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Filtering by Category: Writing & Publishing

Persona and Poetry

Jill Reid

Beauty and Death “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”—Frederick Buechner

 Last fall, I spent a few weeks teaching two beautiful essays to an undergraduate creative writing class. One essay was written by Frederick Buechner and the other by my talented friend Callie Feyen. Both essays dealt with moments of loss and growth and reached far back into the writers’ pasts, all the way to childhood. One of the most interesting things my students discussed in regard to the essays was the way both authors were able to compress time in their narrative voices. The essays were rich with both the voice of the children they once were and the adults they had become. My students loved the essays not only for the stories they told but more, I think, for the voices that told them. These were voices both broad and specific enough to belong to the writers, as well as every reader who had experienced similar loss and growth.

Energized from the discussion, I went home and tried to write a poem for the first time in weeks. I made coffee, stared at the screen, and heaved more into the blank space than any poor page deserves to bear. It took two more weeks before the poem and its voice came together enough to sound less like Jill the person and more like Jill the writer—someone who crafts voice and imagery capable of embodying both 'my' story as well as the stories of others.

Voice, the construct of tone behind a poem’s unfolding, has become much more than a craft concern for me. Learning how to create and wield “voice” has allowed me to move through spaces as a writer I would never be brave enough to risk as just Jill. When I entered the MFA program at Seattle Pacific University three years ago, I was choking on moments and images and memories that I couldn’t control or temper into poetic line. I was a newly divorced, single mom putting myself through grad school, and I felt like a walking stereotype. The world smacked of pain. An unpaired sock on the floor, the mockingbird cracking into the glass door, even my umbrella turning inside out in the rain—every image brimmed with the shock of loss.

My poetry mentor, Jeanine Hathaway, who has written extensively utilizing the power of persona (see her Ex-Nun Poems), looked me in the eye and asked, “Why not try a costume change?” I blinked at Jeanine. “Tell the story. But use a persona. It will free the poem to be the poem and your experiences to be your experiences.”

In a way, persona saved me. I was able to write about the unpaired sock and the mockingbird and the umbrella, but write about them outside of the moment I experienced them. Instead, those images unfolded in the crafted persona of a professor/mom or the granddaughter of a Creole farmer. And while those personas comprise elements of my identity, they are also constructs that allowed me to be both emotionally present and distant enough from the experiences and the poems to do them all justice. With my voice tucked inside the right persona, I don’t get bogged down in the mire of how I remember something or how I would say something. Instead, I am free to know what I would say or did say while writing what the persona would say in the way she would say it.

Each time I sit down and lack the courage to tell a story, I think of Jeanine and the power of a costume change. Eventually, I get the nerve to rummage for the right persona and let it lead me through the difficult spaces. I am learning to follow and create the voice that helps me to be brave.


The Politics of Poetry

Howard Schaap

16 dark-room-light-through-window “Make it more obscure,” a student says in an undergrad poetry workshop. This after the assignment says be specific, always specific, and avoid abstraction. And cliché.

In fact, I’ve crafted the assignment to follow Ted Kooser’s mystical ideal about poetry, that “meaning arrives almost unbidden from an accumulation of specific details.” But then I read a quote from Stephen Evans in David Orr’s Beautiful & Pointless which says, “Through men like . . . Ted Kooser, Karl Rove’s battle-tested blend of unapologetic economic elitism and reactionary cultural populism is now being marketed in the far off reaches of the poetry world,” and I wonder if my choice has been that innocent, that naïve.

Maybe the image, the detail, is really the enemy of the word.

This is confirmed later when a colleague reads from The Writing Life about cardboard butterflies, how male butterflies will always “jump” the cardboard copy of a butterfly—if it’s bigger than the real female butterfly. TV and film images are that cardboard butterfly for Dillard, while she would have us jump books, language: “In my view, the more literary the book—the more purely verbal, crafted sentence by sentence, the more imaginative, reasoned, and deep—the more likely people are to read it. The people who read are the people who like literature, after all, whatever that might be.”

Then today, I sit in a Reformed worship service, and we read from the Heidelberg Catechism, and I think of a friend who says that the gift of Dutch Reformers has been systematic catechisms, real works of art if “systematic” and “art” weren’t so supposedly diametrically opposed. And I think of a theologian who describes Reformed worship as rhetorical, all word before it became flesh, built into tight brick rhetorical structures that stand strong and unyielding out here on the prairies against the northwest winds that come howling down from the Canadian wilds all winter long—structures with a certain implicit beauty, perfect for survival but also pretty easy to simply cower behind.

“In the beginning was the Word,” I think to myself. Or is this just my logocentrism?

“Make it more obscure,” she says, the one black woman in my class. What’s true for her, for me, at thirty-eight, my age?

Here I am again, at the mercy of language, wondering just how it works. Just what can words do? How can they be plied and bent and put to service and fleshed out? How can they slip away, escape, survive?

“Yes, yes—maybe try that. Make it more obscure. See just what those words can do.”

Bees, A Book, and Risk

Melissa Reeser Poulin

Bumblebee If I’d known what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure I would have done it.

In the beginning, it was just anger and frustration driving me, keeping me up at night wondering what to do. Fifty-thousand bees were killed by insecticide in a parking lot, because customers were complaining about the honeydew aphid leaving trails on windshields. It was early summer 2013, all the linden flowers in bloom, every creature doing its work in the intricate warp and weft of life, including the drowsy bumblebee. Because the natural world is built on interdependence, you cannot kill one thing without harming another, without harming yourself.

It was seven years since the wider world had heard the first signs of trouble for pollinators, when beekeepers began reporting massive and inexplicable colony losses. A name for the crisis appeared—colony collapse disorder—and theories mushroomed. Conservationists pointed out that it wasn’t just the honeybee, industrious friend of agriculture, but native pollinators of all kinds that were showing ominous signs of decline.

Grief is a heavy, suffocating thing. When neonicotinoids killed those bumblebees, I needed something to do, maybe more than I needed to “do something.” Because really, I thought, what can a girl with degrees in literature and a little backyard garden actually do for pollinators? I wanted, in some way, to help close the gap between humans and the tiny creatures we too easily ignore or brush aside as mere nuisance—or worse, kill outright with no sense of consequence.

What resources did I have at my fingertips? I thought I’d make a book about the relationship between humans and pollinators. What started as an idea for a hand-sewn chapbook of my own poems, hand-sold to raise funds for conservation organizations, quickly became a much larger vision for a published collection of work from writers of all kinds. Suddenly, there was plenty to do.

I learned how to write a grant proposal and a book proposal, met with friends and friends of friends who taught me the basics of social media marketing and self-publishing, set up a website and established an LLC. I took out ads in literary magazines and opened a Submittable account to invite writers to send in work. As submissions began to come in, I found I needed another pair of eyes to help me, and joined with a local poet and beekeeper to co-edit and release the book that would eventually become Winged: New Writing on Bees.

Fast forward a year, through many kitchen table editing sessions, late nights of research, endless emails, event-planning, and sleeplessness. Somehow, there is a beautiful book in our hands, designed and printed locally with a cover illustration from a local artist. Inside, there is stunning work from a wide variety of writers, including two poet laureates. We’ve earned grant funding, held a writing workshop, and participated in an event with the honeybee research lab at Oregon State University. We’ve made our book available to school and county libraries, and in January we matched all copies sold with a copy donated to the Prison Book Program.

Yet the project has not been without its missteps and misunderstandings. I’ve had to turn down really good work, including work from friends whose writing I admire. We let errors get through our painstaking proofreading, which still feels terrible in spite of the beautiful erratum bookmark we printed to correct them. There were plenty of hurt feelings along the way, and many nights when I wondered if it would have been better to have just made that hand-sewn chapbook after all.

I’m not sure I will ever feel completely certain of the answer to that question, just as I was never completely certain, in beginning the project, if it was the right thing to do. I prayed a lot about it, and worried about my ability to see it through. Reading the book now, though, and reflecting on the 18-month journey (and counting) it has led me on, I am mostly grateful for the lessons I learned.

Anything worth doing will not be without pain and sacrifice (and let’s face it, whining). It will not be perfect. That’s the choice we make when we take a risk, when we move to create something that doesn’t yet exist in the world. I had no idea in June 2013 that that was the choice I was making, and being the fearful human being I am, I probably wouldn’t have made the book if I had known. It sounds funny, but I’m grateful for that ignorance. It allowed me to make Winged, and I’m so glad I did.

Find the Story Inside You

Christina Lee

Word Fingerprint For as long as I’ve been teaching, I’ve been giving the same assignment. I ask my students to write a story about their lives, a “personal narrative.” And when I explain the assignment, I’ve always, always, met with a chorus of “but nothing’s ever happened to me! My life is so boring!”

At this point I always tell the story of Joseph, an English Language Development (ELD) student from my first year teaching, whom I can only describe as a 15-year-old curmudgeon. Interrupting my description of the assignment, he stubbornly yelled that he “had no stories in him.” (His words, as often happened, became unusually pithy due to the language barrier.)

I asked him if he’d ever been in trouble. His eyes flickered. And in almost one breath, he told a hilarious story of being three and nearly burning down his own house.

“Write that,” I told him.

“Okay,” he said. And he did. And when he turned it in, he grudgingly admitted that he’d loved writing it.

I’ve given this assignment for nearly ten years, so you’d think I’d be tired of it by now. But I’m not. There’s power in asking someone to tell you a story. And there’s something about my classes after they’ve submitted their stories: they stand taller. They participate more actively. In the years that I’ve made time for them to read their stories to one another, the change is even more pronounced. They are kinder. They listen to one another more willingly.

Because there’s something really good about knowing you had a story inside you, and even better about being able to give it to someone else for safekeeping.

Now, I’m making the whole process sound utterly dreamy. Of course it’s not. There were some dark days this year, grading 140 narratives. One boy wrote a three-page saga about finding worms in his kindergarten lunch box (this one lacked any decipherable moral and most punctuation, but was rich in figurative language). Another submitted a technically flawless essay about having the stomach flu, also rich with metaphors and sensory imagery (I suspect this to be passive revenge on me for assigning the essay in the first place, or else a far-too-literal interpretation of my “find the story inside you” pep-talk). One student misunderstood my prompt and penned a sweeping, 15-page elementary school memoir. He’d also missed the part of class where I imposed a page limit.

After they turned in their papers, I asked my students for a metaphor for the process of writing about themselves. Some of my favorites: “looking for the whitest flower in a field of white flowers,” “peeling back layers of skin, but not in a way that hurt” and “staring into a fun house mirror for a long time.” And of course, there was the “falling down a deep pit of despair.”

But even as I’m accused of inflicting despair, I consider this a noble task. And I consider this lesson perhaps the most important one I will teach: you have a story in you.

The Bar Virtue

Alissa Wilkinson

Speakeasy-Bar-Interior-Design-of-Fraunces-Tavern-Restaurant-New-York It's always a long day at work, but today was especially long: a student meeting sandwiched in between two meetings with advancement at the college, and three lectures to prep, and the copier breaking down, and an article to publish. I customarily repair to a pub down the street a few days a week to wrap up my workday, right about when the walls of my small office start to close in on me. I try to go early and leave early, when I can. But today I didn't make it here till almost seven o'clock. I still got a seat.

They know me here. They gave me the WiFi password months ago. They slip me extra food or a pint they accidentally poured for someone else. Today, I got here and started to order, and the bartender immediately leaned in and said, conspiratorially, “You know, we have an Imperial IPA on tap now.” I've been griping about the proliferation of Oktoberfest for weeks. They know what I like.

I started coming here almost a year ago, partly because some sleuthing revealed they pour my favorite Irish microbrew, and partly because it's close to work. Low lights, but not too low. No sports in the side of the bar where I usually sit, though I traded spots briefly during the World Cup. Polite clientele, unlike most of the places near Wall Street. And lots of history—my husband recently looked up from his laptop to tell me that it's the oldest bar in New York City. George Washington bid his troops farewell right here.

I've spent a few late nights here with friends, and a few more alone, cranking through the to-do list. When I ran the New York City Half-Marathon last March, I ran over the finish line and straight here, where they were pouring stouts at ten o'clock in the morning. I've made friends with the bartenders and recommended books and talked about movies and chuckled at antics, and I've written many thousand words perched in the same seat where I am, right now, writing a few hundred more. I've eavesdropped on more awkward conversations than I can count and chatted with (mostly Irish) tourists and tried a few weird beers, and I have always felt safe.

When people ask me how I work while perched at a bar, I point out that many New Yorkers work in coffeeshops—and of course, everyone has their favorite one. Some are loud. Some let you be anonymous. At some, your barista knows your drink; others have free coffee refills. But for me, the bar is the right place: I don't have time to write till evenings, I don't want to drink caffeine late in the day, coffeeshops in New York close by 7pm, and besides, once you figure out that drinking slowly is fine, a nicely poured pint is the perfect thing to make an evening of tasks more tolerable.

Tonight, I'll duck out in an hour or two, after I tick off the final item on my to-do list—it's a work day, after all—and trade some conversation with the bartender. I'll leave feeling like I haven't been “out,” because in some sense, I haven't; I've been at one of my comfortable places. It's a gift to have a place where you are a regular, a place where everybody knows not just your name, but your drink, and your occupation, and the fact that you're married and would rather not deal with unwanted attention from some rando down the bar, and what book you're reading right now.

Rosie Schaap, who wrote the “Drink” column for The New York Times, wrote a book called Drinking with Men, all about the joys of regularhood. And she says this: “Although loyalty is upheld as a virtue, bar regularhood—the practice of drinking in a particular establishment so often that you become known by, and bond with, both the bartenders and your fellow patrons—is often looked down upon in a culture obsessed with health and work. But despite what we are often told, being a regular isn’t synonymous with being a drunk; regularhood is much more about the camaraderie than the alcohol. Sharing the joys of drink and conversation with friends old and new, in a comfortable and familiar setting, is one of life’s most unheralded pleasures.”

I couldn't have said it better myself.

A Long Obedience

William Coleman

Albert-SchweitzerBalzac drank close to fifty cups of coffee every day. Before he wrote a single word, Steinbeck set twelve, freshly sharpened Blackwings on his desk. Poe made scrolls of narrow sheets and sealing wax: a tiny scroll for every final draft. Hemingway stood; Capote reclined; Dickens paced. 

Tales of rituals about the act of writing abound. They are told and retold, collected and displayed: evidence of eccentricity, or quick-fix jump-starts to propel us into creative space.

What’s rarer, at least to my knowing, are stories in which the whole of a writer’s life is seen to have been brought to an order, as is the way of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami:

“When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. "In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

To regard each moment of one’s life as essential to induction into the timeless is to take a more integral view of imagination than is often made manifest in popular culture, one that requires rigor, if it is to be acted upon.

“To hold to such repetition for so long requires a good amount of mental and physical strength,” Murakami continued. "In that sense, writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”

I tend to forget the link between discipline and creative well-being. How much easier it is to go slack, waiting for inspiration. But when I look back at the times when I was able to contend most fruitfully with what Nietzsche called the “thousand laws” at work within “the free arranging, locating, disposing, and constructing” that composes each moment we later call inspired, I recognize them as times when my days were fully exercised —filled with theory and practice, thinking and running.

The next sentence in Nietzsche’s book is familiar, and deeply challenging: “The essential thing ‘in heaven and in earth’ is […] that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”

Balzac worked fifteen hours a day. He plumped with ink each margin of every galley proof he ever got. Steinbeck labored over East of Eden for eleven months. He drafted each day’s work on the right-hand pages of a notebook. In the facing space, he wrote letters to his friend, Pascal Covici. “On the third finger of my right hand, I have a great callus just from using a pencil for so many hours every day, ” he wrote on April 3, a Tuesday. "It has become a big lump by now, and it doesn’t ever go away.”

It’s easy enough to co-opt a trapping of a writer’s inner life, to buy a dozen pencils, brew another pot. What’s hard is to submit to the force toward which the rituals point. What’s hard is to work when it seems like nothing’s working. What’s hard, to put it another way, is to work on faith.

Where Do You Write?

Michael Dechane


It's best that I be as clear about this as I can -- I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves. The job of the writer is to give them a place to grow (and to transcribe them, of course). Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer's job is to use the tools in her or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it's enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.  - Stephen King, On Writing

The metaphor of writers as archeologists King describes it is my favorite part of his book On Writing. The process of discovery and of clearing away everything that isn't connected to the other pieces rings true to my experience as I work at finding words. It helps me focus. It helps me remember to be attentive, gentle, and decisive at my desk. It is a standing invitation to return to the joy-and-labor of finding and bringing home stanzas, paragraphs. I wonder, though, about where one goes to find fossil-stories: about the nature and topography of this ‘undiscovered pre-existing world.’

As I continue to press on in pursuing the craft of writing, I am discovering that where I go internally is more important than where I decide to break open my laptop, or how many cups of coffee might put me in the sweet zone for the day’s writing work. I don’t have a great way to articulate this yet – maybe that’s why I’m still hung up (or hanging!) on King’s metaphor of digging bones.

At this point, maybe it is as much as I can say that I feel I need to go deeper, or underneath, some strictly rational, manageable ‘place’ to get to a ‘place’ with ideas and words that feel most true, most surprising, most like my real voice. Maybe what I’m looking for is a personal metaphor to capture — and driving directions for how to get back to — that mysterious, wonderful, terrifying place where I find the good words. A metaphor for that place, and for my role in it. Am I alone in this search? Or have you quested after this, maybe found a metaphor that helps you?

Have you been writing lately?

Abby Jarvis

24 jacob-wrestles-an-angel

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent: a thing is brought forth which we didn’t know we had in us…

It’s hard to guess where that pride of poets comes from, when so often they’re put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

- From “Ars Poetica?” by Czeslaw Milosz

“Have you been writing lately?” I cringe a little every time I’m asked that question. There is no good answer:

Yes, I’ve been writing and no, you can’t see it; or

Yes, I have been writing but it’s all terrible; or

No, I haven’t been writing, and please please please don’t ask me why.

Writing poetry is not a pleasant process. Any writing is uncomfortable, I suppose, but there’s something uniquely dreadful about poetry. Czeslaw Milosz says a poet is a demoniac city; poems rise up like devils, unannounced, before they are exorcised by page and pen. A poet’s demons are caught, subdued, and arranged in neat stanzas for other’s perusal.

Pinning down your demons to be scrutinized like bugs under glass is a profoundly uncomfortable experience. No human is comfortable being openly frail and vulnerable in front of other people. When a poet writes, they struggle to capture the total essence of their humanity; their fear, rage, ecstasy, sadness, and joy. It is not easy to display yourself at your most human and your most vulnerable.

Yes, I have been writing lately. It is not a comforting process. No poet’s process is. Poetry is wrestling with your demons like Jacob wrestled with the angel; it’s private, it’s desperate, and, hopefully, there’s redemption at the end.

Sixteen (or so) Candles

Michael Dean Clark

Since this blog will publish on my birthday, I decided to make some wishes with it. Yes, I am aware that wishes made public supposedly won't come true. And yet, wishes kept captive in the inner-recesses of my addled mind go nowhere anyway, so I feel safe in putting a few out there. And yes, I am also aware that making my wish list public might be taken as a tad self-serving. That's because it is. And I'm ok with that.

Wish #1  This year, my 38th if you must know, I really hope to be found by a story that makes me feel so inferior I am compelled to write it. This is not because I have an inflated opinion of myself and my abilities. Rather, I want desperately to be stunned into the process of telling an amazing story that, for some reason or other, has not been told. I am convinced that it is not an artistic duty that drives story as much as it is the incumbent need to bear witness to the invisible.

Wish #2 Re: Wish #1 - Because so many stories worth telling get ignored for ones we've heard too many times before, my second wish is that anyone who ends up reading this blog will also be confronted with a story they must tell. If it happens, I'm hoping the candle I blew out with your name on it compels you to find the keyboard rather than think "Someone should really write about that."

Wish #3 Re: Wish #1&2 - Because the desire to write a story is the response we SHOULD automatically heed, my third wish is that all of us who commit these stories to prose actually seek their publication so we are not the only ones who get the opportunity to experience them. Instead, I wish for all of these stories to eventually be submitted to various publications (and no, this is not me shoe-horning in two wishes, Jafar). If you're not sure where to send the story you write, spend some time here.

Wish #4 And for my final wish, a little selfishness on my part (as if taking one more wish than the customary three is not selfish enough). I wish that all our stories find homes, bear witness, and inspire others to stand in the path of stories that will force them, in turn, to be witnesses themselves. 

So don't let me down people. It is my birthday and all.

Michael Dean Clark is the fiction editor at Relief and an assistant professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, California. When he's not writing or parenting via shame and sarcasm, Clark is waiting (im)patiently for the return of Psych, and you know that’s right.

Kafka on Reading Books

Brad Fruhauff

If only we could always read the Bible as the "ax for the frozen sea within us"! The best literature, and the kind of thing we strive to publish in Relief, will disrupt our habitual lives and refresh our orientation to the world - and to the Scriptures.

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The Unspeakable in Poetry: A Love Story

Brad Fruhauff

5.2 poet Julie L. Moore explains how her poem became the occasion of our first printing the word "vulva" - and it turns out to be for the best of reasons.

Back in July of 1975, when I was just ten, a nurse carted me into the operating room of West Jersey Hospital. My parents walked along at my gurney’s side, my dad, holding my hand. At the O.R. door, the gurney stopped, my parents kissed me, and I looked at them and said, “Don’t worry. God is going to take care of me.”

In May of 2009, a nurse rolled me into the operating room at Kettering Medical Center in southwest Ohio for my eighth surgery and the removal of my fourth organ. My faith, scarred as my abdomen by then, was no longer blind or simple but hard as a dog’s big rawhide bone. When it fell, it clattered as it hit the floor. It was also vulnerable, capable of being devoured in one sitting, if I let it, by the sharp teeth and strong jaws of pain. And it wasn’t the kind of faith you cuddled up with.

It’s fairly easy to talk about losing body parts. I’ve received phone calls from friends and emails from readers I don’t know who find themselves in my uncomfortable shoes:

I have an ovarian cyst. Didn’t you get an ovary removed because of this? I’m going crazy here. Can you help me?

I’m having all kinds of trouble after having had my gall bladder removed last year. I heard you had trouble, too . . .

And I answer them.

Some, too, have contacted me because they endure unimaginable pain, the kind of long and deep suffering I had no idea existed when I was just ten. The kind that digs into their bones, their backs, their bellies. And that, too, I have talked about.

But there is one area that, until now, I found to be unspeakable. I knew I wasn’t alone, that other women endured what I was experiencing. But write about it? That just seemed wrong. On many levels.

Level One: I’d embarrass my family and/or myself.

Level Two: I just shouldn’t talk about that. Some things should remain private.

Level Three: If my readers know that, they’ll focus only on that and not on my work. (Maybe that’s not a category of “wrong” but rather a category of “ego.” But still.)

So I wrote about enduring pain, about making sense of suffering. I was vivid in my descriptions and clear about the temptations intractable pain brings, like overdosing on medications from well-meaning doctors. When pain stabs, shoots, tears, claws, shocks, and yes, feels like “fifty pins embedded” in flesh, who can stand it?

Yet, I avoided describing all my medical conditions for a variety of reasons. One, I didn’t want readers getting distracted by terminology and two, the most important thing was never what went wrong in my body but how, and why, I endured it.

After I’d published poems about my experiences, however, there was still a voice, sounding an awful lot like Elizabeth Bishop, that kept saying, “Write it!”

And “Prayer Shawl” was born. “Confession,” a poem I’d written several years ago, was the only poem that came close to naming the body parts that hurt, the incredibly feminine nature of my pain. But that poem was cloaked in biblical narrative, the hemorrhaging woman whose labia throbbed.

How to say vagina in a poem. Or vulva. With the possessive pronoun my.

But there it is in “Prayer Shawl,” a poem wrapped in the story of others, dear friends, who have likewise suffered, felt the temptation to throw in the towel, experienced the unrelenting grief of permanent loss. Yet endure.

And my poem is wrapped in the story of my marriage, a husband who has also endured pain and anxiety and the threat of premature death. How terrifying to live through such experiences together in our early forties. This wasn’t the way our story was supposed to go.

And how agonizing to realize that the love we shared, and yes, the making of that love, could not heal me. That I experienced such tremendous pain off and on for six years stood to threaten the very fabric of our marriage. What’s a love story without good sex, after all?

Except that sex isn’t the only way spouses can express love. Except that love can transcend even suffering. Except that prayer to a God who hung himself on a cross, while nails, no less, simultaneously punctured his tender flesh, really has sustained me.

This is my story, pain and love on multiple levels, a story that, as I’ve lived it, has often struck me dumb.

Julie L. Moore's poem "Prayer Shawl" appears in issue 5.2 of Relief.

The Story Is What It Is

Brad Fruhauff

A great many narratives, fictional and real, turn on the unexpected discovery of a document. I suppose that when such a discovery actually happened to me, even in the turmoil that brought the document to light, I recognized the event as a narrative crux, something that might tie together frayed ends in the story of myself.

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Paul's Advice for Writers

Brad Fruhauff

As Relief starts considering an expansion to graphic narrative, I've been trolling the web to see what Christians are up to out there in the world of comics. Let's just say that it's not pretty. Not unlike a lot of the standard fare in Christian fiction, graphic narrative under the banner of God Incarnate tends toward the didactic, polemic, reductive, simplistic, sappy, disingenuous, and even outright violent. My guess is there are Christian comic artists out there in desperate need of a journal like Relief. We just need to find one another.

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Gathering the Kindling

Brad Fruhauff

Guest Poetry Editor David Holper shares his experience reading and writing poetry and offers some insight into what he wants for our Fall 2011 issue.

As the guest poetry editor for the upcoming issue of Relief, I want to introduce writers and readers to my tastes and influences as a poet and as a reader of poetry.  Let me start where I typically start with people who ask me who my favorite poet is.  When W.H. Auden was asked this same question in an interview in 1971, he wisely responded, “it suggest[s] that poetry were a horse race where you could put people 1, 2, 3, 4. You can't. If anyone is any good, he is unique and not replaceable by anybody else.”  That’s a good starting place because in reading a lot (and writing a lot), you move beyond gimmicks and you learn to write yourself out of the ruts that often occur in creative work.

As for me, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area (in a family of devout atheists, a dis-ease from which I eventually recovered as an adult) and was heavily influenced by the Beats (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginzberg, Gary Snyder), but I was lucky enough to have good writing teachers in high school, college, and graduate school, so all along I was exposed early on to an eclectic variety of styles, voices, and forms.

I began to write my own poetry in high school, but I would say that as important as practicing writing, I regularly attended open mics and poetry readings, put together my own poetry shows (with my other weird poet friends), and often read my work aloud.  That sense of the sound of a poem has been critical to my understanding and writing of poetry.  In college, I also wound up editing the campus literary magazine Toyon, which helped me recognize that quality poetry doesn’t come in just one form, particularly the one with my name on it.  Those habits of reading widely and reading aloud have definitely influenced my craft and my appreciation of other poets.

As an editor, I want a poem to offer me something that I wouldn’t otherwise notice.  I recall hearing a wonderful poem on the radio one day (a poem I’ve never been able to locate afterwards) in which a man describes flying on a plane with his wife who falls asleep next to him.  In staring at her, as well as the sunny space between them, he realizes that in the many years that they have been married, it’s as if a third presence has formed that binds them.  It’s altogether a lovely poem, but lovelier still because it reveals to us something we may have all intuited about couples who have been together for a lifetime and still find themselves in love—that together they seem to form something greater than themselves, and anyone who has basked in such a presence surely feels its blessing.

Then, too, a good poem often has a core: sometimes that core comes in the form of an idea.  Think of so many Wallace Stevens poems or William Carlos Williams’s red wheelbarrow.  Yes, it’s a vivid image that he offers us, but it’s the line that “so much relies upon” that wheelbarrow that tells us what he’s driving at on a deeper level, i.e., the need to notice, to observe image carefully—and yet more carefully still.  But that core may also reside in the form of revelatory emotion, or as Billy Collins said in 2001, “Poetry is the history of the human heart, and it continues to record the history of human emotion, whether it's celebration or grief or whatever it may be.”

Perhaps last of all, poetry for me has become a way to celebrate my faith.  In some way, it should make me sit up and pay attention to life and its sacred dance.  So many people around us go through life on auto pilot, and for me and for many others, poetry is a way to re-awaken us to the holiness that resides within us and all around us.  Whether it’s through picking up the thread of a Biblical narrative, observing life around us, delving into the natural world, or just contemplating Christ’s work in our own lives, a poem should gather the kindling and the wood to reignite that sacred connection that our culture so casually dampens through its superficial, banal concerns.  And when one finds a poem that sets that blaze alight, that poem becomes a treasure not easily set aside.

David Holper has worked as a taxi driver, fisherman, dishwasher, bus driver, soldier, house painter, bike mechanic, bike courier, and teacher. His poems appear in various literary journals and his book of poems, 64 Questions, is available from March Street Press. He teaches at College of the Redwoods and lives in Eureka, CA, far enough from the madness of civilization to get some writing done. He is Relief's guest poetry editor for Issue 5.2.

The New Bible-for Secular Humanist


The Secular Bible - Click here to read the whole story.

This makes me sad that someone has written a “bible” for all the non-religious people, though A. C. Grayling claims that there is something there for everyone.

"The question arose early in British academic A.C. Grayling’s career: What if those ancient compilers who’d made Bibles, the collected religious texts that were translated, edited, arranged and published en masse, had focused instead on assembling the non-religious teachings of civilization’s greatest thinkers?

What if the book that billions have turned to for ethical guidance wasn’t tied to commandments from God or any one particular tradition but instead included the writings of Aristotle, the reflections of Confucius, the poetry of Baudelaire? What would that book look like, and what would it mean?

Decades after he started asking such questions, what Grayling calls “a lifetime’s work” has hit bookshelves. “The Good Book: A Humanist Bible,” subtitled “A Secular Bible” in the United Kingdom, was published this month. Grayling crafted it by using more than a thousand texts representing several hundred authors, collections and traditions."

This bible is a collection of the greatest human philosophies from the east and west and there are probably some interesting or even inspiring ideas but the problem is that they are from men. I believe that the Holy Bible is completely inspired by God that his ideas were put onto parchments and scrolls by men but they were God’s words. I feel that this bible written by Grayling will lead people that have never read the Holy Bible into thinking they are of equal importance.

What do you think?  What impact will it have on our culture?

Bonnie Ponce is the Director of Support Raising for Relief and lives in Huntsville, Texas with her husband and betta fish.  She has a BA in English from Sam Houston State University.  After work she enjoys relaxing with a good book or working on her novel.