Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Susan Scheid, Poet & Literary Activist, Tells Her Story

Zoon, Zoon, Cuddle and Croon

Poetry has shaped most of my life.  My father read poetry to me instead of bedtime stories. It was the music of the language, the playfulness, and the places those poems took me that have remained with me. Even now, I hear my dad reciting the first stanza of “Moon Song” every time I see a full moon that lights my yard and the open sky.

Zoon, zoon, cuddle and croon­
Over the crinkling sea,
The moon man flings him a silvered net
Fashioned of moonbeams three.

My love of alliteration and the rhythm of language had to come from “The Baby Goes to Boston”

What does the train say?
 Jiggle joggle, jiggle joggle!
What does the train say?
Jiggle joggle jee!
Will the little baby go
Riding with the locomo?
Loky moky poky stoky
Smoky choky chee!

The message of James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” (inscribed to “all the little children . . . The good ones—Yes, the good ones, too; and all the lovely bad ones) certainly kept me and my siblings in line with its repeating refrain:

An’ the Gobble-uns‘ll git you
ef you

I was certain that the long-fingered shadows of tree limbs on my bedroom walls at night were the goblins watching me to see if I behaved! 

Ink Runs from the Corners of My Mouth

Writing is a solitary activity.  You spend hours and hours alone for the most part, trying to perfect on paper an idea in your head.  You arrange and re-arrange words on paper that will paint a certain picture or evoke a certain feeling for the reader.  Sometimes that arrangement is a complicated mixture of repeating lines and rhyme schemes.  Other times you may include allusions to other poets or poems and then hope that the reader understands it.  All this work to be published in a literary journal, an online journal, to read at an open mic, hoping that one day you will have enough poems for your own book.  Sounds rewarding, doesn’t it? 

Line breaks, voice, tone, meter, rhythm, stanza breaks, form, too many adverbs.  These are all the things we think about as we meticulously craft each poem, no matter how short.  Draft after draft.  We pass along marked-up sheets to other poets and ask for comments we often don’t really want.  We sit in writing groups and give each other face-to-face feedback.

The writing does not always come easy but, like a muscle, it has to be flexed.  Writers have tricks to prompt themselves into producing a draft of something for the day, sort of like dancers have warm-up exercises.  I know that some of my better poems have started as writing exercises—like my fairy tale poems that served as the basis for my first book (After Enchantment). 

I am a poet.  It’s who I am, not a job that I do.  If it’s so hard and solitary then why write?  I write because I can’t not write.  The more I write, the more I open myself to the world.  The more I open myself to the world, the more I am moved by my emotions.  The more I am moved, the more I write.  And so it goes.

Poetry is powerful.  It can transform a personal experience into words that hold meaning for others.  I remember the first time that a stranger came to me after an open mic and asked for a copy of the poem I had just read.  She had tears in her eyes as she explained how my poem helped her understand how her mother’s dementia had affected them both.  She said that she had never considered how the dementia felt for her mother.  My poem had transformed how this stranger viewed her own mother!  At that moment, I felt the power of my words in the world.

The biggest compliment I ever receive is hearing a person say “I never liked/understood poetry until I read your poems.”  The fact that my writing could unlock a new world for someone means more to me than any monetary or literary rewards.

In 2008, I was introduced to the incredible poetry community here in Washington, DC ,through the Split This Rock Poetry Festival.  I had found my people!  A world of poets and poetry of witness opened up to me and I to it.  I discovered that my poems could find a home in the world, have meaning, and possibly inspire others.

Where Everything is Music

Rumi tells us poems come “from a slow and powerful root/that we can’t see.” 

I don’t always know where my poems come from.  I have poems that feel like they were poured through me onto paper.  Other poems I worked on for years—writing, re-writing, putting aside, shaping words and phrases just so.

A poet has to write from the heart.  But it is the most vulnerable and, at times, frightening place to open to the world.  Often the work is raw.  You have to be willing to feel exposed to strangers, because even if the piece you write has nothing to do with you personally, there is always a part of you in there.  It is rather like giving birth over and over again. 

It’s hard to talk about my work.  In many ways, it’s very personal—even when I am writing about something not related to my own life.  I try to write about what I see and experience, but since I write from my heart I can be inspired by nearly anything—a picture in the newspaper (“The Painted Lady”), a story on the radio (“A Typical Day”) or the title of a cartoon (“Coffee with Jesus”).  I wrote the following poem after my youngest son lied to me.  Now I can’t even remember the lie, just the anger and betrayal I felt.


He looked me in the eye
then he lied to me
his lips never sneered
eyes never flashed.
But he lied.

Then I could see it –
the lie – just beneath
his skin, moving around,
as if it were some parasite
burrowing, becoming part of him.

And when he smiled
it almost disappeared.
When he said I love you
all I could hear was the lie,
chewing away inside him,
burrowing deeper.

Prevarication, watercolor by E.A. "Skeeter" Scheid

I am also attracted to the odd piece or the twist in the story.  I have a sarcastic streak that is a mile wide, thanks to my parents.  In my version of Sleeping Beauty, I try to use that twist and come out with a poem where, after she awakens, the princess has insomnia.

Sleeping Beauty

Every night the prince calls out to me
to return to bed and his dreams.

Insomnia is my friend now.
I have no use for sleep these days.

For those who criticize, I say
let me wander with Death
atop the walls of the night,
for only in that darkness
do I truly feel awake.

Sleeping Beauty, watercolor by E.A. "Skeeter" Scheid

My friends often suggest “you should write a poem about that,” usually at absurd moments in life.  It’s easier said than done.  While I am drawn to the absurd and comical, using humor well is more difficult than it appears.  But sometimes it works.

Snow White’s Math Problem

If seven dwarves each own
seven shirts, seven pairs of socks,
seven pairs of pants, and
seven pairs of boxers,
then how much money does
Snow White have to pay
for laundry, so she
can hang out in the forest
with friends, smoking
and reading cheap magazines?

Snow White, watercolor by E.A. "Skeeter" Scheid

When I write, I seek truth, spirituality, a sense of connectedness to other people and the universe.  I try to have compassion for and to deepen my (and my reader’s) understanding of other people’s lives.  In writing poems of witness, writing from someone else’s eyes or point of view is one way to deepen that compassion.  When Treyvon Martin, and later, Michael Brown were shot, I thought about their mothers.  I was the mother of two teenaged sons and I tried to imagine how I would feel if either of them had been shot under similar circumstances.  It led me to write this poem, in the style of a poem entitled “Otherwise” by Jane Kenyon. 

My Otherwise
 (after Jane Kenyon)

I awoke today
with two strong boys.
It might have been
otherwise.  I kissed
their cheeks, pale
young, innocent
male.  It might
have been otherwise.
They walked through the park
and home again safely.
All day long I lived without
fear for the ones I love.

For lunch we made grilled
cheese sandwiches. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with paper
napkins.  It might
have been otherwise.
The boys slept in beds
in a room with painted walls
and planned other days
just like this day.
And I prayed in the dark
because I know,
there are other mothers
with boys for whom
every day is otherwise.

Like the poem above, I also write social justice or so-called “political” poems.  I do so in order to stand in solidarity, to write a poem of witness, to give a voice to people who are suffering in the world.  But I do not consider myself exclusively a political poet.  Likewise, I consider myself a feminist, although I would not categorize myself as a feminist writer.  I realize, though, that characters in my poems frequently speak as ardent feminists.  In a series I am writing about Eve, I describe her true birth happening the moment when she makes a decision for herself.  In this poem, Eve decides to leave Adam (and the Garden) and live independently.

Eve Takes Her Leave of Adam

All of this I would have gladly accepted—
the loss, the pain, my mortality.
If only you had acknowledged me.

All this journey, this search
for paradise, there was only ever
one decision, one opinion—

You thought I was yours too.

Fashioned from your rib,
I was a vessel
made of bone and sinew. 
But I was empty,
until the storms came
and blew me into the world.

I am a woman.

Now, I need to travel the earth.
Feel the power at my edges,
the calm at my center.

You will know where I am
by the smell of rain in the air,
the mud caressing your feet.

There’s No Place Like Home

It’s hard to sum up artistic endeavors and a lifetime of work in only a few pages.  The more I live in this world, the more I come to realize that I had a “magical” childhood, sheltered from the dark side of life.  At first, I was angry with my parents about that protection.  Now I am grateful.  I know it was an act of love on their part to put me in such a position.  It has allowed me to find the good, the genuine, the kindness in life and then to write about it so others can find it too.

Poetry speaks to the heart.  It connects us to each other.  There is so much pain in the world, sometimes we have to stand for beauty and compassion.  So I’ll end here, as I often end my readings, with this necessary poem.


Buddha said
When suffering comes
touch the earth
to the root of all roots.
And when suffering finds you
be not the archer
nor the arrow.
Be the air
which parts
and re-unites.
Only air understands
this movement

and forgiveness.  

This is Week 10 of 52 Artists in 52 Weeks. Thank you for reading and sharing Susan's story today! To connect with Susan, contact her on Twitter or you can attend the monthly poetry series she curates at Brookland Arts. Her book, After Enchantment, is available on Amazon.