Videos from My Green Street Cafe Poetry Reading, Plus Upcoming Readings News

Saturday, Feb. 20, 7:00-8:30 PM: I’ll be reading with poets Karen Johnston and Ellen LaFleche at Thirsty Mind Coffee and Wine Bar, 23 College Street, South Hadley, MA. For more information, call 413-538-9309.

Karen G. Johnston is a social worker by vocation, a poet by avocation, a socialist by inclination, a UU-Buddhist by faith, and mother by choice. Her writing has been published in Silkworm, Equinox, Concise Delight, WordCatalyst, and Women. Period. An Anthology of Writings on Menstruation.

Ellen LaFleche has a special interest in poems about working class people, and issues of health and healing. She has published in numerous journals, including Many Mountains Moving, Alehouse, Alligator Juniper, the Ledge, New Millennium Writings, and Naugatuck River Review.

And speaking of Naugatuck River Review

Saturday, Feb. 27, 2:00-4:00 PM: Launch party for the Winter 2010 issue, which includes winners of the 2009 narrative poetry contest, at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton. I’ll be reading with several of my fellow authors in this issue.

Readers include: Thomas R. Moore (1st place winner), Kathryn Neel (3rd place winner), Pat Hale, Gineen Lee Cooper, Jendi Reiter, Allegra Mira, Lynne Francis, Wendy Green Simpson, Don Lowe, Laura Rodley, David Giannini, Barbara Benoit, Christina Svane, Sharon Charde, Andrea Cousins, Paula Sayword, Jeff Friedman and Tim Mayo. Also reading are our poetry editors Oonagh Doherty, Ellen LaFleche and Sally Bellerose. Leslea Newman, our esteemed contest judge, will also read! Hosted by Publisher Lori Desrosiers.

Last month, I had the pleasure of reading with Charlie Bondhus, author of How the Boy Might See It (Pecan Grove Press, 2010) at the Green Street Cafe in Northampton. Thanks to my husband, Adam Cohen, and his ever-present Flip camera, our performances can now be viewed on Blip TV here (me) and here (Charlie). Each segment is about 25 minutes. We introduced each other, which is why Charlie’s segment starts with me and vice versa.

If you prefer to take me in small doses, as many people do, please enjoy these YouTube videos from the reading.

“Wedded” first appeared in The Broome Review. Regular readers of this blog may notice a familiar theme.

Buy Swallow!! I mean it.

And now for something completely inappropriate.

A Talent for Sadness (Turning Point Books, 2003) can also be yours.

Reiter’s Block Year in Review: 2009

My imaginary friends and I have had an eventful year. Some friendships were strained, many others proved more of a blessing than I’d ever imagined. Novel chapters got written, some published, and poetry did even better. My husband and I visited Chicago (AWP), New York City (friends, family and shopping), West Palm Beach (gay rights conference), and three agricultural fairs (we like cheese). My politics moved further to the left, dragging my theology along. Or was it the other way around?

Thanks for visiting Reiter’s Block. I look forward to continuing our conversation in 2010.  And now, the clips episode.

Biggest Accomplishment

SWALLOW. SWALLOW SWALLOW SWALLOW. Buy it now and the scary birdies won’t getcha.

Biggest Disappointment

You know who you are.

Guilty Pleasure

Facebook. Okay, so that’s tangentially related to my writing career. But…

Even Guiltier Pleasure

Farmville on Facebook. This game has no productive value whatsoever. The most I can say is that it’s easier on my wrist than computer solitaire.

Best Books Read in 2009

*Alex Haley, Roots

I thought I understood the story of slavery in this country, but I didn’t feel it in my heart till I read this saga of seven generations of an African-American family, beginning with Haley’s Gambian ancestor who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 18th century. Haley’s fictionalized re-creation of their lives is rich with drama, humor, tragedy, political outrage, and love that defies the odds.

*Cheryl Diamond, Model

There’s more to this teen memoir than meets the eye. Beautiful, blonde Cheryl has a wise old head on her shoulders, which helps her survive encounters with all sorts of human predators as she tenaciously builds a career as a fashion model in New York City. She’s also a sharp, funny writer. Now, when I feel defeated by life’s setbacks, I often ask myself, “What would Cheryl do?”

*Adrian Desmond & James R. Moore, Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Two leading Darwin scholars wrote this thorough and engaging history of how Charles Darwin’s hatred of slavery impelled him to seek a common origin for the races. The book has a strong narrative line and a detailed analysis of how politics, religion, and science have been entwined at every step in the development of evolutionary theory.

*David G. Myers & Letha Dawson Scanzoni, What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage

A journalist and a sociologist make a concise and persuasive case that marriage is good for everyone; gays are born that way; and the Bible doesn’t have to be interpreted to condemn homosexuality. While their arguments won’t be news to followers of progressive and queer theology, this is the book I recommend first to anti-gay Christians because it’s written by two straight evangelicals.

*Sarah Schulman, Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences

Original, hard-hitting new book from longtime AIDS activist and lesbian playwright casts a critical eye on the family dynamics of shunning and devaluing gay members, and how this becomes the template for the same behaviors in the wider society, as well as domestic abuse in gay relationships. Amazon reviewer C. Bard Cole writes, “…a tight and focused master work. Her approach to talking about the painful family dynamics in her own life is unlike anyone else’s, so unlike the calculated confessional approach of memoir and transgressive fiction that I hardly know how to describe it. It’s cool, intellectual, self-controlled — but perhaps like Perseus looking at the Gorgon only as a reflection in his shield.”

Favorite Blog Posts

“Blogging for Truth” Week: Writing the Truths of GLBT Lives

As Pontius Pilate famously asked, “What is truth?” Who gets to tell it, and about whom? The debate between affirming and non-affirming Christians is fundamentally about the relationship of truth to power. For that reason, it should concern all Christians, whether or not they have a personal stake in GLBT rights.

Liberal Autonomy or Christian Liberty

Original sin distinguishes the Christian picture of human nature from the liberal one. Privileging personal experience over text and tradition, a liberal might say “The truth is inside you.” I wouldn’t go that far. As a good postmodernist, I would say “You are inside you.” The right to stay grounded in our own experience should not be conditioned on the impossible burden of always “getting it right”. That’s another form of legalism.

I’m a Barbie Girl, in a Fallen World

When I’m with my Barbies, I can simply enjoy being a girl. I can pretend that I’m working on narrative structure by inventing elaborate storylines for them — TV show producer Barbie, transgender fashion designer Barbie, 12-step rehab Barbie, closeted evangelical gay teen Barbie, Korean radical feminist ex-stripper Barbie, and the rest. But the truth is, I just love clothes.

Happy 2010 from me and my muse…

Poem: “The Tune Michael”

This poem of mine was recently published in the 4th anniversary issue of the Istanbul Literary Review, edited by Susan Tepper and Gloria Mindock.

The Tune Michael

    for Karen and Dino

What comes through to the bedded boy, the laid-down boy,
the boy dark as church, weathering a sleep
fallen in childhood — all my hope

the boy wiped and leaking, the boy the body feeding
the house with its banked fires,
center of our constellation on God

is founded what comes to us through the body
is like practicing music
before anyone arrives, the nave’s silence maple thick

and sun after sun content to fall
through change and chance through dust
but no word, should that be enough?

What is enough for the boy tucked and sheeted,
sung favorites, insensate to our tender gloves,
still my trust rituals of a retired flag —

what funeral, what cure?
How much his life for ours
springeth out of naught

oh, let there be an inside
to this night, this boy bread,
in his flesh a listener

hidden like God in wine.

The tune mentioned in the title is #665 in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, written by Herbert Howells to accompany the poem “All My Hope on God Is Founded”. This video from Westminster Abbey includes captioned lyrics.

Poemeleon “Gender Issue” Now Online

Mystery boxes! Ironic diagrams! And at least one plastic vagina… It’s the latest issue of the online journal Poemeleon, the Gender Issue, with poems from award-winning authors including Rane Arroyo, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Jennifer Sweeney, and yours truly.

Other highlights include a review of Letters to the World: Poems from the Women’s Poetry Listserv. This lively and erudite online discussion group, better known as Wom-Po, was crucial in helping me transition from the 9-to-5 cubicle world to the more solitary and unstructured life of the writer-entrepreneur, back in 2003. Wom-Po demonstrates the potential of the Internet to create a community for women writers who may not have opportunities for face-to-face mentoring. (Be warned, though – the discussion is so active that reading and responding to the messages may consume your entire day.)

Poem: “What You Need to Know Is”

The New England Trans United pride march will be held in Northampton this Saturday, Oct. 3, from 11 AM-5 PM. I would love to march again this year, but my husband and I will be in New York City on family business for most of October. Please send me your photos and videos to post on this blog.

In honor of Trans Pride, I’d like to share this poem from my new chapbook, Swallow, which is now available from Amsterdam Press:

What You Need to Know Is

Not in my urinal or my soprano,
white rubber corset or tobacco whiskers.
Not in the gun or the red bloom
on the tumbled gown. Not prone and not aiming.
I could presume to say that you dream
of Lazarus and if it is anywhere,
it is there, in the nights your dry tongue
burns for wasted water but more so
in the mirror dream where your hand spills it away.
Sometimes I, too, soften it like the twilight
and then I am that lightbulb questioner
who slaps you awake with a hose.
I in my nursing smock, I in my meat-stained apron,
how I wish I did not know this
much as you wish I were not beside you
(O my mustache, O my silver-tipped fingers)
sweating through the Gloria.

“Swallow” Poetry Chapbook by Jendi Reiter Now Available from Amsterdam Press

My poetry chapbook Swallow won the 2008 Flip Kelly Poetry Prize from Amsterdam Press and is now available for purchase online. Thanks are due to my awesome editor, Cindy Kelly; poet Ellen LaFleche, who helped me organize the collection and suggested the title; and my prison pen pal “Conway” who drew the amazing cover art.

“Jendi Reiter’s poems are arrows that plunge dead center into the hearts of feminism, religion, death, the interior of mental health and psychotherapy. Her humor and satire here are as sharply honed as are her indignation. All are delivered in highly imaginative and metaphoric imagery. This is an intelligent and powerful read that will leave issues bleeding in the minds of readers for a while before they heal.”

—Ellaraine Lockie, award-winning poet, nonfiction author, educator

“There’s plenty of poetry I wouldn’t give a fig for, but I’d give strawberries for the poems in Jendi Reiter’s SWALLOW. When I started in Poetry in 1962, I felt poems were only poems if the top of my head was taken off, to use Emily Dickinson’s words. Jendi Reiter, who is also a bold experimenter, writes that way—solid images, worthwhile themes, and sentences that stick in the mind like raisins in rice pudding. I find much of today’s poetry too arcane, which may be why it’s ignored by so many. That’s not true of Jendi Reiter’s work. It’s challenging, beautiful, and clear. Read it, and again in Dickinson’s words, taste a liquor never brewed.”

—William Childress, Pulitzer-nominated Korean War poet and journalist

Enjoy a sample poem from Swallow:

Wolf Whistles

We’re all trying not to think about sex or cake.
That bitter word hurled from a car.
A moment ago you felt pretty.
Trying not to hammer the nail
into anything but the board.
Hard hat men sucking on coffee,
women with their hands down their throats
like a magician pulling a ten-foot rope out of a bottle.
It seems to go on forever,
monotonous intestine.
We’re trying cold baths and grapefruits,
another route around the tar
someone’s grateful to be laying down.
Saying throw me in the briar patch,
come on, do.
What a great distraction brambles are.
Rubbing and rubbing the saw against the wood.
What wound is he favoring
as his whistle strips you like paint?
We’re smashing pies into our faces,
we’re cutting open our skins. The better to eat.

Against Sincerity

Journaling about some difficult family memories last year, I wrote, “I became a poet so that I could tell the truth without being understood.” I hadn’t ever realized this until I wrote it down; apparently, transparency is a privilege I don’t always grant to myself, let alone other people.

Although Eve Tushnet and I disagree on what the Bible requires of gay Christians, I love how she has retained the queer sensibility, with all its outsider wit and willingness to embrace psychological extremes. The hunger for normalcy, for invisibility after a lifetime of persecution, leads far more “ex-gays” to go along with the cultural assimilation program of conservative churches, giving up not only the genital expression of their sexuality but an entire way of seeing the world from a marginalized and ironic perspective. Maybe Eve resists this pressure because, well, Catholics just have more style than evangelicals.

Anyhow, this is not yet another GLBT rant but an excuse to quote Eve’s awesome lines from this August 3rd post critiquing the aesthetic of “sincerism”:  

It’s the privilege of those whose beliefs are basically mainstream to think that “realism” and sincerity are good ways of conveying the truth. Only those whose experiences and interpretations line up with mainstream culture can be guaranteed that their sincere heart-baring tales will be believed; and they’re the ones for whom this language of sincerity was made.

I could explain the relevance to my life but…that would be too sincere. Instead, here’s a poem from my chapbook Swallow, forthcoming this fall from Amsterdam Press.

How to Fail a Personality Test

That’s an ink blot. Too literal.

I know, it’s not actually an ink blot. There’s no ink
    on it, now, is there?

It’s a photograph of an ink blot. That’s what it
    signifies. What Derrida might have called the
    absent present. Or was it the poison Gift?

No, I’ve never been tempted to drink household

You want me to say that one’s a bat, don’t you?
    I know, I saw it on Wikipedia.

But I think it’s a pelvis. That’s the tailbone. Oh, I’m
     sorry — looks like.

Because we don’t really have tails.

You’re the one showing me pictures of dead
    people. Ha ha.

All right, it’s a bat. Does that make me

I just figured, with the velvet cape and all.

Everybody says that.

I could flip this one upside-down. Do you think
    it would enjoy that?

Oh come on, don’t tell me you’ve never apologized
    to a chair for walking into it.

Yes, it is all about me. That one’s a crab.

Why take longer to look for something that’s
    not there?

I could wait for the stain on the ceiling to spread a
    map over my day.

Did you know they sell a stencil to burn the Virgin
    Mary onto your toast? I mean, why this picture?

I could name the clouds until a white horse
    stopped for me.

But we all have a job to do.

A crab in a lace mantilla shaking a popsicle stick.
    But all you say is Hmm.

I think that’s very sad.

Poem: “Wedded”

This poem of mine was chosen by Chris Forhan as a runner-up for the 2008 Stephen Dunn Prize in Poetry from The Broome Review, and also appears in their Spring 2009 issue and on their website.


Why can’t the dog and the cat get married,
the postman to the bishop, the nurse to the queen?
In the days when mud was chocolate
we could march the egg cups down the table,
humming that universal tune.
The teddy bear and the piggy bank,
the lightbulb and the tomato.
Not all of these relationships would work out,
as we knew from the sound
of cloth tearing in another room.
Still we imagined,
in those days when peppermint was money,
that a bit of lace thrown over
the cat’s spitting head would make her beautiful,
and a dropcloth would stop the parrot quarreling
with his mirror mate.
We were dizzy with weddings,
even when the books fell to the floor
inky and torn, face-down like bridesmaids
with their mascara running.
Why do the things that were sold together,
the obvious salt and pepper,
rows of rolled socks like dull neighbors,
always go missing?
So we married the glove to the mitten,
in those days when morning was bedtime,
when lunch was rice flung in the street
after the tin-can fugitives,
we matched the boot to the baby’s shoe
and no guests came.

Poem: “Zeal”

I want the truth or
quiet, you can’t have both
in daylight, in company,
from the baby-blanket sky we turn into rooms
you can’t have if you’re human meaning
no desire without its rind of talk, I want
that orange uncut
better than to sit here with knives
spinning the sun in a bowl,
I want the truth like a fat lady
wants cake, sticking her sweet fingers in her mouth
in fecal shame,
I want quiet like letting the beaver
alone who nibbles on the neighbor’s lettuces
because in her world she is right,
pines hushing in the dark and insects gold
dust in the last beams, how could any
great hand that shaped the clover
fall harder on us
poor toads, I want to turn it
all off, the lingual grid gone black
and only hands left, right
in the sag and salty hair of us,
dear fatigue, lift me at last    I want
to forgive whoever
asks me and maybe others.

    published in Fulcrum #6 (2008)

Poem: “Picnic”

My icebox lover, let us sit at opposite ends
of the blanket, pass a single egg back and forth,
the salt, the pepper, the tiny bites.
Let’s admire the suspended sunset of blueberries
in the jelly, decide not to open the jar.
The ants are making words on the checkerboard
of red cotton, like foreign newsprint shrilling its mysteries —
words of thunder, words of weather.
The future is obvious; let’s not puzzle
too long under its clouds.
Sharing this postcard sandwich, cucumbers and butter,
a hint suffices us for the whole.
The lemon slices smile sagely in the glass
and the bees waver between us, buzzing like knives,
ready to wound for their sugar.
We could fold our napkins, we could leave hungry,
not wait till the rain skins us in our clothes,
pushes us down in the soil like plants.
Lover, don’t grab for that last plate.
To be struck
once —
I’ve had enough lightning.

    This poem won a Commended award in the 2008 Cyclamens & Swords Poetry Contest. Read the winners here.