Ghazals for Foley, ed. Yago S. Cura, 2016 Hinchas Press
Yesterday I received my copy of Ghazals for Foley, a book of poems written to commemorate the life of writer and slain journalist Jim Foley, who was a classmate of mine at UMass Amherst. I have a poem in the collection, along with poems by?Martin Espada, CS Carrier, Shauna Seliy, my buddy and writing partner?Mike Dockins, and many more. There is also a short story by Jim that was previously published by Hinchas Press.
I hope you’ll pick up a copy here and spread the word.?Ghazals for Foley is?a beautiful tribute to a beautiful person, and I’m grateful to Yago Cura and Hinchas Press for including me in the project.
ALSO: I’m reading this Friday night at the?Madness?Radio?Book Launch!Feb 26, 2016?w/ Bonfire Madigan, Will Hall, Jacks McNamara, Mandala Project, Susie Meserve, book contributors and more…1017 Ashmount St?7pm?Oakland California?(make sure to park carefully and leave room on street). The essay I’ll be reading, called “A Little Crazy,” is forthcoming in an anthology by In Fact Books called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Overcoming Mental Illness.?
I would love to see you there, if you’re local!
Finally, mark your calendars! My friend Sandra Stringer and I will be teaching a three-hour?writing and movement workshop called “Releasing Your Body, Revealing Your Story” at Flying Studios in Oakland on Saturday, March 19, from 1:00-3:45 p.m. Cost: $75. If you know of anyone who might be interested, please spread the word. I’ll post again about it here, closer, of course.
This happened on the same day that our car, which we had just purchased a new battery for, wouldn’t start in the driveway, and though arguably less crucial to life, and much cheaper to replace, the broken printer filled me with a more terrible sense of loss.?I’ve had that printer for sixteen years. Sixteen years!That’s longer than I’ve known my husband. I bought it when I was in grad school, when I was tired of sending out poems printed all wobbly on my mom’s hand-me-down?ink jet. The HP 1200 LaserJet cost $350, and at the time, that seemed like an enormous amount of money. I remember feeling like an adult, and like a real writer, when I bought it.?It?lasted through countless Apple computers?Four? Five??and has printed countless poems; it’s printed my poetry manuscript and parts of my memoir?and various essays in their draft stages, and many student assignments,?and it was only when I went to print the first forty pages of the novel I’m writing that I mistakenly fed it a recycled piece of paper that was actually two pieces of paper, with a staple between them, and something snapped.
It seems outrageous that after all these years, it was a staple that did it.
But that, I suppose, is life, and if I make too much of the demise of a printer, let?me just say that I’ve had this feeling lately that life is all these concentric circles, these interwoven links, and that everything is connected. So, for me, the loss of the machine that’s helped me put my writing into print for over a decade feels a bit like the loss of an entire era, like the loss of those lovely grad school years when the printer was new, those years when I could spend an entire day working out a poem, bring it to workshop, take it back home and work on it some more. That first year of grad school I lived in a makeshift apartment in a rickety old house in Amherst, and it was my first year living alone in quite some time (I’d had a live-in partner, and college housemates, before?that). I can remember the night I thought drinking?a second bottle of wine by myself was a good idea, and the night I broke up with someone but slept with him anyway, and the night I overheard every word of an argument between my landlords over the recycling bins and whose turn it was to take them out.
And then I moved, to an apartment in Northampton that was as charming as it was noisy, and the printer came with me. My desk was an old door from a house my parents were renovating propped up on two filing cabinets, and the cords for my computer fit through the hole where the door knob would go. The printer was on the far right, and despite this unwieldy late-nineties desktop computer and the large LaserJet, there was enough space for me to sit, comfortably, between them. The desk was in my bedroom, but I’d made a psychic barrier between the bed space and the writing space, and every morning I wasn’t teaching?I’d stumble over to the desk with a cup of coffee and get to work. Some days the poems came like water, trickling easily out of the faucet, and other days they were labored and slow. Always, I’d print them, read them out loud, change a comma, read them out loud again. I drank so much coffee in those days; my anxiety, and my adrenal glands, shudder with the memory.
But was it a simpler time? Of course it was. When writers ask whether an MFA is worth it, I cite those hours at that desk and the feeling of summer camp, like I was writing in Northampton while Leah was writing in Sunderland, with Leslie at her desk in the adjacent room, and the Bens back in Amherst and someone else out in Greenfield, all of us working away like satellites in communication with one another, pausing for whatever; or not working, and pulling our hair out, and blocked?but that was our job, that, just to try to work, not to parent or to homestead or to be married or to publish?we didn’t even worry that much about publishing! Perhaps we should have. But just to do the work. I’ll never get that time back; I’ll always want that time back.
I left Northampton on January 1, 2001. On New Year’s Eve at 9:45 p.m. I’d been painting my blue walls back to white and packing the last of the boxes. Later, I walked over to see some friends. I’d already kissed Laura goodbye, and Leah was long gone, and Mikey vowed to stay in touch (and did). Jim Foley was very much alive. And off I went the next morning, drove out to Portland, Oregon, with my little brother, hitting every winter storm whatever region we were passing through could throw at us. And when he flew back to Boston a day or so later, leaving me to my new life, I cried like I’ve never cried before or since, with loneliness, with anguish, with the deepest sense of loss.
But, and perhaps this was no accident: a week later, I met the man who would become my husband. And then so many things happened that truly feel like fate: us?deciding to travel together for a year, and us getting engaged while we were traveling. And me writing a book about that year of travel, and about my surprise, after always having felt outside of it, to have found a man who truly loved me. That book spanned the next decade of my life. And then we moved?to Norway and had a baby, and when we got back, we tried again, and?again, and again to have another, and I wrote about that, too.
And here I am, terribly pensive of a January morning. L didn’t want to go to school, and his face turned puffy with tears. B tried to rationalize with him about school and its importance, but I eventually just held him and said, “You’re having a really tough morning.” My morning was tough, too: the printer, the car, the muddled-ness, the awful news of the world.
“You’re squeezing me too tight,” he said, but?I wasn’t sure what else to do but hold on.
I knew Jim Foley, the journalist who was beheaded by the so-called Islamic State a few weeks ago. Not well; I don?t want to overstate it. Since Jim?s death I have learned that he was kinder, smarter, braver, and more complex than I ever had the chance to find out. He had many good friends who loved and respected him, and I know some of them in the same way I knew him?peripherally. Jim was my classmate in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst back at the turn of the century. I?ve noticed that much of the press talks about his undergraduate degree and his graduate degree in journalism, but he was a fiction writer, too. I didn?t have workshop with Jim?I wrote poetry, then?but I knew him in that way all of us knew each other in grad school: we went to readings together, we went to parties together. We drank a lot in those days, at people?s houses, at the smoky Northampton VFW, and even on campus. Jim?s was a familiar face, and he was sort of a gormless dude, as I recall, often laughing or lamenting some small personal failure; another classmate described him as a little ?goofy,? and that jives with my memory.
Perhaps because I didn?t know him that well, I was shocked to learn a year or so ago that he had become a journalist, the kind who does incredibly brave things like going to war zones to report, and that he had been kidnapped in Syria. It hit me strongly when I found out, and I followed the case when I could. Jim also grew up in New England, and I would think sometimes about his family, his parents, what their days must have been like knowing their son was somewhere, lost, out of communication, possibly dead. When optimistic news blips would pop up?we think he?s alive?I would feel hopeful that Jim would get out of Syria as he had gotten out of Libya a couple years earlier. I thought once he returned safely I would friend him on Facebook or send him an email and tell him how impressed I was and how proud and how very glad that he was alive.
And then on a Tuesday night in August, at my parents? house in New Hampshire, my mom pulled out her iPad and said, softly, ?Oh no.?
It is a curious thing, when someone you knew, but weren?t close to, dies. Jim?s death was so horrific that many people who didn?t know him were affected, of course. His death was a symbol of so much that?s wrong in our world, so much that?s terrifying, and the sheer brutality of it was more than any human should ever have to endure. In the days that followed, Facebook exploded, and I felt the urge to connect, connect, connect with other writers from my MFA program. People shared stories and remembrances. Others expressed anger at the US government for not paying the $200,000,000+ ransom the terrorists had demanded for Jim?s head. (That, it seemed to me, was shortsighted, though I understood the impulse. But how many thousands of other people would that money have enabled ISIS to kill?) I felt myself watching from the sidelines a little, not sure how to mourn. My article in Elle had just come out, and when someone congratulated me all I could think was how utterly frivolous it was, my infertility, my essay. Who cared? Jim Foley had just been beheaded, and I kept feeling like there was something I was supposed to do about it. Only there was nothing to do.
The night after I learned that Jim had been killed?a Wednesday?I woke up in the middle of the night. My dreams had been dark, awful things, the stuff of premonition or occult?a man was saying, ?you?re the best prisoner,? and then I was right there, kneeling alongside Jim in that desert. I woke up gasping. I have an active imagination. I had been down a road like that before, when, three years ago, a friend of mine was brutally murdered by her ex-boyfriend and I couldn?t stop imagining the moment of her death. So I stopped myself, tore myself away from that place thousands of miles away. It was very dark out. ?I?m so sorry, Jim,? I whispered, and then I turned on the light (I was terrified of the dark) and got up to use the bathroom. When I climbed back into bed and shut the light I could not even see an inch in front of my face.
And then I heard an owl calling in the night. It wasn?t a simple call, not the great horned, but something longer, a ?whoo whoo, whoo-whoo whooooo!? sound. After a few minutes, its mate answered, and I lay there listening to two owls calling for each other, an eerie, beautiful chorus. The next morning, I was the only one in the house who had heard it. It was, I discovered, a barred owl, the most common owl in New Hampshire. In the night, they call for their mates, and the two chorus back and forth like this.
I can?t tell you how comforting that sound was. I thought of how, in superstition, the dead appear often as birds. I didn?t think Jim Foley would come to the woods outside my parents? house, but you never know. It didn?t matter. I felt his presence. It reminded me, somehow, of what?s basic and essential and good about this life, and while in days to come it did not change my anger or sadness or fear, it felt, somehow, like something profound, two owls calling for each other,?finding each other, in the dark.