Rose

Book of Fire {a poem}

Photo: Rey Seven

To you
hurt in the crossfire
of my confusion
I’m sorry

To you
harmed in the chaos
of my coming out
I’m sorry

To you
hit by the clamor
of my clarity
I’m sorry

To you
for telling me
to take up all the room
thank you

To you
for emboldening me
to be my own witness
thank you

To you
for bearing witness
when I was so frightened
thank you

To you
for believing (in) me
when I startled awake
thank you

To you
reading these words
stand in your own bold knowing
stop beating yourself up
apologize
and make right what you can

Let her go
who holds you hostage
in a room with no doors

Let him be
responsible
for his own growing

Trust yourself
and stay close
to the places where sustenance
comes easily
the woods
ice cream
the voice
of that one friend
who always answers

Accountability
and self-forgiveness
have their own fan club
for two
check under your door
for a personal invitation
today only
and tomorrow, too
and the next day
as long as it takes

The keys
the answers
the way

These are in you
as sure
as the air
you breathe
and the poison
you exhale thirty thousand times
every day

To you
who waited
and watched
and loved me
as I learned to be still
thank you

I will return
this gift
even as it dissolves
into daylight

I will practice
listening hard
looking closely
laughing freely
and raging
with reason
on your behalf

We are not the same
you know
but our roots are tangled
together
deep
beneath
the frozen winter ground

Somewhere
there’s a book of fire
a desert
a crossing
a circle of dancers
a tribe of scholars
a place where
we stood
before the earth
shifted and we had to choose
sides

Somewhere
the broken spaces
where borders became
perilous thresholds
still remember
our suffering
and our joy

To you
who wakes
with a glimmer
of memory

To who
who makes
coffee the night before
and brings it to your lover
in bed
to you who longs for
a lover
to you who left your lover

To you who said I can’t
to you who said I won’t
to you who said no more
to you who said I’m sorry
to you who said I’m not sorry
to you who said nothing
and regretted it later
to you who said nothing
to save your life
or another’s

Somewhere
the embers
remember
you

Rose

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Rose

The Poet’s Role in a Crumbling Democracy

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
Tess Gallagher

The key was to go through with it, without needing to consider any deeper meaning. To act, trusting that if I wanted to extrapolate later, that option would be available to me. I’m referring here to reading a poem in public, not at an open mic or organized event of some kind, but spontaneously, without an announcement.

“Go through with it” is a phrase I discussed that day in October with Luping, the grad student from China I met one year ago and sit with on a weekly basis for English-language conversation. Over slices of pizza, I told her I was considering reading a poem at a coffeeshop, but that I was nervous and hadn’t decided yet. She egged me on, saying, “It is crazy but will be very interesting!”

When we finished eating, we walked over to Amherst Coffee. Jazz piped in from the speakers and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read loudly enough over the music, so I decided to run my idea by the barista. He promptly said, “There’s no one here with the authority to sign off on that,” and returned to pulling espresso shots.

At this point, we’d bumped into a friend, who happened to be in that month’s Dive Into Poetry group — the nexus of this crazy idea in the first place, as the week’s assignment was to play with “guerrilla poetry,” i.e. spreading poetry in unconventional ways in the public sphere. Lisa was with her son, who happens to speak fluent Chinese; he and Luping struck up some conversation while I looked on agape. I took this as a sign to persevere, and we the four of us decided to give it one more try, this time at Starbucks.

I recognized one of the baristas right away, a young woman with whom I’ve discussed tattoos and have a friendly rapport. “Oh, cool!” was her immediate reaction, and we waited nervously while she went to ask her supervisor. I felt mildly disappointed in myself for asking permission at all, convinced that the great guerrilla poets would do no such thing (not to mention polling Facebook friends about the odds of getting arrested, though admittedly I wanted to make sure I’d be home for dinner). She emerged from the back office with a thumbs up and a big smile: “Green light!”

And so I began, without so much as an “Excuse me, everyone” or “Hi, my name’s Jena…”

No, I just read the first line of the poem, then the next. A hush fell over the space as I kept reading, and I made a point of looking in both directions, noticing how some people were watching, others looking down at their papers or phones, but aware that there was no way not to be sharing this experience.

I wasn’t doing this for 15 minutes of anything, more as a personal challenge to recognize that what we think is scary is often eminently do-able, that we won’t die by pushing ourselves out of comfort and complacency, and yes, perhaps on a broader level to explore questions of safety more broadly, and complicity. What began as something purely creative and fun, a way to shake myself up a bit and perhaps insert some poetry into public spaces, became a window into consciousness on a more urgent level.

To read a poem in a Starbucks in a college town, even a politically leaning one, did not require much consideration. But lines like these, from my poem, All Hands on Deck

we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

in a different context, could result in arrest and imprisonment.

We could look back 100 years to dissident poets such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalin’s Russia, but sadly, there’s no need to time travel when it comes to poetry being criminalized when it’s perceived as a political threat.

Take Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest by the Israeli government, accused of inciting violence and “igniting terrorism” after posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist” on YouTube. Or Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, who was initially denied a Visa to the U.S. to accept an a Committee to Protect Journalists award.

I’m thinking here of KKK members marching with tiki torches and calls for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. I’m thinking of political protest, performance art, and hate speech.

Who decides what’s what? What is a poet’s role in a crumbling democracy? What does it mean to wake up, to rise up, to shake each other out of stupor, to incite not violence but communication, and to stand up to elected officials who are actively eroding human rights at every turn?

My little experiment yesterday carried little to no risk. In fact, some people even clapped when I finished reading my poem, and one man approached me afterwards to say thank you. “People like you are really making a difference,” he said.

But here’s the thing: If I am to move my writing more into a political sphere — a periphery I’ve circled and danced inside of for as long as I’ve been writing — I have an obligation to do so in a way that calls attention not to myself but to those who really have something at stake.

People like Lucio Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan man who has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is facing deportation, while he and his family take sanctuary in a church right here in Amherst, Massachusetts, and DeAndre Harris, who was badly beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville this past August, and is now facing felony charges of “malicious wounding” of his attackers.

As poets and writers, it’s our responsible to call attention in any way possible to these assaults on human rights.

I do not have the legal knowledge to parse out the complexity of the first amendment, but I do know that those of us with less at risk need to step up and make noise — in whatever platforms are available to us — about the egregious erosion of what we claim to hold as universal rights to personal safety and freedom of expression.

Rose

6X6: Just Write… Coming in January 2018!


A couple of months ago, I announced a new group called Shitty First Drafts.

Soon thereafter, I realized I didn’t have a clear enough vision yet for how it would be different from my other groups, so I decided to give it some time to gestate. I pulled it from my website, not knowing whether I’d resurrect, transform, or scrap it.

Soon, it became clear what the problem was. The problem was what the problem so often is: I was trying too hard.

Something similar happened two years ago, when an idea that began as exciting grew increasingly unwieldy the more I worked on it. I reached out to a trusted writer and teacher for some perspective. Our conversation circled around one of my favorite questions: Where is there ease? 

A 12-week group called “Creative Ease” emerged from that shift, which eventually morphed into Jewels on the Path, one of my cornerstone groups.

Some ideas come fast and furious, sprung like Athena whole and complete, and I often take what one of my sisters affectionately calls a “shoot, ready, aim” approach to putting things out there. I trust the idea and then dive into the details, rather than the other way around. I love the playfulness and trust this entails.

But it doesn’t always work.

Shitty First Drafts, in its original inception, didn’t quite work. The format of the group was too close to other things I already offer, and I couldn’t for the life of me articulate who it was for or what would make it special.

Until it hit me: The name of this program won’t be Shitty First Drafts, a phrase made famous by Anne Lamott. It will be something even simpler. Ready for it?

JUST WRITE.

That’s right. Just that. Six weeks of just writing. Showing up once a week to put your pen to paper, to start and keep going, to let your words show up on the page and your voice take up room in space. To connect with others in an intimate setting, where we are all in it together.

How will it work?

  1. We’ll gather via Zoom (download here) and spend 30 minutes writing. There may be a reading or prompt to start us off, but the purpose of this time is to sit down and get words on the page.
  2. Following the writing period, each participant will have 15 minutes to read their words out loud and receive comments and feedback from the group.
  3. Each participant will be assigned a week to be the Featured Writer. She’ll send out a piece in advance for the rest of us to read, and have our undivided attention for 20 minutes of workshop-style discussion about her work, including addressing any specific feedback requests.
  4. Our time will conclude with each writers stating an intention or writing goal for the coming week. Writers may choose to continue with one piece of writing or to generate new material — the choice is yours, the time is yours.
  5. Two  40-minute coaching calls . We can use these to talk about specific pieces of writing, to brainstorm and bounce around ideas, and to address any challenges your faces and ways forward.

Why so simple?

Because sometimes all we need is the loosest of containers, the gentlest accountability, the fewest bells and the quietest whistles. At the end of the day — which is when this group will occur — it’s ultimately about showing up, sitting down, and just writing. Shitty first drafts and perhaps more polished drafts will follow, or not. The words you discover might be seeds of longer pieces, fragments of dreams, freewrites you’ll discard completely, or something else altogether. One of the only things I know for sure about the writing process is this: Writing begets writing. And having a small, supportive community of listeners and witnesses creates some mighty magic.

What else is included in the cost?

In addition to 2.5 hours per week together as a group, of both silent writing time and group sharing and discussion, you’ll schedule two 40-minute calls with me. We can use this time to focus on specific pieces of writing, to tease out where you get blocked, and to play with ways to continue to go deeper into your own work. There’s no specific agenda for our calls; this is your time, and a chance to talk about whatever’s going on for you in writing + life.

Will the calls be recorded?

The calls will be recorded. We will have a secret Facebook group for the express purpose of sharing these, in case you miss one and/or simply want to go back to listen to comments on your work again. The Facebook group will also be a place to share encouragement and support throughout the week.

Who should join:

Anyone who wants to produce more pages but finds that perfectionism and procrastination interfere with progress. This group is open to all gender identities and expressions as well as to all genres, though creative nonfiction and personal essay will likely comprise most of the writing. No previous experience in writing groups necessary. This group is also totally compatible with any of Jena’s other writing groups.

Do I need a particular project?

No, though it’s also fine if you do.

Risks and possible side-effects:

Heightened self-awareness, greater curiosity and sense of inquiry, deepening sense of trust in your own quirky and wondrous creative process, and increased willingness to keep going in the face of not knowing may all arise as secondary byproducts of this group.

Can I sign up for the calls and not the coaching?

Not for this group. In order to ensure a high level of participation and commitment, everyone in the Just Write groups will be working with me privately in addition to meeting with the group. If you’re interested in a super supportive, long-term (12 week) accountability group, check out Jewels on the Path. Or drop me a line and we can discuss what would be a good fit.

Dates + Times:

Two sections will kick off the new year:

Tuesdays, 1:00-3:30PM EST: January 16, 23, 30, February 6 , 13, 27 (3 remaining spots)
OR
Thursdays: , 5:30-8:00PM EST: January 18, 25, February 8, 15, March 1 (6 spots)

please note there will be no groups on 2/20 and 2/22 

Cost:

$419

Register + Payment:

Registration deadline is Friday, January 5, 2018.

Reserve your spot today with a non-refundable $99 deposit. You will be automatically billed for two additional installments of $160, two and four weeks after registering. Or use the “Buy Now” button below to pay in full.

Don’t forget to send me a note telling me which group you’d like to join (Tuesdays or Thursdays).


Payment Plan
Number of payments 3
No. Due* Amount
1 At checkout $99.00 USD
2 after 2 weeks $160.00 USD
3 after 4 weeks $160.00 USD
Total $419.00 USD
* We calculate payments from the date of checkout.
Sign up for

OR pay in full: 

Rose

All Hands on Deck

Photo: Stijn Stinnen

Oh tender heart for all who weep
and angry heart for those unseen
I dreamed about original wounds
and something healing came in the form of writing
Details elude me but I woke knowing something
had occurred, something in sleep needed heeding

Calling in the red hot and the true blue
calling in the close calls and the collision courses
calling in the blind eyes and the willful deniers
calling in you who would look away
and you who risk everything to offer sanctuary

The question isn’t when did discrimination become
the basis for policy making
but when was it ever not this way
and how can we claim progress when our bodies
are on the chopping block and our minds
are being held for ransom and we move from
one news cycle to the next
six seconds per person
forgetting last week’s outrage because this week’s is worse
how can that be
and how can we breathe
when there isn’t even time to pause and grieve?

Gone are the days of the 6:30 news when I was a kid
and my parents would spend 30 minutes in the TV room
listening to those soothing, familiar anchors
but whose news made the cut? What looked like unity
was not a lack of divisiveness but a lack of representation

We need to be talking, yes.
We need to be talking in person, in living rooms
in places of worship in the grocery store
in cafés and in the classroom
in the lakes and rivers diverted for dollars
in the casinos and dance halls and movie theaters
on buses and in gated communities on farms
and on city councils and in the halls of justice
where justice is in a chokehold while we look on
feeling helpless

To succumb to helpless paralysis cannot be the way
forward
though in this chaos I have little to offer
and it’s easy to feel small, frozen, flinching.
Do something do anything
Attend a meeting, make a call, talk to a neighbor,
broach the uncomfortable, pick up the phone, write a letter
read a book, challenge yourself
name the elephants in the room

As a teenager “keep your laws off my body” was
emblazoned
on the back of my closed bedroom door
bumperstickers, angsty emotional outrage
grown now into womanhood
maybe my teeth have gotten sharper
maybe my tolerance is done tolerating
settling for scraps and glass ceiling shards

Maybe I’m regressing before my very eyes
back to my roots
back to my original wound
the one I dreamed of healing by writing
the words flow like so much blood
and the stench is always somewhere else
and the hungry children are always somewhere else
and the oppression is always worse
for someone else

I must make it mine
take it all the way into my own body
knowing that these conditions render me, too
not free
me too, not at ease
me too, threatened
not too much
not going gently
or without a fight

taking all of this wholeness and all of the broken bits
and rather than flinging them haphazardly
and adding to the harm done
gathering, calling them in
calling myself home again
to really listen
for who to be
because the only thing
the ONLY thing I know for sure
is that this is all hands on deck time
and we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in