Our Town

Horseshoe Mountain—draped in a snowy
kitchen apron in spring times—rests her back
against the blue sky. She’s propped up reading
 
the landscape of old paths nearly filled in
with mounding swards of Baltic rush,
a few telephone poles, and ancient lilacs so tall
 
and wide that an outhouse could fit inside
hidden by purple. It’s where
you lie down in green rushes near dry cow-pies
 
because the conk-la-ree of Red-wing blackbirds
was too beautiful to hear, and a bee with saddlebags
of pollen buzzes in a poppy near your ear.
 
You see flashes of crimson épaulettes when
blackbirds all swoop from the blue to perch
on long lines of matriarchs: grey, weathered
 
fence poles shorn of branches and buds, how
they play a lazy game of red rover, too old to run—
their barbed wire arms lifted—holding hands
 
with an iron grip on memories breezing through
of pioneer women in faded dresses
planting lilac cuttings in dark and watered holes.

———

Source: Sisyphus, Issue 9.1: The Hope Issue. Hip Pocket Press. “Our Town,” by Gwendolyn Soper

What Injures the Hive, Injures the Bee

Naval gazing? So passé.
The Me Generation? Over.
 
That find-your-passion frenzy—
so yesterday. There’s a lifting
 
of vision now, a looking around
even for those
 
who hadn’t noticed
that outsized selfishness is dead.
 
Today there’s a tending to hives
but it’s not just bees, hives
 
and wax that buzz. Heads on our shoulders
are turning slow motion-like.
 
Thoughts hum. It’s making sense:
the rain, the breeze, the scent
 
of nectar flowers, reciprocity: the active
creative    individual    collective world
 
on the way to healing—
being one.

———

Source: Sisyphus, Issue 9.1: The Hope Issue. Hip Pocket Press. “What Injures the Hive, Injures the Bee,” by Gwendolyn Soper

Chapbook: A Portable Paradise Prom(pt)

FREE e-chapbook! (Download below). I’m delighted to say it includes two of my poems. Before I say anything else, I must say: Roger Robinson‘s book, A Portable Paradise, won the coveted TS Eliot Prize in 2020. Wow.

I got the idea for this #PortableParadisePrompt after I tweeted a photo of a hand-written copy I’d made of his iconic poem, which I’d written out to gift to my family (to carry with them in their pockets or purses). Mr. Robinson saw my tweet and replied,

You should write a poem based on it. Use the framework and add in your own biographical details. Try it!!!

Whaaat. I took his advice and wrote my own Paradise poem. It wasn’t much later that I led Pernessy Poets Workshop participants through the same prom(pt).** The founder of these online workshops, based in Switzerland, is the delightful poet, Elizabeth Boquet.

There was magic in the air that day. The prom(pt) took off like fireworks! We decided, as a group, the direction our Paradise Project must take: a chapbook. It took me a few months to design and format the book, so today’s publication is a milestone. I’m proud of how it turned out (see below).

I challenge you to write your own Paradise poem! Download the e-book below to get an idea how much freedom you can find writing yours as you read each person’s take on the prom(pt). When you do write it, please post: #PortableParadisePrompt and #ParadiseProject on social media. We’d love to read it!

A Portable Paradise, by Roger Robinson, is available at indie booksellers, and Amazon. Published by Peepal Tree Press.

-E-book design & format: Gwendolyn Soper. Author photograph, used with permission of Roger Robinson.

NOTA BENE: All roads lead back to the poet Billy Collins and his Poetry Broadcast. I learned about the book, A Portable Paradise, from Ian Aitken, a minister in Aberdeen, Scotland (and viewer of said broadcast). Thank you, Ian! He is also the founder of The Lockdown Poets, a group of poets to which I’ve belonged for over two years. I also met Elizabeth Boquet via Billy Collins’ broadcast.

**I got the idea to call it a prom(pt) from the Southampton Writers Workshop I attended the year before when I took a class from Billy Collins. The workshop concluded with a Prom(pt) for all faculty and students. I suspect Christian McLean had something to do with it. We dressed up for the event and had a blast.

The Rain in Utah

We used to lay on the hot cement shivering
after we swam. A quick lick of the concrete 
confirmed it hadn’t changed since 
the last time we stuck out our tongues — 
it tasted like scorched Utah sand 
under the branches of the apricot tree. 

Don’t eat the apricots before you swim, 
you’ll get cramps! Mom calls 
us in for hot dogs and potato chips, 
and we peel off running to eat, grabbing towels 
because we only use them for capes. 

One black night the lightening illuminates the pool 
again and again like a glowing blue kidney bean. 
The thunder rattles the plate glass windows— 
and my little brother and I—we watch
from the tv room on our stomachs. We learn
some things are as good as cartoons.

———

“The Rain in Utah” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: Nine Mile, Spring Issue 2022, Vol. 10, No. 1. Click here to order a copy.

The Legend of John Dory

For Nives & Niksa. Split, Croatia

It’s a sign of intelligence to try new food
and the salty Balkan air made me bolder
with every wave that brought us here
with the thrum of the old boat—I felt reckless
as a Puritan walking out on the sermon
about The Fall and the imminent dangers
resulting from desire.

The eyes are the best part, the waiter said
after he set our plates down on the table
beaten by hot island sun.
This is how you suck them out.
So, we picked up the fish and slurped—
my tongue, that wet salty shore
where a fisherman once cast his net
into the sea for one last time
before dropping it to fish for men.

When he left his boat, Saint Peter saw a fish—
a remarkable flat fish with a coin in its mouth
to pay temple taxes. When he picked it up
to retrieve the money, he left a thumbprint
on its side. These fish from the family of Zeus
still carry the oval mark.

Still thinking of salt & water, apostles
& knotted nets, still feeling an inner fire,
I look up and see the way you are looking
at me. Soon, I am swimming with desire.

———

“The Legend of John Dory” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: Nine Mile, Spring Issue 2022, Vol. 10, No. 1. Click here to order a copy.

You can listen here to Billy Collins, two-time U.S. Poet Laureate, read Soper’s poem, “The Legend of John Dory” on The Poetry Broadcast, 12 April 2022.

To Tyrants: Enough!

how our own speech acts for justice may lead to fruitful and sustaining outcomes

by Gwendolyn Soper. Originally published on Substack, 16 March 2022

Right now, I sit in a heated home. It’s bitter cold outside. It’s painful to observe how our fellow humans are suffering unimaginable horrors in Ukraine, or the many locations to which they’ve fled. I feel helpless, angry, and full of despair. I know I’m not the only one. I’m overcome by the kindness of Poland’s President Duda “everyone is let in.” 

How may we cope with these strong emotions effectively, and at the same time possibly make a difference? One of my acquaintances has three refugees from Ukraine living with her in Austria—a mother and two teenagers. The father has returned to Ukraine to fight. Many of us donate to legitimate charities like World Central Kitchen and UNICEF that supply necessities to Ukraine. What else can we do to help provide for their immediate needs, and demonstrate solidarity?

Pádraig Ó Tuama, a well-recognized Irish poet, theologian, and group mediator, educated people recently online about conflict resolution in conjunction with the Columbia Climate School. He teaches that ‘speech acts’—and other acts of artistic expression like poetryart, dance, or music—can be acts of “co-creation” that often have “fruitful and sustaining” outcomes. The following examples may reflect what he was talking about:

Putin’s actions makes the hate speech reflected in a recent poem by Ukrainian poet, Oleksandr Irvanets, understandable, “I shout out to the whole world. I won’t forgive anyone!” It makes the book, Deaf Republic, by hard-of-hearing Ukrainian-American Ilya Kaminsky, an important act that questions our potential for collective silence in the face of atrocities. 

Suddenly, I’m seeing speech acts everywhere like those of Garrison Keillor, and Simon Armitage, poet laureate of the UK. They validate how I’ve been feeling, make me more aware, and increase my feelings of solidarity with those under fire in Ukraine. Our own speech acts may also be effective through writing our own poems, moving our bodies to music, creating art, even if only in our homes to reduce anxiety.

Ó Tuama recently shared a poem by Joy Harjo titled, “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings.” I want to look at the individual words in her title. Conflict: what does it mean? It means to clash. Or to be in a serious disagreement or argument—typically a protracted one. It is at the root of war. Resolution means to find a solution to a problem, dispute, or contentious matter. 

Holy Beings means different things to different people. Right now I see every Ukrainian, living and killed in this attack, as a holy being. British-Trinidadian poet, Roger Robinson, wrote a poem titled, “The Missing.” It’s a speech act as well. It’s about human souls ascending during the deadly Grenfell Tower apartment building fire in West London (2017). Holy beings. 

My poem, “War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood,” is a reflection of a speech act by the musician Benjamin Britten. His was in the form of music he composed. He titled it War Requiem. Over twenty years ago I had the privilege of performing his War Requiem many times from memory with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Boston Symphony Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa conducting. Britten composed it so that the baritone and tenor sing text written by World War I poet, Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action only one week before Armistice, 1918. Britten’s goal was resolution in the aftermath of war. 

Winston Churchill visits Coventry Cathedral after German bombing, Nov. 1940

In order to emphasize the universal desire for peace, Britten made the symbolic gesture of assigning solos to artistic delegates of former, or current, German, English, and Eastern European decent who had borne the brunt of the horrific conflict during World War II. The soloists in our performances were Thomas Quasthoff (German-born bass-baritone), Ian Bostridge (British-born tenor), and Christine Goerke (soprano).

In the title page of his War Requiem, Britten quoted these words by the WWI war poet, Wilfred Owen:

My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.

A little information about the origin of this requiem:

After WWII, many cities in Great Britain and elsewhere were rebuilding churches, homes, and places of business—many of which had been razed to the ground. Ukraine will be facing this same challenge of rebuilding.

One of those cities that rebuilt itself was Coventry. The city decided to preserve the ruins of their bombed Medieval cathedral. And, next to the remains they would build the new Coventry Cathedral.

After their new cathedral was built, The Coventry Cathedral Festival Committee was looking for ways to celebrate its consecration. The spirit of the enterprise was one of reconciliation after conflict. It was then that Britten was asked to participate. He agreed to compose a musical piece. In his own words, he offered War Requiem as ‘an act of reparation.’ 

Pádraig Ó Tuama has a lot of experience with acts of reparation and reconciliation. He was a former leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community, a country with a long history of conflict. 

During one of his recent poetry labs I asked Mr. Ó Tuama, “Can we do more than just warn of war?” 

He said, “First, the machinists of war need to make much better decisions.” 

Then, referring to Joy Harjo’s poem he said,

“Harjo is trying to take [her speech act] further in her poem. She’s using the imperative in many of her words, that you must speak in the language of justice. She’s not only bearing witness, she’s also trying to enact change. In a certain sense she’s trying to, by the language, create a way of moving forward.”

As all of us observe what is happening in Ukraine and other war-torn parts of the world—I hope we may each consider how we might co-create speech acts with others—whether it be creating (or sharing) poetry, art, dance, or music, in person or via social media—to uplift, speak for justice, and move forward in solidarity with our fellow humans who are in this moment suffering unimaginable violence, loss, and displacement. 

War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood

          To be read while listening to War Requiem, 
           by Benjamin Britten, especially the Dies irae
 
 
We only hold ten thousand notes. Our bodies tense
at trumpets sounding with more brass, and then
in unison all the men’s voices
      march     march     march     on rubble
 
bombs blast—because the timpani is pounding.
A Berkshire storm suddenly drops like mortar shells:
black clouds roll as if demented. The rage we feel
at war deflects the rasping, raucous wind.
 
Behind Maestro the canvas curtain curls,
an acoustical device the size of a ship’s white sail.
Bottom corners whip—like chips of flint, then
      strike!     strike!     strike!    the electric air.
 
We women sing quantus tremor est futurus
(how a tremor is). But do we really know?
The baritone prepares to sing “Bugles sang”
(But I Was Looking at the Permanent Stars).
 
On the title page of our score, Britten quoted
Wilfred Owen:
My subject is War, and the pity of War.
The Poetry is in the pity …
All a poet can do today is warn.
 
So, in our person, our strong stance, our firm
presence here—we sing from our mighty occupation
of secondary power: a chorus. We sing
to all who abuse their primary power from a high seat
of political influence or a home: 

ENOUGH!	ENOUGH!	ENOUGH!

___

Seiji Ozawa, conductor
soloists:
Thomas Quasthoff
Christine Goerke
Ian Bostridge
Program notes 

________
Source: "War Requiem: Outdoor Rehearsal at Tanglewood," by Gwendolyn Soper (referenced in her essay, "To Tyrants: Enough!"), written in solidarity with those in Ukraine, or in places to which they've fled during the Russian tyrant's horrific attack.

Megadrought

The flower is made of non-flower elements. We can describe the flower
as being full of everything. There is nothing that is not present in the flower.
-Thich Nhat Hanh 


The governor asked us 
to pray up a storm.
A local told my husband 
tree rings show 
it’s the worst drought 
in five-hundred years.

That the rains may come

in a gentle manner
beneficial to our valley,
Brother J. Watson prayed
from the pulpit. 

Our stream is dry. 
The alpacas are licking the mud
so my husband is off 
to buy a huge stock tank at IFA.

There’s not water to grow enough
alfalfa in the pasture 
for our neighbor’s cows. It’s real bad. 
I’ll have to order extra bales
from Idaho, he said.

I look at the milkweed
wilting in simmering shade—
a few caterpillars escape
the gaze of hungry wasps

and I wonder out loud
where has all the water gone
if every flower contains a cloud?

———

“Megadrought” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: Utah Life Magazine, March/April 2022 issue

How to Sit with Petunias

There’s no need to explain 
poetry to a child. They already know 
how to sit with petunias. 
Constellation petunias, for instance:
every petal a purple night sky full 
of stars—whorls in the morning
revealing themselves on porches after
breakfast. I don’t have to ask a child
to pluck them—they’ll do it anyway—
holding margins and profiles
against the rising sun to examine
patterns, light and shadow, lines
and the funnel that draws them
closer to seeing fine hairs, to noticing
how sticky the petals are, leaving
residue that doesn’t come off easily—
which years from now they’ll remember 
when they pick more petunias.

———

“How to Sit with Petunias” by Gwendolyn Soper

Source: The Hopper, Fall 2021 issue, 6.2.