I consider myself more an essayist than a poet, but early in 2020 I took a poetry class with Linda Barnes through the Therapeutic Writing Institute and produced several poems I liked. We used In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit as a text, which I highly recommend to any aspiring poets out there. One of the exercises in the book was to conjure a memory from childhood (or later) and use concrete, sensory details to bring it to life. We read Anthony Machado’s “Memory from Childhood” for its use of sensory detail and structure (in this case, a four-stanza poem of four lines, with the first stanza repeated at the end).
For this exercise I remembered when a good friend and I took our backpacks and bus passes around the eastern half of Australia for a month in 1989. While we were in the Outback (still one of my favorite places on earth), we met a park ranger on the dance floor at the Sheraton in Yulara, a tiny outpost in the vast desert. He invited us to stay with him for a few days, and he also took us hiking in the Olgas, which the tourist buses could not reach due to heavy rains. One memory in particular stays with me: the night the ranger drove us in his Toyota Land Cruiser way out into the bush to make Billy Tea for us and give his "star talk." The constellations are different there, of course. The ranger also had, shall we say, hopes for the evening.
I ended up altering the structure of the poem, and also received helpful feedback from a few poet friends on how I could make it stronger. So I was ready when Peregrine, the literary journal of Amherst Writers & Artists, put out a call for poems. I decided to submit three. To my delight, this poem (which appears below) and one other were accepted and published in December—my first experience of having my poetry published.
That same month my husband and I traveled with friends to New York City to see the lights, take in a few shows, and visit the Christmas markets. One of our stops was the Hotel Chelsea, a former bohemian mecca (in)famous for its literary and artistic inhabitants, who included Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Gore Vidal, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith, and many more. The hotel had recently undergone a decade-long renovation (check out this short video), and we decided to have drinks in the hotel bar, where the drinks menu arrived bound in soft leather and the atmosphere was redolent of old New York.
After drinks—Manhattans and a cappuccino—we asked if we could have a tour of the hotel. Since they weren’t busy and it was my friend Beth’s birthday, they obliged. We learned that there were people who had lived at the hotel for decades. As we stood in the lobby, an elderly resident walked past with his even more elderly dog, which left a trail of poop in its wake. The staff quietly scooped it up behind him.
Back in the day, many artists and writers stayed at the Chelsea both for the community and because it was cheap and a good place to escape creditors. Sometimes they paid for their rooms with artwork, which still hangs on the walls. Nowadays the two-bedroom suite we toured rents for $3,000 a night.
The Chelsea is also one of the most haunted buildings in New York, after (interestingly) the New York Public Library. When we were touring one of the suites we learned that after the Titanic disaster, some of the survivors were housed at the Chelsea. One of the resident ghosts is Weeping Mary, whose husband was lost on the Titanic.
As we stood on the street after the tour, my friend Ron said, “Let’s go back into the lobby and have you read your poems to us there. Just think of all the people who have read there. You should be among them.” So we went back in, sat on a green velvet sofa tucked into an alcove, and I read my poems aloud to my husband and friends.
In that moment, I truly felt like a poet.
By Lisa Colburn
The dented aluminum billycan sways
on a tripod of sticks over snapping tongues of fire.
Sparks spray into surrounding dark.
Soon there will be tea.
Across a sweep of rust-red sand, village lights glow,
fairy-like, in a blanket of star-pricked darkness.
No sound except wind rustle, fire crackle,
three voices hushed in desert silence.
The ranger sits beside me on a low outcropping,
arm slung over my shoulder, pointing to Virgo.
They call her the virgin, he murmurs, breath singeing my ear,
but her legs are open. The stone on which we sit is warm.
My friend wants him, body angled, leaning with desire.
He wants me, signals sent in dark eyes, brush of hands. But
I want no one.
Just this place. This time.
These billion trillion stars.