Love Letters and Tongues Aflame


“We are animals of language. All the words that were, and all the words that will be, are asleep inside our bodies.”  

Artist Leslie Dill

If you are a lover of letters, of language, if you’ve got a thing for words, if you’re hot for font and a fool for the mesmerizing voluptuousness of phrases writ large and draped about, as if an old monkish scribe got manic, then get thee to the Halsey. thumbs_img_4256_g

Poetic Visions: From Shimmer to Sister Gertrude Morgan, Leslie Dill’s wordy and wondrous exhibition at the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, is one good read. And its the perfect cheap date for Valentine’s Day, especially since Valentine’s falls right at the start of Lent. Dill conveys the spiritual mania of New Orleans street preacher, Sister Gertrude Morgan, with a hyper-graphia reminiscent of folk artist Howard Finster, but she also demonstrates tender and fierce reverence for the Word. This exhibit is a visual ode to the power of language. Dill revels in the graceful architecture of letters. She creates a wall of shimmering wire that all emanates from wire-scrolled words. I’m not even sure what they say, but maybe there’s meaning in that mystery alone. There’s a bride, too, if you want a little more Valentine’s tie-in.

To further celebrate Dill’s artistic vision, for which, she says, poetry is the “touchstone” and language is “the pivot point”  the Halsey is hosting a poetry series throughout the exhibition (on display through March 9). Tomorrow night is the second in the “Tongues Aflame” series, and will feature the College of Charleston’s brightest talent.  Last week’s inaugural reading featured local poetry heavy-weights Marjory Wentworth, Katherine Williams, Richard Garcia, Kit Loney and Susan Finch Stevens, and it was as fabulous as the art surrounding it. For those who missed it, I’m pleased to share poet Susan Finch Steven’s prose poem, “How to See Visions at the Halsey.”

thumbs_all-seeing-eye-13337300How to See Visions at the Halsey

by Susan Finch Stevens

Enter the gallery as though entering a book. Come alone so as not to be distracted by someone reading over your shoulder. That shoulder, the one draped with the superfluous sweater, which will unravel here to hang from you like threads, like the words that habitually spin from the dark cave of your mouth. Books change. Marvel at the strange architecture of a child’s pop-up but prepare to be regaled by apocalypse. Turn to the page that shimmers, that becomes a wall like a waterfall, like strands of hair you long to run your fingers through, to braid, to be raised up by like the prince in another book you read long ago. Remain lucid here so you will resist the longing to touch out of fear of waking in a gallery. Perhaps you can stem the urge by becoming the maiden with no hands from that long-ago book. Turn a page with your stump and Allegorical Figures bring memories of the metal hands the king once made for you. Or were they made for someone else? You will not find THE END in this book. You will find an EXIT. And when you exit you will take something that gets lost inside you like your words that have not yet found air.  It is wise to remember that the maiden had to venture out on her own before her hands became flesh.



Go Fish

So I went to this  class last night… okay, it wasn’t a “class.”  It was a small gathering of women sipping prosecco and savoring friendship, toasting creativity and celebrating a particularly gifted friend’s new business launch (more on that in a subsequent post). But as I sat among these”high beam women,” as our hostess Susan described the gathered gals — each one bright in intellect and shiny of spirit, I realized that in fact I have been being schooled by many of them for many years now.  They are artists, weavers, dancers, writers and poets, renegade dames of innumerable talents. And last evening being with them was yet another seminar in my continuing education course, Playing with Fire 101: What can happen if you dare to ignite and fuel your creative sparks. Or something like that.

Charleston native Barbara Hagerty was one of the luminous ladies gathered ’round last eve, a true teacher and role model for digging in and following a passion. A few years ago, Barbara, an accomplished non-fiction writer, invested fully in her love of poetry. She had a full-on midlife crisis affair with words, including daily dalliances and steamy writing sessions, and didn’t come up for air until she had written a poem a day for 365 days.  Now she is celebrating the publication of  her second book of poetry, Motherfish (Finishing Line Press, November 2012; pre-order it here).

Barbara has birthed herself as a poet, with all the patience, endurance and hard labor that moms can appreciate. She gave into it, she worked it, and by doing so, has given us mesmerizing images, lovely rhythm and nuance, the mystery and magic of language at play.

In Motherfish, Barbara writes of the work of nurturing and bringing forth, of exploring transitions, moving from one generation to the next.

“I have discovered that one’s obsessions in life effortlessly become one’s themes in poetry. I have never intentionally set out to compile poems around a theme; I simply discover (usually after I have spread them out of the floor) that a large number of them already coalesce around a theme,” she explains. ” The image of the fish to convey motherhood was chosen not only because I have a mother who swims daily (at age 85) but because the fish is the very embodiment of slipping from one shore to the next, one life to the next, one generation to the next, much as the passage of our lives—mother-to daughter–to as-yet-unborn daughter–slips by in a series of mysterious, continuous undulations.”

So, on which bank of the river

   am I now, waking or dreaming?

Li-Young Lee (“Living with Her,” Behind My Eyes)




It was the summer of translations,

forcing nouns into undershirts,

knotting bibs around verbs.


On the coping,

lizards changed clothes,

ghostwrote their memoirs.


Under the umbrella’s

penumbra, I’d become

a very old child.


Mother breathed through gills,

swam golden loopholes

in the pool.


Her feet were footnotes

on my gloss.

She swam in cursive.


Clouds coined new clouds.

Fleet phrases

flew off the water’s shoulders.


Such hydraulics, freight

and displacement of text,

heavy lifting.


Flesh into ether,

her body’s strokes.

She wrote in invisible ink.


She made it look easy,


the deep, the rope, the ladder.



With a nod to Isaac — file under “Blown Away”

Is it irony or divine comedy that “back to school” always coincides with hurricanes brewing? Just as the kids get squished back into blessed routine, the tropics churn up their unruly unpredictability.

Actually, I long for more of a parallel. For school to be more hurricane-like, for the atmospheric conditions of public education to be ripe for the tossing and turning of minds, for downpours of creativity, for lightening strikes and high winds of rampant curiosity, for shaking things up. I’d prefer never to hear the term “curriculum standards” again. But despite the stifling pressures of our modern educational bureaucracy — that perfect storm of smaller budget, bigger classes, high-stakes standardized tests and the woefully inadequate benchmarks of “Adequate Yearly Progress” —  there IS good stuff happening in our kids’ classrooms, and out of classrooms too, especially when it comes to inspiring young literary imaginations in Charleston.

Olive Gardner at Write of Summer camp, a few summers ago

Though he’d be quick to share the credit with multitudes of other teachers, one curly-headed nice guy stands out, in my book, as the literary arts champion for Charleston’s young writers and readers. That would be Jonathan Sanchez, owner of Blue Bicycle Books, founder and director of the Write of Summer writing camp, and brilliant instigator of YALLFest (the country’s premier Young Adult literary festival, coming up on November 10, more on that in upcoming posts).

This year marked the 10th anniversary of Write of Summer, in which kids in grades 3 – 12 forgo fun trips to the swimming pool and beach to sit around and…write. And have a blast doing it. My girls loved it back in the good ol’ days when they were young enough to go, and every parent I know whose kid has been a camper raves as well. Jonathan is the Huck Finn of pen and paper — he turns writing into a wild adventure. Turns the daunting prospect of creating a poem into fun and games. He gives kids permission, and pointers, to play with words, and the result is verse and prose that is fresh, loose, bold and heartening. Childlike, in the purest, best sense of the word.

Want proof? Here’s an example of what Moultrie Middle School 8th grader Nina Howard (a 3-summer alumna of Sanchez’s camp) turned out at Write of Summer camp this year, using one of Sanchez’s prompts.


Write a Poem Poem

Write a poem that clicks in your brain

Like a train’s wheels on a track

Let it be braided into bracelets

That you buy

At touristy shops

And let it be braided

Into hair

Write a poem that paints itself

On walls

That people will sign their names on

Write a poem that likes to drink

Mott’s apple juice

On Thursdays

Let it drink all its drinks

With curly straws

And write a poem that likes to eat trail mix

With purple cranberries



Write a poem that holds the door for strangers

And waves at people passing by

Especially at grandmas, and nuns

And your old catholic school teacher Sister Adelheid

And if it sees Maria Von Trapp, let it wave at her too

Let it grow peonies in its garden

And let it weed it




Write a poem that steals ideas

From copyrighted things

If it wants to

And let it steal words said by

Winston Churchill

And lima beans

Let your poem


Styrofoam lunch trays

It doesn’t have to start a revolution

But at least let it take a stand

Write a poem that smells like

Cinnamon raisin bread

Fresh out of the oven

When all

The other poems

Smell like plastic

Write a poem that buys


From the second floor of department stores

So that it can flip pancakes

For its daughter


And if your poems a girl

Have it marry someone with the last name Kelly

So its daughter’s name

Can be Grace Kelly

That might make her

Popular in school

Write a poem that doesn’t care

If the other poems laugh when it quotes Fat Albert

“He who throws mud only looses


Write a poem

That chops onions to hide its crying

Write a poem

That just likes to


Whatever it wants

Or just




~~ by Nina Howard

Sundown Poetry with Katherine Williams

A mid-week offering, post Beryl’s random winds and confusing, fickle clouds. Finally the sun is out, and tonight, as it slides downward behind the Dock Street Theatre, come celebrate the golden hour by listening to the Lowcountry’s best poetry reader, reading her own work. I became a Katherine Williams fan after hearing her offer poems as part of worship at Circular Congregational Church. She lights fire to verse, with a steely voice and intuitive inflection. No pretense, just power.

Katherine’s talents are far-reaching: scientist, poet, web designer, muse to Richard Garcia (another poet powerhouse) and cheerleader for Charleston’s literary community.  Come see, and hear, for yourself. Sundown Poetry Reading, Dock Street Theatre Courtyard, 6:30 p.m.  FREE!

a poem, by Katherine Williams

Lydia Pinkham Baby

Baby in Every Bottle, I declare,
(even if your husband does
keep to his own room.) 
Even with the complications and all,
that boy of mine was worth it,
even after he started going bad.
All my efforts to hold him
back in his baby sweetness
seemed to be working
until he sprouted scales
and went under the house to live.
The way his father would sit
in his rocker reading his Tables
of Physical Constants, hours on end,
didn’t affect the boy so much after that.
I didn’t bother myself overly about it
until the boy started eating flies.
Imagine, my good cooking and Wedgwood
china left on the stoop for bait!
That’s when I took up gardening in earnest.
The years passed uneventfully
and now I have two grandbabies
living under my house.
It’s nice when they don’t move away
like other people’s children.

Katie and Claire


Here’s a Tax Day tip:  Get your refund’s  worth this Friday at Blue Bicycle Book’s Author Series Lunch (Wine AND yummy Italian fare) featuring Charleston darling, Katie Crouch. I’ve never met Katie, but my good friend Shirley Hendrix thinks she’s tops, and Shirley is almost always right–especially when she’s dishing out book suggestions, worldly wisdom and general get-your-ass-in-gear advice.

If you don’t take my word that Shirley’s word is on target, here’s more bio info (besides the important pedigree that she grew up in Charleston).

Katie Crouch is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Girls in Trucks,Men and Dogsand the Magnolia League series.Her writing has also appeared in The New York Observer, Tin House, Glamour,Slate, the London Guardian, and McSweeney’s. She received her M.F.A. at Columbia University, and was awarded a Sewanee Walter Dakin Fellowship and a MacDowell Fellowship, and her work has been translated into German, Spanish, and Turkish.

I’ll be there (so will Shirley!) and we’re saving you a seat, so  make your reservations now, via the Blue Bicycle Book site.  (She’s also reading/speaking at Wando and Porter Gaud, so tell your teens to tune in!)


And now for something quick and cheery, fitting for Tax Day (and Poetry Month) — a poem by my 11 year old, Claire:


Oh sweet flounder
I will catch you for sure

And then I will eat you my friend



National Lots-a Lit-stuff week/month

Now that Peeps have had their moment of fluffy artificial glory, and jelly beans are half-price at CVS, it’s time to bite into something beyond a sugar high, so why not a real Whitman’s sampler?

We’re well into National Poetry Month ~

And just kicking off National Library Week ~

And sliding closer and closer to National Silence Day and National Dialogue Day, which overlap and  interrupt each other on Tax Day — go figure….

So in honor of poems and libraries and our good words and  taxes that hopefully will keep both poems and libraries alive and kickin, here are a few links for your enjoyment:

  • Poetry lovers, check out the wonderful graceful choreography of Poem Flow. It’s the Cadbury Creme Egg of apps — delivering crisp verses and lovely lines in decadently smooth oozy deliciousness.


Sunday Chores ~ with Poetry

It’s a perfect day in Charleston. A Sunday, with Tarheel blue skies, bright spring sunshine percolating up to 80 degrees and way too much to choose from: Historic Charleston Foundation’s House & Garden Tours, their Antiques Show, the beach, a run or bike ride to prep, last minute, for next week’s Bridge Run and the After the Bridge Run bike ride, and of course, the Piggly Wiggly Shoot-Out —  if you happen to have a young soccer player, as I do.  I get overwhelmed on these spring-fever weekends;  I want to cram it all in — hit all the fun events AND get my chores done AND sit down with the Sunday Times.  It’s impossible, so instead I surrender and take a poetry pause.

Rather than tidying the house, polishing furniture or swooning over mahogany morsels at the Antiques Show, I offer you this from Charleston poet Barbara Hagerty (whose house is probably on the H&G tours!).   A bit of “housework” — Literary Charleston style:

The Perfect Day

Everywhere I turn —
to billboards, t.v. ads, magazines —
philosophers of the Moment
exhort me to Grab life by the horns —
live with Gusto — carpe Diem —

but I want to water my Geraniums
in slow motion –think
about them as Individuals,
talk out loud with my cat –Rumi —
uphold his End of the conversation, too

before vanishing into my library
with a Few books, a Ream of paper —
and build sawhorses on which to Lay
a Flimsy construction — or two —
lathed by the stitchery of dashes —

move wobbly word towers around
or compress them into dainty sandwiches —
the cucumber ind, Without the crusts —
keeping an eye open all the while
on the progress of our local Star

As it cycles across the room
until the violet hour comes
and I must turn on the lamp.
Then, its spotlight pools on my cat and me
and we see with Satisfaction at the verge

some Nouns and Verbs, freshly carpentered,
teetering in a little stack –ready, waiting —
for the Next perfect day,
of moving words around
like the lightest of furniture.

The Perfect Day
by Barbara Hagerty

The Guest House published by Finishing Line Press