Tuesday, April 4, 2023

A hawk's meal (flash post)

I have never seen so many hawks. Does that mean there are more to see this year? Or does it mean something about my looking?

I am looking now, out my office window to the northwest at a large grey bird sitting vertically on a bent branch of a leaf-bare tulip poplar tree. I'd estimate the hawk is 60 feet up, and the tree has another 60 to go.  

No sign yet if this is a red-tail. The belly is white, wings and head are grey. I expect, when it finally takes flight, I'll see the familiar red-beige tinge on the pale spread of wings. And in the right light, the russet tail.

The bird is digesting. Earlier, a cry pierced my closed window -- loud enough to rouse me from typing, but it was the gobble-chirp I associate with hawks going about their routines, not a screech. The hawk hunched over the bent branch. Two small birds hovered, taking aim from opposite branches, colliding into the hawk's back, the hawk's wing. Looking at that distance like flies, they were probably bluejays. I saw a jay hectoring a hawk in my backyard recently. I've seen crows, singly and in pairs, hectoring hawks in flight. For all I can tell, the hawk doesn't mind, but I imagine it's annoying to have little bullies clipping past, snapping at your feathers. Naturally, the smaller birds are acting to protect their habitat and their young.

Eventually, the two pestering birds left the hawk to his business, bending like a walking beam, yanking up on fibrous strands, swallowing. I'm guessing the meal was something with tendons and fur, not a bluejay nestling or another jay. A long digestive sit ensued, with occasional beak to branch to tidy up, savor the last morsels. And a jay returned, playing nah-nah-nah-boo-boo. The hawk reacted, made a false snap in the jay's direction, then flew off to a branch higher up in the canopy, where it sat until taking off. I saw grey wings, an apricot-tinged belly, a dark tail.

That wasn't one of the pale-winged red-tails nesting at the edge of our back yard. But that's the direction this hawk flew when it left its post. I'm guessing a cooper's hawk. Although the internet tells me the red-tailed hawk is the larger of the two, and from my vantage today, I was looking at a large hawk, one that made the bluejay tiny.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

Perigee takes wing

Bloomington composer Abby Henkel has created a masterful choral work based on my poem "Perigee". Abby and I sing soprano together in the chamber choir Voces Novae. I had become aware of her work as a composer when we performed Venite Ad Me Omnes in 2021. Offhandedly, I mentioned I yearned to encounter a piece one day based on a poem by Mary Craig...

Abby took a look at my Birthday Elegy series and got to work. She selected "Perigee", the longest and most wide-ranging poem in the series. The work is for SATB (often subdivided). You can listen to it and purchase sheet music: abbyhenkel.com/listen. While you're on Abby's page, take a listen to her other works, like the choral settings of Ross Gay's "Thank You" and "Sorrow Is Not My Name".

Susan Swaney, Mary Craig, and Abby Henkel
introducing Perigee, November 2022

Abby's video of Voces Novae performing "Perigee" includes images from Simon's life. The music, lovingly learned and performed by the group and insightfully conducted by Sue Swaney, is lush, beautiful and expressive. The work deeply honors my poem and the memory of Simon.

What an experience! Especially to be among the performers. Thank you, Abby! Thank you, Voces Novae!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

A Pushcart Nomination

 The editors at Radar Poetry have bestowed the additional honor of a Pushcart nomination for my poem "Dendrochronology." Here's their slate of six nominees for the 2021 publication.

The Pushcart Prize champions small presses and magazines by inviting editors to nominate up to six works they have published over the current year. Wikipedia offers an interesting summary.

Since its founding in 1976, the "Pushcart Prize Best of the Small Presses" anthologies have included work from top writers and newcomers, from established literary journals to those less known. The competition is extreme, and the expectation of actually winning the recognition of being published in the anthology is quite low.

All the more reason to celebrate with me this nomination! It would indeed be wonderful for any of Radar Poetry's six nominees (and excellent recognition of this energetic and creative poetry magazine) to be included in the 2021 Pushcart anthology. Let's hope.

Dendrochronology, from Issue 28 of Radar Poetry

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Four Poems in Radar Poetry Issue 28 -- Finalist for the 2020 Coniston Prize

It's been quite a year. A couple of years, really. At some point, I'll say more about how my husband and I ended up, pre-pandemic, in Bloomington, Indiana, after nine years in Germany. And how pandemic-curtailed living has changed our assumptions about "just getting on a plane" to see family in Europe.

One measure of settling in to a new place could be achieving a new publication. I've let this blog rest for some time, and I'm reviving it to share the good news that I have four poems appearing in Issue 28 of Radar Poetry. I was selected as a finalist for the 2020 Coniston Prize, and the delightful concept of this contest is that all finalists appear together with the winner in an issue. I had been drawn to Radar Poetry by past Coniston winners' work, and I felt it would be a good place for my own themed poetry about my son Simon. The annual contest accepts work from women poets who submit a group of 3-6 poems that are "intentionally cohesive."

I submitted four poems that I call "birthday poems," although "birthday elegy" is more precise. Simon died the summer of 2004, two months after celebrating his 7th birthday. Over the years, I have looked for ways to live with the arrival and passing of May 17th each year. Perhaps it's not surprising that my writing, which has developed mostly since Simon died, has turned to the question of his birthday. In the last five or so years, I have found my way toward a new poem each May. As past posts on this bog attest, Simon's birthday is a long-running theme.

The pleasure of seeing these poems in Radar Poetry's beautiful format is multiplied by the opportunity to collaborate with my dear friend, Rebecca Cross, whose intricate, colorful, meditative artwork is paired with my poems.

Mary Craig (L) and Rebecca Cross at the opening of Rebecca Cross -- Ephemera at BayArts on October 9, 2020. With Equisetum Catiblecum, Cathie’s Horsetail, 2019. Mixed Media. 

Rebecca Cross -- Ephemera at BayArts in Bay Village, Ohio. Through November 3, 2020.

Many thanks to Radar editors Rachel Marie Patterson and Dara-Lyn Shrager for inspiring work by offering this contest and running it in an attentive and affirming way.

Most of the poems in this set emerged as responses to exercises in online workshops I've taken at the Poetry Barn. Since 2016, as an emerging poet, I've learned foundational skills in meter and form, as well as wide-ranging exposure to compositional concerns, free verse, and reading (women) poets with Joshua Davis. In 2020, I took two generative courses with Amie Whittemore. In between, there have been many courses with a range of instructors, including the Poetry Barn's tireless director, Lissa Kiernan. I am grateful for the encouragement, caring, and expertise shared so generously in this community of poets.

Every poem has an underbelly of where it came from, what soil it drew nourishment from. I learned the gigan form, used in "Dendrochronology" and "Simon's Piñata," in Josh Davis' course called "Rattling the Cage: Forms and Repetition." American poet Ruth Ellen Kocher created the form, and I was drawn both to its manner of containment (16 lines, with a set pattern of couplets and tercets: 2-3-2-2-2-3-2) and its use of repetition that turbo-charges the repeated elements by bringing them together. With room for slight variation, line 1 becomes line 11, and line 6 directly follows it as line 12.

"Dendrochronology" is preoccupied with the return of prolific life in the spring against the stark absence of the child. I wrote the poem during a workshop on meter, using the amphibrach (da-DA-da) counter to its common sing-song in forms like the limerick, and casting it as a breathless heartbeat in two metrical feet per line. The gigan's groupings and repetition contain difficult emotion and confront the inescapability of loss.

Although I wrote the poem many years later, "Simon's Piñata" came out of the very real juxtaposition of Simon's 6th birthday with our travels to Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City for treatment on a monoclonal antibody trial in 2003. Again, the gigan form offered a means of holding these contrasting events together.

I wrote "Endurance" as a challenge I proposed to the Poetry Barn community in 2018, having seen Brenda Hillman's intriguing, formula-based poem "Micro-minutes on Your Way to Work." The formula: 24 lines, 6 syllables per line. Again, the form presents a means of redirecting my mind as I work, leading to discoveries and choices I might never have found without the "requirement" to seek words that "fit."

"Perigee" is this year's poem, drafted in May during a workshop with Amie Whittemore and revised in August during a second workshop with Amie, where we attended to Gregory Orr's taxonomy of Naming, Singing, Saying, Imagining as ways of "making words come alive." The event that triggered the poem remained vibrant, and the poem evolved through time and attention and insightful input from workshop members.

Before sending my set of poems to Radar Poetry for consideration, I took advantage of the Poetry Barn's newest offering: mentoring. Josh Davis, whose depth of knowledge, support and friendship is deeper than I can swim, offered wise guidance on narrowing the set, believing in the language, and letting the poems go.

Monday, April 27, 2020

La Bohème--bringing death to life

Original La bohème poster, 1896
(courtesy of wikipedia)
Original date of this post: November 2, 2014
(the date change was inadvertent)

If you've ever seen Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896), you know it's a compact story with lively characters and music. Rodolfo, a poet, and Marcello, a painter, share a miserable garret in Paris. They live on nothing, burning manuscripts to stay warm. Shaunard arrives with cash, along with Colline, and the four friends head to a café. Rodolfo is the last to leave and finds Mimì at the door, asking him to relight her candle. It's love at first sight and a catchy aria for each ("Que gelida manina" for the tenor and "Sì, mi chiamano Mimì" for the soprano). Together, they go to join his friends.

In Act II, the stage is filled with Christmas cheer. Marcello's former girlfriend, Musetta, arrives with a wealthy older suitor. Her brassy manner (aria "Quando m'en vo") and fight-picking with Marcello contrasts with the talk of kisses like honey between the new lovebirds. By act's end, Musetta returns to Marcello.

Act III finds Mimì looking for Rodolfo at a seedy tavern, where he's joined Marcello and Musetta after running away from Mimì. She is ill, a fact touched on lightly in the first two acts. Like most 19th century opera heroines, Mimì suffers from consumption. Claiming she is unfaithful, Rodolfo has subverted his fear of her illness into a jealous rage. The two speak outside the tavern and agree to part "senza rancor" (without bitterness).

Act IV, back in the garret, Rodolfo and Marcello are singles again. Shaunard and Colline come in with a meal. They are interrupted by Musetta, who has brought a terribly weakened Mimì. The others go off on errands to leave Mimì and Rodolfo alone. They reminisce about their first meeting, delighting the audience as melodies from Act I are reprised. The others return, each selling prized belongings for resources to care for Mimì. Only Rodolfo doesn't grasp what's happening. While he looks away, Mimì breathes her last. The audience is the first to know. Then friends standing nearby. Last of all, Rodolfo sees as a devastating funeral chord lashes up from the orchestra. His anguished cry of her name ends the opera.

In my opera-going experience, the final moments of La Bohème outweigh anything else. It's a death scene, choreographed as a chain of realization among the participants, audience included. In 1987, I saw La Bohème at the Volksoper in Vienna. The director was Hari Kupfer, an East German known for edginess and realism. The last moments of his Bohème remain with me still. I remember Mimì in a simple, pale-colored mid-calf dress. She's been seated downstage left on a straight-back chair, nothing more comfortable. The others busy themselves anxiously to help her, while Rodolfo looks away. Mimì's left arm drops from her lap and hangs beside the chair (the audience knows). A little time passes as the others help Rodolfo see. He speaks: "What are you saying?" His comprehension comes as the terrible chord blasts. At the same moment, the piece of stage on which Mimì sits is yanked sideways off the stage. Her body falls from the chair as the corner goes black. Rodolfo cries out her name. I sat in my balcony seat, feeling as though I'd been punched, and wept. (That was the moment I became a fan of Hari Kupfer, whom I got to experience in person a year later when he directed Wagner's Ring at Bayreuth.)

Markus, Miriam, and I saw La Bohème last Sunday in Stuttgart (October 26th matinee). Miriam is never eager, but she agreed to come along. Bohème is a good opera for the less initiated. It's short, the music flows pleasingly, the story's easy to follow, and nobody can escape the power of the last scene. The Stuttgart production, directed by Andrea Moses with music direction by Simon Hewett, takes La Bohème into the digital age. The artists work with video, and a bank of motley monitors shows images upstage left, sometimes live and sometimes not. Rodolfo and Mimì sing their arias to each other karaoke-style, while Rodolfo adjusts a mixer board. It works. See the photo gallery for a good idea of the show.

How did this production handle the final scene? The location shifted to an art gallery, stark white, with Marcello and Rodolfo mounting an exhibit. A large white screen in the middle of the stage had the words La Vie Bohème in reverse to welcome a public entering from deep upstage. There was a sofa and the ever-present video camera. All Rodolfo had to cover Mimì with as she lay on the sofa was a large sheet of plastic. As the two of them began to reminisce, they took turns filming each other, with the image beamed onto the large screen center stage. A still photo captured Mimì, smiling a warm smile. (Yes, I thought, that's what it's like, trying to capture the essence of a loved one. Moving.) As the scene develops, additional people fill in the back of the stage. Smartly dressed, they are art lovers at a gallery. Mimì's head drops back, eyes closed and lifeless. Instantly a close-up of her face appears on the big screen, this time black and white. While Rodolfo is coming to his senses, the gallery visitors begin to applaud for the artwork, a completely inappropriate gesture and one they stop immediately. Red dots appear on objects in the exhibition (Colline's coat, the image of Mimì), marking what's been sold. Rodolfo realizes finally, the chord bursts, the art-lovers seem thrilled, the opera ends.

I asked Markus if he felt implicated, as I had, by the art-goers. Here we were, seated in an audience, watching art about a person dying. He said, no, he'd felt a bit annoyed by them but that we were doing something else--watching staged art, whereas they were staged as watching a "real" scene. Complicated, eh? In my case, I felt nailed to the wall in my voyeurism and far too dismayed to be able to clap during the first minutes of the ovation myself. The video element added to the pathos of this production, and I applaud all involved for bringing it to life.

Where did my self-consciousness about watching the death scene come from? I believe that's an intended effect of this interpretation. But it was also the day before Objects of My Attention came out. I have written a death scene myself. I have questions about intimacy. What does an audience want? What am I willing to share? Does it betray or trivialize? I believe my choice to share intimate personal stories ultimately comes from the same impulse that sends me to the opera to be moved. All artifice aside, sharing the stories is how we make them real.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

A publication surprise

On the last day of 2018, a prompt came through in my writing community at the Poetry Barn, and I grabbed the chance to play the game of "exquisite corpse" with Judith Roney. We met as co-students during my first course at the Poetry Barn in 2015 (The Lyric Essay, with Molly Sutton-Kiefer). Later, Judith taught a course in contemporary love poems (February 2017), and I was her student. We even met briefly in person at the 2018 AWP* conference in Tampa. Such are online writing friendships!

I'd observed exquisite corpse games from the sidelines (and Judith is a prolific participant), but I'd never followed the bait before. Something about:

Last Day of 2018 
Unsettled and feeling strangely weepy, I may tattoo Per Aspera ad Astra to the inner wrist for “through hardship to the stars,”

called out to me, and I gave this reply:

a gift of tender wrist to inky needle. My starry tears

Click over to the published poem to see where we went from there (ours is the third of three poems Judith published with Burning House Press, selected by February 2019 guest editor Adrianna Robertson). The collaboration continues for a total of 11 turns, giving the instigator the final word.

I enjoyed the sense of finality when submitting my contributions to the poem. In the game, there's no chance to edit once you press send. Your turn is finished, and your partner has the next move. I felt myself planning differently, weighing options more fully, seeking less obvious moves to make. Doubling back to make references to words Judith used added texture to the poem, and I could feel her doing the same with my words. We both enjoyed leaving things hanging to see what the other would do next. After several turns, Judith suggested a slight reformatting of the opening, which set us on a trajectory of three-line stanzas. As we progressed, we maintained the tercet stanza. Sometimes we wrote a full stanza; sometimes we left the stanza open for the other to carry forward. (Tip for others playing the game: we maintained a ghost copy in the comments section to determine our desired formatting. For anyone who's not a member of the Poetry Barn community but wants to give this a try, all you have to do is take a poetry class, and you're in the community going forward.)

Fascinating process. I'm grateful to Judith for the experience and also for the publication. I hadn't thought of the work as more than an exercise (we finished about a week ago), and she took the chance of sending it in with some of her other poems. The acceptance of her collection was nearly instantaneous. In fact, she was only able to tell me about t it after it went live. Judith is right; Adrianna Robertson is right: it's a good poem.

Note to self: send more poems to editors.

*Associated Writers and Writing Programs (annual conference of 10,000+ writers, academics, publishing professionals)