For the Unitarian Universalist Church here in Bowling Green, for Women’s History Month, I recorded this poetry reading (my own and others’). Although I don’t attend the church, I admire its principles and have friends who attend, so I was happy to work up a poetry reading–I knew I didn’t want to offer a lecture or discuss something of historical interest (leaving that to others more capable). Since my poetry is often about loss, I thought that would be a good topic, but not in a depressing or defeated way. I didn’t want this to be just about me, and it was fun finding poets who talk about things they love, but not in the usual sense. I was looking for poems that would enrich my theme, “things we love and lose and things we love and keep or struggle to keep.” The poems are about place and home, family and people we care about, and animals and our planet. It’s about 25 minutes. I hope you enjoy the poems (I include them so you can read along if you like). Here’s the link.
In the world of poetry, time trips along in a wholly whimsical way, rushing along then stopping to gaze around, at the stars, the changing leaves–who knows?–only that Time, my old friend and sometime antagonist, has tugged me on my shirt to say, “That poem you wrote, the one about nanoseconds and the cosmos, the one you haven’t thought about in weeks, well, someone’s been reading it.” What? And then I slow down and look around and think, thank you thank you (for the stars and leaves and for poetry and people who love it and even more the ones who like mine).
It’s been nominated for a Pushcart, that poem called “Hydrostatic Shock,” by my publisher, Fleur-de-lis Press and The Louisville Review. Isn’t that a nice present for a beautiful rainy November day?
So here it is, if you want to take a listen (ignore any background noise, as I’m in Wetherby Administration Bldg, waiting for a committee meeting, at which, I might add, there will be no poetry read).
And thank you so much, Ellyn Lichvar and the rest of the (clearly talented and awesomely perceptive) folks at Fleur-de-Lis and The Louisville Review.
Erin Keane has written a review of Seeking the Other Side, published in The Louisville Review, Vol. 77, pp. 168-170.
SEEKING THE OTHER SIDE
(Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015, 101 pp.)
by Jane Olmsted
In her introduction to Seeking the Other Side, scholar and Western Kentucky University professor Jane Olmsted writes that she put the writing of poems aside for many years to focus on other work, but returned in the wake of the tragedy—the murder of her twenty-year-old son Casey—that shapes her remarkable full-length debut collection. Exquisitely balanced between poems that rip out your heart with “a fist, gnarled with rage, hungry for love” and poems that guide the reader through the transformations sparked by grief and loss, Seeking the Other Side is at turns violent, surreal, elegiac and above all, staunchly alive.
Although the entire collection is an effort to come to terms with his death, the final third of the book—The Casey Poems reckons most directly with the poet’s son’s life and violent end. Th e poet weaves the facts of his death through tender elegies like “Blessed By the Dalai Lama,” which is anchored by the image of a consecrated “pretty silver T on a red string” that did not protect him from the fatal gunshot, and the imploring “Imperative,” in which “don’t forget about me,” spelled out in beads on a child’s church craft necklace, forms a haunting refrain that ricochets through the poem like a bullet off a rib. Olmsted mines startling beauty from the forensic details of the young man’s autopsy (“Th e Weight of a Human Heart”), the sonic pleasures of “where mucosa falls like drapery in longitudinal folds” almost shocking in such a clinical scene, and from the ballistics report (“Hydrostatic Shock”), in which the speaker learns that “A .40 caliber lopes along / and flattens a little, when meeting something hard, like bone.” Every death is, in its final moments, a mystery to those left alive, but these poems transform hard facts into higher truth: “how a nanosecond can hold a swirling cosmos of befores and durings / and afters; and how their ballistics got one thing right: there is a cavity / involved.”
At times, Olmsted’s poems move into liminal, dream-like spaces where waking life and its rules are suspended. In the darkly playful “Naming the Flowers,” the speaker slips naked into the night wearing only a crown she’s woven of “dorothies’ leaves and barbara’s breath / delicate as china,” escaping a home surrounded by baying dogs and “eyes cold as shaved glass / in a frozen cocktail.” In “Whisper,” she offers a more concrete vision: two of her sons fi ghting, until the dream abruptly
They disappear, the boys—
it’s the alone that tells you
no one is coming—
walls and ceiling receding fast.
That wistful moment of the dream blowing apart becomes a metaphorfor the confl icted state of the grief-stricken survivor, one foot in her lifeand the other in his death. The act of transformation—from dreaming to awake, from whole to fractured, from before to after—is reenacted throughout the book. In “Roadside Encounter,” nature and machine mangle the form of a
roadkill deer into a grotesque resting shape, cars and elements slowly destroying the carcass until “she’s fi nally gone, delivered into the dump truck.” In “Cicada,” a memory of her boys marveling at an insect emerging from its husk turns to the speaker imagining herself in metamorphosis, sprouting wings and shedding her former self, “so I can leap into that
startling void.” Olmsted contemplates again the moment of giving in to death in “Camping on Greys River, Bridger Tetons,” when the sound of a bear outside her tent leaves the speaker almost welcoming the moment to “expose my belly // surrender, my self / to the other self.” This moment of dark anticipation echoes in “Imperative,” as the speaker, anguished,
imagines the young man approaching his fate:
What were you thinking, the night you died,
driving to a place so clearly marked
by fear and degradation and rushing
toward the lowest circles of hell?
The power of Seeking the Other Side will compel readers to mourn a young man they likely never met, and yet these poems also transcend one mother’s grief. “Blessed, it is said, are those who mourn,” opens “Requiem of the Bristlecone Pine at Lake Haiyaha,” the book’s final elegy, which later offers, “Blessed, it is said, are the dead.” The sentiments of these prayers are as old as humanity, and as enduring—grief and loss will transform us all at some point, until we ourselves are lost, and our own deaths transform those left behind. In the meantime, Olmsted suggests, we fumble toward making peace with this certainty and with our limited lives, reaching always “for the root of things / and for the merest hint of light.”
The talented Aaron Mudd has posted an article about Seeking the Other Side. I so enjoyed talking with him and appreciate his nuanced story about my poems.
Here’s the link, and pasted story…..
Professor’s poetry collection based on experiences
By AARON MUDD firstname.lastname@example.org
For most people, loss is something to move past. But for Jane Olmsted, a Western Kentucky University professor, loss has been a wellspring of creativity.
Olmsted has recently released her first collection of poetry, based in part on the loss of her 20-year-old son Casey.
Casey, who was also a young father of a daughter, was shot to death in 2009. The third and final section of Olmsted’s “Seeking the Other Side” is titled the “The Casey Poems.”
“My attempt there is to … go into those places that are hard and hurt and are very sad,” she said. “But I hope that it’s in the end not a depressing thing even it’s tearful to read it, whether (for) me or someone else. I see it about healing. We’ve got to move out of whatever pain we’re in toward some kind of sense of joy.”
Connecting with the other side of things is the theme Olmsted takes for her book of poetry which spans two other sections: “Ways of Touching” and “Tree Forms.” The first section explores how sensory experience can lead to truth, and the second was inspired by trees she saw in the Rocky Mountains, which motivated her to either take on a tree’s persona in her poetry or use it as inspiration.
Mary Ellen Miller, a WKU professor in the Department of English, described Olmsted’s attention to nature as “poetically scientific” in a review of the book for the Daily News.
Miller further explained in an interview that Olmsted’s meticulous attention to natural details give her poetry “a kind of scientific cast” and described the approach as “penetrating” and “fresh.” Within Olmsted’s work, she said, there’s also an “affirmation of the indomitable in all of us.”
“She’s a poet for people who know poetry, but a lot of it would be accessible to anybody,” Miller said.
The other side, Olmsted said in a press release, “may refer to the line between life and death, between individuals, between parts of the self, like the lonely and social selves, or between the self before and after some cataclysm.”
Throughout much the collection Olmsted attempts to cross over into other perspectives. In a poem titled “The Shape and Size of Things,” Olmsted takes the perspective of a fist that wants to trade places with the heart, which are said to be comparable in size.
“A fist gnarled with rage, hungry for love, might think that a ball of flesh and bone could take up residence in this home, without causing a stir,” one stanza reads.
A painting by WKU Department of Art professor Yvonne Petkus, titled “Braced,” is used for the cover of the book. The painting conveys a person sitting against a rock facing the current of a rushing river.
Petkus said she was motivated to contribute to the book because the connection Olmsted drew between their work.
“I feel honored and moved that Jane thought of my work for this collection in particular,” she said in an email. “With such loss at the heart of much of the work, Jane doesn’t shy away from the powerful and, at times, raw feelings that have accompanied the loss of her son.”
Petkus described herself as a “process-driven artist” adding and subtracting from works until the result is both open and leading. She sees common ground between her work and Olmsted’s.
“We both use a kind of processing to sieve reality,” she said. “We both investigate loss and states of being and use nature and the body to speak of larger content.”
“Seeking the Other Side” is available on Amazon for $16.
— Follow Daily News WKU, county schools and general assignment reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter at twitter.com/aaron_mudd bgdn or visit bgdailynews.com.
First, a photo of me with Yvonne Petkus, the great WKU painter who let me use one of her paintings for my cover, and Sena Naslund, the great Kentucky novelist and my dear friend for 35 years.
Here are some pictures and a podcast of the September 17 reading as part of the Kentucky Live series hosted by the WKU Libraries. The photos (Haiwang Yung) actually show people laughing (well smiling), so it wasn’t all tears! Also, if you want to hear it, you can listen to the reading.
This was a busy two days. For my Thursday night reading, I was asked to read for 45 minutes! That about did me in–so tired of hearing my own voice and I was sure I was losing people right and left. Several assured me I hadn’t, which I really appreciated! Then on Friday, I read along with about 6 other writers at the Spalding at the Speed, in Louisville. For this, I was to read for 7 minutes. A breeze!
Thanks to those who attended and others for your ongoing kindnesses around this collection of poems. Thanks to Brian Coutts for hosting.
Lena Ziegler is a graduate student in WKU’s new MFA program in creative writing.
Q: As the Department Head of Diversity and Community Studies, coordinator of the M.A. in Social Responsibility & Sustainable Communities, as well as your heavy-handed role in the Gender and Women’s studies program, your work at WKU really focuses on wide-reaching cultural issues. Does your poetry reflect those passions? Can you maybe share some of the themes your poetry touches upon?
A: This is a great question. I am not sure how to say this without categorizing myself in ways that don’t quite fit, but I’ll try. Many of my poems draw on imagery from the plant and animal worlds. The middle section of Seeking the Other Side, for instance, is called “tree forms,” and represents an extended experiment to listen to what amazing trees I have encountered have to say. Since I can’t literally speak for them, I try to use empathy to speak from the persona of a tree, or I let the trees serve as metaphors for things that matter to me—human relations, love, compassion. Trees have a lot to offer us, if we take the time to hear them.
And this is another theme, attending to the minute, the overlooked, that which is assumed to be unworthy, how we are ravaged by obsessions and diversions even while we desperately need balance, beauty, compassion. One poem is about a deer carcass at the side of the road. Divided into 7 parts, I imagine myself watching the decay as I fly by in my car, and why that would matter—to care about what happens to a deer when it’s no longer photogenic. In that poem the skeleton morphs into a sacred space, even while being tunneled by maggots and picked at by buzzards.
Grief is probably the largest single theme. Since many of the poems deal with the loss of our youngest son, who was shot and killed in 2009, the poems talk of loneliness, sadness, mystery, confusion, the meaning of life, violence, the spirit world.
Q: Has poetry been a lifelong interest? How did you get started writing poetry?
A: From a young age I loved to write. My poetry for a long time was trite, formulaic, sentimental, and boring. I remember after my rather bumpy search for the right major and settling on creative writing, sitting with the head of the program as he looked over the final poems for the semester. He nodded, he got a little excited, he said, “you finally found my voice.”
That phrase gets used a lot, as if all you have to do is poke around for awhile and there it will be, tucked in some corner of the body, peeking out every once in awhile to get our attention but inaccessible and unobliging until that moment when we reach in and take “it.”
Since then I’ve gone in and out of writing periods, surrendering for long periods to work or family obligations, personal digressions, and so on. But even during those fallow times when no poem gets written, I’m writing something, or mulling something over that needs only the right time, or right image, or right phrase, to push me to pick up my pen.
Q: Do you write in any other creative genre? Fiction, non-fiction, scriptwriting, etc? If not, have you ever attempted?
A: I write short stories and have had most of them published, but my collection of interrelated stories is without a book home. I may yet get that accomplished. I am currently working on a memoir.
Q: Who are your favorite writers and why?
A: Most of my favorite authors are novelists—I love Barbara Kingsolver for her brilliance in delving into the lives of her characters and addressing our most serious social issues of the day with sensitivity and profound love for the characters grappling with empire, environmental destruction, abuse, cultural appropriation, censorship. So good. Toni Morrison’s Beloved is the best novel of the 20th century, and the best novella is Tillie Olson’s Tell Me a Riddle. All of these grapple with social problems in ways that transform the reader—reach in and grab our hearts—for love of the characters and their mighty struggles. In terms of poetry, I’m a big fan of our local writers, Mary Ellen Miller, Tom Hunley, Libby Oakes—they’ve all given me a lot. Sharon Olds is great, I guess because I like the way she examines the depths of the personal, not incidental or indulgent, but far-reaching and keen and unflinching. T.S. Eliot moved me when I was younger, Langston Hughes as well, Emily Dickinson—she for the way an image might be juxtaposed and open a world of meaning, for her depth of perception and analysis. There are so many poets, and I haven’t kept up with the many fine ones who have emerged in recent years.
Q: For a creative writer of any genre, it can be scary to stand up in front of an audience and share work. What advice might you give to a writer who might be a little more hesitant to participate in a reading?
A: It helps to read out loud what you’re going to share. Get used to the sound of your own voice speaking the words. Make sure that you can pronounce all the words and that any complex structures flow. My voice still gets shaky sometimes, especially when the emotional content is strong. Some of us make the mistake of shallow breathing—I know I’ve done this at times when my voice got shakier and shakier. That’s why reading out loud in private can help. Stand up, get used to breathing deeper down.
On another level, presumably you wrote something because you want to share. Writers love to see their work read, to know that someone is listening, so give it up. Tell the ego to go away and mind its own business. Read your own work as you listen to others: to learn, to enjoy the beauty of language, to say what’s pressing on your mind and heart.
And perhaps there’s a little of “pretend” you’re not breaking out in hives. I think of what Maya Angelou said about walking to school in front of white people who exuded hatred and ill-will. She would throw her head back, stick up her nose, and pretend that a single breath from any one of those hard-hearted adults would not crumple her. The strain that being in front of any audience exacts demands a bit of play-acting. Eventually you overcome the dread of judgment, real or imagined. And some people face that burden every time they open their doors.
Q: The world can be both a wonderful and terrifying place. What do you consider the greatest challenges facing coming generations? On the other hand, what gives you hope about the future?
A: The biggest challenge is how not to destroy the planet, ourselves, and each other. We are an ingenious species, but we are lazy, greedy, and stupid. We think short-term solutions will lead to long-term happiness.
That’s delusional. We are killing each other—racism, gun violence, sexual violence, the atrocious assault on immigrant lives—and we are trashing the planet. The magnitude of loss we are going to see (and already see) in coming years is mind-boggling.
We are in desperate straights. What gives me hope? We have amazing capacity to think creatively and solve seemingly insurmountable problems. The dire circumstances of our planet and our social relations should lead us to solutions that don’t further divide. Young people are always part of the solution for what their parents and grandparents have done, but we need all people to change—farmers, artists, teachers, parents, leaders.
Whether it’s big action or small, persistent personal action, what gives me hope is people who resist the negative forces of the status quo with powerful acts of affirmation, connection, love, and healing, people who refuse to “go along” because it’s easier or safer. There is nothing to lose, so people who stick out their necks—they give me hope
Mary Ellen Miller’s review of Seeking the Other Side shows up in today’s Daily News. I am so grateful to her for the thorough and beautiful review and thank her especially for closing with her own memory of our son, Casey. Thank you, Mary Ellen!
Poet Olmsted is a genius
“seeking the other side,” by Jane Olmsted. Louisville: Fleur-de-Lis Press, 2015. 101 pages, $16.
Well, here is “God’s plenty” (as John Dryden supposedly said of Chaucer) indeed. How well this assessment applies to Jane Olmsted’s “seeking the other side.”
The riveting cover design comes from Yvonne Petkus’ “Braced” and partially echoes the book’s motifs.
There is so much here. An introduction by poet and Western Kentucky University graduate Maureen Morehead is sensitive, thought-provoking and thought-assuaging. She writes (for one tiny taste of this elegant essay): “And it becomes a language that Jane Olmsted assumes for her private journey toward light, as these are ultimately sacred poems and those of us who enter them walk with the poet on sacred ground.”
And then there is Olmsted’s own prologue, as arresting as a poem. “I think of the ‘other side’ not just as what’s across the line between life and death, between myself and my son (the murder of Olmsted’s son is the crucial catalyst behind this book) but as what’s across any other real or illusory line that stifles access to the fullness of life.”
The son these lines refer to is Olmsted’s third son, who was shot to death when he was 20 years old.
In this prologue, Olmsted explains the structure of the book. Part I (“Ways of Touching”) has poems that are not specifically about Casey, Jane and Ken Casey’s son, but “touch may be physical, of the hand or eye or ear – any of the senses – but it can also express a spiritual longing, loneliness as well as joy and humor.”
The first poem in this section, “A Body of Poetry,” ends with:
Beneath the aching rib a shadow beckons.
“Aching rib” is so rich in denotation and connotation that it does not need any explication from me.
“Naming the Flowers” is almost unearthly in its beauty – a kind of brilliant but frightening nightmare, more like a vision. Read it very slowly. Actually, all the poems should be read very slowly. Finally, they go down smoothly, but they may require some serious reflection for full understanding.
“Artist at Five” is about Casey as a child. Other poems touch on subjects from his short life. There is yearning. There is longing. Olmsted has an almost uncanny ear for rich and unusual metaphor. Here is “Whisper,” the last poem in this section:
————-, I am in no hurry
And am learning to listen underneath
When someone says
it doesn’t matter and all is well.
“Listen underneath”? I think it is part of this poet’s unique gift to express the metaphysical in physical terms.
Now, we come to Part II (“tree forms”) and poems that come from the author’s 2011 chapbook. There are 16 of them. Some were begun before Casey’s death when the author camped in the Rockies, seeking even then a closer connection to the natural, especially trees. All of the poems can be read without knowledge of Casey’s death or any other specific loss. The poems seek meaning. “Aspen Hieroglyph” strikes me as especially beautiful. Quoting, even a whole stanza, will fracture its meaning. Read it slowly, savor its meaning and you will see what I am talking about. Olmsted’s attention to nature is poetically scientific. This poet is a genius.
The final section (“the casey poems”) includes 15 masterful poems, all shaven and shorn of the slightest hint of self-pity or sentimentality. My hope is that Olmsted will eventually have these printed separately with her introduction. There is no way I can do justice to poems like “Memento Mori,” “The Weight of a Human Heart” – this poem began its life as an essay – and the closing poem, “Requiem of the Bristlecone: Pine at Lake Haiyaha.” This last poem closes:
We gave and took, you and I, and evermore.
I fill my hands and lift them to you.
Drink. Then let us go.
Olmsted treads lightly nowhere. There is no corner of grief too dark for her to enter. Her courage reminds me of a line from Robert Frost’s “Mowing:” “Anything but the truth would have seemed too weak.” I am made happier and enriched and consoled by her honesty and by the brilliance of her talent.
Please forgive a personal note: I knew Casey. I loved Casey. How vividly I remember him bringing his new baby girl down to the Women’s Study House to present her to Trish Jaggers and me. I always kidded Casey about looking like a Greek god, told him he should become a model. Now he tenderly lifted his baby from her pretty, little pinkified nest and moved toward the window for better light. How lovely she was! And Casey was even more handsome, as if his face was lit from within by his love and pride. Ah, god. Jesus and Buddha. Casey honored them both.
Great show on the poems, Jane. Great show on your son, Ken and Jane.
Shine on, Casey.
— Reviewed by Mary Ellen Miller, Western Kentucky University English department.
Editor’s note: The author will speak in WKU Libraries’ Kentucky Live Series at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Western Room of the Kentucky Building. A book signing will follow.
My first reading from Seeking was part of the Spalding MFA’s Festival of Writers. I read with two other poets and a pair of composers who have a new musical out. May I just say that it was fantastic!? What a great audience. And reading at the beautiful Brown Hotel overlooking the cityscape of Louisville, my old hometown, made it seem as if we were at the top of the world. in fact, I might have been walking on air afterwards.
My next reading, if anyone in BG wants to join me and Tom Hunley, is Tuesday, June 2, 8pm, at at Cloud 9 Hookah on Broadway in Bowling Green. From elegant to funky, from figurative cloud 9 to one where I imagine smoke swirling to the ceiling.
I am very grateful to Sena Naslund, who is the editor of Fleur-de-lis Press, Ellyn Lichvar, the assistant managing editor, who took such meticulous care of the poems, Jonathan who designed the cover, Maureen Morehead who wrote the introduction, Yvonne Petkus, whose painting “Braced” is now the cover of Seeking. My blurbers, Frank Steele, George Ella Lyon, Tom Hunley, Lisa Williams, and Sena Naslund, make the work sound so enticing.
Such a brilliant collective effort. Thank you!
And, I just found out that Barnes & Noble has Seeking available online, so Amazon is not the only carrier. Now I need to pull in any favors I might have lingering out there and get my kindhearted friends to write me some reviews for people who stumble onto it!
Although two mothers appear in this poem, it is not a mother’s day poem. And though a son is featured, it is not a poem about sons, per se. It is more of a poem about exuberance–that unbridled, lusty energy that characterizes a child, around age 5. I wrote it a long time ago about my son’s habit of leaping into my lap, all knees and elbows and pressing his face to mine, even while I (still remember) am peering around his shoulder at something else going on. He liked to make me laugh, and remaining aloof or sad or hurt or bored never got him the satisfaction that eliminating the distance between us would bring.
So on this day after Mother’s Day, I wanted to remember that capacity for joy that our children bring to us. Too often we get busy or are so tired that we can’t appreciate them. And then, who among us, hasn’t been so beaten down by work or relations that we snap or lash out at the one more thing invading our space?
Mother’s Day is full of notes of appreciation, on Facebook (these I like) and broadcast across the aisles at Kroger’s–these I can’t stand. Some male or female voice asserting, “I wouldn’t be where I am without her,” anonymous, easily said, with no ownership of what they did while she was busy making them into someone.
I’d rather see us live the appreciation on a daily basis. I’d rather see our society spend less on cards and flowers that were imported on the backs of poor mothers in Columbia, where the flower industry certainly doesn’t give a damn. I’d rather see us get reduce the soft focus, increase the numbers of brown babies in brown mothers’ arms we see on the walls in doctors’ offices (and give them some soft focus). I’d rather see my society truly understand how difficult it is to be poor or abused or ignorant and a mother. Free contraception! Free childcare! Save the easy judgment for a less-easy target.
But, as I said, this is not a poem about motherhood. It is about exuberance, don’t you think? How we need to make room for it, even when we’re tired?
The first shipment is in. Even though I can’t touch them and can only see them in this photograph, I know they’re real. I will hold one someday . . . soon (if not soon enough). Oh would that the USPS had drones up and flying!
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
. . .
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
. . .
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.
How bold to quote Anne Bradstreet’s “The Author to Her Book”!
And yet, so many of these poems come from me a mother. I care about them, the what and who they tell of, the who and what they have become.
Like my living, breathing children, I hold them up—have to restrain myself from talking-reading them till people roll their eyes—secretly, I want to brag on their successes, shift the focus from others’ poem-children to my own.
Like my living, breathing children, they wear me out, even as I scold them and tell them No, that’s not the way we do things.
They are packaged now, so beautiful, like my living, breathing children who show up on graduation day, their tassels flying, their smiles broad, their backs straight and arms open wide, ready for the life before them