Words by Winter Wednesday: My Beloved Penpal

1_WORDS_BY_WINTER 7It’s Words by Winter Wednesday! This week’s episode, My Beloved Penpal, is about my friend Garvin Wong, who many years ago sent me a letter, typed on an ancient manual typewriter, in response to a story of mine he’d heard read aloud on a late night talk radio show. Thus began eighteen years of letters, calls, visits, and many a shared dinner in Chinatown. In the five years since we lost him, I have thought about my friend every day. 

Each week, we (and by “we” I mean “I”) release a new episode of Words by Winter, the podcast featuring conversations, reflections, and poems about the passages of life. Each brief episode includes a story or conversation, along with a poem. All the Words by Winter episodes can be found anywhere you listen to your podcasts. If you like them, please subscribe and tell a friend.

Click here for Words by Winter on Apple Podcasts.

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I’d love to hear from listeners what you’re going through, what uncertainties or troubles you’re dealing with, maybe in the silence of your own mind and heart. Let me know, and I’ll go in search of a poem to help you through, one that might help all of us through, in the way that poems have been helping me get through life ever since I was a little girl. Sometimes life feels too hard, too intense, just too much, and if that’s where you are right now, reach out. 

Whoever you are, whatever age, whatever place in life, you can send a voice memo via email to wordsbywinterpodcast@gmail.com, or write me at the same address.


Poem of the Week, by Delmore Schwartz

IMG_8639Do you ever semi-wake up and not know where you are, how old you are, who is next to you (or not), what it is you are meant to do, who it is you are meant to be? As I typed that question just now, the words fugue state drifted into my mind. What exactly fugue state means I didn’t know until a second ago, when I looked it up, but it fits the feeling of those half-asleep wakings.

So does this poem. A while ago I woke up with time is the fire in which we burn running through my head. It felt familiar, but why? Had I made it up and then abandoned it somewhere in some unfinished novel? I typed the exact line into a search engine and up floated Delmore Schwartz, calling to me from the previous century, haunting me with his own unanswered questions.


Calmly We Walk Through This April’s Day, by Delmore Schwartz

Calmly we walk through this April’s day,
metropolitan poetry here and there,
in the park sit pauper and rentier,
the screaming children, the motor-car
fugitive about us, running away,
between the worker and the millionaire
number provides all distances,
it is Nineteen Thirty-Seven now,
many great dears are taken away,
what will become of you and me
(this is the school in which we learn …)
besides the photo and the memory?
(… that time is the fire in which we burn.)

(This is the school in which we learn …)
what is the self amid this blaze?
what am I now that I was then
which I shall suffer and act again,
the theodicy I wrote in my high school days
restored all life from infancy,
the children shouting are bright as they run
(this is the school in which they learn …)
ravished entirely in their passing play!
(… that time is the fire in which they burn.)

Avid its rush, that reeling blaze!
Where is my father and Eleanor?
Not where are they now, dead seven years,
but what they were then?
No more? No more?
From Nineteen-Fourteen to the present day,
Bert Spira and Rhoda consume, consume
not where they are now (where are they now?)
but what they were then, both beautiful;

each minute bursts in the burning room,
the great globe reels in the solar fire,
spinning the trivial and unique away.
(How all things flash! How all things flare!)
What am I now that I was then?
May memory restore again and again
the smallest color of the smallest day:
time is the school in which we learn,
time is the fire in which we burn.


For more information about Delmore Schwartz, click here.

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Poem of the Week, by Bob Hicok

IMG_8741Yesterday I had a hitch installed on the back of my car. The U-Haul installation place was off a busy frontage road, its entrance blocked by men who came running up to my car, masks askew, shouting at me in Spanish, a language I (still) don’t speak, holding up fingers —one? two? and pushing each other: Me! Me! No, me! 

Finally I understood. This was a U-Haul place full of moving trucks for rent. They were asking did I need help moving, and how many men did I need? I shook my head, tried to smile, tried to explain I was only there for a hitch, tried again to smile. The look in their eyes told me they didn’t understand, told me they were just this side of desperate, told me they’d do anything for work. 


Calling Him Back from Layoff, by Bob Hicok

I called a man today. After he said
hello and I said hello came a pause
during which it would have been

confusing to say hello again so I said
how are you doing and guess what, he said
fine and wondered aloud how I was

and it turns out I’m OK. He
was on the couch watching cars
painted with ads for Budweiser follow cars

painted with ads for Tide around an oval
that’s a metaphor for life because
most of us run out of gas and settle

for getting drunk in the stands
and shouting at someone in a t-shirt
we want kraut on our dog. I said

he could have his job back and during
the pause that followed his whiskers
scrubbed the mouthpiece clean

and his breath passed in and out
in the tidal fashion popular
with mammals until he broke through

with the words how soon thank you
ohmyGod which crossed his lips and drove
through the wires on the backs of ions

as one long word as one hard prayer
of relief meant to be heard
by the sky. When he began to cry I tried

with the shape of my silence to say
I understood but each confession
of fear and poverty was more awkward

than what you learn in the shower.
After he hung up I went outside and sat
with one hand in the bower of the other

and thought if I turn my head to the left
it changes the song of the oriole
and if I give a job to one stomach other

forks are naked and if tonight a steak
sizzles in his kitchen do the seven
other people staring at their phones




For more information on Bob Hicok, please click here.

To listen to Words by Winter, my new poem and storytelling podcast, click here

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Poem of the Week, by Maggie Smith

me and Arthur
The tattoo over my daughter’s heart spells out the words of love I’ve said to her every night we’ve ever slept beneath the same roof. Loving my children is the biggest, easiest part of me.

What if you loved everyone the way you love them, Alison? 

Once in a while, for a tiny breath of time, I get a glimpse of what living in that imaginary world would feel like, and it’s overwhelming. It’s not the world I live in, but I wish it were.


Rain, New Year’s Eve, by Maggie Smith

The rain is a broken piano,
playing the same note over and over.

My five-year-old said that.
Already she knows loving the world

means loving the wobbles
you can’t shim, the creaks you can’t

oil silent—the jerry-rigged parts,
MacGyvered with twine and chewing gum.

Let me love the cold rain’s plinking.
Let me love the world the way I love

my young son, not only when
he cups my face in his sticky hands,

but when, roughhousing,
he accidentally splits my lip.

Let me love the world like a mother.
Let me be tender when it lets me down.

Let me listen to the rain’s one note
and hear a beginner’s song.


For more information about the wondrous Maggie Smith, please click here.



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Poem of the Week, by Hayden Saunier

IMG_8643When my kids were little and nothing else worked I used to resort to the dreaded counting threat. I’m going to count to ten. One. Two. Three. Why this worked I don’t really know, but I never had to count past three. Until the day my son just kept sitting at the table, his bright blue eyes fixed on mine.

One. Two. Three. My voice got louder and slower: FOUR. F I V E. His younger sisters, panicked, urged him to get going, but he didn’t move.      S  I  X.     S   E   V   E   N.   

Oh shit, I thought, the jig’s up. I started to laugh. He did too. We both knew that something was over –some irredeemable bit of childhood–but something new had begun. The ordinary miracle of growing up, that small shift in the universe.


Hard Facts (Especially), by Hayden Saunier

Most everything we’re taught
is wrong.

Especially fixed rules
about small engine

repair in adverse
marine conditions,

walking on ice,
and anything

to do with people.
Especially our own

strange selves.
And so the door

to the ordinary miracle
swings open.


For more information about poet Hayden Saunier, please check out her website.

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