Dr. Mirriam-Goldberg was the 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate. She has written two novels, most recently, Miriam’s Well, a number of memoirs and non-fiction books, and has been author or editor of over two dozen novels, including six volumes of poetry. She teaches at Goddard College where she founded the Transformative Language Arts MA degree. To find out more about this inspiring writer, teacher, and mother, visit her website-- http://carynmirriamgoldberg.com.
"Your Body is a Conversation With the World"
What are you waiting for? From the first air
in the first room, while a winter radiator breathed
enough warmth for you and your mother,
the world was chatting you up.
You gasped, you cried, you waved your tiny hands
for the ocean you left, and the story laughed itself silly
in each cell until it multiplied into millions more
marching to or denying the heart's measured drum.
Your body watches the moth on the other side
of the screen, drinks the water from the blue glass,
and jumps in its sleep, so much dialogue in this
continuing tender reckoning of bare foot on gravel,
whippoorwill telling the ears of nightfall.
You're always in conversation about how you're not
a separate animal but a talisman of your own place
alongside the freeway and the prairie,
each step another word, each shrug another question
for the lightning bug caught on the ceiling,
the cat leaping from refrigerator to your shoulder,
the wind or its absence evident in the still grasses.
The answers may knock you over or have nothing
to do with the question you're pacing across the day.
Time tells its stories through your body,
so yoked to this love that it cannot stop singing.
"All Those Birds Flying Off That Tree"
When the bottom falls out, and there's nothing
holding you up at 3 a.m., you'll need to be strong,
or at least, drink strong coffee in full view of angels
basking under street lamps, or poets lifting off trees
like red-winged blackbirds driven by instinct and
the right glint of sunlight. Look toward the comfort
of what light the moon makes between curtain and wall.
Let yourself need someone who knows how to boil water
and sit quietly until enough time pours itself
through you that you can sleep or eat, shake your head
at how this just might be an old story sweeping away
the remnants you're finished with. It just might be
that common song that breaks any of us wide,
not a release, not a reward, but a door so open
you realize there never was a door to begin with,
only enough of a structure to hold up this view
of all the birds, all the blessings, flying off together
to circle three times—once for what was,
once for what you expected, and
a last time for the wonder of flight itself.
Note: title and italicized words from Dar Williams' song “The Blessing,” used with permission
"No One Tells You What to Expect"
Downpours as you're running down Massachusetts Street
in sandals that keep falling off in unexpected puddles.
Ice on power lines. The dying who won't die, then
a single bluebird dead in your driveway in the wrong season.
The deadline or lost check spilling the orderly papers.
The part that isn't made anymore for the carburetor,
or the sudden end of chronic sinus infections even though
you're lost in a parking lot looking for your car.
Your best thinking won't be enough to save your daughter
from a bullying romance or your friend from leaving the man
she'll regret leaving. The sweet darkness of a summer night
might quiet you, while just across town, in a quiet gathering of maples,
someone drops to her knees in such sadness
that even the hummingbirds buzz through unnoticed.
Meanwhile, the dog you thought lost returns wet and hungry,
the phone call reports the CT scan is negative, and someone
brings you a tiny strawberry growing in your backyard.
Life will right itself on the water when the right rocks come along,
so put down your paddle and let the bend tilt you toward
what comes next: the bottoms that fall out, the shoes that drop,
the tops that unseal all while a cousin you lost touch with decades ago
calls, his voice as familiar as the smell of pot roast on a rainy day.
No one can tell you how that song, or the one you forgot
that returns like an old cat, will vibrate through your skin.
Expect to be startled.
"The People Who Pose in Front of Monet's Water Lilies"
are in their Easter pastels, bundles of families or freelance children,
wheelchaired and strollered, while so many forefingers point to say, “there!”
A bearded man grins like a fool in love, his hand on his hip, as he leans
away from a father in Valentino who turns away, his daughter's
pink silk cape over his arm, to gesture for his wife to point the camera.
A couple on their first date laugh at the wrong time.
A guard leans on one leg, flashes a smile with his raccoon eyes.
A small boy halts, stares into his future.
A tall woman in high-heeled boots brings her emptiness to the fullness.
A man steps back, so compelled by the expanse that he almost trips.
The wild turquoise and pink of the lilies absorb our reflections,
while a child in a polka dots dress floats past hundreds of blossoms of
a single tree blurring in the running of time. This sadness, held still
in the painted pond that has long changed into something else.
Each passenger travels solo in the soft light of everything on the cusp
of darkening green, stripping away this season while outside,
spring explodes, and the mottled blues and greens dissolve the future.
"The Opposite of Certainty"
All my childhood, I wanted to be certain I was worthy
of being loved which, at the time, meant being saved.
Like any great search, you have to begin by hallowing yourself out.
Like any great love, you never know the contours of the story
but your feet in the dark can detect pebbles or sand,
toe the ground to find what direction to go or avoid.
The Hubble telescope shows us a star dying into
a green butterfly in a tube of black. At the center,
bands of pink burn thousands of years down to one cell.
Everywhere the telescope aims, even in the dark of the dark,
tens of thousands of stars dying or beginning.
On this ground, where is nothing
Dig deeper: still something, not just billions of cells
but air circulated through millions of beings
dying, being born, carrying on by force of light.
Birth tears right through whatever stories we have for birth. Love too.
Earth is made of dying stars, birth canal after birth canal until
death tunnels us elsewhere we have no words to name,
just the too-quickly vanishing tail of a meteor, a finger print
dissolving so quickly it's hard to say whose it was.
This baby asleep on my chest afterwards,
the imprint that never leaves.
To take air in. To give it back. A natural act, a necessity,
and if we're lucky, a certainty.
All along the way, the scars that weather you, and how beautiful
you are when you get up anyway the next morning, put on your coat
and go out into the exploding world.
Dead stars turn to lightning, bird song, mud feeding the hungry river.
The dead are humidity and dirt, discord or harmonics in our voices.
Meanwhile, the living: the face you look at and think, Oh, so familiar.
Eyes that have looked into years of yours, seen the same colors
in the retina, fire in the center, and still are never yours.
Neurofibers in the eyes absorb light
while we sit in a metal chair in the backyard
under a gingko tree that inhales this same light.
Suddenly, without knowing why, love, the opposite
of certainty, calls us to our feet and trips us
so we can get close enough to the ground to smell the dirt.
Interview with Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg by Amelia Looney
AL: First things first, imagine we could have met anywhere in the world for this interview, where would it have been and what would we be sipping on?
CMG: It would be on my front porch, which faces emerging woodlands composed of mostly cedar and Osage orange trees and a whole lot of bramble. As far as what we're sipping on, I'm afraid that would be kind of boring: iced tea, but maybe we'd get wild and have a twist of lime in our tea. More to the point for me would be what we're eating, and since I've been thinking a lot about my forthcoming novel, Miriam's Well, in which my main character cooks and bakes for people throughout the book – and the book also has 40 pages of her recipes in it – I'm going to say we'll be snacking on chocolate-raspberry rugalach, a Jewish buttery cookie, rolled up and baked into a crescent. Ideally, it would be about 70 degrees with a light breeze and a whole lot of bird song, and my cats would be jumping through the window between the porch and one of the bedrooms, circling us suspiciously but eventually settling down with my big dog, a weimaraner-chocolate lab mix who just showed up at our house one day about six years ago.
AL: So, when did you realize writing was your calling? Was there any one author, poet, or novel that drew you to the written word?
CMG: As a child, I drew all the time – I came into this world hard-wired to create, and I was also crazily hyper, surely a child who would have been prescribed Ritalin if I was born 30 years later. So from the time I could hold a crayon, it was art all the time until playing the piano loudly or singing from musicals off-key took hold in between the drawing and painting. When I was 14 in the middle of my parents' extremely dramatic divorce, I found I suddenly needed words, so switched to writing on a dime. My first poems were about the cruelty of the world, but eventually I moved onto the rapture of trees a wind, a rapture I still write about. I also had the help of a loving teacher named Judith Rance-Roney, herself just a few years older than those of us she was teaching at Manalapan High School in central New Jersey. She encouraged me, introduced me to many poets (I particularly liked T.S. Eliot and e.e. cummings, who seemed like an odd married couple to me), and patiently listened to my daily attempts at poetry. I also had a great mentor in my synagogue's youth group leader, Phil Brater, who encouraged my poetry as a way to survive a challenging childhood.
AL: My favorite poem you submitted was “All Those Birds Flying Off That Tree,” can you give us some back story to its inspiration?
CMG: Dar Williams was doing a 20th anniversary tour for her album Mortal City, and in each city, she teamed up with a local writer. I was lucky enough to be the writer for her Lawrence, Kansas gig in January of 2017, so I started playing Mortal City over and over until her words, voice, and music lived vividly enough in me that I could write a body of poems riffing off her music. “All Those Birds Flying Off That Tree” is a line from her song “The Blessings,” and with her permission, I use that line as a title (and some other phrases in some of the poems I wrote. I was also inspired by simply watching all those birds flying off all those trees where I live in Kansas, surrounded by cottonwoods and cedars full of birds lifting up together often.
AL: While reading your work, I noticed it is heavily influenced by nature and a human’s uncontrollable connection to the environment around them, for better or worse. For you, is there even such a thing as separating your writing from nature’s authority?
CMG: It’s interesting to consider nature has having authority, but ultimately it does when it comes to the life cycles and seasonal tilts of all beings, including us. When I was in graduate school, post-structuralist and deconstruction theories were in vogue, and I was constantly encountering statements like “nature is a human construct,” which seemed (and still seem) very twisted to me. Our ideas are things are obviously human constructs, but there is a real earth we live on, a planet that will survive us and has shown itself to be endlessly adaptable.
AL: I recently finished your memoir The Sky Begins At Your Feet and noticed a reoccurring theme of birds, which is also prevalent in your poetry. What is it about birds that intrigues you?
CMG: The Sky Begins At Your Feet is a memoir about living through cancer and many months of treatment, and I know from my own experience as well as my experience facilitating writing workshops for people with serious illness that there's nothing like being home sick to make a person start noticing the birds much more than usual. I think that's because when you can't do a whole lot at once, especially when you're lying on the couch trying to get up the energy to do something heroic – like wash the dishes – you spend a lot of time looking at the window. I'm also someone who has always found the holy, the sacred, God, or whatever we might name all this in the natural world, which has a lot to do with why I ended up in Kansas after starting my life in more urban places, like Brooklyn (not to say there's not birds and sky there, but there's far more vastness in Kansas). The living earth and sky remind me that I'm not just the sum total of my frontal lobe, but a living being among many other living beings, and perhaps birds are the closest embodiment of the divine that we usually see.
AL: To continue on the topic of nature and your memoir, in the beginning, after being diagnosed with breast cancer, you say, “Let me learn this way of loving what’s imperfect from the land and sky around me, the best mirror to show us that what we do to our environment, we also do to ourselves,” can you elaborate on this quote?
CMG: Yes, our bodies are the most local part of the earth that we inhabit, and the more we can pay attention to what it is to be a body within the context of the body of the earth where we live, the more we can cozy up to the life force. To me, being a writer and a human is very much about using my words and deeds to re-inhabit where and who I am – to find my way home to the endless mystery and variations of real life in the here and now. I'm a long-time bioregionalist: someone who believes that our lives are tied to where we live and how to live in greater balance with the planet.
Also, it's very true, and the research in recent decades is backing this up more and more, that many cancers and other serious illnesses have environmental factors. My oncologist once pointed out to me that pancreatic cancer used to be very rare, but with all our environmental toxins, it's now growing explosively, and in the process, prematurely ending a lot of good people's lives. Our illness and our healing is intrinsically rooted in the health of the earth, sky, oceans, and our local ecosystems.
AL: Within your memoir your battle through cancer was accompanied by an amazing support system and community, along with what seems to be a strong religious and spiritual backbone; how did these two factors affect your battle?
CMG: I’m very lucky to have such a strong community and more-than-human support too, and both sustained me in many ways – from people bringing me dinner and taking me to appointments, to the wind sweeping through to remind me of how sweet this life is. Staying in one place a long time (I've lived in this community since 1983) helps enormously when it comes to finding a person's place and people.
AL: Seeing as you are a breast cancer survivor, is there any advice you would give to someone newly diagnosed?
CMG: What I learned most of all is that people facing any serious illness need to listen to their bodies, hearts, and souls in making their own best decisions. It's hard to sort out what to do when we're facing our own mortality, so anyone a person can do to hear their own best guidance is ideal. I also think it's important for most people to reach out to find support in the ways that serve them best, whether that's by asking friends and family to drop by with casseroles or clean the house, or asking for personal space and nice cards in the mail.
AL: You are the founder and coordinator of the Transformative Language Arts academic field at Goddard College, can you enlighten us on the inspiration behind it’s creation and goal?
CMG: Transformative Language Arts – or TLA – is the use of writing, storytelling, theater, and other word-based arts to change and improve the world, whether through storytelling to build community, writing workshops for individual and communal healing and connection, or social change theater to stand up for needed changes in our world. I helped found the first MA program in TLA at Goddard College where I teach (link here: https://www.goddard.edu/academics/goddard-graduate-institute/transformative-language-arts-concentration/), which educates students on using their art – especially writers, performers, and multi-media artists – to make a living in their communities, and part of my motivation was seeing how important – essential even – it is for people to tell their stories as a path to reclaiming agency over their lives and uniting more effectively with communities for change. Inherent to this is using our writing (and other arts) as a path toward Right Livelihood, the Buddhist tradition connoting work that does no harm and enhances the world, and more broadly seen as living out our callings and serving our people. TLA has grown into a great non-profit organization, the TLA Network (http://TLANetwork.org), which hosts the annual Power of Words conference (http://tlanetwork.org/conference), happening next Oct. 12-14 at Goddard College in Vermont, and online classes. The TLA Network also is organizing the new Right Livelihood Professional Training, which I'm leading with storytelling Laura packer, to help people figure out the big picture and little nuts and bolts of supporting themselves and their art – https://www.tlanetwork.org/Right-Livelihood-Training.
AL: It seems ironic that the world is technically more connected then ever with the internet and its many social media outlets, yet many times feels as if we are not truly connected at all. How important to our society is an academic field reinforcing the power and healing that can derive from our individual written, spoken, and sung word, as well as our communal efforts?
CMG: While we have so many more stories flying through our lives at rapid speed than perhaps ever before, we seem to have less time to really engage with those stories to find meaning and inspiration. Transformative Language Arts facilitates people making space to hear their own and one another stories – whether written, spoken, or sung – so that we can better understand who we are individually as well as what connects us collectively. A flood of images that move so fast we can't grasp any surely doesn't do as much to feed the soul as one clear and powerful image that helps us land back in our own time and place. The same is true with the narratives that frame our lives, and as for the importance, humans tend to learn best from stories, from seeing a beginning, middle, and ending unfold rather than reading bullet points of facts or hearing a flurry of news bites. Making room and time for learning how to listen to each other and to our own deepest callings is surely at the heart of what we need to bring greater healing, presence, and vitality to the world.
AL: What lesson are you most grateful for in your writing career so far?
CMG: I don't know if I can land on such one lesson, but some that come to mind are these:
The writing's intention – what a piece of writing wants to be – has far more intelligence that my ideas about the writing, so I try to surrender to that intention.
There's no need to buy into the heavy weight of writer's block as a controlling myth. You can simply tell yourself, if you hit a wall, that you need a break (maybe a few minutes or a few years) until you're ready to return to the writing with a fresher heart and clearer mind. Or you can go where the energy is, writing something else that calls.
Writing means constantly cultivating a writer's mind, opening our awareness to what's right in front of us as well as what's on the edges of our visions and even, at times, abilities. Being a writer is a continuing practice of opening my senses to the world.
AL: Can you tell us about your new novel Miriam's Well?
CMG: For the last 14 years, I've been writing a retelling of the Exodus from Miriam's point-of-view and set in America from 1965 onward, starting with the New York City blackout of 1965 when she's stuck in the subway with her family (you can hear me reading this excerpt from the book here: https://soundcloud.com/carynmg/miriams-well-nyc-blackout), and moving through many defining moments in our country. This includes everything from the AIDS crisis to 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina to the Oklahoma City bombing as well as many smaller moments that help Miriam find more of her purpose, people, and place. I wrote this book as a kind of Forrest-Gump-meets-The-Red-Tent excursion, drawing on mythology and history to follow Miriam on her journey wandering the desert of our time. Along the way, she finds many an oasis, and actually, she makes a kind of oasis wherever she lands through cooking and singing for people, even when she's struggling to balance that age-old question of how to live when the world is falling apart. The book came out on Passover (the Jewish holiday celebrating the Exodus), March 30, and I'm excited about doing a national tour to give readings and also workshops on writing Midrash – retelling our most sacred stories from new perspectives. People can see much more about the book here: http://www.carynmirriamgoldberg.com/books/memoir-fiction/miriams-well/
AL: What’s next for you?
CMG: Well, I feel like I'm about to embark upon a reverse Exodus, coming to many communities around the country to do readings and workshops related to Miriam's Well, which feels very appropriate in our time in history right now since the book is about how we make community, change, and meaning when the news is stark. I'm also continuing to write a long-going collection of poetry on how time moves, something that continues to elude me but I can't stop writing about.