national poetry month

bonkers / tethers by Laura Kochman

[B asks, when I explain what I'm going to write about: is that really a ritual? And I'm not sure, but I think that thinking about one's repeated actions in the context of ritual is useful. For me, a ritual is a repeated action imbued with meaning.]

Every twelve hours, since November 2015, I have given my cat four pills. Every twelve hours, his heart needs medicine that regulates blood flow, musculature, heart rate, lung drainage. If you met him, you'd probably never know.

[at this moment, the alarm on my phone goes off and I stop writing to give my cat the aforementioned four pills]

Every twelve hours, I have to think about mortality. Every twelve hours, I plead with my cat, remind him that it's good for him, kiss his forehead between each pill, stroke his throat—it's spell-like.

[Vlad forgives me instantly, climbs into my lap and purrs across my wrists while I type.]

It drives me nuts, this mystery of materiality. Everyone knows Walt Whitman says we contain multitudes, and that is just bonkers. Why are we tethered to ourselves? Why is my sweet cat tethered to this malfunctioning heart? Why am I tethered to this cat? So many writers that I love are interested in the idea of expressing the inexpressible, of reaching toward that which cannot be known, and me too, me too, but what if you have to do it every twelve hours and what if it's not your philosophy but your cat?

Liquids like water and blood will fill        their small containers / take
shape / as though / bodies of water
were not bounded

When I speak

for my own small body that sleeps
on the coast of my body / it was yours

[Does a ritual need to be chosen?]

[As if I had a choice.]

Language works for me when it comes at me slanted, when it's not quite on the mark. If poetry were just the exact replica of meaning, what point would there be? To get at the inexpressible, you can't quite express it, but leave a door open. No exact match between material and immaterial. A space for the leap, for the act of believing in it.

a slowly turning circle / another / another by Laura Kochman

Fortune and her Wheel, Medieval illustration.

 

Today is the first occurrence of April 27 on a Wednesday since 2011, when sirens cut off my Wednesday afternoon poetry workshop and I ran to the library, where I huddled in the hallway while an EF4 tornado ground a diagonal wound into my town. It's a strange symmetry: five years, another Wednesday. Five is the kind of solid number you can depend on. I often count in fives. It's a way in which we can control time, by counting it.

 

The tornado changed a lot of things for a lot of people, and one of the things it changed for me was my sense of time. It made me realize that time is not so easily divisible (that nothing, actually, is so easily divisible). In a 2008 art history class on South American shamanic art, one of the cultures we studied had a calendar for which the repetition of the days was literal. Each Wednesday was the same Wednesday. Any meaning that was imbued on one Wednesday would be present the next Wednesday. Every week a slowly turning circle.

 

I started writing an essay about the tornado and repetition and Doctor Who in 2012, and I am still working on it. Still trying to figure out what I mean.

 

I have always thought of the calendar year as a circle, like a clock, with January 1 at the top, quadrants of the seasons. Each year kisses its own tail at the top. The academic calendar is the upper half of the circle, and in the academic calendar these months are their own kind of year. I know where the momentum will carry us, forward, swinging, but I don't live there anymore.

 

In the last months of 2010, I wrote a paper on The Consolation of Philosophy, on the way in which allegorical texts free us from linear time, on the recurrence of circles and circular movement, on the book itself as a circle, half in text and half beyond the boundaries of text. I didn't know that I was setting myself up. Half here and half there. Half beyond the storm and half huddled in the hallway. What would console me?

 

There's something comforting in the return, every year, of April 27. That we all remember together. That we create the safety that we did not have. That collective grief might swing us forward for another year, that a tornado is a turning circle, that I might be again in my old body, that the wound might be undone, that we might capture it more clearly.

to come home to by Laura Kochman

Yesterday's post was hard to write and harder to click publish on, but I'm glad that I did. I'm still trying to listen better to what I need, to consider that what I need is worth needing. In the swarm of those emotions, I signed up for a writing workshop this weekend, on embodied ritual in (Jewish) writing. Great timing, right?

My favorite holiday is happening right now, and I spent much of my weekend at family meals. Passover has always been my favorite because it is the most ritualistic, the most structured, the most focused on conversation, the most gefiltefish. I have a strained relationship with Judaism, but not with Passover. I love the symbolism and the groupthink of the haggadah, the way we can never follow instructions properly. One year we wore masks to represent the plagues, one year finger puppets. Ten years ago I skipped Passover to visit a college, and it turned out to be my last chance to see my Bubbe. In grad school, I longed for Passover and attended seder at the only synagogue in Tuscaloosa, where I read a paragraph in Hebrew and the rabbi made fun of my stilted pronunciation. Years ago, I kicked my legs under my aunt's dining room table and watched Bubbe shovel in magenta horseradish and grin at us kids, red teeth and slim fingers.

My family actually isn't that big on ritual, so maybe that's why I love it—what is content without form? A thing to come home to. Every year I wonder / how we'll last / this the last. This year we put an orange on the seder plate, so this will be the year we put an orange on the seder plate. Am I trying to hold onto something that I never had? Will it stay? The seder is the strange embodiment of a spirituality that I don't keep, a form without content, but repetition breeds meaning, and maybe in this way I'll find it.

a more radical selfie, or rituals of body & size by Laura Kochman

[TW: eating disorders]

"How did you do it?" asks one of my aunts, wanting advice. It is 2003 / I am 15 / 5 feet 8 inches / 144 pounds. I mumble something about diet and exercise, instead of: I skip breakfast. I eat one apple for lunch. I guzzle water instead of eating, drag the same Poland Spring water bottle around with me wherever I go, despair when I lose it. I obsess over the calorie content of my food without actually looking it up, because I am too afraid to know. Instead, I make it up, overestimating. I exercise every night to the same hour-long DVD, in front of the wide window in our living room, in front of my father, who likes to stand by and watch for a few minutes (me? the DVD?). I know I'm making him proud by making myself smaller.

In 2016, I am a full inch taller, and my doctor suggests that 145 pounds would be a "healthy weight" for me to aim at.

The first time that I remember being weighed at a doctor's office, the scale hits 103. This is not good, it is proposed to me, still in elementary school. My mother takes me shopping for pants later that day, bringing me pairs that are too small, in the sizes she had assumed I was. One after another, they stop at my thighs. She wrinkles her nose and sighs. "I just didn't realize you were that big."

At age 4 or 5, my mother and Bubbe take my sister and I to a diner. They order my sister a milkshake, which she doesn't want. I ask for one and am refused, told that I don't need it.

Everyone on my DVD is muscular and energetic. They sweat all over the place, just like me. I get used to the rhythm of the music, the places where the song changes, where someone coughs, where the trainer makes the same joke every night. I know without looking when he'll change sides, kick backward, shake his head just so.

At a family dinner, I am casually referred to as the garbage disposal.

I sob and sob and sob in the car outside the gym because I have gained 10 pounds. I don't know, at this point, that I have also gotten taller. I just know I've done something bad. I am taken to a doctor who lets me know I should work out every day for at least 60 minutes and eat a lot less / that should do it! That should take care of me.

In 2016 I can benchpress 120 pounds and I am finally starting to appreciate what my body can do, instead of the things it can't.

I run around the block for as long as I can stand it, longer—I don't stop until I place my hand on my stomach and it feels cold to the touch. I read a book about a teenager who takes a summer job as a gardener and loses weight, and I hope it might happen to me. I read a book about a woman who becomes depressed and takes long, numb walks and loses weight, and I hope it might happen to me. I read a book about teens who take up running, one of whom becomes anorexic and loses weight, and I hope it might happen to me. It does.

In a dance class in college, I smile and say something about being larger than the other students in the class—this is an easy thing to make a joke about. My teacher looks right back at me: "No, you're stronger, and that's a good thing." I'm a little confused, because this is not how the conversation has traditionally gone.

In 2016, I can load 225 pounds onto a metal barbell and place the barbell across my shoulders and squat down and stand up. A woman in my gym class talks about her 1300-calorie daily limit, and I start to wonder if I should limit myself in this way again.

I faint. Someone tells me it must be the heat / I agree /  my stomach is also empty.

My mother tricks me into joining a swim team, though I have expressed no interest in swimming. A few years later, my mother tricks me into joining the intensive summer training camp for middle school soccer players who are transitioning to the high school team, though I have never played soccer.

I try not to talk about weight or diet in front of other people, because I have been the person listening, and I fail, over and over. I am a good listener, but I've been listening to the wrong narrative.

When I explain to my doctor that 145 pounds would not be healthy for me, that I have only ever achieved that weight through disordered eating, that the number that appears on the scale is not inherently healthy or unhealthy and that the way we talk about weight and health should be carefully considered, she writes back: "OK"

Okay—I have never been satisfied. I have been told I should never be satisfied. I have been taught to love food, and to deny it. All descriptions of me as a baby are accompanied by descriptions of my weight. How it hurt to carry me around.

radical DIY selfie by Laura Kochman

Today, somebody that I love was very sick and sent me a message about it, then later apologized: I'm sorry. Sorry to worry you. Sorry to bother you. I'm sorry—

I do this all the time, myself. All this month, needing something to write about, I've turned to myself, because I am right here. And I feel horribly self-conscious about it—so sorry. I tell myself it's not becoming to write about myself. It's not interesting to write about myself. I think this blog would be so much more interesting if I could just write about something else other than myself, that by virtue of writing about literally anything other than myself, what I write will be interesting and of value. If somebody else wanted to write about me, then that would potentially be interesting and worthwhile, but if I do it myself? Do I need to keep spelling this out? It's not good.

What if instead of apologizing, we just didn't? What if, when we wanted to write about ourselves, we just did? What if, instead of waiting for others to confer value upon us, we just did it ourselves? Radical DIY self-appreciation. Valuing yourself isn't about ignoring other people, or valuing yourself higher than other people. It's just about letting you speak, which has worth / which has worth.

nudges on another plane by Laura Kochman

When I’m writing the way I want, the way I love, which is without thinking about what I’m writing, a strange thing happens: I feel simultaneously the most myself I could possibly be, and at the same time totally relieved of self.
—Kathryn Harrison

I read this piece today, on writing by not thinking, or writing from an unlit place, or moving forward no matter what, which is exactly the kind of motivator that one needs when one undertakes a National Poetry Month blog challenge that nobody asked one to do, and that one knows no one is keeping track of but oneself. But also: this is how I write. In a sort of haze. I'm thinking back to this recent post on the physicality of poetic form, and this recent post on my early/forever love of Diana Wynne Jones fantasy novels, and this physical/unlit meditative writing state, and these things all make sense together. In so many Diana Wynne Jones books, magic is done not through spoken spells or rituals, but in subtle twists. Nudges on another plane. It is often described in a slanted way, not quite looking right at it, which is how I write. This sort of vague aspect becomes material, or at least material enough, or at least material to the person doing the nudging—who is, after all, the reader. I'm not sitting around writing poetry pretending to do magic, but aren't I?

read more / no metaphor by Laura Kochman

My new daily ritual is starting my car and driving it in what feels like an endless journey to find a new parking spot, because my car battery is dead and driving will apparently help it last until Saturday, when I can get it fixed. I am not enjoying this ritual, and I'm going to resist turning it into a metaphor, even though I know exactly how it would play, and I bet you do, too.

Instead: this list of 30 poets we should all be reading is pretty great. Some of these writers I'm quite familiar with, but I'm very excited about the ones I know less about. For example, I've been meaning to read more of TC Tolbert's work since discovering it in The Volta Book of Poets (oops, I'm slow). I've also been waiting on Christopher Soto's undocupoets feature at Southern Humanities Review, which is now live. The LitHub has me convinced I should read Layli Long Soldier, and reminds me that people keep talking about Robin Coste Lewis. I'm super into the description of Solmaz Sharif's forthcoming book, and I'm super embarrassed by how long I've been meaning to get into Douglas Kearney. I just keep circling the block on that one—OH NO there goes the metaphor. I'm embarrassed. Constantly embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. But it's because there is just so much to read, and how lucky we are for that. Because I missed the AWP bookfair, I'd say I'm due for some internet book-ordering (!).

the body in the page by Laura Kochman

[let's pretend that yesterday was a linebreak]

One of the rituals that I perform almost daily is the ritual of the gym. I wake up every morning at 5:25am, whether going to the gym or not (because my cat has set his internal breakfast clock to 5:25am). Most mornings, I walk a few blocks over and lift heavy weights / throw weighted balls / attempt handstands / do burpees / jump onto boxes / run up and down a 100-meter 35-degree ramp. I do this because I enjoy it. I love the ritual of approaching the bar, checking my stance, ducking my head under and resting the weight across my shoulders. Feeling the long muscles of my thighs activate as I allow the bar to press my body down into a squat, then reversing upwards—straightening out like a problem has been solved.

It's very form-driven, weightlifting, and that is the part that keeps me coming back. The way it feels to do a thing correctly. A clean and jerk works because of the angle of your body as you bend down to pull the bar. How the body is oriented in space matters, and as I think back to activities of the body that I have loved, I see they have all been driven by form: weightlifting, modern dance, horseback riding, discus, writing. In each of these, there is a feeling of right-ness driven by form. Form in writing is something that I feel just as viscerally as the arc of my arm traveling forward through the discus circle / following the twist in my body as my weight shifts from my back foot to my front foot / my brain orients / to the page. So the body, too, is always in the page / just as much a plane as any other.

by Laura Kochman

I find myself wanting to defend short posts like last night's, though it may not be thoughtful or careful. Though I may have written it very quickly, because I was tired and wanted to go to bed. Even then. That's what makes it so defensible--that I did it even though it would have been easier not to. Especially in a time-based project like this, it's those posts that make the grout that are maybe the most important. 

When I was working on my thesis, which was a collection of individual poems, my advisor reminded me more than once that every poem in a collection can't be a knockout. This is because books have a rhythm and a shape, and you create it through impact in addition to content and form. I think about this when working on a poem, too, judging where to cut a line, where to extend, where to leave a hole, how to place one line near another line. There is a rhythm to the page, and a rhythm to this site. I guess I'm disrupting that by dumping 30 posts in 30 days. But so: what kind of rhythm am I creating? Am I establishing a pattern? Am I giving myself space with this condensed block of posts? It's hard to tell while this is still in process.

april is the weirdest month by Laura Kochman

April is the weirdest month. I'm convinced that Philadelphia is constantly windy because it is a pathway between two rivers. My grandmother has forgotten my name, but remembers my brother-in-law. "Brother-in-law" is still a strange phrase to form. My hair blows in all directions. Another protein bar. In the mornings, I feed my cat twice before I feed myself. Following B around in books, I am learning and despairing. Another protein bar. Confession: at my desk I remove my shoes. There was a break in the rhythm of the procession of oxygen through my body this afternoon when I discovered that the office softball team is called the Tornados. An exclamatory email in the corner of my screen, my actual heart. A blessed protein bar. I made a joke about myself and regretted it. Timing targets. If I were the wind, I too would whip along the arterial streets.