This entry is part 21 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


Saved by a banjo, she turned
into someone forever glancing
in the rear-view mirror,
someone given to sudden,
unpredictable spasms of laughter.
The amount of space
her arms now claimed with
their emphatic gesticulations
alarmed even herself:
how unladylike!
She stopped smoking & enrolled
in truck-driving school
because, she said, she didn’t
ever want to slow down.
She’d pull into rest areas
on the high plains, hold
the banjo in her lap & listen
to the non-stop wind.


moonrise 2

A book printed inside a book: halfway through, there’s the title page again, and the table of contents and the rest of it. You think, I’ve just read this, but you find yourself reading it again anyway, anxious to find out what will happen when you get to the middle. What happens is that suddenly you are back into unexplored territory, and you feel both lost and relieved. You get to the last page, and look: the outer book resumes where it left off, halfway through.

You set it aside. Does the cicada climb back into its shell? The book within the book has already crawled out and is waiting for its wings to dry.

moonrise 1

In your spam folder, one of the messages purporting to originate at your own address reads: Hey, why do not you write? You forgot about me? Outside, the moon is at perigee — the closest it gets to earth all year. Perhaps that accounts for the numbing cold.

You fumble with the camera settings, shorten one of the tripod legs so the camera can stand on the slope, and peer through the LCD screen. The moon is the very same color as the lamp on your desk. Tonight it has a companion, too: Mars is just a hand’s-breadth away. You try to picture yourself as a red planet.

Winter trees in a flood

fungus birch

Steady rain turned into a downpour early Sunday evening and didn’t let up for another fifteen hours. And just like that, we had a flood. In the same way that you get flash floods after hard rains in the dry West, here in the winter when the ground is frozen hard and the trees are leafless and dormant, there’s little to keep the water from running into the nearest ravine. We lost hundreds of dollars worth of quarry stone from the Plummer’s Hollow Road in just a few hours.

It would take a solid week of hard rain to get this kind of flood on a forested landscape in the summer. If these rare winter floods serve any purpose, it may be to remind us what would happen — what has happened here in the past — in the absence of forests: every hard rain turns into a flood.

Little Juniata in flood

At the bottom of the hollow, the Little Juniata River wasn’t so little anymore. It roared just a couple feet below the deck of our access bridge, which shook as floating logs and tires thudded against the pier. The riverbanks became instant swamps.

trees in ice 1

Nor was the flooding restricted to low places; the ephemeral ponds at the very top of the Plummer’s Hollow watershed grew and merged briefly into one big pond. Then the temperature dropped and everything froze.

trees in ice 3

By the time I got up there to take pictures yesterday afternoon, the water level had fallen by half a foot, leaving a sagging ice ceiling with little underneath it and nothing but scattered tree trunks to hold it up — an ephemeral architecture, like some boom town gone bust.


Don’t forget to submit tree-related blog posts to the Festival of the Trees blog carnival. The deadline for the next edition, at the UK-based treeblog, is January 30 — see the call for submissions for details on how to submit.

Also, be sure not to miss the interview with Pablo, Jade and me at the Nature Blog Network. We talk all about the Festival of the Trees: how it got started, why we do it, how it’s not really some kind of freaky tree cult, and why you should join us.

Housekeeping note

Apologies to anyone who tried to visit Via Negativa or one of its six sister sites last night and saw only a page that read THIS ACCOUNT HAS BEEN SUSPENDED. Believe me, I was as confused as you were! This morning, I learned that the suspension was triggered by one of my sites — presumably this one — overloading the host server’s CPU, and so I’ve spent an unhappy day axing plugins and tidying things up in an effort to keep the server from being overloaded by requests. You’ll notice the absence of things like auto-generated “similar posts” links, social media buttons, the fuller “recent comments” sidebar widget, and other features. Further cuts may be in the offing; we’ll see. I think I heard the president say last night that this is a time of shared national sacrifice. When you’re blogging on a cheap shared hosting plan, you quickly learn all about sacrifice.

Oh, and as long as I’m dealing in political platitudes: if you’re currently blogging on and chafing at some of the restrictions, don’t be too quick to rush into self-hosting thinking you’ll have more freedom across the board. In some areas — e.g. bandwidth and other usage caps, never an issue at — you’ll have less. And in any case, this kind of freedom definitely isn’t free.

Odes to Tools now in print

This entry is part 1 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


Odes to Tools cover
Via Negativa has just given birth to its first all-analog offspring: Odes to Tools. The collection of 25 poems is now available through Amazon and from Phoenicia Publishing. Click through to read the catalog description and see a preview. Here’s an excerpt:

A great many poetry lovers already know and appreciate Dave’s writing, but […] Odes to Tools is also one of those subversive cross-over books, perfect as a gift for someone who loves tools but thinks they don’t like poetry. They’ll be surprised to find a poet who appreciates tools with his words in much the same way they take care of their own saws or planes: not wrapped in fancy fabric or elevated like sculptures, but held comfortably in the hands, thought about like friends, and cared for now and then with a little oil on a clean cloth.

The book is just $6.95, but if you’d like a signed copy, you’ll have to mail me a check or postal money order for U.S. $10.00. Send to: Dave Bonta, PO Box 68, Tyrone, PA 16686, USA. I have yet to put in a bulk order, so if you’re in a hurry, order it from the publisher or from Amazon (where you can get free shipping if you bundle it with other stuff).

I also recorded a free audio version of the book, just under half an hour long:

Download the mp3

Banjo Origins: The Pleistocene

banjo hand

They say the banjo evolved here, like the horse & the cheetah, only to go extinct after the first influx of human immigrants. Siberian hunters would’ve known the use of a taut hide for calling ancestors, but add strings & perhaps the other world gets too familiar, like a mammoth looming out of the fog or a short-faced bear, the sudden bone knife of a moon — things best kept at arm’s length. Imagine calling hai ai ai & hearing plucked strings respond with a hee and a haw, dancers turning from a shuffle to a caribooted tap. Maybe the spirits started joining in instead of waiting for a properly trained shaman to come visit.

No one knows exactly why the first banjos died out, but unaccustomed to humans & our devious forms of disguise, the way we wear others’ skins & paint ourselves the color of life when we mean to kill, the banjos would’ve been easy prey, ripe for the picking. Picture that last & most furtive banjo, its store of songs incomprehensible to anyone but itself, how silence must’ve made it taciturn & given it the uncanny ability to hear, by pressing its one enormous ear to the earth, whatever might’ve been coming on the lone prairie.

Woodrat Podcast 3: Rachel Barenblat on Embodied Miracles

Rachel talks about writing poetry vs. writing liturgy, studying with David Lehman, images of motherhood and divinity, wordless prayers, and the challenges of writing while caring for an infant. Two-month-old Drew adds a few wordless prayers of his own.


Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

In the grove

spruce grove 1

I’m sitting with my back to the grove when the sound of heavy wingbeats in the tops of the spruces makes me look around, and seeing nothing, get up and edge my way in between the trees. The intricate skeletons of recently dead boughs snap loudly whenever I try to diverge from the rudimentary path. I crane my neck peering into the shadowy tops of the 40-foot trees which I helped my parents plant when I was a boy. How could they already have grown so full of secrets?

spruce grove 2

The greatest natural disaster-related humanitarian crisis in a generation, and I have written exactly nothing about it. But this is a place for personal essays and poems, and what do I know of Haiti? Everything is second-hand at best: the Haitian woman in Japan back in 1985 with whom I shared a mailbox and some confessions of homesickness; the Anglo-American friend who joined a Vodun congregation in New Jersey and was ridden by Ghede, orisha of the crossroads. A smattering of histories and ethnographies. The vague sense that if Toussaint had never been exiled, Haiti might have kept its topsoil and some of its forests. An immense sense of guilt, as an American, for my country’s share of blame in its immiseration.

A few days ago, I read Newsweek‘s latest cover story, “Why Haiti Matters,” and felt my stomach turn. It did little but recycle platitudes about America as a force for good: Haiti matters, we are led to believe, because it gives us a chance to show “the character of our country.” The author is Barack Obama.

He does at least quote Qoheleth — wisest voice in the Old Testament — toward the end of the essay:

In the aftermath of disaster, we are reminded that life can be unimaginably cruel. That pain and loss is so often meted out without any justice or mercy. That “time and chance” happen to us all. But it is also in these moments, when we are brought face to face with our own fragility, that we rediscover our common humanity. We look into the eyes of another and see ourselves.

O.K., Mr. President, I’ll give you that. I’ve kept my silence in part because I know all too well the moralizing impulse of my Protestant heritage. Try as I might to anathematize Pat Robertson for his ignorant, victim-blaming remarks, I recognize the temptation, even as an agnostic, to make the world make sense, to pretend that life is or could be fair — or at least redeemable. To accept that it isn’t makes us into monsters, does it not? But the view of God or gods as unpredictable and sometimes violent — that Old Testament and animist view that progressives love to decry — comports more easily with observable reality than any pablum about God as infinite goodness. Even for me to put on my secular humanist hat and declare, as I did on Identica and Twitter last week, that tectonic activity is the price we pay for life on earth seems unduly glib, offensive to the memory of the earthquake’s victims. Their deaths were were not some kind of sacrifice. Stop it! Stop trying to explain. Live with the questions. Make your peace with the unknowable as best you can.

sprunce grove 3

It’s a little past 4:00 o’clock, but the January sun is low and just minutes from dropping behind the ridge. The feathery shadows seem full of possibility now, and I see a picture in every direction where before there was nothing but branches blocking my way. This is the way. I steady the camera in the dim light by holding it out in front of me so the strap is stretched taut from the back of my neck: there’s far less tremor in my trunk than in my limbs. Some kind of large owl — barred, great-horned, long-eared — is hiding in these pictures, I’m sure of it. It’s waiting for darkness so it can begin to see.

Literary podcasting made simple with

This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


As I opined in the first episode of the Woodrat Podcast, poetry is above all an oral art — to say nothing of storytelling. At the literary magazine I help run, qarrtsiluni, we started including audio recordings of the authors reading their works more than two years ago, once we figured out how easy it was to get the recordings. Starting this past September, we decided to repackage this feature as a daily podcast, which basically just meant adding an extra spoken introduction and a musical theme, and submitting the main RSS feed to iTunes.

Here’s the thing: for reasons of security against hackers and dependability of service, qarrtsiluni resides at the extremely reliable yet restrictive, hosted version of WordPress, Anyone else with a site, given the right software and hardware, could podcast the same as we do. A lot of mystique surrounds the mechanics of podcasting, but nine tenths of the work is in making the recording. Beyond that, it’s as simple as uploading an audio file to any file storage site (which can be your own blog); adding the audio file link to a new post on your blog, along with an optional Flash player; and hitting Publish. That’s because WordPress feeds are designed to be correctly parsed by iTunes and other podcatchers. (This is equally true for Typepad, by the way. Blogger/Blogspot users have to route their feeds through Feedburner, I think.)

What is podcasting?

Let’s back up a second. What is a podcast? Basically, it’s an internet radio program, which may or may not be affiliated with any actual radio station.

Imagine getting new “radio”-style talk and music shows to listen to on your iPod or other MP3 player every day. You wake up and automatically have new shows ready to listen to while you exercise or commute to work. This is the podcast listening experience. […]

Podcasters are creating very raw and real content and listeners are responding. Free from corporate radio and broadcast regulations, you can create whatever kind of show you can imagine.

Some podcasts are “talk show” style. Others introduce you to the latest bands and music. With podcasts you can stay current on the news, get a glimpse into someone’s life, listen to movie reviews and the list goes on.

Not only do you not need an iPod (source of the “pod” part of “podcast”), but you don’t even need a portable digital device to listen to podcasts. Many people, me included, access them through a regular computer (though good speakers or headphones are a big help). Literary podcasts are still a little thin on the ground, which is one reason why I’m writing this article. I’d especially like to hear more writers doing their own shows in the style of T.M. Camp or Joe Milford, who uses the hosted podcast platform Blog Talk Radio for live and unedited, talk-radio-style interviews with poets. It would also be fun to hear personal bloggers talk about what they’ve been reading, writing, observing and thinking.

The Wikipedia article on podcasts has a good technical definition, attributed to journalism and communications researchers at the University of Texas:

A podcast is a digital audio or video file that is episodic; downloadable; programme-driven, mainly with a host and/or theme; and convenient, usually via an automated feed with computer software.

I don’t know anything about video podcasting, so this article will focus solely on audio. As the foregoing definition suggests, you don’t really even have to make your audio stream available through iTunes to qualify as a podcast. The fact that your site generates an RSS feed that handles audio enclosures takes care of the “convenient” part, really. It’s the other stuff — the style and content of the audio files, and the regularity with which you post them — that really differentiates podcasting from just putting up audio whenever the spirit moves you. But somewhere around 70 percent of all podcast listeners on the web do use iTunes, and it’s safe to assume that a good number of them don’t know how to enter an RSS feed in the iTunes store themselves. (Those using other podcatchers, by contrast, probably do understand such things.) So let’s go through what’s involved in submitting a podcast to iTunes.

Main feed, category feed, or dedicated blog?

For the qarrtsiluni daily podcast, we simply submitted our main RSS feed to the iTunes store. Previously, we had had a tri-monthly podcast in which we tried to cram the contents of entire issues. It might have failed as a podcast, being too difficult both to produce and to listen to, but again, the actual distribution part worked fine. For that earlier incarnation of the qarrtsiluni podcast, we created a new category, “podcast,” and submitted the feed for just that category.* In, simply add “/feed/” to the end of any category URL to get the RSS feed for that category.

If you anticipate making audio posts that are not part of your podcast, you’ll definitely want to restrict the podcast to one category. You’ll need to advertise the category RSS alongside the iTunes link for the benefit of people who want to subscribe through other podcatchers or feed readers. Obviously you can still assign a given podcast episode to multiple categories, just make sure that your podcast category is one of them. If you use your main feed, as we do now at qarrtsiluni, be mindful of the fact that iTunes and other podcatchers will treat every post with an audio link as a podcast episode.

A third option is to start a new blog just for the podcast. This gives you the most control over what image, name and description show up in iTunes, but it does mean you’ll have to work a little harder to attract an audience. Episodes won’t show up in email and RSS subscriptions for those who already follow your main site unless you cross-post them. You could of course use an RSS widget to display links to the latest episodes in your main site’s sidebar.

Podcast image and metadata

The image that iTunes will use for your podcast comes from what calls your blavatar (your blog’s avatar, not to be confused with your own avatar as a user of, and is uploaded via the General Settings page of your WordPress dashboard. Be sure to upload the largest size supported there, 128×128 pixels, to avoid pixilation… while at the same time picking something simple enough to look half-decent as a tiny favicon in browser address bars. This can make for an interesting design challenge.

The title of the podcast is simply the title of your blog, and the summary below the image is the description you entered in the general settings (which in qarrtsiluni’s case is not very illuminating: “online literary magazine”). If you use a dedicated category, the title will appear in iTunes as “yourblogtitle » podcastcategoryname,” which is slightly ungainly, and the summary will still come from the blog’s description. Optional iTunes fields such as subtitle and keywords have to go unfilled when podcasting from a site.

You can use the Excerpt box to make manual summaries of your posts for iTunes to use as descriptions of each podcast episode (which appear in the pop-up when you click on the little “i” with the circle around it). Otherwise, iTunes will simply include the first 65 words followed by an ellipsis. Also, these descriptions are not pretty: even apostrophes, let alone ampersands and other special characters, will be in HTML code, and links will not appear. One thing to keep in mind when crafting episode summaries or writing the first few sentences of your post is that they will be used for keyword indexing, along with the post titles.

Recording and posting

As I said at the outset, most of the work of podcasting is in making the recording, and this is where you really don’t want to cut too many corners. Yes, there are any number of ways to record spoken word, and as we’ve discovered at qarrtsiluni, even a bad telephone connection recorded over Skype can be perfectly adequate for a three-minute-long poem, especially if the reading is a strong one. But for anything much longer, it does help to have a decent external microphone. That heavy layer of electronic noise you get with the internal mike in your Mac will become tiresome to listeners after more than five minutes. You’ll need to learn how to use decent audio editing software. If you plan on interviewing a lot of people over the phone, you’ll probably want to pay for phone-out privileges in Skype, and also get the premium version of one of the several recorder software applications (I use Pamela), the free versions of which tend to limit you to 15-minute calls.

My point here is that you don’t need to pay a lot of money for equipment and software, but if you are on very a tight budget, you might not want to take up podcasting. If you’re not, the $20/year that charges for the lowest file storage upgrade to 5 GB, necessary to upload any audio files to your blog, is a really good deal in my opinion. There is apparently no limit on file size now (it used to be around 70 MB), and no limit on transfers, bandwidth, or downloads. Yes, there are free file storage sites you can use, some more reliable than others, but what you get with is virtually uninterrupted service and fast, cloud-based streaming. In fact, I even use it to host the audio for my podcast here at Via Negativa, an independently hosted WordPress site. My webhost is pretty good, but it is a typical cheap shared web hosting service with occasional blips in service, and I don’t want people to be cut off in the middle of a half-hour show.

The official support page on how to post audio is a decent summary. Many more options for the design and positioning of the audio player are detailed at the very useful, WordPress Tips blog.

Including a player is optional — though a very good idea — but including a link to the audio file is essential if you want podcatchers to pick up the episode. Even if you’re just posting audio and not really podcasting, including the audio file link is still a good practice to get into, since otherwise feed and email subscribers won’t have any way to listen without clicking through. Plus, not all visitors to your site will have Flash enabled, so they won’t all even see the players.

One thing to keep in mind is that iTunes and most other podcatchers will only grab the first audio file in a post, so if you produce, say, a monthly podcast in several parts, each part will need to go up in a separate post.

Submitting your feed to iTunes

First you have to post at least one episode. Then test your feed in iTunes, and if it checks out, submit it — making sure to choose the most relevant iTunes categories — and wait. As with most things Apple, the approval process is shrouded in secrecy, but I’ve done this three times now, and the longest I’ve had to wait was something like 36 hours. Once you’re approved, take the link they give you and advertise it in your sidebar and wherever else you want to promote your show.

Stats and Feedburner

At this point, doesn’t give bloggers any way to track the number of downloads on a podcast or other audio file, so a lot of people recommend routing your feed (main or category, whichever you’re using) through Feedburner, and submitting that instead of your feed. Feedburner does provide stats, but I’m not sure how reliable they are — they tend to fluctuate wildly from day to day, in my experience. Also, I found it sometimes took up to 12 hours for Feedburner feeds to update with new content, though it’s been many months since I’ve used the wretched service — perhaps it’s improved in the interim. Feedburner’s SmartCast feature does, however, give you more control over iTunes metadata, so it might be worth using for that reason alone, though I gather that getting your podcast description to update in iTunes using Feedburner is a bit of a hassle.

Good luck, and please let me know via the comments if you start a literary podcast (or already have one) so I can follow it. I may or may not be able to answer technical queries; I’m very much still a learner here, just sharing what little I’ve been able to pick up.

*This is also my approach here at Via Negativa with the Woodrat podcast, though being independently hosted I am able to use a plugin to get some extra control over the display both on-site and in iTunes. For other self-hosted WordPressers who might be curious, I am using the newish Blubrry Powerpress plugin, though I haven’t been using it long enough to really be able to evaluate it.

Dark matter (a survey)

Take the survey here

UPDATE: Here are the survey results as of noon, 1/21/10 (omitting the percentages of those who chose to skip the question):

Can a houseplant die of loneliness?

  • 52 (72%) said Yes
  • 11 (15%) said No
  • 9 (13%) said What?

Do you see twelve different things through the eyes of twelve different needles?

  • 35 (49%) said Yes
  • 20 (28%) said No
  • 20 (28%) said How did you know?

If mornings came with printed instructions, would anyone read them?

  • 24 (34%) said Yes
  • 30 (43%) said No
  • 16 (23%) said All readings are misreadings

Have you ever torn all the paper from a spiral notebook, page by page, just to get an unobstructed look at the spiral?

  • 16 (23%) said Yes
  • 38 (54%) said No
  • 17 (24%) said None of your beeswax

Will this be the year they start using prisons for captive breeding programs?

  • 8 (11%) said Yes
  • 28 (40%) said No
  • 34 (49%) said Why? Lord knows, it’s not like prisoners are an endangered species

Wouldn’t a truly self-adhesive tape collapse like a star into a black hole?

  • 20 (29%) said Yes
  • 9 (13%) said No
  • 41 (59%) said That’s setting a pretty high standard for adhesiveness, don’t you think?

Do you find it harder to think in a room where you can’t touch the ceiling?

  • 10 (14%) said Yes
  • 49 (71%) said No
  • 10 (14%) said They don’t pay me enough to think

With our fondness for clichés, don’t we risk making the perfect storm the enemy of the good storm?

  • 30 (43%) said Yes
  • 6 (9%) said No
  • 33 (48%) said Bad weather is better than no weather at all

If your name was Fritz Zwicky, wouldn’t you also prefer to be known as the Father of Dark Matter?

  • 41 (60%) said Yes
  • 13 (19%) said No
  • 14 (21%) said Maybe, but I’m not sure I look good with a flying V guitar

If all your friends jumped off a cliff, would you jump too?

  • 8 (12%) said Yes
  • 53 (77%) said No
  • 8 (12%) said Only if I didn’t have to change my underwear

Note: Since this survey was open to all comers and not administered in a random fashion, the results are scientifically worthless. However, that doesn’t matter too much, since it was really a “push poll” for the Dadaist Party. Ketchup for Shah! U.S. out of North America! Etc.