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Why Poetry? #2

with Anne Menebroker

 Rebecca Schumejda
 Rebecca Schumejda
Why Poetry? #2
by Rebecca Schumejda  FollowFollow
Rebecca Schumejda is now on the pickle diet, so she can fit into her skinny jeans sometime in the next millennium.
Why Poetry? #2
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Why Poetry? Anne Menebroker Tiny Teeth, the Wormwood Review poems R.L. Crow Publications, 2004
FOR MOTHER'S DAY, my mother and daughter gave me a hummingbird feeder. I combined one part white granulated table sugar with four parts regular tap water, bringing it to a boil, allowing the sugar to dissolve. I figured I would use red food coloring, just one time, to lure them in, even though I have heard that this may be harmful to their digestive system. My husband hung the feeder outside our kitchen window. In an email to Annie, I mentioned how I was eagerly awaiting the hummingbirds arrival and she wrote back, “I love hummingbirds, too and when I had my own place, had a feeder and was amazed the first time I saw one of them sitting quietly. It was hard to believe.”

Annie's response, in some strange way, hit me as an extended metaphor for the admiration that I have for her and her writing. Annie is my first hummingbird, what I mean by this is I had been waiting for a writer, like Annie to come into my life. I, like so many small press writers, admire the strong, no-nonsense work of writers like Bukowski and the other members of the Meat School of poetry, known for its direct, tough and masculine verse. But I always yearned for the female perspective. I liken the process of finding Annie to being a high school student and spending countless hours reading the Beats at the local library and finally discovering the work of writers like Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassidy, of course you have to remember that my research in the library was before the days of the internet information superhighway. I think we all have to remember that there are all these amazing gems in the underground press, but sometimes it takes time to find what you are looking or maybe it takes time to even realize what you are looking for.
I discovered Annie's work through a mutual friend, Hosho McCreesh, who mentioned how my work reminded him of her earlier work. Hosho was surprised when I told him I wasn't all that familiar with her work and he urged me to check her out. He wasn't the first friend who had recommended her, so I figured it was time to get my hands on some of her work. I ended up ordering a copy of Tiny Teeth, a collection of poems that appeared throughout the years in issues of The Wormwood Review. I was not only drawn to the ideas that she was writing about because she wrote the pieces when she was my age, but also because of her blunt approach. I read the collection twice in one day and was compelled to write Annie and tell her how much her work meant to me. Annie's response was warm, sincere and inspirational. Within a few emails, I felt as if I had known her for years. I can not explain the connection I feel, other than to say that Annie, for me, helps answer the question that titles this column, “Why Poetry?”  
Tiny Teeth resonated with me immediately because of her ability to balance a candid voice with a philosophical conscience. One of my favorite pieces in the collection is “Repossessed,” where the narrator and her family decide to purchase a house that another family defaulted on. The poem, which is seemingly straight forward, has an erudite quality that adds dimension as seen when Menebroker describes how, “Only spiders are/ there who have spun a million webs where/ the mosquitoes and moths are caught,” then ends the piece by likening herself and family to the spiders “We/ will get caught in our own webs, thank you./ Pray for us.” Another interesting technique that Menebroker weaves into her work is the use of rhetorical questions, that demonstrate the complexity of thought that goes into a seemingly simple moment.
Many of the poems included in Tiny Teeth are terse character sketches. In “Tropical Fish,” everything in the narrator's cousin's life has changed, besides the fish that, “swim dreamily in the tank/ as though nothing/ has changed.” Even after his wife and children become visitors and his new younger girlfriend leaves, “he will go on/ feeding the fish.” I love the concept that he is left with this gorgeous fish that isn't even native to the surrounding when everyone else is gone. I also get the sense that, through his repetitive actions, he doesn't even realize what he has lost. This is exactly what I love about Annie's work,  how she shows the complexity of the simple. The piece “John” is a sketch of a man, who was going to become a priest, who once gave the narrator “an identification/ bracelet without a name on it.” I love the way Annie imbeds curious little lines into her poems that leave you thinking.
In other pieces, Annie's style has a confessional quality. In “Distance”, dedicated to K.R., who I assume is Annie's dear friend, the late Kell Robertson, she writes, “over 1,000 miles/ & all we can share/ are letters/ voices on tape,/ & some photos.” This poem again answers the question, Why poetry?, by revealing the way profound relationships develop through poetry. This piece reminds me of the friendships that I have made over the years, how easy it is to fall in love with people through poems, letters, photographs and “old school” tape recordings. This poem made me dig through all my old cassette tapes from the 90's and reinforces that there are many reasons that we write and seek out other writers. Lately I have been thinking about how Blog talk radio has in some ways taken the place of talk tapes.
When I asked Annie about her thoughts on technology, she answered with modestly, as usual, “Last night, 2 poet friends, about my kids' ages, dropped by to connect a printer for me, which someone gave me, and I have left in my car trunk, because I knew I couldn't hook the damn thing up myself! I've been without a printer going onto month 5.” She went on to discuss my question at length. “I think what technology has done is make everything happen faster, poems being sent online, reading manuscripts online, sending emails (I don't do Twitter or things of that nature).When my printer has been broken, I can mail some of my poems online, which truly helps. I still use a phone. But not a lot. Mail is a distant memory for most people. I still write a few letters. But more and more they are on email. But on the other hand, technology also makes it easier to avoid face to face contact because we can just as easily keep everything on the screen. We can hide out. And it's easier and quicker to make decisions on a screen. Sometimes we make decisions too quickly. "Send" and we go, O, shit!”
Annie talks highly of Sacramento, where she lives. She is a member of the Sacramento Poetry Center, and has been for years. She is also a member of the Friends of the Library and the Crocker Art Museum. She says that, “we've had a lot of cycles as far as organized poetry series and conferences and workshops and such. I don't go to conferences or workshops. But more people are interested in the writing community than not, and there are always classes to take, readings to attend, people to get together with and write with and talk life over with.” I should add that Annie, who is extremely unassuming about her work, is the author of over twenty collections of poetry!
Annie's answer to Why poetry?, which was actually never asked, but came up organically, was the most evocative. She said, “No one talked of poetry to me. I liked reading. Who would think this would produce a person who wrote poetry? But it did. I started messing with words in middle school and the last year of my high school life, as a sophomore (I did finish high school, go through a little more schooling, but that's another story) I was writing song lyrics and remembering my melodies, singing them and writing lousy poems!” Annie's acclimation into poetry explains the unequivocal way she delivers her words. Annie was originally from Washington D.C., moved to Texas, then to California, while still a young child. She explains that she left many unpleasant memories behind, but there were still hardships to come. By the age of 19, closer to 20, Annie married, was a mother of a two year old, and entering an adult night school class, where she remained for two semesters of Poetry Composition. In spirit, this class ended up making a lasting impression as proven by Annie's body of work.
On the subject of poetry, Annie says, “Paid my dues, wrote, got rejected, gave readings, even though they turned me into an anxious wreck (still never got comfortable with reading), and probably poetry has been the one thing in my life to have lasted over every thing else that I went through and left behind. The ups and downs are all that anyone else would go through.” Annie's response is a great reminder to younger poets about the hard work that goes into producing quality work. Her own influences, that she says “jacked me up and thrilled me” are Walt Whitman (where she plunged into free verse after learning all of the traditional ways to write poetry) William Carlos Williams, Thomas Merton, Edna St. Vicent Millay, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc etc. Then later, she ran into the writings of Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and was blown away! And then, Charles Bukowski caught her attention, his style of not having a style and making it his own! Surviving Bukowski is excerpts of letters that Annie wrote to her cousin, Roger Langton, about Bukowski over the years. He edited them, put the excerpts together and asked her if he could publish them. She said yes, IF she could write a backword at the end. He agreed. It's very short, and not many copies were printed.
Annie also likes to be in love with a new poet's work. She adds that, “I just went to hear 84 year old just retired US Poet Laureate Phillip Levine, as you know, and he knocked my socks off with his humor, gritty poems about the workers in this country, his honesty and his plain-spoken views on what he believes. A no bullshit man!”
When we look at poetry and the communication of the arts, raw emotion is always universal and eternal. I asked Annie about her writing process, even though I believe her poem “I Turn to Bone and Other Stone,” explains it most clearly:
               I Turn to Bone and Other Stone
               sometimes when I am                sitting with the lean dogs                the poems come,                not because                I have expected them                or needed them, not because                I am clever                or literary                but because the light                of the room                turns to bone                and the mad animals                are famished.                what should be remembered                is – it takes very little                to live or die or love                and less                to write a poem.                don't make it seem                more than this.                what I call poetry                you may call escape                but surely                whatever it is                leads us all                to the same absurdity                for which none of us                can be blamed.
In awe of her longevity in the press, I asked her how she did it, especially during busy times in her life and she said, “Those Wormwood poems were pretty personal. I wrote about almost everything I felt or lived through. I always wrote, from the time I was writing, with a kid round, or two, etc. whenever I could, or even when I couldn't, I managed to scribble down enough to come back to it later and finish it. I was ok with distraction and noise and all of that. I could read around that kind of clatter and interruption, too because there was little choice. Mostly I always wrote from the typewriter and not by hand. By hand meant a -panic- of -rushing- type of writing. When I was away from my handy typewriter. And I thought everything I wrote was something that should be sent out. Unfortunately, I often followed that self-advice and sent out things that were taken and later, when I read some of those old poems, I wanted to quietly destroy them. Wormwood's editor, Marvin Malone, thankfully was a great editor. And William Gainer, who decided all of the Wormwood poems should be gathered together in Tiny Teeth was so good to do that!”
In newer work like Sunscreen in the Fog (Bottle of Smoke Press, 2010), Annie pays homage to the seemingly banal. In “Old Windows” Menebroker writes, “Nothing like them/ deserted, broken,” off-center/ from their frame,” something old and ostensibly valueless if you don’t look closer at reflections in a puddle that a camera focuses on, “. . .whatever/ was in there; sometimes/ the capital building, or trees,/ or a neon sign, sometimes/ just my own reflection.” In “Won’t Come When Called,” it is most clearly the sun, personified, that excites the narrator, “. . . knowing he is up there/ the whole time as we slip/ in and out of our personas/ and demands. As we apply/sunscreen in the fog.” Annie draws attention to objects that we overlook in our everyday lives. I believe Annie also sees something special in people, both in life as well as on the page. In “The common smile of unthinking happiness,” she says, “I kissed a boy named/ Tommy Preston that everyone/ said came from a bad/ family. Then I moved away/ but took Tommy with me/ where he remains some/ fifty years later, judged/  because he was poor—/ but not by me.”  When I read Annie's work or read the beautiful emails that she sends me I always feel as if she is sitting beside me talking, really talking about what really matters, even though we live on opposites sides of the country.
p.s. While I was working on this, a hummingbird did come. A fairly large one, that I spied several times now. Doing what no other bird can do, it flies forwards, backwards, and from side to side, while I watched on in utter amazement. Damn, these beautiful birds have been around this ugly beat-down city, that I live in, and it took me all these years to find them.



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