Poems come to Miki Conn in the same way that daydreams come to others. They pop into her head at their own convenience, rather than hers.
“If I wake up with a poem, I write the poem. If I’m in the doctor’s office and a poem taps me on the shoulder, I write the poem,” Conn said.
The Schenectady resident has stuck to this unpredictable writing process over the last two decades and it’s led her to publish “Out of My Mind: A Quirky Look at Life Through Poetry,” her first poetry collection. She’ll be signing copies and giving a reading at The Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery on Thursday.
Conn is well known in the arts community, as was her mother, Margret Cunningham, who founded the Hamilton Hill Arts Center.
Conn continued on her mother’s legacy by stepping in as executive director for several years. Though she has since retired from the position, she remains a gallery coordinator and storyteller there, and she has her mother to thank in part for her love of the art form.
“My mother grew up in an age where you [had] to memorize poems. She memorized Langston Hughes and instead of bedtime stories, she would recite poems, especially from Langston Hughes. He was one of my early exposures and I really, really enjoyed his poetry,” Conn said.
She also took inspiration from Sterling Brown and Lucille Clifton, both poets who wrote about everyday life.
Her poems have a similar tone and are often inspired by her relationships with others and what she observes about others.
“People entered into my life as beings and came out of my mind as poems,” Conn said.
Through her free-form poetry, she writes about arguing in the kitchen with loved ones, watching friends go through turbulent relationships and dealing with severe losses in her own family.
“Out of My Mind” is divided into five sections “Kitchen Wisdom,” “Love: Found and Lost,” “People Watching,” “Death’s Front Steps” and “True Religion.”
Each has a related illustration or painting at the start, created by Conn.
“Some are of places I’ve been or things that I have seen. Like, the painting that I used for the ‘Kitchen Wisdom’ section is African cloth hanging on a clothesline. I lived for four years in Kenya and I used to always observe that the most beautiful fabrics were hanging on people’s clotheslines as opposed to in the store,” Conn said.
Opening the section on “People Watching,” she included a woodcut piece depicting two brothers sleeping against one another.
“At heart, I’m a storyteller and whether it’s my visual art or my written art, there’s always a story,” Conn said.
Before publishing the collection back in November, Conn was nervous to see how it was going to be received.
“Publishing my poems is kind of like getting naked before strangers in the sense that I had no idea what the response would be. I just knew that it was something that I needed to do and wanted to do. But I was actually very afraid at first that people either wouldn’t understand it or wouldn’t appreciate it,” Conn said.
That has certainly not been the case, though readers and friends have said they were surprised by how personal the poems are, how much they delve into some of the most difficult times in Conn’s life.
“I went through a [16-year] period . . . that started with the death of my son and then continued into the death of my husband and then 14 years of caregiving for my mother, my father, and then my aunt. I wrote during all of that but it was painful writing . . . there were feelings that I could only deal with through my poetry. . . . One of the hardest was a poem that I wrote about the death of my son, which I actually named “I still can’t write a poem for Marcus.” The irony, of course, is that I did write a poem, but I felt like I couldn’t write a poem,” Conn said.
In the poem, she writes:
On the death of my son after a car accident
I sang to Marcus while he was in intensive care
Fighting to live
I sang a song to help him choose to live
A song about going home
Other poems, like “Looking Glass World,” delve into her time spent caring for her mother and father:
Secure in a certain order of things,
I was unprepared
For the responsibility of
Helping my mother brush her teeth
Later on, in “She is Taking Her Time,” Conn writes:
She is taking her time.
She peers into the dark,
Unsure of her way.
She is not to be hurried.
She is taking her time.”
Her writing is at times haunting, especially in the above section, though with poems like “My Honda and Me,” it takes on a much more humorous tone:
Sometimes people say,
“It’s amazing what great shape she’s in,
Considering the age and the mileage.”
I can identify.
Through each poem, Conn has a way of getting at the heart of the story, from the very first stanza, and drawing one in until the last. Her free form poetry is as relatable as it is entertaining and comforting.
“Out of My Mind” is available at The Open Door Bookstore and Gift Gallery. Thursday’s reading/signing runs from 6-7:30 p.m. For more info visit opendoor-bookstore.com.