Blue Sky Over Key West

Welcome to Key West, where we are on our little houseboat soaking up lots of lack of inhibition. Several years ago Key West seceded from the U.S., for a moment, anyway, establishing itself as The Conch Republic, the flag of which flies high still around town. If you’ve been troubled by and since the election, come on down. While the T-Word’s T-shirts and hats sell well, and ironically, at The Little Truman White House here, this fashion statement is one not seen on the locals. Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Idea of Order at Key West” remains such, merely an idea. There ain’t much order here. Drop your repressions at Mile Marker One.

Our pier in the city marina, Marlin Pier, is home to a gaggle of joy-filled, caring souls ranging in age from 12 to 90. Vocations and passions include artists, jewelry makers, CSI retirees, fireworks entrepreneurs, horticulturists, teachers of the year in science, blues singers, rock musicians, ice cream shop owners, government workers, sea captains, a Welsh screen writer, eight dogs, day laborers, former Pentagon photographers, knitters, actors, an adventurer who has survived three avalanches, shop owners, charter fishing captains, gourmet chefs on tour boats, and us. It’s the best assisted living set-up in the world: If “Jane isn’t up and out on the pier by ten, we check on her.”

When we arrived on Friday and headed down the pier, we were hugged and kissed and welcomed with the warmth usually offered those who have returned from outer space. Well . . .

“Don’t just do something, sit there!” Come recover for a bit. Just remember that this is a place where on Sabbath morning the parking lot used by the parishioners of the Unity Church is the one owned by the Bare Assets Nightclub.

This week’s poem…

Blue Sky Over Key West

Sometimes when we stand in the loss
of it all, surrounded by what we will never

be, the sky seems to be just fine. It’s blue.
It’s many shades of blue. And it’s there

and will be when we join the landscape
of the invisible. Clouds cross, none ever

the same. And that’s when we realize again
that there actually is no sky, just another

anonymous unknown we are sure we see.
When our dog steps out onto the deck of

our little houseboat bobbing on the nameless
blue-green of this bight and lifts his nose into

the gull-crossed and sea-soaked breeze,
does he see our sky? I like to suppose

he does. Though most likely it’s something
his gentle nose has brought for only him to view.

–Jack Ridl

First published in The Louisville Review

 

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Learning to Suffer

A blog post written first for CavanKerry

Several years ago, I was invited to be on a panel at a writers conference. The participants were asked to talk about the topic, “Can Poetry Be Healing?” We all gathered or were stuffed into a rather small meeting Room. It seemed that most everyone attending the conference came to this particular panel. I laughed to myself as I imagined that, like being in the audience of a phony evangelist, they had come to be healed. I wasn’t sure if they would find that funny or even amusing.

The first panelist began by stating outright that in no way can poetry be healing.

He talked about the loved people he had lost to cancer, accidents, any number of other physical cruelties that he never could imagine poetry possibly healing.

The second panelist seconded the first’s conclusion. She added that she had read many a poem, none of which would heal anyone, that many poems would likely only make things worse.

My turn. Well, all along I had figured that we would all be agreeing that poetry can heal. So, whew, here I come now cast as the antagonist. That’s a part I flee from playing. And so I agreed with them. Then I said that there may be another way of looking at poetry and its possible connection to healing. There is the illness and/or the pain, but there is an inner suffering as well. And so I followed, somewhat self-consciously, with my story…

By the time I was 35, I had been in and out of six psychiatric units, lost a marriage and a young child, had worked with easily a dozen therapists, taken so many drugs that several times I had to go into cold turkey before they “tried another,” and along the way had been given a total of thirteen shock treatments. Nothing relieved my suffering. (I can go into what did, but that’s not the import of this blog.)

Among the effects of my experiencing ten traumatic events as a very young child was an inability to suffer. What does that mean? For one thing it meant that there was no way that I could trudge down the blue highway to healing until I was capable of experiencing the pain that accompanies recovery. I needed to discover suffering. It was this realization that enabled me to “go on” and arrive where I am today, talking to you.

However, what might help? I couldn’t read even a sentence that described the least sense of suffering without plunging back into the need for caregiving. I had tried to read the gentlest of books, Ring of Bright Water. It wasn’t long before I put it down.

At some point I decided to try reading poetry, lyric poetry. Most of it was short. I could read the first few lines and see if I was able to go on. And I wrote poems, not very effectively, but with enough artistic technique to create a sense of control over what I put down on one of those yellow legal tablets.

After a week or so I found myself no longer putting the words away. I kept reading. I suppose it was fortunate that I was reading lyric poetry, and a lot of it was lyric poetry about those who suffered and/or by those who suffered, because at some point—slow learner that I am—I realized that “That’s it!” Most of those who wrote or spoke these poems were able to, somehow, live within their suffering. And so I read and read and wrote and read myself into the realization that something in me was becoming able to experience, to feel, that which one must be able to face.

And so it was this story that I told for my panel presentation—my explanation of why poetry just might be able to heal, to assure us that we can suffer, perhaps comfort us, help us feel we aren’t alone, that someone understands. We may even prevail, even if it’s making the day a bit cheerier for those who care for us.

It’s now been thirty plus years since I didn’t know I could suffer. I have lived this time with profound understanding from my wife and daughter. Most certainly, like everyone, I do suffer, but now with the confidence that I can.

 

Lifetime Achievement

I would never have hallucinated that the day would arrive when I might be given recognition for a lifetime’s work. Yikes!
A lifetime’s work?

Here’s how that happens. You do what you do every day for some 45 years and then you get an email informing you of such.

Some things, I admit, I did dream about: hitting the game winning home run in the seventh game of the World Series, receiving a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, draining a thirty foot jump shot with time running out to win a championship for my father, seeing Julie well, but what happened a couple weeks ago I could never imagine.

Okay, so what happened? First the Poetry Society of Michigan informs me that they have named me Honorary Chancellor for the next two years. This means so much: these poets work with poetry and poets for all the right reasons: respect for both poet and poetry, support for those who compose work that connects us to one another and to what deeply matters, encouragement to those learning the art, and an affirmation of poetry as crucial to  sustaining all that is humane. They give themselves to bringing out the compassion and understanding that we carry into each day.

Then, along comes a message announcing that the Literary Society of West Michigan has recognized me with one of their four awards given to those who have contributed to enhancing, enriching literacy. I was cited for a lifetime (there it is again) of work restoring understanding of what poetry really is and what it can bring to and do for others.

I feel okay celebrating these two recognitions because they were not something I worked for or dreamed of or hoped for or even knew about. They came as a result of doing what I do. I learned from my father, the coach, to never make “winning” a goal. It should always be a result. I’m even more fortunate than he was. I didn’t even know there was something that would come from, I say again, doing what I’m still doing.

Yes, I was floored when told of these. I will try to believe this was deserved. I’ll try.

PS. Speaking of the Poetry Society–the other day, their anthology, Peninsula Poets arrived. Reading the poems, I was once again shown how important poetry can be to one’s life. Every poem in the collection matters. Each came from what mattered to the poet; each connects to what matters to us all. The editor, Edward Morin, should be named “Editor-of-the Year.” He, James Ahearn, Julie George, and Angela Maloy must have given up half the hours in their days to devote themselves
to creating this edition. Gratitude abounds.

I have, of course, overlooked others who deserve celebration. If you are interested in joining this soul-sustaining organization, contact Cynthia Nankee at cwnankee@aol.com

And now back to earning the right to carry these recognitions.

Dombrowski

 

It’s the day after reading with my former student Chris Dombrowski at Horizon Books in Traverse City. I asked Chris to read first because, as I told the audience, “I wanted Chris to read first, because then you might be thinking what an amazing teacher I am. If I read first, after Chris, you would be thinking, “Well, he most certainly must have learned in spite of his professor.”

On April 3, at the former Literary Life building, 758 Wealthy in Grand Rapids,  I’ll get to give another reading with Chris Dombrowski. Chris will be reading from his new collection, Earth Again, from Wayne State University Press. I’ll be reading a few poems from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron, also from Wayne. Yes, Chris and I have collections out at the very same time from the very same press.

Okay, yeah, for nearly 40 years I’ve given readings. What’s another one? As William Stafford said in reply to one of my students asking him if he was nervous before a reading, “Oh no. Not at all… Resigned.” Well, with these readings, I am nervous and joyful because Chris is a former student. I wonder if, unless you are a teacher, you can fully feel, understand, what it means to be up there reading with someone who was 18 when you first met in a classroom. Teachers are fond of saying that they learn more from their students than their students learn from them.

What did I learn from Chris? I learned how to work with Chris. When he came to the college he was already knowledgeable about the artistry of composing a poem. He already knew the work of a remarkable range of poets. What was there for me to offer him? I brooded. And then I realized that, of course, the best thing I could do was stay out of his way, be an attentive reader for him, and kick him back on track if he started being unknowingly disloyal to his vision.

So can you imagine what it was like for me to open this year’s catalogue from the Press and see on facing pages Chris’s collection and mine. I wonder if there is any teacher out there who has had this happen? If you know, let me know.

Several times with the launch of our books, Chris and I will share the podium. I won’t go sappy here about this (too late?), but I feel as sappy as any proud “Uncle Lou.”

One other time I was invited by a former student to read with her. Sally Smits, who was teaching at the Indiana University campus in South Bend asked me to “share the stage.”  I had no idea how much it would come to mean to me. Quite a lot, it turns out.

Jack and Losing Season all over NPR. Here’s what’s coming…

November 20, Dick Gordon interviews Jack for APM's "The Story," airing on the same day as the Buzz Ridl Classic and the 50th anniversary of Buzz' 1959 team. Listen online or get your showtimes here: http://bit.ly/2li9yd

November 22, Garrison Keillor will read "Head Cheerleader" on The Writer's Almanac
AND
December 1, Keillor will read "Scrub Dreams of Making the Last Shot."
Listen online or get your showtimes here: http://bit.ly/GDD8O

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Book Review: Losing Season by Jack Ridl – Books – Blogcritics

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Article Author: Derek Emerson

Derek Emerson is a college administrator who also teaches entry-level English. He has his Masters in Professional Writing from Western Michigan University and has been involved in freelance writing, editing, layout, and design work for over ten years. …

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