Poets and poetry

Writing about craft, poetry book reviews and appreciations, and anything else that isn’t an original poem.

Ice Mountain coverIce Mountain by Dave Bonta
132 pgs, 6″ x 9″, paperback, publication date January 25, 2016
Pre-order at $13.50 (reg. $14.95)

10% of all proceeds will benefit local and regional conservation efforts in central Pennsylvania.

Holiday Note: We don’t expect to be able to ship books until mid- to late January, but if you’d like to give this book as a gift, we’ll send you a file with a printable card of the book cover to give the recipient.

Some text from the book’s page at Phoenicia Publishing, where you can order if you have a mind to. Want to read a selection before you make up your mind? Here you go. And if a printed card doesn’t seem quite enough to constitute a Christmas present, you could combine it with one of the already-published books from Phoenicia Publishing as long as you’re quick about it.

But you all know how much I favor web publication. Why pursue publication of a print book at all in this digital age? Well, as you probably gathered from Wednesday’s crowd-sourced list of poetry books, many of us poetry lovers still fetishize dead-tree media. In my case, that’s not an affection that extends to magazines, which are essentially disposable and should all be electronic in my opinion. But a good book is something designed to be kept forever — and barring fire, flood, insects, and high-acid paper, books can survive almost indefinitely if properly cared for. Not only that, a printed book is highly portable and hard to beat technologically for random access to content and general ease of user interface.

And let’s face it, digital-only publication fuels a certain reductionist mindset. A book is much more than just its textual content. When Beth Adams asked me last spring if I might have a manuscript she could look at, it came at a very opportune time: I had just finished a complete re-write of a collection of poems originally published here as a poetic diary from January to May 2014. After a further month of editing, I sent it off and was thrilled when she said she wanted to publish it, because Beth is a true artist and a gifted designer of print publications, and I knew she’d be able to add real value to the collection — to make it something that even people who don’t normally buy new books of poetry might want to own. (And frankly, because of the local content, including the use of a local toponym for the title, Ice Mountain will likely sell some copies outside the usual poetry circles.)

So the book isn’t just mine anymore; it’s Beth’s, too. I am always willing to meet an audience part-way, and I didn’t think it really compromised the purity of my vision too much to break up the text with original linocut illustrations when Beth offered that as a possibility. “Sure! Why not use linocuts as dividers between months?” I said. And a couple of weeks later, she produced this lovely linocut of a wood frog to show me the sort of thing she had in mind.

Then one of the two people I asked to read the manuscript and consider writing some promotional copy for it, the environmental activist Laura Jackson, wondered why I couldn’t turn the afterword into a foreword, and Beth agreed that this would make the book more user-friendly, so again I thought, why the heck not? My own preference to read the poems in a book on their own first is certainly not everyone’s, and besides, it has never bothered me to have to skip a foreword, preface or introduction in order to do so.

facing down a porcupine
A free and frank exchange of views

The compromise went both ways. Beth has agreed to let me keep my standard Creative Commons license for all my text, though her illustrations and the book as a product will remain under standard copyright protection. This will allow anyone to translate or remix poems into music, film, dance, etc., which I see as a net gain for the poems even if the interpretations aren’t to my personal liking. It is, among other things, free distribution. But more than that, poetry,  like code, wants to be free — free as in speech, not as in beer.

Which brings up economic considerations. There will be a digital version of the book, but don’t assume that’s going to provide a super low-cost option for those too cheap to buy the print version. Beth has poured many, many hours into this project, and it’s not fair to expect her to just donate her time to the cause. I bring this up because I think it encapsulates the peculiar situation of poetry under capitalism: on the one hand, sales of poetry books continue to decline, and virtually no one is able to make a living from it. On the other hand, giant corporations like Levi’s, Volvo, and HSBC love to incorporate poetry into advertising, precisely because (as I wrote in an essay at Moving Poems Magazine) they crave the authenticity of something that is seen as so completely outside the marketplace. Meanwhile, among da yoot, I’m told that poetry has more caché than ever. Go figure.

If poetry in Anglo-American culture every becomes as popular as it is in, say, Arabic countries, the whole dynamic will change. But I think we’re safe from such a scenario for at least another generation. We’re also not seeing the wholesale replacement of print books by digital, something that’s been predicted many times but has yet to happen. What’s more likely, I fear, is that as attention spans continue to shrink and fracture, fewer and fewer people will read books in any form, and only poets who are able to make the transition to audio or video will have a chance at being heard. But even then, I’m sure there will be a small market for beautifully made books, just as the small number of vinyl records that are still produced these days are more lust-worthy than ever.

the porcupine treeAnd what about the trees? Paper really doesn’t need to be make from tree pulp at all, of course. But I want to say a few words about the tree that inspired Beth’s linocut for the cover of Ice Mountain, which she titled “Porcupine Tree.” It’s an ancient, ridge-top chestnut oak that stands just over the property line with one of our neighbors. A series of porcupines have denned in it over the years, and their regular snacking on its twigs during winter months gave it a semi-pollarded appearance. Beth knew of my fondness for porcupines — I kind of identify with them as largely solitary, prickly, toothy tree-huggers — and I assume that influenced her choice of cover art, together with the tree’s mournful appearance, so fitting for a book-length elegy to winter.

The porcupine tree now looks even more mournful. It was close to death when the neighbor did some logging around it three years ago, exposing it to the full force of the winds. In October, it had its rendezvous with death when a storm brought powerful gusts through the area in the wake of torrential rains. Our neighbor Paula was driving down the hollow at the time, and her truck’s windshield was smashed by a falling limb, while my brother Mark’s car was nearly blown off the highway. And up on the ridgetop, the entire crown of the porcupine tree snapped off.

hollow oak with all its limbs snapped offOr so I am guessing. I hadn’t been over there for a while, so I just discovered the damage the other day. Regardless of how or when it happened, though, this tree has gone the way of most of its species: succumbing to bole-snap rather than a full uprooting, which means that it will probably have several more decades of service to wildlife, as a den tree as well as a food source. (My beetle-collecting brother Steve once told me that rotting oaks are the best, most nutritious food for larvae and thus support more biodiversity than any other group of trees on the mountain, especially when you factor in all the mast crops they produce while still alive.)

But it may or may not continue to be a den for porcupines. Since I wrote the poems that became Ice Mountain in 2014, the number of porcupines on the mountain has continued to decline, and we’re assuming that’s related to the fact that one of their few natural predators, the large weasel relatives known as fishers, are becoming ever more common. Two of our hunter friends saw fishers from their tree stands earlier this month, in fact, and my mother saw fisher tracks and scat at the Far Field — 100 yards away from the porcupine tree.

This is probably good news for the trees, though at a low population level I don’t think porcupines cause any more damage than any other natural disturbance, including high winds. I’m not saying I won’t still write elegies about porcupines — indeed, a dead one appears in Ice Mountain — but my sorrow won’t rise to the level of my despair at the anthropogenic extinction crisis, or global warming. Or the political direction of this country, which I think would be better served by a porcupine as president than the soon-to-be huckster-in-chief. But that probably goes without saying.

Don’t you kind of hate those year-end “best of” lists that magazines love to compile? They always seem more about positioning the authors as Serious Culture Critics who are hip to what’s fashionable rather than showcasing potentially over-looked works that they sincerely enjoy. And sure, Luisa Igloria and I could’ve set ourselves up as judges to pick a Top 10 list from among our personal favorites, but I thought it would be more fun to throw it open to poetry lovers at large and ask (here and on Facebook) for mini reviews of your single favorite poetry book from the past year: a new book, an old book, a book in whatever language.

The responses have been wonderfully varied and interesting, and Lord help me I want to read (or in a few cases, re-read) every one of these books right now! I’m presenting them in the order they came in. I haven’t numbered them, lest that imply some sort of ranking, but there are 28 books in all.

*

Paradise Lost original coverParadise Lost by John Milton (Samuel Simmons, 1667). I nominate it (short answer) because of the rhythm and concision of the text, but also (long answer) because I read it in a book club with people much smarter than myself, including my daughter. (None of us “believers” — but that maybe made it better.) It reads aloud like Creation itself. We only had two meetings for the book, but they were the best of conversations.
Steven Arnerich

*

cover of "Of This World"The single book that’s been among the rotating 10 bedside books of mine — probably for two or three years now — has been Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems, from Copper Canyon (2008). Just can’t get enough of it. I came late to Stroud, and this is the first & only book of his I know. It’s hard to generalize about Stroud’s virtues, not just because this book collects decades of work, but also because he’s a master of many forms, themes, and tones. He can do a tight lyric in the mode of the classical Chinese masters, and he can stretch out in longer sequences. I love that he doesn’t either hide or particularly flaunt his erudition. He keeps his eye on the things of this world at all times (I guess you could call him a nature poet), but the things of his world definitely include his wide reading in literature. Anyway, his poems are consistently smart, sharply observant, and gorgeous. One of the few books I’ve bought based on a blurb — in this case a rave from the late Jim Harrison (“I don’t recall when a poet unknown to me has struck me so deeply.”)
David Graham

*

cover of Luminous SpacesOlav H. Hauge’s Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals (White Pine Press, 2016). Why? Because he can see into things in a way that few can. The poems are terrific and journal entries are special.

Tom Montag

*

cover of Teaching My Mother How to Give BirthTeaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark, 2011) by Warsan Shire. I think this is really only chapbook-length. This is just a superb little book by a London–based Somali poet. These words of hers have already been often quoted:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Though her experience is particularly hers, her truth is all women, and this is what will make her work last. Beautiful, dangerous, and syntactically diverse, her poems enthrall me, something that I am finding rare these days. “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Susan Elbe

*

cover of The RiverI’d like to recommend The River by Irish poet Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2016). It’s a wonderful collection of accessible, musical poems that illuminate daily life. I was lucky enough to meet Jane at the Los Gatos-Listowel Writers Week, held in Los Gatos, California (where I live) in October of this year. Jane’s poems are full of rain, fishermen, farmers and flowers; they seem innocent at first, but pull you into a deeply affecting, emotional undertow. I love lines like “Piebald and skewbald” from “Broken” and “I have known storms that buffer and batter the heart. / I chose a hard bed, bare boards, a bulwark” from “Enclosed.”

This is a book of poems you could give to almost anyone, including people who insist that they don’t like poetry. I return to my copy again and again.
Erica Goss

*

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, 2015) is full of set-down-the-book-because-you-are-weeping poems. Reading it is to be intimate with the extent to which life — joy, loss, etc. — transforms us every minute. Reading this book is to be stung. There is pain. Specifically, the electrical, intense sort of pain. A physical sensation. It’ll give you goosebumps long after the initial zap, and you’ll be glad for the experience. There’s so much beauty in it.
Carolee Bennett

*

Rabbit Rabbit coverThe best poetry book I read this year would have to be Rabbit Rabbit by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, 2016). I was blown away by the poet’s superb control of language, how she used the surreal to illuminate the world. It is saved from perfection by virtue of hitting the same note every time — but what a note. Though I am a comically slow reader of poetry, I swallowed this whole.

She’s new to me, and I’m now a fan.
Ivy Alvarez

*

Seam coverSeam by Tarfia Faizullah (Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). It’s a beautifully wrought collection that weaves together history and personal narrative with tender attention to craft and form.
Christine Swint

*

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press, 2016).

Beautiful. Raw. Gutting. Luminous.
LouAnn Shepard Muhm

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cover of Saint Aldhelm's RiddlesI’m picking the most unusual (for us, in our day) book of poems I reviewed this year. Here’s the opening of my review, “Riddled with Light,” from a recent issue of First Things: “The riddle of Samson’s strength, the riddle of the eagle’s way with the sky and the ship’s way with the sea, the riddles in royal dreams of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, the riddle of things hidden since the world began, the riddle of a temple that can be destroyed and yet rebuilt in three days: riddling runs like a seam of gold through the rock of the Old and New Testaments. The mystery and praise of Creation and sub-creation that we find in the books of the Bible emerge again as bright knowledge in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (University of Toronto Press, 2015), poems of the seventh-century Aldhelm, noble and bishop and poet and saint. Translated by poet A. M. Juster from Aldhelm’s Aenigmata, these poems suggest that all things possess a mystery. Salamander and raven, candle and cauldron find their secret wonders revealed in riddle.”
Marly Youmans

*

Death Tractates coverOf the many excellent poetry books I read this year the standout was Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates (Wesleyan, 1992). The title makes it sound like some kind of plodding, ancient tome — and it is suffused with grief — but Hillman puts suffering off to the side to ask questions about existence. It’s gorgeous.

The poems convey death’s mystery, and treat the deceased as if she were still present, only separated a little, and unreachable. The dead woman is often referred to as a bride and she is nowhere and everywhere. The poems aren’t filled with tears or wailing, but with questions and careful wondering. Here’s the start of “Seated Bride”:

She had died without warning in early spring.
Which seemed right.
Now that which was far off could become intimate.

I said to the guides, let’s stand
very close to the mystery
and see how far she’s gone…

One of the best poems is “Much Hurrying,” which begins:

—So much hurrying right after a death:
as if a bride were waiting!

Crocuses sliced themselves out
with their penknives. Everything well made
seemed dead to them: Camelias. Their butcher-
paper pink. The well-made poems

seemed dead to you …

Sarah Sloat

*

To The House of the Sun coverThe best poetry book I read this year was To the House of the Sun (S4N Books, 2015), Tim Miller’s epic poem about the travels of an Irish-born Georgian seeking revenge against his own father during the Civil War. Miller contacted me back in the spring because he found me online and thought I might like his work. He was right: To the House of the Sun is a sprawling, strange, deeply moving poem inspired by the the world’s great religious texts and definitely in conversation with them. It’s a difficult, harrowing, inspiring, incantatory book, and I’ve never read anything like it.
Jeff Sypeck

*

De Willekeur coverThe book that got to me the most over the last few ye​ars was De Willekeur by Jan Lauwereyns (De Bezige Bij, 2012). It’s a bundle of death and happiness, adversity and cruelty, the paradoxical aspects of human life, which sometimes produce ironic discoveries. But more than the subject it’s the poetic adventure in which Jan Lauwereyns takes us in this particular book full of alternation: pieces of prose (on a seventeenth-century pornographer, for example), epic pieces of text, simple poems, a senile sonnet. The randomness is itself a poetic tsunami that drags you in. It’s poetry about the miserable, great humanity.

In my view Jan Lauereyns is the most exciting writer/poet that we have in Belgium. And he’s an inspiration to me. I created several videos for his poems and his latest novel led me to make an entire EP based on certain lines from the book.
—Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon

*

A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon - New (Soma)ticsA Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics by CA Conrad (Wave Books, 2012). I liked the structure, somatic exercises (none of which I have tried at home) followed by the poems they generate. I liked the urgency of the voice moving between rage and laughter. I just like CA Conrad’s wildness, the feeling that he will say anything that needs saying.
Martha McCollough

*

The Country Gambler coverThe Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman, 2016). First collection from a UK-based American poet who writes a lot in strict form, both rhymed and unrhymed, and with such skill that it melds entirely with content: sublime, brief evocations of nature, relationships, mood and emotions. A scholar and translator of Horace, her favourite form is Sapphics (see first poem in sample at link).
Jean Morris

*

cover of Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse StoryEvery Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story by Donna Vorreyer (Sundress Publications, 2016). This tightly themed full-length collection chronicles a relationship that starts out rocky and seems to have more passion than promise. By itself, that topic might have kept this book in the “seen it before” category, but then a sharp twist pushes the stakes much higher and the collection morphs into something else, a meditation on the indelible but fallible nature of memory and how it bleeds into everything that comes after. Vorreyer’s lean, elegant verse takes occasional leaps into prose poems and hybrid forms, a welcome change of pace, but the book is anchored by her tight, pared-down poems that pay close attention to line length and visuals while wielding powerful language stripped of all but the essentials. This is a book to read in one gulp and then savor again in small pieces.
Amy Miller

*

cover of Jane Kenyon's Collected PoemsThe Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press, 2007) I’d known “Let Evening Come” and “Otherwise” for a long time but after reading “Let Evening Come” to a women’s group struggling with the election aftermath I decided to dive into the corpus of her work. Two features fascinate me — the similarities in our life paths. Born in 1947. Dealing with severe sadness on and off. The simple work of a gardener to clear the garden and compost. And then, the relationship between titles and subject matter in her poems. I’ve been covering up the titles before I read a poem to guess what she titled it. Every poem takes some sort of twist down to the final lines that surprises me.
Tricia Knoll

*

cover of The Book of QuestionsThe best book of poetry I read this year was The Book of Questions, Volume I, by Edmond Jabès, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Wesleyan, 1991). In a 1989 LRB review of several books by or about Samuel Beckett, Patrick Parrinder wrote:

…[I.A.] Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

The Book of Questions in its entirety passes Richards’s “sincerity” test more definitively than any book of poetry I’ve read in the past decade or so.
—Kuahine Makalapua

*

Four Reincarnations coverMax Ritvo, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I don’t read as widely in new poetry as I ought, probably, but this book seems head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read this year. Ritvo’s poetry is a bit like Ocean Vuong’s in that it’s incredibly emotional, vivid, difficult to read simply because of its horrible intensity. But his language is amazingly restrained, precise, almost ordinary. And yet he manages to convey very surreal and strange images through this plain language. It’s the work of a very accomplished writer with an unusually vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor. Someone I am happy to have inhabiting my mind for an hour at a time.

I do however have to ask myself the uncomfortable question of whether I’d be taking this book as seriously if he hadn’t just died at the age of 25. And the awkward answer is no. I didn’t even hear about Ritvo until the day he died, and everyone who mentions him talks about his early death, so there is no question that his terribly shortened life has amplified the reach of his poetry, as awful as that sounds. I think he knew this, and his writing addresses his terminal illness head on, without pity or melodrama. It doesn’t make it any less awkward for us, his readers, though.

I will be reading and rereading this book for some time, I think.
Dylan Tweney

*

Reasons (not) to Dance coverMy favorite poetry read this year was yet another re-read of the poetry chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance by José Angel Araguz (FutureCycle Press, 2015). Other layers of meaning seem to keep unfolding from each poem every time I read through them, each a three-way hybrid of parable, koan, and poem.
Laura L. Kaminski

*

cover of bindweed & crow poisonbindweed & crow poison: small poems of stray girls, fierce women by Robin Turner (Porkbelly Press, 2016) reminded me how much I love chapbooks. I’ve been reading mostly full-length collections (some quite wonderful), but I single this one out because it’s the only chap I read this year and it reminded me how much I love these one-sitting collections, so easily reread. I had the pleasure of publishing two of these poems at Gnarled Oak (and nominating one — “bindweed” — for a Pushcart) in 2015, and it was nice to reread them in the context of this beautiful little book. The poems in this collection come mostly from the family of erasure, remix, collage and found poems. They are short and wonderfully open, letting the reader catch glimpses of the stray girls and fierce women of the title. They remind me how much can be said with just the right few words. I will probably reread it a time or two in the coming weeks.
James Brush

*

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude coverAmong the best poetry books I read throughout 2016 (and which I will continue to use in the poetry workshops that I teach, either in part or whole) is Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pitt Poetry Series, January 2015). I will return to this book again and again because it reminds me that we should not have to apologize for poetry: for making poetry, for wanting to write poetry, share poetry, read poetry, make poetry out of everyday experience, eat poetry, pluck poems like fruit from a fig tree growing in the middle of the city. And we should not be ashamed to say thank you, to be grateful as we sit in the mud of all of it: for “what do you think/ this singing and shuddering is,/ what this screaming and reaching and dancing/ and crying is, other than loving/ what every second goes away?” The book won several major poetry awards, including the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize.
Luisa A. Igloria

*

The Halo coverI read C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016) earlier this year, and I thought it was stunning. It’s the narrative of a young man who has been in a horrible car accident, a young man discovering his sexuality, a young man who finds wings growing out of his body. All of these are true, and the metaphor keeps slipping so that we’re never such what is metaphorical of what. The physicality and music of this book are extraordinary.
Ed Madden

*

cover of The Whole Field Still Moving Inside ItThe best book of poetry I read this past year (other than the ones I published!) was Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It (The Word Works, 2014). The poems, ostensibly about farming and farm life, are of course — as Heaney showed us so convincingly — about life itself, in all its beauty, bewilderment, and violence. I was impressed by Bashaw’s use of language, and deeply moved by her ability to describe but not over-explain, because so much of what she talks about defies explanation or even analysis. She leaves things as they are, but also leaves a great deal of room for the reader. Barshaw grew up on small farms in New England and upstate New York, but graduated from the Eastman School of Music and worked for 12 years in Germany as a professional bass-trombonist — so it’s probably no surprise that her poems resonated with me. She’s young and her work has won a bunch of prizes but that doesn’t matter to me; I certainly wish I had published this first book of hers myself and hope to meet the poet someday so I can tell her.
Beth Adams

*

The Black Flower coverI keep re-reading The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated by Claire Sullivan (Phoneme Media, 2015), puzzling over a seamless blend of the wild and the domestic, the real and the surreal; wondering at the understated, even casual assimilation of astonishment; and greatly admiring the fractal-like completeness of the smallest fragments. In a year when indigenous people throughout the hemisphere have mobilized and joined forces like never before in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, poetry such as Toledo’s stands as a reminder of just how diverse and vital literary traditions are in the Americas. (Not to mention ancient: Zapotec culture and writing go back at least 2500 years.) Here’s a bit of an untitled poem:

Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth
a tender leaf sleeps upon my eyelids.
My shadow walks the four paths
content, my skin shivers with ants.
A garden is my house
and the firefly on my back makes me translucent.

—Dave Bonta

*

Bodymap coverReading poetry is one of my guilty pleasures. I tend to wander by the poetry section in the local bookstore (Literati) around each payday, and if I miss the bus and have to walk to the bus, well, life has FORCED me to walk past the poetry books, right? Recently (meaning months to years), I’ve been asking the bookstore over and over to stock more diverse poets. I was finding classics, and new books by academically acclaimed poets, and poetry books I’d already read, but was longing for the poems and voices of people of color, women, from other countries, people who are poor, or ill, or disabled, or immigrants, or… well, you get the idea. Diversity. I’d had a tough year, had lost several dear friends, friends who were diverse, so very diverse. I wanted poems that reverberated with experiences that stretched views and minds and hearts.

Then one day I stumbled upon Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Mawenzi House, 2015). I felt the electricity shiver through it even before I bought the book. I couldn’t buy it fast enough, and that was just based on the back cover blurb: “Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha sings a queer disabled femme-of-colour love song filled with hard femme poetics.” Oh, yeah, baby, that’s what I need. The book itself did not disappoint. I read it luxuriously, in strict order, as if it was a story and each poem depended on the poems before. I read about terrible, terrible fatigue, and people who get it and don’t judge you for it. I read about growing up poor and colored and with so many cultures around you it becomes confusing to others when you are just being you. I read about hard life, hard sex, “alternative” sex, and vibrators for pain relief. I read about going to the hospital with friends who are afraid. I read about rape, best friends, moving from one country to another. I read about people who look at you, and you know they are afraid of you because you are ‘different,’ whatever that means.

I carried the book with me everywhere for months. I showed poems to people on the bus, in choir rehearsal, at orchestra concerts. I shoved it in their faces, scrambling through the pages, and saying, “Here! Read this! And this one! Isn’t it AMAZING?” I am not quoting from the poems because they are too powerful and too real to section, and squeeze the juice from them. These are poems to read greedily, and carefully. Stuff your mouth and mind full of them, and let the juice run down your chin. Then read another one, peeling it carefully, removing every shred of bitter white, and marveling at the glorious architecture of how each word glistens inside.

I cried, and laughed, and gasped reading this book. I went back and read who commented on the book, who wrote the “Praise for…” sections, and I bought books by all of them. This was a book that opened to me a mature world of poetry like the one I fell in love with as a teenager, when I discovered “Mountain Moving Day” and “Beginning with O” and “Queen of Swords.” This is woman’s poetry that opens a window on lives rarely witnessed in our culture, powerful poetry, poetry for the excluded and marginalized, poetry for those who want or need to bear witness, to understand, to peep inside a life that is unfamiliar in print but oh so very familiar in the lives of my friends and neighbors. I love this book of poetry in a way I haven’t loved a poetry book in many years. I cannot praise it enough.
PF Anderson

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If I Go Missing coverMy pick for the book of my year is Octavio Quintanilla’s debut collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014).

The poetry sings true and the matter matters.
Katherine Durham Oldmixon

*

Highway Sky by James Brush (Coyote Mercury Press, 2016). It reads like a road movie, and there are film references in it. Diverse poetic forms give a range of rhythmic experiences, like musical variation. The poems evoke nostalgia for a wilder freer time, a time of wrestling demons and coming to a new understanding of life. The tone is serious, at times confessional, and also at times humorous, at others uplifting: many shades as the narrative progresses. Themes of history in the American landscapes traversed are a strong thread in the collection. I love the pared back writing style, which is also somehow rich with detail.

My disclosure of interest in this collection is firstly that I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on the manuscript prior to its publication. I was later also involved in a musical piece and video incorporating one of the poems, ‘God Bless Johnny Cash’. This was possible because James has licensed the whole of ‘Highway Sky’ on a Creative Commons remix license, though he also gave his permission when I contacted him by email. He and I are friends over the net.
Marie Craven
[Click through to the book’s webpage to watch all the videos and listen to the music based on its poems. —Dave]

What was the best book of poetry you read this year, and what did you like about it? I’d like to do a crowd-sourced list here at Via Negativa, in lieu of the more typical kind of end-of-year lists where the editors choose everything themselves. It doesn’t have to be a book published this year, or a book you’ve never read before, just a book that you read in its entirety this year and found exceptional. You don’t have to be a poet yourself; anyone who loves poetry and regularly reads it for pleasure is welcome to take part. Please EMAIL ME (bontasaurus at yahoo dot com) with “Best poetry book” or something similar in the subject line.

The fine print: You can write anything from a few words to a short paragraph extolling the book. Only one book, please—no ties! It can be a book of any length (including chapbooks/pamphlets), with single or multiple authors, up to and including anthologies. Translations are fine, as are books in languages other than English. If you include the full title and author’s name I can probably find a link on the publisher’s website, or elsewhere if it’s out of print. But if you have a blog or website that you’d like me to link to, please include that URL in your email. Let’s make the deadline Thursday the 15th.

So I’m looking for the perfect epigram for an almost-complete book of poetry, because yay epigrams! I’ve been reading lots of favorite poets and coming up mostly dry — only a couple of quotes that might work, by which I mean it would be impossible to justify their use. Because with epigrams, it’s either a perfect fit or you don’t use it.

After a couple of days of searching, I remembered Emily Dickinson. I said to myself, I will open the complete poems at random and find the perfect quote. It was 11:30 at night, so I couldn’t go retrieve my copy of the R. W. Franklin edition from my parents’ house, but this morning I got Mom to give it back, and without any special ritual, prayer or preparation, I opened the book at random. Now, keep in mind that this is a hardcover book with a sewn binding, so it does pretty much open at random despite how many times it’s been read. And would you believe it? The very first poem my eyes lit upon was indeed the perfect epigram for my book. If and when I get it published, you’ll see what I mean.

Now I’m sure those of you with a more skeptical cast of mind are probably suspicious right now, but I swear to Darwin this is true. One possible explanation that occurred to me afterwards is that maybe it’s not so unlikely statistically speaking: maybe there are a number of Dickinson’s poems might work as epigrams for this collection, given a certain overlap of subject-mater and her unique skill with pithy, gnomic lines. So I spent the next ten minutes flipping through Franklin and seeing if there were any other quotes that might work. Didn’t find a one.

It is the case, however, that I’m a credulous sort — and a poet besides — so you can take all this with a grain of salt if you like. For example, I’m too superstitious to say much more about the manuscript, or even supply the Dickinson poem I found for an epigram, at this stage. (Later on, don’t worry: you will hear PLENTY about it, I promise.) But for once, here is what I am NOT guilty of this time:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Erasure poet Austin Kleon‘s keynote at SXSW 2014 should be required watching for every poet — especially the vampires and human spam, as he calls them, who are all about self-promotion, wedded to the false, romantic notion of the artist as lone genius. Kleon talks about how to “steal like an artist,” the importance of acknowledging one’s sources and sharing one’s work on the internet, and why we should emulate the great knuckle-ball pitchers. I’m being kept from my own work these past couple of days by a bad case of conjunctivitis, but this makes me impatient to get back at it.

Three Via Negativa bloggers in a London pub, 14 December 2015
Three Via Negativa bloggers in a London pub, 14 December 2015 (photo: Ruben Igloria)

My pun of the week: I have been basking in the reflected Igloria of Luisa winning the Resurgence Poetry Prize.* But better even than that was the chance to hang out with two Via Negativa bloggers at the same time when Jean Morris came up from South London to meet Luisa and me and other friends and family for few hours on Tuesday night. It felt like a mini-reunion even thought it was in fact the first time all three of us had gotten together. But that’s the way literary blogger meet-ups always feel, in my experience: we already know each other so well from sharing our truest words online that when we finally meet IRL, it’s possible to bypass the awkward small-talk stage altogether and jump right into the deeper stuff (water, BS, whatever).

Via Negativa is twelve years old today. Thanks to everyone who reads, whether on the site itself, on Feedly or other RSS readers, or via Mailchimp. It’s been a fun ride, and with a little more help from my blogging friends I hope to keep it going for many more years.
__________

*Did you know that BIRGing is a thing? Me neither. Thanks, Wikipedia!

Resurgence Prize winners, judges and presenters pose on stage
L-r: Andrew Motion, Meredi Ortega, Luisa Igloria, Jo Shapcott, Joanna Lumley, Satish Kumar, Claire Collison (photo: Ruben Igloria)

I was thrilled to learn, less than two weeks ago, that a poem by my Via Negativa co-blogger Luisa A. Igloria had been chosen as the first-place winner of the Resurgence Poetry Prize—the world’s first major award for ecopoetry. The judges were the former UK poet laureate Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. We weren’t able to say a thing about it in public until after the awards ceremony last night in London, which, since I was already in town for the winter, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend, together with my partner Rachel, Luisa’s husband Ruben and their daughter Gabriela. We’ve just said our good-byes after a whirlwind, three-day tour of London. More about that in future posts here and on Facebook, no doubt.

Resurgence is a long-running British magazine focusing on ecology. It has always made room for poetry in its pages, but this was the first year their parent nonprofit has awarded the Resurgence Prize.

With a first prize of £5,000 for the best single poem embracing ecological themes, the award ranks amongst the highest of any English language single poem competition. Second prize is £2,000 and third prize £1,000.

Founded in the spring of 2014 by the former UK Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion, actress and green campaigner Joanna Lumley, and entrepreneur and environmentalist Peter Phelps, the Resurgence Poetry Prize reflects the founders’ shared passion for and commitment to poems that investigate and challenge the interrelationship between nature and human culture (read more on Ecopoetry).

The awards ceremony was held at a gorgeous, Victorian temple to art, the Leighton House Museum, and was emceed by actress and activist Joanna Lumley. Resurgence editor Satish Kumar kicked things off with a inspiring speech singing the praises of poets and poetry, followed by short readings of their own poetry by Andrew Motion and Jo Shapcott. Then the three prizes were awarded. The following, somewhat dodgy video begins with Shapcott’s description of the winning poem. The poets hadn’t been given any particular instruction on how to prepare for the ceremony, other than that they might be asked to read their poems (which they were), but Luisa took it upon herself to write a short acceptance speech as well, jotting down ideas in odd moments as we raced around London snapping photos in front of famous and not-so-famous monuments. Here’s her speech, followed by the poem:

The Resurgence people prepared a lovely booklet of the winning poems to hand out to everyone at the ceremony, and they’ve announced the winners on their Facebook page:

Here are the winners! Winning poems will be published on the website this week.

1) Luisa Igloria / Auguries
2) Claire Collison / The Architect
3) Meredi Ortega / Moving into Hannah’s house

SHORT LISTED – IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER

Sue Proffitt / Bluebells
Judy Brown / Coelacanth
Elaine Ewart / Fen, Again
Nicola Healey / Robin Interlude
Geraldine Clarkson / snow rules
Ruth Wiggins / Tasmanian Tiger
Ruth Yates / The tiny death ritual

Much was made of the fact that all ten winners in this blind contest were women, with Andrew Motion remarking that male poets might become an endangered species—an interesting choice of words for an ecology-focused event. I do hope this portends some kind of righting of the gender balance in the traditionally male-dominated official poetry culture in the US and UK.

UPDATE (17 Dec): The winning poems are up on the Resurgence Prize website, together with a press release.

Luisa A. Igloria close-up photoToday marks the fifth anniversary of Luisa Igloria’s very first poem on Via Negativa—a poem that proved to be the starting point of an amazing poem-a-day exercise that has never let up, not even for holidays or conferences. That first poem was sparked by a post on my daily microblog The Morning Porch:

Dawn. In absolute silence, a pileated woodpecker hitches its way up a locust trunk, silhouette pivoting like a pawl on an invisible ratchet.

On Facebook, Luisa posted this response:

Stay

Dawn: in absolute silence,
a pileated woodpecker
hitches its way up
a locust trunk, silhouette
pivoting like a pawl
on an invisible ratchet—

consider this early
summons, this parking
ticket—momentary stay
before the hubbub
and transmission
of gears.

Luisa continued to use The Morning Porch for daily writing prompts—something I’ve always encouraged by applying a permissive Creative Commons license to all my work. When I learned a few weeks later that she was continuing the series, I invited her to become first a regular guest writer and then, as I slowly adjusted to the idea, a co-blogger. After the first year, Luisa broadened her pool of places to get writing prompts from (while still regularly using my porchisms), and when I began my own daily poetry exercise with the inception of the Pepys Diary erasure project in 2013, Luisa’s example was my biggest inspiration. Thanks to her, Via Negativa has evolved from one writer’s miscellany into a uniquely collaborative and improvisational poetry zine.

cover of Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil EraserIt’s natural for poetry fans to regard print books as the ultimate repository of the art, and by that measure, Luisa’s exercise has succeeded spectacularly. Ode to the Heart Smaller than a Pencil Eraser won the 2014 May Swenson Poetry Award, chosen by Mark Doty, and two other books—Night Willow and The Saints of Streets—also consist mainly of poems that came out of her daily writing exercise. There’s also an e-book, Bright as Mirrors Left in the Grass, in connection with which Luisa answered a question about her practice and linked back to a 2011 interview with Marly Youmans where she went into quite a bit more detail. This was early on, when the memory of how it started was still fresh:

In a lull just before Thanksgiving last year, I read Dave’s November 20 observation of a pileated woodpecker inching up the trunk of a locust tree “like a pawl on an invisible ratchet” and I thought: what a cool image, what a cool word—pawl—and immediately I wanted to turn it into a poem. […] I really didn’t intend for it to turn out into the daily “devotional” that it seems to have become, but now I’m thoroughly hooked.

What I’m happiest about is how I’ve incorporated it into my daily writing practice, and that the simple rules I’ve set for myself seem to work well in terms of getting me to that place of focus and attention where there is the potential for making poetry happen. My rules are: I don’t have a fixed time for visiting The Morning Porch to read the latest line Dave’s written. But when I do, I try to respond immediately, without premeditation, composing as I go. I try not to belabor what I find in the starting “trigger”—because I don’t see myself obligated to respond via a form of poetic reportage. What happens instead is that the bit of image or language that first catches my eye or ear, meets what I bring to that moment (a combination of many things—what I may have been reading or remembering recently, what kinds of questions I might be asking that particular day). Finally, I try to do all of this in thirty minutes, forty max; I feel that if I go over this time limit I set for myself, I will be belaboring the whole enterprise too much.

Do read the rest.

I texted Luisa an hour ago, just as she was settling in to write today’s poem at her neighborhood coffee shop, escaping some chaos at home. I asked her if she’d ever expected to be able to keep it up this long, and she admitted she hadn’t. I asked her whether it’s gotten easier over time, and what advice she might give to other poets who’d like to write more often, but feel overworked and overwhelmed. She told me,

Some things have gotten easier with time—those “throat clearing parts” for instance. I think knowing that I will write every day and that I’ll make my way to that time of writing every day has freed up some of the anxiety about starting (or starting from scratch, from nothing, every time one approaches the page). It does really seem like there’s something to be said about the aspect of athleticism involved in doing any kind of practice daily: people run to prepare for marathons, swim laps, warm up, etc. Having written daily for this long I do feel I have gotten more limber in some ways: in the ability to filter out extraneous noise, and more importantly the ability to relax about some of the process. The latter as I’m sure you know is one of the hardest things to do.

And she added:

What I’ve come to understand of my own needs (they may not necessarily be the same for others) from my daily writing practice: it’s the space I can look forward to every day where whatever existential or other question in the fore- or background of my awareness is where I can go to meet it/wrestle with it/knead it—in poetry—for a little while.

A huge congratulations to Luisa on reaching this milestone, and here’s hoping that her poems can continue to grace these virtual pages for many years to come.

This entry is part 29 of 34 in the series Poetry from the Other Americas

Jacques BraultBelow is a short translation of an extract from Visitation, a long poem in French by the Quebecois poet, essayist, novelist and translator Jacques Brault. The trajectory of his work has a particular resonance for a translator and for readers in translation. Born (1933) and raised in Montreal in both financial poverty and what he experienced as linguistic poverty and disenfranchisement, he militantly embraced the cause of a separatist, francophone Quebec, but the output of his long writing life also reflects a journey first into the riches of his own language and thence into a broader, cosmopolitan consciousness, which has involved him in translation and transnational/translingual collaborations. A recurring image in his poetry is that of the street corner, the intersection of writing and other art forms, of life and language, language and language, self and others.*

I’ve been reading Jacques Brault’s work while trying to formulate a few thoughts about the pleasure of translating some poetry for the Poetry from the Other Americas project. And about my surprise, because I’d only rarely written poetry myself and had stoutly maintained that only poets should translate it. Even greater surprise that it led to writing a few poems of my own: the patient exercise of translating a poem mobilises the relevant muscles, I suppose. Like many, I’m often too speedy and compulsive a reader to fully appreciate poetry, fret against slowing down enough, going deep enough. Translation is an exceptionally close kind of reading. It makes you slow down a lot, read and re-read a poem over a considerable time. This concentrated, fierce encounter with words is rewarding, and I’d encourage fellow sceptics to have a go. If you don’t think of yourself as someone who writes poetry, but do know more than one language, translation might prove to be a way in. It might even lead you to the puzzling, scary but alluring place Jacques Brault describes here:

 

          But I don’t know don’t know any more if I should speak or keep silent let the waters flow or plunge myself into them forget myself in the moment of turning down this street or inhabit myself down to the bone down to the cry

          Tell me do you know you who listen to me watch me do you know what it is that I don’t say won’t ever say so there it is between us like a night falling and hiding us in darkness

          In a low voice lower your voice I beg you come closer let your breath touch my ear it makes a sound I had forgotten the human voice

          Or je ne sais pas je ne sais plus s’il faut parler ou me taire laisser les eaux couler ou me rouler en elles m’oublier dans l’instant qui tourne le coin de la rue ou m’habiter jusqu’à l’os jusqu’au cri

          Dis le sais-tu toi qui m’écoutes et me regardes le sais-tu ce que c’est que je ne dis pas que je ne dirai jamais et c’est là entre nous comme un soir qui tombe et nous oscurcit

          À voix basse baisse la voix je t’en prie approche et que ton souffle me touche à l’oreille cela fait un bruit que j’avais oublié la parole humaine

 

* I found out about Jacques Brault from Sherry Simon’s absorbing book, Translating Montreal.

This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series Poets in the Kitchen

Here in central Pennsylvania, summer’s full bounty is upon us. SWEET CORN signs pop up along every road and highway, causing mini traffic jams rivaled only by those at the farm stands offering early peaches. In the woods, chicken mushrooms appear on random stumps and logs almost overnight, neatly stacked like piles of bright orange books, while in the meadows, blackberries are ripening so fast that the bears and human pickers together can barely keep ahead of them. Our neighbors’ free-range chickens are laying more than ever, though judging from their strident daily celebrations, the novelty of this creative act has yet to wear off. They’re watched over by a rooster named Clem who sounds the alarm at the first sign of a predator, even driving deer away from the neighbors’ big vegetable garden. His late rival is in the freezer, but this living rooster is likely to feed them ten times more.

All of which is to say I can’t imagine a better time of year to launch a new series featuring the intersection of poetry and culinary arts: Poets in the Kitchen. When I emailed Luisa about it last week, I was pleased to learn that she already had plans for a cooking-related writing project, so the series will give both of us a chance to try out some ideas. But we want to extend an invitation to guest contributors as well. If you’re a poet and there’s some recipe you’ve invented, inherited or otherwise made your own, we’d love to hear about it. Posts in this series will be centered on recipes (or recipe-like things such as instructions for hog butchering, pickling, or making maple syrup) written as plainly or as lyrically as you like. The recipes should be accompanied either by original poems (reprints are fine) or lyrical prose vignettes establishing some connection with poetry. Images, videos, and audio recordings may also be included. We don’t have a formal submissions process around here, but you can contact me or Luisa with any ideas you might have, and we’ll take it from there.

Why poets? In the first place because Via Negativa is a poetry blog, but also because we are fascinated by the contrast between the abstract—some would say spiritual—nature of writing and the essential corporeality of preparing food. And the manner in which these two types of creations are intended to be consumed couldn’t be more different. Or could it? Is it possible to cook for the ages? Can we say with Rumi that our poems are like manna, made for such immediate consumption that “Night passes over them, and you can’t eat them any more”? We want to probe connections not only between writers and what they cook or eat, but also the larger relationship of writing/literature to appetite and desire.

To whet your appetite, and perhaps suggest avenues of exploration, over at Moving Poems Magazine I’ve assembled an annotated gallery of “Ten Culinary Poetry Videos.” Here’s one of them, Thomas Lux’s “Render, Render” as animated by Angella Kassube—a poem about writing that uses metaphors from the kitchen: