Carmel Valley resident’s poetry inspired by mother with Alzheimer’s
Michael Mark’s book won publisher’s annual prize
Del Mar Heights resident Dr. Ken Druck addresses the challenges of coping with an aging parent suffering from dementia in his book, “Raising an Aging Parent.”
“The parent we knew is gone,” he writes. “This changes us too. In the face of such loss, we aren’t the same person we used to be either. But there’s half of us that’s still here, and in time that half will summon the courage and strength to suffer this loss, figure out how to go on, and even begin writing new chapters of life. This is the path of honor.”
Michael Mark, who lives in Carmel Valley up the road from Druck, took that path literally in writing “Visiting Her in Queens Is More Enlightening Than a Month in a Monastery in Tibet.”
It is a collection of 24 poems that won the 2022 Rattle Chapbook Prize from Studio City publisher Rattle. The reward is the publication of 8,000 volumes in Rattle’s chapbook series. Every year, thousands of poets submit their work to Rattle and the winners get a cash prize along with the publication of their own chapbook which is distributed to Rattle’s 8,000-plus subscribers and is available for purchase on their website.
“The response has been remarkable,” Mark said. “I’m getting letters and emails. According to the publisher, it’s the best-selling book in the history of Rattle and that happened in only two weeks.”
He believes the subject matter as well as his ability to communicate personal anecdotes in a compelling way has led to the response.
“My goal is to create emotion ... to touch, to connect,” he said. “The accessibility of how I write and the universality of what I’m writing about have combined for this (popularity).”
The 40-page book offers poetically rendered vignettes about his relationship with his mother in her deteriorated state due to Alzheimer’s disease. Mark also includes observations of his aging father as he copes with his wife’s issues.
“I didn’t write this with the intention of creating a book,” Mark said. “I wrote poems to capture the moment or to explore the moment in the relationship with my mother (during) the progression of my mother’s Alzheimer’s. ... I was watching my father as a caregiver.”
Yet, Mark said, he was submitting the poems to various publications and they were being accepted. With the emphatic urging of his wife, Lois, he entered them in Rattle’s annual competition.
“Rattle is up there with the Paris Review and the New Yorker as the most widely distributed magazines featuring poetry in the world,” he said. “I didn’t think I had a shot.”
The pieces resonate with the agony, irony and humor of interacting with parents who are vestiges of their former selves.
In the opening piece, “Estelle,” the narrator remembers some of his mom’s quirks. She would change the Fs on his grade-school report card to look like Bs. She would get away from the butcher with 3/8 of a pound of corned beef having only paid for a quarter-pound.
The poem concludes, “Now she’s given her own memory the slip.
Doctors say there’s no reaching her.”
Some of the poems recount the often funny and frustrating situations that arise between Mark’s mother and father such as in “What are The Odds”, in which the husband must deal with his wife’s elusive behavior on a trip to an Atlantic City casino. Another is “Losing My Parents in a Small CVS Drug Store.”
Other poems such as “Sparrow” address Mark’s interactions with Estelle, like when she tells him she ate tuna when she actually had lemon pound cake.
The title piece suggests his mom’s behavior is more enigmatic than the responses of a Buddhist monk to the queries of a novice:
“For the fourth time, my mother
asks, ‘How many children
do you have?’ I’m beginning
To believe my answer
‘Two, mom,’ is wrong. Maybe
the lesson is they are not mine,” ...
Mark’s reference to a Tibetan monastery is based on personal experience as he has traveled to the Himalayas among many other destinations around the globe.
Nor is he a novice in the literary world, as he already has had two books of fiction published.
McMillan released “Toba” and “At the Hands of a Thief” when Mark was in his 20s after graduating with a master’s degree in creative writing from New York’s Binghamton University.
Yet, Mark relinquished a promising career in creative literature to deploy his writing skills in the more lucrative world of advertising.
He and his wife moved from the East Coast to Carmel Valley 25 years ago. He started his own successful ad agency in San Diego County. The couple has two children who are now adults.
Becoming a wordsmith was not Mark’s initial career path. He was determined to enter the legal profession.
While attending college as a political science major, Mark said, he submitted a story in a college literary magazine’s contest and won the prize.
Later, while he attending a senior seminar in political science, a man entered the classroom.
“It was scary because he was kind of short with long, long shocking white hair and he’s in a motorcycle outfit,” Mark said. “He’s wearing black leather pants, a black leather jacket and he had a black helmet under his arm, and he asked ‘Who is Michael Mark?’”
“I did not raise my hand because I thought this was the Angel of Death. The professor pointed to me.”
The odd looking biker took Mark outside the classroom and introduced himself as John Gardner, the acclaimed novelist and professor of literature.
“He said, ‘You’re a writer.’ I said, ‘No no no, I’m going to law school. ... I’m born to be a lawyer.’ He said, ‘I don’t think you should.’ He offered me a full scholarship as well as helping to pay my rent and my food to be in his senior Master of Arts program.”
Mark says he went back home and told Lois what happened.
“She said, “Oh my God, I know John Gardner. We’re studying him.’ She said, ‘You have to do it. Forget about law school. You should be a writer.’
“Again, I did what she told me.”
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