Tuesday, October 8, 2019

#129 Backstory of the Poem "The Art of Meditation in Tennessee" by Linda Parsons

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***This is #129 in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem.  All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece. 

#129 Backstory of the Poem
“The Art of Meditation in Tennessee”
by Linda Parsons

Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? 

I began to practice Buddhist meditation and mindfulness as a conscious path to healing in early 2016. I’d thought about trying meditation for years, then got serious after experiencing several losses—a divorce, my father’s steep decline from dementia and ultimate death, the passing of my dog. It was the right time to try and find that stillpoint between thought and action, a place in my mind and heart where I could begin to find peace beyond suffering. In short, I came to meditation out of desperation, not as any sort of religion, which it isn’t, but as a mindful practice that spills over into my daily life as compassion, openness, connection, release.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? “The Art of Meditation in Tennessee” starts as if sitting in meditation, the speaker on her cushion, although in the beginning I sat in a chair, which is also acceptable. In my early days of learning to meditate (though Buddhists say we all have “beginner’s mind”), one of my relaxation images was to envision a rowboat on a lake, swaying slightly, the sun spangled on the water. 

     I’d seen in my reading that Ah and Om can be used as mantras, Ah inviting the Divine, Om giving thanks to the Divine, which I associate in the poem as peace and joy. I used both the rowboat image and the mantras in the poem to invite the reader into the experience of meditation. After that, it becomes almost a how-to poem, instructions on how to meditate, how to let go of the tension in your body and mind—and be still and quiet, which over time changes the neural pathways in the brain toward a more calm and peaceful existence.

What month and year did you start writing this poem? My bungalow in Knoxville is smallish, with my gardens all around, so I feel close to the natural world even when I’m inside. I normally write at my computer at home, taking notes when I’m away from home to develop later. I was in my home office when I wrote the poem in 2016, with it being published in Louisiana Literature in 2017. I remember that the editorial assistant to the editor (Jack Bedell, recent poet laureate of Louisiana) wrote saying how deeply the poem spoke to her. 

How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? The poem was born quickly, without too many drafts.

Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version?  I did rework the line breaks several times and played with stanzas and couplets. Ultimately, I decided the poem should be unbroken to denote breathing, as I write: “breathe in peace, breathe out joy.” The unbroken poem also contains more energy and momentum as it moves to the end, that final exhalation of acceptance. 

I think the title, set in Tennessee, opened me to the images of my childhood, also in Tennessee: heat bugs, honeysuckle, crawdad gripping till it thunders, leeches in the creek—sticky and frightening images. It’s definitely a summery poem, taking the reader back to a southern childhood away from parental restrictions, out to the creek and the woods that hold both intriguing and frightful possibilities—but also release, freedom. So, a counterbalance of peace and fear in the first half of the poem. Sitting as if in a pool of our fears, uncertainty, grief, and discomfort in meditation is one way to face and move through them, to “make friends with them,” as it’s said. Emotions are also watery, so the lake and creek connect in that way, as in rowing or wading slowly through grief and loss.

          Midway in the poem, the voice of instruction returns, pulling the reader back from the dreamy layering of images: “Return to the rowboat, / the change it portends…” Here the mood shifts, and we come to details of the loss occurring in the speaker’s life. The household has broken apart: the dropleaf table and cherry secretary eddy down the currents of change. The realization that hits the speaker, that hit me in writing, and I hope hits the reader, is “it was never mine to keep.”

          Impermanence is a tenet of Buddhism and one of the greatest lessons of our existence—all that we love will pass, will die, will change, even ourselves. We believe and cling to the idea that everything will stay the same, or at least we’ll clasp relationships and beliefs for dear life, no matter what. Then the Universe steps in, as it always does. But this realization of impermanence, of realizing things and people aren’t ours to keep, is actually freedom from suffering, an untethering, a release into peace and acceptance of the way things really are, not how we might want them to be.

Which part of the poem was the most emotional of you to write and why? This one line is the turn of the poem, in fact, the turn of my life, and my most emotional realization in writing the poem. The line, with its realization, allows healing, allows emergence to exist within exit—what the poem is coming to. “In the end, all is left, all Divine” allows both speaker and reader to reach the shore of new thinking and being, to climb onto the ever-changing bank and move toward the light. The phrase “all is left” is meant to be ambiguous: either all that’s precious is taken from us, or we leave behind what no longer serves us. We choose how to frame it, whether to continue suffering or evolve to a higher plane. Will we “bless the threshold with burning sage” in cleansing newness or stand forever on that threshold, unable to accept inevitable change, unable to grow?

      My healing process has taken over five years, but these have been years of awakening and evolution. Another Buddhist tenet is to be grateful for everything, even for those who hurt you, just as we must learn to live in ambiguity. The phrase “the lucky dark” means that, without the dark night of the soul, growth doesn’t happen. I must practice gratitude while living in the ambiguity of grief and loss, as in “one life astern, / one rides the bow, neither here nor there.” This poem is full of gratitude, hard fought and hard won, moving forward inch by inch. Writing it didn’t magically get me past the finish line into enlightenment. But it was a necessary steppingstone along the way, as all my poems are, leading me ever to the breath, that stillpoint where I gather myself and my flaws on the cushion, where each day, each present moment, I can begin again. I can remind myself to “breathe in peace, breathe out joy.”  

Has this poem been published before?  And if so where? The Art of Meditation in Tennessee" from my new collection, Candescent (Iris Press, 2019).


Ah invites the Divine, om gives thanks
to the Divine. The breath wheels me
to summer, creek back of the field, icy
at my ankles. Ah and om, relax the fist
of my heart, loss pushed from my belly,
a rowboat from shore. Rest in its rocking
to and fro, breathe in peace, breathe out joy.
Heat bugs deafen the understory, blacksnake
twines in honeysuckle, crawdad pinches
till it thunders, leeches suckle shin, river
mourns and bleeds. Return to the rowboat,
the change it portends, one life astern,
one rides the bow, neither here nor there.
My household eddies down—dropleaf table,
cherry secretary—it was never mine to keep.
Bless this new threshold with burning sage,
invite the Divine, om and ah. Rooms
breathe in peace, breathe out joy. Give thanks
for his ringing footsteps, spit shine his shoes,
buff and polish charcoal and ecru, reflect
emergence in his exit. The breath, when nothing
else remains, how it rinses clean the wild
freshets. In the end, all is left, all Divine.
Breathe in peace, breathe out joy.

          Linda Parsons coordinates WordStream, WDVX-FM’s weekly reading series, with Stellasue Lee and is the reviews editor at Pine Mountain Sand & Gravel. She has contributed to The Georgia Review, Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner, Southern Poetry Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Baltimore Review, Shenandoah, and Ted Kooser’s syndicated column, American Life in Poetry, among many other journals and anthologies. Parsons is the copy editor for Chapter 16, the literary website of Tennessee Humanities, and playwright-in-residence for The Hammer Ensemble, the social justice wing of Flying Anvil Theatre in Knoxville, Tennessee. Candescent is her fifth poetry collection (Iris Press, 2019).  
Linda’s Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/Candescent-Linda-Parsons/dp/1604542578


001  December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”

002  January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”

003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”

004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”

005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”

006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”

007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”

008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”

009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”

010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”

011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”

012  March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”

013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”

014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”

015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”

016  April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”

017  May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”

018  May 25, 2018

019  June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”

020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”

021  July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”

022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”

023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”

024  July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”

025  August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”

026  August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”

027  August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”

028  August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”

029  August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”

030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”

031  September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”

032  October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”

033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”

034  October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”

035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”

036  October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”

037  November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”

038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”

039  November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”

040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”

041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”

042 November 22, 2018
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043  November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”

044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”

045  December 03, 2018
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046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”

047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”

048  December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”

049  December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”

O50  December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”

051 December 23, 2018
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052  December 27, 2018
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053  December 28, 2018
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054  December 29, 2018
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055 January 2, 2019
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056  January 7, 2019
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057  January 10, 2019
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058  January 11, 2019
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059  January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave

060 January 14, 2019
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061 January 19, 2019
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062  January 22, 2019
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063  January 25, 2019
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064  January 30, 2019
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065 February 02, 2019
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066 February 05, 2019
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067  February 06, 2019
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068 February 11, 2019
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069 February 12, 2019
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070 February 14, 2019
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071 February 18, 2019
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072 February 20, 2019
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073 February 23, 2019
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074 February 26, 2019
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075 March 4, 2019
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076 March 5, 2019
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077 March 7, 2019
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078 March 9, 2019
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079 March 10, 2019
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080 March 12, 2019
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081   082   083    March 14, 2019
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084 March 15, 2019
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085 March 19, 2019
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086 March 20, 2019
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087 March 21, 2019
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088 March 26, 2019
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089 March 27, 2019
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#095 April 12, 2019
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#098 April 19, 2019
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#099 April 20, 2019
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#100 April 21, 2019
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#101 April 23, 2019
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#103 May 01, 2019
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#104 May 09, 2019
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#105 May 17, 2019
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#106 June 01, 2019
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#107 June 02, 2019
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#108 June 05, 2019
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#109 June 6, 2019
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#110 June 10, 2019
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#129 Backstory of the Poem
“The Art of Meditation In Tennessee”
by Linda Parsons

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