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Recollecting Ourselves

Elizabeth West

As a writer, I discover so many things that evoke emotions.  This summer, I was doing a COVID cleanout and found a treasure trove.  My mother had saved all of my letters I sent to her when I was 20 and went to London.  I spent the next couple of hours reacquainting with my 20-year-old self.  Only I could read between the lines in those letters and know the true story behind all of those forgotten words.

So many of our memories are intangible, but artifacts – like the letters – are real accounts of times gone by.  We are able to interact with these words, feelings and observations in real time. We can also find meaning in other non-literary items.

As I look around my kitchen, I find several artifacts of my life. The loaf pan, the “fancy” measuring spoons, the never-used espresso set…. These inanimate objects speak to me in ways that no one else can hear.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I am fascinated by the power of everyday things. I can even look at a homemade Christmas ornament and be transported back to that central New York classroom in the 1980’s when I made it for my family. Here is an excerpt from a story I wrote about our Christmas trees growing up – yes, I said trees – we had two. One was the family’s tree and the other was Mom’s:

Mom’s tree was different. It had a theme – either silver or blue – and had beautiful ornaments. Although I viewed it as impersonal and a little too fancy, I get it now. This was Mom’s tree. All Mom’s. And she could do whatever the hell she wanted with it. This resonates with me so much this Christmas, as I am now a mom and missing my mom who we lost in 2016. If I could have her back now, I would gladly give her whatever kind of tree she’d like.

Christmas is different since she left us. Sometimes, I stare at our tree, and it reminds me of all we have lost. It brings up searing feelings of loneliness and grief. However, two things have brought me out of my haze. Obviously, the kids do not let me brood for long. However, this year, an article made me remember what the Christmas season is all about.

Invite them in – despite the recipe you burned, no matter the dirty house or sink full of dishes. No one will remember these things. All of these imperfections make a home. The love and kindness will be the souvenirs.

Gather up your things and write about them. Share your stories! We need to hear them.


ABOUT ELIZABETH: Elizabeth Adinolfi West is Associate Professor of English at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte. She is also faculty advisor to the student creative writing organization, SWAG. Elizabeth published an essay about her son in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hopes and Miracles. She writes a weekly blog entitled “Turning Arrows into Flowers” at elizabethwest.com.


GET INSPIRED WITH ELIZABETH: Join Elizabeth for Recollecting Ourselves: Using Artifacts to Guide Your Writing on December 9th, from 6-8 PM in person at Charlotte Lit. Discuss finding artifacts from the past and get some guidance on how to create artifacts to fuel your writing. These artifacts can serve as inspiration for poetry, fiction, or creative non-fiction (memoir). See how much fun it can be reacquainting yourself with the past or planting seeds for future writers through the magic of artifacts. More information is here.

Where There’s Poetry, Prose Will Surely Follow

Jamie Pollard-SmithA few weeks ago, I had the honor of hearing Ada Limón read her work at Queens University as part of the Charlotte Lit’s 4X4 Series. Small in stature but huge in heart, her warmth and wit filled the auditorium while her words brought tears to our eyes. One piece in particular struck a chord with me.

 

“The Raincoat” (excerpt)

…My god,

I thought, my whole life I’ve been under her

raincoat thinking it was somehow a marvel

that I never got wet.

 

And there it was, the reaction I have experienced so many times before when faced with heart-shattering imagery that hits a little too close to home. I had to write. Immediately.

I went home that night and sat at my computer. It wasn’t that I believed I could write poetry of my own or even some polished piece that would someday rival Limon’s brilliance. It was because I am a writer and words are how I process the world. The mother I lost to Alzheimer’s was my raincoat and now I must do the same for my two teenage children. Hearing Limón point it out so boldly left me spiraling with emotions and ideas. There was nowhere to hide.

Poetry makes us better humans by stirring up our emotional pots. It does not mean that we all must write it, but I have countless drafts that started because someone crafted a piece of poetry that shook me to my very core. It was an image or idea staring at me in the sea of blank space on the page. In all that silence, it could not be ignored. My words poured onto the page.

Pandora’s box had been opened to a sea of memories, regrets, resentments, and everything in between for me that September evening. Facing these demons is hard and necessary work, and while prose is my form of choice, I am thankful every day for the poets who awaken my soul to what lies bubbling just below the surface.

 


ABOUT JAMIE: Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor at Central Piedmont Community College with a Master of Arts from New York University. Her fiction has been published in Literary Mama. She is a contributor for Scary Mommy and Project We Forgot. Read her thoughts at unbecoming.co.


PUT POETRY INTO YOUR PROSE: Join Jamie for Putting Poetry Into Your Prose on December 2nd, in person at Charlotte Lit. What can the prose writer learn from the poet? Let us count the ways: sound, rhythm, word play, word choice, concision, and so much more. In this session, we’ll read and discuss several prose passages that employ one or more tricks from the poet’s toolbox. Then, we’ll explore the ways we can use those techniques to strengthen our own prose, trying our hands at a few of them through in-class writing prompts.

PLEASE NOTE: Proof of full Covid vaccination is required to attend in-person Charlotte Lit events. Send a pic of your vaccination card to staff@charlottelit.org.

More information is here.

Horizons

Lola Haskins

Once I wrote “The distance to the horizon is a fierce happiness,” and I believe it’s true.  I had a good friend once who was a fine painter, and a series of paintings he did right before he retired from the art department inspired me so much that I wrote tiny stories about the characters in them. My friend made a fold-out book and exhibited it with the paintings. Later, when I wrote monologues in the voices of just the women, he jumped in and started making extra drawings. Now, he’d been fighting oral cancer for years and about this time he was approaching the end stages. I used to sit with him in his house—I remember he wore a mask because most of his face was gone, he said, he looked like a monster—and we’d talk about how things were going. Then one day he burst into tears and said “Lola, I’m so sorry. I’m not going to be able to finish our project”. To which I told him the truth: “Dear X, don’t worry.  Everything we’ve been doing for all these months IS our project; it was never about finishing in the first place.” In other words, our project was the horizon.

Thinking of tears reminds me of a story about me and another artist. The artist in this one is the 18th century Japanese painter and print maker, Hokusai (1760-1849), whose pictures I’ve loved for my whole adult life but never appreciated properly until I saw an extensive exhibit of his work. I’d thought I preferred his depictions of country people to the views of Mt. Fuji he did late in his life—and I still do like those—but when I found myself in the same room as Mt Fuji, I started crying, that mountain moved me so much—the way he rendered it, it was everything.

After that, I started reading about Hokusai’s life, and what I found has made him a role model for the rest of mine.

…. The period, beginning in 1834, saw Hokusai working under the name “Gakyō Rōjin Manji” (The Old Man Mad About Art). It was at this time that Hokusai produced One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji…

In the postscript to this work, Hokusai writes: “From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, and from fifty on began producing works that won some reputation, but nothing I did before the age of seventy was worthy of attention. At seventy-three, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects, and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am eighty-six, so that by ninety I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At one hundred, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at one hundred and thirty, forty, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive. May Heaven, that grants long life, give me the chance to prove that this is no lie.”

In 1839, a fire destroyed Hokusai’s studio, but he never stopped painting and completed Ducks in a Stream at the age of 87. He is said to have exclaimed on his deathbed, “If only Heaven will give me just another ten years… Just another five more years, then I could become a real painter.”


ABOUT LOLA: Lola Haskins’ poetry has appeared in The Atlantic, The London Review of Books, London Magazine, The New York Quarterly, Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Rattle and elsewhere, as well as having been broadcast on NPR and BBC radio. She has published fourteen collections of poems, a poetry advice book and a non-fiction book about fifteen Florida cemeteries. Ms. Haskins has been awarded three book prizes, two NEA fellowships, four Florida Cultural Affairs fellowships, the Emily Dickinson/Writer Magazine award from Poetry Society of America, and several prizes for narrative poetry. She retired from teaching Computer Science at the University of Florida in 2005 and served from then until 2015 on the faculty of Rainier Writers Workshop.


SEE LOLA LIVE AT CHARLOTTE LIT! Lola Haskins will read from and discuss her work at Charlotte Lit on Friday, November 5 at 6 p.m. Free! Advance registration required.

Paper Love

Dear Writer,

I’m writing to you from my well-worn sofa (where else?) a year to the day when our Lost Year began. Or do I mean Loss Year? So often these days, words elude me.

Outside it’s spring again, which I forget until I stare out the window and find sunny forsythia and daffodils and dogwoods bumpy with buds. A year ago, the rapturous blooms and birdsong clashed with wailing sirens, empty streets and skies, masked breath, families grieving through screens. Lovely turned to lonely.

I hope you’ve been writing. This last year (let’s be real: the last five), I’ve found it hard to devote myself to the page because I was afraid if I looked away from the world, it might disappear. Or I would. It’s as if I fell into a hole, and all I could do was stare up and wait for the pinpoint of light to widen and show me the way out. Or maybe it’s that the rage and sorrow tore a hole in me. I can feel it expand and contract, like a pupil, or an aperture, or the phases of the moon.

I have found some solace these months, as I know many others have, through writing letters. As in the old-timey, pen-and-ink, stamped-and-mailed kind. I wrote to friends from the solitude of my back porch and got back radiant, hilarious epistles on handmade cards, festooned in the margins and smudged by palms. I touched the ink, the paper grains where their fingers had been. Contact.

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that I also have been reading a lot of epistolary fiction—Nafissa Thompson-Spires’ “Belles Lettres,” Amy Hempel’s Tumble Home, parts of Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, Claire Vaye Watkins’ “The Last Thing We Need,” Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, and Yasunari Kawabata’s “Canaries.” I can’t get enough these naked exchanges, how the narrator seems to vanish and we slip through the seams, suddenly in the characters’ most intimate realms, where they confide, confess, dodge, plead, snipe, yearn. What a wondrous sleight of hand: I’m convinced I’m reading letters when in fact these are smuggled stories, lies that tell the truth. As Griffin tells Sabine, “How strange to have a paper love.”

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

By the time you read this, dear Writer, the trees and bushes will be in mad bloom, transforming into new states of being. It occurs to me as I write this, reaching out to you across the void, that I wish the same for us.

Not hole. Hope.

Yours,
Bryn

 


LEARN THE ART OF THE EPISTOLARY FORM: Fiction writers have had a long and lovely affair with the epistolary form, a.k.a. stories and novels in which documents as varied as letters, diaries, emails, news clippings, transcripts, texts, posts, or tweets govern the narrative or parts of it. Whether written from a single point of view or as an exchange among characters, the letter form can create a brilliant sense of intimacy, voice, and realism. The trick: we’re not actually writing a letter but a story, so we have to find sneaky methods for characterization, setting, dialogue, exposition, and movement. Together we’ll read and discuss some contemporary epistolary examples and then explore letters in our own work through brief prompts and take-home exercises. More info

ABOUT BRYN: Bryn Chancellor is the author of the novel Sycamore, a Southwest Book of the Year, and the story collection When Are You Coming Home?, winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A native of California raised in Arizona and transplanted to the South, she is a grateful recipient of fellowships from the North Carolina, Alabama, and Arizona arts councils and the Poets and Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award. She is associate professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Bringing Words to Life

Angelo GeterThis past year has taught us all that our boundaries and limits can be tested in the most unexpected moments. We were all living our normal lives a year ago until the pandemic ravaged the lives that we had become accustomed to. We couldn’t go outside and socialize, had to cancel a plethora of events. We were even restricted from doing things as simple as a hug or physical embrace. This caused us to pause and adapt to this new way of life.

In the midst of these difficult times though, we found our strength. We discovered a new skills, perfected an old recipe, started writing a book, attended webinars, and read books. We learned something new about ourselves and added attributes to who we are, rather than sit idly by and let things happen to us. For that alone, we also deserve to celebrate.

The poem below highlights this and asks you to celebrate your successes even in the midst of trials. You deserve it!

Cry Yourself a Freedom Song 

On the days when waking up
feels more burden than blessing,
heartache than healing,
when your sanity is trapped
in a gas chamber of doubt
suffocating the air of hope,

Depression tap dances on the riot in your throat,
fear plays a sonata
in the key of disbelief,
the sheet music in your tongue
fades from neglect,
eyes form tombstones
that only see death.

Remember,
there is gospel in your grief.
Every tear is a prayer.
So cry yourself a freedom song.
Sing a spiritual to the cadence
of your weeps.

Let amens trickle down your cheek.
Make hallelujahs
in the luggage under your eyes,
and breathe like being alive
is the sweetest melody you could ever sing.


LEARN THE ART OF SPOKEN WORD: Angelo Geter leads a two-part class introducing participants to the art of spoken word poetry. Spoken Word 101: Brining Words to Life, begins April 20, 2021. Students will examine spoken word work to demonstrate how literary devices employed in traditional poetry are expanded in this genre. Participants will be guided through several prompts and exercises to help develop techniques and skills to craft original work. In the second part of the course, participants will perform their spoken word pieces and receive critiques from the instructor and other participants. Join us to bring your words to life, from the page to the stage. More info

Angelo ‘Eyeambic’ Geter is a dynamic poet, spoken word artist and motivational speaker whose unique work educates, entertains and inspires. He blends his pieces with commentary, stories and personal narratives that transcend a traditional lecture or performance.  He currently serves as the Poet Laureate of Rock Hill, SC, and a 2020 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow. Geter is also a 2019 All-America city winner, 2018 National Poetry Slam champion, Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam finalist, Southern Fried Regional Poetry Slam finalist and has performed and competed in several venues across the country. His work has appeared on All Def Poetry, Charleston Currents, and the Academy of American Poets “Poem a Day” series.