The Intersection of Poetry and Memoir

How many times have you heard someone say  When I write my memoir……  It seems that everyone has stories that are important to their identity and that have shaped who they are. It’s a natural, human desire to share stories with one another and probably one of the oldest rituals that we have as humans. We seems to instinctively shape our conversations in the form of a story. But shape our story in the form of a poem?  Now that’s where most people pause and back away.

Until you really consider how we remember things–in fragments and slivers, in glimpses of scenes. We remember some of an event but not all of the details. Maybe we need to reconstruct a conversation, maybe we’re not 100% sure of the year, but we know approximately how old we were.  It’s the emotion that we remember and the emotion that helps us to build the story. And nothing is better for conveying emotion than a poem.

My friend Barbara Morrison and I have given several presentations on the intersection of poetry and memoir. Barbara has a wonderful image that she borrows from a friend of hers who is also a writer. She talks about the “colander of memory” that works by holding little strands of memory, the ones that get caught when you tip the colander over. Those strands are the ones that you can immediately recall and offer you an easy entree into beginning your memoir.

And poetry acts in a similar fashion to a colander–capturing images, snippets of memory, and glimpses of feelings. The short lines of a poem may be the perfect vehicle to help you retell an important moment in your life. And once you capture the images in a poem, more memories will begin to flow, as if you have primed the pump. You may have a waterfall of memory and detail all triggered by a poem.

One of my favorite memoir poems is by Edward Hirsch. He tells the story of being a little boy and spending the night with his grandmother. Hirsch conveys the pure joy and surprise of a small child discovering the mystery of his grand mother’s apartment. I hope you enjoy the poem and will try your hand at one of your won.

My Grandmother’s Bed~from The Night Parade, 1989

How she pulled it out of the wall
To my amazement. How it rattled and
Creaked, how it sagged in the middle
And smelled like a used-clothing store.
I was ecstatic to be sleeping on wheels!

It rolled when I moved; it trembled
When she climbed under the covers
In her flannel nightgown, kissing me
Softly on the head, turning her back.
Soon I could hear her snoring next to me–

Her clogged breath roaring in my ears,
Filling her tiny apartment like the ocean
Until I, too, finally swayed and slept
While a radiator hissed in the corner
And traffic droned on Lawrence Avenue. . . .

I woke up to the color of light pouring
Through the windows, the odor of soup
Simmering in the kitchen, my grandmother’s
Face. It felt good to be ashore again
After sleeping on rocky, unfamiliar waves.
I loved to help her straighten the sheets
And lift the Murphy back into the wall.
It was like putting the night away
When we closed the wooden doors again
And her bed disappeared without a trace.

Practice: Holding On and Letting Go of Friends with Barbara Morrison

I first met Barbara Morrison at The Maryland Writers Conference in 2011 when her book, Confessions of a Welfare Mother, was published. Barbara’s memoir is full of heart and wisdom, and I was hooked from the moment  I started reading it.  For the past year, Barbara and I have read together all over Baltimore in a series we designed and call “Looking Back to Move Forward.” Welcome, Barbara!

Barbara Morrison
Barbara Morrison

Everything changed this year. The two volunteer activities that had taken up much of my time since I retired faded away. Even after retiring I had continued to do occasional jobs for the small company where I’d worked for 26 years, but it was time to make the final break.

By far the biggest change, though, came when a couple in my apartment complex moved away. More than friends, we had become family.

It started in a grocery store, where I ran into Eva and her 21-month-old son in front of the spinach. We’d seen each other around, so stopped to exchange greetings. Before we could say much, though, Alec started reaching for me, wanting me to pick him up.

“He never does that,” Eva said. “He’s terrified of strangers.”

I didn’t know it then, but she was pregnant and worried about finding someone to care for Alec while she and her husband were at the hospital. She and Noel came from overseas and had no family in this country, much less in our city. She needed someone to be a local grandmother.

I enthusiastically volunteered, and Alec started coming to spend one day a week with me. We built block towers and knocked them down, read books together, and went for walks. We danced to music; he was fascinated by my records and turntable, insisting on helping to remove records from their sleeves. He developed a deep attachment to Blue, my cat, and spent a lot of time communing with her.

Sometimes he came more often, when Eva needed to go to various appointments or desperately needed to sleep. A carseat made its way into my car and I sometimes drove him to and from the preschool he attended a couple of times a week. Then when the new baby came, Alec stayed with me for a few delightful days.

Alec with puzzle and cat

During this time, a group of us in the small apartment complex—including Eva—became close. We began our own book club, went for walks, and did Qigong together. After the baby was born, Eva had a difficult recovery, and we took it in turns to provide meals and help out in other ways. Alec spent a lot of time with me, to give his mother a break.

For another year, Alec’s visits with me remained a regular thing. When Eva became ill, he came and stayed with me again. During her recovery, I ferried him about and took him on excursions. He loves trains, so I would sometimes take him on the light rail, up to the end of the line and back. Lulled by the movement, he would crawl onto my lap and fall asleep.

Then, this year, Noel’s residency ended, and he accepted a job out of state. Alec stayed with me during the move, and then I delivered him to his new home. I left the carseat with them that day.

As though that were the signal, our tight group of friends began to break up. Several people moved away, reluctantly, sadly.

My days now stretch in front of me. Oh, I have plenty to fill them, but sometimes I think about what has been lost, not just Alec and my adopted family, but the friends from my volunteer activities and my job whom I’m not likely to see much of anymore.

It’s not the first time that the things that filled my day suddenly disappeared. In August of the year I turned fifty, my last child left home; I sold the house; and my elderly dog died. None of these events were unexpected or even unwelcome, but I was surprised by the space that opened up in my days with no children to greet, no dog to walk, no grass to cut or rooms to paint.

Yet I have been happy in this apartment, and I found my lovely group of friends here. If this time is passing, as it seems to be, I have no doubt that the next phase will be equally fortunate.

David Hinton, who has studied and translated ancient Chinese poetry, talks of the Taoist concept of tzu-jan, the constant unfolding of things. Instead of seeing time as a linear narrative, the ancient Chinese thought of time as a constantly changing present, with things appearing and disappearing.

It is this way of seeing existence as waves washing over a persistent present that I am practicing now.

Note: Names have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

Bio: Barbara Morrison, who writes under the name B. Morrison, is the author of a memoir, Innocent: Confessions of a Welfare Mother, and two poetry collections, Terrarium and Here at Least. Barbara’s award-winning work has been published in anthologies and magazines. She conducts writing workshops, provides editing services, and (as the owner of a small press) speaks about publishing and marketing. She has maintained her Monday Morning Books blog since 2006 and tweets regularly about poetry @bmorrison9. For more information, visit her website and blog at

Holding on and Letting Go: A Year in the Life of a Book

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty five thousand moments so dear
Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure, measure a year?”
~”Seasons of Love”, from Rent

Ann with the first book I unpacked

“I love the song “Seasons of Love,” and I remember humming along with it  well before I ever saw Rent.  The opening lines came back to me when I began to think about how to measure my first year with a published book. Was it really only a year ago that I had my opening reading on a cold February night at Zu Coffee in Annapolis? Cliff Lynn and Rocky Jones emceed the evening, with Cliff introducing the readers and Rocky providing music with his bongos. So many of my friends came to cheer me on, and I have special thanks to each of them. To Grace Cavalieri for her unfailing support and belief in my work, to Laura Shovan for her keen insight and good ear, and to Debby Kevin for her help with marketing and promotion.  My children were there at the first reading–Brian took care of video taping the reading and Christella sold the books for me so that I could talk to people while I signed copies for them.  The evening was magical, and I was humbled to have so many folks attend my first reading and buy my book, The Altar of Innocence.

I think that I could perhaps measure the year in friends–old friends who have celebrated with me and new friends that I’ve met while doing my readings in Baltimore, Annapolis, and DC.  To begin the list, I want to thank three good friends who are part of the meditation group that has become such a valuable part of my life.

Jane Nitsch and her husband, Gerry Cohee, have been steadfast in their support and love.  Jane and Gerry invited me to read my poems as I was shaping them and they offered both critique and support in a safe atmosphere. Additionally, they hosted my book party last May, graciously opening their home to many other friends who attended  my reading party. Thank you, Jane and Gerry.

Renee Rogers is another friend from the mediation group. Her special contribution came in the form of beautiful bookmarks that she designed and produced as party favors for all of the guests. The bookmarks are elegant and graceful, and now I give them  as a special treat included with every book I sell. Thank you, Renee.

Barbara Morrison invited me to read with her and to design a program  exploring memoir using our poetry. The program is called “Looking Back to Move Forward,” and we explore the themes of innocence, secrets, and burdens that emerge in both of our books. Barbara’s book, Terrarium, looks at her life through the lens of place. She does an amazing job of capturing both the joy and the sorrow of childhood as she leads readers to her favorite childhood haunts in Roland Park. Thank you, Barbara.

I want to thank all of the wonderful people who have come to my readings and shared their stories with me. It is deeply humbling to write a book that delves into difficult personal and family issues–alcoholism, depression, and verbal abuse–and to find that my stories touch my readers’ lives and create a bridge of experience that we can share. No writer could ever ask for more.

Here’s a shout-out to all of my guest-bloggers who have so faithfully contributed their talents and stories, helping to expand my readers’ horizons with their fresh perspectives. Here’s to Patricia Van Amburg for her thoughtful guidance as my critique partner and for the many hours she has worked with me to refine my poetry. Here’s to Peter Brunn of New Day Campaign, who invited me to be part of his work of using the arts to end the stigma around mental illness and addiction.

Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hamden
Christella and Brian, Christmas Eve in Hampden

And lastly, here’s to my wonderful children, Brian and Christella Potts. They have always believed in my work and encouraged me to write poetry when no one else thought I could. Most importantly, Brian and Christella encouraged me to resist the urge to censor my story. I am so grateful for the advice that they both offered: “Mom, no one can tell you how to make your art.”  Thank you, Brian and Christella.

How do I measure my past year?

In friendships, and laughter, and fearless abandon. It was all about love.

Enjoy the music!