“The get up and the dust off”

Last weekend I attended AWP, the huge publishing conference that happened to be held here in Philadelphia this year. I spent Saturday at the Microcosm Publishing booth talking to people and signing copies of my new book, The Kitchen Witch, which was a lovely and energizing experience, in large part because I haven’t done anything like this in … oh, just over two years now. Standing in the middle of the swirl of activity, talking to people about my work and theirs, I was reminded that—yes, I am a person in the world. I have things I want to share and say and do. And it felt really good.

We were busy at the booth all day, so I only got out from behind my own table to check out the others briefly. There sure were a lot of beautiful people with beautiful books. I was lucky to find three fine books of poetry, and it happens that two of them are quite musical—mixtapes of a kind, as the writer Simone Jacobson would have it. I was drawn to them immediately.

One of the books is called Starts Spinning by Douglas Kearney, put out by Rain Taxi, the literary book review journal. I didn’t know they published books and was tickled to see the wide range of sizes and styles on their table, which editor Eric Lorberer, who was there that day, told me was their goal: To make the appearance of each small volume representative of the poet’s work. Mission accomplished. Kearney’s book is small and pleasing to hold, about the size and shape of a CD. Each poem is “about” a song—specifically, the song’s crucial opening moments. There’s “Harry Belafonte’s ‘Jump in the Line’ (first 16 seconds)'” and “Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’ (first 17 seconds)'” and “Madonna’s ‘Crazy for You’ (first 22 seconds).'” Get the picture? The poems, all of them evocative, are fun for the feeling of surprise they invoke, and each one is short and bright, sexy or triumphant or heavy-sad, depending, with wordplay as musical as the songs they commemorate.

Another happy discovery was Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston Brown, published by P.M. Press, who always have any number of titles that excite me. It happened that the poet was there at the booth that day, and he kindly signed my book and told me a bit about the poems. They’re about gentrification in D.C., where he’s from, they’re about characters from Toni Morrison’s Beloved—they’re about lots of things, and the book as a whole has such a lot of sweetness to it, even though some of its subjects are heavy. Brown riffs on romance, favorite songs and beloved poets. There’s even a poem about the nerdy pleasures of playing D&D (and being the only Black kid at the table). He celebrates a whole wide rainbow of blackness, and yes, he makes reference to MF Doom and J-Dilla and delivers a rollicking, loving tribute to Bonita Applebum, the (fictional??) sexy lady from the Tribe Called Quest song. In fact, there is enough variety and musicality here that Jacobson, who blurbed the book, compared it to a mixtape, which I find delightful.

For the title of this blog post I quoted the first poem in Brown’s book, the wonderfully titled “Hourglass Flow,” which starts out as a meditation on the difficulty of sitting down to write and winds up thusly:

“Remember the ritual of trying, falling, the get up and the dust off.
The look to see if anyone is watching. The startover. The hopeful ending.

Remember each day is a draft. Remember possibility. Process.
Remember place. Remember voice. Patience. Remember to forgive
yourself.

Write.”

***

I made a couple other exciting discoveries there in the Book Fair. One was BatCat Press, a table I was drawn to because the people sitting at it looked to me like sweet teenagers, and in fact they were! BatCat is a press run by high school students at Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School that puts out pristinely beautiful handbound volumes of both poetry and prose. I bought a hand-printed and -bound collection of poetry called “Lot for Sale. No pigs” by Sandy Green, which has a windowed cover and ornate end papers that remind me of Victorian wallpaper. On the BatCat website, the publisher explains the thinking behind the book’s elegant and clever design:

“The design reflects the same midwestern sensibilities found in the writing. With a window cut out in the cover, we get to peer into this woman’s life, her home, and the secrets that lie behind the what appears to be mundane and normal.”

I also spoke to the folks from the Writers Room, an organization local to me here in Philly that is run by Drexel University. All of their programming is free and open to anyone interested in participating, and the beautiful anthology they put out this year is also free. I took home a copy and have gotten a lot of pleasure out of reading the poems and learning about the community of people who worked together to coax them into being.

My favorite part? The portraits of Paul Robeson High School’s Class of 2021. These students, who were seniors during the worst part of the pandemic, missed out on most of the special things a graduating class gets to do, like prom and senior portraits. Photographer Danielle Morris created a photo studio in one of the school’s classrooms, and she and Dejah McIntosh, a 2019 alum, took photos that came out about 100 times more special than the typical cap and gown picture anyway. The project is called But We Keep Going. How perfect is that?

Senior portrait of Zion Deleon for “But We Keep Going.”

A story for when there are no words

I’ve been thinking about my high school a lot over these last several days. I’m not Ukrainian, but my school was; it was founded and run by the Sisters of Saint Basil, a Ukrainian order of nuns, to serve their local community starting in the 1930s. By the time I got there in the 90s the school’s reach had grown and expanded, and many of the girls who were students there came from different ethnic backgrounds, like me.

But the Ukie-ness of the place remained as important to the women running it as ever. We were taught some words and phrases of Ukrainian that I can still summon as easily now as I did then; I imagine they’re with me for life. I learned that Ukraine, with its blue-sky golden wheat fields, was “the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union.” On holidays I ate pierogies with the other girls in the cafeteria, and in art class I learned how to make pysanky, eggs that we pierced with a sewing needle, blew into carefully to hollow them out, then drew on with wax and painted with traditional designs in a clumsy attempt to copy the photos in our art books. It was a precious experience to be allowed in on someone else’s culture in this way, to be invited to participate, but it was also totally ordinary, the way things are when you’re a kid. Adults tell you to do stuff and you do it. Your friend’s mom speaks a different language when she talks to her dad, and you don’t think much about it. It was just the way it was.

Like the Catholic grade school I’d attended—like all Catholic schools—Basil’s was oriented around the religion. It was run by the nuns who lived just across the way in a convent that was on a farm. They kept horses on the farm, which I could sometimes see from the car as we drove past, and I knew because a Ukrainian friend told me that in the back of the property somewhere was a small, private cemetery. All around the school and the convent were pizza joints and farting city buses and streets with heavy traffic, but there were these spots of loveliness too. It was kind of a mixed bag, but that’s a city neighborhood for you.

Basil’s also had a small chapel in the school itself. It was an eye-opener to me the first time I saw it, and every other time after that, too. I only went in there a handful of times over those four years because it was small, and when the whole school was required to attend Mass we went to the auditorium instead. The chapel felt special, in part, for that reason. But really it was special because it was so beautiful. I’d grown up in the western tradition of Catholicism, where the art was quite different—my parish church was all stained glass and grey stone and echoes, with a huge crucifix hanging over the altar in front. By contrast, this Ukrainian church was a revelation of color. There were bright paintings (called icons) on the walls instead of the creepier statues I was used to, and the most wonderful piece of all was the dome shaped ceiling, which was painted a deep blue and studded with golden stars. It was so pretty and so different from what I thought church could be. Painting a ceiling seemed like something a parent would do in a child’s room to make it feel cheerful, magical, and safe. There were more touches of gold paint like the gold of the stars throughout the entire chapel, and somehow the effect was arresting, suggesting not the material wealth of actual gold, but something transcendent, heart-lifting. Walking in there I always felt stunned into silence, as if there was a deep quiet already inside me that I didn’t know was there.

Don’t get me wrong—I didn’t like going to church on Sundays, and the minute I left my parents’ house I stopped going altogether. I also had a deep distaste and resentment toward the girls at school who seemed to believe that the stuff we’d been taught in religion class was all true. Some of them even palled around with the nuns before and after class in a way that grossed me out but also never felt accessible to me, even though we were all invited. The door was always open. I just rarely walked through it. My experience of Catholicism had made me feel so rejected that I was left to sort out spirituality for myself, though I see now that that’s something everyone has to do. I guess the only thing adults can offer kids is what they know, plus—ideally—the confidence to leave and make their own way. And a few of those adults must have given me some of that, because that is what I did.

I don’t know what I’m trying to say here. I can’t seem to find my way into what I’m attempting to do, which is express how hurt and disturbed I am by what’s happening in Ukraine, how I keep remembering the families I knew and hoping they’re okay, how I keep picturing it happening here, how helpless and even hopeless, at times, I’ve been feeling. I know my personal, emotional connection to the place doesn’t matter to anyone but me, but I wanted to share it with you anyway because it’s all I really have. The only thing I can think to say: Thank you, and I love you, and I’m sorry.