Remembering Norma Chapman, my Poet Friend
by Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka (Danka)
Norma Chapman died on January 27, 2019. She was an award-winning poet who received Maryland State Arts Council grants in 2003 and 2011. In 2010, Perris, California was published by Passager Books in the series Six over Sixty. In 2001 her poems appeared in a limited-edition collective chapbook titled Semi Sub Un- Conscious Mind of Quatrain. Her poems have been published in Innisfree Poetry Journal, Iris, Loch Raven Review, Passager, Rattle, The Sow’s Ear, and River Styx.
Born and raised in California, Norma moved to Maryland in 1988. She had a rich, complicated and fulfilling life, as described by her son, Douglas Chapman, in a loving obituary published in The Frederick News-Post and The Brunswick Citizen. A Memorial Meeting for Worship was held on February 24 at Frederick Friends Meeting (Quakers) in Frederick.
I met Norma in Mary Azrael’s poetry class offered by the Odyssey Program of Johns Hopkins University in 1997. With two other participants in Mary’s class, Kathie (Kathleen Corcoran) and Lili (Liliane Anders), we decided to continue meeting, thus starting our poetry group. Denny (Stein) joined later.
At first we were meeting at the Barnes & Noble in Ellicott City, then at my house in Catonsville; finally we moved our get-togethers to Kathie’s in Owings Mills. We named our group “Quatrain,” because we liked that particular poetry form used by Emily Dickinson, and because there were four of us.
In 2001 we published a chapbook titled Semi Sub Un- Conscious Mind of Quatrain, which also included my translations of Lidia Kosk, my mother who resides in Poland, whom we welcomed as “our foreign correspondent.” Each of us contributed several poems to the volume. We also decided to include our childhood photographs. We were enjoying making the book together. Norma took it upon herself to produce the physical book. She wanted to have that experience under her belt. Mary Azrael wrote a wonderful blurb, whose opening paragraph reads: “The poets of Quatrain, in their forties, fifties, sixties and seventies, are smart and thoughtful and daring—daring to experiment, daring to know and be who they are.”
Over the years Quatrain gave various poetry readings, including a few that I arranged at venues such as the American Music Festival in Westminster, and annually at the Old Salem Historic Church in Catonsville, with music played on the historic church organ by McDonogh school music teacher Marshall Anders. These events have been professionally taped. At the Carroll County Arts Council in Westminster we were joined by a cello duet featuring Helen Vo-Dinh and my son Piotr. We read in Bel Air by invitation from Manorborn and at Minas’ unique gallery/shop in Fells Point, before his move to Hampden. Yes, we were having fun while being serious about our writing, investigating new poetic forms, learning how to be helpful and creative while commenting on each other’s poems. We first summarized the given poem, beginning with positive comments, and then gently pointing out any weaknesses. Our individual styles and interests differed distinctly, which we appreciated. We discussed what works, what doesn’t. Norma initiated the habit of bringing other poets’ works. At one point she started reading Czesław Miłosz’s poems in chronological order, which of course I liked very much. Later, when she taught a poetry class at her home, she discussed both 20th century masters and the poets of today.
David W. Kriebel, the editor of LITE, at that time one of the leading literary publications in Maryland, interviewed us and wrote an insightful article titled “Six Women in Search of Each Other: Inside Quatrain,” including our poems as well as pictures: http://www.litecircle.net/pdf/quatrain.pdf
Denny eventually left for California, years later Lily moved to Colorado, and then Shirley (Brewer) joined the three of us in 2014. Norma, who at this point was active in other poetry groups as well, closer to her home in Brunswick, or in Bethesda, where she didn’t have to drive, assured us repeatedly that as long as she could drive she would always come to our monthly meetings. And she did. We continue our meetings, and Norma is with us in spirit.
Norma was very much involved in her community’s cultural scene. I took part in several readings organized by her at the Brunswick library and in the area, enjoying meeting poets from her other groups and sharing my writing.
Of her early poems I remember surrealist, dream poems, which then gave way to her family stories, poems about women, such as “Dorothy Day” below, and most recently, philosophically-inclined poems. On the cover of Perris, California, which centers on her colorful family members and events, Norma shares:
… I made the shift to Brunswick at about the same time I developed an interest in writing – just after my sixtieth birthday.
In between I married, raised a family, divorced, worked at all kind of jobs, demonstrated for peace and justice, went back to school, and suffered with addiction.
I had to let go of my addiction to be able to write…
I’ve never met anyone like Norma, the one and only Norma. I loved her voice, the elegant way she expressed herself, her stories and poems, and her genuine interest in human beings. And she knew the meaning of “I’m sending you healing energy.”
Norma’s poems speak for her. Here’s a sampling from her publications. Lots of her poems are still waiting to appear in a book collection.
Tension wakes me every morning.
My body reverberates, a plucked harp.
A new note sounds before the old one stops.
I love you
It’s not enough.
I drink and don’t get drunk.
A parasite in my belly feeds. It takes.
It’s the wrong time. It has to go.
The wind pushes and I push back, my hair blown
so hard it tries to leave its roots.
I am older.
What I did shames me.
I turn to the church.
I long for justice and mercy. Every cell of what I am
is sharp with longing.
A baby comes to my belly to listen, longs as I do.
Like Jacob, I wrestle with truth.
My baby breaks out to drink and live, I love her.
It’s not enough.
I’m on my knees. I’m fed by what I hated.
I need nothing.
(First published in Loch Raven Review (Winter 2012); in print volume Loch Raven Review, Eight, 2018, Loch Raven Press)
My Family Prepares me for Life
My mother told me not to leave my bicycle
outside her drugstore. I did it anyway, and she stole it.
She fired me as a cashier, then as a restaurant soda jerk.
Offered a last chance, I settled down and waited tables.
My father said, Hold your cards close to your vest,
spit down your shirt front, and don’t be afraid to fold.
Nana said, Comparisons are odious.
They stink to heaven.
Aunt Bebe taught me shorthand, Spanish, to float
face up and face down, and to dog paddle.
My stepfather showed me how to drive a car
and shoot with both a .44 and .22.
My stepsister said, If you don’t stop talking like a dictionary,
You’ll never have friends.
When I left home, I was ready.
(From Perris, California, Passager Books, 2010)
Perhaps I’ll write a bitter poem about my father
how sexy and how absent he was.
But I’m caught by his photograph at three.
He’s standing on a one-armed carved chair, his pleated
dress over rough leggings, his battered shoes,
soft blond hair in bangs and random curls,
his skinny angry mouth, walled eyes.
And mine at three, hair the color of straw, banged
and bobbed. I’m poised on white cloth in my sleeveless
pink dress with ruffles, patent leather pumps,
lacy socks, open and appraising stare.
Suppose we met just then. I think he would have punched
me in the shoulder. I think I would have cried
not knowing yet how little it had to do with me.
(From our chapbook Semi Sub Un- Conscious Mind of Quatrain, 2001; the poem first
appeared in WordHouse)
© Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka and Norma Chapman
Danuta E. Kosk-Kosicka is the author of Oblige the Light (CityLit Press, 2015), winner of the fifth Clarinda Harriss Poetry Prize, and Face Half-Illuminated (Apprentice House, 2015), a book of poems, translations, and prose. She is the translator for two books by Lidia Kosk, nominated for translation prizes. Her translations of poems by three Maryland Poets Laureate—Lucille Clifton, Josephine Jacobsen, and Linda Pastan—have been published in Poland; her translations of poems by Grzegorz Białkowski, Ernest Bryll, Lidia Kosk, and Wisława Szymborska have appeared in over 70 publications in the USA. Co-editor of Loch Raven Review, she resides in Baltimore, MD. Website: danutakk.wordpress.com