Monday, August 6, 2007

Poetry Monday: Cecilia Woloch

If you've never imagined sleeping with a poetry book under your pillow to become tenderly infused by another poet's power, welcome to the extraordinary world of Cecilia Woloch.

I'm thrilled to feature Cecila today. Highlighted are two of her stunning poems--"Bareback Pantoum" and "Why I Believed, As A Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms"--as well as her thoughts about the genesis of these poems. (I feel especially connected today to the "Why I Believed" poem, given my father's recent death and my mother's starting a new life in the midst of her Alzheimer's diagnosis. In clearing out their house this weekend because it just sold, I've come across so many things--notes, cards, pictures, writings--that have helped me see more deeply the intimate connection of their life together.)

* * *

About why and how she began writing poetry, Cecilia says she has been "in love with language, and especially musical language" for as long as she can remember, She was "good at memorizing and reciting poems as a kid" and started making her first attempts at writing poetry in early adolescence.

Theater has also influenced her. She says, "I was also a pretty good comic and character actor on stage in college and for a few years after, in equity-waiver theater; my attraction to acting had mostly to do with language, too, with wanting to say things in intense and beautiful ways, wanting to move exceptional language out into the world."

Cecilia describes herself as "catholic" in her poetry tastes. She says, "I try to keep an open mind and an open heart, and to let things move me and stimulate me in all kinds of ways." Her poetic influences include Anna Akhmatova, who "has been very important to me—her life as well as her work, the lessons they offer about integrity and beauty and love. I slept with her collected poems under my pillow during one of the most difficult periods of my life, and even dreamt of her, and felt I drew strength from that. She'd lived through worse, and when asked if she could describe it, gave that miraculous answer, Yes, I can. Her example is a gift to all of us."

Cecilia has a similar relationship with the poet H.D., whom Cecilia believes has been underrated. H.D. "wrote, in my opinion, her most beautiful poems and some of the most beautiful poems in the language while the bombs were falling around her during the London blitz. Her 'Trilogy,' in my opinion, makes Eliot's 'Wasteland' look like a long, incoherent whine. I think she was and is too easily dismissed by the male poetry establishment."

As far as contemporary poets, Cecelia admires the work of Sharon Doubiago. Doubiago's "work and life have provided important examples to me, too, and another woman poet whose work doesn't get the attention I feel it deserves. Her book Hard Country changed my life, and my way of seeing the world, and my attitude toward poetry."

Cecilia adds, "Of course there are male poets, too, whose work I love and admire. W.S. Merwin—also an example of extraordinary artistic and personal integrity, I think. And Walt Whitman, whose work I return to again and again, for its energy and wild love. And where would any of us be without Rilke, and Lorca, and Langston Hughes, and their vision of humanity? And I love the shattered beauty of Saphho's fragments, especially Anne Carson's versions of them, and I think Anne Carson is truly a genius, though I seldom use that word to describe anyone."

Cecilia clearly has a reverence for the echoes of individual lives. Embedded in her discussion of the term "genius," she added that she'd used the term to describe her nephew: "Jesse was killed in a car accident this past April, and I'm loathe to take the reference to him out of this response."

* * *

Poem #1: "Bareback Pantoum"

Cecilia says:
This poem began as a catalogue of images from a memory of one night in the heat of my adolescence, in rural Kentucky. Someone had started a fire in the woods near our house, probably to burn some brush or scrap lumber from a house that was being built nearby, and the fire started to spread.

Since the fire department wouldn't come out unless or until a structure had caught fire, my sister and I and two local boys — Boo and Tony were their names — decided to take it upon ourselves to keep watch through the night. Boo and Tony had borrowed some horses from another neighbor, but we didn't have saddles. Really, it was just an excuse for my sister and me to ride bareback behind those boys through the woods, holding onto their waists, and my mother knew it.

She and my father kept watch from the house, I'm sure, but let us stay out there until nearly dawn. My mother had to write a note to excuse my absence from school the next day, and wrote a melodramatic and hilarious account of the whole episode, which I wish I'd saved; it's probably better and more accurate than the poem.

When I started to write the poem, 30-some years after the event, I wanted to capture the heart-galloping excitement I'd felt that night, the first stirrings of sexual drama; I wanted to try to write my own version of "The Highwayman," which I've loved since I was a girl and was first seduced by its dark rhythms.

When the poem wasn't moving forward as a catalogue, I decided to try taking the most rhythmic lines and shaping a pantoum from those. The poem seemed to come together pretty easily after that; the pattern of repetition seemed to fit perfectly my memory of riding back and forth between the woods and our house, and was deeply pleasurable, too. It was the first pantoum I'd ever written, and I felt as if I'd discovered a slightly wicked, lovely secret.

(Note: To read about the pantoum form, click here and here.)

* * *


One night, bareback and young, we rode through the woods
and the woods were on fire —
two borrowed horses, two local boys
whose waists we clung to, my sister and I

and the woods were on fire —
the pounding of hooves and the smell of smoke and the sharp sweat of boys
whose waists we clung to, my sister and I,
as we rode toward flame with the sky in our mouths —

the pounding of hooves and the smell of smoke and the sharp sweat of boys
and the heart saying: mine
as we rode toward flame with the sky in our mouths —
the trees turning gold, then crimson, white

and the heart saying: mine
of the wild, bright world;
the trees turning gold, then crimson, white
as they burned in the darkness, and we were girls

of the wild, bright world
of the woods near our house — we could turn, see the lights
as they burned in the darkness, and we were girls
so we rode just to ride

through the woods near our house — we could turn, see the lights —
and the horses would carry us, carry us home
so we rode just to ride,
my sister and I, just to be close to that danger, desire

and the horses would carry us, carry us home
— two borrowed horses, two local boys,
my sister and I — just to be close to that danger, desire —
one night, bareback and young, we rode through the woods.

— Cecilia Woloch
from LATE (BOA Editions, 2003)

* * *

Poem #2: "Why I Believed, As A Child, That People Had Sex in Bathrooms"

Cecilia says:
This was a subject I'd thought about for years, though I never expected it, really, to be the subject of a poem.

That "devil" in our bathroom door when I was a kid; the fact that I always made myself right at home in my parents' bed, and that the bathroom was a private place for my parents, and that, like most kids, I had my own theories about how the world of grown-ups worked.

Of course, I realized at some point -- probably before I started to write the poem -- that my parents may indeed have had sex in the bathroom. But I wrote the first draft of this poem in one long sitting, one big rush, just piling up details and listing the reasons I thought this, thinking it was a kind of funny and silly thing to be writing, and then the last lines came as a real surprise, which is what I always hope will happen when I sit down to write.

I think those last three lines are really a kind of manifesto of what my parents taught me -- or didn't teach me -- about sexual love.

I usually write many drafts of a poem before I feel finished with it, but this one I only polished a little, deciding it was one of those "gifts" we sometimes get.

* * *


Because they loved one another, I guessed.
Because they had seven kids and there wasn’t
a door in that house that was ever locked —
except for the bathroom door, that door
with the devil’s face, two horns like flame
flaring up in the grain of the wood
(or did we only imagine that shape?)
which meant the devil could watch you pee,
the devil could see you naked.
Because that’s where people took off their clothes
and you had to undress for sex, I’d heard,
whatever sex was — lots of kissing and other stuff
I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.
Because at night, when I was scared, I just
climbed into my parents’ bed. Sometimes
other kids were there, too, and we slept
in a tangle of sheets and bodies, breath;
a full ashtray on the nightstand; our father’s
work clothes hung over a chair; our mother’s
damp cotton nightgown twisted around her legs.
Because when I heard babies were made from sex
and sex was something that happened in bed,
I thought: No, the babies are already there
in the bed. And more babies came.
Because the only door that was ever locked
was the bathroom door — those two inside
in the steam of his bath, her hairspray’s mist,
because sometimes I knocked and was let in.
And my father lay in the tub, his whole dark body
under water, like some beautiful statue I’d seen.
And my mother stood at the mirror, fixing her hair,
or she’d put down the lid of the toilet
and perched there, talking to him.
Because maybe this was their refuge from us —
though they never tried to keep us away.
Because my mother told me once
that every time they came home from the hospital
with a brand new baby, they laughed
and fell in love all over again
and couldn’t wait to start making more.
Should this have confused me? It did not.
Because I saw how he kissed the back of her neck
and pulled her, giggling, into his lap;
how she tucked her chin and looked up at him
through her eyelashes, smiling, sly.
So I reasoned whatever sex they had, they had
in the bathroom — those steamy hours
when we heard them singing to one another
then whispering, and the door stayed locked.
Because I can still picture them, languid, there,
and beautiful and young — though I had no idea
how young they were — my mother
soaping my father’s back; her dark hair
slipping out of its pins.
Because what was sex, after that? I didn’t know
he would ever die, this god in a body, strong as god,
or that she would one day hang her head
over the bathroom sink to weep. I was a child,
only one of their children. Love was clean.
Babies came from singing. The devil was wood
and had no eyes.

— Cecilia Woloch

* * *

About Cecilia Woloch:

Ceclia was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and grew up there and in rural Kentucky, the second of seven children of a homemaker and an airplane mechanic. Her mother came from a large, close-knit Polish-American family, and her father's people -- always very secretive and mysterious -- came from a place she'd only ever heard identified as "the Carpathians." She attended Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, and earned degrees in English and Theater Arts before moving to Los Angeles in 1979. From 1986 until 2006, she supported herself as a free-lance teacher of poetry and creative writing, leading workshops for children and young people in public schools, as well as workshops for teachers, professional writers, participants in Elderhostel programs for senior citizens, inmates at a prison for the criminally insane, and residents of a shelter for homeless women. During that time, she also spent several months each year "on the road" in Europe, especially in Paris and in the area of the Carpathians where her paternal grandmother was born.

She has published three books of poems: Sacrifice (Cahuenga Press, 1997); Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem; (Cahuenga Press, 2002) and Late (BOA Editions, 2003). A chapbook, "Narcissus" will be published by Tupelo Press in 2007. She's currently a lecturer in the creative writing program at the University of Southern California as well as a member of the core faculty of the low-residency MFA Program in Professional Writing at Western Connecticut State University, and she is the founding director of Summer Poetry in Idyllwild and of The Paris Poetry Workshop. Though her "base" is in Los Angeles, she continues to travel as much as possible, and feels most at home in Paris and in the Carpathians.


Dustin Brookshire said...

I love Cecilia. She's a divine workshop instructor.

Julie R. Enszer said...

I really enjoyed Late. Thank you so much for posting the second poem - I hadn't read it and really enjoyed it.

sam of the ten thousand things said...

Amazing works by Woloch. Especially enjoyed Bareback Pantoum. Thanks for posting them, Kate.

Collin Kelley said...

Cecilia is a good friend and ongoing source of inspiration and ideas. This whole poetry thing would be no fun without her in my life. Great selection of poems, Kate, and another excellent Poetry Monday feature.

Anonymous said...

Bareback Pantoum is my favorite poem of Cecilia's!
Thanks for posting it. I love her collection Late!

Keith said...

Kate, thanks for the tip. I really enjoyed these poems. Keith