Coming Out of Hiding

… or why I’m writing memoir these days.

I’ve lived an interesting life and have often been asked if I was planning to write a memoir. The events that seem to be of interest to others are sometimes personal (getting kicked out of high school, having an illegal abortion, delivering my son in a hotel room in Kabul Afghanistan, losing my best friend to AIDS), sometimes political (protesting the American war in Vietnam, being tear gassed by police at Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, running a feminist abortion clinic, being a member of ACT UP NY, co-founding a lesbian press). I always deflect the question. I’ve told the story of the birth of my son many times, but something always rang untrue in the telling. If you read memoir or listen to true stories as spoken on The Moth Radio Hour, there is always a central drama and some sort of resolution; it may be something learned or revealed; settled or accepted; reconciled or forgiven; avenged or rejected. The problem I faced was that I couldn’t name the central drama in my life’s story, so how could it possibly be reconciled? I write, but I’ve always hidden my sadness in poems, not in stories.

So, when it revealed itself, it was as if my entire life needed to be rewritten. The event that encumbered me, that I didn’t tell—or spoke of rarely—was losing custody of my son to his father when he was five. Facing that fact now, trying to undo the effects of the shame I have carried for decades, has made it possible for me to want to tell this story. A story with an omission in it is a story untold. And yet the omission itself, once revealed, is only a small part of the story.

A somewhat arbitrary date that I started working on this project was about a year ago, in February 2021. It picked up some momentum that August, when I knew that the kernel of the project was to write about losing custody of my son. But the seed was planted following a zoom conversation with Minnie Bruce Pratt in February. Perhaps the flame was lit but faltered, and then revived in September 2021 when I was in a zoom poetry workshop with a small group run by Mark Doty. I heard myself saying, in explanation of something I had written, I lost custody of my son when he was five. I felt disconnected, hearing myself state that fact. It stayed with me for days. I had said something that I usually avoid saying, and it burst through denial into hyper-reality, then plummeted to my feet as real.  This happened to me. How much of my life since that event was shaped by that loss? Hard to know, but shortly after that, I became determined to write about it. I signed up for an eight-week asynchronous class with Sandra Beasley. We worked on creating an annotated outline for memoir, creating an organizing principle for the work. The writing became real at that point.

But I was still afraid of asking for help with the project. I wanted support, but I was still wary of talking about an event from fifty years ago that I rarely had talked about in decades. Wasn’t I over it? No, clearly, once I started writing, that was obvious. As I dug deeper, I knew I needed corroborating information from family and friends. I tentatively reached out first to a dear poetry friend who didn’t know the story at all. Her support was tantamount to a blessing.

Today I bought a 4-story stand and four cute storage baskets. When I was choosing the baskets at the store, putting them in the stand, taking them out, trying others—an aesthetic mission—a woman stopped and asked what I was going to do with it. I told her that I was sorting letters, pictures, clippings and oddments to give to family members. This was true. I’ve held on to things over many moves, including the move to Seattle in 2008, and including all of my journals, which I’ve sworn to burn (read, trash) before I die. A few weeks ago, I started gently going through things, creating piles and then losing all sense of organization. The first few stabs at it, I threw nothing away. Things moved from one room to another without any actual progress towards the goal of sorting what I would be able to use for this project, what I could throw out and be rid of, and what to save—mostly pictures—to give to others.  I bought the stand and baskets for sorting the work of the project, one basket for each section of the book. I think—I’m hoping—this will prove another step in the project. Wish me luck!

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Getting Your Daily Fix of Culture

I don’t remember how I first came across Cultural Weekly, which is now called Cultural Daily. The site is chock-full of interesting and timely writing about the arts and politics. It includes a wide array of work: poetry, fiction, photo-essays, interviews, dance, literature, fine arts. Check it out. You can sign up for daily emails.

I’ve been posting essays and book reviews at Cultural Daily over the past 5 months. It seems I have started to write essays. Why now? I’m feeling an escalating pressure to write down my thoughts, both because the moment feels so urgent, and because I want to remember them. And really, who knows how long I will be able to write? Carpe diem, as they say.

Of course, I’m reading essays too. I’ve been re-reading some of the wonderful essays of Virginia Woolf and I have Zadie Smiths Feel Free: Essays on board. And I’ve just ordered a forthcoming anthology of lyric essays by contemporary essayists, titled A Harp in the Stars.

Here are the essays I’ve posted at Cultural Daily so far:

Considering the Lyrical Essay- which I first published as a blog here.

Doubt and Redoubt

The meaning and usage of so many words do not live up to their sounds. “Redoubtable” is a bunch of squishy syllables crashing against a glottal “t.” “Formidable” has the same number of syllables but with the choice of stressing either the first or second. Formidable has “form” in it, echoing its meaning and altogether more pleasing in the mouth. This insight emanates from my editor brain, always trying to analyze and improve others’ sentences. Sometimes to their peril.

The Wavy Seas of My Brain

I woke this morning thinking that my thoughts are worth writing down. At least to keep them from drowning in the wavy seas of my brain’s currents. To pinpoint where my brimful (brain-full) of thoughts is currently stationed. And where they are heading. And, if my brain’s power is waning—as I know it is—will I be able to see evidence of its diminishment in the language of my own writing?

It’s not over, it’s just getting started

I am closely following breakthrough COVID infections. COVID may indeed be a pandemic of the unvaccinated, but it is foolish to think it will remain in small conclaves where vaccination rates are low. People are out and about, and spreading variants of the virus that are much more transmissible.

The Singular They

It is equally imprudent to resist changes in language usage on principle, as no principle other than speech itself—and its consequence, behavior—underlie its usage. If the principle is that a plural pronoun cannot support a singular antecedent, consider if that is a more important principle at this moment than avoiding gender stereotyping. Or the true underlying issue of equity for transgendered persons, including our trans-youth.

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Considering the Lyrical Essay

I woke up this morning thinking about . . .

. . . and now I wonder what I was thinking about. I had the sense it was important enough to try to remember, to write down for further exploration. Likely it had something to do with aging and dying–that’s pretty typical for me, and I know there was a dreamlike metaphor involved. Seemingly worth remembering.

My mom died at 82 years, and I see how close 71 really is to the edges of my expectations. Yes, someone is probably thinking, “but, you could live to be one hundred.” Which is not how I hope things will go.

At work, I love taking care of seniors—really old people in their late 80’s and 90’s. But no matter how many women are playing tennis in their eighties (well, that would be pickleball out here), I’ve been privy to what a real slog it is to get old. Most of the elderly I meet live in overgrown houses with stairs and acreage; have had any number of falls with trips to the emergency room and numerous scans and tests without much revelation other than “normal for age”; have children who are far away or never born (and not infrequently estranged); and if a couple, one will have dementia and the other is a full time caregiver with chronic medical problems of their own. Why was I thinking about my mom though?

I do remember this thought: “Maybe I should be writing lyrical essays.” It seems like a thing I hadn’t noticed was a thing until recently. (Excuse me for a moment while I google “lyrical essay.” And perhaps lose the train thought even further.)

I guess I’ll need to purchase a few books first and read some lyrical essays. Feel free to leave recommendations. Which brings up what I’ve spent the last week trying to undo: purchases, accumulations, things. I have eight tall tightly-crowded bookcases in a small house, possible not unlike many who might be reading this, but are you 71 yet? Do you wake up thinking about . . . and this is very much my reality . . . thinking about how I don’t want my son to have a mess to sort through when I die. I look around and wonder how, after stripping down to bare needs, and moving from East to West coast 13 years ago (and how is that possible?) I’ve managed to accumulate so many books. Not to mention, sheepishly, clothes, shoes, hair products, canned foods, house plants, cats, cat paraphernalia.

My mom’s death conferred upon me one of my two debilitating experiences in “taking down a house.” I’m not sure if there is an accurate term for this act—but there should be, and probably is in another language. (Short derail here to google “term for cleaning out a home after a death.” Nada.) Having done this chore for my mom and for my best friend who died of AIDS at only thirty-seven (another lingering topic), I often warn people that this act is possibly the most emotionally fraught task they will face following a death.

I was also thinking about an interview I am working on with a(nother) lesbian who is many years estranged from her family of origin. This takes me to emptying my friend’s apartment, deciding what to keep, what to give away, and grabbing his journals so his parents wouldn’t get ahold of them. My first poetry chapbook reveals what was in those journals. I’m wishy-washy, but think I will probably burn my journals—they are so consumed with despair and fury—the worst parts of a life that also includes joy and pleasure.

I think I was wondering if people might think that, since I’m on a mission to get rid of things, to tidy up my living space, I might be depressed, even considering suicide. You would not be entirely wrong, I’ve had a difficult few months. But the thing is, after this pandemic year, which we all have faced in our various ways, I am so looking forward to seeing my east coast family and friends in August, and spending a week at the beach house in Cape May where emerging versions of my family have gone to every summer for at least 25 years, until this last one. We have a new baby joining us this year. I remember how my mother loved the beach. And lived to see her first great grand boy before she died.

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A Writing Practice: Book Reviews

On those days, not infrequent, when I feel diminished as a poet, I still have a sense of confidence in my ability to write a really good book review. It’s become my writing practice and my connection with other poets. I like to think of the practice as my own personal MFA program. Writing poetry book reviews has deeply enriched my reading and writing experience– it’s taught me how to read “closely” and shown me how to recognize the craft of syntax, tone, meter, musicality. I believe it’s made me a better poet. It’s given me opportunities to connect with other poets and within the larger community of poetry.

Two years ago, in March 2019, I launched The Poetry Cafe Online: a Meeting Place Where Poetry Chapbooks are Celebrated and Reviewed with my review of Lauren Davis’s Each Wild Things Consent.

The goal of The Poetry Cafe is to create a comfortable, inviting home where interested poetry lovers can enter, feel welcomed, and read reviews of poetry chapbooks. As curator of The Poetry Café, I’ve received chapbooks from more than 100 poets. I’ve written many reviews myself, but more amazingly, I have published reviews by 27 guest reviewers and as of today, a total of 54 Reviews! I’ve also added Interviews to the site.

The project has grown far beyond my expectations. If you are not following it, please click over and add your email address to follow Cafe postings, usually once a week. I’m always looking for new reviewers or interviewers, and I could sure use some help with managing the site. if you’re interested, send me an email at:
C’mon in and have a cup of poetry!

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Equinox and Equanimity

I haven’t written on this site since October, and I’m not sure how to proceed. I’m having a winter hangover today, but really wanting to feel alive and hopeful. I’m listening to various versions of Vivaldi’s Spring. Isn’t it amazing how much emotion musicians show as they work their instruments? This has always fascinated me. I am entranced with Itzhak Perlman’s expressions. Watching him play the violin reminds me so much of my grandfather, who played the cello. I guess this is how I feel today. At least I have a poem for it. And a sweet picture of my grandsons.

How to Be Sad

If you listen without language, you may hear
my grandfather playing Brahms on the cello,
grunting every now and then with the effort
of an old man soon to die. He played for me

that spring I lay sick with pneumonia.
I was nine and lonely for my mothership,
her planets and galaxies preparing me
for a life of stargazing and solitude.    

Although at times I say too much, there is much
I will never say.  If you are sad, go to the ocean.
There, is music. Lay your tongue aside, listen.
May you hear the stillness between breakers.

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Hey! My chapbook, POSTHUMAN, finalist for the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Prize, is available NOW for pre-sale at the amazing price of ONLY $7! I hope you’ll buy a copy!

Posthuman (PRE-SALE)

Praise for Posthuman from the editor, Michael Schmeltzer:

“Posthuman by Risa Denenberg is a warning and a wonder. The book begins on “a warm day in April” and ends with an ecological apocalypse. Smoke rises, oceans rise, Denenberg herself, however, “can’t rise up any more.” These timely and relevant poems lament the damage we do to the earth while it imagines a posthuman landscape where “bees / will grow fat and rejoice.” This book, though dire at times, displays a wisdom found by those who do not look away, who choose to witness the world on fire.

With a controlled voice and unflinching self-interrogation, Denenberg has written a book that is deeply personal, poignant, and utterly human.

Risa Denenberg lives on the Olympic peninsula in Washington state, where she works as a nurse practitioner and volunteers with End of Life Washington. She is a co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of LBT poetry, and curates The Poetry Café, an online meeting place where poetry chapbooks are celebrated and reviewed. She has published six collections of poetry,  most recently, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018) and the chapbook, Posthuman, finalist for the Floating Bridge Press Chapbook Contest (2020).

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Sunday Morning Muse Checking In

So, I did it. I retired at the end of November. I will turn 70 in February and would have waited until then, but I had a higher calling; I traveled to New York to spend a month with my niece who delivered a sweet baby boy on 12/5/19. I returned and worked 4 days last week, so retirement is somewhat of a misnomer. I have let go of my panel of patients but will still be working in the clinic from time to time as a per diem staff. If you’ve ever had a provider (I’m a nurse practitioner) leave you, think about it in reverse. It was hard, people. Hard, but it was time. Also, I got a haircut.

My writing life was active throughout 2019. I continued working as an editor of Headmistress Press; published poetry book reviews at The Rumpus and other venues; started a website for publishing reviews of poetry chapbooks; had a few poems published, and the usual amount of rejections. In January I took a workshop with Aracelis Girmay at the West Palm Beach Poetry Festival; took a workshop with Carl Phillips in July at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; and spent a weekend with friends at Poets on the Coast. I have a manuscript that I am shopping around.

Upon retirement, I immediately thought about publishing an anthology of work by retired women. Poetry and short prose. Will need a snappy name for that, if you have any suggestions. Tentatively, I’ve got: Tired and Retired: An anthology of writings by women over 65. I’m looking for a publisher.

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Sunday Morning Musing over What’s Next?

It is, for me at least, a new year. Wishing everyone a happy Rosh Hashanah with hopes for a year in which we all move forward in all of the ways that we are able, hold on to one another in health and illness, and hang on to our own and each others’ goodness.

My new year starts with retirement in exactly 8 weeks. The scramble is on to apply for Medicare supplemental insurance and social security benefits. And then, at Thanksgiving, I am leaving my peninsula home for a month of family visits. More about that another time. But I am still looking for someone who would like to retreat at a lovely private home with water and mountain views in exchange for catsitting while I am away, in case you know anyone who might be interested.

And ! There are new chapbook reviews to check out!

I have a review and interview with Carl Phillips up at the Adroit Journal!

And there are new chapbook Reviews at The Poetry Cafe!

Guest editor Lenart Luhnd wrote this terrific review of Adam Deutsch’s chapbook, Carry On (elegies).

Guest Editor Siân Killingsworth wrote this fabulous review of Sarah Nichol’s chapbook, She May Be a Saint.

I am still looking for guest reviewers at the cafe. If you are interested, send me an email at:

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Sunday Morning at The Poetry Cafe

My blogginess is lagging while I am concentrating on a new project, The Poetry Cafe Online- a meeting place where poetry chapbooks are reviewed. C’mon over!

New Reviews up at The Poetry Cafe!

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Janice Gould, 1949-2019

Janice Gould, beloved Koyoonk’auwi (Concow) poet, friend, musician, and teacher, left our realm on 6/28/19. Headmistress Press joins with others in our grief at losing her much too soon, and our deep condolences to her beloved partner. We are proud that we published two of Janice’s books, “The Force of Gratitude” & “Seed.” Her words will ring their truth forever. The last time we spoke with her, Janice said, I would still love to meet you and talk with you.  I so appreciate what your press has done for my poetry.


How strong this channel has become,
the river widening at the bend,
creating shoals and back currents,
where chilly water will be warmed
by sun, and willows sprout
along the graveled shore. I hear
bees among the blackberries,
can smell their prickly fragrance,
and some days I think I see her
on the other side, near the edge,
surveying the wild current, noticing
how the wind rips along the surface of water.
She watches all that shining where forces collide—
otherwise known as my heart.

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