Posted in Writing

Poetry When Slammed

Have you ever been to a poetry slam?  At its best, it’s a smashed-together combination of art and improv, alive with wit and wordplay and excitement.  Of course, it can also really suck. Depends on who’s on stage.  Not that I have a lot of room to judge, since I haven’t had the guts to try it myself.  Poetry performance, yes–in the form of a poetry-reading with pages I’d already written. But the slam? I bow to those who have the guts.  Well, to those who have the guts and don’t suck.  But that’s the trick, isn’t it? I don’t know which I’d be–so I haven’t yet decided if poetry slamming should go on my Bucket List or my Fuck-It List…

Poetry when I’ve been slammed, though… That I can talk about.

A blogging-friend was asking me last week about publishing poetry, and the best advice I can offer on that topic is to check out the 2012 Poet’s Market, which is a great resource for pretty much every publication everywhere that publishes poetry, with all the specs on how to submit, what (or if) they pay, what types they’re looking for, whether they accept simultaneous submissions (meaning you can send a poem to multiple publishers at the same time… or not), what percentage of submissions they accept, and all those good stats.  Poetry doesn’t tend to pay–but it does tend to publish.  And hey, it was the thrill of the decade for me to pick up the Anthology of Idaho Women Poets at my Barnes & Noble and see my name on one of the pages.  (Of course, none of you could have found it at your Barnes & Noble–it was a local offering only–but I’ll be honest, I was thrilled anyway…)

The same blogging-friend asked if my favorite poem could be found here on Kana’s Chronicles, and I had to answer “not yet”–but that’s easily remedied.  The following is a piece written over the three months when my youngest daughter, twelve weeks premature and weighing two pounds, was “imprisoned” in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). I’ve written some about this (Amazing Grace, How Sweet the SOUNDS) but hadn’t shared the poem…  Just one note to avoid confusion, before I turn over this post to myself-of-eight-years-ago: a couple references to myself by name are using my name-of-eight-years ago…  During a different marriage, and when I went by my first name rather than my middle.  (Post about names here, if you’re curious…)

So without further ado, here’s Neonate… Poetry written when I’d been slammed by life.


an "electrical appliance" I wasn't allowed to hold...

When the baby stops

breathing, an alarm rings in the NICU.

At home, the process is reversed;

when the phone rings, the mother stops–


The baby lives in a box.  That plastic box, there.

The baby is an electrical appliance

on a short cord.


three months early

can a baby


No one will tell me

at the hospital where I arrive

spilling amniotic fluid

three months early


water broke

in my kitchen

not good


called a ride

mopped, changed pants,

woke my son

bid him brightly bye in the car

into the doors where someone would know what to do

then began to cry


this community, colony of moms,

our lives in orbit

around the NICU–

I introduce myself where we meet

at the phone outside the locked door,

scrub-in sink, breast milk freezer.

We don’t shake hands.  We have all scrubbed, but we are nervous

of hands.


The next crib over, Jose

is empty already,

not a mom here I know

(week down, months to go)

we are not, after all,

in this together


I pump forty ounces of milk

a day for a baby only fifty

ounces herself

and three times a night I sit up

in bed expressing

milk without a baby


Day 12 I can’t pick her up have never held

my baby,

mother’s and daughter’s

wails on either side of plastic walls

I ricochet from the Plexiglas barrier

till I’m able again

to pretend I’m coping

Elena Grace, my two-pound Wonder... A very small handful



I’m sorry

little half-baked

baby, shhh, Mommy’s here


Baby Stats


of measurement, units of progress

or regress

cc’s of breastmilk, grams of baby,

frequency of desats, occurrence of apnea

her body barely filing

            my two hands

            graying, unmoving.

            In my hands

            she has stopped breathing.

statistics, routine notation

on today’s chart


I hate the phone

It’s Janna Vega to see Elena, each day at the locked door

a bead on my rosary

this prayer repeated


disposable vessels


through this tiny body so unready

dozens of times a day

her life re-starts

Easter afternoon another infection

rosary occupying

hands empty of baby

HolyMaryfullofGrace merging

with this new IV drip

of antibiotic, drip

of Grace and I am praying

to ultrasound screens, to shrill alarms

to antibiotics,

to a stuffed frog, to pink blankets

to God in visible forms


finally allowed to hold my baby...

I can translate every alarm.

Oxygen desaturation, heart rate, infusion complete

I hear

in my sleep

I dream myself

outside the NICU door, barred

from entering, a stream

of nurses exiting sadly

assuring me she’s fine


In the evening, in the NICU

a day-nurse calls me from home,

we hang up laughing.

Sum up my life: I’m taking social calls

in the NICU


At Entrance Five still in maternity wear

new mom watches new dad strap in new baby

to drive home, finished

with this hospital.

To see my daughter,

I stride into Entrance Five pulling off my sunglasses


aware there’s room for jealousy in a flat belly.


The Traveling Parent Show

goes home empties

the dishwasher, explains

how to put on pants

pumps breasts, grades quizzes, changes

wet sheets, slices onions

defines Amen


Amen means “thank you, God, for listening.”


one nurse hails another:

Mom Cervantes on the phone”


which makes me Mom Vega

my son lugs his mailbox into the kitchen where

I sit with coffee and journal, logging

her removed oxygen tube and

his pet dragon’s change of color–

“Here comes your mailman!

See this mail is for you: it says:

Janna…  Vega…  Mommy!”

my name


I ask questions full of qualifiers–

recognizing the limited powers of medical fortune-telling,

and doctors’ desire to avoid

any promise that might break

Dr. Lawrence to his tape recorder:

“Mother asked appropriate questions.”

No, Mother asked questions

he might feel unconstrained to answer.

The other questions I’m not asking

She's been kicking ass ever since!



From bare dirt by the emergency

entrance where I came in

daffodils come and gone, tulips

past, apple petals replaced

by apple leaves, roses coming on,

I am still parking

here marking time botanically


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

31 thoughts on “Poetry When Slammed

  1. This must have been such a frightening experience for you –I don’t think I could have written any more than my name, much less such an expressive and poignant poem. Thanks to the goddess that she is okay now — a beautiful little girl!


  2. Beautiful poem..what a scary time that must have been for you. Sounds like this experience has only made you and your daughter stronger. I bet you were so happy that first day you could take her home.


    1. My theory is that the kind of person who SURVIVES that kind of start is the kind of person with a lot of sparkle and spunk! She certainly qualifies! ;)
      We took her home on her due-date… Got ready to celebrate, and then got slammed again with her diagnosis of deafness… But that’s another story entirely (see “Amazing Grace, how sweet the SOUNDS“)…
      Spoiler-alert: it’s another happy ending. ;)


  3. that was simply beautiful. So happy for you and your daughter. I’ve been touched with so much emotion today and I know this poem will stay with me for awhile. I could definitely see this being read at a poetry slam…most of the slams I’ve been too the poets were not going from the cuff their stuff was already done. this is so heartwrenching and heartwarming it would move all the women to tears…the kind where your throat hurts because you are trying so hard NOT to cry out loud!


    1. I don’t think I COULD do this one on stage… Even eight years and happy-endings later, I can’t re-read this without bawling. ( Probably why I hadn’t shared it earlier, even though I’d written about the experience…)


      1. I certainly understand that! It is an emotional piece. the emotion carries in every word and the intensity in every pause. I really love it so kudos to you for being able to put that out. I can write fiction and I love writing about drama but I can’t seem to grasp poetry so I always admire great poetry when I see it. very well done


  4. I loved the part where you had your rosary and wrote about “praying to ultrasound screens”! Our minister here tells us it was like that for his daughter, who gave birth to triplets three months early! They will be three years old in July and all doing well. Kana, I wonder not at no performance of this one at a poetry slam! Wonderful how great your daughter is doing now! Your love for her shines through your poem. I know she will treasure it always!


  5. What a powerful piece! I felt each paragraph…..Knowing that your little one is safe and sound make me very happy. God bless you all. And thanks for sharing :)


  6. I can’t begin to tell you how brilliant this poem is, and how powerful for me, someone who was born an identical premature twin in 1962. My sister didn’t make it. Doctors assured my parents I wouldn’t either. But here I am close to 50 years later–still kicking ass, myself!


    1. I LOVE it! And given the advances in technology since your arrival, I’d say you truly ARE a miracle! :) As much as I hated all the tubes and alarms and wires on my baby, I was grateful for all the technology that enabled her to LIVE…


    1. (Paperback) Poetry is an especially difflcuit field in which to be published. An ideal instruction manual for aspiring poets seeking to have their poetry published, How To Publish Your Poetry: A Complete Guide To Finding The Right Publishers For Your Work by book editor, freelance writer, and published poet Helene Ciaravino has compiled a step-by-step how to’ instruction manual that will materially assist the complete novice to publishing to have their poetry put into print and made available to as large a readership as possible. Writers of poetry seeking publication will be able to maximize their chances for becoming published; will learn how to create an effective submission package; avoid common mistakes in their attempt to become published; learn how to craft a cover letter for their manuscript that will attract the attention of acquisition editors; utilize a simple but practical seven-step system for becoming published; minimize the time, effort, and financial costs of becoming published; take advantage of available resources for the aspiring poet; learn about a diversity of outlets for poetry; and benefit from honing their skills at the craft of writing poetry. Of special note is what Helene Ciarvaino has to say about self-publishing with respect to poetry. Especially recommended for academic and community library Writing & Publishing reference collections, anyone contemplating becoming a published poet should give How To Publish Your Poetry a very careful reading. It is a veritable gold mine of practical, useful, time-tested information, ideas, and instructions.


  7. Profoundly moving – a testament to your love and fear for your baby daughter. I’m delighted to see the photo of Elena in karate class. She’s a beautiful little girl.


  8. Having also been through the NICU experience as a parent, I know how gut-wrenching it is to see your newborn hooked up to tubes and IV lines.

    I also know that when it was over and I was blessed enough to be able to take my little girl home after three months, it was one of the most uplifting days of my life. It truly did give me an appreciation for life and for the blessings of God.

    And, like your Elana Grace, my daughter, now almost 11, has been kicking ass ever since. Thank you for a beautiful poem and for helping me to remember how fortunate I am.


  9. I agree, your poem is very moving!

    Usually, the ones that give a flawless performance at a Poetry Slam, most likely sucked the first few times they did it! The poetry that is the most difficult to read is often the most powerful. I hope you do add the slam to your bucket list because it can only make you and your work stronger!

    The most difficult work that I read in public was a eulogy to my grandfather, who was like a father to me. To this day, I still get comments on how powerful the words were and how much people appreciated them.

    If you ever feel comfortable enough to read your poem aloud, I think it would help give a voice to moms in similar situations.

    Thank you for the post!


  10. That was very beautifully written and touching. Wow. Tears in my eyes while I read cause my baby was and is sick. She was born 4lbs 13oz but healthy enough to go home. Then she got sicker and sicker. She still has problems. LOTS of them and it’s hard on us. That is why I live for Twink.


  11. This poem is truly the most amazing, most thought inspiring, most emotionally stirring piece of writing I have read in… I don’t even know how long. I have tears in my eyes and have no recollection of when last a poem managed to produce such a strong emotional reaction from me. Thank you.


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