Monday, April 18, 2011

Celebrating National Poetry Month at Harborview

"Harborview Medical Center channels pain into poetry."

Next week, the Harborview Art Program will deliver a Haiku and an American Sentence to every patient in the county hospital, and invite them to write their own poems. Peggy Weiss and I planned this project during my residency last summer, and it's coming to fruition during National Poetry Month. This morning, journalist Brandi Kruse at Seattle's KIRO radio ran a story about my work at the county hospital: "Harborview Medical Center Channels Pain into Poetry." I am looking forward to reading -- and sharing with you -- a collective poetic portrait of life at Harborview.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Talking about Death at Harborview Medical Center

With Michelle at Harborview, June 2010 
photo by Clare McLean, University of Washington

"I gotta get outta here. 
Though I could be walking into a hell."

Last summer,  I spent six weeks as Writer in Residence at Harborview Medical Center, Seattle’s county hospital. (Next week, I'll be returning to Harborview for the last -- for now -- phase of my residency, but more about that later....) For dozens of hours during those six summer weeks, I sat in the hospital room of Michelle Angeline Maria Alfonso-Buske, who was admitted to Harborview on June 9, 2010, when she woke up and could neither feel, nor move, her legs. I came to know both Michelle and her husband Bob; they both became heroes of mine.

Michelle and I chatted for dozens upon dozens of hours together. By "chat," I mean: I sat and took notes while Michelle talked. And talked. Thirty-eight-thousand words’ worth. The work of spinning those words into essays has just begun. In the meantime, here are just 250 of her words:

Michelle Talks About Facing Death: A Collage

With Michelle and Bob Buske,
on the first day Michelle is able to leave the wing of her hospital room.
photo by Peggy Weiss

I gotta get outta here. Though I could be walking into a hell. Being dependent on other people is not--in fact, I just got a cold chill thinking about it. I really haven’t cried yet. Hey, if I’m going to palliative care, what I need is to make a will. We’re worried about them taking the house. Oh, god yes. Bob took care of his parents for two years. Then they took the house and he ended up living in his car! I am so beside myself. Bob is stressed to the max. I just told that doc from palliative care, I said I want to tighten my will up. Now. It’s for the people who take care of me when I go home; they have to have that “do not resuscitate.” Oh, man. This fucking paralyzed bullshit. I can’t even get to the bank. And my cell phone is broken. Bob has been coming every day everydayeverydayeveryday. He is the dearest man. Don’t you think? You know, I would get up at 4:30 in the morning to try and make him some coffee. He would never let me make him lunch. That was always the agreement we had. He did all the shopping and cooking and I would clean up. His blood pressure is sky high. He’s gonna have a heart attack. And if that happens, I’m going to the nursing home. … You know, I woke up and I thought this had all been a bad dream.

P.S. My time with Michelle inspired to me to look up this information on living wills and advance medical directives.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Art of Losing

"The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster."

This is not my favorite Elizabeth Bishop poem, though I know that many of my poet-friends worship "One Art." To be fair, "Wendy's Favorite Elizabeth Bishop Poem" would be a hard-won title, indeed.

In the first (and, it must be said, only) poetry workshop I ever took, more than a decade ago, the brilliant and generous Mark Doty looked at my terrible poems and said, "Study Elizabeth Bishop."

In the first writing class I ever taught, in the fall of 2006, we read and savored "The Fish" -- sans the final three lines. I asked my students to come up with their own final three lines, before we looked at the trio that Bishop had created. I was struck by how close my students' endings were to Bishop's. Half of them had Bishop tossing the fish back, as she actually did in the poem. The sign of perfect craftswomanship, I think.

"Telling True Stories" workshop at TSKW.
For the last two weeks, I've been Writer in Residence at The Studios of Key West (TSKW). Last week, I taught a two-day workshop to a half-dozen Key West writers. This week, I was just settling into a new essay, when I was foolish enough to leave the door to the lovely Mango Tree House open while I was upstairs. I returned to my writing desk to find my phone and wallet had disappeared.

Yes, the art of losing is quite easily mastered.

I was impressed that someone had managed to come inside without making any noise, and even more impressed that the person chose to leave behind my laptop. (Perhaps it was the fact that it's so old and worn that the E, R, S, F, V, and N keys are blank and the Caps Lock and Page Up keys are missing altogether? Or perhaps s/he didn't want anything that couldn't be pocketed.)

624 White Street in Key West, where Elizabeth Bishop
lived in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Hoping the person might have only really wanted the cash, I walked the neighborhood, peeking into bougainvillea and lifting garbage can lids. I did not find my phone or credit cards, but I found something more important. I realized I've been staying just three houses away from the one where Elizabeth Bishop lived during her most of her years in Key West. A front-gate plaque from the Friends of the Key West Library informed me of this fact. Bishop's former home is a classic mid-nineteenth-century Key West home, a style called an "eyebrow house," because of the way the roof overhangs the second-story windows to create shade.

Key West's Old Armory.
She bought her White Street house in 1938 and lived there with her lover for several years. Read more about Bishop's time in Key West at The Queerest Places blog and The Academy of American Poets. She did not not just live and write on this block of White Street, she observed it deeply. She painted the Old Armory that now houses TSKW. Bishop left the island in 1944 and headed south to Brazil.

I will leave these inspiring studios and this magic island tomorrow, and in a couple weeks, I, too, head to South America. (I'm going to Venezuela for a two-week visit.)

Something lost, something gained.