Snake Medicine review

Review of Snake Medicine (First Step) by Laura Lee Bennett

Snake Medicine

Snake Medicine (First Step) by Laura Lee Bennett


Pamela Denchfield,
January 2018

(To buy a copy of the book, contact the author through her Facebook page.)

The copper scales on the cover make you wonder. A snake? A landscape? But what really catches your eye is the dropper held between thumb and forefinger. Some magic juice is being squeezed from that dropper into a lake—or a snake eye.

“Snake Medicine” is not the entire title of this poet’s work. Way below the coppery scales is a subtitle: “(First Step).” The words are set off in parentheses as if to further de-emphasize them. You wonder how many steps of snake medicine there are. Or perhaps you have it reversed and snake medicine itself is only the first step.

Flipping the book over and reading the blurb, you are astonished at the speed by which Bennett moves from the impersonal object of a “shutter” to the personal object of “the self” and then to a direct address of the reader: “You are broken, yet the soul sings its song.“ This teaser hints of your journey in reading the work.

Finally you explore the interior. The first page is a gold leaf, hinting of something special to come. Pages of this chapbook number just 14 but they pack a wallop, starting with the epigraph from a quarter-century ago. Marion Kimes seems to have predicted the women’s marches with this poem organized around fear—both the paralysis and finding movement through it. “I’m turning & lifting feet / the right the left the right the left / surely the body will follow the mind”

Now come the really juicy bits. Under “One,” the first line in this book addresses the reader, naming the source of a fear. “There is an outlaw living in your house.” Way to grab your attention! You are grateful when the story lightens up. The outlaw “brought his laundry.” Ha. You know that feeling of an unwelcome house guest. You relax, unaware of the trap to come. The poet seamlessly moves from “he” to “they” as she expertly catalogs the domestic habits of outlaws. You are sucked in, remembering the habits of the outlaws in your life, saying their names in your mind, recalling that new romance, that tentacle tongue. “[Y]ou have decided the outlaw can provide. This is what he can do for you…. / You forgive him….” Even if whiskey was outside your experience, even if George Michael was more real than the lizard king, it all rings true.

Two begins the same way, building on the deception. “There is an outlaw living in your house.” You roll to the thrum of the music on the page. Then you read of Kurosawa epics and Kahlua, the shaking hands. You start to feel uncomfortable. You thought this was going to be a sex-filled romp in the woods but now the poet has cast her spell and you’ve become an elegant bum. “It feels natural for you to serve him. It is his gift to you, this naturalness.” You scan the pages—there are eight sections. What has the poet planned for you? You rush back to find your place and keep reading.

That outlaw-in-your-house beginning again graces the tops of three and four too, and you hum to the loll of the rhythm, even as the darkness expands till you are gasping for breath. The outlaw “offers you the silt of this lover” and you feel “love like a shutter over your soul.” It is as if the door is closing on your bursting heart of desire. The particulars of this human experience differ from yet mirror yours. In the later sections, you are wholly unprepared for the “loud juicy smack” for that “stage of your ruin.” Unprepared and expectant at the same time, like the door closing on desire. At the end of the book you learn that the first step is the task to do before anything else can be done. The first step is acceptance.

Finally you realize that the poet has misled you. This work has nothing to do with failed romance. The work asks: Are you ready to travel into the dark, to feel the shape of your carried poison, and to transform it into something new? Your sovereignty awaits.

LiTFUSE poetry workshop – why you should go!

Why you should participate in the annual LiTFUSE poetry workshop:

  • Because you read and write poetry.
  • Because you love to hang out with poets.
  • Because you are eager to learn facets of the craft.

This year I read, wrote, hung out, and learned, on top of joining in the festive celebration of LiTFUSE’s ten-year anniversary.

When you enroll you get to select your first and second preference for classes. This year I had the privilege of attending courses by Susan Rich, James Bertolino, EJ Koh, Laura Read, Anita K. Boyle, and Joseph Powell. Each gathering had its own unique feel, shaped by the instructor but also influenced greatly by those in attendance.

I was also able to hear work read by Roberto Ascalon, Ilya Kaminsky, and many of the poets published in the ten-year LiTFUSE anthology, Poets Unite!. At the Friday night slam, I tried not to be jealous of the incredible talent of so many on the stage (even as I participated with a small poem on red lentils that I’d written that morning). Roberto Ascalon was a joy to watch emcee. I took in amazing performances by young poets and saw my friend Kathy receive a runner-up prize before Lauren won.

Before the banquet, Christian Swenson led us in an improvisational crowd exercise that made me feel silly but in the process brushed out my cobwebs. At the Saturday night poets’ banquet (as an aside, isn’t it wonderful that someone thought up a poets’ banquet? looking at you, Michael), from the next table over, Christian asked if we had room for his mother, who as I recall was around 90. She regaled us with stories from her novel, The Way of the Phoenix, which I bought the next morning at the LiTFUSE book store. In fact, I spent over $100 on books during the workshop. No library books for me for a while! I have plenty to read.

Apples in the sun, and poets with quince

You can’t describe LiTFUSE without including the spirit of Tieton. That’s the name of the town where the workshop is set. Just outside Yakima, at a population of not much over a thousand, the little park in the middle was overtaken by poets. I especially enjoyed the art gallery (Boxx) where my master class with Susan Rich was held, and which showed art from Anita K. Boyle and others. And pretty much everywhere we sat stood a bowl of apples for snacking on.

Except the loft, where a kind resident had left a bowl of ugly, knobby, pale green fruits. I only know they were quince because the sign said so. Laura Read and Ilya Kaminsky were, I think, expecting fruit the consistency of apples. But the quince surprised their mouths. After learning more about quince (they’re so aromatic when cooked), I wish I had grabbed one or two to bring home. Next year!

We had, I heard, about a hundred poets attending this year, often found basking in the sunny though sometimes windy breeze, always with the smell of apples. And perhaps a little quince.

The oracle of Koh

In EJ Koh’s class, at the beginning, we all chose one of three letters. My choice was “V.”

An important exercise EJ led us through was outside, where we followed her – “Something happened here,” she said, pointing to a tree in the little tiny park in the little tiny town of Tieton and saying that was where her father grieved his mother. What??? No, she didn’t mean literally, but she was showing us a way to embody important stories. This experience awakened an urgency within me to write the hard stuff. The story that’s screaming. I will stop ignoring it and I will listen, transcribe.

In EJ’s exquisite corpse exercise, which she had us do in pairs with lines hidden, some phrases that stuck with me include “boat unmoored,” “ink and dust catch in my throat,” and “wonder visits Tieton.”

At the end of the class, EJ challenged us all to respond to what I’m calling this “oracle.” (My “V,” which, it turned out, stood for vulnerability.) What action plan could we formulate? I chose to commit to writing. I chose to reserve an hour every Sunday morning to sit and write. And I’ve decided to be more selective when I choose something of mine to read at the open mic readings I frequent – instead of going for the safe five-year-old piece that’s lost its energy, I’m sharing the messy, undone, scary work.

Permission to steal

No, Ilya Kaminsky didn’t say we should plagiarize good work. But he did say leaving good work frozen in its time and place does no one any good. Ilya urged us to breathe new life into old masterpieces. This is how we love good work! Show it how to live in our world.

Writing prompts

Susan Rich gave us many tips on ekphrastic writing, such as “The Starry Night” by Anne Sexton. I’ve summarized Susan’s tips here, from my notes.

  • Look at the art until it becomes alive and looks back into you.
  • Remember that you don’t need the poem to show you the work of art.
  • Focus and examine your own visual anchor in the art.
  • Both acknowledge the source and move away from it.
  • After looking at the art, ask yourself what you’re thinking about right now. List 5 things. This action will bring you closer to the art, and give you possible anchors for your poem as you relate to the art in writing.
  • Get inside the mind of a museum guard or curator. Write from their perspective.
  • Ask questions of the piece, or of the artist.
  • Describe the language of the materials used.
  • Focus on the art title or another element of the work.

Laura Read stepped us through how to braid a narrative in her science exercise (in which we choose a card giving facts about an element from the periodic table). Below is a paraphrased summary from her handout. You can probably apply these steps to other subjects as well.

  1. Open with an interesting fact about the element
  2. Give a descriptive detail based on its appearance
  3. Recount a memory associated with the element but leave the story unfinished
  4. Return to the card and add another interesting detail
  5. Return to your story, picking up where you left off
  6. Return to the element, describing its uses
  7. Return to the photograph, adding another physical detail
  8. Return once more to your story and finish it

Joseph Powell suggested we read Alexander Pope for 20 minutes and then try our hands at iambic verse (unrhymed). I started Powell’s class intimidated by meter, but by the end I felt it a bit more accessible.

Making chapbooks

It was pure scheduling genius to put this hands-on, nearly brainless activity on Sunday morning. We poor poets had brains full to bursting from our Friday and Saturday classes, from the many readings, the slam, and the poets’ banquet. This course marked the first time ever that I’d been in a group conversation about the colophon. Pure delight. For a mere ten-dollar materials fee, Anita K. Boyle gave us a book on chapbooks plus a limited early-edition copy of her gorgeous book Poems from the Noon Road Pond. And we even got to take home the needles we used to sew the books.

And so much more

…but if I write everything down I’ll never finish. Come to the next LiTFUSE poetry workshop to feel and see for yourself! Look for me. We’ll hang together as poets are wont to do.

Job search tips: Technical writing in Seattle

Are you looking for technical writing work in Seattle? Check out these tips.

  1. Update your LinkedIn profile. Emphasize your availability and highlight your skills. Make your profile publicly visible. If you’re just starting out in the field, I highly recommend adding samples to your profile.
  2. While you’re at it, go ahead and update your profiles on other social media sites, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
  3. Reach out to local staffing agencies. Ask your coworkers which ones they can recommend. Some agencies I can recommend include Steyer & Associates, Linda Werner & Associates, and Writing Assistance, Inc.
  4. Tell your friends and family that you’re looking. You might be surprised what connections pop up!
  5. Network, network, network! You know that saying: If you’re not networking, you’re not working. Attend meetings at the Puget Sound chapter of Society for Technical Communication (STC). Join the TECHWR-L email list. Check out Digital Eve Seattle.
  6. Set up daily job alerts on dice, monster, indeed, linkup, and other job search sites. Make sure your latest resume is uploaded.

Okay, so you’ve put in the time to implement these tips, and now you have a job lead. You heard about a technical writer position opening up at a software company in Seattle. What do you do?

  1. Search LinkedIn for contacts who work at that company or with that staffing agency. Ask them how they like it. Ask them if they could serve as a reference, or perhaps bring your resume to the human resources department there.
  2. Is the job lead with a staffing agency? Be specific about needs: rate range, support for telecommuting, etc.
  3. Prepare for your interview. See these great tips by a technical writer in the Rocky Mountain chapter of STC.

Good luck!