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Bravo Taylor!

We are as proud as brass buttons to announce that Taylor Coyle, our Murphy Writing Program Assistant, has won the 1st place poetry prize in the Richard Stockton College’s 5th Annual Jennifer Cakert Writing Awards. (Read Taylor’s award-winning poem, “The Science of Aging,” below.)

You can hear Taylor and the other prize winners read their poems and essays at Stockton College on Tuesday, April 8th at 6pm in Room F111. It’s free and refreshments will be served.

The Jennifer Cakert Writing Awards are sponsored by the Jan-ai Scholarship Fund, which has also enabled more than a dozen young writers to attend the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway.

 

The Science of Aging

by Taylor Coyle

Had I not accepted the forced rising
of body from bed each day,
I would have known
how short a single day can feel.

If I had wasted time stomping out stars,
skipping pebbles across Saturn’s rings,
I could have avoided the vacuousness

of reality. If I had stuck planets on sticks
and tasted them like lollipops before
I settled on living my rushed, Earthly life,

I might have become god-like,
licking up stardust for breakfast
and feeding on meteorites for dinner.

It’s said God without science is dumb
and science without God is blind,

but really, they are both deaf, and the same.

 

© Taylor Coyle

 

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Taylor Coyle, born and raised in South Jersey, is a strong advocate of the Oxford Comma. She was originally Murphy Writing’s intern before she started working part-time for us. She also works in a barbeque restaurant and currently attends the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey for Literature. In her spare time, she likes to catch up on sleep and write.

 

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This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

Big Scenes

by James Richardson

And what was King Kong ever going to do
with Fay Wray or Jessica Lange,
but climb, climb, climb, and get shot down?
No Wonder Gulliver’s amiably chatting
with that six-inch woman in his palm.
Desire’s huge, there’s really nowhere to put it
in our small world that it will stay put:
might as well just talk.
Rage also, and fear, and elation
are windswept summits, your poor mind
half the time an F6 tornado
that could drive a blade of grass through armor plate.
But a lit match inches from your eyes?
Unwavering. Out there,
in the world we call Real, is calm.
When you stalk down Broadway, fifty feet tall
and building like a thunderhead, your clothes
tattering and whirled away like leaves,
you can nonchalant it, you can be at peace:
it’s only in movies that anyone notices. 

 
 

One of the Evenings

by James Richardson

After so many years, we know them.
This is one of the older Evenings — its patience,
settling in, its warmth that wants nothing in return.
Once on a balcony among trees, once by a slipping river,
so many Augusts sitting out through sunset —
first a dimness in the undergrowth like smoke,
and then like someone you hadn’t noticed
has been in the room a long time. . . .

It has seen everything that can be done in the dark.
It has seen two rifles swing around
to train on each other, it has seen lovers meet and revolve,
it has seen wounds grayscale in low light.
It has come equally for those who prayed for it
and those who turned on lamp after lamp
until they could not see. It deals evenhandedly
with the one skimming downstairs rapidly as typing,
the one washing plates too loudly,
the one who thinks there’s something more important,
since it does not believe in protagonists,
since it knows anyone could be anyone else.

It has heard what they said aloud to the moon to the stars
and what they could not say,
walking alone and together. It has gotten over
I cannot live through this, it has gotten over This did not have to happen
and This is experience one day I will be glad for.
It has gotten over How even for a moment
could I have forgotten? though it never forgets,
leaves nothing behind, does not believe in stories,
since nothing is over, only beginning somewhere else.

It could be anywhere but it is here
with the kids who play softball endlessly not keeping score,
though it’s getting late, way too late,
holding their drives in the air like invisible moons a little longer,
giving way before them so they feel like they’re running faster.
It likes trees, I think, it likes summer. It seems comfortable with us,
though it is here to help us be less ourselves.
It thinks of its darkening as listening harder and harder.
 
© James Richardson.
 
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James Richardson received the 2011 Jackson Poetry Prize. His most recent books are By the Numbers, which was a finalist for the 2010 National Book Award and a Publishers Weekly “Best Book of 2010″; Interglacial: New and Selected Poems and Aphorisms, which was a finalist for the 2004 National Book Critics Circle Award; and Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays. His poems, essays and aphorisms have appeared in American PoetAmerican Poetry ReviewThe New YorkerParis ReviewPoetrySlateYale ReviewGreat American Prose PoemsGeary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, the Pushcart Prize anthology and several editions of The Best American Poetry. The recipient of an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is Professor of Creative Writing at Princeton University.

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Registration closes tonight at midnight. If you’d like to study with Jim Richardson or any of other other faculty, register now so you’re not disappointed.

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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more.

 

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

Crossing the Milky Way

by Anndee Hochman

Here is the baby: smell of sourdough, brown butter, mown wheat, warm earth. Moist anemone hands, the toes you nibble as if they are nubs of maple sugar. Behind the closed bedroom door, talk ripples up from downstairs. You rock in the hand-painted chair.

Here is the hunger, legible in her wide blue eyes, garnet blossom of a mouth, the cry that bubbles from belly to breath. “Shh…” you murmur. Now that you are a mother, you know about murmuring. You lift your shirt, ease stretchy lace from your left breast. “Mmm…come here, sweetie.” The baby latches, an open-mouth kiss, a perfect seal. Her suck rhythmic, insistent: she is all appetite.

Here is the rub: It won’t last long. The warm crescent of her body, the pleated neck and kiwi cheek, the steady pull of her gums, working and working as if to draw your own hurrying heart from its cage.

I did it only a few times and always with a sense of transgression. Always with the door closed. Downstairs, among in-laws and friends, I could be glib; passing our wailing daughter to Elissa, I quipped, “Sorry, kid, I’ve got the hardware, but not the software.” The company laughed. Elissa was already reaching under her shirt, deftly unsnapping her nursing bra. I sat back down, empty-handed. Jealousy bit my belly like a cramp.

Upstairs, it was a different story: half magical thinking, half willful trespass. Maybe I’d lactate spontaneously, out of sheer contiguity and love, milk and honey bubbling from the desert dunes. I’d heard of a lesbian who did that—found her breasts seeping milk the day her girlfriend and the girlfriend’s two baby sons moved into her home. And I’d watched another friend nurse her adopted son, a plastic box of formula draped around her neck, a tiny tube snaking from the box to her nipple and the baby sucking on both—flesh and straw—in an attempt to bring on lactation.

At the time, the contraption struck me as bizarre, contrived, even a little desperate. Adopting a baby just isn’t the same as squeezing one out of your body; why try to pretend it is? Besides, nursing (I preached quietly to myself) did not a mother make; my own mother nursed for only six weeks, and some women never do. I’d read those La Leche League brochures, and they struck me as overly zealous, the kind of pious propaganda that made women feel bad if they didn’t—or chose not to—measure up.

But that was before Sasha was born, when it was easier to preach than practice. She was small at birth, and in the first few days she dropped weight steadily until she hovered at five pounds, five ounces. Another fraction lost, the pediatrician cautioned, and she’d put her on formula. So Elissa nursed, and nursed, in a fever of worry and determination: I’ll be damned if this kid’s gonna get Similac. Sasha ate every hour and a half, so slowly it seemed she’d just finished one feeding before starting the next. I’d cradle her in my arms, gulping in the yeasty smell of her head, and she’d start mouthing O’s at my collarbone. It was time. Again. Every feeding felt like a referendum: Will the real mother please stand up? There would be no mistaking the imposter: Me, the one with no milk stains on her blouse.

Through nine months of expectation, I hadn’t looked pregnant. Now I didn’t even look like I was parenting. The baby spent most of her waking (and sleeping) hours barnacled to Elissa’s breast, with brief forays into the arms of grandparents, uncles and family friends who stopped by with pans of lasagna and boxes from Baby Gap. A colleague of Elissa’s phoned with congratulations and asked, “May I speak to the little mother?” I resisted the urge to snarl, “You’re talking to her—and she’s not so little!” I joked about needing to take a number in order to hold my own daughter, but at night, in our room, I hissed at Elissa, “After you nurse her, you have to hand her to me. It’s not fair that you get to cuddle her all night!” And Elissa would agree—of course, that’s only fair—then, at 3 or 4 a.m., she’d nurse herself and Sasha into a deep, immovable sleep, and I’d be alone again on my side of the bed.

I hadn’t bargained for this. We were lesbians, after all, two women who had had a baby, breaching social norms and biological destiny with one deft plunge of a semen-filled syringe. But biology trumped our most equitable intentions. “It’s the boob,” sighed one friend, watching her partner nurse their 18-month-old. “You can’t compete with the boob.” But it’s not just the boob. It’s everything the boob represents: nourishment, succor, self-sacrifice, pleasure, primal attachment. I loved Sasha so much my chest ached. Was this what engorgement felt like? Or was that my heart twisting in the face of an unwelcome news flash: that parenting and unrequited love had something painfully in common?

Eventually, I knew, Sasha would wean from Elissa’s breast. She’d learn to pinch Cheerios into her mouth and, before we knew it, she’d be seventeen, ordering linguine al pesto from an Italian menu and rolling her eyes at our utter uselessness. I remembered that I’d soothed my daughter through her 45-minute naming ritual with a pinky in her tiny, raspberry mouth, and that even Elissa wasn’t always able to console Sasha when she cried. Still, I hungered to know, just once, what it felt like to be the one—okay, the only one—who could give the kid exactly what she needed.

Our pediatrician, herself a lesbian and the biological mother of twin sons, had told it me it might be possible for me to lactate, if I trained with the breast pump two or three times a day in the six weeks prior to Sasha’s birth. I considered it. In the end, I wasn’t keen on spending an hour a day attached to an electric milking machine with no guarantee I’d produce even one potable drop.

Still, there were those nights I took my subversive seat in the nursing rocker and lifted the bra from my breast. Maybe this time, desire would transmute into milk and, magically, we’d close the circle of survival: You need, I give, you grow. I’d settle for being a human pacifier, rocking there for a few contented moments until Sasha realized the tap was dry.

It never lasted long. My daughter was no fool. I’d carry her down to the happy clamor of the dining room, her face scrunched and reddening and my own, I imagined, flushed with guilt and regret. “I’m sorry,” I whispered as I handed her over—not only for the missing milk, but for all the ways I would certainly come up short in the coming years, all the hungers I would no doubt fail to fill.
 
 
© Anndee Hochman. Originally published in Literary Mama, 2012.

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Anndee Hochman writes feature articles, profiles and essays about education, health and the wide, quirky spectrum of family and community life, including issues of adoption, foster care, reproductive technology, same-sex couples and intentional community. In addition to her regular pieces in the Philadelphia Inquirer, her work has appeared in O, the Oprah MagazineHealthWorking MotherMarie Claire and online in Literary Mama. She is the author of Anatomies: A Novella and Stories (Picador 2000) and Everyday Acts & Small Subversions: Women Reinventing Family, Community and Home (The Eighth Mountain Press, 1994). For the past 20 years, Anndee has taught writing to children, teens and adults in a variety of settings, including schools, senior centers and a small fishing village on Mexico’s Pacific coast. Her website is anndeehochman.com.

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Want to study with Anndee Hochman? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Anndee will lead The Heart and Craft of Memoir workshop.

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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more. 

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

Don’t Do That

by Stephen Dunn

It was bring-your-own if you wanted anything
hard, so I brought Johnnie Walker Red
along with some resentment I’d held in
for a few weeks, which was not helped
by the sight of little nameless things
pierced with toothpicks on the tables,
or by talk that promised to be nothing
if not small. But I’d consented to come,
and I knew what part of the house
their animals would be sequestered,
whose company I loved. What else can I say,

except that old retainer of slights and wrongs,
that bad boy I hadn’t quite outgrown—
I’d brought him along, too. I was out
to cultivate a mood. My hosts greeted me,
but did not ask about my soul, which was when
I was invited by Johnnie Walker Red
to find the right kind of glass, and pour.
I toasted the air. I said hello to the wall,
then walked past a group of women
dressed to be seen, undressing them
one by one, and went up the stairs to where

the Rottweilers were, Rosie and Tom,
and got down with them on all fours.
They licked the face I offered them,
and I proceeded to slick back my hair
with their saliva, and before long
I felt like a wild thing, ready to mess up
the party, scarf the hors d’oeuvres.
But the dogs said, No, don’t do that,
calm down, after a while they open the door
and let you out, they pet your head, and everything
you might have held against them is gone,
and you’re good friends again. Stay, they said.

 
 

What Goes On

by Stephen Dunn

After the affair and the moving out,
after the destructive revivifying passion,
we watched her life quiet

into a new one, her lover more and more
on its periphery. She spent many nights
alone, happy for the narcosis

of the television. When she got cancer
she kept it to herself until she couldn’t
keep it from anyone. The chemo debilitated
and saved her, and one day

her husband asked her to come back —
his wife, who after all had only fallen
in love as anyone might
who hadn’t been in love in a while —

and he held her, so different now,
so thin, her hair just partially
grown back. He held her like a new woman

and what she felt
felt almost as good as love had,
and each of them called it love
because precision didn’t matter anymore.

And we who’d been part of it,
often rejoicing with one
and consoling the other,

we who had seen her truly alive
and then merely alive,
what could we do but revise
our phone book, our hearts,

offer a little toast to what goes on.

 
 
© Stephen Dunn.
 
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Stephen Dunn‘s seventeenth volume of poetry, Falling Backwards into the World, was released by Jane Street Press at the 2012 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. His previous books include Different Hours, which was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Here and Now (2011), both from W.W. Norton. Stephen has received awards and fellowships from American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Poetry Magazine, NJ State Council on the Arts, Poetry NorthwestMid-American Review and many others. A new and expanded edition of his book of essays, Walking Light, was published in 2001. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Creative Writing at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, but spends most of his time in Frostburg, Maryland, with his wife, the writer Barbara Hurd. You can read or listen to some of his poems here.
 
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Want to study with Stephen Dunn? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Stephen will lead three special sessions of Advanced Poetry Writing.
 
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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more.

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

Who Will Tell My Story?

by Mimi Schwartz

I was away on a writing retreat this January, the first time since my husband Stu died last August that I was able to push away the loss and sense of chaos and feel more like a self I remembered. I vowed not to do e-mail, but like Adam biting the apple, I did it anyway. “Did you pay your quarterly taxes on time?” my accountant wrote. What quarterly taxes? Stu paid taxes in April, I thought. And again, the world I’d been hobbling together was splitting apart. I hit ’Reply’ and hesitated. Who was I at this moment? The helpless widow barely holding on? Which I felt. The furious dowager ready to fire someone? Which I felt. The woman you can’t reach? Very tempting. I started writing:

Dear Howard,

. . . I am very disappointed to hear about the taxes, especially since I wrote you several times last fall about what I need to be doing. I’m away until Sunday, but am hoping we can set up an appointment next week to put a better system in place. Given your long history with Stu, I know he would assume that you would make that happen.

Best,

Mimi

The “I” sounded so calm, so in command. No one I had planned on, and yet here “she” was—and I liked her. So did Howard, who wrote back, promising a help session on Monday morning, free of charge. Even better, I went back to writing for six more days, thinking, “To hell with taxes.” It was a nonchalance I had not managed in five months.

In Jungian terms, a persona is a public mask that doesn’t represent the inner personality of an individual. The implication is that a false external self, carefully constructed, hides the real self, the one at home in pajamas. Maybe in a society with a wider gulf between desire and social expectation, but not growing up in my America. I think of my mother, deep in glumness, over her morning coffee—until the phone rang and a friend was on the line. Suddenly her face was all smiles, her voice lilting with positive energy that might fade as soon as she hung up, but not usually. The phone call seemed to rouse another self waiting below the glumness, who took over from the sulker. Everyone in the family teased her about her “phone-y smile.” Yes, a bad pun and bad strategy, plus we got it wrong. That smile had power, I realize now, calling forth a cheerful persona to challenge the glum one and get through the day despite dark mornings. It wasn’t a case of phony versus real; both personae had a fair share in the emotional turf. And like my unruffled e-mail persona co-opting the fragile widow and angry dowager, they influenced one another. That kind of interconnectivity, I would argue, leads to authenticity. My take-charge persona was not just a rhetorical ploy to get my accountant on my side; rather, it was a missing part of myself that I gratefully welcomed back.

As a writer of first-person nonfiction, both memoir and personal essays, I need to believe in multiple selves who are intimately connected as they rise up into different personas that compete to tell a particular story. If there is only one self, unchallenged as narrator, I’m more predictable; surprises are harder to come by. But when I imagine many Mimis responding to experience, tension gets into the writing. I don’t know who will win out and for how long (the others are always there, lurking), and that puts me on a roll, open to discovery and insight. So, for example, I realized that the unruffled e-mail persona saved my six-day retreat only when I began writing this presentation. As soon as I put the words down, I knew they were true: the e-mail persona had leaped from the page into my life—at least for six days.

Many people believe that journal writing, free from public pressure, reveals one’s true self, unguarded, unconstructed. Sometimes, perhaps, but I have only to reread my journal entries, especially those written during crises, to know how limited they are emotional and intellectually. In the 1970s I once wrote hundreds of pages as I went back and forth on the bus to therapy sessions in New York City. I was full of epic insights, brilliant, I thought, and put them away, convinced they would become the great American something. But a year later, I reread them and there was nothing there. Boring stuff. Not even I was interested in this self who was whiny, full of self-pity, and pompous in her certainty that everything she wrote was absolutely true.

 

I kept a journal again in the late 1980s when, out of the blue, Stu and I, at forty-seven and forty-eight, both fell mortally ill two weeks apart (his heart, my breast cancer). Again I used the journal to write how I felt—about death, fear, shock, and desperation—but this time I also wrote about what the hospital room looked like, and what the nurses said, and how the sun slanted in through the venetian blinds. It was these details, maybe 20 percent of the entries, that jumpstarted a memoir, the objects and bits of dialogue moving me beyond the fearful self and the weeping self and to the other selves, tough and funny, whom I’d forgotten. “Honey, no one ever died from laughing,” the nurse in intensive care said when I became alarmed to see the needle on Stu’s heart monitor swinging wildly. We’d been giggling about a Dr. Botch who was being paged to return immediately to the OR for surgery. Months later I reread it and remembered how we kept laughing, holding hands, and that’s when the story of illness began shifting to one of marriage. The persona who ended up with the lead role as narrator was not victim, nurse, or patient—though they were there—but a wife dealing with the ups and downs of a shared life.

It became a book, Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, and the battle of me’s felt natural and intuitive as I wrote, more evolution than revolution as I moved from what Vivian Gornick calls “the situation” (what happened) to “the story” (what it meant). Not so when I tried to write an essay about an anti-Semitic incident at my college. I had not written much about being Jewish. I had never written about anti-Semitism—it took nine painful months to find the right persona to tell that story. As before, the struggle was inward, defining my relationship to my subject, but this time it was also outward, worrying about how colleagues, not just family, would receive me.

First I was an English professor deconstructing the symbolism of a pro-Palestinian poster. Then I was a crusader righting wrongs. Then I was the child of Holocaust survivors, avoiding my past until this moment. Then I was an assimilated American Jew who suddenly had to face a German past she had always avoided. Each beginning read smoothly—so it wasn’t about craft—but only the last one felt like the right persona for this particular story. It began:

For me as an American Jew—the child of German refugees—overt anti-Semitism was my parents’ old world, not mine. There’d be an occasional remark here and there, but everyone gets that in multi-ethnic New Jersey. No big deal, I thought, until 500 anti-Semitic flyers were posted on the walls and kiosks of the college where I’ve taught for twenty-two years. That was a shock. Some had swastikas leaning on Jewish stars. Some had a picture of Hitler and of an Israeli soldier, both of equal size. Its caption read: “How many millions must die?” Some had the Christ-like figure of crucifixion paintings, but instead of the expected cross, the arms were draped over a Jewish star. . .

Was that persona a construct, an invented “I” who was not truly me? Only if we define true as the first self to respond. My English professor lacked passion, and my angry crusader had not yet talked to colleagues or confronted her best friend, who defended the posters and later, after reading my draft and engaging in more discussion, signed up for a trip to Israel with a group of nuns over Christmas. “As penance,” she joked. She was glad she went and we’re still friends, thanks in part to the persona who persuaded her, a Catholic, to see my position, and persuaded me that was I being a little paranoid about some of the poster images. I doubt the angry crusader would have fared as well—and I believe she may have felt cheated and is waiting, ready to push hard for a lead role somewhere else. Still, when I reread that essay after publication, I felt “That’s how it was!” and was relieved, and others who were there said the same. That’s gold.

So far I’ve looked at persona from the inside out, as writer. But I’d like to end today as a reader, responding to I’s whom I meet only on the page. I can’t know the full battles of self that end with publication, but I want authors to show signs of them. Maybe in a stream-of-consciousness that lets me into the author’s head. Maybe in a shuttle between a voice of innocence (responding to the now) and a voice of experience (reflecting on what happened before). Maybe in a juxtaposition of essays, as Scott Russell Sanders does in his collection Secrets of the Universe: Scenes from the Journey Home. The first, called “Under the Influence,” is about the legacy of his father’s drinking for him and on this family, and his persona is as son, bearing the burden. The second, “Reasons for the Body,” has the same cast of characters—house, garage, driveway—­but here he and his father are athletes, and his father’s drinking is only mentioned in half a sentence.

I love how one essay follows the other, a reminder that we are made up of many selves and each one can tell a story with the others pressing in, reminding and remembering, in wait for a turn. It’s when we hitch ourselves too closely to one self who seems to know it all, unhampered by the others who question, doubt, and challenge, that we are less likely to write what we don’t yet know about the rich complexity of our lives.
 

© Mimi Schwartz. First published in TriQuarterly, April 2012.
 
 
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Mimi Schwartz, a veteran teacher and writer for over 35 years, has published five books including Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village (University of Nebraska Press), now out in paperback and on Kindle. Other recent books include Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed and Writing True, the Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction (with Sondra Perl), used in over 250 undergraduate and MFA programs nationwide, which is now out in its second edition. Her short work has appeared in Best American EssaysCreative NonfictionFourth GenreThe New York TimesThe Philadelphia Inquirer MagazineThe Writer’s Chronicle and The Writer, among others. She is Professor Emerita at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey and teaches at writer conferences, libraries and teacher institutes across this country and abroad. Read another excerpt of Mimi’s writing.

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Want to study with Mimi Schwartz? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Mimi will lead the memoir portion of the Creative Writing Sampler. She will also offer Tutorials in Prose for writers who would like to work one-on-one with her on a nonfiction or memoir project.

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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more.

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

from The Thrall’s Tale

by Judith Lindbergh

Einar owns me, the runes at my collarbone speak from the carved stone, smooth with wear. The amulet belonged to another before me, another thrall whose name is lost. They don’t remember even how she died, only that she did about the time that I was born.

At my birth I was named for the fire burning beneath the mountain’s ice, “Katla,” and the string was tied, and so I have ever worn it. I have always been a slave.

Then why the unfamiliar sorrow that I am leaving the only land I’ve ever known, this land of my bondage? Yet I gaze about me almost mournfully as my master, Einar, stands upon the shore, tall among the circle of chieftains, setting the last of the plans before we see this place no more. The only one taller is Eirik Raude himself, his flaming head bright beside the others’ mostly gray. It is he who planned this voyage to the great land to the west, beyond the open sea.

Serving at my master’s banquet table two years ago at Yule, I heard Eirik tell of its lush pastures and its deep fjords brimming with walrus, seals, and birds. “So broad and vast and rich, friend Einar,” he said. “Think on it! Think, if you dare, to come. Already there’s a fjord named for you. I’ve set it so myself – Einarsfjord! – all rich and green, the fairest farm save perhaps my own – and set beside mine, with naught between our mighty homesteads but a pasture thick with grass and moss so fresh, sprouting up to make your cows’ milk sweet and your sheep fat enough to slaughter even before the springtime’s melted snows.”

“You say ’tis such . . . ?” I saw my master raise a grizzled brow. “Well, to think on it. There’s naught so fine about this Iceland now. Thick it is with homesteads, and only the lowliest grounds left upon the ashen hills – barely enough to feed our sheep, yet quick run thick with blood and feud if others have first claimed it. Your talk is tempting, Eirik, almost too fair to be believed.”

“Yet you know me well, Einar.”

“That, old friend, I do. I would not cross you in a fight, or when you’re hard at drinking. Yet I’ll tell you, you are mostly honest, if hard-tempered. For this, I’ll think upon your offer and speak of it with my mistress, Grima. Yet what shall I tell her is the name of this new place?”

“Ah,” Eirik Raude full-smiled then, his teeth rough-chipped, yellowish some, and broken in his ruddy beard. “Greenland.” Slowly Eirik Raude did muse.

“Greenland.” And the sound of it, so thick and fresh and hopeful on my master’s tongue. So, and now, many months long past, we are set about to go.

I wait with the other thralls in a line before the plank. Einar’s hefty trader’s ship keens chorus with the other knarrs: twenty-five in all, each with bright-painted shields of wood and clanking metal hung upon their low-slung rails, and outstretched, dripping oars. Each is set to be captained by another master: Hafgrim, Herjolf, Ketil, Hrafn, even Helgi Thorbrandsson among their lot, all powerful here in Iceland once, but pushed out by hunger, vengeance, greed. They and all their households, their wives and sons, daughters and married kindred, and all their thralls, like me, packed to go to sea.

Such a crowd. All about are bondsmen’s scalps – bald pates, shaved and shining as this morning’s spring-ish dew – while we bonded women wear our best and only sheath of wadmal cloth, gray and drab and of a sweaty woolen, with a flaxen kerchief tied around our brows and braids. Nay, we look yet all the same, all dull and soiled, reeking, worn threadbare upon our elbows, while the freemen and their ladies nearly dance upon the Breidafjord rocks, flaunting all their finest, thickest woolens, their boots of fur and leather, their cloaks of seal, reindeer skins, and sometimes even bear with claws, all cheered and tucked and warm, set about to face the sea’s fierce chill.

The knarrs rock to and fro, jolted by each foot stepping cautiously from plank to deck. Beneath, the fjord’s waters brew up darkly. Barely I raise my chin above my bundle – small and coarse, it holds all that I possess. I press it tightly to my bosom. My heart pounds against it. Already, my skin is cold.

We crowd of thralls are thrust about. Upon a shouting, “Off!” we are pressed to let a horse, heavy-laid with bundles, pass. It steps upon the planking board, which sags, groaning loudly.

“Oh, ’twill break!” sudden the other thralls quick-whisper. “Or sink the ship!” “Nay, I’ll not ride upon it.” “Nor step – not another foot aboard.”

The master’s thrall’s-watch hears us. He comes, heavy with his step, a seal’s-gut cord twined about his fingers. “Hush you – all of you! Or upon your backs will fall our fate, as swift and ill as the whim of the weaving Norns.”

The fateful Norns – three weaving ladies. So we’re told they weave even upon the Norse gods’ fate. Old One-Eyed Odin, Frey and Freya, Frigga, and Thor, and even Loki fear them! I like it not to think upon them now, upon this coast, before this swaying board.

Yet the foreman’s words hush up the rest. The horse passes from the planking, settling in the hull of our master’s ship. More they load the knarrs, ever tighter with cattle, boxes, trunks, bags of meal and seed, packets of skin, and coiled rope. Around me, braying goats and sheep soil bundles we packed just last night or many weeks before, while the sea laps still and hungrily upon our clamor.

From the first, there had been talk of dread upon this trip – thralls’ talk, mostly – all fired up and wary. Grumbles, grunts, and reluctant groans from those who feared to stay or those to go. Well we knew Einar could not take us all. He would choose, and many terrored they’d be sold away. They trembled at their fate, looked about askance, plotted some, and planned and fretted mostly. I think I alone did not wonder much, for I knew then where my mother went I would surely be. And she would be with Einar. She had been his favorite – even until the day she died.

So, last spring, as I chored upon the hill watching old ships in the fjord raised up and repaired and fresh logs hewn to build new knarrs, I began with some excitement – and much unexpected dread – to realize we would truly leave this Iceland. Some say life is always better far away, where a slave might be freed if he proved his worth, or at least free to do somewhat more as he pleased; but I say life here is all I know. What lies ahead I cannot see.

With last autumn, the real preparations began, the storing and packing of grain, and drying of fish, and brewing mead, and catching fresh water from rains and streams in barrels lined with tar, and weaning lambs, and slaughtering sheep too old or sick to cross the ocean with us. And the selling of goods. I held the rag to catch my mistress’ tears over her chest of heavy oak with its sturdy iron lock, from which she removed her fine-wrought linens and gauzy silks brought from afar, and tapestries stitched by her grandmother’s hands, and other such treasures from her folk all long past, to be sorted, and many forsaken.

For me, there was cloth, too, to be woven for the sails. Had I known how hard and long and tedious the task, I might have thought to run away, but by the time I knew it, we were well into winter. There was nowhere to stray. Through the long nights and the cold, short days, we worked before the standing looms, weaving, ever weaving, until our arms ached, and our feet and our backs, and we could barely lift the threads. But at last the sails grew wide and strong. Just with springtime they were completed. We did not dye them as we might a Viking’s sails, for these were not for raiding or battles, unless to win this foreign shore. But it is said there will be no one to conquer. Where we go there are no people, only ruins of campfires and strange tooled bones. Still, some speak of draugs in the night, dead walkers who would lure us to the mountain and madness or worse. So much I fear I will be dragged away that once, in a fit of terror, I begged my master if it were true. But Einar promised, upon his soul, Eirik Raude had seen none.

As the ship’s builders set the mast secure and strung the rigging aloft, to the harbor we went, me, Inga, and Groa, with the tight-bound roll of cloth resting on our hips. There the strongest men set the sheet upon the yard and raised it up, “Pull! And pull!” blinding white in the noonday sun. It rippled until they rigged it sharp, then flooded full with the wind’s breath. We watched the new ship bound from the harbor toward the fjord’s mouth. In a moment it was out of sight. From where we stood we could see no farther than the hill where the homestead lay.

Now I stand before that very ship, with only the narrow plank to tie it still to shore, foreign though it is, as my mother always told me, though now she’s gone, buried beneath a shallow mound of earth, with a stone upon her feet to hold her still, and I am alone, with before me only the great black water and what lies unseen beyond.
 

© Judith Lindbergh. From The Thrall’s Tale, Plume Books, 2006.
 

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Judith Lindbergh‘s debut novel, The Thrall’s Tale, about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in Greenland, was a Booksense (IndieBound) Pick, a Borders Original Voices Selection and praised by Pulitzer Prize winners Geraldine Brooks and Robert Olen Butler. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Archaeology MagazineTiferetScandinavian ReviewThe World & IOther Voices and more. She also contributed to the Smithsonian Institution’s exhibition Vikings: The Norse Atlantic Saga and was an expert commentator on the History Channel’s documentary series MANKIND: The Story of All of Us. Judith is the Founder and Director of The Writers Circle where she teaches writers of all ages the joy and challenge of creative writing. To read some of her work, visit www.judithlindbergh.com or her blog.

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Want to study with Judith Lindbergh? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, Judith will lead the fiction portion of the Creative Writing Sampler.

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Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more. 

This entry is part of Getaway Reads, a weekly e-mail series curated by Stephanie Cawley that features the writing of the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway faculty.
 

The Star-Ledger

by BJ Ward

287 was the long road to the newspaper plant
     my black-handed father would ride beneath
the weight of a night sky.
     A father who works the night shift
knows that weight, how it accumulates from within
     when his mistakes and debt
begin to press on his children and wife.
     And so went his life—
 
If the stars spelled something real,
     they might spell the equation
that my father never mastered—
     the news just ran through his hands
and what slid there left the black residue
     of the world’s doings, pressed knowledge
that read like misaligned tea leaves in his hardening palms,
     and in his life line and heart line and other lines
that would normally speak a fortune,
     the night just accumulated itself—
a little sky he would spread over us
     when the world redelivered him in the morning.
 

 

At the Party: “So What Do You Do?”

by BJ Ward

I say I’m an electrician
trying to connect the wires of the alphabet—
 
or a non-profit whiskey maker,
distilling to disquiet—
making myself giddy on sounds—
arranging a concert on the page
with a 26-piece band
the world is invited to—
 
or that Creation sometimes talks to me
and I try to build an ark of ink
that my fellow creatures
might find themselves in—
 
an admirable admiral animal—
 
I try to brew it
so that shock of pleasure
floats through it. 
 
 
 
© BJ Ward. Both poems found in Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013, IO Poetry Series/North Atlantic Books, 2013.
 
 
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BJ Ward is the author of Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013, published in September 2013, as part of the IO Poetry Series (North Atlantic Books). His other books are Gravedigger’s Birthday, 17 Love Poems with No Despair and Landing in New Jersey with Soft Hands. His poems have been featured on Poetry Daily, NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts,” as well as in publications such as American Poetry Review, Poetry, TriQuarterly and Painted Bride Quarterly. He is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize and two Distinguished Artist Fellowships from the NJ State Council on the Arts. He co-directs the Creative Writing degree program at Warren County Community College. To read some of Ward’s work visit the Poetry Foundation or last year’s Getaway Reads.

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Want to study with BJ Ward? At the 2014 Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway, BJ will lead the poetry portion of the Creative Writing Sampler and the Algonquin-Style Poetry Workshops.

+ + + + + + + + + +

Advance your craft and energize your writing at the Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive sessions, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Learn more. 

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