Cover art: Photo of Michael Rotenberg (1951–2022) Performing Poetry | Photo from Facebook Profile
Life of the spirit fuel for change
So much seems off course—climate crisis, Ukraine war, rising fascism, depleted energy for resisting—where do we find fuel to keep up the struggle for change? In the pages of this issue glimmer hopes, stars in dark nights, dreams—alongside outrage, compassion, and the fire that makes us all (as Youssef Alaoui says early in this issue). That star-sun-moon fire—the Holy Spirit to some, the light of Creation to others, stardust to many, Enlightenment shining forth for still others—this spirit moves us all to love, to care for our siblings and cousins, to awaken and rise up from ashes of despair and sing our songs.
Citing the story of Rip Van Winkle, Dr. King points out that a little noticed sign in the story is of great importance. When he goes up to the mountains to sleep, it shows King George III; when he comes down it shows George Washington. The change leaves him feeling lost and confused, not knowing the world. Rip Van Winkle slept through a revolution that changed that world. King warns that too many people are sleeping through three revolutions—technological change, weapons of mass destruction, and the social revolution of human rights.
While Dr. King talks about how in 1968 the geological world had shrunk and time quickened through modern jet travel, how our word balanced on the brink of nuclear destruction, but also how a great outcry for freedom was being heard around the globe. He reminds us that our neighbors had become global, not just down the street. That we had to care for our neighbors everywhere there was oppression and injustice.
Today the world has shrunk even smaller, with instantaneous communication and live video connections worldwide. New war technologies are deadlier, from more powerful nuclear bombs to precision missiles to drones—and nuclear sabre-rattling again clanks in our collective ears. Yet, the rising fascism, nationalism, and autocracy we see, while looming dark and dangerous, is also a strong reaction to the “great revolution” Dr. King spoke of. The revolution continues to grow and spread. And reactionary forces, out of fear or hate, push back, seeking to repress, to protect inequalities of wealth and power that benefit them (or to create new ones that will benefit them), and to go back to the past. There are even those who have recently extolled slavery in the US political right (see for examples: These Politicians Praise Slavery, US Senator Tom Cotton defends slavery remarks, and The rightwing US textbooks that teach slavery as ‘black immigration’).
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave that sermon at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968. A few days later, he was murdered in Memphis, TN, April 4, 1968. Many of the issues he addressed, such as economic reparations (in the US and globally) remain hotly contested and difficult to address. It will be 55 years this April since Dr. King died. We must remain awake. As tired as I feel, and right now I feel weary to the bone, we must awaken. We must stay awake. We must embrace “woke,” not as a label, but as action of mind, body, and soul. We must not let the darkness numb us into decades of sleep. In that wakening, we will find energy—from the light of creation within the world and within us.
Michael Rothenberg and his partner, Terri Carrion, founded 100 Thousand Poets for Change (100TPC). From early in the (almost decade) of The BeZine’s existence, we have participated in the annual celebration of activism in poetry. Our three recurring focusing themes: Peace, Sustainability, and Social Justice come directly from the 2015 100TPC World Conference in 2015. I attended that conference and reported about it here and elsewhere on my return. These three themes already were throughout The BeZine, along with an ecumencal and inclusive theme of life of the spirit. We chose to focus on the three 100TPC themes in solidarity with 100TPC, and added our own, Life of the Spirit and Activism.
Michael left this world 21 November 2022. He was tireless as an activist, a writer, a friend, a performer, and an organizer. He remained awake to the very end, creating when he could, working collaboratively with others, and caring for others even as his life slipped away. We open this issue with 7 poems and an essay by some of his (and my) friends who were in Salerno in 2015, dedicated to Michael’s memory and delivered here with love for him and for Terri. I introduce that section separately, with my own personal thoughts written a few days after he moved on from this world. At the end of the In Memory of Michael Rothenberg section, there is a YouTube from a Zoom reading that many of us from the Salerno World Conference participated in to remember and honor Michael together.
Yes, this issue was late—and we could use some help
What can I say? From election deniers and mid-term results in the U.S., to the most right-wing government newly elected in Israel (where I live), to Michael’s loss, to war, to climate crisis…sometimes it all overwhelms. But I was also busy with a major project which had a deadline that conflicted with our production schedule, and this was good. This is the winter issue, and it is indeed still winter. But it is more than a month later than usual. My personal apologies.
We have a new editor joining to help us, beginning with the next issue. And we would like to invite contributors and readers to become more involved. We get occasional offers to review books, and would like to do this (particularly, but not only, for contributors). We could use help proofreading online. We could use help with the blog (contributing and editing). This is all volunteer work; none of us gets paid. If you have interest in joining our team, look over the submissions guidelines and mission statement to get a better idea of what we try to do here. Use the submission email to contact me—provide a paragraph or two of introduction about your experience, why you would like to help, and what you would like to help with. A resume is optional. Put “I’d like to join The BeZine Team” in the subject line, so I know you are applying. And I will get back to you as quickly as I can.
On Monday, 21 November 2022, at around 11 PM EST, Michael Rothenberg left the world. Even though he had told me that he had cancer and I had recently heard that he went into hospice care, the news of his death that arrived yesterday devastated me. Michael was a close friend, a relationship first built online and then cemented in person at the 2015 100 Thousand Poets for Change (100TPC) World Conference in Salerno, Italy. Over the years we communicated online by text and voice. He would send me poems he was working on, and I would send him my drafts. We each reviewed works-in-progress of the other—often as not arguing over lines and words in the spirit of making the work stronger. We spent time together when I had the honor of being in a 100TPC writer’s residency in Tallahassee, Florida, where he and his wife Terri Carrion moved to from the Bay Area of California. We shared work, giving each other feedback during the day. And we explored the area, ate in local restaurants and visited local bars to hear local music, often with Terri Carrion, his partner.
That week 17 high school students were murdered and others injured in Parkland, near Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Michael, as he seemed wired to do, responded both with outrage and with a plan to use poetry to respond. I recall sitting next to him as he began to plan work with others online and I shared ideas and contacted others to arrange 100TPC poetry readings in response, focused on the Parkland shootings but also all other gun violence and the need for socio-cultural change to stop the killings. And soon there were others organizing readings for Parkland, independent of our efforts—synchronicity at work. Of course, mass gun killings haven’t stopped. Neither has poetry or protest against it.
As I write this, there have been two mass shootings this week, the second last night—Colorado Springs, CO, and Chesapeake, VA. And it’s only Wednesday. I seem to hear Michael’s voice in my head, “What are we going to do?” He insisted that others join him to fight oppression, war, the climate crisis, social injustice in any form. And he included himself in his urgings—What are we going to do?
Michael, of blessed memory, and his partner, Terri Carrion, founded 100 Thousand Poets for Change in March 2011. In 2014, Jamie Dedes, of blessed memory, our founding editor, began an online 100TPC event for those who wanted to participate but were homebound or distant from in person events. At the Salerno conference, those of us present decided to focus globally on three interrelated issues: peace, environmental sustainability, and social justice. When The BeZine went from monthly to quarterly, we chose to use these three themes in our rotating quarterly themes, adding life of the spirit and activism to make four. We see life of the spirit (broadly defined) as being integral to supporting our activism, our art, our lives, and our values. Michael, z”l, Terri, and 100TPC have influenced and supported the mission of The BeZine.
Michael also founded or co-founded Big Bridge, Poets in Need, Read a Poem to a Child and many other events and projects. In recent years he has worked as the poet behind the Ecosound Ensemble, a poetry and music performance group based in Tallahassee. He wrote many books of poetry. He painted. He collaborated with many. He grew orchids and bromeliads. He enjoyed friends. He mentored many, argued with all, and loved people.
We will miss Michael Rothenberg at The BeZine. I will miss my friend. His poetry and activist spirit will live on, though, this I believe.
Update: The following pages of this section of The BeZine are in honor and memory of our dear friend, Michael Rothenberg— poems, photographs, and an essay by friends, fellow 100TPC activists, writers who all know each other through Michael, Terri, and met together, with so many other fellow 100TPC activists from all over the world, at the 100TPC 2015 Word Conference in Salerno, Italy.
Rose petals mound of their own
before you die, as you are dying
comets spin their tails in heaven
a single powerful thought appears
loudest colors form a cloud
this image is meant to connect you
wondrous being, magnificent creature
back to your original form
A silvery pond in starry earth
is your personal portal
beyond it, a thousand skies, ripe for taking
you can retreat before your time
if you ask and you never ask, you always tell
maybe you can figure what that thought is
harmful truth or memories unsifted
you might spend the rest of your life trying
More you bellow, more they bury
if you manage to discover this thought
mountains of dust, rivers of charnel
you can always go within it
golden mirror reflects only the night
or use the thought for deepest meditation
garlands of lotus and twirling feathers
humans can command
Golden mountain, blaze of trees
once you discover the sacred image
script hidden deep in emerald
you will be immediately brought
do not be afraid, stand brave eyes open
into the frankness of death
your absolute truth is never evil
Do not go there yet
you will know your time
Together We Are the Fire
For ND, PCR, VB
Our story begins out here
where everything begins
We are of the stars and
that’s why we marvel at them
so when we look to the sky
and consider the divine
we are intuitively looking back
at our origins
Cosmos is the deepest mirror
a bottomless lake dotted with fire
larger than tools can measure
reflecting our faces back to us
humming the consciousness of all things
As far away as you can get
is where you find your soul
Far from city lights we have come
to witness the brilliance of the sky
one of us can control the stars
with a twist of his hand
we watch shapes he makes for hours
shivering on the desert floor
And what is a star but a heaving
alchemical cauldron of pure light
rich in life-giving elements
these are a million fires he says
same as our sun
our star, this is us
Watch these embryonic souls
dance and leap from the surface
of the sun, lightning winds of fire
to scatter across the cosmos
like dandelion blooms
Look, this one will be the soul of a comet
this one will be a moon worm or a martian
astronaut, this one will drape and fold
at the heart of the Aurora Borealis
and who are we but alchemical vats
of power and creativity
Our souls are inextricably linked in cosmic
rhythm, twisted together like
branches, to build you or strangle you
depending on how you treat your people
yes the people are yours and you are theirs
Then he speaks to us at length
regarding the exogenous rhythm
of the unicorn and challenges us
to consider just how far
one could possibly go with a person:
Is it your friend, your enemy
your rival, your lover?
all of the above, treat one another
we are children of the stars
We sing the Marseillaise together
in hushed tones then, with surprising venom
he says you know who they are coming for
don’t you, they’re coming for you
We do not know whether to cry
in fear or leap for joy, have we
finally lost our minds?
We rush to the cities to find out
droves filling streets in protest
we find the Marseillaise crumpled
in the gutter with all the old songs
People sing new songs
they bring new fire to share
with others and that prompts
newer fire and parades of such light
it was true, they had come for us
to forge new ways to navigate the stars
I turn to you and we see
flames dance in one another’s eyes
tiny salamanders turning on their tails
smoke and colors fill the air
we know the future is inevitable
and we say
every child of the sun
together we are the fire
…is an Arab-Latino, born in California. His mother is Colombiana. His father was Moroccan. The Alaoui-Fdilis are originally from Fez. His brothers and aunts and uncles and cousins are today mostly in Casablanca and Rabat. His family and heritage are an endless source of inspiration for his varied, dark, spiritual and carnal writings. He has an MFA in Poetics from New College of California. There, he studied Classical Arabic, Spanish Baroque and Contemporary Moroccan poetry. He is also well versed in the most dour and macabre literature of the 19th Century. His poems have appeared in Exquisite Corpse, 580 Split, Cherry Bleeds, Virgogray Press, Red Fez, Big Bridge, Dusie Press, Paris Lit Up,The Opiate, and nominated for a Pushcart at Full of Crow. Youssef is an original creator of the East Bay literary arts festival “Beast Crawl.” In 2012 he created Paper Press Books & Associates Publishing Company. This press offers several important books of poetry and one poetry and art compendium.
Words aren’t sufficient to describe your pure soul
for my friend, Michael Rothenberg
It’s an honor to have known someone like you, but unfortunate to lose!
You left my friend,
beaten by many challenges
with your big heart.
You strived to shelter
all the poets you called brothers.
You encouraged and gave us hope
that the poets would change
the world for the better.
As for other things, you’d say
Who cares about anything else!
I called you brother,
and you’d call me, my little brother.
I’d ask you about fame,
and you’d say, first me,
and then if something is left,
I’ll bestow it on you.
You’d poke fun of me,
while comforting at the same time,
showing me how things function.
For the poets, you’d say
academics and professors think they know it all,
and only they know how to write,
but don’t recognize others.
Yet, to be a poet, one
doesn’t need a fancy degree,
but a soul with a poetic sense
that gives life to arrays.
We met in Salerno—
you were close, a kindred spirit
though it was the first time
you met some of us.
So I, with all of you poets,
without knowing you,
accept you here gathered.
You gathered us
and we became as family.
You and Terri,
Drita and I,
I’d explain the meaning of their names
in both languages, Albanian and English.
a person such as you is hard to find,
even harder to become.
You gave us hope,
as well as support
to act and call out for
Peace, Justice and Sustainability!
You shared the loss
of your only son, Kosmos,
and the loss of your brother,
You’d worry about your inheritance
as it would all extinguish with you,
as in “The Last Mohican,”
who fought for his essence.
And I’d tell you that
the eternal flame
never gets extinguished.
When we last spoke,
you told me of your cancer
and how worried you were about Terri,
who juggled to care in one room with your health
and the other,
with therapy for her mother,
who was in a deathbed—
and for Terri,
death was knocking on two doors all the while,
I overheard you say, take care of Ziggy.
It’s what you told Terri?
Ugh, I felt terrible
watching you from a laptop monitor,
unable to help you
other than comfort you with words.
Yet I was amazed by your strength,
with which you’d wrap yourself,
not giving up.
When Menka messaged me,
to tell me that you were ill
and that doctors had told Terri
that you had three to four days left,
and only a few hours later a message from Lisa
Michael died last night around 11:00pm.
He went peacefully.
Michael left us, a voice whispered in my head.
I was dumbfounded.
Tears poured from my eyes
for you my dear friend,
for you who had nothing else, but life in poetry…
…is a well-known poet from Ferizaj, Kosovo, writing in his mother-tongue, Albanian. He was born in 9 March 1968 in Pristina. He is the former manager and leader of “De Rada,” a literary association, from 2012 until 2018, and also the representative of Kosovo to the 100 TPC organization. In addition to poems, he also writes short stories, essays, literary reviews, traveltales, etc. Faruk Buzhala is an organizer and manager of many events in Ferizaj. His poems have been translated to English, Italian, Spanish, French, German, Croatian and Chinese, and are published in anthologies.
So I sit and listen and see you as if
you were really there—but you weren’t—
living in this invisible city, toying
with the idea of an invisible city
an international community
As if we were sitting on a bench
in a park where young people run free—
who can’t see the old men just sitting there
minds aglow, but their hands cold—
the invisible city exists alongside the real,
in the lap of the visible—just like
you and I looking at our hands
but not at each other—
but we’re talking
I was just thinking of you— and now I hear
I’ll never see you again, I’ve been shielded once more
from death. Deaths I didn’t see—
the invisible deaths of my parents
my mother’s catatonic dementia
my father, alone but happy
deaths by aneurysm, auto crash
kidney disease, black lung pneumonia
murder, cancer. If it is true
that a successful poet who lives a long life
writes more and more about death
then you had your turn—
But no one has to be successful to die
and so I know I’m going
to write about death
whether I’m good at it or not. And seventy-one
is not very old to die, Michael, you had more
Farewell, Michael, struggling with anger
farewell, Michael, cooling arguments on-line
farewell, Michael, with your hand gripping my hand
farewell, Michael, was somebody there
to invite your soul to paradise or
another incarnation where
this life’s imperfections
can be knocked off your human shape
and will your remains settle into earth and water
go to ground
Your soul— if there is
such a thing as soul—
now enters the wind tunnel
to be taken on its way
Grief echoes in large houses
full of empty rooms
in the house where Terri
wakes up daily, now alone
speaking to no one until
Which way was your head turned, Michael?
Where were your hands? What last words
did you hear? Who spoke to you, & did you know
when you closed your eyes for the final time
who loved you? I don’t think angels exist—
but in that final condition you didn’t go unsanctified.
Those were your hands—here are mine.
Does a dying person remember being born?
Did you know you were sanctified?
Whatever this agnostic wish can be
for you—now—your suffering
All poets write about death: Bob Rosenthal was poet Allen Ginsberg’s assistant at the time of his death, and reported this observation about Allen’s passing in the documentary, No More to Say and Nothing to Weep For, an Elegy for Allen Ginsberg, Optic Nerve productions, Colin Still, director, 2006 [link].
…lives in Slidell, Louisiana, USA, near his native New Orleans. Books of poetry include Spirit Vessels and Looking for An Out Place (FootHills Publishing, 2018 and 2010.) Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014,) Edited Mesechabe: The Journal of Surregionalism 1990-2001 and fronted the free-jazz/free-verse band, the Frank Zappatistas. St. Tammany Parish organizer of poetry events for 100,000 Poets for Change, a network of poets for peace, sustainability and justice world-wide.
This is a project that I like to call meditation through poetry and it happened on Christmas Eve when Michael sat by d ocean and sent his poetry through d waves in my house where I received d salty smell of d eternal life that we live. —Mitko Gogov, 31 Dec. 2011
Ed. note: The poems below are from Mitko's blog, in _d @Potru's wor(L)d.
Poem for Mitko
Today, when Ziggy
(the dog) and I
go down to the ocean
we’ll send you a poem
Some wild ribbon
birds in flight
across chrome waters
We will wait
for your silent reply
Look for a word
and world of peace
over bright breakers
from your land-
locked European country
I was born and raised
Learned my liquid life
Now, I am pulled
by the moon
Birth and inevitability
Yes, the ocean
gives us power
Tells us the rolling universe
does not belong to us
No matter how hard
we try to destroy it
soak my brow
Ziggy stops to dig in the sand
Barks at the blue-black raven
calling from the stranded
boulder on Shell Beach
I’d go crazy living on an island
surrounded by a fevered sea of woe
and sapphire horizons
I plan for a busier tomorrow
But I can’t get the ocean out of my head
You could crave another island
But whatever’s there I can’t describe
Lupine, thistle, and wild oats
on the bluff
Something I think I see, but can’t
inscribed in the mercurial sky
I wait for an explosion
This is not a good year for Tyrants!
Copper skies above Tahrir Square
Here comes that crashing thought
That currency I sent away over the expanse
to be read by you, Mitko
Tear gas clouds in Tahrir Square
Coming back tied and frayed around a rugged headland
We have had enough of this enslavement!
Men and women, boys and girls with stones
Give them what they want
Don’t wait for permission from the headquarters
Authorization from the Opera
Live long and without endorsements
The dog still barks, but can’t say exactly what he believes
Is that a dragon or civilization burning on the beach?
Coming in or going out
I can’t tell which way the poetry is running
A wave followed by another wave followed by another
Tide of the underworld rushing overall, blowing silver
over shipwrecked shores and tortured skies
A sleeper wave slashing
I asked the California badger
on the road back home
Do you find this dream amusing?
There was something vicious in his response
Is the human condition just entertainment?
I ask the badger
about Political gamesmanship
and coppery metaphors
Slung across the heavens
like Handel’s Messiah?
This is not a domestic animal!
O, Brother from another great continent
Beyond shimmering cataclysmic fever
Foam and light rushing up over my feet
Mammoth rubbings on mammoth stones…
Oh Macedonian Brother
I went down to the ocean today and the sky and sun and water
were blinding and gorgeous chrome, so I kind of got caught
in light and isolation and could think of nothing else
.lips are touching salty waves,
oceans playin’ with d messages lost in them.
We think that inside float
maternal fluid which nourishes us while we sleep
as teddy bears, as kangaroos
We fly with our messages
like freed birds from their cage…
Love is transferred through cosmic channels!
..an uncle somewhere far across the pond
sit on the shore,
caressing the existence of his thoughts
sending them far away to me
to be returned as hidden universes.
The day ends…
…and, somewhere there Jesus is born.
dogs bark in joy,
about one I know for sure.
In these bottles we keep all
d messages, those which are yet to be sent
condemning the mystery of not knowing.
!Telepathy is a pact with mice. .. you hear me?
We signalize d existence,
as fireflies in summer. .. even d Indians would envy us
for d art of connecting.
Do we hear each other or d waves are too strong?!
I hear how d water cleans our souls. these salty rocks
one day will fall apart!
We run lost as we should
win this marathon, but not
all waves end at the same place?
Embraced each other with d thoughts that returns
—boomerang technique is more active nowadays.
The end of reason is near,
in d rain we hide d cry of our fear.
At the end of the day
:all stars are falling down
—but they not fade;
they glow us from closer!
they make d passion for more myth!
We reserve space in d universe
as if d hotel of our life has remained with(out)
no rooms. Guests are our memories…
fill d beds and under them they hide Us
Here the lake is calm
…dreaming of its elder brothers and sisters
will there be a river born to bring me
at d sea,
will there be a sea born
to bring me to you?
The Absolute dives with special equipment
we the trackers are dolphins
we close our snouts while we breathe,
yet, our ears fill with water.
Can we hear d water composition
for the rain, for d snow that melts in us
or icicles are born?
In my house a wave is coming,
from d ocean is, We say…
on my walls dark blue worlds
aquarium filled with indigo sky
.my fishes are dreaming d Big Water
Lemurians dears ~
Will someone rescue these demented lines
from the fever and fury of their loss?
The season on fire
the moon is out a-harvesting this fall
its tuft of hair unruly on its brow.
What reckoning awaits?
The past, a wrinkle
a ridge to stumble over
and enter the urn of the hollowed self.
Amigo, are you there?
Call him Michael.
Call him Mike.
He does not hear you anymore.
Beyond the harvest moon
a black-crowned night heron
shakes its wings and prepares to fly.
Can you hear the dwellers of these marshes?
Their odes to the subterfuge that is life?
Hermano, it is you I am trying to reach.
In a blaze of blue flames
the bird is on the wing
its breath glittering gold dust.
But it is dark here.
And the moon has not yet run out of its spite.
Go in peace
for your breath is now spores of light on the wind’s back
floating across oceans and continents
seeded in the hearts of young and old alike.
One body only you have shed
and, bird, taken another.
…has published four collections of poetry, Hold Your Breath, No One Waits for the Train, Mariam’s Lament, and Six Geese from a Tomb at Medum, and a literary travelogue, Writers and Landscapes, about his experiences as a fellow of the International Writers Program, University of Iowa, in addition to three edited anthologies of Pakistani literature, Cactus, Mornings in the Wilderness, and Short Stories from Pakistan. He served as translation editor (and contributor) for Modern Poetry of Pakistan, a Pakistan Academy of Letters project supported by a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, showcasing translations of poems by 44 poets from Pakistan’s national and regional languages. He guest-edited a special issue of scholarly articles on Pakistani Literature for the Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies and another, on Pakistani poetry, for Atlanta Review. Khwaja is the Ellen Douglass Leyburn Professor of English at Agnes Scott College where he teaches courses in Postcolonial literature, British Romanticism, The Gothic, Literature of Empire, Victorian novel, 19th century poetry, and Creative Writing.
A hundred thousand stars
break over the world
Someone so forever
A hundred thousand tears
A hundred thousand medical documents burning
A hundred thousand winds bearing away useless smoke
but that voice lives
It leaps the flames
transcends the page
Bad medicine didn't stop it
this voice that drew us in
brought us face to face
language to language
He and his beloved
centering a wheel
with a hundred thousand spokes
We came from all around the globe to you
Many threads pulled into one cloth
a garment for change
but now having organized the bards
you are called
to align the stars
leaving at our centre
a beloved space
sacred with absence
But earth will not be silent
one hundred thousand memories
will guard will amplify what you have left
The shouts that shook Salerno
will shout even louder now
against the deadlock the gridlocks
How dare death take you so soon
How dare grief
colonize so many throats
wring so many hands
Those lungs that took in life
and bellowed out poetry
that turned air into love
how dare they fail you
feeding aquifer and ocean
that should have been hallelujahs
…is literary poet in the tradition of Neruda and Mayakovsky, a composer of lush love poems, a singer-songwriter, a widely quoted aphorist, a children’s poet and novelist. He is a mainstay of the literary/spoken word/music circuit both in Canada and abroad. His words have been quoted in the Farmer’s Almanac, debated in the Ontario Legislature, sung on Sesame Street, posted in Toronto’s transit system, broadcast on MuchMusic, released on numerous CDs, quoted by politicians, and widely published in textbooks and anthologies.
The last flight I took before the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown was a trip to Tallahassee, Florida. I spent a few days with my friends Michael Rothenberg and Terri Carrion, the founders of 100 Thousand Poets for Change and the Read a Poem to a Child initiative.
We didn’t know then, in January 2020, that the dark shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic was about to overtake us. Michael and I sat talking at a wooden picnic table outside Wakulla Springs State Park, one of his favorite places. Decades ago, the classic monster movie Creature from the Black Lagoon filmed scenes in the springs’ pristine water. But we had our own shadows and monsters to deal with. Michael had recently lost his only son, Cosmos, to addiction. My own college-aged son was clawing his way out of a years-long depression.
As we ate brown bag sandwiches and drank old-fashioned phosphate sodas from the park’s historic lodge, we shared the hurt and confusion of grief. After Cosmos’ death, Michael had been unable to write for a time. In need of a creative outlet, he began working with art therapist Annie McFarland on a series of colorful abstract illustrations.
Then, two days after I returned home, Michael sent me an image that marked a departure in his work. Here was a blue-jean colored monster with six pink feet, blowing green bubbles. I drafted a poem about a child who is surprised to see a monster moving into the house next door. As a gift for Michael, I recorded the poem and sent it, hoping it would bring some lightness to his day.
The next day, Michael sent a sketch of a monster with balloons hovering in the background. I wrote “Monsters Don’t Have Birthdays,” and messaged Michael, “The second monster has such a sweet expression. It inspired the last line of the poem,” in which a monster is surprised at his human friends’ empathy toward him.
Almost immediately, a concept began to take shape. This was one of Michael’s great gifts. When creative inspiration struck, he ran with it, whether that it led him to draw whimsical creatures, or to form a global network of poets committed to social justice.
Monster after monster showed up in our message thread. I scrambled to keep up with Michael’s creative energy. My response poems described children interacting with the monsters, most of whom represented—to my mind, Michael hated to interpret his own drawings—an emotion or state of being: fear, curiosity, self-love, sadness. “I like the idea of encouraging readers to sit with a feeling and then let it evolve,” I told Michael about a poem entitled “When I Cry.” “Not to brush the sadness away or deny it, but to see it as part of the whole range of emotions.”
In the initial shock of the pandemic, when our normal lives came to a sudden halt, working on Welcome to Monsterville shook us both out of our habitual worries, anxieties, and ways of thinking. It gave Michael and me a way to befriend the unexpected, to make art out of the monstrous unknown.
Both of us suffered new losses. My mother-in-law passed away, and Michael’s brother Bruce. And yet, we had this playful, wonderful collaboration to turn to. There was a joy when we dug into human emotions through the process of creative play. We helped each other when one of us got stuck, all the while engaging in a side conversation, writing messages back and forth about the nature of creativity. We talked about art as a necessary outlet, a grounding force when we’re feeling overwhelmed by emotion
“I just let the ideas come. No judgement,” I told Michael when he complimented a poem draft. He replied, “It is the only way for me. The imagination stays flowing that way.” He likened our process to performing his poetry accompanied by live music. “It’s all about my relationship with [the] musicians,” Michael said. “We’re in it together.”
Ours was a two year conversation about the creative process, whether Michael was adding layers of watercolor to an inked drawing, or I was revising a poem, line by line. Reading through our message thread again after Michael’s recent death, I’m reminded of the sense of delight my dear friend and I felt at embarking on this creative conversation together.
Although I am sitting with my grief—alongside Michael’s vast community of friends, poets, and activists—it is with the knowledge that the creative conversations Michael began with so many of us are still ongoing. This spring, when our book Welcome to Monsterville is published by Apprentice House Press, I will be introducing children to Michael’s monsters, inviting them to play with art and words inspired by his work.
“I like the idea of a child’s wildest, monstrous impulses being beautiful—to be witnessed instead of shunned or corrected,” I once told Michael.
…is an author, educator, and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. Her chapbook, Mountain, Log, Salt, and Stone won the Harriss Poetry Prize. Laura’s award-winning children’s novels include The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary, Takedown, and Sydney Taylor Notable A Place at the Table, written with Saadia Faruqi. She teaches writing at Vermont College of Fine. Welcome to Monsterville, her poetry collection for children, was illustrated by poet Michael Rothenberg.
When the heartbeat and pulse of the inevitable Lake Jacksonare no longer a marshy bother, I too, with any luck, will disappear.
—Michael Rothenberg, "On Lake Jackson"
I think you are getting it all wrong
because no matter where we go,
we never completely disappear.
you can appreciate what I am saying here.
I have been learning this the hard way
as one death after another
weighs down upon me this past year
old school friend
vibrant work friend
dearest artist friend
three mentors in one year
and my father who left almost four years ago now
which seems like only
I’m telling you,
no one who writes
ever disappears completely
marks are left
when the ocean washes away
the last footprints
from the face of the beach,
the sand remembers who stood there
and who carried
grains of it away
to other shores.
March 30, 2017
The Blanket of Immortality
for Michael Rothenberg
We go back a long way, you and I.
On the night we met,
you were words on a screen and a picture
of a man in front of a sunflower,
who said he was looking for poets,
one hundred thousand of them
to organize poetry readings, to share words.
Words of Change!
I answered the call and we became friends,
and words became threads that held us.
For twelve years, you brought a world
of poets together every September
floating up their words to make
many skies, one sky.
Many dreams, one dream.
You had a dream
to make the world a better place.
I had a dream to help.
There was joy along the way
and never-ending sorrow.
Grievances, uncertainties, and a long list
of injustices that had us screaming for change.
Not for ego—never ego—but to make
a difference, to right the wrongs of this world.
Now, you are gone, but not gone.
Not here, but here.
Cancer took your body,
but not your words.
Before you left, you told me a story
of an alpaca blanket that you bought in Colombia,
when you were twenty and wide-eyed,
brimming over with the music of the world.
That blanket carried you, kept you, sang you to sleep,
and made you feel as if you could live forever,
so much easier to believe that at twenty than seventy.
But the story is that the blanket was destroyed
by a chance toss into the washing machine,
then, the dryer. All this done by a well-meaning caregiver,
who offered to buy you a new blanket,
not understanding that it was not the blanket that mattered,
but the dream that it embodied.
And now you have taken a new shroud,
one we will all wear, each in our own time.
Wherever you are now, I know you will meet the soul
of the alpaca and thank him for the wool he gave.
He knows you loved him for the blanket he became,
just as the world will always know you and love you
for the words you have become.
…has poems in many poetry journals, both print and online. She has four chapbooks and two Pushcart Prize nominations. In 2020, she was named the first poet laureate of Sheboygan, WI where she hosts the podcast Poetry on Air for Mead Public Library.
I am your sister and your mother and the mother
of the children you fathered after you left me
I took you out of your parents’ house
taught you the desire to be free, the need to settle down
I come from a fragrant ocher city
cistern for poets, gate to the heavens
I live in open spaces, near river banks and estuaries
in mountains and in forests
The evening sun renders my skin bronze
I caress the waning shimmer, inhale the smell of fertile soil
humidity -- crescent of creation, essence of intimacy
Earth-bound is my piety
I worship best in nature
I knew shelter, I knew pleasure
I took care of flesh and blood
I skipped barefoot through summer rain
rose pear smell mingling with my pulse
I was courage, I was patience
wine and bread were always on my table
How strange it is, not to be seen
I bestow my lustrous berries
my rocking chairs, my seat in the family car
I am your sister and your mother and the mother of your children.
I carry universes, untold love.
Eduardo Chillida’s Cupped Hand 1924-2002 a different Havdalah?
he often drew his own hands.
he wrote the hand springs out of the body.
the hand is where the human body and space meet
slightly opening the hand unfastens a piece of space around it
and when the fingers close again slowly
the “being” of this piece of space changes
hidden within the fist
space is the nucleus it gives life and volume from the inside
I set the framed print of Chillida’s cupped hand
next to my Havdalah things
maybe this Basque artist is descended from marranos.
he might not even know why or when to cup his hand,
this very specific mysterious gesture.
I never really understood the gesture
cupping your hand so your fingernails reflect
the light of those two flames.
is it the flame is it the reflection?
lamely I thought the flickering fingers
are agitating for the work-a-day week.
maybe Chillida’s cupped hand
protects Shabbat space
now it will open to free it like a bird
till those two little flames once again
free the cup of Shabbat space.
11 November 2014
Va Yoled… Va Yehi (Begetting and Birthing)
Some time ago I had an experience with someone’s baby…a random occasion when innocent
physical contact strikes harmonics old music long dormant awakens even prefiguring events
Little feet pushed against my ribs and belly
Little hands pulled my beads and sucking amber
set up quivers in my guts.
the next one drooling smelling sweet or faintly urine
may not be my neighbor’s but my daughter’s
Bittersweet the feeling and recall
Of others that pushed and climbed my thighs
And drew long gulping draughts
Curling perfect fingers and eyelashes
Four generations of daughters each opening the womb
Jo born to Ruth August Berman, 1928 Worcester, Mass
Shira born to Jo Berman Milgrom, 1951 Newark, NJ
Talia born to Shira Milgrom, 1976 Los Angeles
Oren born to Talia Milgrom Elcott, 2009 New York City
I began to take it personal the biblical genealogies
The ubiquitous wearisome begats
The hoary unpronounceable names
And the rhythmic staccato
Va yoled… va yehi
He begat and he lived
Va yoled… va yehi
They are all masculine only the men do it?
Va tahar… va teled
She got pregnant
She gave birth
Va tahar va teled
How does that feel
How does that sound
Equal pay for equal labor only the women do it
When my neighbor’s tree
crashes through the roof,
allowing storm water to flood
our kitchen, his insurance company
has to pay nothing. Though
the tree’s roots tunnel through his soil
and the snapped trunk stands
on his grass, the part that broke
had leaned across the property line.
I’m a therapist—I understand
where we end up matters
more than where we start.
A friend of mine married
her one-night stand. Another
wed her “soul mate,” lawyers
got the house in the divorce.
Today on my couch a woman,
incest survivor, squelched wife,
tells me she feels in her body
strength to leave. Her thin arms
lift as she speaks, fingers
reaching toward the light.
This is our new dance, my mother calls out,
suddenly unable to walk, as my father
half drags, half carries her down the hall.
Once she dressed for dancing in big
earrings, clingy gowns. I watched her twist
her thick hair, then paint
her suddenly mysterious face.
My father watched the clock.
Fumbling with buttons, she tried
to sooth him, Soon, I promise. Soon.
He grumped out to wait
in the car. I helped her raise
her zipper, clasp a strand
of pearls. Her hands
shook when he honked the horn.
Days of couch to bathroom, chair to bed,
the living room and back. Despite bursitis
he maneuvers her, my mother wrapped
in a bathrobe, scarves and wig discarded,
apologizing, This is too much for you.
Step, pause, shuffle, shift of weight,
step, step, turn, my father
watching her, his movements slow and tender
as though they had all the time in the world.
Every life needs edges.
I protect you from the meadow’s
passion running amok.
Lean against my law
the way a child lets go
into a father’s arms. Pruned
and tethered vines bear stronger fruit.
if the sobbing
of jailed innocents
grows louder than rain.
when the names
for animals and sky
replace the animals and sky.
…has published seven full-length collections, Zombies at the Disco (Jacar Press, 2020), Caught in the Myth (NYQ Books, 2019), Dazzle (Jacar Press, 2017), Masterplan, collaborative poems with Eric Greinke (Presa Press, 2018), Ordinary Magic, (NYQ Books, 2016), Dangerous Enough (Presa Press 2014), and They Sing at Midnight, which won the 2003 Many Mountains Moving Poetry Award; as well as three chapbooks. She has been awarded Poetry’s Frederick Bock Prize and New York Quarterly’s Madeline Sadin Award.