Updated: Sep 2, 2022
By Annie Newcomer:
The Flapper Press Poetry Café features the work of poets from around the world. This week, we highlight the work of Laurel Benjamin.
Laurel Benjamin is a San Francisco Bay area native, where she invented a secret language with her brother. She has work forthcoming or published in Lily Poetry Review, Turning a Train of Thought Upside Down: An Anthology of Women's Poetry, South Florida Poetry Journal, Trouvaille Review, One Art, Ekphrastic Review, Wordpeace, The Thieving Magpie, Black Fox, Hare’s Paw, California Quarterly, and Mac Queens Quinterly, among others. Affiliated with the Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon and the Port Townsend Writers, she holds an MFA from Mills College. She is a reader for Common Ground Review.
Meet Laurel Benjamin!
AN: Laurel, welcome to Flapper Press Poetry Café. We love that you invented a secret language with your brother in your childhood. Were you also writing poems then? Can you share how creativity in childhood overflows into adulthood? And, I must ask, is your brother a poet too?
LB: My brother and I had a secret language. In fact, our aunt, Marilyn Sachs, who wrote children’s books, used this in one of her young-adult books. Some of our communication was non-verbal, where just a look would tear each other up in laughter. Some of the words were made up, like for our cat Orlando, who had many nicknames, such as Wangie, Willie Horton. Our father was called Ogi, Bloge, Perry-the-Puddlepatch-painter (a song was made up of this title), Fool-Around-Bloge. Our mother was called Wilers, Boars. We had names for various articles of clothing, kept a “quote book” of phrases our father said, usually at night while we were irritating him. When my brother and I grew up, our parents adapted and started using some of the language themselves, in a kind of fun familiarity. My brother and I made up songs with characters as well as referencing people we knew. When camping, my brother would immediately, when we arrived at a campground, find a couple of sticks from the ground and start drumming, and we would start singing. As an adult, my brother is an accomplished musician who teaches popular music on the guitar.
I always wrote fictionalized stories. I started writing love poems when I started college at 18. I was reading strictly English Romantic poetry; and not until one of my teachers recommended contemporary poetry did I stop spelling words in the British way. I got my MFA in fiction at Mills College. I believe writing in multiple genres informs each of them. I employ that both as a writer and also as an English teacher.
My mother did not grow up playing music or having creative outlets, but she loved the opera (her parents loved the Jewish theater). Mom was talented in languages, and when married made sure they both got working visas and lived in England and traveled the continent, saw opera in the great houses, ballet, symphony, theater, etc. Her thirst for high culture extended to involving me as a child in attending performances and going to museums. I studied music, art, dance. I played classical music with the piano first and then carried the oboe to high level.
AN: We live in a Renaissance of Poetic Creativity. How do you describe your poetry as compared with narrative and lyrical poets?
LB: Traditionally, I have written in the narrative style, and more recently have found my way into the lyric. I also depend on structure, not only in forms, but also in the line. I’ve learned as much from workshops in form as I have from those in free verse. I like to use all the tools, in other words. Sometimes I put a free-verse poem into a form, such as a sonnet or ghazal, and then bring it out again into free verse, taking some internal rhyme, depending on new lineation, or repetition—whatever the form has to offer.
AN: I noticed your poem “Inside Bird” engages two strong elements available in a poet’s toolbox, alliteration and repetition (of the word "bird"). Please share with our readers how these poetic devices help create sound in your poem. Is this intentional?
LB: “Inside Bird” is a loose ghazal, currently my favorite form; loose as in each couplet is not whole unto itself, and I use enjambment between lines and between stanzas. The forced end line repetition inherent in the ghazal causes surprising word pairings. It also pushes new discoveries while writing—the light bulb going off with a huge “ah”—and in this case, what I may not have realized about my mother.
AN: How do the Bay Area Women’s Poetry Salon and the Port Townsend Writers group best support your writing endeavors? Are these community writing groups open to area poets?
LB: The BAWPS has an anthology run by local poet Andrena Zawinski—she and I worked together in the English Dept. at Laney College in Oakland, and she is a mentor and a friend. The group has been meeting since 2006, the same time I started teaching at Laney. We meet every six weeks; pre-pandemic meetings took place at a different member’s house with a potluck included, and more recently we’ve met online. Members consist of top-notch writers of the Bay Area. Members have been vetted by the leader.
The Port Townsend Writers is a weekly freewrite group in the vein that I was leading in person for a few years early mornings at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in Washington State. It’s a private (not open) group. Members on the West Coast have attended the conference in person.
I run asynchronous writing groups; for example, one of many is the Ekphrastic Writers, which has run since summer 2021, a private Facebook group where I provide prompts and members post drafts and receive feedback from other members. It is not a publishing-oriented group, but many of us have had successes and gotten published from work generated in the group.
Find her blog at https://thebadgerpress.blogspot.com
Find her at Twitter at @lbencleo
Find her on Instagram at cleobenjami
If the ornament was a bird, breakable, then my mother was too, though during her life she presented herself as anything but fragile. As much as the poem is a loose ghazal, it is also an elegy, a lamentation for the glass bird ornament broken by my cat, the moment of it shattering, a reminder of the loss of my mother who gave me the ornament. The piece and the emotion carried describe not just a moment but a reverberation, as “bird” keeps happening, over and over again.
Praise to the blood glass broken bird gold lettered, dropped by the bird cat who imagined flight, listened in pieces to a broom swept ornament. My mother’s bird a gift each year to hang on the Christmas tree though Jewish, this one not a wild bird, not collapsible like the letters I saved. I could see through the scarlet clouded bird to the past, a message brittle bred like her own calligraphy curved and bended— what was she trying to say in a gift nodding me onward, the breakable bird rare blown glass, once sand once liquid cooled to shape in the music of birdland bought at the Asian art museum gift shop after a noodle lunch and galleries brindled. She built a home of vases and glass shelves to see through to outside birds but did she imagine the living bird could fly, did she hear my inside cooing bird.
As a life-long public transportation user, I find myself in shared spaces with people who I don’t know but feel their lives and situation deeply. As a fiction writer, especially, I have made up stories about these situations. Many of us writers are good eavesdroppers, yet in this situation, there was little to go on other than her distress. My favorite memoir author, Patricia Hampl, has been such a model in the sense of interpreting not only our own experiences but others’. Her ability to look, and then look again, has been transformative in my mind and my work. In the original draft of this poem, I actually had two beginnings, where the speaker was experiencing the same thing twice. For this draft, I instead added a third stanza where the speaker gets to re-address. There is a human need to connect with others, even if they’re not actively connecting with us.
Flowers on a Train
Flowers fall off her shirt onto the floor a sea of flowers as she texts into her phone. And because like her I’ve cried under sunglasses, into my tea, under the shower’s hot water, at the top of the steps between classes I inhale the violet, the tangerine, the rose. Flowers fell off my skirt one Christmas, punch at a party, attentions of the bass player staggering to get more into his glass. I needed a refill, staring at white lights hung on the kitchen’s bare walls. Almost close enough. Then the band started up and he took his place next to the piano, the drums, and my saxophone boyfriend. As we drove back over the Bay Bridge I compared musical temperaments while the punch wore off, like coming out of anesthesia. Flowers on a Train, why do you cry, a saxophone player in your coffee or did you wake in the middle of an impermeable song, honeyed sweater, sunglasses on your curly crown. You can reach me a few seats away— your flowers crawl up my legs, thick velvet pile, silent wet.
Landscape can be so temporal, like a relationship. Some relationships, we think they’ll last forever, though on another level we know they’ll pass in some way. At one time, I traveled route 128 to Mendocino often, and each time it looked the same though different, depending on weather and time of year. The music is Dvorak, played by the Chilingirian Quartet on the car stereo. I don’t often write short poems. This one encapsulates a specific time and person in my life.
How do I close the rain & valley of tightly knit fog. One stroke across your cheek is all I have a few nights then gone, the rain broken flashes. Headlights reveal soaked wintered hills & lichen laced oaks. What’s falling are the many strings of a quartet from a Slavic land. I don’t pretend anymore, clear drops intact on serrated leaves as we trudge uphill, muddy trail through mushroom capped woods to the fern laden falls.
Annie Newcomer teaches poetry classes at the University of Kansas Medical Center's Turning Point—a place for hope and healing for people suffering with chronic health problems. Her North Stars series shares interviews with poets and writers and Annie's own experiences through writing.
Annie is also helms the Flapper Press Poetry Café—dedicated to celebrating poets from around the world and to encouraging everyone to write poetry!
FlapperPress launches the Flapper Press Poetry Café.
Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.
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