A Call to Right

A plastic bag dangled from the door of our mailbox, a thin cardboard box raincoated against the drizzly, winter day. Suspecting the box contained a book I’d ordered, but not remembering which title I was awaiting, I walked briskly home, my yellow lab changing his trot to a sprint to keep up with me.

bookWhen I freed the box from the bag and tore it open, a thin, green volume slid out—Kim Stafford’s latest collection, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. kimThe son of poet William Stafford, Kim greets the dawn each day as his father did, “writing the date, a few sentences about the previous day, then an ‘aphorism’ (a thought, a pattern observed, an idea…), and then a poem, half a poem, or notes for a poem.” While some of this writing eventually ends up as published poems, Kim finds that, “mostly, this custom allows me simply to settle my spiritual accounts for the day, and then to proceed with some modest added clarity to thread the needle of modern life by taking action.”

Like many of us, Kim especially sought clarity in the days following the 2016 election. So he leaned on his daily practice to consider a path toward healing the schisms that only deepened after the divisive election season. These considerations led to thirty poems about the work we all have to do if we’re “to be one people again.” The book’s title poem speaks to the source of our unity.

The Flavor of Unity
     El sabor que nos hace únicos.
                                ~ Inca Kola slogan

The flavor that makes us one cannot be bought
or sold, does not belong to a country, cannot
enrich the rich or be denied to the poor.

The flavor that makes us one emanates from the earth.
A butterfly can find it, a child in a house of grass, exiles
coming home at last to taste wind off the sea, rain
falling into the trees, mist rising from home ground.

The flavor that makes us one we must feed
to one another with songs, kind words, and
human glances across the silent square.

You can listen to Kim read this poem on a post by the PBS News Hour.

 

It’s rare for Kim to use rhyme, but in “Righter” he puts it to good use to issue a challenge—with humor.

               Righter

When things go catawampus,
when silences abound,
when nations reel from troubles
and tyranny is crowned—
by writing, be the righter,
and see what can be found
for remedy and comfort
by writing stories down
of all our old connections,
then pass your blessings round —
for people long divided,
restore our common ground.

Kim’s “Citizen of a Troubled Nation” especially spoke to my feeling called to write.

   Citizen of a Troubled Nation

Vast your calling: Serve everyone.
Small your power: One voice.
Clear your path: Honest words
Certain your days: Struggle.
Vast your purpose: Make history.
Focused your goal: A mere footnote—
                                       That sings.

Kim writes at the beginning of his book that poems from it can be reprinted at will, as long as they include this acknowledgment:

Reprinted by permission of the author from The Flavor of Unity, by Kim Stafford (Portland, Oregon: Little Infinities, 2017)  www.kim-stafford.com.

Ever since I met Kim Stafford when he was guest faculty in my writing program, I’ve adopted his morning practice (usually a good bit after dawn) to begin the day with some small bit of clarity. Here’s something close to a poem that I wrote, the morning before the presidential inauguration:

The Pen is My Tool

to build bridges,
to tear down walls
of fear and hatred,
to open doors
and hearts.

My pen is a tool
I need to sharpen
and oil and set
firmly on pages
and put into others’ hands.

I hope that Kim’s poems I’ve included here speak to you. If so, it’s likely that the other twenty-seven in the book will as well, so I encourage you to purchase a copy for yourself, and perhaps a few extras to share with others. You’ll find ordering information by searching for “The Flavor of Unity: Second Edition” at www.lulu.com. When it arrives in your mailbox, open the package, make a cup of tea, and let the flavor of unity in these words fortify you to act.

*Afterthought #55 – Listening Across Lines

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Parker Palmer

Alongside reading wisdom from early Quakers in A Language for the Inward Landscape by Brian Drayton and William P. Taber, Jr., I recently listened to the wise words of a contemporary Quaker, Parker Palmer. An educator, author, and activist, Parker participated in a conference call organized by Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL) on the subject of talking across ideological lines. The call was recorded, and you can listen to it at this link: http://fcnl.org/events/call_with_parker_j_palmer/.

I’m distressed by the polarization in our country and feel at a loss about how to engage in meaningful civil discourse. Parker’s opening comments about his orientation to talking across ideological lines heartened me, and throughout the call he succinctly described some strategies. Here are a couple that especially spoke to me:

  • Drawing on David Whyte’s poem “Start Close In”, search for someone you perceive is within reach and with whom you have a relationship. Begin with sincere questions to learn that person’s story.
  • Stand and act in the “tragic gap.” The gap will never close, but act out of faithfulness, rather than concern for effectiveness.

In the coming days and weeks, I’m open to opportunities to “start close in,” listening to stories of those with differing ideas. I believe Parker’s closing assessment: “No matter who wins this election, civil discourse will be needed more than ever.” Now is the time to become more skillful at bridging ideological divides.

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

*Afterthought #50 More Mystery

Doubt. Certainty. Unanswered questions. Knowing. Faith. I’ve wrestled (still do) with them all, but the grappling is easier in the company of other seekers. Earlier this month I wrote about one of them, author Dani Shapiro. The very same day, poet friend James Scott Smith tackled the same ideas in his poem, “Mystery.” James generously agreed to my reblogging his piece.

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If you like this poem as much as I do, you’ll be happy to know that James’s poetry collection, Water, Rocks and Trees, will be published this September by Homebound Publications.

 

 

 

 

Mystery

James Scott Smith

To ask

the questions

with no answers.

To learn

faith is more gut

than brains,

more moment

than memory.

To find

the lost way

of understanding

without needing

to know

I have.

 

*“Afterthoughts” are my blog version of a practice followed in some Quaker meetings. After meeting for worship ends, people continue in silence for a few more minutes during which they’re invited to share thoughts or reflect on the morning’s worship. I’ve adopted the form here for last-day-of-the-month brief reflections on headlines, quotes, books, maybe even bumper stickers.

A Poet on the Farm

Front-Cover-Jessica-Gigot-copy-194x300Recently, a woman browsed in our local bookstore, Lopez Bookshop, and after a few minutes, she approached Karen, the co-owner who was staffing the counter that day. The woman introduced herself as Jessica Gigot, and she had kind words to say about the store and the island. She also had a book in her hand to buy. Then Jessica explained she had her own poetry book and wondered if the bookshop would carry it. Karen was impressed with Jessica’s sensitive approach and then was even more impressed with the poetry collection, Flood Patterns.

I was drawn in immediately by the title and the book cover and by the setting in the nearby Skagit River Valley. Many of the poems touched me with their sensual, honest, and clear descriptions of—among many themes—land, farm life, family life, and the fickleness of April. I was stopped in my tracks, though, with one of the poems near the end of the book.

Making Ceremony by the Sea

by Jessica Gigot

Atlantic

 A fan of light straddles

Open water and rocky slopes.

A marriage of a Mexican

And a Greek on a

Moss covered island.

She is married by

Her brother who announces

“You may now kiss my sister.”

We chant sea air vows

Into September’s elusive swales

And clink to a blue moon toast.

 

Pacific

Sitting on hay bales

We look out at the Sound,

The Olympics and

Exsiccated pasture.

A Haida button blanket

Is draped over cedar logs

Laid between a vibraphone

And a stone-rimmed fire pit.

His wife, an old student

And a men’s club friend

Speak their respects

Before we all stand

To send his bear spirit

Beyond a new moon sunset.

I re-read the poem, then read again, and again, the section titled Pacific, certain that the poet was writing about the memorial service for my dear friend, Greg Ewert. I emailed Greg’s wife to ask if she knew Jessica and this poem; she didn’t. Soon I was combing Jessica’s website for confirmation that she had attended this ceremony on Lopez Island. I learned that Jessica is a poet, teacher and musician whose small farm—Harmony Fields—in Bow, WA grows herbs, lamb and specialty produce. But, still a mystery about the poem, until I sent Jessica an email and received this explanation:

The poem “Making Ceremony by the Sea” was inspired by a wedding and a funeral that I attended within the same week on two distant but similar islands–Monhegan and Lopez. I was so struck by the different ways these ceremonies were created, and I was so moved by both of them even though they were quite different. I did not know Greg, but I was accompanying a friend who had been his student. It was an honor to have witnessed that event. 

With the puzzle solved, I was touched by its example of how lives can intertwine and connect through words. I wanted to know more about Jessica and how she came to be a poet on a farm. The following interview answers that and much more about this poet-to-watch.

Iris: You have a diverse combination of skills and interests—farming, science, poetry. Which came first for you?

Jessica: I wrote a lot of poems when I was younger. I was very inspired by Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop—I appreciated their strong voices and wit especially. I also loved Ogden Nash’s poems, and I used to write a lot of short and light rhyming poems about people I knew and the world around.

In college I started out in a freshman poetry seminar with the thought of getting an English degree. However, I was quickly drawn into the wonder of the natural world through an ecology class and decided to be a biology major. All of our labs were out in the field (streams, forests, meadows) and I felt very strongly that I wanted to work outside and develop a better understanding for myself of the natural world. Plant biology was my main focus and I worked with a evolutionary biologist on nectar-robbing studies in bumblebees, and I helped organize the college’s herbarium.

My interest in farming came later, after I graduated from college. I did not grow up on a farm. The more I understood the science behind our pressing environmental issues, like climate change, biodiversity and water quality, it all seemed to relate to food at a fundamental level and human dissociation from the land. I also felt drawn to rural and remote places. So, after I finished college in 2001 I worked on a large medicinal herb farm in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon and then I went to Lopez Island for a summer and worked at S&S Homestead.  Both experiences had a profound effect on me, and I learned about commercial agriculture, animal husbandry and self-sufficiency.

At the time I wanted to start my own farm, but didn’t have the means. While on Lopez I serendipitously met a WSU professor and fell into the world of agricultural research which brought me to the Skagit Valley for graduate school in 2004. For many years I studied the microbes in soil and was fascinated by the intricacies of agroecosystems. This fascination, however, brought me back to poetry. I needed the language of poetry to express the beauty I saw everyday in this unique, working landscape.

Iris: How do these roles fit together?

Jessica: I officially decided to settle in the Skagit Valley about five years ago as I finished graduate school, and I have since started my own farm. At the time I also started a writing group and have been trying to write down all that I learn on the farm as I dig in to this place. Farming is a nice marriage of science and art for me. I find a lot of creative inspiration from farm work and, conversely, writing helps me to stay motivated when I get overwhelmed (which is often). You surely don’t need a PhD to be a farmer, but the background in science helps me with managing plant varieties and soil health on the farm.

In the winter, I also teach food sovereignty and soil related classes at the Northwest Indian College in their Native Environmental Studies program. Science has given me good tools for observation, and I rely on this daily. I don’t try to romanticize farming in my writing or science, but I do think that a healthy blend of appreciation for the landscape, as well as the work, is what we need to make a long-lasting and resilient food system. 

Iris: What drew you to write poetry?

Jessica: I often equate poetry with healing, and I have written poetry on and off for my entire life. It is both a way that I process the world as well as weft that helps me weave the parts of my life together and find meaning in the things that happen to and around me.

Attending and participating in literary readings builds great community, and I enjoy meeting more and more Northwest writers and poets. As a young graduate student in La Conner, I discovered the Skagit River Poetry Festival. It brings in some wonderful national poets to our little corner of the world, which is motivating and educational. I first attended in 2006, and after hearing great poets like Billy Collins, Linda Hogan and Tess Gallagher, I felt motivated to write more deliberately.

Iris: Please describe your writing process.

Jessica: My writing process is a bit scattered and definitely seasonal. I journal every day (sometimes for hours, sometimes for ten minutes, depending on the day) and often times I find pieces of a poem in a paragraph I’ve written. However, when I’m working on the farm or taking a walk to the river, I will see a beautiful image in nature, or a random line drops into my head, and I build a poem around it when I have time later on….I have lots of lines scribbled all over the place. 

Many of my poems stay as one or two lines for several years until I am really ready to build a poem around them. I also write songs, and the process for both songs and poetry is similar for me in that there is usually a rhythm or cadence to a line that keeps it looped in my head. 

 Sometime I go on poetry benders. Last April I participated in the Tupelo Press 30/30 Project. I find that forcing myself to write a poem a day for a set period is useful.

Finally, a poetry teacher that I had once said that a poem is not done until it is read out loud in public. I find that very useful and try to sample new work when I have the opportunity.

Lopez Islanders will have the opportunity to hear Jessica read her poetry out loud at Lopez Island Library on Saturday, March 12th at 1:00 PM. Undoubtedly, Jessica will feel right at home here.

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Poet Jessica Gigot