Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Poet Michele Seminara on late blooming, ordinariness and Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet were, and still are, a tremendous gift – an outpouring of wisdom and affection towards aspiring poet Franz Kappus as he struggled to reconcile his desire for a creative life with the necessities of making a living; and a gift, over a century later, to this not-so-young aspiring poet, as I too struggled to reconcile my need for creativity with my duties to the world. In Letters, Rilke speaks passionately about creativity, spirituality, love, solitude, and of that which is deepest in us, that which is ‘inexpressible, and takes place in a sphere that no word has ever entered.’

As would-be poets go, Herr Kappus and I were, in many ways, standing at opposite ends of the same journey. On writing to Rilke for advice, the 19-year-old cadet was deciding between the life of an artist and that of an officer; on first reading Letters, I had already thrown myself into the life of wife and mother, and was now looking to rediscover the writer I always felt I was.

Poetry came to me late and unexpectedly. I had always written, but now with three young children to care for, my hands were, quite literally, too full to pick up a pen – and so I hatched a plan. I would compose verse in my head (my memory was too poor to compose anything longer!) rolling it around in my mind as I hung out the washing or stirred the soup, gestating words until the moment came – late at night–  to give birth to a poem.

Yet what began as a pragmatic choice soon flared into a passion. Unlike prose, with poetry, I felt no need to labour over plot, character or word-count; it was a form of expression that seemed to speak directly to, and from, the soul. And while I had always been a voracious reader, with new-found desire I now devoured poetry, and in doing so came upon Rilke’s words:

  The whole thing is to carry the (poem) full time and then give birth; to let every     impression and every germ of a feeling consummate itself entirely within itself, in that which is dark, inexpressible, unconscious and unattainable by your own intelligence,     and to await the hour of the delivery of a new clearness of vision. That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating.

Good heavens, I thought, Rilke was talking about – and to – me! Here was a poet who did not distinguish between the ordinariness of everyday life and art: ‘No need to separate art from life, as Art, too, is only a form of life and by living in no matter what way one can be unconsciously preparing oneself for it’. Instead, Rilke trusted in the directness and simplicity of nature and human relationships to feed his creative flame. He exhorted his protégé not to ‘be led astray by the surface of things’ but to ‘only be attentive to that which rises up within you, and place it above everything that you see around you’. Well, this I could do, and without leaving home. Liberation!

Furthermore (and quite incredibly for a man of his era) Rilke felt that women were better placed than men to plumb these creative depths, believing they ‘must at bottom have become richer beings, more ideally human beings than fundamentally easy-going man, who is not drawn down beneath the surface of life by the difficulty of bearing bodily fruit’.

Of course this sounds rather old-fashioned (it was written, after all, in 1904) but it didn’t to me at the time, since I was indeed engaged in the earthy business of ‘bearing bodily fruit’ and could attest to its power to ‘draw me down beneath the surface’ into closer connection with ‘nature… the simple and small in her’ and away from the distracting ‘claims of the many things which talk and chatter’. Which is not to say that men and women cannot equally access these depths, but only to say that, as an isolated mother of three young children scribbling away in the suburbs, these words held great power for me and lent me confidence to trust my own instincts and abilities.

In Letters, Rilke took great pains to impress upon the lonely Herr Kappus the importance of solitude (I had little chance of that!) and suffering (never in short supply), believing them to be art’s – and life’s – greatest teachers. He urged Franz to bear his ‘griefs’ gladly, for these ‘are the moments when something new, something unknown enters into us.’ As a Buddhist practitioner and as a human being I knew this to be true; now, as a poet, I was discovering it anew. The poems which invariably moved me as a reader seemed to shoot straight from a deep, wordless space of suffering and growth inside the poet; and my own poems, when I found time to dash them off, were springing from the same space. A complex emotional nexus of suffering, creativity and transformation was occurring for me exactly as Rilke described it. At such moments, he explained:

    Our feelings are dumb with embarrassed shyness and everything in us retreats into the background. A stillness grows up, and the new thing, that nobody knows, stands in the middle of it and is silent. I believe that nearly all our griefs are moments of suspense,     which we experience as paralysis, because we can no longer hear our estranged feelings living. Because we are alone with that foreign thing, which has entered into us…we are in the midst of a state of transition, in which we cannot remain…The new thing in us, that which has been added to us, has entered into our heart and penetrated to its innermost chamber, and is no longer there even—it is already in our blood.

These words left me paralysed, yet at the same time some wordless intelligence inside me stirred, and I felt a heightened sense of interconnection. In my experience, this is the effect of all great poetry, of all great art – a feeling of stillness and acute awareness, as if a gong has been struck deep in your soul, the reverberations causing something in you to start, shift, and quicken. If, at such moments, we can express ourselves authentically and skilfully, I believe we have the power to create similar transformations in the mind of the reader. Sometimes creativity of this calibre springs from grief, sometimes from joy, but always from deep awareness. As Rilke advised the young poet when asked to critique his creative expression: ‘Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.’

All quotes from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by M.D. Herter Norton.

Michele Seminara is the author of the recently released collection of poetry, Engraft. She is the managing editor of Verity La.You can buy copies of Michele's book and read more about her at her blog.


Friday, March 4, 2016

Meg Welchman - cancer survivor, journal writer, psychologist, mother, artist, great woman! - tells her story

Meg Welchman has a story worth telling. And courage we can be inspired by, and learn from. She has been forced by recurrent illness and circumstances to face more than any of us would wish. Don't turn away, thinking that Meg is the kind of hero most of us couldn't be. Out of her suffering and fear and the immense intimacies and even the weird glorious moments of illness, she has insights to benefit us all. Her wonderful book, This Present Moment, an art therapy journal based on fifteen important themes of life, including Love, Hope, Courage, Creativity and Resilience, is exquisitely illustrated by Grace Cuell. Details below about how you can buy it. And please do buy it - for your sake, not for Meg's only. But first, Meg's story of writing.

I have always loved books. Growing up in a small coastal town, my favourite place, besides my bedroom, was the town library. The library was an old red brick building that was dimly lit and deathly quiet inside. It had a distinctly musty paper smell that made my stomach churn to such a degree that I would need to detour to the restrooms before I could continue walking the linoleum aisles. I would wait in line to flick through the dog-eared cards that made up the library catalogue, housed in long thin narrow wooden box drawers with tiny round metal knobs at the front. A small rectangular lined card for each item in the building. The cards held secrets - the intriguing Dewey decimal numbers and the scrawled handwritten names of those who had previously borrowed the books. This strange place bursting with stories. I dreamed of being a librarian.

I would scan a pointer finger along plastic covered spines in those quiet aisles languidly scanning for a new story that would satisfy. I took my time. I preferred biographies and real stories rather than fiction. Books were my favourite accessory. I would most often walk with a book in hand, and had piles teetering haphazardly on my bedhead. I would read multiple books concurrently, by the light of my bed lamp or, if late, under the doona with my torch. Each book would provide a chapter, it would be lovingly book-marked and then placed back up on the pile. The next book in rotation would provide another chapter, and so on. I can’t recall when I started reading only one book at a time.

As I progressed through school my dream had flipped, from reading and being surrounded by books as a librarian, to writing a book and being an author. I was motivated by the joy of shaping something out of nothing but an idea. I loved how writing could take you from point A to point B via numerous side-steps on the way, usually in such a fashion that you wouldn’t know how things would end until you felt the words falling out onto the page. As I grew and my interests diversified I let writing slide. As an adult practically every second person I met “had a book inside them” but not many of them would actually write one. Other things became priorities. University study, career, love, and then family life. I continued to write periodically in beautiful blank paged journals that my husband would present to me for Christmas or birthdays. The writing in these journals became more urgent when disaster struck. My father’s devastating drawn out death after years of emphysema, and our infertility woes riding the highs and disastrous lows of IVF.

Eventually, when the miracle children arrived, first a son, and then two years later, a daughter, I wrote out of joy and a need to chart their early days, with the thought that they would read the diaries when they were older. Not long into our daughter’s first six months on earth I would find out I had breast cancer, in fact, secondary breast cancer that was life-threatening as it had spread rapidly and aggressively through my lymph glands and into my liver. It was inoperable and incurable. Everything stopped but my mind kept racing. Suddenly those diary entries became vital. I filled volumes of notebooks and started writing a blog. Almost six years on, I am still here. [Hurrah, Meg! Hurrah!! eds.]

At the end of 2015, just as my debut book This Present Moment had returned from the printers, I attended my daughter’s primary school art show. There was incredibly brilliant drawings and paintings on display; works in the style of Kandinsky, Picasso, Magritte, Monet and many other famous artists. All of whom were once children, just like this hopeful bunch of five-year-olds. The artworks hung under a colourful sign proclaiming brightly “EVERY CHILD IS AN ARTIST”. We were all children once; we were all artists. Some, a few of us, continue to flourish as adult artists. Most of us do not. “I don’t have a creative bone in my body” or “I can’t draw to save myself” are some of the mantras people tout as explanations. Well I am proof that you do not need anything magical to create something beautiful, even by simply colouring in the hand-drawn mandalas that feature in This Present Moment. All it takes is making time for your dreams and some coloured pencils to really let go!

The driving force of This Present Moment is mindfulness. Being in each moment as each moment unfurls. Not living in the past of “what if” or the future of “what might be”. You have now. All we have is now. The book takes the reader on a journey through fifteen life themes that illuminate the gift of “now” combined with a hand-drawn mandala to colour.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit”.
Albert Schweitzer – Nobel Peace Prize Winner

My inner spirit was rekindled by many close friends and family after facing cancer and chemotherapy three times. I have been a recipient of vast kindness and care. I am lucky to have such people in my life. I wrote This Present Moment to thank them, in particular, to thank my generous husband and beautiful children, and to my circle of friends who took on child care and meal making during my low hours. These small acts of kindness made a huge difference.

When I became a psychologist I learned that pain shared gives the chance to feel differently in order to act differently. In writing This Present Moment I have shared some of my pain with the hope that anyone reading it will also allow themselves to do just that – feel the pain and then build on that feeling to act differently. To take a running leap towards life. A big fat juicy creative life! Because, we are all artists.

Writer Meg Welchman was diagnosed with aggressive incurable secondary breast cancer in 2010 just after the birth of her second child. After chemotherapy and surgery, she faced another two life-threatening reccurrences and is now, thankfully, in remission. As a psychologist with a background in relationship counselling and positive psychology, Meg was interested in how people cope with adversity, and after finding her own way through such treacherous times, she was inspired to share her story. Illustrator Grace Cuell developed an interest in drawing mandalas as a tool for mindfulness during her travels. As a Fine Arts student with a passion for mindful living, Grace wanted to create something beyond her studies that contributed positively to the world.

Together Meg and Grace have created an art therapy journal based on fifteen important themes of life, including Love, Hope, Courage, Creativity and Resilience. “This Present Moment” is designed to give peace and focus through colouring and contemplation. With a distinctly “hopeful” flavour, Meg charts the pivotal moments that reflect each of the themes over the last five years of living with cancer. This Present Moment is for anyone facing a difficult diagnosis, a difficult relationship or any difficult situation. It is both a “how to” for navigating a path through the darkness and a wakeup call to jump into life.

This Present Moment is available online for $29.95 through www.purplecordspress.com
A portion of each sale is donated to The Wesley Choices Cancer Support Service, Auchenflower.
For further information contact: Meg Welchman at purplecordspress@gmail.com

Purple Cords Press – Remarkable Books for Remarkable People            www.purplecordspress.com
Facebook: This Present Moment book                                                       
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The Evolution of "Shards of Ice"

We asked Minnie Biggs, author of Shards of Ice, and first-time author in her older age, to reflect on her creative process. Her words follow. But first, the dedication verses in Shards:

Those whom we love and lose
Are not where they were before
They are now wherever we are.
St John Chrysostom

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau urged us to "explore our inner selves, to be a Columbus to whole new continents and worlds within: is not our own interior white on the chart? Explore your own higher latitudes..." 

 Minnie Biggs writes:

Writing journals and diaries all my life led me to becoming a blogger before the word or the internet was invented. I would write up reports of travels or experiences and send them around to interested friends. Way back in the days of typewriter and carbon paper! Of course that first voyage to Antarctica was one of those accounts. By email.

Somehow that piece turned up at a writing workshop with [writing teacher] Joyce Kornblatt. She liked it and suggested I continue with it.  One thing led to another. My writing about my husband Stephen - such a significant part of Shards -  over a period of time, as well as this exploration of a new land and a new me, trickled on. Joyce just said, “Keep going.” And so I did. Checking in with her from time to time: “Keep going.” She would make suggestions, she would be supportive, she would praise my writing. “Keep going.” Maybe it would be a book?

It was never anything except writing for myself. As I became more absorbed in the study of Antarctic history and stories - I’d forgotten how much I liked researching and making notes - it expanded into that series of vignettes, snapshots. The writing was often challenging, always interesting and usually fun. Seldom real “work”.

The writing about, the remembering of Stephen, was poignant, sometimes funny and often painful, as images or memories surfaced. Sometimes it left me teary, yet it always felt healing. I was literally moving through my grief as I wrote. Not in any particular order. I would get up and leave it for periods of time and always be surprised when I came back. Oh, really? And move along with it.

Journal writing in its essence is honest and clear. Other essays that I have written, about food and place or spirituality, for example, have been in that same mode: what I like to call real. Real is important to me and comes out in Shards of Ice. It is an everlasting pursuit for me, the search for real.

I was bothered by the lack of a ‘narrative curve’ or narrative anything, and wondered about writing in those snippets or sections, yet could not see a way to transform it all into some “proper” format. Fortunately Joyce let me go with it - keep going - even as I added a section on the Red Centre and the Journal of Dying, separate sections in their own right. It would be fun if I could remember when it felt like it was actually a book, when I surrendered to it being the way it was, but I cannot! Like so much of the rest of it, it just was.

Then thoughts occurred that it might be helpful for other people. I met grieving people, people who were caring for loved ones, and I began to feel an urgency about my thoughts about dying: how important it is to communicate with each other, to face the end together. Perhaps these experiences of mine could be valuable for others? So the work became a little bigger than just my experience, my researching, my passions, my play. It might really be a book.

Something about endings felt difficult. How did I know it had ended? I did not. I could have kept going and going. But there was also a feeling of completion, I think. Still not sure as little shards continue to arise, in my memory or experience. How could I not have mentioned  Stephen’s use of the phrase “Your blood’s worth bottling” which came out of my mouth the other day to a kind friend?  But then if I had kept going, maybe there would not be a book at all.

When it was finished - what is finished? - I sent it to a friend, anthropologist Peter Sutton whom I like a lot and whose writing skills I admire. When he came back with a reply of heartfelt enthusiasm beautifully expressed I nearly fell over. It felt done. It had happened. It worked. There was a “message” and it was conveyed. That was enough. Some excitement to publish, but not really necessary.

Little did I know!

Publishing took longer than  the writing. “We really like it…it should be published…but not by us..not now…”  All those writers’ tales about rejection, they were all true. Somehow I shouldered on, not terribly hurt, partly because I wanted it published but did not feel invested in publishing. One other person read it with pleasure, so I felt all right. Kept going.

Finally came the email: “I’d like to publish your book.” It was Stephen Matthews at Ginninderra Press.  Ginninderra means “throwing out little rays of light”. Easter Sunday, 2015.

Now it is out, and of course that is thrilling. Just the presence of it on the table, that beautiful book! And now friends are writing with their reactions and, to my delight, they are all different. Each person picks out another aspect  she specially likes, he wants to pursue, another meaningful observation. It has done its work. Let it continue.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Shards of Ice: a memoir of Antarctica, grief and survival

Joyce Kornblatt is one of our most insightful reviewers, writers and teachers of writing. Here she shares particularly personal thoughts about a quite beautiful new book: Minnie Biggs' Shards of Ice. The themes are of profound interest: a long marriage, the loss of a beloved partner, "travel", inside and out - and deeply personal journal writing. As a delightful implicit bonus, Joyce also gives us a number of "kindred volumes". You are welcome to leave your comments below. They will certainly be passed to Joyce, and to this wonderfully talented new memoirist, Minnie Biggs.


In a book of  luminous, faceted and memorable fragments, Minnie Biggs embodies on the page the ice formations she discovers in Antarctica and in the Red Centre of Australia, voyages she makes following the death of  Stephen, her architect husband of 47 years. A memoir of grief, travel, history, geology and the restorative act of writing itself, SHARDS (Ginninderra Press, 2015) takes us deep into the interior of a woman in her 70s who is our exceptional guide and becomes, by book’s end, our intimate friend.

Minnie Biggs actually is my friend, the evolution of a  mentoring relationship of seven years.  I met Minnie when Stephen was still alive and she was writing ‘little pieces’ about his illness, their marriage, the huge task of care-giving. From the start, I recognized the power of her writing gift:  a poet’s compression, a novelist’s sense of telling detail and narrative pacing, a painter’s eye and heart.  Though SHARDS is her first book, she has been keeping journals and writing articles throughout her life, and I discovered in this ‘novice’ a thoroughly-accomplished writer with a clear and compelling voice.  As Australian social anthropologist/linguist Peter Sutton says on the book’s cover, “This book is finely crafted and just as finely felt. The light and dark patches ramp up and down orchestrally like a mighty Wurlitzer organ. She has mastered the wedding of form and feeling.”

When Minnie realized she could let go of a linear narrative structure, and allow her book to accrue in the way that geological formations and human lives do—layered, irregular,  buffeted by weather,  healed by rain and sun, formed as much by surprise and disaster as by any sort of  conscious plan-- SHARDS found its form.  Each vignette has its own integrity, and the ordering feels inevitable and true.  We move through a mosaic of scenes:  marriage; caregiving;  grief;  a ship’s voyage to the icy end of the Earth:  the stories of Antarctic’s first brave explorers ;  a pilgrimage to the Australian desert;  kitchen and garden in Kurrojong.

Minnie Biggs

Only a few books I know are able to meld, as Minnie Kent Biggs does, the personal with the geographic, the private with the impersonal.  SHARDS will remind you of  Robyn Davidson’s TRACKS, Annie Dillard’s PILGRIM AT TINKER CREEK, Terry Tempest Williams’s REFUGE, Barry Lopez’s ARCTIC DREAMS.  And  there are also the recent works on widowhood—Joan Didion’s A YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING and Marion Coutts’s THE ICEBERG as memorable examples.  Aside from Didion’s book, about which she writes, I don’t  know how many of these Minnie has read.  She has always been a prolific reader and likely has her own list of kindred volumes.  She followed her own thread and trusted her own voice.

She realized she didn’t need to know the kind of book she was writing—grief memoir?  travel book?  spiritual inquiry?—but needed to be faithful to her own depth, and to trust in the coherence that would—that does—so beautifully emerge.  This trust was her medicine, and becomes the reader’s, this faith that things do connect, that the centre holds, that life reveals  its patternings when we feel all has been shattered and lost.  Peter Sutton again:  “The way she interweaves Stephen's dying, the Antarctic, and the Australian Red Centre, is brilliant. It gives the book internal contrasts that let it have three alternating faces in one.”

 Here are Minnie’s words, a section from SHARDS in which that weaving happens with such elegance:

                        Is anything larger than death and   dying, larger than life itself? 
                     The living presence of Antarctica? On the human scale many people described Stephen as larger than life. In his soft mumbling way, he was. His points  were  made quietly, socratically. His conquests- men as well as many women- fell silently. His houses rose timber by brick by stone, orderly. The spaces he created, serene. The food and wine he consumed were prodigious. The air and sea miles he accumulated, before they were  frequent flyer points, innumerable. The words he wrote, the fewest. The limericks he quoted, biblical. The variety of swear words he could get way with were unnoticed even by the prudish. The inspiration he spread immeasurable. Even as his body rots and the pine box starts its disintegration into the earth, even as Mr Henry  carves the headstone of granite, even as we remember him with smiles and love, the Ross ice shelf mutters and groans. Ice breaks  off, ice re-forms, ice recedes, ice expands. The winds blow, the snow flies, the penguins hover over their eggs, the snow petrel wings over. 

And later, the Australian desert offers itself as both counterpoint and  twinned country, what one might imagine as irreconciliably different lands finding kinship in the writer’s  wide inclusive imagination:
                       The smooth red sandstone cliffs, long  vertical walls  slicing into an angle, another geometry. Only the yellowy olive green of the vegetation above and below differentiates these shapes from an Antarctic ice shelf, glacier, berg. Gosses Bluff—Tnorala--is a tabular berg floating on the central Australian desert. Rising up from the flat, a straight sided monolith-  it actually forms a circle- with a couple of vertical extrusions. A piece of landscape that connects these two places in my heart: red and white. Neither place really flat like deserts.

                    And of course, threaded throughout these outer journeys to place, the interior journey through marriage and illness and death and bereavement, all offered without the slightest jot of self-pity or sentimentality.  In the stark beauty of Antartica, the ice-cold air,  in a place where no humans ever settled, homely memories of Stephen  continue to arise: 

                                         Stephen also had that imperviousness to cold, or weather in general. I would urge him to take off his woolly as the day got warmer, or  put on  a jacket when the temperature dropped, but he would not be bothered. He simply did not feel it.  Why, when I was shivering or sweating? A sort of inner discipline, long trained by strict upbringing, the Naval College and RAAF. He could cook, he could darn,  sew and mend shoes with the best of them :  strong  skills of all explorers. He could go without food, and not worry. Much as he loved  food, as the explorers did.

                            Can you see what a pleasure it would have been to receive batches of pages from this  beautiful book, as it was written?

                             I would add that Minnie Kent Biggs is an explorer herself: skilled, courageous, disciplined and at home in the wild, whether that be found in the ice or the desert or the regions of loss or a writer’s unknown territory-in-the-making.  It’s a privilege  and a joy to have the opportunity, here, to introduce SHARDS into the world out of which it has arisen.

Shards of Ice is available from Amazon, Book Depository and other online sellers in both print and ebook editions.
                        JOYCE KORNBLATT is a novelist, short-story writer and essayist.  For twenty years, she was Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Maryland in the U.S.  Since moving to Australia, in 2003, she has been offering private writing workshops and  mentoring (www.joycekornblatt.net). She is also a trained Hakomi psychotherapist and the founding teacher of Cloud Refuge, a Buddhist meditation community in the Blue Mountains, where she lives.  (www.cloudrefuge.org).

MINNIE BIGGS wrote her first book at thirteen and has been writing ever since. Her marriage of 46 years ended with her husband's death and her widowhood began with the first of her journeys to Antarctica. Minnie was a founding participant and teacher at the International School of Spiritual Reading and Healing in Portugal. Born in New York, she now lives in Kurrajong, NSW.  You can find her on Facebook as Minnie.Biggs.