Columbus, Ohio USA
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Elizabeth Ann James (1935-2013)
Short North's Muse touched all of Columbus
By Ann Starr
September/October 2013 Issue
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In October 1987, Elizabeth Ann James made her debut as a writer for this paper with, “Muses, laser beams, jazz, fireflies and rhinestones.” She describes an evening at an art opening in a Short North “alternative” gallery, and she writes in sparkling terms about mingling with artists – friendly, eccentric and wise. “Just what might “alternative” art be?” she asks. She gathers only elusive and bemused responses, but what of it? She’s free to make her own many observations and to feed her poetic imagination.
Elizabeth Ann James at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. This picture, taken in May this year, is the last photo of Elizabeth before her death on August 4, 2013.
She watches a free-spirited, heedless woman dance barefoot throughout the evening. A friend asks James about the dancer’s identity, prompting the writer to remark: “‘I don’t know. I think she’s the Short North Muse, she’s real, but I think I just invented her. She’s an alternative.’”
Perhaps James wrote a prescient self-portrait in that moment of unclouded, champagne wonder, for the Muse of Columbus arts I imagine her to have been. Her early interest in ballet was nurtured by lessons she took at the Toledo Ballet, traveling to the city by bus from Fostoria. She persevered in her studies during summers in Lenox, Massachusetts, at the ballet camp of the Russian choreographer and dancer Mikhail Fokine. She taught dance at home in Fostoria and later in the first house she and her husband bought with that purpose in mind.
She studied poetry at Ohio State where her extraordinary sensitivity to language blossomed. She not only studied poetry in English, but her future husband, Adnan Shiblaq, was impressed to find her studying Arabic poetry as well. James had a natural affinity for all the arts; she was an artist whose own words were “laser beams and fireflies,” illuminating the world of all close to her; a woman whose penetrated fresh alternatives she found latent in everyone she taught or encouraged.
Elizabeth Ann Shiblaq, who chose the pen name of James, died in Columbus on August 4, leaving behind her husband, Adnan, and two adult sons, Saladin, of Columbus, and Omar of Alexandria, Virginia. She was born Elizabeth Ann Porter in Fostoria, Ohio. Her family called her Ann. Ann was one of six children cared for by a mother who was widowed early. Mrs. Porter returned to college to become a teacher whose determined work supported her family. She was also a pianist who was accompanist and organist for the family church.
Was her mother the source of Elizabeth’s love of poetry and art? Adnan Shiblaq is not ready to provide that explanation for his wife’s passion. “Her message of elevating poetry was for beauty,” he says simply. Shiblaq praises not only her sensitivity to the beauty of language, but the way she embodied poetry as well. “She had a beautiful way of performing in not only her own words, but other peoples’ too.” She made intuitive connections between sound and rhythm in music and in language. She responded to both with the instincts of a dancer.
For her own part, Liz (as her husband dubbed her), attributed her love of poetry to her Welsh ancestry on her mother’s side: Her pen name was chosen to honor her Welsh pride, for she felt seamlessly connected to the Welsh national loves of singing and poetry. So strong was her affinity for Wales that when the Shiblaqs traveled there, she pursued connections ahead of time. The result was that she read her poems and was interviewed in English on a BBC Welsh-language affiliate station, Radio Ceredigion.
James was modest about her achievements. Although she published an article about the Ladies’ Park in Abu Dhabi in the Christian Science Monitor, she never brought it up. Nor did she gloat when, in October of 2008, she was chosen as the Featured Member of the Ohio Poetry Association for “Poem for the Arabian Gulf at Abu Dhabi.” One can hear her read it, streaming online at http://archive.org/details/PoemForTheArabianGulfAtAbuDhabi.
James’s greatest joy seems to have been in sharing the life of poetry with others. She did not want poetry to be understood as an arcane or exclusive pursuit, the goal of which was to be criticized, evaluated, or even to be raised to standards above one’s own level of satisfaction. For her, poetry appeared to be central. It was the daily work of describing and understanding one’s life; an ongoing mission. A 1977 volume compiled by the Women’s Poetry Workshop includes James’s “Poetry”:
my comfort my combat
my passion my
my innate possession
I being possessed write
You poetry my cruel
my lovely my
lonely lonely game
In private address to her art form, the poet expresses the way it shapes the details of her worldview. Poetry isn’t something to adjust and quibble over for semantic reasons, poetry is lived; it determines one’s point of view. To write poetry is to love life and to examine it too, to speak and to hear oneself, to think and to take action simultaneously.
The intensity of poetry is personal, but Liz James was a woman who was present and available. She loved Columbus and its arts, but she wrote about the domestic world of her family as well. She married oil engineer Adnan Shiblaq before she completed her degree at Ohio State, and they moved to the Middle East, where he resided for work until 1987, she traveling back and forth throughout the period. Though James never learned to speak Arabic, Adnan reports that he was confident she could understand most of what was spoken around them. One day, in fact, they watched an Arabic language television program about the revered poet Karfa; he was stunned by her conversation afterwards which revealed that she’d listened with fascination and comprehended nearly the entirely program.
Many of her poems refer to their life in Abu Dhabi, and she writes, too, about being a mother. She writes with the tenderness and ferocity of a woman engaged and questioning at every moment; a mother who doesn’t assume that she is – or can be – the only authority in her children’s lives.
They grow up wilder than many kangaroos
because their mother is a crazy, unpublished
poet, a half-assed ballerina
who sews on buttons with fishing line…
You, my children are lonely raiders.
And from “For my Sons:”
Over the frantic, lopsided years
my love transformed you
into twin gods
who painted mammoths
on the walls of the cave
of my heart.
For James, even between parents and children, youth and age, there is no absolute authority, but only what is earned through love and respect born of observation.
Through her non-authoritarian openness to others and through her belief in the inspirational power of the arts, James became an influential leader and mentor in Columbus arts. She is best remembered for her place in the poetry community, but she wrote a column about visual arts in the Short North Gazette and also wrote for the Columbus Free Press. She remained a supporter of dance, sometimes incorporating it into plays she wrote. From 2005 until her death, she maintained an occasional blog, Liz James Arts, explicitly intended to expand on her writing for the Gazette. The blog is still available on Blogger. Throughout her blog columns, one finds no criticism in the sense of quibbles, critiques, or advice to artists. Her comments are celebratory, expressive only of enthusiasm and an informed willingness to be inside the artist’s effort and ambitions.
James’s premiere contribution to the Columbus poetry scene was in promoting accessibility by creating opportunities for people to hear it spoken and for writers to find audiences for their own works. She was determined to reach as far as possible in terms of numbers and variety of people touched by poetry. By the testimony of her friends, colleagues, and students, James was imaginative, collaborative, and resourceful to an extraordinary degree.
James first became involved in local poetry activities after meeting Dotte Turner at the Unitarian Universalist Church in the 1960s. Turner introduced her to the Writers’ Guild and soon she was active in the oldest on-going writers’ group in the area. The Guild offered a venue where poets at any level could read aloud without critique or censorship.
Steve Abbott, now Professor Emeritus of English at Columbus State, regained his poetry writing habit, lost over the years, when he took a chance, one evening in the mid-’70s, on a reading James had organized downtown. He soon found himself, under her guidance and with her support, once again deeply engaged. The two became the cofounders of one of the city’s enduring poetry groups, the Poetry Forum at Larry’s, which has lasted even beyond Larry’s 2008 closing, meeting now at Rhumba Café.
Betsy Kennedy studied poetry writing with James when she taught it at the old Beechwold Library on North High. She warmly recalls the encouragement and support from James that showed her the way into publishing her work.
Kennedy remembers happily that James saw any place in town as a possible venue with a different audience for poetry. James hosted the academically inclined Women’s Poetry Workshop at her own home for a study of the poet Amy Lowell. James and Mary Rumm organized a genteel, popular reading, “An Edwardian Bouquet: A Language of Flowers” one afternoon in 1982 in the fifth-floor Country Shop at Lazarus. The Cultural Arts Center hosted readings that James organized for Sunday afternoons throughout the 1980s.
There was Poetry in the Park, which she arranged for the Park of Roses. She mounted an occasional series of readings accompanied by dance at the Art Museum, again with Mary Rumm. When poetry was introduced to the Arts Festival on the State House lawn and in the Rhodes Tower, it was the doing of James and her colleagues.
Liz James (left) with other members of Cows in Flight, a poetry troupe: Marley Greiner, Fred Andrle, Mike Dittmer. (c 1984). Photo Alan Zak
Perhaps the best-loved reading Liz James organized was the 3 a.m. White Castle reading for Cows in Flight, around 1986. Steve Abbott recalls that he went to bed at 10 that night, set his alarm for 2 a.m., and showed up to find a crowd of around thirty reciting from the tops of stools, a jazz saxophonist providing mellow accompaniment. The manager, he reports, appeared confused. Once the poetic spirit had exhausted itself, the festive and hungry crowd moved on to Bob Evans on Olentangy River Road for a literary 4:30 a.m. breakfast. Poetry was not, for James, all an Edwardian Bouquet or a Park of Roses or Centered on Culture.
Liz James will be remembered, too, for her ardent participation in Central Ohioans for Peace. She was passionate in her opposition to the war in Iraq and, as her husband put it, “didn’t mind standing on a street corner shouting.” Dotte Turner warmly recalls James’s commitment to human rights and women’s rights worldwide—topics that often appear as subjects for her poetry.
Turner cherishes knowing that James, for all her broadminded teaching, her manners, and civic-mindedness, aligned herself with a poetic tradition that flourishes in South America, Europe, and elsewhere, but not particularly in the United States. In other lands, the poet is revered as an activist who speaks the truth about individuals in society, and represents injustices that voiceless citizens endure. James was that sort of poet, she insists, though our environment blinds us to it. It was a role in which James took pride.
But even if James’s poetry isn’t recognized for social activism by her peers and students, unquestionably many have benefited from that effect: Far fewer would be writing poetry of any ilk in Columbus today were it not for her influence in “taking it to the street.” Not only would poetry in the Arts Festival and Community of Poets Arts Awards be missing, but the sprawling network of independent writers, readers, and slammers would not have grown so big – the Cows in Flight, Umbrella, Great Expectations, House of Toast, Jazz Poetry Ensemble, or any number of spontaneous events – without Liz James. Without a doubt, Columbus’s non-academic poetry would have less interest and be a less fertile place without her.
James may not have created alternatives for people interested in poetry, nor have been the alternative herself, but she helped many find the variety in themselves. In this regard, her “Fog Poem” serves the role of another wonderful self-portrait and suitable way to remember her:
If I am reborn, I will name myself Debaab,
“fog”…I will go everywhere
and not be afraid.
I will be softer than bread
but no one will have power over me.
Children and tough sailors will say,
“debaab,” they will wonder
if I am a bride or a nun
or a dancer calling from the mist.
I will sit on the wharves, and the cats
will hide in the folds of my bathrobe.
The sun will make a diamond clip
for my hair and I will say,
“When I was a woman on this earth
you tried to trap me but I escaped
and now as then, I am free
and generous as rain.”
An alternative. The fog. She appeared among us as the sun, just one of her forms, but she remains in her beloved Columbus in alternative forms and shades, both real and a product of her generous imagination, someone yet to be discovered whenever her poetry is read.
Visit “Remembering Elizabeth Ann” at http://maddogmarley.wordpress.com. A memorial service will be held on Saturday, September 7, 2013, at 1:00 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 93 East Weisheimer Road.
© 2013 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.
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