“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.
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.
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.
Gently squeezing a snapdragon between fingers to hinge the blossoms’ jaws open and close guarantees a smile. Pleased to have my poem “Old Griefs” appear today in the inaugural issue of the journal Snapdragon this almost-spring day. In Sacramento, scented jasmine is spilling from garden walls; below, the poem’s spilling off the page. I just decided to let it go….
Fallen into a well of sorrows born
at an earlier age, my violet eye emits
light enough to brighten stale tears.
Open, unfasten, unfurl until all within is without,
until the volume of these disclosures propels me
to the surface of the grim borehole.
Asteya, the third yama of yoga’s ethical guidelines, translates as “non-stealing.” We’re taught from a young age to not take what does not belong to us. That’s clear. In our crowded 21st-century world we who have excess are also learning to not take more than we need, be it water, fuel, food or someone else’s precious time. We conserve at the faucet and gas pump, show restraint when ordering at the restaurant and employ responsible use of technology to increase efficiency.
The practice of yoga teaches us that desire drives greed and can lead to careless actions. One day, full of ego’s ambition, eager to jam myself into a deep backbend, I ended up with a crick in my neck for months. A pose that in its truest form would be a heart opener resulted in body and mind slamming shut with frustration. Gentle, slow, movement, rest and breath gradually led to the ability to move into camel pose, ustrasana…when I was ready. But by rushing literally headlong into injury I had cheated myself and the tradition of yoga itself, which is not founded on haste. Equipped by my error, I teach ustrasana slowly and systematically. The approach is not of “getting” into a pose, it’s making a shape.
Non-stealing boils down to not rushing. Taking, stealing, thieving, nicking, are actions designed to beat the clock, to not get caught. Generosity is spacious and can be quite slow. Think of sweet time passing as a planted apple seed transforms to a fully fruiting tree.
Living in Bakersfield years ago, I’d sit on my front porch to watch the sunrise. This untitled poem prefaces We Have Trees (Swim Press, 2005).
Beg belongs in beginning
the place I began.
Into the world born full
with empty hands.
And beginning each day
Even dreams hold requests,
goodbyes ask for promises.
I beg of you to keep my arms
empty until they are full,
to beg of you only
that which you have to give
and to begin anew
at the moment
of each invitation.
We talked this morning about intimacy, voice and community in the final meeting of the inaugural series of Meditation, Movement and Verse. My thanks to the students who brought ideas, memories, rhythm, words, breath and bodies to seven months of weekly meetings. Wow, is all I can say. Your insights and poems confirm that intimacy, if anything, will save the world. Thank you for making yourselves known.
This poem was begun several years ago when I first started thinking about how intimacy closes the gap between human and non-human animals, one human and another.
A World of Constant Motion
It starts with interrogate,
ends with preserve.
to why we let other species
dwindle. Do we sit ourselves
down on a straight chair
under bare bulbs of what’s left
When did battle take precedence
over beauty? When did what was
get displaced by now and next?
Preserve means to set aside
acres of jars shelved bright
with tomatoes and peaches picked
in warmer days for cold ones.
“In wildness is preservation”
Thoreau said. I say
intimacy saves the world—
creatures in burrows, beneath waves,
flowers fruiting without witness,
my back against yours as we breathe,
what we love named, and who.
In the quiet setting of Green Gulch Farm, “A Shed” came together on a peaceful Saturday after spending the morning reading Bei Dao.
Writing a love poem feels to me like swimming through happiness. I hope the reader feels this, too. Find this love poem and more in Winter Garden. Send me an email to order the chapbook; you’re also welcome to share the poem in a class if you like. alexamergen(at)gmail(dot)com
Between me and the world,
You are the unsigned road,
The plank bridge, eucalyptus trees.
You are the turn to the sea,
The cliff crest and clouds.
You are the horizon, waves,
A bobbing fishing boat.
You are all the grains of sand,
Sand dollars, a conch shell’s thrum.
You are a raptor, its screech,
Cattails, pussy willows and reeds.
You are blackbird, butterfly,
Dragonfly, box turtle, beetle.
You are the last full moon
Of the calendar year.
You are sunrise, dusk,
The very next day.
Between me and the world,
You are a tick tock clock,
Hammock, kettle set to boil.
You are water and faucet,
A splash, the filled cup.
Ahimsa, the first of the guidelines, yamas, translates as non-harming and, by extension, kindness. Another way to think of ahimsa is through the English word “consideration.” “Consider” means “to examine” and may derive from the Latin word for “star.” To be considerate means to show careful thought, to not inconvenience or hurt others unthinkingly. When we’re up for the challenge, we can attempt to go through the day considering each person, in fact every other living thing, as precious as star dust. We can breathe and pause, wonder a bit at the complexity of this world, and pull back from hasty judgements and cruel thoughts.
Best part? This, like all yoga, is a process. We’re all mean sometimes. We all hurt ourselves and others with words, thoughts and deeds. As a wise teacher told me long ago, everyone makes mistakes. They’re a problem when we make the same ones again and again. Breathe. Forgive. Let go. Be kind.
Here are poems for thinking about thinking about kindness.
James Wrights’s beautiful A Blessing where human and animal meet.
“And the eyes of those two Indian ponies/Darken with kindness./They have come gladly out of the willows/To welcome my friend and me.”
“Meanwhile, move off, yielding the forest floor/As carefully as your honor.”
Kindness to oneself, practiced with the help of a friend, in Perie Longo’s Learning to Walk.
“Starts with sitting still, listening/to how time lengthens in silence./A friend moves off the horizon, her words/of comfort a hook to grasp, to cling to/like the steel traps I sometimes throw down/in disgust.”
“When you practice embodied prayer, the very motions of your body create meaning for your words like sound creates meaning in poetry.”
“As a poet uses sound to create meaning deeper than the simple definitions of words, we can use the motions of our bodies to create deeper meaning in prayer.”
I’m wondering about the ways “devote” is a synonym for “pray” and how we have the ability through hearts, hands and minds to intercede on another’s behalf. The author suggests, for example, that marching for a cause is “praying with the feet.”
We can love another by reaching out physically or imaginatively from right where we are.
Having made my share of angry gestures, especially during a protracted furious teenaged phase, I understand the power of a raised middle finger or a shaken fist. After studying yoga for 20 years, and mellowing out considerably, I appreciate how precious movement is. And if we treat it as so, every physical utterance is as profound as a word.
Linked movement, united as poetry is with the flow of breath, is a stunning expression of being human.
You write a poem. Something about it gives you a tingle. You think you might be on to something. You want to connect with others, poem as conduit. There’s an open mic at a poetry reading. Nervous? Good! Share the poem anyway!
At a reading Monday night for my new chapbook, Winter Garden, I asked my Meditation, Movement and Verse students to bring a poem of their own for open mic. Once they saw the crowd of 75 audience members, they declined to get up in front of it. I understand! Been there.
But others’ eyes and ears can create an edge that allows a poet to identify what’s happening in her own work and who she wants to be as a poet. The experience is part of growing as a writer.
When you’re ready to speak your truth, these FAQs will get you started.
1. Can I read the poem from my laptop/tablet/phone?
No. Type out the poem and print it. Any screen is just that, it implies a separation between you and the real live audience. Paper doesn’t. If you can memorize the poem (flawlessly) go for it. But it’s not necessary.
2. Do I sound okay?
Find out. Use a recording device to tape yourself reading the poem. Listen to it. Practice.
3. What should I read?
Choose a poem that does not require a lot of explanation. In fact, if the poem can stand on its own, without any back story about your travels, your family, your job or hobbies, that’s better. You have less than 3 minutes, so let the poem speak.
4. Is profanity okay? What about difficult subjects like abuse, death, personal struggle?
Use your judgement. Come prepared with a few poems. Get a sense of the style and tone of the featured readers. Listen to the host. Choose a poem of your own in keeping with the overall feel of the event. Listen. Listen. Listen. And be willing to show restraint, if appropriate. Remember, you are a guest.
5. What introductory remarks should I offer?
Most likely, none. Keep it simple. State your name (pause) title of the poem (pause) read the poem (pause again) say “thank you” and sit down.
6. If the host says to read one poem, can I read two if they’re short?
No. One means one.
7. What if I mess up?
Say, “Let me try that again.” Breathe. And start over. Fresh start.
8. How do I know when a poem is ready to share?
The poem’s ready if it demands to be shared, when it has taken on a life of its own. Has someone else responded to the poem, a friend or classmate? You can be puzzled by your own poems. But if they’re not energizing you, they’re unlikely to energize anyone else.
9. What if someone says they like my poem?
Say “thank you.”
10. What if no one says anything?
Move on. It’s probably not about the poem at all. It’s difficult to absorb one poem read aloud, let alone the 20-30 a person might hear in one night at a poetry event. Learn by listening to yourself and others.
Shhhhhhhhhh. Shhhhhhhhhhh. Ocean breath. Inhale and exhale with a shhhhh, lips gently parted. When practiced standing, in tadasana, this breath can lend a feeling of stability and grounding. When practiced seated, on the floor, in a chair, maybe even behind the wheel of your vehicle, the breath may soothe. In constructive rest, the breath could turn into a restful meditation.
Allow the exhalation to extend and smooth, imagining it passing through the soles of the feet or through the perineum. You might find the exhalation lengthening in relation to the inhalation. You may find the inhalation sweeping in effortlessly and evenly as a wave.