God and Writing

When I was a kid in Yeshiva we wrote the letters Bet-Samech-Daled on the upper right hand corner of all our papers, like a postage stamp.  It means “with the help of heaven.”  Some of us wrote Bet-Hey which means B‘ezrat Hashem, which means with the help of god but I stuck to heaven because Hey meant god and if you wrote Hey then you could never crumple the paper up because it would be like crumpling up god and throwing god out.  So from the very beginning, the word was alive. 

According to Jewish law any damaged book or paper with God’s Name, Torah laws, or 3 consecutive words of Torah must be properly buried as one must properly bury a human body.

And when you close a prayer book you kiss its spine.    

Once, in a Biblical Hebrew translation class the question as to who wrote this part of the bible or that part of the bible came up, and I said so the whole thing about God having written the bible is off the table?  I was dead serious. I was 30. There was laughter.  The laughs were nervous.  I probably laughed too.  But my laughter had little pebbles in it that fell to the bottom of my stomach and stayed there. 

In “Domestic Mysticism” Lucie Brock-Broido writes:  “I draw a bath, enter the water as a god enters water: / Fertile, knowing, kind, surrounded by glass objects / Which could break easily if mishandled or ill-touched."  Poetry is prayer’s extraordinary cousin.  I believe it’s possible they share the same bathwater.   

Here’s my poem, “A Kaddish.”  I wrote it for my grandfather, Eugene Mark:


When the doctor found the black spot inside my husband, the word faith knocked around the house like a trapped bird, an old bird, like a bad omen, and I realized for the first time in my life – at 41 – that I didn’t really know what faith was, and that I probably wouldn’t recognize it even if it snuck up behind me, smelling like salt, and going boo.  I knew what gumption was.  I knew what terror was.  But faith seemed like a luxury I couldn’t afford.  We got to work instead.  We spoke to many doctors.  We scheduled surgeries.  We divided and conquered. I steamed cleaned my whole entire house. I got a flash of our whole family going up in smoke.  My oldest son stopped sleeping.  Our community gathered around us like one gigantic mother. My father came to help.  

When I am lost I don’t go to god, instead I think what would Lucie Brock-Broido do, or what would Donald Barthelme do, or what would Samuel Beckett do, or Bruno Schulz,  or Jorie Graham, or Charlie Chaplin, or what would Patti Smith do. I call my mother.  I call my father.  My brothers.  I go to my husband.  I go to my friends.  I once asked my four year old son for advice after a fallout with an old friend.  He put three fingers up.  Three? I asked.  Three, he said.  And as illogical as it was, I knew “three” was the best advice I’d ever get.    

But on the night we had to call the ambulance, I did pray to God (to something vast) not because faith meant surrender, but because faith meant the opposite of surrender.  Something like being possessed, but also possessing. I was holding onto dear life. I was under a spell, and also I took hold.  Maybe this is why we knock on wood, and not on air.  And not on shadows.  We knock on something sound even when we know damn well the door will never open because there is no door.  Knock, Knock.  Who’s there?  God.  God who? I have tried for a long time to find a punchline to that joke, but I think the punchline might be that there is no punchline.  Knock, Knock.  Who’s there?  God.  God who? Knock, Knock.  Who’s there?  God.  God who? Knock, Knock.  Who’s there?  God.  God who? Knock, Knock.  Who’s there?  God.  God who?   

The Hebrew word for faith is emunah.  In Exodus the Jews are complaining to Moses.  Why did he bring us out of Egypt?  “To kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”  And so Moses goes to God and he says what am I supposed to do with these people?  They are ready to stone me.  So God tells him to use the same rod he used to part the dead sea to hit a rock and water will come out of it and the Jews will drink.  And he did.  And the Jews drank.  And then the story goes that Moses’ hands were heavy, which is I guess another way of saying that he had had it.  And so Aaron and Hur held up his hands and so his hands were emunah, which means steady, which means faith:  

 וִידֵי מֹשֶׁה כְּבֵדִים, וַיִּקְחוּ-אֶבֶן וַיָּשִׂימוּ תַחְתָּיו וַיֵּשֶׁב עָלֶיהָ; וְאַהֲרֹן וְחוּר תָּמְכוּ בְיָדָיו, מִזֶּה אֶחָד וּמִזֶּה אֶחָד, וַיְהִי יָדָיו אֱמוּנָה, עַד-בֹּא הַשָּׁמֶשׁ.

"But Moses' hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun."

But then in Numbers when the Jews are complaining again that they are hungry, remembering the fish and the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks and the onions that they had in Egypt, and they are sick of the manna, and Moses says why did you leave me with these people, to carry them against my chest like a nursing father. The word emunah appears again but as eman, which means a nursing father. And it is in the book of Ruth again when Naomi takes Ruth’s baby and “becomes nurse to it.” And the word there is oh-meh-net (from emunah):

.וַתִּקַּח נָעֳמִי אֶת-הַיֶּלֶד וַתְּשִׁתֵהוּ בְחֵיקָהּ, וַתְּהִי-לוֹ לְאֹמֶנֶת

"And Naomi took the child, and laid it in her bosom, and became nurse unto it."  

Or in the book of Esther, emunah appears again as emun (as the one who raises a child):    

"And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter."

 וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי       לוֹ לְבַת 

I love this translation of emunah as one who holds a nation or a baby to its breast.  As one who raises a child.  As one who nurses.  And it is here where I locate the exact point where faith and my writing overlap.  Faith is a kind of empathy.  It’s a surrender inside or around an unknown skin.  In my first collection of poems, The Babies, a collection of poems haunted by the Holocaust, people kneel inside each other, are pulled onto each other’s laps, are lifted up and swung around by the hips, an army of babies gather the speaker into their tiny arms, children are held in mouths, scars are fingered, there is a lot of touching, a lot of reaching inside each other and pulling things out, a handful of blouses are unbuttoned, a speaker rummages around inside a father to pull a story out sticky with blood and bones.  In my second collection of poems Tsim Tsum and my forthcoming collection of stories, Wild Milk, there is so much hand holding going on you’d think hand holding was a religion.  It really should be. I wish it was.  I really do.

Today at a march in Athens, Georgia to protest family separation, to protest the horror of taking children from their parents for no reason other than their desire to find for themselves and their children the basic freedom to LIVE and THRIVE, today at the march, at the very end, we were asked to circle five women, to make a chain of hands from their hands to all our hands, to say we will protect you, to say no one will take you away, or your children away, because we are all connected.  We are all holding you.  We are holding your hands.  Emunah, emunah, emunah.   

Notes on Rejection

One day in nursery school, I was 5 I think, I cried.  My teacher in her floral apron with the gigantic pockets handed me a paper cup.  We called her Morah something.  (Morah is teacher in Hebrew).  Morah Rabbit?  Morah Ralzy?  Morah Rumple?  Something with an R, which made sense because she was the same shape as an uppercase R. She handed me a paper cup, and told me to collect my tears as they spilled from my face and drink them.  “And when you drink your tears,” she said, “think about your ancestors who were slaves in Egypt.”  It must’ve been close to Passover. She didn’t intend to be cruel.  Her face was covered with freckles the same rust color as the flowers on her apron.  The other kids wanted to taste the tears too.  There were enough tears to go around.  Or maybe there weren’t. 

I don’t remember why I was crying, but the other day I started thinking a lot about “rejection” and this memory popped into my head like a burst vessel. 

When a body’s immune system attacks foreign tissue this is called a “rejection.”   

When you are 5 years old and you are crying for a reason and no one asks you what that reason is, but instead you are told you should be grateful you are not a slave building pyramids in Egypt this is a kind of rejection too.

I have been sending out my collection of stories for about a year.   I am told no Big House will ever want it.  I am told, without a commercially viable novel, it’s unsellable.    Your voice, I am told, is not enough to sell a collection.  Maybe if somebody knew who you were it would be enough. But nobody, the 25 year old agent reminds me, knows who you are. My stories have been referred to as puckish.  My voice, omnivorous.  One agent, after rejecting me, referred me to the Poets & Writers database as if I wasn’t drowning in it already.

Sometimes I do screen shots of these rejections and send them as texts to my two closest friends, accompanied by coffin emoticons and broken hearts and snails.      

When I was 14 I fell madly in love with a boy named Steven Michael David.  We met on the bus the first day of sleepaway camp.  He was a counselor and I was a waitress.  He wrote me poems and was 18 and barely taller than me.  He wore Benetton cologne and a Mack Truck baseball cap over his thick curly hair.   He was a Yeshiva boy who took night classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology.  For the whole entire summer (1989) he was my boyfriend, and then he went to study in Israel, met a girl, and married her.  “You were,” my mother reminds me, “for a whole year inconsolable.  You locked yourself in your room and cried and sulked and cried.  It was unbearable.”  Every single day, for a year, I checked my mailbox for any sign from him.  That whole year he only wrote me a single letter from Israel and addressed it just to “Sabrina.”  No last name.  And I remember wondering if he had forgotten my last name entirely.  Wasn’t he afraid without a last name the letter would never get to me?  But it got to me, and it was distant, and it seemed he was finding god, I guess, and didn’t love me anymore.  He was the first person I ever met who believed in ghosts.  Late at night, I would sneak into his bunk, crawl under his covers and together we’d speak to the dead.



My husband, who also believes in ghosts and who is much taller than me, will quote from Ecclesiastes when I get really down about all the rejections (agents, publishers, jobs, grants) that have been flooding my inbox.  “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”  My husband has a lot of rabbi in him.  And a lot of Buddha too. And when the world says no, he is always beside me saying yes with all his heart.  Sometimes Ecclesiastes comforts me.  Sometimes I ask him to recite it, and then interrupt him before he gets to the “happeneth.”  But the fact remains, when your husband starts speaking to you in Old Testament you know everything’s gotten a bit desperate.     

According to a 2011 study there is a neural overlap between rejection and physical pain.  I recently went to my doctor because I tried to explain “my bones hurt.”  “Where?” she asked.  “My carriage,” I answered sort of pointing around my waist, but then down and then up.  “Is that what you call this?  A carriage?”  She is a very kind doctor, and the corners of her eyes turn downward like mine.  Like she knows the whole world is always a little on the verge of bursting into tears.  As it should be.  After a lot of bloodwork and X-rays we concluded I was sad.  “You’re sad,” she said.  “No,” I said, “I’m a Jew.  This is how we all look.  But also,” I agreed, “I guess I’m also sad.”    

Reasons why I am sad:

1)    Black people getting shot in the back because they are black.

2)    A dear friend's sudden cruelty. 

3)    I have been lucky if I even received a rejection from every single job I’ve applied for since 2011.  Usually it’s just silence.

4)    America.

5)    Early, early one morning my four year old climbs into my bed and tells me he dreamt he was in another dimension where there are no numbers only hand signals.  He shows me one.  It’s an upside down peace signal.  This makes me happy and sad because I understand even though my sons and I live in the same world we also do not live in the same world.  

6)    Yesterday, the 80 year old woman who I mentor used the phrase “not worth a coon’s shit” because her father liked to use that phrase and so she likes to use that phrase too and I said nothing. 

7)    The warming oceans.     

8)    People suffering and dying because they can’t pay for their medicine.

9)    Fires.  Floods.   

10)   Louis CK. 

11)    My 6 year old son’s best friend has cancer.

12)   I am worried all the time that everyone I love will die.  Everyone I love will one day die.

13)   Trump.

14)   Sometimes I’m a really lousy mother.

15)   Nazis. 

To reject something is to refuse to accept, submit, believe, or use something.  I flip to the acknowledgment page of the book I am currently reading.  “Thank you,” writes the author, “to my agent ____________ who believed in the book from the start and worked tirelessly to find it a perfect home.”  I look over at my manuscript.  Something or someone coughs.  “I’m sorry,” I whisper.

2017 has been a really shitty year.  On the playground, my sons’ principal asks me, “Now that this country has taken a turn for the unbelievable, how will this affect your surrealism?”  I had recently finished a story where a President named Huh (who arrives at The White House with only a collection of dustpans) has forgotten the name of his country.  I tell him this.  “Sounds about right,” he says.

My collection is filled with punctured fairytales, with characters who are balanced right at the seam of the real and the unreal.  There are, for example, a lot of characters on the telephone. Things happen in bars or hospitals or playgrounds.  There are daycare centers and taxmen. There is a White House, and a diner, and a public swimming pool.  But these real spaces don't keep a cloud from bursting open and spilling out children. Or jokes from turning into men. Or a woman from getting pregnant by eating leaves stuck to a tin can. Or a father from owing the IRS his heart.  Or a king size bed from turning into a twin.  Or a teacher from snowing.  Which is to say, the collection experiments with characters living in the present, while still maintaining what was at the center of my first two collections (of poetry): the absolute certainty of the unknowable.  

I keep this painting over my desk.  If each story in the collection had a single face this is the face I imagine each story to have.

Portrait of Lily Jane Fools by  Li Shan Chong

Portrait of Lily Jane Fools by Li Shan Chong

Recently, I read about a two million year old pebble discovered in 1925.  The pebble is described as “water worn” with “staring eyes.”  It was found near but outside the vicinity of extinict hominins, implying that the pebble was possibly carried a good distance, as one might carry a story or poem, because in the pebble the human recognized something and so kept it and carried it.  More than ever I want my stories and poems to be like this pebble, water worn with staring eyes. 

Like my five year old eyes.  Like your five year old eyes. 

My sons bring rocks and twigs and acorns and dead bugs home.  In their pockets and lunchbags and sometimes even in their socks.  They are the opposite of all my rejecters.  They are the poets, the collectors, and the healers.  Maybe in one thousand years, a small boy who has the face of my sons will find my manuscript which by then has turned into a pebble.  And he will swallow this pebble.  And the boy with the face of my sons will realize swallowing this pebble has given him the power to fly.  And so he flies and sees lands he would’ve otherwise never seen had he not swallowed my manuscript that is now a pebble that is now in his belly.  That would make me happy.  Even if I never know. 


The Crying Room

On the first day of workshop when I was in graduate school, our visiting professor walked in, put a small grayish bag down on the middle of the table, and told us her father had just died and those were his ashes.  I don’t remember finding this odd.  I remember thinking she was sad, and she missed her father. She then began to disparage the law that keeps us from keeping the whole (un-cremated) bones of our loved ones.  In our house.  The whole skeleton, leaning up against (I imagined) the livingroom wall. If we inherit anything from our loved ones shouldn’t it be at the very least their bones? She had a point.

For me what is more astounding than this story is that every writing workshop doesn’t begin like this.  The material we begin with is so raw why shouldn’t the baby teeth of our children or the ashes of our fathers accompany us inside the workshop. Why shouldn’t we critique with a lock of our mother’s hair around our necks?    

I googled “can I keep a human skeleton in my house?”  Turns out no.  I knew this already, I think, but it’s always good to check.  She was right.  It’s against the law. We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes. We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes.  We are not allowed to possess each other’s remains unless it’s in the form of ashes.  (Sometimes it’s good to say something three times just in case it’s a spell).      

After I had my first son Noah, I took one semester off teaching poetry (for practically nothing) at the University of Georgia.  When I asked to return I was told they had nothing for me anymore.  Nothing plus nothing.  I counted it all up.  I loved the classroom, and I missed the classroom, and I knew I was a good teacher.  I sniffed the head of my newborn and cried and when I was done crying I decided to build my own writing workshop.  I hired a man, let’s call him “Names” for the sake of anonymity, to renovate my garage.    Half his work was beautiful.  He exposed the beams, and let in the light.  He painted the old cement floor a shade called The Dreams of Mermaids.  The other half of his work involved plumbing.  “No problem,” he told me.  When he spoke of the toilet he referred to it as a commode.  For some reason this led me to believe I was in good hands.  I trusted him though I knew he wasn’t a trustworthy man.  I already knew things about him I tried to forget because I so desperately wanted the workshop to be beautiful.  And I wanted the workshop to work.  One thing, I reminded myself, had nothing to do with the other.  But it does.  Everything has everything to do with everything else.   With my credit card he kept going back to the hardware store for more and more pipes. He kept disappearing under my house, and emerging caked and baffled.  Our water began to smell like glue and dirt.  To make a long story short, he built a whole bathroom that didn’t work.  Like something you might find in a dollhouse I guess, but person sized.  He laid down all the tiles with the wrong grout, then tried to fix it by pouring three bottles of Clorox over everything and leaving the floor to seep overnight, and then to seep the next night too, and the next night too.  I asked him if the toilet would ever flush, and he looked at me like I had just asked him where god was or what happens after we die.

This went on for months.    

I finally called a real plumber to check his work.  Do you want to know what you don’t want to ever see a real plumber do?  Emerge from under your house shaking his head muttering, “I’ve never seen anything like this.”  He described the intricate web of pipes like some sort of imaginary road to nowhere, and when he described the pipes I imagined them leading all the way back to the first terrible poem I ever wrote.  Nothing worked.  He just kept shaking his head.     

Names left me with $6000 worth of damage.   His assistant (who had once been my dear friend, but that story is not this story (except is is)) gave me an old mirror as an apology.  Unlike the entire bathroom, the mirror worked perfectly.  When I looked into it I could see my own defeated reflection.

I hung an embroidery up in my workshop that reads "Everything Will Be Okay," and then I wrote a story about Names whose name is not Names who I call King in the story.  It’s called “You Are Hurting My Feelings.”  You can read it here.   

Often my students will ask me about writing about other people.  Is it moral, we all wonder.  What is off limits?  What is on?  Sometimes I go with Anne Lamont who says we own everything that happens to us. “Tell your stories,” she says.  “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”  Or as I now put it, if Names didn’t want me to write a story about him he should’ve fessed up.  Instead he puffed out his chest and got in my face in the way no one should ever get in the face of another.  He looked like he wanted to hit me.  My expectations, he insisted, were unreasonable.  He told me the toilet might flush if I run the washing machine at the exact same time.  He blamed the city.  “Call the city of Athens,” he said.  “It’s their goddamn fault.  All their pipes are breaking.”  When he said this all I wanted was for him to be gone and never to return.  He was scaring me. 

But instead of what is okay to write about and what is not okay to write about, I think the better question (with the better answer) goes something like this: What compels us to write?  Why do we keep going back for more? My oldest son takes apart his toys.  His favorite superheros are often missing their legs. Capes are torn off only to be replaced with little squares of gauze.  He always wants to look inside things.  There is the superhero, but then there is what is inside the superhero, and then there is the superhero in pieces, and then pieces are missing, and then we go looking for those pieces and sometimes we find the the pieces but often we don’t.  I once found Flash’s head in my makeup bag, and it reminded me narrative is never fixed.  It’s an ongoing, moveable feast. We can all end up anywhere.  My son is engaged in an endless study in composition.    I want to see all the inside parts too.  I don’t know what I’m thinking unless I write it down.  I don’t know what I’m feeling unless I write it down.  Until I break off the arm and look inside.  Or I write to keep myself from thinking and feeling too little.  Writing increases my vulnerability to my vulnerabilities.  It sharpens my focus.  And when we sit in workshop and listen to each other read often what we have just – maybe even merely hours ago – written, we are experiencing each other in the most tender, fragile phase of creation.  It’s like when god holds up a chicken and asks the angels “tree yet?” and the angels say “no still a chicken.”  God needs those angels to check the work.  I believe we need that too. 

I should’ve gone under the house with Names and looked at the pipes, but I was too afraid, and I am not fluent in plumbing, and probably would not have been able to read what was there, but I should’ve looked.   

As we began repairs on the workshop, I took the most solace in knowing the actual space of it began as a failure.  It started off wrong as most good poems and stories do.  Names wrote a whole poem with a toilet that couldn’t flush. It was the worst metaphor.  We’d have to hold everything in.  Or we’d have to fix it.            

Once, when I was in workshop as an undergraduate I remember a tall, beautiful practically see-through student getting sick while we workshopped her poem.  She stood up leaned against the wall, put the back of her hand on her forehead, and slid all the way down.  Crumpling like expensive paper.  Our professor without getting up kicked a small trashcan in a perfect line towards her mouth into which she started vomiting.  No one asked her if she was okay including me.  I remember no one helping her.  I am ashamed of myself as a 20 year old thinking the poem should be bigger then the body.  The woman’s name, I remember, was Barbie.       

Andre Breton praised hysteria for being one of the greatest poetic discoveries of the 19th century not only because the hysteric fit could be read as one of the ultimate forms of bodily expression, but because the composition of the poem and the fit share many of the same characteristics.   Barbie became the poem she was writing and instead of applauding we turned our heads away in disgust.    

Helene Cixous describes the hysteric as being given images that don’t belong to her, and then she forces herself, to resemble them.  (It’s not unlike the pregnant body too).  Jean-Martin Charcot, who became a physician in 1862 devoted much of his practice to the hysteric, not healing her, but classifying her symptoms (symptoms that involved disturbances: motor disturbances, tremors, contractions, paralysis, difficulty in walking or standing, deafness, and tunnel vision).  His graphed the fit, dividing hysteria into 4 clearly distinguished phases (see Elisabeth Bronfen's The Knotted Subject: Hysteria and its Discontents), phases that very closely for me resemble the poem or story in mid-composition:

1)    debut / described by Charcot as follows: “lower abdominal pain, moving into the area of the stomach, then heart palpitations, the sensation of a lump in the throat, buzzing in the ears, beating and pounding in the temple, and finally an impairment of vision.  With the ensuing fainting spell the actual fits sets in."   

2)    the clown phase / where the hysteric would exhibit an extraordinary expenditure of muscle power – eccentric body turnings, bizarre body postures – all marked by unusual flexibility, mobility, fluidity, and sheer physical force.  The patient would bend completely so that her body made a bridge, and only her head and feet would rest on the bed.  Charcot marked this phase as being illogical, while interpreting it as a theatrical miming of anxiety, fear, or a fit of anger directed against oneself or a stranger. 

3)    The third phase involved fragments of sentences.  In this phase Charcot understood the hysteric to be converting her psychic drama into a personal drama – in which she believed she was playing the main part.  Whether these performances were comic or tragic, Charcot claimed they were representations of the patient’s psychic reality: love scenes, fires, wars, revolutions.  Charcot would then record and transcribe these fragments of sentences in order to construct a coherent narrative that would then impose order on what appeared to be at first grotesque and incoherent.

4)    The final phase, when the hysteric regains consciousness, is marked by loud crying and sobbing or laughter.

Here the body of writing and the body become inseparable: there is interruption, paralysis, caesura, (breaking the line with a pause in the middle like the bodily acrobatics of the hysteric, a curve in her stomach), delay of consciousness, ellipticism, circular movements, repetition, fragmentation, ultimately some kind of closure that implies an inevitable reopening at a later time so that the sobbing or the laughter is never fully completed.  Elisabeth Bronfen refers to the entire fit as an awful rowing. She could’ve easily called it a poem too.   

Charcot had his patients reenact these fits during his Tuesday lectures – so that they ultimately took on a kind of theatrics.  These women won fame in Paris, as they performed their language of hysteria as a public spectacle, becoming more and more dramatic as they saw the effect of their performance on their audience. 

I think about Barbie a lot.  Someone should’ve helped her up.  I should’ve helped her up. 

My 6 year old son tells me his friend – who is an only child – told him he once had a baby brother but the baby brother was hit by a car in a parking lot and died.  The story isn’t true.  He was, he told my son, holding his baby brother’s hand when this happened.   The trauma of being alone for the boy was worse than his imaginary baby brother’s death.  It’s like his childhood is a story or a poem he is writing, but he has no one there to read it / experience it beside him as he is experiencing it.  And so he invented a dead baby brother.  A ghost workshop.  An angel witness.  An audience.    

When my sons cry I hold them and say don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry / when really I should say cry, cry, cry or I should just hold them and say nothing. 

It is very difficult to witness each other in pain, but I believe one of the reasons we’re all in so much pain in the first place is because we don’t give enough witness to each other.  My workshops are where we can spill our guts, and then learn how to re-arrange the guts formally in lines or sentences, making certain that these lines or sentences still have on them the faint scent of those same guts.  I grew up in a lot of workshops where we were told to ignore the guts. No guts here.  No crying allowed.  Only thing of worth here is the poem born from virgin after virgin.  Something, I’m sorry, happens before a poem happens.  My workshops leave open the space to return to that something.   

I’ve collected from writers the strangest things they ever experienced happening in a workshop as a student or a prof:  

Literal smoke rising from typewriter in corner of room.

Student pulled out a box of action figures and started posing them on his desk during workshop.

Everyone started crying.  

An instructor gave a student some feedback she didn't like on a poem, and so she ate it.

One day a student came to a summer poetry workshop I was teaching with a tight rubber band stretched over the bridge of his nose and the tops of his cheeks. The next day he came back to class without the rubber band, but with a line of deep red welts where the rubber band had been. A student asked him, "Jack, what happened to your rubber band?" He said, "What rubber band?" She said, "The rubber band you were wearing on your face yesterday." He said, "I wasn't wearing a rubber band on my face yesterday."

A woman pulled an electric frying pan out of her bag and fried eggs in the middle of workshop, and then ate them.

A woman removed her pants and started applying salve to a burn.

45 minute conversation about what it might feel like to shit feathers.

In Samuel Beckett’s Molloy, Molloy (who is in his mother’s room) cannot remember how he got there, cannot remember if his mother was dead when he arrived, or dead after, or even dead enough to bury.  Molloy cannot remember his own name, has a thing for sucking stones and wants to establish the best way to distribute the sixteen sucking stones he has to suck among his four pockets so he sucks each stone equally.  So no stone is sucked less than another stone.

I have read and reread the sucking stone scene one thousand times, and each time I think oh, this is workshop.  You suck the stone, and then you put the stone back in your pocket but never the same pocket you retrieved it from.  It’s a mathematical nightmare.  It is about doubt (did I forget to suck one stone / have I sucked one stone too many times), and it is about procedure and order and pleasure.  And it is about failure. But why stones?  Stones are minerals pushed up from the earth’s core, as the earth’s crust grows and erodes.  Stones are the earth’s heart of the matter.  They come from the center.  I am reminded of Lot’s Wife who turns to stone, well salt, a hard mineral, because as she fled Sodom she looked back, perhaps for her daughters, perhaps to see again the city, she turned back and looked like a poet looks, to remember, or see again, or like Charcot’s hysterics who all know the story is always left half open, who return over and over again.

Lot’s wife is left there, forever, looking back.  It’s horribly unfair.  And as I listen to Molloy, and think why stones, what is he after, I imagine Molloy putting his mouth around Lot’s wife, and loosening her out of her petrified state, because I believe in Beckett Molloy sucks to remember, because right after Molloy casts off the sucking as hopeless, after he says “the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another, and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or swallowed” / right after this Molloy begins to see black specks in the distance (like memory), and we begin to understand that this unbearable seemingly ridiculous strange maddening sucking brings Molloy to this: “not only did I see more clearly, but I had less difficulty saddling with a name the rare things I saw.” 

Maybe I should’ve hired Molloy to build my workshop.  Or maybe I did.    

While writing this lecture, a tree fell on my house.  No one was hurt.  And everything was repaired relatively quickly.  Later we found out a microburst tore through our neighborhood, taking down dozens of trees.  A microburst is a small downdraft that moves in a way opposite to a tornado.  They go through three stages in their cycle, the downburst, outburst, and cushion stages which sounds like phases Charcot’s hysterics might go through if they were weather, or a craft assignment, as in: write one downburst, and one outburst.  Our neighbor hired an artist to carve one of the fallen trees across the street from our house into a totem pole. Owl on top, Fox below her, and Snake below Fox. A little science, a little art, a little myth, a little gratitude, a little apology, a little thank you Mother Earth.  The artist stared first at the tree for a very long time, like he was sucking on a stone, and I watched him watch the tree, and then I watched him carve these stories into the tree, and the finished totem pole is beautiful, but what I find more beautiful is being in the storm, and being afraid, and all the trees falling down, and watching the tree people come to carefully remove the trees, and then watching the artist watch the tree, and then carve the tree, and watch the owl appear, and then the fox appear, and then the fox’s eyes appear, and then the eyes are slightly changed, and then the snake appear, and what I find more beautiful than the finished totem pole which is incredibly beautiful is the story that lives inside the totem pole.  My workshops are designed for writers to tell the whole story.  And yes, at the end you leave with a totem pole.  You might even publish the totem pole.  But I remember thinking I should only ever enter workshop with the totem pole.  The storm, and the tree guys, and the damaged roof, and the fear should stay outside the workshop.  But in my workshops you bring all that in.  It gets crowded.  And uncomfortable. As it should.  It’s a way for us to possess each other’s remains (in more than just the form of ashes). 

Also, we should’ve helped Barbie up.