finding my inner earthworm

My explorations of voice and point of view have led me to the creation and publication of Mouthbrooders which is now available through Homebound Publications and where ever books are sold.

During six months of vocal cord paralysis, author and professor Amy Nawrocki turned to the written word and fell in love with language again. The result of this exploration is her stunning collection Mouthbrooders, full of the sounds and their echoes—ravens screeching, eggs cracking, and acorns falling. Faucets drip, pens brood, souvenirs slip through fingers. As Nawrocki struggles to find her own voice again, she midwives the voices of catastrophe, of memory, and of the small miracles of everyday life.

back-cover copy

A few years back, I ran a workshop at the Miller Memorial Library in Hamden, CT, where we discussed our connections (personal and literary) to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll’s book never really grabbed me as a young reader, and after reflecting as an adult, my associations were more negative than positive. This isn’t really surprising, since at their roots, the imagery and adventures in the children’s tale are scary and uncomfortable.

On the other hand, rereading the text, I began to notice the language and the way that Alice (and Carroll) described the processes of transformation. In particular, at the bottom of the rabbit hole, she encounters the “small passage” and “[longs] to get out of that dark hall and wander those beds of bright flowers.” As she laments, she wishes that she could “shut up like a telescope.” The phrase struck me as peculiar, both visual and metaphorical. I couldn’t get the phrase out of my head, and so eventually wrote “Shutting Up Like a Telescope” to probe my own ideas about fitting into spaces.

Shutting Up Like a Telescope–“an earthworm’s titanic nucleotide”

Here is a different exploration of my reflections on Alice and her adventures. I wrote this exploratory memoir following the workshop:

Finding My Inner Alice

I come to Alice from a tree branch, from a separate limb. Maybe I’m the Cheshire Cat, watching myself watch her. I have no immediately accessible memory of time or place. No matter. I see from my pocket watch that I’ve arrived too late. She’s already gone down, and only by looking back—or looking through—or catching my reflection in my own looking glass—does she manifest. 

My mother read to us often, and I recall, impressionistically, other books: their muted green covers, gold edged pages and pen-and-ink drawings. This is how I can render Toad and Rat and Badger in my mind from Wind in the Willows. I can still touch those pages.

Though I can’t pinpoint how I came to know her, it’s not hard to picture Alice, her blue dress and white pinafore painted like so many others in the Technicolor of Disney. But whether her image is a piece from a specific moment or a combination of moments, I don’t know for sure.

But it seems that my memory of Alice begins on page 8. I imagine that I’ve seen this drawing before, and that the first time I saw it I felt something. The image of long-necked Alice, stretched like silly putty and uncomfortably large, frightens me even now. It conjures in my mind a sense memory, something tactile, as if I can feel the vertebrae in my own neck separate. But unlike the thrill of seeing each inch of your life penciled on a hallway wall as you grow and age, I see Alice’s elastic neck as strangulation, instead of release. The key I need is out of reach.

Instead of watching my feet disappear underneath me, I watch a body in torment, and just for good measure the Queen of Hearts has come along to say with all the echo of childhood discomfort: “Off with her head!” The rabbit hole is dark, and the looking glass reflects a fat little girl who can’t stand to be seen.

Alice’s neck is most vivid because it speaks to my nine-year-old self and the torture that my own body inflicted on me. Betrayed by the little cakes and drinks of “cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffee and hot buttered toast;” betrayed by birthdays and elongating limbs, adolescence simply became “curiouser and curiouser,” and I became sadder and sadder. Even now, Alice’s long neck frightens me out of my skin.

Purchase your copy of Mouthbrooders and check me out on Soundcloud.

Of Kites and Cohen

Amy Nawrocki reading “A Kite is a Victim” by Leonard Cohen, published in The Spice-Box of Earth, 1961

I recently led a discussion about the poetry and lyrics of Leonard Cohen at the Bethel, CT, Public Library. The program was sponsored by Bethel Poet Laureate Cortney Davis. In the talk, I centered on intimacy and audience in Cohen’s work, how in poetry and song he can draw his readers (and listeners) in through both a literary voice as well as a his “reedy baritone” singing voice. In the case of his poetry, I found intimacy was created through imagery, organization of stanzas and lines, and point of view. Cohen often addresses the reader directly (not an uncommon practice of second person), but doing so seems to grant him authority (“A kite is a victim you can be sure of”) even as the speaker struggles with the surety of this: “A kite is the last poem you’ve written/ so you give it to the wind.” The “you” in the poem is both the speaker and the reader, and thus confirms this “contract of glory / that must be made with the sun” through us, the reader.

We weren’t able to get to all the poems I had selected to talk about. So “A Kite is a Victim” is for everyone who attended yesterday’s discussion who helped me release Leonard Cohen’s kite, finding it among friends in “the fields / the river, and the wind.” Perhaps now I too will be “lyric, and worthy, and pure.”

Words, words, words

Sestina for Words Taken and Left Behind: an experiment in sound

The poem began as a class exercise. My students were experimenting with fixed and traditional form poems. I gave them the option of trying a villanelle or a sestina. Some had trouble getting started, so I offered a few images that they could pool from. We had discussed the form and how repetition functions differently in each of these forms. The sestina incorporates repeated end words–words at the end of the line–in a pattern of six line stanzas. A “map” or chart is helpful, and I gave them handouts and examples to follow. As they worked, I asked each student for one word–my aim was to use their words, fixed in a pattern of the sestina. I also had in mind a debate about whether or not a pattern can overwhelm a poem and another debate about how meaning functions in the realm of pattern. Big questions for a 75 minute class.

In the end, I had about 20 words, which I wrote down in order, then supplemented to create six word lines which I then formed into six line stanzas. The exercise challenged me to see how word choice leads pretty naturally to syntax and a need to find meaning not only in words, but in phrases. Beyond that, the challenge was to vary the lines enough so that the repetition (already expected in the sestina form) wouldn’t overwhelm or underwhelm the poem. As I wrote, the fun was in rearranging in interesting ways for sound, then meaning. As I read and recorded the poem, the fun was in managing my voice, the cadence, the pronunciation and articulation of each word and each line. This made me think more about punctuation choices as well as line breaks (enjambing and endstopping–or not).

Whether the poem has logic or “meaning” is now up to the listener. For me, I enjoyed the practice, but I mostly enjoyed that the words were given by my students, and in a way, it’s their poem.