I prayed as if I believed.
As if I did not grieve the promised ghost.
As if I were not cast out
of my mother’s body like a demon.
There is a heaviness that lies
at the back of every psalm.
Layer upon layer of armor to pierce.
All it takes
to walk words of praise out of the darkest thicket.
To grant the sun its miracles.
To not grow bitter and tough skinned
as a vine of old muscadines.
I love you in the way I carry you,
small and ceaseless spirit.
You are my childless, my motherless.
I love you in the way I witness you.
The way I break your limbs
and feed the fire.
I have no need of wood now.
For I have found the forest
Bettie: Beth, first I want to thank you for agreeing to this interview for Wolfie’s Breaking Down the Wall project. As a warrior poet, it seemed appropriate for you to be part of a project that breaks down walls. To start off, will you speak to your reasons for having chosen tumblr as a writing platform?
Beth: Hi, Bettie! Thanks for your interest. I’ve been on Tumblr for a little under a year and a half. I can honestly say it was my good friend, Mr. Virulent-Tuber, who prodded me in Tumblr’s general direction. I have practiced the art of writing poetry in every season of my life, but had gone through a period of years wherein I’d grown quite sporadic in my devotion to the craft. I had also just come out of a long and difficult marriage and subsequent divorce, was in the midst of building a new and life-changing relationship, and was also still reeling from the unexpected death of my father in January 2009. As you can imagine, I was loaded with fodder for the page. Mr. Tuber recognized this brimming potential and bugged the living shit out of me until I relented and started a blog. And for this I have thanked him at varying intervals ever since.
Bettie: Your poems can be described as profound and evocative. How do you approach writing them?
Beth: I appreciate the descriptors you’ve chosen here. I approach writing from all angles. Sometimes, inspiration strikes and poems all but write themselves. Other times, it is serious work to transfer burgeoning ideas from mind/heart/soul/body to page. I typically finish a piece in one go, usually in under an hour, but there are some poems that I will likely be working on for months or even years. Just because all the elements haven’t fallen into place quite yet.
I tend to seek out inspiration when it doesn’t strike readily, through reading as many other poets as I can get my hands on. This is a huge component to being a writer of any genre, one that is often overlooked by new and aspiring writers. To write well, one must read well. It’s kind of like cooking. If you want to become a master chef, you have to taste every dish you want to learn to make. You have to develop your palate. You have to see how it’s done.
I also like to go on long walks to gather ideas. Sometimes just looking at the way a shadow falls across a vacant lot, the way an old house leans drunkenly in the snow, or watching an exchange take place between two strangers is all it takes to get the synapses firing.
To close my answer here, I want to talk about the nature of poetry for just a minute. Poetry is unique among the arts. Language and communication are mostly left-brained pursuits, while the arts generally originate in the right half of the brain. Poetry is the strange exception. It is an abstraction of communication, a melding of art and semantics, a world of concepts and ideas so vast it is difficult to fathom. Therefore, poets generally tend to have what is referred to as a “bridge brain.” We use both halves nearly equally, which gives us a huge advantage in nearly every aspect of our lives.
Bettie: It’s been said that you slip in to tumblr like a ninja, post a glorious poem, drop some hearts on other poets, and slip back out. Bam! It’s featured. I think that’s a fair assessment. I know you are not motivated by features. What does motivate you to write?
Beth: Seriously? This has been said? Let me elaborate on that a little. Oftentimes, I’m posting on my lunch break at work, so I have a very limited amount of time to spend on Tumblr. I’ll start a piece in the morning and sneak a few minutes here and there to work on it, flesh it out and finalize it on my lunch break, and then post it. By the time all that’s done, it’s time to clock back in.
What motivates me? I’d explode if I didn’t write. Not writing makes me feel like my skin doesn’t fit right, like I don’t belong to myself. Writing is home.
For me, being alive is a visceral experience. I am inherently empathic and feel everything going on around me. I have very little shield or filter to buffer the outside world before it soaks in. Writing is a way to process things, a way to bleed out the toxins I inadvertently collect on a daily basis, a way to turn feelings and sensations into something I can touch and see. Something to which others can relate and even find helpful. I heal myself with writing. And If I can also help others heal with my words, then hell yes.
Bettie: I know you have a busy personal life and you find time to do live poetry readings and slams. What would you say is the benefit to a poet of performing a piece live?
Beth: You nailed it; free time is one thing that is lacking in my life. I work full time as a medical transcriptionist and am also a self-employed massage therapist and Reiki healer. I make time for readings and slams when they’re held locally. It seems we go through long droughts here in my area (mountains of NE TN), but the advent of a local zine, This is William Birdcock insures there are release parties with opportunities to read every few months.
Depending on how one wants to grow as a writer, performing pieces can be incredibly helpful. It establishes rapport between the poet and her work. To read well, the poet must believe in what she’s created. She must translate this passion from the page to spoken word. Not all page pieces translate well in the spoken realm, but when you find one that does, you can destroy people, heal people, bring them to their knees, or elevate them, depending on the motive of your piece.
A huge obstacle for many writers is that many of us are true introverts, me included. It is uncomfortable to bare one’s soul to the mercy of a bunch of complete strangers, especially given the confessional nature of many pieces. I had an unpleasant experience at the last reading I attended back in late August/early September, as the audience was there to hear banjo mountain music more than spoken word performance. But, it was an open mic, and I gave my all, and I do not regret it. Not every reading will go the way you want it to, but every experience is valuable and, if you let go of expectations and open yourself to what’s about to happen, you’ll always learn something new.
When a reading does go well, it is an incredible experience. There is nothing else like it. I cannot convey to you how rewarding it is to perform something so well that an entire room of people is moved to the height of emotion. By something you created. There are few greater rewards for an artist of the written word.
Bettie: You seem to be above the fray when it comes to the discussions about a wall in the Tumblr Writing Community between popular and less popular or newer and older writers. Do you have any opinion on this issue or any advice for people feeling blocked by a perceived wall?
Beth: There is, indeed, no lack of walls in the writing world. It has always been this way and likely always will be. And this is unfortunate, but in the end it matters not. If you’re a poet, write poetry. Who gives a shit about breaking down the walls? Write because you want to, because you need to. Because it makes you whole and sets you free. If you’re writing to gain popularity, to get published and garner fame, good luck with that. It is an achievable goal, but shouldn’t be your chief aim. Your chief aim should be to learn, to grow, to write beautifully, to hone your skills to such a fine point you can pierce Kevlar without even trying. This is a process that will take a lifetime. You will never reach a point where you say, “Okay, I’m good enough. I can stop growing now.” You can always be better. If you approach writing like it’s your one true religion, your one true ideology, the one true love of your life, then any wall, perceived or real, won’t have the balls to stand in your way. When your heart is in the right place, you are powerful. Do not forget this.
The first ingredient to poetry is passion. If you have the passion, the fire, the urge that threatens to devour you if you do not indulge it, then you know you’ve been put here to say something. To say what? That’s the long-haul question. The one that you’ll still be answering 50 years from now. Is there a more profoundly beautiful, kick-ass way to live? If so, I’ve yet to discover it.
Bettie: Which writer or writers inspire you? Which writers would you like to know more about?
Beth: There are many here on Tumblr and elsewhere. Paul Guest has been a huge influence, as have Jesse Ball, Adrienne Rich, Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud, and Langston Hughes, just to name a few of the better known poets. I’m also totally enamored with the huge slam poetry movement occurring at the moment. Write Bloody is the chief publishing house responsible for mainstreaming such brilliant poets who would have likely been passed over by the more traditional page-poetry publishers. Among these artists, I’ve found the works of Sam Sax, Rachel McKibbens, Buddy Wakefield, and Mindy Nettifee to be especially brilliant. Their performances are nothing short of incendiary.
As for my Tumblr cohorts, there are so many of you whom I admire and appreciate. Just to name a handful: Jill with her masterful explorations, Jude with his tender heart and ability to see beauty everywhere, Greg with his honed and uncompromising brilliance, the Monkey with his lucid observations and his impeccable wit, you with your balance of truly profound and humorous work, Nicole with her seeker’s spirit, purgatorypoetry with his expansive use of metaphor, and Stimie with his philosophical waxing and constant reminders to dig ourselves. Also, though they both post infrequently, I’ve known Virulent-Tuber and Dan personally for many years. Virulent-Tuber has one of the most masterful commands of alt lit I have seen, here or elsewhere; and Dan is just badass. You should see the man perform, it is an incredible experience.
This list is by no means exhaustive, so if I’ve left anyone out it was completely unintentional. These are only a few of the many talented in our midst.
Bettie: I admire many of the people you listed and thank you for the kind words. Also, thanks to you again for giving us the opportunity to get to know more about you and for contributing to this writing community in a meaningful way. Is there anything you’d like to say in closing?
Beth: In closing, I want to say thank you again for your interest. I’d also like to thank everyone for reading, supporting, and challenging me throughout my time here. I am not as present in this forum as I’d like to be, given the tempo of my life, but I hope you know I seek out your words at every opportunity I have. You are all amazing human beings, each and every one, and I count myself blessed and privileged to know you, whether it be personally or through the art we share.
A big thanks to Bettie, the Breaking Down the TWC Wall staff, and to everyone for all the continued support and readership. I am most grateful to be counted among you :)
This is the story of what lies at the center.
A nothing, not born of emptiness.
A nothing that breathes and quivers
with the rest of us.
How a room drops its leaves.
How the cold sinks.
How I came to know.
This is the story of my dad’s baby brother.
How my mother got the call before I did.
How her mouth went dry as a bone
as she climbed the stairs to the kitchen.
How my father saw her face and asked,
How she sank to the floor in the August heat
and said, simply, quietly, Michael.
How she sank like the cold
And how she called me at 5 a.m.
five years later, January 20th.
How she was hysterical.
So panicked I thought the windows would burst.
How her voice belonged to some drowned creature.
Thick and hopeless and low.
How she said only, Your dad. I’m sorry.
How I hurried toward an emptiness that morning.
How I drove with my flashers on through the streets at dawn that morning.
How the cold sank again and again, rolling and diving and pitching me,
weary and heaving, over the sides of myself.
And how badly I needed this spilling
of everything at my feet.
How it changed me.
How the road opened up before me.
How I came to walk again.
This is the story of a woman in Houma, Louisiana.
Struck by lightning while grocery shopping.
I just felt it go right through me.
Brilliant blue light and a jolt of searing pain.
It’s really pretty, the middle of a lightning bolt.
A room inside disaster. A place to give pause.
To be shown how beautiful it is to walk the road.
To let the pain sink in that signals an end.
This is the journey.
The nothing, not born of emptiness.
The nothing that breathes and quivers
with the rest of us.
The nothing born
Drifting as leaves and it is
Drifting as ashes and I have been burned so it is
Drifting as wind driven and it is
As ailing birds that do not migrate and I have been
wingless so it is
Screaming as birds do my only vowel and even this
catches fire as it falls so it is
The mouth would take what it has been given
as I have given as all I know
The morning would wait by my bed in the night
as I have waited as all I know
Because I knew no better and believed I deserved
the sunless window with its empty panes
as I went unheard and kept unwell as all I knew
Power came in the shape of my self and I will
unfold my long and limbless eyes I will
plunge the terrifying and soundless depths I will
remind the song to sing itself I will
open my hands to receive
this gift as all I know
I am brave enough
to heal I am
to try to try to try to try
is all I know
A whole week passes on good faith.
There are still houses with red doors when it is over.
A description of silence.
A thing that has not yet happened.
I am given the authority as the survivor
of a speechless family.
Tribes exist within, I’m told. Bodies or lines or
any boundary that serves.
But my sky is a clean one.
And there are red doors, bright with rain.
And there is wind and food, places to get to.
And this fits perfectly
the shape of the earth.
I am named after a house.
And I am no less deserving.
And here. Here is silence:
The icy streets licked in salt.
A black that never dries, even in full sun.
Snow out the kitchen window,
dusk blue as an attic room.
A kissing that envelops.
Thirty seconds of breathless home.
Softer than god. Exactly as infinite.
A gentle triumph of my own crippled mercy.
Nerves and blood and all my heart’s body.
Everything filled in.
Not a single blankness remaining.
by W. S. Merwin
with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you
we are standing by the water thanking it
smiling by the windows looking out
in our directions
back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you
over telephones we are saying thank you
in doorways and in the backs of cars and in elevators
remembering wars and the police at the door
and the beatings on stairs we are saying thank you
in the banks we are saying thank you
in the faces of the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you
with the animals dying around us
our lost feelings we are saying thank you
with the forests falling faster than the minutes
of our lives we are saying thank you
with the words going out like cells of a brain
with the cities growing over us
we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is
The world when I saw it was
a blank canvas.
Last night through
muddled windows that
kept fogging no matter
how little I breathed.
I paid homage and
The world laid out
like a dirt road with its
The art by which
we save ourselves.
And our drowned countries.
And our wasting gravities.
I recognized the ailments
I am designed to carry.
How beautiful a sickness
I paid homage and
Snow is the first ambassador.
The one by which we measure
Beguiled by the warmth
of a rainy ground,
it comes anyway.
Softening and lulling.
Making us believe
there is nothing ugly
beneath all the stretch
of its white.
The world and all its white.
I paid homage
as I breathed the sting
I wept its brightness.
I said everything
I’d ever wanted to say.
I watch the dirt-dog sun in winter,
the way it rolls to cover
The way it hides.
The way it hedges us in
with a dark that is both
comfortable and cruel.
The way no one ever comes
to the door,
And that old mammoth we spent
our words in last fall
is up for lease with its
big empty windows.
The driveway is now but a lolling concrete tongue.
It clacks dryly of boiler rooms,
rivets and coal.
The frost is getting in
and changing things.
As for whoever will go there
after us, I wonder will they know
what magic has been done inside.
Will they know of the leaf pile?
The open door with the music
spilling out? The night as it lay
wedged and not breathing
between the rust-cut junkyard
and all the unlit alleys
where we found the moon’s face
Will they know what October means
when lived wide in such
And how we didn’t need
I fear they won’t know.
And that the city will swallow them
The washing machine is making
a terrible noise.
The car is making
a terrible noise.
The streets shake with it.
The whole house shakes with it.
The leaving and the entering.
Some things have come loose.
Engines have spun themselves
into the sleeping ground.
Beams old and thick as a leg
have come uneven.
Have come alive.
And what am I to do about
the sun in winter?
And the empty things
I once helped to fill?
And the great and lungless night
of our city?
And the hungry sounds
a storm makes
as it comes?
Brother, you are but
houses and rooms
filled to bursting
with good light and
the dry leaves,
the new dawn
with her gentle rain.
Open your doors,
your tired and spent arms.
The time will come
to give yourself back.
To grow from the earth
To join all those
who’ve gone on ahead.
But today, brother,
is a cloud-wrapped gift,
its garland set alight,
saved for no one
reading naked palms.
And when I say naked I mean
And when I say without skin I mean
bone is so much more a thing
There’s all that gibbous plump
to get in the way.
All that smooth to cover the rough
that built itself up to bring you here.
Offered you sacrifices of possum
Much as you did not want this.
Much as you sought to cover
the carcasses with ordinary things.
And when I say ordinary things I mean
what’s more ordinary than carpals?
There is something to be said for divination.
Yes, even sorcery.
Poems and everything else
we stutter and wield.
So I read the bones from the wrists down.
The way they gather moss
like stones beneath my hands.
The way they are.
Bald as an abrupt winter.
Speaking of everything
the skin would promise