Mad about books

I’m mad about books. In fact, it may be said that I hoard them. Lately, I’ve taken to collecting leather bound ones which I buy from Folio Society, an English company that periodically features one of their half-off sales—or, believe it or not, from Barnes and Noble leather-bound classics (for some reason I’m embarrassed to admit that I collect B&N books. I feel like a charlatan. Or maybe it’s a turn coat.) All of this started years ago when I started buying antique books at second hand shops and flea markets. I collected a ton  (only a slight exaggeration), but I didn’t read any. Most were threatening to disintegrate into leather dust if I dared open them. So I let them rest untouched and inspirational on one of my many shelves. They’re still there. Eventually I graduated to Folio Society and B&N & any other bookseller that offered an affordable treasure. My thinking was that a book lover like myself shouldn’t be reading Brothers Karamazov in paperback; I should own the master in all his leather finery. But alas, I don’t read those either—I’m afraid I’ll crack the spine or get fingerprints or coffee stains on the pages. So instead I return to the trusty paperback versions I’d been keeping in a box to give away, and happily plow through dog-earing pages, underlining favorite passages (which I seldom return to) and taking notes for a poem or a page inspired by the Master.  And leave my leather-bound treasures wrapped in their cellophane casings on shelves across from my bed, so I can fall asleep and wake to the vision of my beloved impeccable never read never even opened leather bound gems.

So maybe its just paper, lovely touchable word-covered paper, the common denominator I can’t live without. Don’t even ask what I think of Kindle.

Good News!

I’m delighted to say that Arlene Sahraie, the Library Services Director of the Bergen County Cooperative Library System (BCCLS) has asked me to be the BCCLS Writer of the Month for April, National Poetry Month. And yes, she does know that Confessions is prose.

Two Kinds of Silence

This is the first part of an essay I wrote for The Tampa Review titled, “Poems and the Psyche: The Threat of Making Art, One Writer’s Journey.”   More is to come!

One of my regrets as a developing writer was that I didn’t get to hear other writers’ stories. As a psychologist, I was aware of how critical these were to both reducing the sense of isolation that pervaded my writing life and to deepening my understanding of my own creative process. Sadly though, we didn’t speak of these things. Perhaps it was competition that silenced us, or more likely our wish to appear invulnerable in the eyes of our mentors and each other.

Our teachers didn’t share their stories either; the one exception, Allen Ginsberg when he substituted for Galway Kinnell in our craft class at NYU. Ginsberg spoke openly of his depression over his inability to write an original poem—one of his own invention rather than one that duplicated those of his workshop peers at Columbia. He became so depressed over his lack of originality that he resolved to stop reaching for it. Free of demand and expectation, he abandoned himself to whatever impulses pulled him in a poem. He experimented and played.  Remarkably, that journey ultimately gave him “Howl”.  He was finally free!

Ginsberg concluded that the only way to write good poems was to write bad ones. I felt liberated. I too was always chasing the ‘good poem’, but unlike Ginsberg, ‘good’ for me meant writing like my workshop peers. Clearly that precluded meandering off the beaten track into unchartered territories that might distract me. But accepting failure as a necessary part of my growth and encouraged by Ginsberg’s celebration of his differentness (mine always terrified me!) gave me permission to let go the reins and play in a poem. Given my orthodox personality, however, this became a long and difficult process, but I kept Ginsberg as my guide throughout and remain enormously grateful to him for his honesty and generosity. In this same spirit of friendship, I offer here the flesh and bones of my own quest for originality and invention.

It is my belief that writers at some point in their lives were forbidden speech, and it is that prohibition coupled with an unsatisfied longing to communicate that compels us to write. In short, we write to make contact. It becomes our aesthetic project then to find the place where we can release that silenced voice and free it to speak in its most natural (yet artful) dialect —strange that I would describe it this way since anyone familiar with me would say I’m known for speaking up.

As a matter of fact, while I blame my parents for silencing me, I also credit them for encouraging me to speak. As a child I had much to say at dinner or to the neighbors who spoke disrespectfully to me, I thought—telling me it was time to do my homework or wash up for supper (Neighbors in our town of Edgewater Park at the northeastern tip of the Bronx, New York, had as many children as lived on the block.). And despite the fact that my parents still laugh about the time I told my uncle he couldn’t tell me what to do because he wasn’t “even my father” and the time I told “that old crab Ella” that Mom didn’t like her, still I attribute my inability to speak to my staunch Irish Catholic home.

In our five room beachside converted bungalow, it was understood that certain things were never spoken of ‘outside of our four walls’. We could fight and rail among ourselves, but we were forbidden to speak of family outside our home. And that commandment worked to silence us for years. To this day, none of us speaks openly to ‘outsiders’ about family without some measure of guilt.

Then there were the topics we never spoke of –with anyone: sex, anger, jealousy, greed; we didn’t have those feelings in our house. Pride was a particular problem since it was Satan’s sin. Clearly it was Lucifer’s pride that caused him to be cast out and damned for eternity. So we had to be vigilant not only to hide these feelings, but to make sure we didn’t have them in the first place. Such terrible mortal sins, they brought with them the threats of Hell and God turning away. The thought of that was more painful even than our parents’disapproval and justice.

This brings me to censorship– from within. What we generally think of as censorship involves being told by the outside world what we can and cannot do. But more profound is our own internalization of these dictates as we grow. Censorship starts with childhood hiding, the conscious decision to keep the truth from another, but then it matures into a highly sophisticated unconscious hiding that even poetry itself and psychology can collude with. We start out hiding the ‘dirty’ parts of ourselves; we end up not knowing they ever existed.  So censorship for the Cusacks became much more than an inability to speak openly about what went on in the deeper pockets of our minds and bodies. For us, censorship included hiding from ourselves. In fact, censorship included rejecting whole parts of the self.

This is how simple humanity became something to apologize for. Because the self was flawed, all impulses were suspect. The self that remained after the cleansing of forgetting had to be monitored—each thought, feeling, or gesture meticulously charted. The cost of occasional slips when the self, somehow left unguarded, reared its sordid head was desolation and terror. Thinking and curiosity were dangerous. The barometer of good was the saints; they were models of what God wanted (and had a right to expect given His willingness to die for us)—suffering and martyrdom. Its meaning inverted, happiness became synonymous with pain and service, with heaven not earth. This earthly life was mere preparation for the real life that came after death.

It would follow then that I’ve spent most of my life censoring myself. My need not to know the workings of my own mind—my terror of unsolicited or unshackled thought—left me isolated. Constantly confused myself, I never believed anyone would understand what I was saying—not because they weren’t clever enough but because I was (am) inarticulate. The words swam around, got tossed, reeled back in every color, and I made the mental move from “I don’t have the right to speak” to “I can’t speak.”

Given all this, how then did the writer in me ‘find’ my voice–one that is uniquely my own and not formed by some dictate of what should be said? Where did I find the tools and  the courage to release my desperate hold on my imagination –allowing it free reign to discover its own quirkiness? How did I learn to let it speak? How did I come to love what I abhored in myself?  And how do I continue to leave myself open to the discovery that we so long for in a good poem? How do I, in the words of Seamus Heaney, ‘speak the unspeakable’? Like honesty, speech is hard won, and though the final product, be it candor or a poem, may appear graceful, even effortless, the process may be torment.


Like Son, Like Mother

I’ve been writing a lot of late—very little poetry or creative prose but lots of short pieces for the CKP blog and newsletter as well as my own blog. I must say, I’m loving it. I used to think that the only kind of writing that would satisfy me was that which required my imagination, but it turns out that any writing gives me a kick and sweetens my day. I’ve finally caught up with my son who told me the same thing about himself when he was in eighth grade. He’s also the same son who said the only books he liked to read were poetry books. With poetry, he said, you open the book, stay for a minute and leave with something.

My new series on CavanKerry’s blog

I have a new reoccurring blog series on CavanKerry’s blog titled, “The Birth of a Press.”  In the series, I discuss what it was like to start the press and what it has taken to keep it running.

You can read the first two installments here:
Part 1:  Start Your Own Press
Part 2: The Challenge

When I first started Confessions…

When I first started Confessions, I was gleeful. After poetry, writing prose was like getting out of school. A friend had been talking about a play she was writing in which her mother was the speaker and central character. I was intrigued at the idea of speaking in the voice of a person I knew rather than one I created. I’d tried it as an exercise early on in my writing career when I decided to try to write in the voice of my older brother, my nemesis, who incidently appears as antagonist in Confessions. The result was the poem that follows–entitled “The 2:30 Bus”. That experience surprised and changed me. I suddenly felt empathy for the person who tormented me. He too was vulnerable.

But I had gone beyond writing a single poem or prose piece by the time I started Confessions; my projects had become book-length. Who would I write about? Whose voice would I hear? Who did I possibly know well enough to speak their words? Then one day, out of nowhere, I sat down at my computer, and Joan at 12 started to speak. And could she talk!  She didn’t stop for another two months. She had something to say about everything and everyone. She had a very distinctive tone, very colloquial speech, didn’t care about punctuation or grammar, but was otherwise extremely obsessive. Suddenly I was recording—what actually felt like channeling –this young girl who had my name, my face and my experiences. This girl who never revealed how she felt. Remarkably, I was just getting to know her–this girl who never spoke to me/herself or anyone about what troubled or haunted her. She just plowed through her life never admitting to the feelings that were a natural accompaniment to the circumstances of that life. I became the pen who recorded her words. I didn’t interfere, didn’t pull her back or plead with her to stop repeating herself. She just talked and talked and talked and I typed and typed and typed. I was possessed. And she was in charge. She was with me every day at all hours. And I was happy. Very very happy to hear her. Whenever I sat down at the computer she was there waiting. Interestingly enough, this was the first time in my writing life that I wrote on the computer. Before that –life was all about poems and writing free hand in my notebook, more likely on bits of paper, anything I could find at the time –napkins, envelopes, matchbooks, the empty pages at the back of books I was reading. I only moved to the computer in revision.

The experience of listening and getting to know the young Joan has been an exhilarating one. I refer to her in the third person rather than the first because she is a new character for me, a new friend. To have locked away so much of what she knew and felt about the people, events and circumstances of her life, left her and me with just biographical data—a lot of information about the who and what of her life but next to nothing about the internal emotional turmoil that that reeked. I feel as if I have finally connected to the young girl that I was and in fact have just met her—perhaps in the way a person with Multiple Personality Disorder feels about meeting and finally integrating their many selves. It’s a rather remarkable experience. Once again my writer and psychologist selves are in tandem –colluding to confront and thereby enrich my life in ways I never knew were necessary. Let’s hear it for the wisdom of our passions!!!


Despite the fact that it heralds another year gone and another year older, October is turning out to be a glOrious month. Last year, my husband, Alan and our son, David and his girlfriend (now wife), Marlene, took me on a surprise trip to Ireland–my beloved Ireland– following a surprise party to ‘celebrate’ a BIG birthday—which one isn’t really important; I still feel like a kid. That trip was magical. Next week, we take off for another extravaganza during which we will toast my next birthday–but this time with our closest friends, Carol and Fred.  We board ship in San Diego for a month long cruise to Hawaii and the Polynesian Islands. If these two years are forerunners of birthdays to come, I’m going to do my best to suffer through.

Almost out of my hands…

Now that Confessions is almost out of my hands—I’m still tinkering with the last of the copy-edits and obsessing over what head shot to use–there’s a tingling in my chest that I could identify as excitement which I think it is but mixed in is anxiety. I always feel anxious at this point, and that anxiety increases exponentially as we close in on production and finally publication which for Confessions will be November. It follows that my impulses would be squabbling at this time. While I’m writing I’m committed to the book and to its honesty, applauding myself periodically for my daring—always stretching boundaries in the interest of directness and truth—it’s the work that I want to write—but as I near the place where I hand it over to our designer, I am aware that I am giving over control. It is fast becoming permanent words and story on the page. I will soon have no more room or right to amend it, to soften the rough edges or pull in in places where I may in retrospect decide I’ve gone too far and revealed too much. In a short while the book will be its own truth and it will take its place in the world of words for better or for worse.

It would be wonderful if pure adrenaline in the form of unabashed confidence accompanied us on our way to this birth, but it doesn’t. Despite the fact that I love the book—I truly do—now I’m thinking about you and how you’ll like it. Maybe you won’t like Joan, the speaker, or maybe you won’t get the fractured diction and the small chapters. Maybe you’ll be stunned to know something about her that was better left unsaid.  It’s funny, when my poems come to print, I worry about the same two things–that you won’t get my form then either—though the form for poetry and prose is very different—and that you’ll learn something about me that is shameful. The fact that I’ve chosen to include both doesn’t seem to matter. I want to be myself and inventive but I want you to like me too. It’s my old battle with God and the nuns. I insist that I do it my way, but I need you to approve. Some of you will. Many of you will not. And that’s the risk we all take every time we step out into the world and allow ourselves to be inventive. So be it. I/we can’t have it both ways. So the nuns are still shaking their heads and I’m jumping off another cliff. We do it everyday—if we are creating. We win some; we lose some; I love it!


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