Empathy and Enlightenment—or—This Is My Dance Space; That Is Yours

Winter is coming…possibly. It’s been a hot year. Despite the fact that it’s December, and I’m still wearing short- sleeved shirts and light sweaters, winter feels like a quiet, reflective time to me. Perhaps it’s my reaction to the relentless holiday music and advertising, or the ridiculous push for the “Christmas Miracle”—family members who have been locked in emotional, mortal combat, all year, suddenly toast eggnog before a roaring fire. Personally, I’d rather take walks in the crisp morning and contemplate the hibernating trees. I guess I’m not much of a Christmas person. 

So, in the spirit of self-reflection, I offer you this dark tale of cosmic entanglement, aggravated, I’m sure, by my upbringing in a church that explained enlightenment as blissful omniscience and oneness with all. We were taught that this lens is the highest and most desirable. However, on a lazy afternoon, at a shopping mall, I learned that there’s a dark side to melding into my fellow humankind.

Woman looking in mirror, confused

Picture this: I am shopping for dresses with a friend of mine. We cheerfully pull a few off the rack and head into the dressing room area. Down the hallway is a large, full-length mirror. We step into our respective dressing rooms. I slip on a v-necked, long-sleeved, red dress, and consider my reflection in the dressing room’s smaller mirror. I decide that I need to see the dress from farther away, so I step out of the dressing room and into the hallway with the bigger mirror. I look down at the dress and see my light, brown hair, sitting below my collar bone, as usual, and my pale skin, with pink undertones, yellowish under florescent lights. However—and my brain cannot understand this image in any way—I am no longer wearing the red dress that I had donned just moments ago. Instead, I am wearing a black dress, with a scoop neck and spaghetti straps. I panic, befuddled that I am suddenly wearing a different dress. My eyes widen, and I freeze. Slowly, I lift my head from the dress, to the collar bone, and then, to a face I do not recognize. For a moment, I don’t know who I am or what reality I inhabit. Everything I thought I knew about this mundane moment in a department store dressing room flies out the window, and I can’t breathe. Another second passes, and my vision clears. I recognize that I am staring into my friend’s face, who, at the exact moment that I stepped out of my dressing room, to look in the full-length mirror, stepped out of hers, facing me in a black dress. 

We laughed, of course, when I explained my confusion. Our appearances favor each other—same hair and skin color, similar body size and facial structure. But something in me changed that day. The terror of not knowing where I ended and my friend began did not resemble the blissed-out, hippie version of nirvana that belonged to my church’s narrative. It unsettled me.

Alice walking through the looking glass

Dear Reader, Halloween is over, and now, the true horror begins. There are no masks on Christmas, except for the emotional ones we’ve carved out of fear and necessity. Winter is here, and when the distractions of bright wreathes and holiday cheer subside, when we remove the twinkling lights that help us forget the grey sky, we are left with nothing but our identities…or lack thereof.

Today, I leave you with Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room,” which is about a little girl who experiences a disorienting moment where she cannot discern her identity from her aunt’s or even the people in National Geographic

Click here to read the poem.

Click here to hear the poem.

(By the way, as I wrote this blog, I couldn’t get the theme song of the podcast Spooked out of my head. If you like scary stories, of the ghost and demon variety, you should check it out! “And remember…never, ever, never, never, never, never, ever…turn out…the light.”)

Image by Leandro De Carvalho from Pixabay

New Moon, New Nightmare

Recently, I was sitting outside with my neighbors, Rhonda and Rachel. We were enjoying infused vodka and joking about the frisky birds and bees, weaving around our drinks like drunken teenagers. Spring had sprung. Rhonda reminded us that the new moon was that night, which meant it was time to release the past.

I remembered a yoga teacher telling me the same thing, the week before, and figured that, if two people had mentioned it, I’d give it a go. I looked up at the pale, blue sky and thought that I’d like to let go of neediness. My neediness isn’t particularly blatant. I like spending long stretches of time alone, and I need my independence. I can take care of myself. But, for the last year, I have been wanting stronger relationships with people who, put simply, are just not willing to play. I finished my vodka and hoped the new moon would take care of the rest.

That night, I had one of those long, multi-faceted dreams that seem to last through morning. I dreamed, vaguely, about a family member who recently dropped me from her life; friends in the recent past, and from a million years ago, whose behavior left me confused and hurt. I’ve always found it interesting that every time I silently declare a shift, my subconscious delivers backlash in the tone of “Oh, you mean this pain?”

Oh, you mean this pain

Also, once I start thinking about a topic, it shows up everywhere. Lately, I keep hearing conversations about aging, which is not unusual, I realize; this is America. My peers are mostly 40-somethings, and from what I’ve seen so far, women tend to fall into two camps regarding growing older. The first group can’t stop whining about it, and the rest of us just want to be happy.

Is that assessment completely fair, though? When I first saw my wedding photos (I got married when I was 42) the thought popped into my head that I would have looked better in that dress ten years ago. However, I also remembered that I did not want to get married ten years ago. If I had done so, I would have gotten the photos back and noticed the look of anxiety and defeat on my taut, symmetrical face. And really, what’s the point in that? Still, society’s unreasonable demands find their way into our heads and ask us to cling and need what is already gone.

It’s easy to recognize large shifts in life: going away to college, beginning a new career, getting married. Many times, though, the little shifts are more profound. Below, I’ve included Tony Hoagland’s “Beauty” and Louise Glück’s “Here Are My Black Clothes.” Both poems deal with leaving behind what no longer serves.

If you know a poem that deals with moving forward (or have written one) please share with us in the comments below! Also, tell me if you have a good new moon story!


When the medication she was taking
caused tiny vessels in her face to break,
leaving faint but permanent blue stitches in her cheeks,
my sister said she knew she would
never be beautiful again.

After all those years
of watching her reflection in the mirror,
sucking in her stomach and standing straight,
she said it was a relief,
being done with beauty,

but I could see her pause inside that moment
as the knowledge spread across her face
with a fine distress, sucking
the peach out of her lips,
making her cute nose seem, for the first time,
a little knobby.

I’m probably the only one in the whole world
who actually remembers the year in high school
she perfected the art
of being a dumb blond,

spending recess on the breezeway by the physics lab,
tossing her hair and laughing that canary trill
which was her specialty,

while some football player named Johnny
with a pained expression in his eyes
wrapped his thick finger over and over again
in the bedspring of one of those pale curls.

Or how she spent the next decade of her life
auditioning a series of tall men,
looking for just one with the kind
of attention span she could count on.

Then one day her time of prettiness
was over, done, finito,
and all those other beautiful women
in the magazines and on the streets
just kept on being beautiful
everywhere you looked,

walking in that kind of elegant, disinterested trance
in which you sense they always seem to have one hand
touching the secret place
that keeps their beauty safe,
inhaling and exhaling the perfume of it—

It was spring. Season when the young
buttercups and daisies climb up on the
mulched bodies of their forebears
to wave their flags in the parade.

My sister just stood still for thirty seconds,
amazed by what was happening,
then shrugged and tossed her shaggy head
as if she was throwing something out,

something she had carried a long ways,
but had no use for anymore,
now that it had no use for her.
That, too, was beautiful.

Tony Hoagland, “Beauty” from Donkey Gospel. Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Here Are My Black Clothes

I think now it is better to love no one
than to love you. Here are my black clothes,
the tired nightgowns and robes fraying
in many places. Why should they hang useless
as though I were going naked? You liked me well enough
in black; I make you a gift of these objects.
You will want to touch them with your mouth, run
your fingers through the thin
tender underthings and I
will not need them in my new life.

Louise Glück “Here Are My Black Clothes” From The House on Marshland The Ecco Press 1975

Photo Credit: Kelley Hudlow

Church of Sister Nun

“Church of Sister Nun” is the last poem in Sister Nun (which, if you are new to this blog, is a book of poems from the voice of a former Buddhist nun). I spent the majority of summer, in 2011, writing the book and really had no idea how I’d end it. I knew she had to leave the earthly narrative, but I was not ready to let her go. I also had it in mind that she would have lived a long time. I decided that I would continue with the surrealist nature of the book and let her live for 215 years. In the last poem, I give her a second coming.

Throughout her first physical incarnation, she joins and leaves a convent, but in leaving, she takes a bit of the convent with her. She changes her name to “Sister,” and she keeps her head shaved; however, she also explores the Earth’s core and outer space, and she writes a self help book. Although she often thinks of convent, either to compare or to interpret the present, she never finds religion nor cares to. Therefore, the title of the poem, “Church of Sister Nun,” already indicates that someone, or a group of people, have overtaken her narrative. The first stanza contradicts the title’s implication that she may have started her own church (or has condoned one in her name) and also declares that she has returned to Earth centuries after her death:

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

The second stanza declares that Sister had lived for 215 years and that, although she was heavy with grief, she was free:

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all.

For the next stanza, bear with me; I’m about to discuss Britney Spears, gender expectations, and the fine line between pain and freedom. Years ago, as you probably remember, Britney Spears, exhausted by the paparazzi, shaved her head in a hair salon and then took an umbrella to the windshield of a photographer’s car. I can’t speak to her deeper mental state, but I recall seeing the image of a bald Britney, umbrella in attack-mode, and thinking, “Good for her.” She shaved her beautiful, long hair, a symbol of feminine sexuality that kept her rich and working but also hounded and mocked for the better part of her adolescence and young adulthood. Truth be told, I was a fan of Britney after the umbrella incident and was disappointed that the media reduced the scenario to “crazy” (not that that’s any surprise).

Spears is thirty-six now, and like many, has taken more control of her image through selfies on Instagram; however, she is back to promoting that image of sexy seductress. I get it. Sex sells, and the images she posts couldn’t be more stilted, but I can’t help but miss the day she lost her locks and went on the offense.

Screenshot 2018-02-02 22.01.55

For the poem, I pictured the future to be about as hollow as the present, and although Sister Nun’s experience with fame is not as aggressively felt as Britney’s, the paparazzi’s presence burdens Sister in her golden years. The faux intimacy of their proximity foreshadows the remaining narrative after her death: “And/at her age, followers behind her/every step with their future cameras.”

In stanza three, Sister Nun again is objectified, although this time more tenderly. There is also a reference to the commodification of Sister Nun’s image:

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun

In the first part of the final stanza, the speaker reveals that the worship of Sister Nun was for nought, as she also did not understand the mysteries of the universe. With this understanding, she slips away “from camp,” indicating that she has a small following in future times:

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.

The final lines of the poem juxtapose dark and light imagines and are rooted in nature. Sister has just left the group, and the speaker implies that she will leave her body once more:

Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

In a previous blog post, “Pagans and Buddhists and Christians, O My!” I discuss the religion that I grew up in and followed until my late 20s (Self-Realization Fellowship). In church, I remember hearing stories about Krishna, who voluntarily left his body under a tamal tree. (The Mahabharata tells a different version, claiming that a hunter, named Jara, mistook a sleeping Krishna for a deer and fatally wounded him with an arrow.) The tamal tree is said to have a dark, blue bark that resembles Krishna’s skin. In the last couple lines of “Church of Sister Nun,” I wanted to allude to the story of Krishna, giving up his body under the tamal tree, and to imply that Sister would soon do the same.

Screenshot 2017-12-27 21.29.37.png

I also wanted to end the poem with a sensuous image, and I chose the scent of jasmine because certain varieties will only blossom at night. In the beginning of Sister’s journey, she is grieving and alone. Although it’s arguable that her loneliness remains through the end, it is out of the darkness of her heartbreak that Sister Nun connects with her true self and finds an enlightenment that grants her meaning, depth, and adventure.


Church of Sister Nun

In life, Sister always
thought of church as an
unlucky place. The jewel
toned glass, impressing
a false sun. There’s incense,
she remembers that, lit
everywhere like perfumed
bugs, sliding down the stick.
Now, centuries after her death,
she’s back.

After the span of her Earthly
life, 215 years, she had finally
seen it all. The melodrama
of her broken, old heart.
An impractical paperweight
holding down nothing at all. And
at her age, followers behind her
every step with their future cameras.

Sometime in her 90’s she had caught
the eye of a young, male sculptor
(whom she later outlived) and spent
all his mornings creating versions of
her from clay, glass, silk, even trees.
All his lovers were bald. You see,
to hope that someone has reached
the tower and sees you, the village,
and the hills beyond the sea is worth
even more than an original Sister Nun

But the truth is, Sister never knew a thing.
And one night, she slipped away
from camp. The boys slept in piles,
clutching the air. The girls, curled
into the Earth, reminded Sister of
something from a long time ago.
Black sky and happy, pulsating
stars as she reached, at last, the
tamal tree, jasmine opening
the night.

Photo Credit: https://visualwilderness.com/quick-tips/choosing-a-location-to-photograph-aurora-borealis

I Don’t Like “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” There, I Said It.

This week, rather than a poetry explication or an interview, I offer you a writing invitation. Follow me, if you will…

A couple weeks ago, I taught Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream” to my morning American Lit. class. I’m going to be brutally honest. I’ve never really liked this poem. I like the contrast between the living and the dead; I like the rhythm; I like ice cream, but that’s about it. I’ve always found the poem unnecessarily opaque. “Let be be finale of seem”? Please, Stevens.

Anyway, the students were able to recognize imagery and tone. Line by line, I guided them toward an understanding of the dramatic situation, and in some cases, I just filled in the blanks for them. They did a good job. What I remember most about this lesson, though, is the look on their faces when we discussed the ending of the poem and the meaning of the title. Here’s how I will describe their facial expression: blank, with a dash of surprise. They’re a good class, my favorite one this semester. Often, they make intelligent observations about the poems and are lively and fun to teach. I did not take the surprise in their eyes as delight, nor did I take it as a condemnation of the poem itself. It seemed more, to me, a question: “Are you serious?”

I don’t blame them. I wanted to say, “Yeah, you’ve got to do some acrobats for this one,” or “I’m not sure how important it is for you to have read and analyzed this poem; I don’t much care for it myself.” Instead, I just shrugged and moved on to “The Snowman.”

That day got me thinking about poetry in general. I do think there is meaning and growth that a reader can experience through this genre, but I tend to feel as Frank O’Hara did that “Too many poets act like a middle-aged mother trying to get her kids to eat too much cooked meat, and potatoes with drippings (tears). I don’t give a damn whether they eat or not.”

Am I sorry that I’ve read “The Emperor of Ice Cream” at least one hundred times in my life? No. Or at least, there are things I’m much sorrier that I’ve read even once. (The comment section of any online article, for instance.) I like piecing together the mystery of poetry, but at the end of this poem, I often feel like my students looked that day in class. Seriously?

Many years ago, I read Jim Simmerman’s “A Brief Introduction,” a postmodern poem whose speaker introduces the reader to tour the poetic home of Simmerman. The line I like best is when the speaker invites the tourist to view one of Simmerman’s forthcoming poems, which reads:

A robin pecks
at the ice
in my rain gutter.

I make a big
deal of it.

I love these lines. I think they perfectly contrast the ephemeral nature of birds and ice, with the blunt pragmatism of a poet’s job: to find meaning in the mundane. Also, I’m a fan of humor.

And so, dear reader, here is my writing invitation. I invite you, in the comments below, to post your own short poem that highlights the contrast between the ephemeral and the blunt. Don’t worry if you think it’s perfect or not—we’re all friends here! Let’s have some fun! But, please, let us keep President Voldemort out of this round. He doesn’t get to have all our attention!

Also, here’s an exciting announcement:

This Friday, (and hopefully every first Friday of the month, thereafter) I will post an installment on my new web corner called, Online Enlightenment. Each month, I will publish original literature, art, or music that explores notions of enlightenment. This Friday, I am honored to share karvy’s beautiful song, “A Place For Us.” Check back on Friday to read her description of how this song resonates with the theme of enlightenment and, of course, to hear her haunting melody.

If you are interested in submitting to Online Enlightenment, please email me at shantiweiland9@gmail.com. I’m leaving the topic of “enlightenment” open but would like work to focus more on what enlightenment is rather than what it isn’t.

Photo Credit: https://www.odt.co.nz/otago-museum-bristling-happenings

The Fish in the Mirror

When I lived in LA, I had a Betta fish that could predict earthquakes. No kidding. Right before the Earth shook, he’d start banging his head against the glass so hard it would wake me up. I don’t know if it was a warning or just his own reaction; he was always a rather strange fish. When I went to the pet store to pick out a Betta, I chose him because he looked like he needed some help. His fins were straggly, and he just didn’t seem happy. I brought him home and named him Rothko, because he looked like Mark Rothko’s painting, “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue),” 1968.

Rothko often tilted in his bowl, which is never a good sign for a fish. I bought him medicine; I gave him special food. Finally, I thought that he might need some privacy, so I bought him a castle. Unfortunately, the little fella got stuck in one of the tunnels, and I came home to a most unpleasant situation. (On a side note, I’m not sure I should have fish. After Rothko’s tragic, and possibly self-inflicted, demise, my brother gave me his red-striped goldfish, Killer, because it kept eating his other fish. Well, I happily gave Killer his own bowl. He was a feisty fish, which I appreciated, but he did not understand his own bodily limitations. One Sunday, I came back from a weekend away, and Killer had cleared the bowl! He had launched himself with such a stunning will to achieve that it took me a while to find his body.)

“To An Ailment” is a two-stanza poem that begins with a harshly worded explanation about why Betta fish need their own bowls. Even their reflection in the glass can ignite rage, if they think they are encountering another fish: “When Betta fish see themselves, / they get so pissed off / that they beat their brains out.”

The second stanza serves as a philosophy on anger that incorporates the image of the fish: “Glass bowls are slick and / cold like fish, but are not / fish. Anger is an emery board, / two-sided and portable.” What only seems a threat—the reflection of the other fish—is enough to cause Bettas to destroy themselves. Contrasting this drastic example of the way that anger can destroy, the image of the emery board depicts anger’s subtle influence. Anger has no smooth side, just as the emery board is rough on one side and rougher on the other. Although the fish is trapped in the bowl, attacking its own image, the emery board is “portable,” and the reader is left to imagine the destruction that subtle anger can cause, when it’s small enough to fit in your pocket.

This week’s poem is short and sweet, like the life of the prophetic, if not unstable, Rothko the fish!

To read “To An Ailment,” click here.

For the audio version, click here or below.

Mark Rothko’s “Untitled (Green Divided by Blue)” 1968


Featured Image: http///www.practicalfishkeeping.co.uk/features/articles/frequently-asked-questions-on-siamese-fighters

Light or Dark, Depending

At 4AM in Mississippi, I woke from a disturbing dream. An old man, whose wife had died years before, had never stopped grieving for her. A group of us young people came to drop off some items that he was going to give to a charity, and when we went up to his apartment, we were met with a shrine to his late wife. Photos of her littered countertops, the coffee table, the walls. I knew that he would feel utterly depressed and empty until the day he died. The dream left me feeling deeply sad and anxious, and I decided to get out of bed, even though it was early.

I’ve never been a great sleeper. My partner kids that the buzz from a mosquito could wake me, and actually, it’s true. I once woke up when a mosquito flew past my head! I suffered many nightmares, when I was in my twenties, but this dream really shook me. It was summer, and even at such an early hour, it was already muggy and warm in Mississippi, where I was in graduate school at the time. I got out of bed, wrote this poem, and waited for my neighbors to wake up.

In the first stanza of “Earth,” the speaker establishes an unsettling situation: No one is perfectly good or perfectly bad, and this scenario has somehow been agreed upon. There is a lack of an authority figure, and the waters are muddy: “There’s no one in Heaven / who’s that bad. / There’s no one in Hell / who’s that good. / That’s the deal.”

In the second stanza, the speaker describes human lives as needing enthusiasm or to “rally.” The speaker claims that humanity is small and insignificant, like microbes that fit in a petri dish: “Here on Earth, / we rally. / It’s a petri dish.” Further, the humans have desires that can either be light (optimistic, healthy) or dark (destructive). The speaker describes humans as “microbes / bumping and worming” who want “dark or light, / depending.” The last word in this stanza, “depending,” points to their actions as a compass to either the light or to the dark. However, because “bumping and worming” also sounds rather haphazard, and because humans are described as somewhat of a science project, their desires could depend on something that is outside of themselves and out of their control.

The last stanza is inspired by my nightmare but is not a retelling of it. I wanted to continue with the narrative of life on Earth. In this stanza, the speaker describes humans, when they are old. The old humans suffer from the past. They wake from bad dreams before dawn. In the line, “We think that we forgot / to kill our tormentor, / but we didn’t,” the speaker describes the haziness we’ve all experienced when we wake from a dream but are unsure which part of our memory is reality. Even though, when the old wake and realize that their tormentor is long gone, they also remember that their family is gone. There is a sense of loneliness and uncertainty. The family is waiting on the other side but possibly in darkness. The last word “depending” lets the reader decide on what the location of the family depends. Did their actions lead them to light or to dark? Do they have volition? Or is it a decision made by forces unknown?

To read this poem, check out Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009, and for the audio verison, click here or below.

First published in Imitation Fruit, Issue 5, November 2009 

Featured Image: http://shushi168.com/earth-wallpaper/36939229.html

There Are No Lawn Mowers In Heaven

I based my poem, “Abundance,” on a story that a man once told me about his father, an immigrant from Indian who worked as a physicist. He told me that his father was religious and frugal and wouldn’t even turn on the heat because he thought it was exorbitant. He warmed his baths with boiled water from a tea kettle.

Many people think of scientists as atheists, which is one reason I found his story compelling. Also, the father had plenty of money, so his decision to live without (what most people would consider) basic necessities was certainly not a “sour grapes” response to his financial circumstances. The other fascinating part of the story is that the father felt that, as an American, he should be free not to mow his grass. He had even gone to court to defend his American right to a natural lawn. The man told me that this belief particularly bothered his mother, who had since divorced his father.

In the first stanza of the poem, I discuss the speaker’s frugal background and his desire to please God: “Using the heater, / offends God, he claims, / we have enough.” In the second stanza, I describe his lawn that “spirals / upward,” which is literal but also foreshadows his artistic homage to heaven, in the last stanza.

In the third stanza, we can see that the speaker’s desire to connect with God keeps him up at night: “he worries if God / can touch the grass from / space.” (I chose the word “space” instead of “heaven” because its tone is more scientific than religious, and it also provides a better rhythm.) I also connect his actions to the people around him: “He hears his neighbor / shuffling under the moon. / Just keep it off my porch!

In the fourth stanza, he misunderstands his ex-wife’s voice message, “For God’s sake, grow / up!” with an answer to his anxiety that the grass is too far away from God. In the last stanza, he ties the ends of his long blades of grass to helium balloons so that the grass reaches up toward the heavens. I liked the idea that God could get a closer look at the grass, if it were extended further, but that it had to remain earthbound. I played with the contrast between the ephemeral (God and sky) and the concrete (humans and the earth).

To read this poem, please check out Verdad Magazine,  and for the audio version, click here or below.

Featured Image: https://w-dog.net/wallpaper/mood-balloons-bulbs-color-grass-green-nature-sky-background-wallpaper-widescreen-full-screen-widescreen-hd-wallpapers-background-wallpaper/id/347917/

Cocktails with Li Po & Frank O’Hara

This week, we hear from Dr. Raymond Wachter, my friend and colleague of 14 years. In this interview, we discuss journaling, the writing process, and the essence of  Zen poetry. Enjoy! 

You and I have discussed the helpfulness and the pleasure of keeping a journal. What role has journaling played in your own writing process? 

A huge role! Ha ha! I can think of nothing that’s been more central to my life–not just as a writer and teacher of writing, but as far as how I’ve constructed (and de-constructed!) my own identity.

The idea of keeping a journal was foreign to me, until it just sort of happened, organically. A day or two after my 26th birthday, I was at a low point in my life: I was living in Iowa City, bartending and feeling scattered. I was only about a year away from graduating from the University of Iowa, but I was extremely undisciplined about going to classes or even completing basic tasks like paying my university tuition on time.

At that point, in that rather dark phase of my life, I started writing my thoughts in a little notebook. The thoughts turned into entries, and, over the course of a few months, I began to develop a little bit of self-discipline in my personal life. Eventually, I re-enrolled at Iowa and soon after that found myself in a nonfiction writing course. The professor allowed us to choose our own textbook for the course, and I  randomly chose Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, although I knew nothing about it. Both for the book by Cameron, and as a requirement for the nonfiction class, I was required to write several pages a day; I wrote mostly stream-of-consciousness, in a journal, and have been hooked ever since.

Although you earned your Ph.D. in creative writing (poetry specifically) you have written mostly nonfiction in the past several years. How did this genre crossover occur? Has it changed your perspective on poetry or on writing in general?

Well, I’ve never stopped writing poetry, but after I received my PhD and came to Tuscaloosa, I felt very free as a writer, like I could do anything, be whoever I wanted to be as a writer. At first, I revised a (very bad!) novel that I’d written on a one-year break between my master’s and doctoral programs. After I revised the novel (in 2007), I worked hard to shop it around to agents in NYC. None of them ever bit, and they mostly responded in the same way, claiming that my main character was completely unlikeable. It sounds tragic, but I see it as funny now. Besides, with nearly a decade having passed, I can see now that they were on the mark. (The novel is still stored on my hard drive and a redundant jump drive, though I doubt it will ever get published.)

After the thorough rejection by literary agents, I was preparing to write another novel. I  felt it was some sort of badge of honor to keep moving forward. But I still remember quite clearly the way my girlfriend (at the time) scoffed at me, for wanting to continue writing in the same genre. Perhaps because it felt like more of a risk, or more of a jump into the unknown, I pretty much abandoned fiction at that moment. Now, I’m only interested in writing nonfiction & poetry.

What are you currently writing?

Currently, I’m writing a nonfiction book, but it’s not a memoir, and it’s not even “literary nonfiction.” It’s a book about the mind/body connection and how to make choices in your life that bring you happiness.

About seven years ago, the Department of English, here at The University of Alabama, began an initiative where the instructors would teach “themed” courses in First-year Writing. (I believe you and I were both part of that pilot program.) Out of the five themes offered, the one I chose was called “Advancing Mind & Body.” Teaching that course was really wonderful for me, professionally & personally. I began reading a number of authors and sharing them with my students, writers like Bruce Lipton & Larry Dossey, who both have rigorous academic backgrounds, but whose work might be considered “New Science” or “Mind-Body-Spirit” (as far as their publishing labels).  My initial teaching assignment, and the new authors I began reading, definitely changed the course of my writing projects.

So the book I’m currently writing, about the mind/body connection, is an explanation for New Thought concepts about Self-Awareness and the crucial importance of understanding your own inner monologue. I really can’t imagine wanting to write fiction ever again, or even “literary” nonfiction, now that I’m writing this book.

I know that you  have often favored Zen poetry. How has your view of this type of poetry changed over the years? What keeps you coming back to it?

I suppose I was always interested in poets who describe a moment of heightened awareness, which is probably what Zen is, once you strip away all the trappings of Buddhist theology. There’s this poem of Jorie Graham’s that I loved as an undergraduate, called “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Now, Graham is the last person in the world who would call herself a Zen writer, but the poem moves in and out of different moments in Graham’s life–as a mother bringing a leotard to her daughter’s overnight party, to  historical moments, including an entry from Christopher Columbus’s diary.

It’s a gorgeous poem, especially as it’s fairly long and (seemingly) meandering. I didn’t have a clue as to why I liked it two decades ago, but now I can see that I was attracted to Graham, and other poets as diverse as Frank O’Hara and Emily Dickinson, because they are all interested in moments of heightened awareness. Whether it’s a moment in their lives (Frank seeing Billie Holiday’s name on a daily newspaper, or Jorie walking through the snow in her neighborhood) or whether it’s a moment in their writing lives (Emily’s “slant of light,” “Winter Afternoons”), it seems to me that great poetry is an accurate rendering of  heightened consciousness. Then, as a reader, it doesn’t matter if it’s a Li Po poem from over 1,200 years ago, or a Sappho poem twice that age, you are able to momentarily enter into that state of heightened awareness that they left for us. Also, as I consider the diverse poets that I just mentioned in this answer, it’s clear too, that the best Zen poets don’t necessarily see themselves as Zen.

Well, if Frank O’Hara and Li Po were somehow able to read or hear this answer, I hope they wouldn’t be mad at me. Actually, if we were all somehow together on the physical plane, you and I and those two poets would probably love to have a cocktail right about now! I’d venture to say that drinks with those two, and a chat about poetry, would probably be the best dinner party one could imagine! 🙂


Ray Wachter grew up on a farm in rural, southwest Iowa. After serving two years in the U.S. Coast Guard, he attended the University of Iowa where he received a B.A. in English. He studied American Literature & Creative Writing at the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi, where he received his M.A. and PhD. For the past ten years, he’s been a faculty member in the English Department at The University of Alabama.


Featured image of man typing, by Joel Robison: https://www.brainpickings.org/2012/04/06/joel-robinson-joy-of-reading/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+brainpickings/rss+(Brain+Pickings)&utm_content=Google+Reader

Sharpen Your Knives! 

This week, I’m continuing with my “poetry introductions” and thought it appropriate to dissect my poem called “The Dissection,” which is from my recent book, Sister Nun. In the book, Sister Nun leaves the convent by the third poem (“Sister Nun Leaves the Convent”) and we know from the second poem (“Every Day, Sister Nun Chops Wood”) that she is not religious. However, throughout the book, Sister is influenced by her time in the Buddhist convent and by Buddhism itself. One prevalent idea in Buddhism (and in many Eastern religions) is omniscience—knowing all, feeling all, seeing all. Often such a state is thought to be a byproduct of enlightenment or to be the state of enlightenment itself.

One summer day, I was at happy hour on a restaurant patio. My drinking companion had gone inside to get another cocktail, and I noticed a planter out of the corner of my eye that held a thick-stalked plant. The rhythm of the wind and the way the plant bent with the breeze made me think of arms swaying to music. I started to think about the strangeness of that image, not just the plant as arms but arms as objects, animate and autonomous from the rest of the body.

“The Dissection” is a poem that imagines omniscience as a physical state. It is not to be taken literally, of course. You cannot actually dismember a body, scatter it across the world and then expect it to continue seeing, hearing, and so forth. In addition to a surrealistic dramatic situation (that’s poet-speak for “plot”) I combined a tone of  horror and humor: the fear of separation and the absurdity of existing in a physically omniscient state. I also juxtaposed cold, detached imagery (“knives and forks” and “tubes”) with casual, humorous imagery (“tacky bath tub stickers” and “bobbles on a tourist’s wrist”). I wanted the experience of omniscience to encompass both a darkness and a lightheartedness.

Below is “The Dissection.” I hope you enjoy Sister’s enlightenment!

(For the audio version of this poem, click here or below.)

The Dissection

Sister Nun agreed to it. A small
group of women sharpened knives and
forks and other kitchen tools. They agreed
to agree:  first the legs, each one slipped into
separate tubes, no consorting. Her heart, dumped
gently into a tank, crude, with tacky
bath tub stickers. It’s how she’d always
seen it. Souvenirs in a basket at a
shop somewhere in Tahiti. Her ears and eyes—
bobbles on a tourist’s wrist. Restaurant planters
bloom with her arms: Hello! they wave
It’s springtime! In this way, Sister has forced
omniscience, twinkling hard against sunset.

Featured Image: http://www.italian-lighting-centre.co.uk

Author’s Note: I know that, today, many of us feel deeply saddened. I don’t know much about how to “fix the economy” or how to eliminate bigotry, but I do know that it’s important to allow one’s self her/his own emotions. I considered not posting my blog this week, because I feel helpless and hurt and outnumbered, but I think that it’s also important, when a person can, to keep moving forward. So today, I am going to grade my students’ papers, take Mousecat to the vet, and post this week’s The Poets That You Meet, as I had planned to do every Wednesday. Although I wrote this one a while back, I think it’s an appropriate subject for today, and I hope that our country can move toward empathy and enlightenment.