I was definitely the product you’d expect from the odd and awkward situation in which I grew up and surely I showed little talent, no free thinking and no genius or particular promise. The poem is not good – some youth write profoundly beautiful and wise poetry and young people today are far more savvy than I ever was – but it does illustrate that after fifty years or so writing will improve. We writers often have our doubts, but we are an unrelenting bunch. We write, write, write. We enrich, reform and reframe as if every word of ours will spark more Light in the collective unconscious, which I rather think they do.
Make of Me a Tree
I am young, Lord,
but my heart is true,
Make of me a tree
Make me strong and supple
That when tempests blow,
I shall stand unyielding.
Let me be humble in the
Praise of Your Majesty
And testify to Your greatness.
When rains besiege
Let me be shelter
To those who have not found Your Son,
Yes! I am young
but my heart is true:
Make of me a tree.
– Jamie Dedes
As for cousin Dan in the photograph (six years younger than me), he was inspired by the poem to paint a lovely “portrait” of a tree. These days it’s Father Dan – Rev. Fr. Daniel S. Sormani, C.S.Sp. – a theologian and professor at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines. Dan always showed real promise. Like my son, Richard, and Dan’s brother, Christopher, even as a toddler he was smart and funny. So many of you appreciated Dan’s piece What Have We Done That People Can Pick Up Weapons and Kill?Come March, Dan will be back in the United States. We will get to visit for the first time in forty years.
And, yes!, I did want to become a nun. I was told there would be family background checks and I feared rightly that there were things in my parent’s history that would embarrass my mom. I became a now-and-again wife, a mother, a writer, a poet. No regrets. The life mission is essentially the same though the vehicle of service differs and the actions are grounded in ethics not creed, which is not to imply that the two are necessarily exclusive.
Note: The photograph of the two of us together was taken at a fundraiser our mothers were helping with for the Guild for Exceptional* Children in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, New York. This remains a worthy effort and worth your time if you happen to live in that area and are looking for a good cause to support.
In fifth grade
my father’s secrets
start to breed under my red
dig deep in the tunnel of my inner
ear, cling to sentry hairs
on the nape of my neck—
his secrets: black bodies,
glassy eyes, squeeze
beneath my fingernails—
quiet as eggs;
they spin a red thread
that cuts me inside
Over Exposed, the memoir of Terri Muuss, is at once painful and triumphant. It is an examined life that exposes the family of her childhood, the obscenities imposed on her by her father, her numbing with alcohol and drugs and her journey in therapy. All of this and yet she arrives victorious and accomplished with a healthy marriage, healthy sons and a multifaceted career, elements of which reach a hand out to those in trauma.
This is the story of how a child survived and became a woman who found herself and a writer who found her voice. The experiences of a lifetime form a collection of poems and prose vignettes that bespeak the possibilities of redemption and hold out hope and affirmation to those others whose childhoods have left them wounded. I recommend this book to everyone but, most especially, to those who have a history like Terri’s.
Lately, I feel a bull’s eye on me: on the street, the A train, in the fruit market. Men infect me with words, with smiles. Eyes snatch at breasts, tongues pin me to subway walls, mouths like a cold speculum pry open my inner ear. Their words pound, pound me, a worn head of drum. Voices divide and conquer, dividing me from myself—
Emotionally it was not the easiest book to read. I often found myself in tears.It is rewarding though, not only because its subject remains unbeaten but because the writing, pacing and organization have you moving through the pages anxious to gobble up each poem, each story, every nuance. Terri’s switches from child-voice to adult are smooth, her imagery clear and moving, her poetry well-crafted.
There are two videos in this post. If you are reading this from an email, you will have to click to this site to view the videos.
JAMIE: Am I right that your first love was acting? If so, how did you transition – or what inspired – the addition of poetry to your artistic repertoire?
TERRI: Yes, acting, theatre and directing have always been my first loves. I came to acting quite young and naturally. It will always be a huge part of who I am and how I see art in a larger sense. Much of my poetry is born out of a theatricality I possess from being onstage these many years.
That being said, poetry was always sort of waiting in the wings for me. When I was in 10th grade, my best friend Leslie was a beautiful person and poet who I admired greatly. I spent long days at her house after school as I had no inclination to go home to my own dysfunctional house. There, she read and wrote poetry in front of me and it certainly inspired me to use it as an avenue for expression. Later, during senior year, I had a teacher hand me a packet of poems by e.e. cummings, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Langston Hughes that she thought I would enjoy. That packet sent me on a journey of reading as many poets as I could. Still, poetry was off to the side while theater took center stage.
It really wasn’t until I was faced with the trauma of my past and of putting myself together that writing became both a therapeutic tool and an artistic passion. To better understand the trauma of being sexually abused as a child, I wrote and wrote and wrote. Mostly poetry but also monologues. At the end, what I’d constructed was a one-woman show skeleton that became Anatomy of a Doll. I performed the show throughout New York City and then the country at conferences and in theaters. Even then, I didn’t identify myself as a writer. I thought of myself as a performer who just happened to use my writing as a script. When Veronica Golos (my friend, mentor and a gorgeous poet who’s won numerous awards) began taking an interest in my work and started editing it in a poetry workshop she led out of her house on the Upper West Side, I started to see myself in the context of being a poet and poetry as a vocation. I think the form of poetry works well to showcase the dissociation that comes with abuse much more than prose does. Veronica is still my editor, having worked on both Anatomy of a Doll and my book, Over Exposed.
But the biggest transition from actor to writer happened during my marriage to poet Matt Pasca. He’s always seen me as a writer and, before I even claimed that identity for myself, always pushed me to go deeper, to write more, to get better, to submit my work. Through our marriage I have grown as a writer and came to see myself as a poet.
JAMIE:It is one thing to write about painful events in life and another to share them publicly. I think you are something of a hero for doing so. Where does this core of courage come from? What is the reaction from friends and relatives?
TERRI: This is a very interesting question that I get often–the question of the courage it takes to reveal my past. Many people have said they’ve seen me as courageous because I share the truth of my childhood sexual abuse, subsequent rapes, addiction and my recovery quite publicly. I have to acknowledge that this is the way it is perceived by other people. For me, however, it’s born out of necessity and so it’s never felt or seemed like courage. I have lived my life according to the 12-step saying, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.” I know that what I keep inside me, what I feel shame about, what I try to hide, will destroy me from the inside. Giving a voice to my pain and shame and grief and mistakes gives me back my power, my joy and my life.
I’ve also grown to see that if I’m hiding the fact that I was sexually abused, I am sending myself and others the message that it was somehow my fault or that there’s something for me to be ashamed of. I’ve come to understand that what happened to me was not anything that I should be ashamed of. I was the victim so why should I be ashamed. I’ve also come to understand that the sexual abuse and the rape and the violence are a part of me but they are not the entirety of me.
Lastly, if I can help someone (with my story) to recover, let go of their shame, and move into survivorhood, then it is all more than worth it. As social worker and researcher Brene Brown states, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” I choose let go of secrecy and to douse my shame with empathy, and empathy for the world must begin with me.
Friends and relatives have been overwhelmingly supportive, although for some of them, it took a period of adjustment and listening that gave birth to deeper understanding. I surround myself with people who are willing to be empathetic, courageous, vulnerable, and honest with both me and themselves. I consider myself very lucky to have a wide circle of supportive people in my life.
JAMIE:With two parents who are poets, do your children like poetry? Have they started writing themselves? Have they read your poetry?
TERRI: Great question! Yes! We have two boys, Rainer, 10, and Atticus, 7, and they have both had poems published. Rainer is by far the more prolific writer who really loves writing and poetry. Atticus is a drummer who dabbles in writing. They both had poems published in Skipping Stones, a journal for children ages 7-14. Rainer has also been published in Stone Soup, The Louisville Review (when he was 4), and the anthology, Holiday Word Gifts (JB Stillwater, 2011). Some of the things that Rainer writes take my breath away. It’s proof positive that as artists we are always trying to get back to that place where we were as children– where we can take risks and be playful and not worry about being judged.
JAMIE:You seem to have a gift for building a poetry community. What advice do you have for readers who might be trying to do the same?
TERRI: I’m a licensed social worker and the macro version of social work is community organizing. The first rule of community organizing is to listen to the community. Too often, people come into a community with their own expectations and demands. They try to foist onto a community what they want to see the community have. If you’re really trying to build community, through the arts or otherwise, ask questions and be willing to hear the answers. The community might not want the same things you want for them but if community is your ultimate goal, you need to let its members be your guide. Too often in the poetry community, as in other communities, people set up an event that mirrors the kind of poetry THEY want but disregard what the community is really is looking for. Finding the right venue, format and publicity are integral to success.
I would also add that it’s so important to have collaborators in any community venture. Without them, burnout is a real factor. You need to be able to share the workload, bounce ideas off of each other, and laugh together to elevate stress and keep it going!
JAMIE:You put together a lovely trailer for “Over Exposed.” How long did it take to put it together and what kind of tools did you use. Have you found it helpful in getting the word out.
TERRI: Dana Maddox did my trailer. She’s a brilliant filmmaker studying in LA right now. I came in contact with her through the mother of someone I directed in a show. We did the voiceover elements in the studio first and then she came to shoot the video at my house. It took about 10 hours of shooting and about two weeks of intense editing for her to put together the trailer. It’s not something that I could have done alone. Many people have that skill set but that’s not my wheelhouse. I can direct videos but editing is a different thing. She did an amazing job and I’m very proud of it. It certainly helps get the word out about my book. I think social media and online platforms always help books.
JAMIE: So you have to my knowledge three books out: one on poetry as therapy, the recently published anthology, and “Over Exposed.” What’s next on the agenda?
TERRI: I have two books out currently. Over Exposed is my memoir, told in both poetry and prose. Grabbing the Apple is an anthology of New York women poets that I coedited with M.J. Tenerelli. The other group you mentioned here is the Poets of Well-being (Susan Dingle, Maggie Bloomfield, Nina Yavel and I). We are all social worker-writers who are in long term recovery (we have over 100 years of sobriety between us). I was the last member to join the group and so their chapbook does not include my work. It’s absolutely worth checking out. You can find the group on Facebook. As a group, we travel to conferences and venues to showcase how writing can be a therapeutic tool for helping others overcome addiction and abuse. We facilitated a workshop at AWP in Minnesota, at the Expressive Therapies Conference in NYC and were even invited to the 2016 NASW conference in DC. Susan runs a beautiful poetry event called “Poetry Street” out in Riverhead that is a fine example of great community organizing and art as a healing method.
A tidbit on the light side and apropos upcoming elections in the U.S.: Atticus and Rainer Muuss on Ellen and at The White House with the First Lady.
What happiness that today
I can be “open and confident”
Though normally I would hide
in the safety of feigned ignorance,
feign joy, pretend
that I can see my clear sky
in spite of his clouds
Respectfully, I provide the detail requested …
The year is 2016
The month, January
This the first Wednesday
The hour is 6 a.m.
now that i am getting to know you,
now that i am chest-high in your poesy
it’s your time that interests me ……….1902 ~
You were birthday twins, Nazim
You and my mysterious father,
born the same year, into the same culture,
spent your youth in that turmoil
If I study you, Nazim, will I find him, my diffident father,
in the dissident roots of your Turkish sensibility ~
they said he left with a price on his head
only to be caught, chained, imprisoned
in America, between a lover and a wife, ……….strong women . . . ………………..well, at least stronger than he
I say “Hello!” gleefully ……….without a wink
I think we could have been perfect friends
that we might have understood each other ……….Hello! to you and your poetry ……………….Hello Nazim, Hello!
Note: My father and Nazim Hikmet would have come of age just as WW I (1914-1918) was ending and the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923) was beginning. Hikmet (1902-1963) was a renown poet, playwright and novelist, a communist and a revolutionary who spent his life in and out of jail. He won the International Peace Prize in 1950. My father (1902-1977) was a furrier. I didn’t know him well and saw him only two or three times a year, always at his office. This poem is after Hikmet’s Hello Everybody from Things I Didn’t Know I Loved.
we took the subway to meet you,
the train screeching like a warning omen,
rocketing me heart-first into destiny;
mom wore her best mended gloves,
had me in my sunday dress, hem let-down,
you came in a cashmere coat, a felt
stingy-brimmed fedora, leather gloves
there was some to-do over coffee or tea,
hot chocolate for me and a red balloon;
you examined my face, shook your head,
your brown eyes looked into mine, No!
you said, beautiful child, not mine
you turned away then, a chimera
floating down a city street …
now and again over time
you looked back; but your denial drew
life from mom, stole my red balloon,
tossed it up in your wake; i watched, daddy,
watched you with your warm cashmere coat,
your wife, two sons and those brown eyes,
they stare back at me from my mirror, No! they say, but you were never quite sure
a tattered memoir in sepia tones
hanging on the wall of your office
a tiny plump sparrow of a woman
by a lone stone cottage
toothless, poor old thing
a warm shawl pulled to cover her head
an apron, worn shoes
from a time long past
from another world
my Turkish grandmother
what was her name?
you never said
i never asked
Recently a friend mentioned the wish to write a memoir. There are any number of reasons for doing this and generally it’s not about publication. It’s about leaving a record behind for children and grandchildren.
While searching for some material that she might find helpful, I happened upon this feature by William Zinsser of On Writing Wellfame in The American Scholar, Spring 2006. I think my friend is not the only one who would be interested, so here it is for you too:
One of the saddest sentences I know is “I wish I had asked my mother about that.” Or my father. Or my grandmother. Or my grandfather. As every parent knows, our children are not as fascinated by our fascinating lives as we are. Only when they have children of their own—and feel the first twinges of their own advancing age—do they suddenly want to know more about their family heritage and all its accretions of anecdote and lore. “What exactly were those stories my dad used to tell about coming to America?” “Where exactly was that farm in the Midwest where my mother grew up?”MORE
On Writing Well, considered a classic, is not without problems. It does however have its virtues. Originally published in 1976, it was a book of the month club selection. In the early days of my career it was always recommended to young writers along with The Elements of Style. I believe On Writing Well is now in it’s twelfth printing.
At the time of Zinsser’s death in 2015, 1.5 million copies had been sold. Bryn Mawr has posted a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition in PDF. The first couple of pages – the cover art et al – are rather blurry, but the table-of-contents and chapter texts are clear. If you haven’t read On Writing Well, you might enjoy and even benefit from checking it out. Newer editions have been reworked to include contemporary concerns: technology, diverse cultures, and demographics.
If you are a mature writer still struggling to find your voice, it might give you hope and comfort to know that in his biography Zinsser said that he didn’t find his writer-voice until in his 50s.
Thank you for sharing the love of art, literature and peace.
that other time and other place are history –
and so too the gentleman of the bocce court
i am seven, this is part of my world
the men play bocce of an afternoon
while the women sip vin santo
and savor the nutty taste of a
biscotto before a nap, then time
to start dinner, set the table
my friend’s grandfather, Pop-Pop,
the yellow man, i think of him,
jaundiced skin, yellow teeth,
fingers stained with nicotine . . . he’s the neighborhood champ
and heat rising from the ground,
the grass growing as fulvous as
Pop-Pop, he throws the pallino – it’s like summer always is here heat, sweat, and bocce ball …
the one they call il Signore taunts,
mean and rude, he swears at Pop-Pop – no matter, we know who is best,
better than anyone; yet little girls
say nothing, steering clear of il Signore, a.k.a. Frankie Fists
They say it was the year that changed a generation,
the year they met at a diner ordering burgers and fries,
cultivating their righteous discontent and rallying the women:
black, white, asian, and assorted browns and mutts like me,
hetero and lesbian and some trying to figure it out
Hey woman! they greeted a worker cleaning a counter,
little heed to the earnest young man standing ready to serve
On matters of magnitude, Do you see? Do you see?, one rasped,
but most of them didn’t, most of them didn’t see him ………………...some woman’s son …
as he filled orders, poker-faced amid their cacophony
you left one winter day to balancé on sunbeams
and pirouette on the moon, artfully swirling
lunar dust and scattering it over our dreams,
sparking our lives with your memory, your love
a legacy of dance for tiny ballerinas
…………see us now . . .
as well-worn as your old toe shoes
When I remember you
I remember the amber moon
and the burnished brown of old oaks,
their leaves like hands waving goodbye
Summertime, as dusk transitioned to dark,
we’d sit on the beach by slow cooking-fires,
their coals gone from hard black to gray dust
I cherished your warm hug in the chill of the night
and falling asleep, safe
I stopped loving you,
but I never stopped loving the memory of you
I carry that with me on lunatic trips of the heart ~
though my preference is to rest solitary on forest logs
with their stunning imperfections and those
secret-lives swirling in the sunless damp on which they rest
I think of the path that led from then to now,
a mix of smooth and rough along a rocky coast ~
I live near the sea to breathe
I imagine you living, wherever you are –
by an ocean with your skin still smelling of Old Spice,
with your well-formed hands, the hands of a pianist and surgeon,
and the high-tensile strength of your mind
In the odd geography of life, no one knows where we came from
or how it was, how it felt to be us in the days of promise
when the spell of Hudson Bay fell like a prayer to St. Christopher
That bay is no longer our safe harbor,
but it gave us our sturdy roots and strong wings
and so the nights, the nights by this bay are good
When I smile at the amber moon, it smiles at you
Posted again at a reader’s request. I had taken it down.
I’ve finally put the finishing touches on an old poem, which I wrote about a friend and the trip we made one day from Brooklyn to Staten Island. It was a place we could get to by ferry (five cents back in the day – can you believe it?) or by car or bus over the Verrazzano Bridge.
On that day in the 60s two teens, one old enough to drive, saturated in Catholicism and Judaism, got their first taste of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan Book of the Deadin the overgrown hill-top garden of a modest Tibetan monastery. “Cool.” Imagine how exotic that seemed to us. We had to pull out and talk about all our – mostly wrong – impressions of Tibet, Buddhism, and the Himalayan Mountains. The monks were kind to us and – I suspect – more than a little patient.
I’d packed a lunch and later we ate on the beach and talked about everything with the intensity and certitude that only teenagers have. After examining the monks’ love-worn copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, mortality quite naturally factored into our discussions. I think at that point in our lives our own mortality seemed more theory than reality.
We flew along the freeway yesterday under
a cold coastal expanse of cerulean ceiling.
It reminded me of you and how we dusted
the vaults of our minds to rid them of fear
and the old lexicons of grief and guilt, the
whalebone girdles of unfounded faith and
common conventions, saccharine and sticky.
I thought of that one sea-green day we spent
under just such a sky in a land far away and
how we changed your name then, reframed
your story to tell of hope and not despair.
You sketched flowers blossoming in the dust
of a spring that promised but never delivered.
Now we don’t speak of men but of cats with
their custom of keeping heart and claws intact.
We tell ourselves stories in rhythms that resound
in deep sleep. Soon now the ancient calls to
feral festivals will still and the time’s arrived when
our only play is in the margins, fate hanging
from our skeletons like Spanish moss on old oak.
It pleases me that life’s passage spins into poemed reliquary and
a memory of the pink peau de soie I wore to your prom that June.