I Am Wearing Your Shirt

On Tuesday night, 17 of us gathered at Bryan Uecker’s Book Nook and Java Shop in Montague, Michigan. Go there. You will enter the world as it should be: fine food, fine drinks, music, fascinating art objects, books of course, and overstuffed chairs, calming lighting, and such welcoming warmth.

This is a gift from Bryan to all those who hope to find a place where the soul finds respite.

We gathered for a workshop in which I try to offer a variety of approaches to writing that explores one’s personal history, the history that matters, the history that one is seldom encouraged to discover. There is memory, the wellspring of much of our lives. As Joy Harjo has so quietly said, “Memory alive. That’s what we are.” And there is memory that becomes a record of our history, meaning those experiences and those people who have had an impact on who we are.

During our evening a troubling discussion arose about how, all but daily, 45 by his coarse and caustic language distracts these writers from what deeply matters to them. Two and a half hours later, we left feeling re-connected to our own worlds, regretting that we needed a workshop to have this happen, and with hope that we can attend to political events that matter and somehow keep 45 from tearing us away from what creates the personal meaning in our days.

I Am Wearing Your Shirt
an elegy for my father

When your words left
your hands, the only place
silence holds us to the earth
opened.  Somewhere a child
opened a door.  Somewhere
a mother looked out a window.

You lived in your hands—alive
in bread dough, along the handles
of tools, holding the endless
usefulness of rags.  “In all
things, a firm grip,” you told me,
and at the end, you wanted only
your hands.

The snow that comes in the mornings
brings each of your words.  The water
forms around your and, your either, not
and yes.  They land, they just land.
Sometimes they fall all day, and into
the next.  Sometimes they melt before noon.

You never waited.  In the Spring,
you forced the shoots, even
the blooms.  The trays waited
on the coffee table, the refrigerator,
the floor of the family room. We gave
one to anyone who stopped. They
were gone by May.

Yesterday, I found a photograph.  I’m
sitting on your shoulders.  Or is it you
sitting on your father’s shoulders?  Or
is it your grandfather sitting
on his beer wagon, holding
his team of tired horses?

At the funeral, you walked through the house
collecting your garden tools, cookbooks, and
sweatshirts while each visitor laid the bud
of a rose on your chest.  They formed a heart
within the heart of your arms and folded hands.
I imagine them opening in your ashes.

Every morning for fifty-one years, you
woke and began by whispering, “This
is the best part of the day,” and laid
your arm across her back.

I am wearing your shirt.  Now,
when I walk, I wear your hat.  In
the garden, I wear your gloves.

Here the land is flat.  You
lived in the clay hills,
always at an angle.

Growing up on Goat Shit Hill,
looking out over the sullen
open hearths, the tired smoke
of the mills, the smudged strip
of heartless coal, you took shot
after shot at the hoop your father
rammed into the ridge behind
your house, knowing any miss
could send you down a mile
after the disrespected ball.

The house is cold now, cold
as Spring turning itself
into bloom.  We wait at the window.

You always stepped aside
to let every question have its way.

Your God wanted no attention at all.

Yesterday, when I dug into our garden’s
matted earth, I felt your hand slide
into mine as if it were putting on
a glove.  We went together
into the awkward ground, turned the soil,
let it slip between our fingers.

Where have you walked
in a year?  The center
of snow. . .  The center of
each amen. . . of every
word we’ve tried to keep.
Now, on this still April afternoon,
one more year to the day you
came to stay within us, the trees’
negative space waits for leaves.

And wearing your shirt, I look out into
the wood, where the end of each branch
touches the air’s one silence.

How you loved this dust, this
light on the side of the house.

–Jack Ridl

First published in the New Poems from the Third Coast, Contemporary Michigan Poetry (Wayne State University Press)
Subsequently published in Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)

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Visit Roan & Black and Cabbages & Kings and Reader’s World to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

 

Sisley’s “Snow at Louveciennes”

“Thou shalt not steal.” Most everyone grows up with this dictum usually applied to material goods.

It’s not only immoral; it’s illegal.

However, we are having to live with one who steals from us and gets away with it.

45 steals our attention. Of course we are obliged to pay heed to what issues come before our leaders, keep a vigilant watch, as we learned, likely in elementary school.

But today this thief breaks and enters and steals what deserves our attentiveness, distracts us from those we love, from our dogs and cats, our breakfast, our own cares and passions. Imagine! Our attention stolen and tossed to a feud between 45 and Alec Baldwin.

There you are trying to comfort a friend, have a good time with a loved one, trying to fix the faucet, while slithering around in your consciousness is this blatant thief, and you find yourself saying to the other person, “Did you see what he tweeted today? Right there, right then, he stole what you would have said about the weather, the kids, what happened to Helen or Tom.

Sisley’s “Snow at Louveciennes”

We see white on white, a woman
in the bleak center of the canvas,
this cold holding onto the rolling

snow lying along the fences,
tree limbs, hipped roofs,
stone walls of the lost village.

On a cottage door, a quiet blot
of blue. Wrapped in a tatter
of brown, the woman, deep

in the landscape’s insistent flat,
has the anonymity of a still life.
She is your mother unable to return,

staring into the blizzard’s dread
beauty, seeing only the sky,
a mute wash of blue hanging fragile,

spare as the frozen air. She stands
bordered by the indifference
of daylight, imagines a cardinal

cutting its wound across the snow,
a cat crawling under a cottage,
curling its tail around its sleep.

–Jack Ridl

First published in Harpur Palate
Subsequently published in Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press)

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Visit Roan & Black and Cabbages & Kings and Reader’s World to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

Epilogue

Perhaps it’s the term ‘post-modern.” I don’t understand “post-modern.” I don’t understand “modern.”

I know some people who had an argument over when modernism began. It all but destroyed their friendship. When disagreements like that break out, I feel like offering an adaptation of a Mel Brooks response: Uh, you go on arguing, “I gotta wash up.”

Epilogue. Maybe we’re inhabiting an epilogue. I like that. Epilogues tend to have a sense of addition or addendum to a story and are often a gentle settling of things.

Yeah. I don’t want to dwell with you in a “Post-T Word” world. Let’s head toward an epilogue.

Epilogue

I’m working a Sudoku puzzle, one cat
in my lap and Mozart on the radio. I
didn’t catch what work, but I don’t know

much about classical music. I like it,
most of it, have it on all day, a companion
as I wander from room to room within
a life that may or may not matter. I
also don’t know much about cats. We
have two. They act as if they can’t believe
the other should be in the house. They hiss,
growl, swat at one another. The old dog
sleeps. The young dog stands between them.
It’s a cold day, patches of snow and ice.
There are birds at the feeders. There is
a clear sky, and the creek behind the house
drifts along as does the next piece on the radio,
something by Edward Elgar or maybe it’s
Vaughn Williams. This puzzle is impossible.–Jack Ridl

First published in The Louisville Review

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Visit Roan & Black and Cabbages & Kings to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

What To Do Instead

Al Murtz was a folk artist… more of an outsider artist… no, more a guy who liked to paint on things.

My good pal Max Milo introduced me to Al. We visited him in Baldwin, MI, where his house was surrounded by every object imaginable, each painted by Al. Never a canvas. Always an object.

One time,  Doctor Scholl’s truck tipped and out spilled thousands of insoles. Al had them gathered up and dropped off at his place where he painted each one.

Hundreds of bright yellow railroad spikes with red-painted smiley faces on top greeted you in front of the house.

When a leak appeared in the roof, Al put an upturned rowboat over the spot, the boat painted all imaginable colors. In the back he had placed upright a set of bed springs, each painted, monoliths to something.

We asked Al’s wife why he did this every day, all day. She shook her head and said, “He likes to paint.”

What To Do Instead
Out here, the paint stays
between my fingers–a boat,
a long afternoon, this wide
and generous landscape.
I like the smells: grass, yellow,
the insides of old hats, rain,

the rot of logs and leaves.
I wonder about church.
I’d like to paint the pews.

I like every afternoon, how
the morning empties and opens
and birds and light come into it,

how the color moves north or
veers into my neighbor’s yard.
And I like where my hand goes

when the brush takes it across
a board or broken dinnerware,
a light bulb, shoes, baseballs,

those dinner trays there beside
the bicycles, or these stumps.
When I’m out here, it’s quiet

and the wind moves across my hands.

–Jack Ridl

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Visit Roan & Black and Cabbages & Kings to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

 

That Time We Read at Roan & Black

I lost track a while ago of all the “Once Ever” experiences poetry has brought my way in the fifty years I have been in this one art.

This past weekend extended and enriched this list because of the great and lovingly generous souls at Roan & Black Gallery–John, Doug, Angela, J, Rian, and Sophia–where within the gallery’s understated but bounteous gardens the luminously soulful poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and I read, accompanied by Rob Kenagy, the gently awesome improvisational guitarist/poet/friend.

We played before an audience (150 of you?!?) who welcomed each word and note with a warmth we soaked up and savored. Imagine–the gardens, a huge lawn for chair or blanket, flowers and lemon water on the set, incense keeping any gate-crashing bug at bay, the sun glowing down its way within weirdly accommodating weather, Prosecco, gourmet cookies, sighs and laughs, and good folk lingering after, enjoying just being with one another. Thanks to everyone who came and for your part in creating an evening that is already a sustaining memory.

Then on Saturday I got to be Rosemerry’s sidekick for an all-day workshop planned and hosted by the inexhaustible Colette DeNooyer at Colette and Bob’s welcoming home on Lake Michigan, where winsome and intelligent folk gathered in Rosemerry’s ideas, sparks, encouragement, insights, and perceptions — all fresh and valuable.

Do visit Roan & Black–it is truly a visit —  the gallery, sculpture gardens, the home store, and the soulful hosts. Being there brings to you something endangered and much needed– Quiet joy. Our books are still available there, but of course, that’s only one of many reasons to go!

And now before I place yet another exuberant adjective before you, I’ll sign off with two words that we sometimes overlook. But they contain the ineffable.

Thank you.

 

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Visit Roan & Black to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

The Man Who Made Towers of Beach Glass

Talk about a contrast with what the T-word is imposing on us…

This week marks the 35th anniversary of Key West seceding from the United States. The U.S. government had set up a roadblock at the only way in and out of the island in order to check every car for illegal immigrants and such. And so the mayor and citizenry seceded. International news! The motto: “We seceded where others fail.” The basic tenets on which foreign policy was founded: “The mitigation of world tension through humor, but at no ones’ expense, warmth, and respect.” The Conch Republic’s Army motto: “A farce to be reckoned with.”

This week we vote as many times as we want for the Conch Republic Royal Family, each vote costs a dollar, and the proceeds go to the Foster Children’s Fund. There’s a drag race down Duval (heels not wheels), a secession re-enactmment, passports for sale, a “bed” race, a have-a-drink-and-race-to-the-next-bar race, a pet stroll, and the longest parade in the world — all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

Yesterday we were talking to a fellow about why after living in many places, he settled in Key West. “No judgment except we do judge against cruelty.”

It’s true that one seldom hears the words “acceptance” and “tolerance” around here. I’ve always thought and taught that those words toward others are patronizing, a kind of self-righteousness, and well remember when arriving at the college being told, “We need a few people like you.” I was also told, “If you are going to be an academic, you have to stop dropping your g’s.”  I was droppin’ ’em. I realized that if I stopped, I’d be turnin’ my back on my culture.

The Man Who Made Towers of  Beach Glass

They reach green,
brown, blue, red
and sunlight clear.
He never adds
a piece larger
than his hand,
is glad when
he sees a head
tilt back, eyes
staring up into
the refractions
of heaven. He
asks everyone
who stops by
if they know
about beach glass?
“Water rolls the edges
smooth, rounds
them so they won’t
cut anything. Stand
here. Watch.”

–Jack Ridl

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Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

Practicing Chinese Ink Drawing

Sometimes when it seems bleak out there, it can be helpful to see what black branches can bring. This week’s poem, below, arrived out from that seeing.

For a fine example of what three black ink lines accompanied by three written lines can do, I encourage you to look for Even Now, a collection by artist Jill Sabella and poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer. The book is from Lithic Press, whose purpose is to publish “fine books for an old planet.”

Rosemerry will be giving a reading here in Saugatuck/Douglas, Michigan, at Roan & Black Gallery on June 23, 7pm, where you can right now find and purchase the lovely book/gift while their supplies last.

Practicing Chinese Ink Drawing

Outside this window
the trees
are black-branched,
covered
by an overnight
fall of snow.
Everything is still,
no wind,
no wind on its way,
and the sky—deep
blue, vague
behind a gray
scrim, mimics
the stillness
of this snow
while
my brush strokes
carry the feel
of listless
luck–languid
and precise
as the single file
tracks the trio
of toms trailed
this morning
into the woods
whose branches
and snow
and light
cannot be drawn.

–Jack Ridl

First published in The Georgia Review

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Click here to subscribe to receive Jack’s poems and news in your inbox.

Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

Click here to watch Jack’s TedX talk.

And, of course, click here to visit ridl.com, check out what Jack’s been up to, maybe say hi!

TEDx Macatawa: The Perfectly Imperfect

A TEDx Talk.

I was asked to give a TEDx Talk.

These talks bring new ideas to the world, or at least ideas that have been overlooked. The last time I had a new idea, it was defeated in a faculty meeting.

Well, it wasn’t exactly a new idea. Actually it was a very old idea, an ancient idea, and one I’ve continued to promote through retirement and onward. So, what new idea could I come up with? I came up with a chair. TED talkers walk around the stage. I walk my dog, or follow as he sniffs,  a rather uncoordinated, random walk. I am quite good at sitting. It’s how I’ve always done my best work.

TEDx and TED Talks are stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. I’m very uncomfortable with stunning, flawless, perfect, excellent. When I taught at a nearby college, people were constantly pursuing excellence. Like Charlie our dog doing his sniffing. “There! Nope…. Maybe over There! Nope.”

I never had any idea what in this or any world Excellence was or looked, sounded, tasted or smelled like. But everyone  seemed to know it was there, somewhere. I knew that it was used in conversation: “Like, ya know, that’s excellllent!”

Really? Excellent? When I asked, I was told it meant “doing or making a thing better than most everyone and everything else.” At what cost? And how do you know when you’ve arrived? Merely by measurement?

Only that can be excellent which can be measured? There is a reason standards have lowered from reaching for wisdom or inspiration to spelling all the words correctly. Reaching for perfect measures is the new black.

Not being much of a fan of it, what could I talk about if I couldn’t talk about excellence? This gnawed my bones for a long time before it came: I would talk unexcellently about other things worth pursuing. Or I chose to state the positive: I would suggest that a thing is worth doing even if you don’t do it well.

In fact, most things worth doing have more important reasons for doing them than doing them well. And so I sat in my chair, promoting The Perfectly Imperfect*

I TEDx Talked about the virtue of not focusing on doing things well, or even doing them well at all.

And my microphone fell off my ear.

And I went 34 seconds past my allotted time.

And my chair squeaked.

*The title came from our daughter, who at age 7 said to me when I hung holiday lights up one side of our front door, across the top, and 1/3 of the way down the other side, “Daddy! Let’s leave them up this way. They are perfectly imperfect.”

Degrading the Grade

I wrote this essay for an anthology about teaching being prepared by my pal, Jeanine Dell’Olio, at Hope College. My students already know about my approach to grading, of course. Julie thought this would be a good place to keep this essay, with hopes these ideas can continue to stir up trouble.

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Degrading the Grade

Jack Ridl

I have spent my classroom life teaching in the arts, specifically poetry writing. Among the questions I am most asked is “How do you grade a poem? Isn’t it completely subjective? Isn’t it impossible to grade any art?”

Well, of course you can grade a work of art. You can decide to award an A for accomplishing effective use of various artistic elements or a grade based on improvement. You can grade based on a determination of quality. You can determine the criteria. I had a writing teacher whose grading system was A if you wrote as well as Shakespeare, B if  you wrote as well as Hemingway, C for “most of you, likely.” Another teacher offered this system: “C if your work makes me think. B if it makes me feel. A if it makes me laugh.” So, yes, you can grade an artwork.

But how to grade was not the issue for me. Why grade, and what are the consequences of grading, and does the grade help a student develop? These were the questions that would not leave my mind alone when I took a walk. Then one day came the epiphany. It was rather simple as epiphanies go: Grading was preventing my students from being artists, poets.

Grading interfered with the value of constructive critique. The grade was not an assessment, not even a reward or a punishment. It was a consequence. As soon as I would suggest to students that they could do something else with an ending or a line break or change the tone, all they heard was a grade plummeting. Defenses rose. They refused to see any alternative to the way they had composed the work, and stood firmly for the A grade they deserved. The result was stifled growth, inauthentic work, begrudging changes that took little if any effect, a hostile relationship between what should be a coach/mentor and a growing writer.

So I eliminated grading. I eliminated it in order to suggest, respond, criticize. And what happened? The students–ALL of the students–began to welcome suggestions and options and alternatives and even challenges. They were not unlike anyone learning to play the piano or to swim or to build a campfire. They wanted to create an effective work. They had always wanted to, but understandably because of school and its achievement evaluation based on measurement, they had to make their grade not their first priority but their first concern. Eliminating grading of their work enabled them to connect their priority with their concern.

And the reward became, dare I say, spiritual and communal rather than a “seal of approval.” They discovered the real reasons for creating. What became important was not confined to the “product.” Importance and value expanded into the process, not because it led to a product, but because the process itself brought valuable experiences, insights, revelations. The students began offering to one another both their poems and the value embodied in them and stories of what happened in the process, both of which enriched the entire class and created a deepening of community. One time I was challenged in a faculty meeting about what I was doing: “Why will your students do any of the work if it’s not going to be graded? What makes them do the work?”  My response was simply “The right reasons.” That sounds glib. It isn’t.

Something that surprised and liberated the students was that they began to discover real value in everything written, successful or not. We had complex and provocative conversations about the importance of the material. We decided together whether it resulted in an effective poem or not. Any image, moment, insight, any line break, the implications of the impact of the rhythm of lines could lead to conversation and worthwhile realizations. The poem did not need to be successful for us to find remarkable and worthwhile content and artistic attributes, ones well worth discussing. I realized that it was my job not to demand that they write successful poems, but to teach them what it took to write poems. They have the rest of their lives to write successful poems

Emily Dickinson didn’t sit down to write a poem for a grade. David didn’t write the 23rd Psalm and say to himself, “That’ll get me an A.” There were very important reasons for composing poetry. The students deserved to have access to that discovery.

But I was worried. Won’t some students blow this whole thing off? Won’t my reputation go down the tubes? Won’t I become a laughing stock, an “easy grader?” And won’t the students create mostly mediocre work?

That’s when another surprise arrived. Instead of mediocre work, the work improved. Not one student blew off a single assignment. And while many students never became full-fledged poets, more than in the past did. In 15 years since my epiphany, more than 60 students have gone on to the best MFA programs in the country and are publishing. No, there is no data.  But what I do know for sure is that every single one of the students had poetry restored to their lives, and have kept it as an important part of their lives since their graduation.

And as for me? I put away being a tough grader and became a “tough responder.” All that means is that I was no longer hesitant to make suggestions and corrections for fear I might “stifle” a sensitive soul. I no longer had to tell them the lie that they needed to develop a tough hide in order to take criticism. They could maintain their vision and voice and sensitivity. They could welcome critical response because it was in their behalf and their poem’s behalf. Critical response did not lead to a grade which had led them to play it safe and learn little. Critical response led to growth and the intrinsic joy that comes when beginning artists realize what can be done instead of hiding within what they can already do.