A certain humility is necessary when approaching poetry. In writing, as in reading, you listen to a voice that is not entirely your own and you let that voice speak through you. Hopefully, it changes you in some good way. I read poetry, I write poetry, to be in relationship and, in that relationship, to grow and be changed.
I have been writing and performing poetry, mostly in the Philadelphia area, for over 40 years. I have focused my energy on poetry as spoken art. The poem on the printed page is important to me insofar as the visual presentation signals how the words may be said. The shape of the poem gives some idea of the nature of the voice that is coming through the words. The voice is what’s important—energy transferred from one to another through sound and breath.
I’ve presented my work, as well as the work of other poets, in varied settings over the years—cultural centers, nature and environmental centers, art galleries, coffee houses, women’s conferences, universities, churches, synagogues and schools—for audiences ranging from the very young to the very old. When delivering a poem, I use the full range of my voice and physical being, as in the heat of a compelling conversation. I know the poems that I read intimately, some by memory, and that frees me to engage energetically with the people to whom I am speaking.
Collaboration is a delight to me. I love mingling my work with another artist’s work and watching a third life grow. Synergy in many forms draws me. I have learned much from working with musicians, who listen and respond to one another so creatively. I have discovered that the play of multiple voices is as compelling in poetry as it is in song and that poetry and song play very well together.
In 1991, I founded Voices of a Different Dream, an ensemble of women—poet Ellen Mason, singer Annie Geheb and I—creating a unique and inventive blend of poetry and song. We worked together for over twenty-five years, until, sadly, Ellen died of ovarian cancer in July of 2015. The video shows Ellen and me performing two of our poems in conversation with each other while singer Annie listens.
I have also explored harmonies with visual artists, as in the Poem-Prints I’ve created with artists Sara Steele and Alana Lea. While steeped in the ensemble work with Voices of a Different Dream, I co-created two CD’s and, with Ellen Mason, a joint book of poems. During this time, I also published two solo books of poetry.
Over the years I have also lead many writing and reading circles, as well as poetry workshops for students of all ages. My groups focus on process more than product—the aim is to be present, through the medium of writing, with ourselves, with one another and with whatever is moving through our lives at the time. Sometimes wonderful art is generated in the groups, and that is always a delight. My book Through the Gates: A Practice for Counting the Omer, letters and poems for each of the forty-nine days in the Jewish calendar between the early spring festival of Passover and the full summer festival of Shavuot, is a spiritual memoir and a guide to daily practice. In the writing of this book I fell in love with many things—the practice of counting the Omer itself, the spiritual companions to whom I was writing, and the process of writing daily letters. Every year since 2008, I have led journeys through the weeks of the Omer. The vehicle changes year to year, but each year I go, and each year a varying group of others comes with me.
The spiritual imperative to stand in the face of rising inequality, racial and economic injustice and threats to U.S. democracy by moneyed interests drives me to take my voice with others to the streets. I believe as each of us shows up in the places that whisper our name, we will bring justice with joy into this world. “Democracy Spring” is a poem I wrote and delivered at a rally in Washington, DC, in the spring of 2016, as part of a massive series of marches and acts of civil disobedience to protest the influence of big money on U.S. politics.
It’s been a fascinating, unfolding journey—practicing this craft, coming to understand and embody the ways that I must be a poet in the world. So far nothing has happened in the way I might have predicted, but the calling has been clear and consistent through the years. I look. I listen. I record what I hear as I look. I open to my experience of this world in all its grandeur and shame, and I try as best I can to share that experience. I am continually learning how to do this. It is my hope that my poems and all I do with voice and breath help to soften and slow the hard-edged, rushed and noisy life in these United States. I want to encourage, in my own heart as well as in my culture, the peace that comes from listening long and well. I want to do this as I work, with others, to bring about a world committed to nurturing, in love and mutual respect, the creativity of all its people.
Every day I wake I want to know
is this the day, is this the day democracy
blossoms? Is this when the earth resounds
through the voice of the people and
everyone comes to her breast?
This closed fist in the darkness,
this tight throat we have known
is not all there is—I know
the pulse of a living thing, I can feel
a season turning in my bones.
Every morning I rise to meet the sunlight
as it rallies us, every hour I ask
how shall I grow from this my soil,
what yellows, what purples murmur,
what sap flows, what flames
will rise to meet the others
in the garden, in the forest
where we now live? Oh, people,
is there anything else to want,
any other desire to consume us
than this longing to lift and find
ourselves in the daylight waving
our victory flags, singing triumph songs?
Every day I wake I want to know
is this the day, is this the day
Is this where democracy springs?
Written for Democracy Spring, the campaign to end the corrupting influence of big money on U.S. politics.