Your Poetry Assignment for the Week

Every Wednesday afternoon I meet—either on Zoom or in person, if our outdoor cafe is a safe bet—with several other writers. We have two dedicated novelists, but the rest of us write mostly poetry. All of us, I should add, write poetry sometimes.

We’ve been meeting for 11 years. I think of myself as the facilitator of this group; they think of me as their fearless leader. Every Tuesday I email them a reminder and a poem (or, I send them a poem if I’m not too lazy and don’t forget) that they are welcome to think of as a prompt. I usually add a few sentences commenting on the poem. There are no rules in our group, but usually one or two writers end up bouncing off some idea this process has introduced. A while back we played around with a triolet by Barbara Crooker and I was tickled to see people still wrestling with the form last week.

Sometimes I send a poem, or a poet, that I’ve blogged about. Lately I’ve been telling myself that I really ought to blog once a week, and what if I married these two tasks together? This is my attempt to make it so.

I’ve been reading Ellen Bryant Voigt’s 1995 book Kyrie, a series of poems set in 1918—during the (yep) flu epidemic. One poem begins “How we survived…” that is a perfect prompt, but it has an image in it that so freaked me out I don’t want to share it. I cast around, reading poem after poem: “You wiped a fever-brow, you burned the cloth. / You scrubbed a sickroom floor, you burned the mop. / What wouldn’t burn you boiled like applesauce / out beside the shed in the copper pot.”

And there’s this poem, the first in the collection, which seems to predict the future of that survival:


After the first year, weeds and scrub;
after five, juniper and birch,
alders filling in among the briars;
ten more years, maples rise and thicken;
forty years, the birches crowded out,
a new world swarms on the floor of the hardwood forest.
And who can tell us where there was an orchard,
where a swing, where the smokehouse stood?

—Ellen Bryant Voigt

My interest in Voigt’s book is personal, something to do with a novella I’d like to write; something to do with working on a manuscript of poems about a farm.

I am also compelled to tell you that I’m nearly all the way through a riveting memoir, House Lessons: Renovating a Life, by local author Erica Bauermeister. When her children were young, Bauermeister and her husband had the crazy idea to rescue a derelict house in Port Townsend and—well, you just have to read it to believe it.

My husband was, once upon a time, a building contractor, so, reading, I think: “Why didn’t we ever do something like this?” And then, reading on, I’m amazed at the work—when did she ever get any writing done? When 9 / 11 interrupts their progress, I found myself wanting to pick up the Voigt poems again. There’s a resonance between the two narratives that I wish I were more equal to describing. It has something to do with putting notes inside walls for future owners to find.

We create stories with beginnings, middles, and ends, and then cast them out into the world, talismans against the reality that life does not always tie up neatly, that it can come at you sideways, take away your breath, your life, your sustaining belief that everything will end up okay. We write our stories on paper, like wishes on New Year’s, and send them out into the world.

—Erica Bauermeister

In a summer when I’ve been feverishly reading doomsday accounts of what will happen to our planet because of climate change, it’s nice to imagine rescuing one house; it’s comforting to imagine how a family comes out the other end of a devastating world war and a pandemic; it’s even weirdly satisfying to imagine smashing down a wall with a sledgehammer.

So that’s your prompt this week. Cast yourself into the future and, looking back from that vantage, tell us, How did you survive?




Our Deepest Calling

To register for the book launch of Our Deepest Calling, Saturday, April 17, at 4 p.m. , follow this link: (And if you are wondering where the images are in this post, for some reason today I’m not able to upload new ones.)

Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks—we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.”

—Parker Palmer

Thanks to Village Books in Fairhaven—and Zoom—tomorrow at 4 p.m. my writing group will be celebrating the publication of a collection of poetry and prose written during our first ten years together. Our Deepest Calling is also available for purchase through Village Books ($16 and $1 shipping).

I’m taking a day off from writing something new for the blog, and reproducing here my introduction to Our Deepest Calling (fleshing it out a bit for people not familiar with the context given in my co-editor’s intro), followed by a sampling of poems. The book also includes short essays and an excerpt from a novel in progress.

“I learned how to write in the interstices of daily life.”

—Maxine Kumin

In 2010, when my dear friend Paul Marshall asked me if I would lead a Teaching Lab under the auspices of the Teaching and Learning Cooperative at Everett Community College, my first response was “oh, no.” That evening after supper and homework, one of my teenaged daughters had a meltdown over a boyfriend; another was fighting with her best friend; the ten-year-old didn’t want to go to bed; and my sister called to tell me that I really really needed to help out more with our aging parents. The next morning, instead of retreating into the pages of my journal, I graded a set of student papers. Then I thought, What if we called it a Teaching Lab, but wrote instead?

Our first meeting attracted a couple dozen people from across campus—staff, faculty, and even administrators. It was wild. In my recollection, we were before too long half that number, and soon we were only eight or so souls. No matter, we were committed. Our first year we worked through Susan M. Tiberghien’s One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Art and Craft. By the second year, we all had our own projects underway and settled into a routine of just writing. Some of our colleagues were skeptical, to put it mildly: What are you doing in there, and what does it have to do with teaching?

To my mind, the Writing Lab had everything to do with…everything. Our sessions were only ninety minutes once a week—but that bit of time and each other’s encouragement were all we needed to keep the flame of our writing, questing and questioning lives burning.

Ten years ago, I was immersed in the daily catastrophe of full-time teaching and raising a family. Now that I’m retired from the college and my daughters are grown and out of the house, now that my parents have passed on, I have more time, or so I tell myself. Other group members have gone through similar transitions, all of which are reflected in our writings, no matter if we write of fortune cookies, jump ropes, or imaginary trysts with former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Then along comes 2020 with new challenges, and its catastrophes on a global scale. Our writing group is now even more important to me, as we have over the years become a group of friends who listen deeply to one another and among whom we know we will be heard.

“Oh friends, where can one find a partner for the long dance over the fields?”

—William Stafford, from A Walk in the Country

I should add that, since moving ourselves off-campus to Rosehill Community Center near the Mukilteo Ferry Dock (and, this past year, to Zoom), we have morphed into an eclectic bunch of former EvCC people and community members. One of these is the award-winning artist Janet Hamilton, whose painting, “Madrona Concerto,” graces our cover.

Here is a poem from co-editor (and Zoom-master) Carla Shafer:


Because my family has lived on stolen tribal
lands in the northwest since I was born, I listen
to the bending of the trees, follow the paths
of salmon and walk days short in winter and
long in summer. This is not the place of my
ancestors. This is not Bohemia or Baden-Baden.
It is not the Nebraska plains or Kansas prairies.
I am not at the source of my great-grandparents’
imaginings, but their touch is in my hand, their
hopes carried in my heart, their steps are known
just as the salmon wiggles a fin,
and in the sway of a cedar bough.

My grandsons, living near, speak Japanese, the language
of their mother’s family, celebrate Children’s Day
and imagine beyond boundaries and borders. My
daughter’s child will speak Hindi and Urdu,
celebrate Eid al Fitr. Their paths of succession will move
through hazards in shadow and light. They will view
stars across generations who have danced
on the same side of the moon. Their ancestors
traced in their steps, in the twinkle of their eyes,
in the embrace of what comes next, beneath the flight
of peregrine falcons, above waters where Orcas swim.

—Carla Shafer