full of stories

In our present time, there is a goodness to, and a necessity for, rugged independence among individuals. But this is often best served and supported in good measure by deliberate interdependence with a community of other souls. Some say that community is based on blood ties, sometimes dictated by choice, sometimes by necessity. And while this is quite true, the immeasurably strong gravitational field that holds a group together are their stories…the common and simple ones they share with one another.

– Clarissa Pinkola Estes, The Gift of Story

This week, I’ve been trading stories with friends, with people I’ve known for decades, others for a few years. If there’s a silver lining in moving away from a place it’s this: the opportunity to savor what has been. We’re talking on the phone or meeting up for coffee or tea.

As we swap memories, we revivify our shared past, bringing pieces of it into the present.

In this way, words spin the web of community.

Community, of course, shares a root with the word “common,” the adjective denotes “ordinary,” the noun “open land for public use.”

Sharing something in common with another is a wonderfully spacious experience of the ordinary.

At a Power of Words conference, Julia Alvarez told us writers that the time for loners is over. We need each other, she said, more than ever in this day and age. I took it to mean that as the world increases in complexity, the best choice is not to ride off alone in different directions toward the sunset to build lots of little evening fires, but to collect stones with others to make a single shared fire ring. As the therapists point out, healthy interdependence is the goal.

Gathered, swapped observations and insights link us in a common bond. In this way, we share a common space, an actual or metaphorical landscape of possibility.

This week, I’ve also been reading more than I usually do. I confess it’s not because I gave up my favorite TV shows in favor of meditation or musing, but because access to the internet has been spotty (I don’t own a smart phone).

I finally picked up Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain, each beautifully researched and written books. I’ve also been learning from Richard RosenOriginal Yoga and Yoga for 50+. Rosen loves words and explains the story behind asana names. Their English translations provide clues to the who, how, what and why of the poses. Their stories link 21st-century yoga with long-gone sea creatures and significant sages.

Meanwhile, I’ve been preparing to teach Yoga for Hikers this Saturday. In order for the participants to remember the pre-hike yoga I show them, I’ve strung together a story using names of poses. So, fairy-tale-style, we’ll move through shapes from mountain, to sun, to rain, to tree and back to mountain with birds, peaceful warriors and lions along the way.

According to the dictionary, “story” derives from “historia,” perhaps originally referring to a tier of painted windows or sculptures on the front of a building (representing a historical subject).

Once again, I’m brought around to how everything in life is an art.

That whether we are dancing, playing tennis, making a poem, baking a pie, carving a walking stick, fixing an engine, raising a baby, arranging grocery carts in a flawless row, we practice the art of living.  And in every moment we create stories that endure in the wrinkles of our brains, in the letters we write, the conversations we have, the classes we attend, even the texts tapped into a touch screen. Everything matters. I’m so glad of that!

 

Compulsions and callings

One of my favorite things about yoga, and teaching yoga, is the unlimited opportunity to try–try again, try new ways of moving and breathing, try new ideas, try on feelings.

Every yoga practice is an experiment.

Every class taught is one-of-a-kind.

When I decided to train as a yoga teacher, my husband and I were walking along a rural road on a summer day. I declared, “Don’t try to talk me out of it. I’m going to be a yoga teacher.” The directive came loudly as the voice of a fictional character dictating a story’s progress.

wild roses

Though it feels strange to say it so plainly, I understand now, with the help of books and friends, that such an insight occurs when one recognizes work she’s suited for. With the realization comes certainty.

Now that I’ve been teaching yoga for awhile, I can sit on the granite rock of perspective and gaze down into the Tahoe-clear waters of the years that led to Now. There at the sandy bottom of beginning, I am a baby plump from the milk of Iowa cows, exploring geometric shapes in blocks and boards, spending quiet time with animals and alone, seeking motion by crawling or walking, swinging, or rolling along in a stroller or my parents’ International Travel All. And observing–people, sunlight, falling leaves, the blue-eyed Siamese, chattering birds. The role of yoga teacher synthesizes my travels, reading, coursework, jobs, encounters, writing, explorations.

Do people change? All the time. But our essential natures stay fairly consistent.

Wonder what you’re meant to do? Take a look at what makes you feel most curious and what you are most eager to share. What takes all of you–body, mind, heart and soul?

Recently I was teaching yoga to 15 participants of a retreat for corporate executives. One asked me why I became a yoga teacher. I told him the work allows me to apply everything I know in that moment–and then let it go. There’s an ephemerality to teaching movement and meditation.

This ephemerality creates space to continue learning more.

And hopefully my students learn, too. And hopefully what they learn about strengthening, relaxing, breathing, connecting, surrendering, supports their own life’s work.

For a few years, I had time to focus on writing poems. Knowing the time would be limited, I arranged the conditions of my situation to support the work. Long walks and day dreaming. Hours reading. Attending events of other poets. Teaching community workshops. Devising systems for generating, revising and submitting work. In this way, I was able to accomplish what I wanted: to inhabit poetry completely, meaning to think, perceive and be a poet for awhile; to share the delights with others; to write a few poems that could connect with another person.

Those who love ideas and words combine and recombine them. They notice combos that spark. I rubbed the flint of words together tirelessly, igniting fires of ideas.

Poets also know that as attempts to establish meaning, metaphors are doomed to inadequacy.

We can ever only hint at the essence of a thing. 

Some say that to capture a unicorn, you stand in front of a tree then step quickly aside when the animal charges; with its horn in the tree, the animal is stuck, and yours. Writing poems can be as thrilling as capturing a unicorn: tricking the intangible to come into print.

For years, the need to write burned through me like a fever. It was exhilarating. I couldn’t rest until I’d given the writing my all. This was compulsion. Compulsion can be harmful. The compulsion to gamble, for example, can destroy a person. But this confuses compulsion with addiction. For artists–I am not unique in this–the compulsion to create is a driving force. It can be a wonderful–and usually benign–lunacy.

The words of my workshop participants and private clients must get to the page to unclog their souls. This is why the byproduct of any art can be healing: expression brings release.

A call, I can attest, is diametrically different. It’s a summons, a pull and not a push. Once I followed a bird down a desert trail, staying a little behind, taking my cues from it, pausing when it paused, stepping forward when it flew. Yoga drew me–draws me–like that.

When your call comes, answer it. Don’t roll the incoming to voicemail.

There’s a timeliness to life. Don’t neglect it.

A momentary “yes!” or even “okay” can result in I am, instead of I could or I should or I wish.

If you’ve found your calling, you know what I’m talking about. Stay loyal to it, allowing it to change as needed. Love it. Practice. Reflect. Study. Rest. Identify sources and mentors. Simplify aspects of daily routine to devote more attention to what you do and who you are. Resist external notions of success. They will confuse you. Be glad enough when your work stands for itself, but don’t think about it too much at all.

If you haven’t found your calling, open the landline of life to it by trying something new–even something as seemingly insignificant as meandering along a different route on your way home from work. Odds are the call will come if you want it to. Are you breathing? Pay attention. It will feel as if you are remembering a part of yourself that you never knew. 

And don’t, as they say, throw out the baby with the bathwater. I am still a poet. Working side-by-side with a writing client is a great joy. I told a woman this week that writing my own poems is like making a soup; working with someone on his or her poem is like tasting the soup and suggesting a pinch of salt or a squeeze of lemon. The restraint required in some ways increases the satisfaction with a delicious result.

And one’s newly defined “purpose” does not necessarily replace a previous one. It merely becomes the most recent layer of a stratified life. I still make poems, just less often. They arrive like a phone call or letter from an old friend in a former town. So welcome, so loved and ever precious.

You may have read that I’m moving from Sacramento to Washington, DC in a few days. Come with!

 

 

 

 

Virabhadrasana II + Robert Bly

 What does it mean to be awake?
To be awake is to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity, or to regain them when they’re lost. Neither can be experienced without a sense of openness.
     Inquisitiveness or curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open–actually being able to let go and open. Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves. Precision is being able to see very clearly, not being afraid to see what’s really there, just as a scientist is not afraid to look into a microscope. Openness is being able to let go and to open. – Pema Chödrön, The Wisdom of No Escape
In Virabhadrasana II, warrior 2, I’m aware of being alone, even if a dozen fellow AlexaWarrior2practitioners are in the pose, too. The shape requires fingertip to toe engagement, crown to root to heel. The pose combines strength and vulnerability. It invites curiosity about the present moment. Anyone of any age can be a warrior; the pose can be practiced standing, in a chair, in a bed or on the floor.

After Being Alone

Spring water flows out of a culvert –
I am here, wholly in the sun,
and it is wholly in the sun.

A leaf sails down the flowing water –
only a few inches deep, with old sticks below –
water so clear it has no body, no one can judge the depth…

Once out of our mother’s womb
we sail so easily,
awake or asleep…
My life is an example,
here at forty-eight barely awake!

Pair with: Virabhadrasana II, warrior 2

Speak: Be ready to land on that final exclamation mark. The poet helps the speaker with the vowel sounds in forty, eight, barely, awake. They lead to a crescendo.

Consider: What’s the relationship of being alone to being awake? How are our lives examples of our choices and attitudes?

Note: Poem to be published in Like the New Moon I Will Live My Life, click this link (by April 9, 2015) to support the Indiegogo campaign to published the book; poem used by permission of White Pine Press.