April 12, 2016

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

NPM 2015: What Are You Wearing, Jane Elkin?

Find the official NPM 2015 poster
at the Academy of American Poets
At last! It's finally here -- that special season that we wait all year to celebrate.

It's National Poetry Month. 

If National Poetry Month were a party (it kind of is), what would you wear to the celebration? All this month, guest bloggers are putting on their finery here at Author Amok. We're doing a month-long feature on poetry about clothes. In addition to the guest posts, every Friday in April I'll post a round-up of original clothing poems. (Send those via email to laurashovan at gmail dot com or leave them in the comments). You'll find a writing prompt at the bottom of this post.

Why clothes?

Articles of clothing are symbolic. They represent choices people make about how they want to be viewed by others. But they can also represent a person's economic situation, relationship with gender, mood, and culture. A red tie or jacket can be a metaphor for strength.

From popular song, we have Prince's "Raspberry Beret," Elvis' "Blue Suede Shoes," and Nancy Sinatra's walking boots. But what about poetry?

Meet today's guest blogger, poet Jane Elkin. Jane has visited Author Amok several times, including when her book WORLD CLASS: POEMS INSPIRED BY THE ESL CLASSROOM was published in 2014. (Read the post here.)

The Parable of the Hangers
 by Jane Elkin

“If there were a fire and you had time to grab only one thing,” my roommate asks, “what would it be? Photos? Love letters? Your thesis?”
            A reasonable person might point out that if there were indeed a fire, they wouldn’t pause for any of those things, but not me.
            “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say. And with that one question, I am transported back to childhood.

My closet was full of someone else’s clothes. When I’d gone down for my nap, it held my brothers’ cast-offs and three cotton dresses. Now it was packed with girly surprises: a pink rosebud here, a lemon sash there, poufy dotted Swiss sleeves, and silken strawberries on chiffon. Scotty dogs walked the plaid field of a jumper and I swore I heard bagpipes. It was a whole rack of whimsy in thread. It was more clothes than I knew existed. It was the most beautiful sight of all my four years. It was Christmas in August.
            I had been living some other girl’s life in my primary colored play clothes. I was born for Sunday best, and now it appeared I would wear it every day. 
            My mother stood in the door frame, smiling mischievously. “Did you have a good nap?”
            “Mmm hmm.” I pointed. “What are those dresses doing in my closet?”
            “You’re starting kindergarten next week, so you need school clothes, right?”
            Really? I was going to school like my brothers? I had only begged because I was bored. Had I known it involved a makeover, I’d have asked sooner.
             “I’m going to school – in those pretty dresses? Where did they come from?”        
            “From Patty. They’re like new.”
             Patty was an only child with a charmed life –pretty clothes, piano lessons, a puppy. It didn’t matter what things cost because she was a lonely child and her father was a mailman who made a lot of money for not much work. But she was as nice as could be, not at all spoiled. And now her clothes would charm my life, too.
            I sock-skated to the closet and stroked a satin bow.
            “They’re so pretty.” I fingered the hem with the embroidered Scotty dogs. “Thank you!”
            “Here,” my mother said, setting a footstool in front of the closet, “you can take them down by yourself.” I slipped the jumper off the hanger to try it on and went to admire myself in my parents’ full-length mirror, turning to see myself from every angle and bouncing on tip-toe with excitement. I looked older and fancier, like I belonged in the Sears catalog.
            “Of course, now that you’re old enough to dress yourself for school, you’re old enough to learn how to take care of nice clothes, and the best way to do that is to hang them back up right after school.”
            Of course. There had to be a catch. Still, half a day in dresses was better than none.          
            “I’ll take care of them,” I vowed.
            “You have two choices,” my mother said. Some people hang them with all the hooks open to the back, like this.” She motioned to the hangers she’d arranged, all aligned in the same direction. “And other people hang them open to the front, like this.” She turned several to illustrate. “Pick one way or the other, but not both.”
            “Why not?”
            “Well, for one thing, it looks better if they all face the same way,” she began, “but that’s not the most important reason. I’ll show you why.” She flipped every other hanger in alternating directions, talking as she worked.
            “You see, there was once a lady with a whole closet full of beautiful clothes. She had a different outfit for each day and enough dresses to last a month of Sundays: short ones and long ones, silky gowns and woolen suits, sun dresses, party dresses, and even a fur coat – all from the best stores.”
            “Was she a movie star?”
            “Something like that. She had all these beautiful clothes, but she was careless with them. She was always in a hurry, so she had hung them up all haphazard with some of the hangers facing to the front and others facing to the back. Then one day there was a fire.”
            “Ahhh!” I felt sick with dread.
            “She ran to her closet to save her beautiful wardrobe, but when she gathered an armful and tried to run, they held tight to the bar.” My mother locked her arms around the lot and tugged, but the hangers wouldn’t budge.
            “She didn’t have time to turn them around, so she had to run out of the building without any of her nice things, and they all burned up in the fire.”                                 
            “That’s awful,” I gasped. “She wasn’t very smart.” I climbed atop the stool and got to work. “I’m keeping my hangers open to the back, like you had them.”

I’m still an open-to-the-back girl, as are my grown daughters, but I never told them why. Some legacies are too weird to explain. You just do them.

Jane is pairing her remembrances with two poems. In both, clothing becomes a metaphor for the parent/child relationship. The first, by Mark Irwin, begins with a closet.

My Father's Hats

by Mark Irwin

     Sunday mornings I would reach
high into his dark closet while standing
     on a chair and tiptoeing reach
higher, touching, sometimes fumbling
     the soft crowns and imagine
I was in a forest, wind hymning
     through pines, where the musky scent
of rain clinging to damp earth was
     his scent I loved, lingering on
bands, leather, and on the inner silk

Read the rest at Poetry 180.

Jane's second featured poem is by YA author and poet Ron Koertge.

Negative Space
by Ron Koertge

My dad taught me to pack: lay out everything. Put back half. Roll things
that roll. Wrinkle-prone things on top of cotton things. Then pants, waist-
to-hem. Nooks and crannies for socks. Belts around the sides like snakes.
Plastic over that. Add shoes. Wear heavy stuff on the plane.
   We started when I was little. I'd roll up socks. Then he'd pretend to put me
in the suitcase, and we'd laugh. Some guys bond with their dads shooting
hoops or talking about Chevrolets. We did it over luggage.

Read the rest at The Writer's Almanac.

Jane Elkin is the founder and facilitator of The Broadneck Writers’ Workshop, as well as a theater critic and essayist for the Bay Weekly. Her prose and poetry have appeared in such journals as Kestrel, Kansas City Voices, Off the Coast andDucts, and she has won awards with the Maryland Writers’ Association, Poetry Matters, and the Poetry Society of New Hampshire. A self-proclaimed Renaissance Woman, she works as a language teacher, singer, and handwriting analyst.

Next up in this series:
Friday 4/3
Tabatha Yeatts is visiting with a clothing poem by Greg Pincus.

*Your suggested clothing poem prompt for Friday, April 3: Storage.
Where and how do you keep your clothes? Do they hang in your closet, organized by color? Are they crumpled on the bedroom floor? Are you an organized packer, or do you toss things into a suitcase and hope for the best. I still remember the name of the long-ago camp counselor (Janice) who taught us how to roll our clothes up tight to maximize space.

Send your poems any time. I'll post original work on Friday.


jan godown annino said...

Beautiful child-memory essay from Jane Elkin. I felt myself scooting along with her at -
"I sock-skated to the closet and stroked a satin bow."

The full suit of this post fits me well.

Appreciations for the poems Jane shares from Mark Irwin & Ron Koertge.

I expect to share "My Father's Hats" with my pal Adrian Fogelin, who has written a similar scene into her new novel, SOME KIND OF MAGIC, which debut's today, April 1.

Thanks, all around.

Heidi Mordhorst said...

Golly, that was rich. Jane, is that a true story--waking up from a nap to a whole new wardrobe?

Both poems are so affecting--the thrilling scent of "clove in the godsome/air" and the abrupt, painful wasted space of the coffin.

Wonderful, both of you and both of them!

Robyn Campbell said...

What remembrances, Jane. The ending tickled me. I've read Ron's poem before. Renee posted it in the The Lyrical Language Lab alumni FB group. That poem still haunts me today with that ending and the rich language in Mark Irwin's poem. Excellent start to National Poetry month. :-)

Linda B said...

My students travel often, & I just shared Koertge's "Negative Space" with them last week. We're getting ready for our class big trip & we talked about packing. The students had a lot to share-tips & disasters! I love the memory, wonder at our mothers' advice in the past - to create habits? And I love the line: "I looked older and fancier, like I belonged in the Sears catalog." It certainly takes me back to that yearning page after page.

Serena said...

What a great idea. I hope you link up all of these posts throughout April at Savvy Verse & Wit. I loved these clothing poems, etc.

Catherine Johnson said...

Wow that's a crazy story! What a great reason to put them all the same direction. I definitely don't do that but I will!

Great poems

Donna Smith said...

My grandmother was a dressmaker, and I think that is where I learned to make sure the hangers were all open to the back. Much easier to gather them all at once off a rack, and pick them up to hang again.
Loved the diversity in your post.

Robyn Hood Black said...

Wow - what a way to start off this project! Thank you, Jane, and thanks to Laura for facilitating. I love that the personal story featured "girlie" clothes and the two poems were recollections of men/men's clothes.
"...wind hymning/through pines" - gorgeous.

@parridhlantern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
@parridhlantern said...

I put on my walking shoes - Valérie Rouzeau

I put on my walking shoes
I had shown you with the soles retreaded
from old tires.
In pilgrim boats I floated to you
petals stuck to the leather as proofs
of my wishes on the way.
I know you've a good pair too
on your cold feet I know that
better than you and how does it help you.
I wanted to see you to empty
the sand eternally in my shoes to be your
little sand girl for a bit but you have
shut your eyes too tight.

@parridhlantern said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane Elkin said...

Thank you all for your warm feedback. It is, indeed, a true story. And Donna, I was struck by your reference to the seamstress grandmother, because I also worked as a seamstress for a while. Organization mattered a lot!