Recently, I sat down to talk with Jane Yolen and Molly Scott about their upcoming performance, “Moving Through Grief: Poems, Songs and After,” to be held Thursday, April 14, 7 p.m. in the Neilson Browsing Room at Smith College’s Neilson Library.
Co-sponsored by The Poetry Center at Smith and Straw Dog Writers Guild, the performance brings together two longtime friends and Smith alumni who are well known in the Pioneer Valley for their award-winning creative work: Yolen as a poet, non-fiction, science fiction and children’s book author; Scott as a psychotherapist, poet and singer/songerwriter.
Yolen and Scott will present poems, songs and a recitation with improvisatory singing that brings poetry and song together in a way that both women say made the hair on their back of their necks stand on end the first time they tried it.
Yolen will be reading from her books, “Things to Say to a Dead Man: Poems at the End of a Marriage and After,” and “The Bloody Tide: Poems about Politics and Power,” as well as others. Scott will perform original songs and read from her 2015 collection, “Up to the Windy Gate: Poems of Grief and Grace,” and other poems.
Note that although Yolen is well known as a children’s book author, this event is not suitable for children under the age of 11.
The event’s four sections will address the loss of an individual loved one; other losses, including the loss implied by physical signs of aging; political poems; and a last, celebratory section that Yolen describes as, “Next steps, really. Gathering yourself together. …Seizing life again.”
Poems and politics
Yolen’s poem, “Cell Phones in the Pockets of Dead Children,” was inspired by a remembered sentence written by New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik after the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that killed 32 and wounded 17 others: “The cell phones were still ringing in the pockets of the dead children.”
Yolen’s poem references the all-too prevalent gun violence across America, in Jerusalem and the effect that it has on us as survivors: “…how we die, destroyed in a second,/ our souls now leaden.”
The poem ends with the arrival of an alien race who asks not only, “What are cell phones?/ What are guns?” But also: “What are children?”
“Tell me about that,” I say to Yolen. “It’s a surprising move.”
“Well we always talk about what are our grandchildren or our children’s grandchildren going to say about us 40 or 50 years from now?” Yolen responds. “All the things that we hold so tight right now, they’re going to be saying, ‘What were they thinking? My God, that’s inhumane or inhuman!’ So what is the next step after the great-great-great-grandchildren? It’s the aliens arriving.”
As a longtime writer of science fiction and fantasy and past president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, Yolen says, “For me, it’s not that much of a leap.”
“The most surprising line is the last one,” I say. “I really didn’t expect: ‘What are children?’”
“It’s the next step,” Yolen says quietly. “If we kill off all the children.”
“I think it’s interesting when poets take on political topics,” I say. “And I wonder what you think about that — what you think poetry can do.”
“Poets are in the world too,” Yolen says. “So therefore, nothing is off the table. We don’t just pull out our own intestines and iron them out for other people. We’re looking at other things, too. Auden and Yeats were two of the great political poets. Both of them are sort of folk heroes of mine. So I don’t think it’s a big step at all. I wonder about people who just do personal work — or who just talk about the movement of their bowels, as it were.”
“And their vowels,” says Scott, smiling at the pun.
Growing more serious, Scott continues, “I just read an article for psychotherapists about the necessity of being political.”
Prior to now, Scott says, therapists were advised, “To just sort of stay with people’s personal lives and don’t bring in politics. But people are affected by the world and so there’s no way that we can make those walls.”
“I think that people who assert themselves as apolitical start to lose any way of feeling that they have hope,” I suggest.
“Or power,” Yolen adds.
“Or power, right,” I agree.
Poems as containers
As we talk about poems and why we write them and what they can do, we arrive at the word “container.”
Poems can become containers for intense emotion, we decide.
Yolen recalls writing the poems that make up her 2003 collection, “The Radiation Sonnets: For My Love, in Sickness and in Health.”
“Every night after I put my husband in bed and made sure he had all his meds and I could hear that he was sleeping, I went up to my writing room and I wrote a single sonnet. It was the only thing I wrote, all that day — I, who write 14 hours a day now. That was all I wrote. But everything that had happened that day went into that container – I like that word.”
We talk about how the process of moving through grief is a little like a bone healing from being broken: it will never be unbroken. It will be what Yolen calls “mottled,” a term that when used medically, describes bones that show evidence of breaking and mending.
Like those bones, your life after profound loss is mottled, Yolen says.
“Maybe it’s like a burl on a tree, which has its own beauty,” Scott says. “The tree is wounded and yet you have this beautiful form.”
Returning to the bone metaphor, Scott adds, “Maybe the bone strengthens in a way because it has been broken and then mottled, and there’s scar tissue: it makes a different structure. And I think that’s part of what we’re invoking for people. We might hope that people would track their own particular grieving through hearing these poems.”
For more information contact: email@example.com or the Smith College Poetry Center at: firstname.lastname@example.org Also visit: www.janeyolen.com and www.mollyscott.com
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. Crapo is seeking published poets and writers for her column. She’s interested in books written by Franklin County poets and writers and/or published by a Franklin County press. She can be reached at: email@example.com