Wednesday, March 4, 2015

On Portraits, Monuments, and the Feminine Touch...

Poets after a reading at Bolton Hall Museum, February 22, 2015
Photo by Gene Schultz

In the middle of my book tour, reading an always changing assortment of verse from "Slicing the Bread" - a chapbook inspired by war memories of my family and the war's long shadow over my childhood - I started to feel like a star. Fame got to my head and it started expanding, like a balloon filled with nothing but hot air. It was Victor Sotomayor who did it - by posting my portrait, by Jessica Wilson Cardenas, on his Instagram account. In a gold jacket, with eyes lower to the page, I do look like a poet, a real poet.

Photo by Jessica Wilson Cardenas, February 2015

Or else, I look like I'm going to eat that mike... In any case, the "Slicing the Bread" book tour took me to the Rapp Saloon in Santa Monica, Bolton Hall Museum in Tujunga, Foster Library in Ventura and Tia Chucha's Center in Sylmar... Each reading was different, with a different selection of poems. I can make it about my Mom, my Dad, the Germans, the Soviets, the killing of Poles, the killing of Jews, the destruction of human spirit by the war.... Lots of options, all hard to deal with. At some readings people cried. I never do, these vignettes are into facts of life. It would have been better without these facts. But there are other facts of life, of equally horrid magnitude, that are happening right now, and nobody cries... The wars, the famines, the poverty, children dying before they grow up. . . and here we are reading poetry, instead of doing something useful.

Susan Rogers and Maja Trochimczyk. Photo by Susan Rogers.

But, poetry is useful. By naming things, it brings order to the world. By naming monsters and demons, it draws borders around them, makes them tame.  Some open mike readers were taming their personal monsters, reading stories of trauma that only they know well... Catharsis is an excellent use of poetry, and so is description of others. I'm a bit wary of extraordinarily beautiful and skillful descriptions of suffering. Somehow, the pain gets lost in the enchanting thicket of the words. It is better to be very matter-of-fact precise and simple. Basic even, just the bare bones. 

Reading at the Rapp Saloon, Photo by Susan Rogers.

At the first reading, at the Rapp Saloon (where I was invited by host Elena Secota), I was afraid that so much sorrow, death, and destruction will exhaust the listeners so I ended the reading with a couple of love poems from "Rose Always." It was still the month of February, the month of love... But these heartfelt romances felt like fluff, decorative and ornamental, but not very useful after the heaviness and tragedies of war. 

I decided putting both books in one reading was a mistake, and then I picked some of the most dramatic poems for the next appearance, at the Bolton Hall. The weather went dramatic too, with torrential rain. It did not help that I was competing with the entire Hollywood glamour, the Oscars.  Still, the choice group of poets who did not want to admire fancy dresses, and came to share the poetry instead, provided me with an extremely attentive and sensitive audience. The reading pleased everyone, and the open mike poetry was outstanding - with Toti O'Brien, Mari Werner, and Mira Mataric who read her translations into Serbian of three of my poems (photos still to come).

Poets at Tia Chucha's, February 27, 2015. Photo by Maria Kubal

The Tia Chucha's audience was equally focused on each word, made more difficult by my foreign - to them unfamiliar - accent.  But  I had help. For "The Way to School" Drgn Billy, percussionist from Tikkal Sun, and my newest Facebook friend, agreed to play his flat hand drum when I pointed at him. The blunt strokes of the mallet punctuated the poem, transforming the reading into a true performance. I was going to read more, but that artful and expressive piece needed nothing further. I can read more at the next stop of my poetry tour...

Monument for Polish civilians murdered by Germans in Warsaw in 1944.
Photo by Maja Trochimczyk

The Way to School

Walking to her high school on Bema Street. 
she counted three cement crosses in ten minutes 
every morning.

One in the middle of her subdivision of apartment blocks, 
standing guard at the edge of chipped asphalt: 
Nine hundred.

One in the mini-park, where two gravel paths cross 
on a patch of overgrown grass after you go under the train bridge: 
Twelve hundred.

One on the wall of a grimy three-story building, 
with round bullet holes still visible in the stained, grey stucco: 
Twenty two hundred.

She memorized the inscriptions: “This place is sanctified 
by the blood of Poles fighting for freedom, murdered by Hitlerites.” 
 “Some Germans were good, not Nazis,” her teacher said, 
“They marched in the May 1st parades.”

Only the numbers differed, and dates:
August 5, August 6, August 7, 1944. The Uprising.
50 thousand civilians shot in the streets of Warsaw. 

The bullets came fast. Those soldiers had practice. 
Wehrmacht, Police Batalions, RONA, Waffen SS. 
No shortage of killers. Some had children back home. 

She did not want to think of thousands.
She did not want to know their names.

"The Way to School" was first published in San Gabriel Valley Poetry Quarterly, vol. 63 (2014) and reprinted in "Slicing the Bread" chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2014).

Monument to Polish civilians murdered by Germans in Warsaw in 1944.
Photo by Maja Trochimczyk


Tragedy and romance do not go together, unless the latter is the antidote for the former. This is the case with my Trilogy of Grief and Loss, published in a special issue of Clockwise Cat - entitled Femmewise Cat and including two of my photos and three poems: The Waiting, the Tragedy and the Shooting Star, a portrait of 29th century pianist-composer, Maria Szymanowska. 

The principle of the whole endeavor was highlighting women's creativity - women's issues, and women's art. Poetry, flash fiction, essays, rants, photography, drawings, profile of female artists we all must know. The volume is excitingly rich in content. It will take me a while to read this double journal of monumental proportions. The fun part, you can turn the pages electronically, and read it, on the screen, as if on paper.  I like that and will keep reading. 

I was extremely pleased with finally getting a whole series of excellent portraits from a reading, all by Jessica Wilson and Mary Kubal. (Otherwise, I pose with the book after the reading ends, and these shots often look as they are, completely staged and fake).  It was so kind for them to take the time to upload or send pictures to me, to spend time with my poetry and its aftermath.  This is love of a true friend. 

                                 Reading at Tia Chucha's. Portraits by Jessica Wilson Cardenas.

Is love just fluff, roses and chocolate hearts and kittens? No, not at all. Sometimes it costs a lot. Hours of waiting, tears in silence... The project of "Heartbreaks" in which Karineh Mahdessian paired up male and female poets (from the previous, separate anthologies), turned out to be not for me. I much rather write of long years of waiting, of those old fashioned virtues - faith, hope and love, but the greatest is love. ... 

In the meantime, big thanks to my female friends - who invited me, came to my readings, took photos, published my work, translated my poems, and supported me in a multitude of ways.  With this amount of love, the Women's Month, surrounding the International Women's Day (March 8) is off to a good start. 

Ah, and one more thing... The Editor, Kresse Armour, put an article about my Distinguished Service Award from the Polish American Historical Association in The Voice, Sunland-Tujunga's community paper. She called me "Local Woman" - I am so proud! "Local woman, walking down the street..." A foreigner, with a foreign accent still very pronounced, I made Sunland my home and now I am "local" - what a great gift for the Women's Month!