POWER OF POETRY #95: AMY SHIMSHON-SANTO

Ten Powers of Poetry for a New Decade

Amy Shimshon-Santo

1.

In December, I emptied closets to make space for a new decade. I opened boxes, filled sacks, and swept. 

I suspect that I collect things out of sympathy. I don’t want objects to feel discarded. 

Slick, shiny marbles. Ancient artifacts made by my children from wood and paint, pushpins, and rubber bands. Dice. 

I know that they are beautiful. 

I keep things out of sympathy, but I throw them away for the same reason. I don’t want to burden my children with my boxes once I’m gone. 

I save journals. That’s a habit that won’t change anytime soon. I’ve saved my kids’ wire-bound notebooks from their first attempts to write. Their sound-it-outs on paper remind me of the strangeness of spelling. 

Writing is an index finger pointing — look. 

It’s a way to gain authority over your experience. A trick to overcoming trouble has been listening to myself, or seeing what wanted to be written.

2.

Poetry is my first written language. After tackling cursive, I chose line breaks. 

Friends have called me an organic poet. Organic means “derived from living matter.” What would all those boxes of journals say about that? Go easier on yourself. Of course you’re a poet. Be grateful. Keep writing.  

3.

Growing up, I preferred ball games at recess to sitting on hard green benches. Handball. Slicers. Tetherball. Bam. Bam. Bam. Cut it at an angle. High above their hands. 

By the third grade, I was dubbed a tomboy — a seven year old, prepubescent, “women’s libber.” 

Hearing Maya Angelou read aloud from And Still I Rise gave me hope about becoming a woman. She sang her words. She danced with me. She made quiche lorraine. She was proof that the magazines had gotten it wrong. There were different ways to be a woman. I would be one like her. A woman with a body that took up space. A woman with a voice. She signed my canary yellow copy of her book with one word. “Joy!”

4.

Splash. Paddle, paddle. Hello, New Year. 

After lots of poems and self made chapbooks, my first poetry collection Even the Milky Way is Undocumented will be published in 2020. 

Impossible, right? 

Possible. 

A good poem in the mouth can be medicinal. So, we decided to make an audiobook too. My son, who is a musician and composer, recorded it for me in his friend’s studio. He wore thick black earphones and sat before the intergalactic sound terminal. 

I sat on a stool, three feet away, facing a gunmetal mic. I peered down at the page. My hands were on the two curved mountains of the open book, it’s spine exposed down the center. 

Blood was moving through me, but I was warm-froze. I couldn’t speak. 

If I read these poems aloud, he will hear everything. 

My son looked over at me, soliciting sound. 

“Some of this is hard,” I said. 

“It is an honor,” he said, wiping clear my slate. 

I took a new breath, and off we went into the poems. Along the way, my inside and outside worlds found a tender balance. 

5.

I didn’t know that I would get to have new experiences like this. 

Let me explain. I’ve been a head of household — a single mom with two kids — for ages. Finances were often tight. 

Think creative simplicity. We ate ideas along with our rice. 

I spent my adult life being of service. I didn’t know that I would also get to be of service to a self — the one that is me. The preliterate kid still knocking around inside my silver-haired body is happy about that. 

6.

Through migration, I lost three of my family’s languages. 

Poetry gave me two more. 

Spanish courted me through Gioconda Belli blessing the fruits of womanhood. Vallejo’s war torn marketplaces. Neruda’s disarmed artichokes. 

Portuguese me enamorou with call and response singing in the roda de capoeira, o samba, afoxê, and bloco afro. The lyricism of Gil, Tania Maria, Milton, Carlinhos. 

Poetry planted the floating seed of me into the Americas. 

7.

Aging has meant gaining and losing things. Two stolen bikes. Careers. Partners. A parent.

Poetry never left. It shows no sign of weariness. It is eager and ready.

8.

The other day, my Ima Sheli sat on the couch trying to remember how to knit. Her mother, my Safta Frida, made everyone’s clothes and blankets by hand. She taught my mom how to make things. Don’t pull the string too tight. 

Caregiving was the primary expectation for women on this side of my family. Safta Frida turned necessity into art. 

Mom left the Middle East for the U.S., and became a feminist artist. She did not even try to teach me how to knit, sew, or cook. It was tusiks in a pan, and invent your own lunch.

I can’t knit, but I can do things with words and with movement. Loop. Tie. Knot. 

“I’m losing my sight,” mom said, coiling yarn around a thick needle. “And my hearing.” 

“At least you can taste,” I said.

A week before Dad died, he glared at me with a piece of pie in his mouth and said “Bupkis.” I’d baked him a pie because he’d lost his appetite. He chewed the tasteless chunk. His taste buds were shot. 

9.

Writing gave me renewed respect for the senses — the brick and mortar of poems (and living).

Every morning, good or bad, I write. I often write in a parked car with an odometer that reads 180,000 miles. 181,000. 182. 

10.

Writing poetry is a way of making things with your senses, and making sense of things, at the same time.


Amy Shimshon-Santo is a writer, educator, and urbanist who believes the arts and culture are powerful tools for personal and social transformation. Her interdisciplinary work connects the arts, education, and urban planning. www.amyshimshon.com

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