Poem of the Week, by Tony Hoagland

img_6112Q: Does writing about hard things ever make you agitated and upset, so that you have to walk away from the writing and regain your equilibrium?

A: Nope. Life is what’s hard. Writing is always solace.

This exchange took place in a university undergraduate creative writing class a couple of weeks ago. Writing is how I translate all the emotion and experience of living into something that’s bigger than me. It’s a means of transcendence, a way to push away all that hugeness and also absorb it. To make a connection with other human beings you don’t know and have never met.

So is reading, poetry especially. For decades Tony Hoagland’s work has been solace. It’s like he saw into my heart and wrote poems meant just for me, even though he was beloved by so many. I meant to write him a letter this fall, telling him how much he means to me, but he died last week, so my letter will never be written. Don’t take it personal, they said; but I did, I took it all quite personal– Oh Tony, I’m so sad you’re gone.


Personal, by Tony Hoagland

Don’t take it personal, they said;
but I did, I took it all quite personal—

the breeze and the river and the color of the fields;
the price of grapefruit and stamps,

the wet hair of women in the rain—
And I cursed what hurt me

and I praised what gave me joy,
the most simple-minded of possible responses.

The government reminded me of my father,
with its deafness and its laws,

and the weather reminded me of my mom,
with her tropical squalls.

Enjoy it while you can, they said of Happiness
Think first, they said of Talk

Get over it, they said
at the School of Broken Hearts

but I couldn’t and I didn’t and I don’t
believe in the clean break;

I believe in the compound fracture
served with a sauce of dirty regret,

I believe in saying it all
and taking it all back

and saying it again for good measure
while the air fills up with I’m-Sorries

like wheeling birds
and the trees look seasick in the wind.

Oh life! Can you blame me
for making a scene?

You were that yellow caboose, the moon
disappearing over a ridge of cloud.

I was the dog, chained in some fool’s backyard;
barking and barking:

trying to convince everything else
to take it personal too.



I’ve sent out many Tony Hoagland poems in the past, and I could send out Tony Hoagland poems every week for a year; that’s how much I loved him. For more poems by Tony, please click here.



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Excuse me

IMG_1258A few years ago I sat in a crowded auditorium listening to a speaker lecture on a topic I don’t remember. What I do remember is that fifteen minutes into his lecture, he was interrupted by an audience member who jumped to his feet and, under the guise of asking a question, began to harangue the speaker. The speaker, who was elderly and softspoken, was clearly stunned at the interruption, which had clearly been planned. The audience member grew taller and louder as he launched into his own, counterpoint lecture. He gesticulated. He menaced.

Everyone in the room was instantly on edge, disturbed and deeply uneasy. You could feel the tension in the air. We looked at each other, wild-eyed: What do we do? What should we do? No one moved. But something had to be done. So I jumped up and waved my hand until the angry audience member saw me and paused for a second. 

“Excuse me, but your original question has nothing to do with your comments,” I said. “Please sit down.”

This was someone not used to being challenged. He didn’t know what to do with my interruption. He started questioning me, in annoyance and surprise, lost his train of thought, fumbled, sat down. 

It sounds like such a simple thing, but interrupting this man was extremely hard for me. My heart raced and my hands trembled and I couldn’t stop shaking. But my mission –to put a stick in the spokes of the runaway heckler– was accomplished.

This incident, and others like it, comes back to me a lot these days. We have so much more power, as a group and also as a single human being, than we think we do. People take their cues from leaders, and every day I remind myself that I can be a leader. That I am a leader. Every single one of us is, if we choose to be.

We are surrounded right now with daily assaults, some of them deadly, to human decency and our sense of our country as a functioning democracy. In the midst of this, it helps to remind yourself that you are a leader. Leaders act more often than react. Acting out of optimism, hope, faith and determination to make this world better will give you far more energy than reacting with despair and outrage to every day’s fresh hell. 

What I tell myself: Alison, there are too many fresh hells right now to handle, so don’t try to handle them all. But every single time there’s a chance to be kind, to stop a bully, to thwart a racist or sexist remark, to look someone in the eye and smile, to take positive action, do it. 

Concrete actions that are helping me right now:

In-depth conversations with people who believe differently from me but who remind me that we have far more in common than our voting records.

Hand-writing postcards to get out the vote.

Teaching creative writing classes on the Transformation of Trauma for free.

Distributing poems to all my neighbors.

Donating money, a little every day, to a good cause.

Reading: history, novels, poetry.

History is full of examples of leaders who fomented violence and hate wherever they went, with deadly consequences. We are seeing that right now in our own country. But violence and hate can be counteracted at every turn. Take action. Don’t lose the faith. 



Poem of the Week, by Keetje Kuipers

Screen Shot 2018-04-05 at 8.44.01 AMLong ago I left behind the simple prayers of my childhood, the ones spoken in unison with others in church, or around the table at a special meal when everyone named something they were thankful for. I’ve never known what God is, and I don’t know what God is to others. If forced to come up with a definition, my definition of God would be something like the feeling of my children on either side of me in bed as I read them to sleep when they were little. God would be the high school students I used to teach, ringed on the floor in our classroom on the giant pillows  I’d made, still and silent and sometimes falling asleep on Friday afternoons as I read them stories. God would be the idea and the feeling of peace, of a place where nothing bad can happen, where only love and comfort dwell. God would be the poems that swell my heart open in a way that almost hurts, like this one below.


Prayer, by Keetje Kuipers

Perhaps as a child you had the chicken pox
and your mother, to soothe you in your fever
or to help you fall asleep, came into your room
and read to you from some favorite book,
Charlotte’s Web or Little House on the Prairie,
a long story that she quietly took you through
until your eyes became magnets for your shuttering
lids and she saw your breathing go slow. And then
she read on, this time silently and to herself,
not because she didn’t know the story,
it seemed to her that there had never been a time
when she didn’t know this story—the young girl
and her benevolence, the young girl in her sod house—
but because she did not yet want to leave your side
though she knew there was nothing more
she could do for you. And you, not asleep but simply weak,
listened to her turn the pages, still feeling
the lamp warm against one cheek, knowing the shape
of the rocking chair’s shadow as it slid across
your chest. So that now, these many years later,
when you are clenched in the damp fist of a hospital bed,
or signing the papers that say you won’t love him anymore,
when you are bent at your son’s gravesite or haunted
by a war that makes you wake with the gun
cocked in your hand, you would like to believe
that such generosity comes from God, too,
who now, when you have the strength to ask, might begin
the story again, just as your mother would,
from the place where you have both left off.


For more information about Keetje Kuipers, please click here.


Poem of the Week, by Olav Hauge

IMG_1168Me to a roomful of high school students last week: “Raise a hand if you’ve lost someone you love to murder.”

Every hand went up.

Every hand. At least that’s how it looked to me, standing there. How do you make your way through something impossibly hard? That was the premise of our conversation, and the students took turns reading out loud from my novel What I Leave Behind, which is about exactly that. Impossible hardship is something these students are no strangers to. Institutionalized racism and sexism and poverty are all designed to keep a few people sitting pretty at the expense of so many, and one result is a roomful of children who have all watched loved ones die violently. 

I asked them how they coped. Some meditated. Some did yoga. Some cooked. Some listened to music. And every one of them seemed to make art: writing, painting, drawing, singing. They clearly understood the power of art, how you can use it to translate and transcend an impossible experience, push it out of you and at the same time absorb it. Art can keep you connected to others. These students are old souls, wise beyond their years. I got back to my hotel that night to find that a friend in Germany had sent me a poem that I’d forgotten, a poem I love. A poem that the minute I saw it felt like the poem to send in honor of these beautiful, powerful youth. We have to do better by them.

This Is the Dream, by Olav Hauge (translated by Robert Hedin and Robert Bly)

This is the dream we carry through the world
that something fantastic will happen
that it has to happen
that time will open by itself
that doors shall open by themselves
that the heart will find itself open
that mountain springs will jump up
that the dream will open by itself
that we one early morning
will slip into a harbor
that we have never known. 

For more information on Olav Hauge, please click here.


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Poem of the Week, by Tim Seibles

IMG_6359If home is defined as the place where you don’t have to think –you can just be— then you can find home not just in a place but a person. I believe in love at first sight –it’s happened to me–and I also believe in recognition at first sight. Sometimes they’re the same thing. A knowing. An old understanding. The instinctive, animal perception that you are in the presence of a kindred spirit. You look at them, they look at you, and you both relax. You already know each other. 

Last week an old friend told me about a new someone she’d met. I don’t know, she said, I’m having so much fun. It just feels so easy. She was leaning back on the couch with her knees pulled up to her chest, hair spilling down her shoulders. She looked about twenty years old. Does it feel like you already know him?, I said, and she smiled and nodded. This exquisite poem by Tim Seibles made me remember how hard it can be to find a home in someone, how rare and beautiful it is when it happens. 


Unmarked, by Tim Seibles

               – for Natalie

So much like sequins
the sunlight on this river.
Something like that kiss—


Fourth of July, with the moon
down early      the air moved

as if it were thinking,
as if it had begun
to understand

how hard it is
to feel at home
in the world,

but that night
she found a place
just above your shoulder

and pressed her lips
there. Soft rain

had called off the fireworks:
the sky was quiet, but
back on Earth

two boys cruised by on bikes
trying out bad words. You turned
to reach her mouth,

at last, with yours     after weeks
of long walks, talking

about former loves
gone awry—

how the soul finally
falls down

and gets up alone
once more

finding the city strange,
the streets unmarked.

Every time you meet someone
it’s hard not to wonder

who they’ve been—one story
breaking so much

into the next: memory
engraves its hesitations—

but that night
you found yourself
unafraid. Do you remember

what the wind told the trees
about her brown hair?—
how the cool dark turned around:

that first kiss,
long as a river.

Didn’t it seem like you already loved her?

Off the sidewalk: a small pond,
the tall cattails, all those sleepy koi

coloring the water.


For more information on Tim Seibles, please click here.



Dear Sister, the backstory

Picture the scene: Me arriving home to find my youngest plopped on the couch happily watching tv alone, surrounded by her stuffed animals, blankie, and an assortment of the pretzels and crackers that at the time comprised most of her body wScreen Shot 2018-09-28 at 1.11.39 PM copyeight and were the reason my nickname for her was Dry Salty Crunchy Carbohydrate.

Me, wary: “Where’s your big brother?”

Her, happy: “Dunno.”

At which point I walked into the kitchen to find this note on the fridge. Which I stuck in a box of my son’s childhood mementoes and forgot about.

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Picture this scene as well: me noticing one weekend day that my youngest seemed to be spending much of her time trundling about the house doing small chores and fetching things for her big sister and big sister’s friend. 

Me to big sister and big sister’s friend, who were clearly enjoying a life of leisure with their indentured servant, suspiciously: “What’s going on here?”

Them, airily: “Nothing. Just playing.”

Later that day I found the above note. Which I stuck in a box of my older daughter’s mementoes and then forgot about. Until a couple of years ago, when they were all in college and I decided to go through those boxes and found both notes and a bunch more. Which gave me the idea to write a book about the sibling relationship that consisted entirely of notes and drawings. And here we are! Dear Sister, a graphic novel-ish book for all ages, illustrated by the fabulous Joe Bluhm, comes out tomorrow wherever you buy your books. 

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To order a copy

From your local indie bookstore
From Amazon
From Barnes & Noble