The Upside’s Downsides

Pensacola mural.jpg

For a few seasons after that dark, tans-free summer
after the British Petroleum oil spill,
Pensacolians still found purple-black shells & tar balls
washed ashore like some Biblical plague.
They pumped gas like some people pumped iron,
pulled mullets out of their gullets
like some people pulled muscles & tendons.
Browned while smoking hash,
they luxuriated in the erupting boil
that was the sun,
pickling their organs
while drinking in
the bay’s briny scent,
puckering up,
wrinkling like worried grapes,
fermenting,
preserving,
& dehydrating their bodies
with mixers & elixirs.
Even a BLT sandwich seemed too hot to eat.

Pensacola, 2016

Pensacola Amtrak

A family drops by the Apple Market for some fried chicken
and cold salads on the way to the beach.
The sound of ice being poured into coolers,
of flip-flops flapping on the pavement,
the smell of charcoal and char,
are harbingers of fun times to come.

Families frolic on the sugar white sand,
glassy and silver in the right light—
the water like a mood ring,
hovering between blue and green.

The congregation at Olive Baptist Church
sings “Our God is an Awesome God.”
When one seeking salvation opens the door,
a heavenly blast of cold air banishes the hellish heat.

At the corner, a group of students from Pensacola Christian College—
with their white shirts and black Bibles—
call out the wages of sin, one by one,
whilst on the opposite corner,
a homeless man holds up a cardboard sign: Cracker Needs Help.

At Palafox Market, Miss Lizzy Loo sells her raw goat’s milk soap and
Miss Patty Jones, her nanner puddin’ fudge,
while Kirk Fontaine strums his dulcimer, singing sunny blues.
Wind chimes made of stained glass create patterns on the sidewalks,
the concrete cool from the tents and trees.
The subtle aroma of fresh oranges carry like music notes—
singing a song of Floridian bounty.

At the Naval Aviation Museum,
a group of enlisted wander the halls,
feeling red, white, and blue all over,
from learning of those who served before them.

Hilda Hoggshead makes it up the 177 steps
in the Pensacola Lighthouse Museum—
the sound of the Blue Angels flying overhead.
The guide talks about ghosts,
which Hilda thinks is hogwash.

Children climb the forts at Ft. Pickens,
parents admonishing them to be careful
while photographers collect shots for their newest calendar.
A hipster lays on a cannon.

The WriteOn! Pensacola group meets at Josie Norris’s house
over raspberry iced tea and corn muffins,
trying to solve the problems of the world with prose,
chatting over Rick Bragg witticisms,
and mourning Pat Conroy, who lies in repose.

At the Bodacious Olive,
a couple of girlfriends since college meet
to whip up some eggs as they think about their empty nests.
Here, they trade family night fare for budget-busting gourmet,
finding their new rhythm through the clicking of cutlery
and mounds of butter—a la Paula Deen.

At the Miracle Faith Center,
Pastor is giving an inspirational talk
on Pop Culture Jesus,
asking for “an Amen, Praise the Lord, and Hallelujah.”
From either heat or sensual, religious rapture,
women fan themselves with programs,
caught up in the charisma and magnetism
of a man after any goddess’s own heart.

A group of Bernie Sanders supporters
create graphic art on Graffiti Bridge,
while a group of “Anybody But Trump” supporters
hold up handmade signs,
the smell of Sharpie still high-inducing under their nostrils.

Poets meet for vegan cuisine at “The End of the Line Café,”
the smell of coffee and a warm invite
enticing others to listen to an alternative speech form—
truth tellers in narrative.

Friends hang out at Scenic 90 Café
for homemade pie or a black-and-white—
the taste taking one back to a place in time
to a place one has never been.

There is Joe Patti’s, where one goes for the freshest seafood in town,
like red snapper and crawfish for boils on the back patio.
A couple of drunk chickens and a few beers—
the cold bottle as wet as the humid air—
relax the flow of conversation.

Baseball fans and lovers of anything local,
file in to the Blue Wahoos stadium,
the pounding of feet rapping a tinny melody.
The breeze from the Gulf
caress the faces like the ghosts of dandelion seeds.
The stadium lights come on with the periwinkle twilight—
a wrinkle in time that separates day from night—
the sudden brightness creating an interplanetary, otherworldly effect.
An air of lassitude and happy times pervades.

Even the ghosts that haunt St. Michael’s cemetery
are shadowed by the overpass.
All are a part of the Pensacola community—
a melting pot simmering in the Emerald Coast.

When you hear some laughter and nobody near,
that is the ring of Southern belles from summers past.
I am home.

This was published in The Emerald Coast Review’s “Life in Your Time” edition (2017).

Conference and Conversation with Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Two of the intangibles I’ve gained since becoming a college student in my thirties are confidence and perspective; I’m not sure that would’ve happened had I continued with my original plan–get my degree in Health Information Technology and be done with it.

The semester I took a Creative Writing elective, I began to seek out more opportunities to enrich my college experience, which included participating in poetry readings, writing for the student newspaper, and work-studying in the English Department.  Attending events, such as plays, art shows, and Book Talks, broadened my experience even more.

The best Book Talk I’ve attended thus far was given by columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson (http://www.timesdaily.com/life/columnists/rheta_grimsley_johnson/rheta-grimsley-johnson-make-much-of-something-small/article_ab2398fa-af14-56c5-b20c-22eeeb51902b.html).

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

PENSACOLA, FL.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson is a lady one might mistake for a schoolteacher, with her pearl necklace and long dress, and pleasant voice with a Southern lilt. “You can make a living as a writer,” she told an audience at Pensacola State College.

As many lovers of words are wont to do, she quoted Robert Frost, who said that writers “write about the common things in an uncommon way.”

The column that propelled her career as a newspaper columnist was about her dad losing his job. This resonated because corporate America no longer valued loyalty, but was all about hiring younger and cheaper. “My dad was a company man,” she said, and it was like being “bitten by his own dog…this one piece took on a life of its own.” Her editor loved all the letters that came in, in response to the column.

Years ago, she was told by one of her editors not to write about children or dogs. “Don’t write like a girl….don’t write about emotional stuff,” Johnson said. “There was always a dog right there next to me, no matter what was going on in my life.”

Johnson lived in Pensacola as a young child. “I knew even at seven we were trading down,” she says, of when her family relocated from Pensacola to Montgomery, Alabama. She can still remember the first time she heard wind chimes—it was a “magical time”.

In 1989, Johnson wrote a biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of the “Peanuts” comic strip. When Schulz complained about the popularity of “Doonesbury,” Johnson asked why he didn’t write a political cartoon. “I want to stick with the verities.” Like Johnson, Schulz sticks with “the human condition” which transcends time.

Being a seasoned writer, Johnson doled out some sage advice: She doesn’t like v-words, like “virtual” and “vis-à-vis”—“fancy pants little words you don’t really need.” “Very” is a common repeat offender and needs to be locked away, brevity is key.

According to Johnson, people have a nine-second attention span (while goldfish have 13), she works hard on her lead.

Like the old-school notion of the three R’s being reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic, Johnson says good writing has three R’s:

The first one is rhythm. Reading it aloud is the “best way to self-edit…Good writing has rhythm, just like a song.”

“If you know how to write a short, declarative sentence, you will be sought out… Good nonfiction should read like fiction…good fiction should be as well researched as nonfiction.”

Keeping a journal to jot down things as they come to her is like “having money in the bank.” Having written four columns a week, she says, “Writers block is a luxury.”

The second R was restraint. “Just say what happened.”

The third R is routine. “Try to write in the same place…same time of day.”

Because newspaper circulation is on the decline, she said, “I’m going to completely outlive newspapers…I needed to reinvent myself a little bit.” Johnson has authored “Hank Hung the Moon:…and Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts” and “The Dogs Buried over the Bridge: A Memoir in Dog Years.”

“He sang me through a lot,” she says of Hank Williams, and dogs “teach us more than we teach them,” such as taking naps and hiding the best treats.

Johnson’s writing career hasn’t been one of a “front-porch thumb sucker,” but one of getting outside her head and finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, 550 words at a time. “You meet the most interesting people at laundromats and bus stations.” Stories are everywhere. A good writer knows it when he or she hears (or sees) it.

Poem-a-Day 2017 Writer’s Digest Challenge #10. Theme: Travel

Considering I just returned from a journalism field trip yesterday (explaining my delay), “travel” was a timely theme.

Sunday and Monday, our Corsair group (The Corsair is the Pensacola State College newspaper: http://ecorsair.com/movie-review-like-water-for-chocolate/) went to Tallahassee to attend the “Word of South” festival and tour the old and new capital buildings. We also got to talk to a lobbyist about guns on campus and educational funding, and visit the Tallahassee Democrat, the last of which was the best part of the trip, as we got to talk to student reporters of the FSView (the Florida State University student paper) and the editor of the Democrat. We also got to see how newspapers were made, and though I love the look and feel of a print paper, I don’t believe print (books, perhaps, but not periodicals) will be around in 100 years.

I learned that degrees matter, but majors don’t have to lock you into a field. Just because I’m majoring in health information technology doesn’t mean I must work in the healthcare field. I would still love to work at Sacred Heart Hospital (I’ve always said I’d rather work in a cold hospital rather than a hot kitchen), but if I could work for a newspaper, writing about the healthcare field (perhaps with a human-interest slant/angle) I would like that even more. People who write don’t just write—they are doctors, lawyers, politicians, pilots, business people, etc. I’m a writer who happens to be majoring in something that is more medical coding than creative writing.

A question I asked on the trip was if this editor only hired journalism majors. He basically said he would hire any person with expertise, provided they could write well about it. (One of the ladies who worked there was a theatre major.) Everyone I know believes I am an English major, and I guess you could say I had gone after what I was supposed to want, not what I really wanted, because I was afraid what I really wanted wouldn’t pay the bills, but this was something I had to find out for myself. I live my life without regrets—pursuing this medical degree has brought me to where I am now, and I love where I am now.

I had this life plan all mapped out, and even though the map is constantly being redrawn, it isn’t frustrating—it’s liberating. Life is a process, always.

hassee

Tallahassee, 10 Apr 2017

She thought she had come too far to change her mind,
but the choice she had made for the good of her family,
would not limit the choices she could make;
for majors did not determine the only thing she could do—
it simply paved the way to greater things.

2017 April PAD Challenge: Day 10

 

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #390; Theme: Title of the poem is a music genre

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To ABBA

You were a break from my childhood
of George Jones and Tammy Wynette,
from the punk rock
my brother would bang out while I tried to study,
a break from the world,
my world,
my thoughts.

You were what candy-colored dreams
were made of.
You fought for space inside my head
as I drove the Three Mile Bridge to the beach,
with the balmy gulf breeze blowing in my unhearing ear,
so that the wind was the feel,
and you,
the sound.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-390

 

Poem-a-Day Writer’s Digest Challenge #23. Theme: When (Blank)

When in Pensacola…

…do as the Pensacolians do—
wearing trunks with flip-flops;
bikini tops under tank tops.
Getting drunk off the humid air,
sober off the salt air.
Eating fried chicken sound side,
sun browning surf side,
drowning,
drenched in the languor of
terracotta-tinged Indian summer.

2016 November PAD Chapbook Challenge: Day 23

Poem-a-Day Writer’s Digest Challenge #11. Theme: Description + Sample Query Letter

For this challenge, I decided to write a poem based on the protagonist in my book.  This story has, in part, been told through the lenses of poetry and short story.  Perhaps, one day, it may even be the inspiration for a song (as long as I get a royalty deal, a la “Mr. Wonderful”).  Since Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for literature, music lyrics are considered as such now (according to my English Composition II professor).  Though this poem is a stand-alone work, the query letter below it will add context.

Katryn

Her face and figure were such
that they blended into the backdrop
of the Deep South like white-lily camouflage,
but when she spoke her mind,
she found her way into the crawl space
of their hearts.
Like a thorn,
she would prick those hearts,
this Queen of the least of these,
placing them in a waking sleep—
unlike that of Princess Aurora’s—
her words echoing
in their chambers.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/2016-november-pad-chapbook-challenge-day-11

~

My debut novel, “Because of Mindy Wiley”, begins at what Katryn Nolan refers to as the summer of her Mormon soldier. 

Katryn is a teen when she falls in love with a Mormon missionary, which leads to her joining the LDS Church—and enters an insular world of peculiar people.  It is within the Church that Katryn finally experiences belonging outside her close-knit family, and yet it will be her mother’s involvement in it that will lead to its destruction.

Born into a well-bred, artistic family, the Nolans (and the man David, with whom Katryn’s mother is attached) are considered outsiders in their small Southern town, where few move out, but fewer move in; where the heat and humidity is like another force of gravity, where the air is as thick as the azaleas that burst into bloom every spring, and where time seems to pass just a little bit slower.

Yet never does Katryn question why her mother and stepfather chose this enclave that is as foreign to them all as the Mormon Church.

Overloved by her stepfather, but underloved by her mother, Katryn never grasps why her mother won’t marry the man she has idolized ever since he came into their lives.

Neither does she question why her father was barred from being buried in the Catholic cemetery, though it seems no one in the town remembers him.  Who is the mysterious couple that Katryn and her stepfather see, that Katryn’s mother must never know of?  And why does her mother, who was a concert pianist, never touch it anymore? 

Never, does Katryn question anything, for life is idyllic in Green Haven, despite their outsider status.  It is only after her mother joins the Church that she begins to change, and long buried family secrets begin to come to light, ripping off the shimmering facade that was the Nolan family.  Blinded by years of fanciful storytelling, Katryn must sort through the mystery that surrounds her life, to know who she can trust…and who would do her harm.

My love for crafting stories on paper rather than with paper dolls began as soon as I learned to write.  Cutting up every paper in the house had served as my creative outlet before then.  I have lived in Pensacola, Florida, almost all my life, where churches outnumber bars, where the air is as thick as molasses in January, and where the summer weather is as volatile as the preachers of the Pentecostal meetinghouses–much like the town of Green Haven in my book.

Having grown up in a Southern town situated in the buckle of the Bible belt, and having been a practicing member of the Mormon Church for several years, has given me great insight, knowledge and experience of what it’s like being a convert to a religion in a region that is somewhat intolerant to that religion.  Having grown up Protestant, but with no inclination to go around declaring myself saved, one could say I was an outsider even on the inside looking out, much like Katryn Nolan.

The completed manuscript is available upon request.  Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Cordially,
Sarah Lea Richards

Writer’s Digest Wednesday Poetry Prompt #357, Theme: Bigger

Her Sidney Summer

Karsen Wood drove from the Sunshine State to the Big Sky Country—
to the land that was bigger than her small, childish dreams.
She wasn’t running away, but to something she couldn’t yet see—
to something greater than the life she’d left and richly lived,
and would live again.

http://www.writersdigest.com/whats-new/wednesday-poetry-prompts-357

#Fiction Friday: #Novelines from the Book

Mormoni

Green Haven, Florida, where it got as hot as hell, but yet gardenias bloomed, tempting men with her sweet perfume.

Twas in our town where my father had died under mysterious circumstances that would bar him from burial in the Catholic cemetery.

Father’s memory had haunted us, for my mother had kept his spirit alive through rituals that seemed bizarre to me now.

Because of his grave, my mother stayed, for who else would visit a man who had died shortly after moving here?

I hated Sundays, for I was forced to live in remembrance of my earthly father. His limestone headstone had become our golden calf.

Why couldn’t my father have died in PA, rather than the Bible belt–a belt that whipped me for being different?

My father’s image grew vague in my mind, until I could no longer remember him as a whole, but in parts– the sum of which did not add up.

I wondered if my father had been a dream, but whenever I saw his tombstone, I knew it was a part of a nightmare from which I’d never awaken.

My eyelashes were like cobwebs, & when I woke, I shook off the dust of dreams, only to find my past had followed me.

We didn’t pass the time, it passed us, for though we grew older, we stayed the same. Timeless, changeless beings we were…like God.

#Fiction Friday: #Novelines from the Book

Mormoni

There were 30,000 or so residents of Green Haven—none we knew intimately, yet they knew us, & saw the lie that would someday become a truth.

David was a New York liberal in Christian conservative Florida—an oddity. However, in the enclave of academia, he’d found his place.

I felt like Ariel—a fish out of water—who wanted to be a part of their world, but I’d have to take up the Cross, with y’all on my lips.

Caitlin was the Audrey & I was the Marilyn, at least from the neck down.

Maxwell Manor was David’s home, & our little hideaway from the world that seemed strange to us, with its extreme religiosity.

The Nolan women and “that Dalton man” were known as “those Godless Northern folks”, or carpetbaggers, even though we had lived here for years.

We weren’t born-again, buckle-of-the-Bible-belt Christians.  David & I believed in Something—we just weren’t sure what that Something was.

I was the Jacob, Caitlin, the Esau; it wouldn’t be birth order or genetics, but a lie that sealed my inheritance.

Violet Girard, the First Lady of Green Haven—a gracefully aging Liz Taylor—loved David, for he would paint her as she saw herself.

David didn’t see Christianity and the American way of life as superior to anything else.  I daresay now, it was because he’d never known anything else.