Plant a Radish…gardens and life

WP_20160528_001WP_20160401_004 springOn this beautiful end-of-May morning, my garden glowing with iris, lilac, cosmos, a rescued zinnia, still bleeding heart, I think of the line from “The Fantasticks,” that old musical from the 1960’s.  “Plant a radish, get a radish, not a brussel sprout. When you’re planting vegetables, you know what you’re about.”  Sung by a father, the idea behind those words is that when you raise vegetables (or flowers),  you know what you’re getting, but when you raise children, it’s an open question — who knows how they’ll turn out?

This is partly true — I feel both glad and fortunate that my son is the generous person he is. But gardens aren’t so certain, either.  This year my lupins are growing “by leaps and bounds,” while last year and earlier years, I was lucky to get one or two flowers.  The little weeping lavender redbud I planted last spring — in a new light place in the garden — blossomed in lovely delicate flowers — but what will happen next year.  My iris are doing well, and the pansies are unusually bright, but there were fewer crocus.  Tomatoes and basil thrive one summer, falter the next. And then the cycles — tulips and daffodils grow and die, replaced by more summery flowers; some plants are annuals, some perennial, some annuals decide to try being perennial. And what about the stray seeds dropped by birds, that sprout unexpectedly? (I didn’t plant that radish there!!), or the squirrels who dig up spring bulbs for a feast during winter hunger?  The plants that thrive despite benign neglect, and the ones that droop despite all the best care? In gardening, like life, there are no definite answers.

And so it goes. This spring when several friends are ill, after flourishing, rich lives, the garden reminds me, in its own way, of the joys, the mysteries, and the uncertainties of life — and the need to live fully and whole-heartedly in the moment — while still making plans to plant, harvest, preserve…while we can. And love our children — as they grow and develop in their own way.

Enjoy the day.

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2 new poems: Remembering Hiroshima, and honouring life and love, even with thoughts of death


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A New Decade

Hard to believe I have reached…and just passed…three score and ten.  My 70th birthday was March 15, the Ides of March.  Celebrated on Saturday with my son Joe and his partner Rebecca, and on Sunday with a group of close friends, including my friend Lil’s mother, 88, and her daughter, almost 31, so we had three generations.  And more celebrations happened earlier (March 11, with my friend Roger, whose 70th was March 9), and will also take place later this month, with writing friends. Then there were the greetings from family and friends far away.  I feel very fortunate to have made many close and good friends, especially since moving to Hamilton in 2000, and also from earlier times in my life; we have supported each other in both happy and difficult times. And of course, Joe — whom I’ve known half my life — and Rebecca continue to light up my world. Thanks, too, to all my family for their love.

Here’s a poem, about turning 70 — a “milestone” birthday about which I had some trepidation — but am now feeling more confident about the journey ahead.

Birthday Poem – for March 9 and 15, 2015

               So here we are

              Entering yet another decade

at high Velocity, low anxiety.

              Early March – afternoon sunlight glistening on new snow,

                                    I drive your car down the highway…

              Now the radio plays Jimi Hendrix – listen!   song

                                    from half a lifetime ago.

              Time travel is a trick, a turbulence, and a treat,

                                    a bubbling brew of memory and desire,

saying   Yes  to all the rest (and all the resonance)

                                    of our lives.



(and without planning it, this poem has 71 words – 1 to grow on)


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“Into the Woods” – for Sailor Gutzler: my response to a devastating event, and a child’s survival and courage

Like many people, I’m sure, I was amazed and impressed by the 7-year-old girl, Sailor Gutzler, who, after a small-plane crash that killed her parents, sister, and cousin, found her way to help by walking over a mile through the woods at night. Here is a poem I wrote for her, called “Into the Woods” (with a nod to Stephen Sondheim for the title). I wish her well after this devastating event. She certainly has courage, and I think she was loved well.

Into the Woods….

I walk, thinking of fairy tales

and my daddy’s words,

what he always used to say:

“Stay on the path, Sailor, follow the light,

and you’ll be all right.”


Into the woods, no shoes,

only one sock –

the other’s lost in the mud –

away from the site of the crash,

the sight of the crash,

my parents, my cousin,

my sister Piper,

somehow I knew

they all were dead,

no breath, no sound,

no movement.  I thought Piper

called to me, like a kitten, mewing,

then everything was quiet.


It was dark in the woods,

and cold.  I peed behind a rock,

and sang my songs. I tripped,

hurt my ankle, but kept on walking.

Wondered why

I didn’t die with the rest

when the plane fell out of the sky.

“Be brave, Sailor,” Daddy always said,

“and you’ll be fine.”


I wished on a star,

thought I heard a bear.


It was dark in the woods, until

I saw that light. Maybe a witch’s hut,

but I didn’t care,

just knocked on the door anyway.

Three times.

“Oh dear,” he said, when he finally opened,

“Oh little girl,

where have you come from?

what has happened?”


Only then,

only then,

did I start to cry.


Ellen S. Jaffe, Jan. 4, 2015

Note: this is also on my Facebook page.  All the comments there made me think about the strange magic of the writing process: Somehow, in writing, it’s possible to imagine and re-create a situation outside yourself (though using your own feelings as well) — which ripples out from the immediate situation and senses into more universal ones. Something I don’t understand fully, but amazing when it works.   One of the comments, from Nomi Kaston, said: “A broader story too, here. Yes, this one girl’s courage brought real. But also, so many of our grandparents, aunts. So many children after floods. So many women, in city jungle streets after leaving. I hear their voices in this strong poem also. A specific tribute to one little girl’s story, and also a window.”




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Winter Solstice/Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa and other seasonal celebrations

I have been meaning to write since Remembrance Day — but events overtook me.  It seems that this time of year, November through December and January 1, is a time for remembering as well as looking forward.  And, if we are mindful, looking back and looking ahead reminds us to really enjoy the present moment (think of the old saying, “the past is history, the future is a mystery, this moment is a gift and that’s why it’s called ‘the present.’)  We all have ghosts of Christmases (and other holidays) past, some friendly, some not.  I heard Ian Thomas say something that touched me recently on TVO’s “Agenda,” when talking about the death of his father. When his father was ill, Ian asked him how to prepare for this death. His father told him what he had learned on the death of his father: “You have to learn to love the absence, after having had the luxury of loving someone in the present.”

Loving the absence — filling the absence with good memories as well as loss: it’s hard to do and takes time, but it can and does happen. I realise this more and more, as I think about my parents, grandparents, even my great-grandmother, whom I knew well.  I baked her apple-jam pastry squares last night, and felt her presence as I rolled out the dough (very thin) and spread on layers of apples and plum jam.  I think of friends, too, who have died… I mix cranberry juice and orange juice and think of my friend Ali who first showed me how to do this.  At Remembrance Day, I stood with many, many others at City Hall in Hamilton, thinking of Nathan Cirillo, Patrice Vincent, all the soldiers killed and wounded (physically and emotionally) overseas, and also of my friend Tom, who had died just a few days before, losing his own internal and private war with depression.  That death, too, matters, and lives in memory.

Now, to return to Chrismas present.  This year I wrote Haiku in some of the cards I sent out.  I have put them into a list and am printing them here, as a gift to each of you reading this. Hanukkah, with the lighting of one candle each night until there are eight (nine with the Shamash, the helper we all need in our lives) is a celebration of the slow  – sometimes almost imperceptible – return of light to the world, and hope, love, and light to our hearts.  May you all be well, and have more light than darkness in the new year, less sorrow than joy.

(I set up the haiku like this, on one line with slashes; otherwise it takes up too much space.)

Christmas (and Hanukkah) Card Haiku

I sing of Christmas/trees and shining stars/Good will and peace for all

Shadows over snow/and the light of peace, shining/throughout the world

Trees and snow – hushed light/and the peace of a new day/the spirit sings

Morning sunlight frosts/bare trees and sky-blue air/we wake up slow/and shine

Driving home/sky-blue-pink sunset/warmth of friends/at the holiday party.

Christmas over time/old memories, new hopes and dreams/children’s joy and wonder

Skating on the pond – /home, family, and love/keeping us safe and warm

Slowly the candles/are lighted, nights one to eight/Slowly, light returns/to a dark world

Starlight, bells ringing/Doves of peace soar, free and bright/into the world/                        shining

The dove of peace and love/fills the hole in our hearts/making us whole

Let joyful voices/rise, ring throughout the world/and sing on feathered wings



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L’Shanah Tovah — The Season of Turning

This time of year: Peace Day, Climate Change March, Autumn Equinox, and today Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year). May the whole world turn toward peace, and to wiser living on our planet as we conserve energy and protect all species, plants, air, earth, and water, and may we each live a life full of love, joy, creativity, wellness, and compassion.


I recently wrote this for my Facebook page, and it drew a wide response. One of the prayers for Selichot, the service ushering in Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins “Now is the time for turning…” and talks about the leave, the birds, the animals…and human beings.  I wanted to write these words for ALL of us  as human beings, and for the earth and universe in which we live.  May we each do our part to love and preserve our world and each other.

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Canada day Rose

I realise (note the Canadian spelling) this Canada Day is the 35th anniversary of my permanent move to Canada. I grew up in the U.S., lived in England for seven years, and came to live here on July 6, 1979 — so this is the anniversary almost to the day. I lived in Woodstock, Ontario until 2000, then moved to Hamilton 14 years ago, on June 21 — so again, almost on Canada Day. As I was born in 1945, I have lived in Canada just slightly more than half my life. Ever since I came I have felt at home here, and continue to do so every day. Living in Hamilton and spending work and social time in Toronto for well over a decade has given me an even deeper sense of home, friendships, a writing community, a Jewish community, and contacts with people from many different ethnic groups, states of wellness, economic communities — and to know we are all connected. My son was born here, and I have met people I love and experienced joys and sorrows here, my own and those of my friends. I’ve also learned about CBC-radio, Pierre Trudeau, Tommy Douglas, Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood (and all the other wonderful Canadian writers), the NDP, the Blue Jays, the Maple Leafs, Nanaimo bars and Matrimonial date squares, fiddleheads, canoeing and camping, toques, and understand why you should never lick a cold metal pole in the middle of winter (not first-hand, mind you). I’ve shaken hands with Jack Layton and Peter Gzowski (both gone now). I became a citizen in 1993, and vote in elections. And I have enjoyed and almost always been well-served by Canada’s health-care system — and defended it to friends and relatives in the U.S. What I want to say today is a reminder of one of the essential Canadian values — “Take care of each other.” In other words, as my friend Joe Gilbert says at the end of his Blues program on Shaw radio in North Carolina, “Be kind to everyone you encounter. (we don’t have a monopoly on this value, of course). And that means taking the extra moment to help someone, to care for the earth around us, to send an email to someone you haven’t heard from in a while. I say this with a heavy heart, remembering my friend Rachel Devins — who lived in Montreal and whom I met in August 2013 at a writing workshop held at Wintergreen Studios, near Kingston, ON. So I didn’t know her long, or well — but we did share a magical midnight session of writing and talking. We corresponded by email a few times after the workshop….then I got busy — and Rachel’s cancer returned. She died on the summer solstice this year. I am sad for her, her family and friends, and send them my deep sympathy. I wish I had taken that moment to write to her when I thought about her during this past long, cold winter. “May her memory be a blessing.” (a Jewish saying). So, if you make a “Canada Day Resolution” — six months after New Year’s Day — make it this one: get in touch with that person who has been on your mind. No matter what. Happy Birthday, Canada! Thank you for welcoming me.

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Blog Tour for Writers

lake and dock at Wintergreen Studios

Lake through the trees at Wintergreen

Blog Tour

Maria Meindl asked me to participate in this Blog Tour of writers and how we work, and I’ve asked Kate Marshall Flaherty and Shaena Lambert to join the tour after me, on their blogs (Kate is still working on her blog and website, so her post will be soon but not next week).  Maria’s blog is www.bodylanguagejournal.wordpress.comHer most recent book is Outside the Box: the Life and Legacy of Writer Mona Gould, the Grandmother I Thought I Knew from McGill-Queens University Press.  Kate’s new poetry collection is Reaching V, Guernica Editions (, and Shaena’s latest book is Oh, My Darling, from HarperCollins (  I highly recommend all these books.  Update; Shaena has let me know she is hard at work on a new novel, and regrets she can’t join the tour at this time. I will ask another writer — stay tuned to find out who it is!

  So – here we go.  All aboard.

What am I working on?

My new poetry collection, Skinny-Dipping with the Muse, was just published by Guernica ( and I am in the process of doing readings and interviews about it, and seeing the transition from “writing poems” to “a book” that has a life of its own.  Most of these poems were written over the past dozen years – two are much older; the newest one was written last summer and needed a place in this collection.  Many are about my family and friends, including poems of grief in a section called “Forms of Kaddesh.” There is also a section called “Love Stories.”  Now I am beginning to think about and write new poems, thinking on the one hand about looser, more sensual images, and, on the other, about writing from different points of view – historical and fictional characters, as well as inanimate objects and things in nature.  I am also working on a young-adult novel (my second), that has been in progress for a few years and needs some shaping and tuning to give it life, and also a short play about two elderly people in an assisted living home.  I see that, in these prose works, I am looking at characters at the beginning of adult life and at its close.  There must be a meaning in that!

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t usually think about how my poetry differs from that of other poets; I feel an affinity and resonance with poets I admire (past and present), and at the same time try to make my work as authentic to my own heart, mind, and craft as I can. I like Robert Frost’s quote that poems relate to each other like stars in their constellations: I think this describes the works of each individual poet, and of all of us who are writing poetry.  I know that most of my work is emotion-centered, but craft – “the tools of words and the beautiful inner structure of language” in Sandra MacPherson’s words – is very important to me; it becomes an integral part of “how the poem means.”  My work is rooted in lyrical poetry — mainly free verse though sometimes I work in more formal forms — with personal and political implications.

Why do I write what I do?

Poetry is a language of the heart, and also of metaphor and imagery. Usually something moves or strikes me; a line or image about this subject will, almost simultaneously come into my mind and I need to write it down and keep writing until it is done – often surprising me by where the journey takes me. The spark could be something I’m feeling or noticing at the moment, a memory, a photograph, a smell or taste, something I hear on the radio, a dream, even a writing exercise which helps me see and write about something in a surprising way.  Going to a writing workshop or retreat (like Wintergreen, see photo) helps focus me, and also lets me try new techniques and learn from other writers. Sometimes (as in a poem I wrote about my mother, “Flocking,”) I wanted to write about a certain event but it took months before the poem took shape.  Sometimes the words or images come first, unrelated consciously to a particular subject.  I write because I have something to say, which can only be said in the form of a poem (or, in other cases, a story), because I have feelings, thoughts, observations, ways of looking at the world that need to be said, first to myself, then (if the poem feels ready for this) communicated to others. I think writing is a way of both connecting to and transforming the worlds we experience.

How does your writing process work?

As my friend Kate Marshall Flaherty said recently, “I feel a poem coming on.”  Sometimes this happens when I am at my computer, or with my journal at home or out in the world.  Sometimes (as when Kate wrote a poem on a yellow parking ticket), I scrabble around for a piece of paper:  the back of a check, perhaps, or an old envelope , a playbill, even the blank back page of a book I am reading. Once, during the first Gulf War, I pulled over on the side of the highway to write a poem, and a policeman came to see if I was okay. (I’ve always wondered how he reported that incident!)   I usually write the first draft fairly quickly.  Then, right away, hours, or days later – often all of these, in sequence – I revise, going deeper into the poem: what do I really want to say, and what words, what images, do I need to say it?  If the poem is in form (sonnet, say, or sestina), the form itself takes work – but even in free verse, I am aware of the form; I often read the poem aloud to see how the rhythm and language sound.  Do I need to add syllables or take away?  Is something a rock or a stone?  Does light shine or glitter or….?  Is an object soft or limp – or is no adjective required at all?  Where does the line need to break?  the stanza?  Where should the poem end (often, in my case, before the ending I’ve put onto it).  I like writing it on the computer, even if I’ve done the first draft by hand, then printing it out and editing by hand, with a pen. I think I see more that way, and I like the feel of working by hand – like making something out of cloth, clay, or wood.  And when is a poem “done” – usually never, but sometimes I can tinker with it too much, and have to let it go – at least for now.  I love the feeling when a word or image slips into place, like a puzzle piece fitting into the right space.  Finally, reading a poem aloud to an audience helps complete the writing process – people hear things I have not yet heard or noticed, and the poem takes on its own voice in the world.  Writing fiction or drama is the same process – but the work spreads out more, and takes usually takes longer to complete.  Sometimes competitions with a word-limit are helpful; cutting the piece gives it definition and helps me find the essential things I want to say (“less is more”).


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“Pooh” to “Winnie-the-Pooh hinders children’s ability to learn science”

“Winnie-the-Pooh hinders children’s ability to learn science.”  This headline caught my eye.  When I read the article in the Toronto Star (Friday, March 28, 2014, p. L3), I had to comment.   I wrote a letter to the editor, and then decided to publish an expanded version here.   Two children’s writers, Nnicholas Oldland and J. Timothy Hunt, were quoted in the story, also with objections to the research study.  The study itself, for children 3-5 years old, seems flawed right at the beginning.   The researches were  4 “experts in child psychology,” including Patricia Ganea, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, the only one named), and they tested the “reading comprehension” of 163 children in Boston and the GTA.  Instead of using picture books and other stories by working, professional writers and illustrators, which are often adaptations of traditional tales from various cultures), the researches wrote and illustrated six of their own stories about 3 unusual but existing creatures: cavies, a South American rodent; oxpeckers, a bird; and handfish, a fish that walks on the ocean floor. According to the article, all six stories contained “facts” about these animals, but three also contained “fantasy” elements, such as a talking handfish” — i.e. the animals were “anthromophormosized,” or given human qualities.  It has been shown from other studies that children respond better to books and pictures by writers and artists, not ones made for a particular purpose.

Some of the children were read only the “factual” or only the “fantasy” stories, and some were read both.  The children were then asked questions about both the facts and the more human, “fantasy” qualities.  The researchers found that those who heard the fantasy stories were more likely to believe, for example, that the creatures could talk and had feelings, and had a harder time learning the “facts” about these animals when the stories included some fantasy — or imaginative — elements.  Dr. Ganaea commented that the children might confused fact and fantasy, and thus not transfer the “facts” to the so-called “real world.”  Thus, the ‘fantasy storybooks” (created by the researchers, mind you — not actual works of creative art, or stories handed down over time) could be “counterproductive  for learning “scientifically accurate information about the animal world” and should be “exposed to” more non-fiction books — as if they could be a medication to prevent nasty fantasies.

Keep in mind that these are children 3 to 5 years old, who live and learn through their imaginations, and who are developing their sense of empathy, self-awareness, language, and play.  They are not entering the Science Fair or studying for exams.  They are, if they are lucky, learning about the natural world by watching ants and butterflies, hearing birds,  catching frogs with older siblings, crawling around after their pet cats, and petting the family dog.  They are also learning about feelings,  interactions between people, and how the world works.  And they often do this by identifying with the animals in the stories.  The story is both distant enough to be imaginative, and real enough on an emotional level to teach the child in a non-pedantic way.  For example, a child will learn a lot from the little tortoise in “The Name of the Tree,” who remembers her grandmother’s advice and slowly but carefully helps the starving animals find the solution to their problem, when bigger animals have failed:  how to find the name of a certain tree so they can eat its fruits

My mind boggles at what this “research study” has to say about raising children,   about the role of story and art, and about the nature of what is “real.”  I am a mother of an adult son, a writer for children and adults, a psychotherapist, and someone who teaches creative writing to both children and adults.  I have also read widely and heard discussions about the importance of stories, including fairy tales, myths, legends, “folk tales”, and other stories in which animals can play an important role. Teaching young children only “facts” deprives them of so much real learning, and gives them a very narrow view of the world. In Aboriginal stories, for example — often used as teaching stories for people of all ages, children and adults (the same story may well  have a different message for people of different ages. at different times in the life-cycle).  Animals play a crucial role: Raven can be a helper, as in restoring light to the world, but also a trickster; Coyote is a trickster, other animals including Frogs can provide important life-lessons. The history of literature is full of meaningful animal stories: what about Aesop’s fables – the Tortoise and the Hare, the Fox and the Grapes, etc.?  Tales like “The Three Little Pigs,”  “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and others of that nature;  novels like  “The Wind in the Willows” and “Black Beauty;” the Brer Rabbit tales; Winnie-the-Pooh, West African tales of Anansi the Spider; Chinese stories about tigers and other creatures (dragons, too, but dragons are definitely not “real” according to the researchers.  In modern writing, we have E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web,”  Maurice Sendak’s “Little Bear,” Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad,” Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” (mentioned in the article), Dr. Seuss’s “The Cat in the Hat” and “Horton Hears a Who,” C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe;”  the sensitive African story retold by Celia Lotteridge and others, “The Name of the Tree.”  Margaret Laurence wrote a children’s book about moles and other creatures called “Jason’s Quest, ” which had messages — told in the form of story — about overcoming fear, being creative, and working together.   The list goes on and on.  And what about adult fiction – we all know Moby Dick, and then there is Richard Parker in “The Life of Pi.”   These creatures sometimes take on larger than life significance, and may show the connections — and breaks — between human beings and the natural world.

I read, loved, and cried over some of these books as a child, my son read them, parents, grandparents, and teachers have read and told these stories for ages. These stories stay with us, beloved, retold, and remembered, for a life-time — for good reason.  Especially for very young children, age 3 to 5 – the subject of this study – stories open their imaginations and teach them love of nature and the natural world, as well as ways to behave, relate, and empathize with others and with oneself.  Children identify with the emotional qualities of the animals, while still keeping the story in an imaginative sphere so they can absorb it more easily.  A young child can easily identify with a young tortoise who believes in herself and knows the solution to a problem, even when bigger animals says she can’t do it. When children are under 5, their minds are usually not able to distinguish clearly between “fact” and “imagination,” the kind of objective thinking which according to French psychologist Piaget develops around age 7 and after. So if we want children to learn naturalistic facts about animals, we should wait until they are in grade two or three and higher.  My son, like most children who are allowed to play (including dramatic role-play) and to hear and read stories, had no trouble distinguishing between animal characters and actual animals living on earth, when he was ready to start making these distinctions.

It is, I think, important to let children have experience seeing some animals in nature to understand what actual animals are like (an experience many children today are sadly lacking).  They can then read and see films about animals not in their geographic area  (e.g. lions, tigers, polar bears) and become more curious about their lives and habits.  Speaking of polar bears, many kids understand how global warming is affecting these animals’ environment in the “real world.”  Finally, most good authors do create some sense of an animal’s own reality and nature; they are not just anthropomorphic cartoon characters. Thus, they may create a good foundation for more scientific learning: a child who has come to love Charlotte may want to find out more about all kinds of spiders, their webs, and their eggs. As Charlotte might write, “Terrific!” (using her dry thread, not her sticky one — a “fact” that White cunningly introduces into his story not for its own sake but because it has a meaning: the bugs won’t stick to the sticky threads and make the word illegible.  But now we know spiders have at least two kinds of thread.).

Stories pass on family, cultural, and human values, especially when loving adults share them with the children in their care.  This is what should come first in listening to stories and in reading, before (in John Keats’ words) any “irritable searching after fact and reason.”  Should we – taking this to its logical conclusion – eliminate the story “The Little Engine that Could” because children might think the VIA and GO trains can also think and talk?


Next Blog:  Mark Twain said “Some of the worst things in my life didn’t happen.”  A perfect description of anxiety.  Don’t worry — we’ll get to this subject soon.


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Urban Gallery: Painter, Poet, Beggar, Thief


The whole reading at the Urban Gallery on March 1 was amazing.  Here is a youtube of my 5-minute reading — unfortunately, the poem about February is cut short at the end; the missing line is “find food we need to keep us from the cold.”  Hopefully, spring is coming and we won’t be cold any more.  Thanks to Brenda Clews for making this video and to Brenda, Jennifer, Norman, Nik, Luciano, Pat, and the other poets who read.  Those are Brenda’s beautiful paintings on the wall.


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