The plan

National Poetry Month logoAn exercise in close reading: that’s what I’m planning this year. I’m going to try reading a book of poetry a day, first thing in the morning after I come in off the porch, instead of just the usual half-dozen poems. And then I want to try writing about it: about the book, about the reading experience, or about whatever thoughts or memories it might shake loose. And because I do believe in the value of what John Miedema calls slow reading, these books will probably tend to be pretty short, though I have found that with the right level of concentration, it’s possible to read fifty or more lyric poems in one hour.

Why am I doing it? Three reasons, I guess. First, I love poetry books, and I feel I haven’t devoted nearly enough space to celebrating them here. I’ve been trapped in pre-conceived and rather boring notions of how to write about books, I think, and I’m hoping to break out of that.

Second, I’m curious about what a month-long immersion in poetry reading will do to me. Will it be mind-altering? Almost certainly. Will it change the way I read poetry? Maybe. Will it prove to be an overdose, and send me rushing naked and screaming into the streets? Well, let’s hope not.

Third, I do want to be part of the whole poetry month thing, and share a bit of fellowship with other poetry bloggers. But I’ve always had a hard time joining group activities, so if everyone else is writing poetry every day, I have to be reading it. I do hope to make time for reading the new poems that will be appearing on other people’s blogs, too, though. And maybe even writing a few of my own.

Banjo Origins (3): Jesusland

This entry is part 28 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


A child spotted it tangled in the branches of a tree like a lost kite. In fact, it might have been a lost kite, or perhaps an insufficiently aerodynamic helicopter, or the mummified body of a space alien. The fire department sent a ladder truck to get it down.

What was it? It twanged alarmingly when touched, and this led someone to suggest it might be able to generate healing vibrations. A preacher was sent for.

It had ten strings then, but after careful study, the preacher decided that this was against nature, and ordered half of them removed. After that it never flew again, although it did travel around the desert with a caravan for a few years, following the Grateful Dead.

When it came back, it went down to the shore & began to gather a posse. Things got crazy. A pig farmer accused it of drowning his whole herd. It got thrown out of the church for busking. A man came back from the dead, but he was never quite right again.

It became clear that just getting within earshot of this thing was dangerous. People were cured of conditions they didn’t even know they had, such as separation anxiety, agoraphobia & intermittent explosive disorder. The doctors & therapists began to feel threatened, so they got together & bribed a member of its entourage to call Homeland Security and denounce it as a terrorist.

An agent came out, took one look & laughed. You people need to get up into the mountains more often, he said. Where I come from, every backyard has a banjo tree.

Woodrat Podcast 12: Steven Sherrill, Renaissance man and recovering redneck

Steve Sherrill with his painting "Dear Abby VIII"
Steve Sherrill with his painting "Dear Abby VIII"

Steven Sherrill stopped by the house last week to read some poems and a section of his latest novel, play a little ukulele, and talk about how he went from being a redneck hellraiser and welder-in-training to a published novelist, poet, painter, and aspiring musician.

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Sea of wood frogs

Direct link to video.

by Juan Ramón Jiménez

Siento que el barco mío
ha tropezado, allá en el fondo,
con algo grande.

¡Y nada
sucede! Nada…Quietud…Olas….
—¿Nada sucede; o es que la sucedido todo,
y estamos ya, tranquilos, en lo nuevo?—


I sense that my boat
has struck, deep down,
against some massive thing.

And nothing happens!
Nothing… silence… waves…
Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and we are already resting in the new life?


It may be a mistake to try and make a video for one of my favorite poems: I’ll never be satisfied with the results. In this case, my dissatisfaction is especially acute because one of the main things that made the footage so compelling to watch on my home computer — the complex patterns of waves — is excessively pixelated at anything but the highest of resolutions. Also, there’s some absurdity in visually equating the surface of a small, vernal pond with Jimenez’ “Seas.” Oh well.

For the translation, after much thought I decided to borrow from Robert Bly’s translation and render “lo nuevo” as “the new life,” instead of simply “the new,” because I think that is the gist of it. As always with my translations, I’d welcome suggestions of alternatives. I was trying to figure out some way to use “calm,” or a variation thereof, for “tranquilos,” but “becalmed” seemed over-reaching. It’s frustrating to have a clear idea of what the poem means and be unable to quite convey it.

The latest blog redesign: a quest for readability

This entry is part 10 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


As you might have noticed if you’ve visited the site anytime in the past three days, I’ve been messing around with the design a bit. I can’t promise I’m done tinkering yet, but I think I’m almost where I want to be. I had two, basic goals: to provide better navigation among my four personal blogs — Via Negativa, The Morning Porch, Moving Poems, and the occasionally updated Woodrat Photoblog — and to make this blog in particular easier to read and navigate.

The new top navigation bar is my attempt to solve the first problem, though I do worry it may seem a bit grandiose, like I’m trying to set myself up as a one-person blog network. But why not? Think of me as a poetry-obsessed Arianna Huffington or Om Malik, minus all the pesky traffic and employees. And actually I did get the CSS code for the univeral nav bar from another one-man show, WordPress lead developer Mark Jacquith (always steal from the best).

Preliminary results from the stat plugins on each blog do show a slight uptick in cross-site visits, which is what I was looking for. Each of the first three sites has its own fan base, which is great, but it doesn’t hurt to remind people about the other ones. And I do feel that the main navigation menu for any site should be confined to intramural links; mixing on-site and outside links in the same menu strikes me as questionable usability. So it was good to get the Morning Porch and Moving Poems links off of the main menu here, and make room for other stuff.

Of course, some people never notice anything at the top of the screen, but that’s O.K. I still list and describe “My other projects on the web” at the bottom of the sidebar.

Speaking of the sidebar, that’s obviously one of the things I’ve changed in my effort to make Via Negativa more readable. I’ve been very impressed by the theme I’ve been using for The Morning Porch, Ian Stewart’s Kirby theme — especially by how readable the main column is with really big type. Stewart referenced something called The 100% Easy-to-Read Standard, which begins,

Most websites are crammed with small text that’s a pain to read. Why? There is no reason for squeezing so much information onto the screen. It’s just a stupid collective mistake that dates back to a time when screens were really, really small.

I spend a lot of time crafting the stuff I publish here, so I think it’s worth thinking about how and whether people read it. Over at qarrtsiluni, we try to combat the average reader’s tendency to skim material on the web by providing audio for every text post, so people can listen along while they read. That’s too much of a hassle to do here; the weekly podcast is already enough work. But I started thinking of the literary sites I find easiest to read, and generally they are distinguished by large type and lots of white space, just as the above-linked article recommends. Take a look at this typical page from Poetry International Web, for example: Wadih Saadeh’s “Shadows.” Or check out Linebreak, or the big honking type on Necessary Fiction. Pretty enjoyable to read, aren’t they? That’s kind of what I’m trying to duplicate here.

Except for the white space part. I am not willing to give up on the stuff in the sidebar just yet. If readability were my sole concern, I’d do away with sidebars altogether, as I’ve done at my two static online collections of poems, Spoil and Shadow Cabinet (and yes, I’ve increased the font size at both those sites as well). But I have to balance readability with other goals, such as improving access to the voluminous Via Negativa archives, and also linking to other people’s blogs, which is a vital part of the whole blogging enterprise.

Do I really still need two sidebars, though? It might seem as if I could do away with the sidebar version of Smorgasblog and just keep it on its own page, but if I did that, it wouldn’t get nearly as many readers, and the people I link to wouldn’t get much of a boost in Google or in Technorati, as I understand it. The only real option I think would be to do away with it as a semi-separate blog and integrate link posts with main-column material, possibly distinguished by some special styling, à la Tumblr. (I could still filter them out of the main RSS feed, so as not to annoy subscribers by sending too many posts their way.)

I am still thinking about this — any feedback would be appreciated. Obviously with just one sidebar, I could have lots more white space. On the other hand, I don’t think my current strategy works all that badly: putting sidebar material in a lightly colored box and a different font does seem to set off the main content pretty well, though I may not be the best judge of that. I am also thinking a width of 520 pixels seems a little cramped for 16-pixel type. (One alteration later — see comments — the main column is 540 pixels wide, and looking a bit less cramped, maybe.)

among the big oaks

By the way, if you’re the kind of person who likes to nose around in stylesheets, be prepared for a bit of a shock when you look at mine. It’s a mare’s nest. When WordPress adopted the slogan, “Code is Poetry,” I don’t think this is what they had on mind. On the other hand, since I know so little about the fundamentals of CSS (and even less about PHP, the main language WordPress is written in), playing around with the design and functionality of one of my blog sites reminds me very much of trying to write a poem: I am rarely sure what will happen when I try something new, and nine tenths of what I try never makes it out of draft. In short, it’s an adventure.

Coyote tree

fallen white oak

It was early spring. In the last light of evening, as the quacking calls of wood frogs were giving way to spring peepers, a coyote ghosted down off the ridge and followed the small creek that ran for a little way along the edge of the woods before disappearing into a sinkhole.

Something was different. He stopped and sniffed, trying to puzzle it out. He smelled fresh sawdust and gasoline, yes, but also the moist earthy spoor of rotten tree — a lot of that. As if some enormous coyote, its gut full of fur and seeds and scales and all manner of indigestible things, had stopped to leave a massive calling card.

fallen white oak trunk

The truth was almost as massive and hard to digest: the great white oak had toppled, splitting open near the ground. Many of its limbs were as big around as regular trees, and at its base it was half again as wide as a coyote is long. A small limb next to the humans’ trail had been cut — that’s where the sawdust smell had come from — but otherwise, for once, they seemed to be leaving it alone. One massive limb had jabbed into the earth at an angle and broken off, and now it made a very convenient — in fact, an irresistible — ramp up onto the fallen trunk.

fallen white oak crown

Quick as thought, Coyote was on top of the toppled giant. The smooth plates of its bark felt very agreeable, and as he nosed about, he saw and smelled not a tree but a maze of paths, all of them leading back to him. Mice, squirrels, weasels, chipmunks, fishers — nothing can resist the open highway of a log. If he waited here long enough, they would come to him.

coyote scat on white oak 1

But that’s cat thinking; Coyote doesn’t hunt like that. Any path that is too obvious can make him vulnerable to his ancient enemies the wolves, whose own lack of imagination had doomed them here in the East, and most other places besides. Coyote didn’t take over by being predictable. No, an obvious walkway like this is good for one thing and one thing only: saying hello to other coyotes. And so he did, and hopped down, trotting off without a backward glance.

coyote scat on white oak 2

A few weeks later, he happened by again, and remembered his missive. He climbed up onto the tree to take a look, and sure enough, there was a reply — a long one! He read it carefully. It said, I’m a nursing mother, I’m eating well, and I can kick your ass. He thought about it for half a minute, then left a short, neutral response — I’m still here — scurried down off the tree, and trotted rapidly back the way he came.

coyote scat on white oak 3

It was late autumn before he returned to that end of the valley again. The tree was still there, and though it had human odor all over it, at least three more coyotes had been there, too — the half-grown offspring of the mother who had left a message earlier, perhaps. There was a sort of uniform character to their odor, as if they’d all been dripped on by the same tree — which a family would be, of course. The oak itself had lost a great deal of its pungency, and his paws detected a bit more give in the bark. He squatted once again. Though in life this tree was what foresters call a wolf tree, with its huge spreading crown of crooked limbs keeping sun from getting to other, straighter, more marketable trees, in death it was definitely going to the coyotes.

For the April Fools edition of the Festival of the Trees, “humorous trees,” at Vanessa’s Trees and Shrubs Blog. See the complete details.

me with fallen oak

More on sea urchin vision

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Bestiary


If you were intrigued by the description of sea urchin vision in my poem about the purple sea urchin, check out “Tube vision” at the indispensible Creaturecast blog.

Are sea urchins reacting to the presence or absence of light, or do they actually have spatial perception? Recent work by Blevins and Johnsen (2004) and Yerramilli and Johnsen (2009) suggests the latter. In these experiments, urchins would react to the presence of dark targets that looked like nice holes to crawl into in their tank. But they only recognized them if they were above a certain size, implying that their visual perception has a resolution of that certain size, and that they’re not just recognizing simple light or dark cues.

I still can’t get over the weirdness of seeing with one’s arms and legs.

Woodrat Podcast 11: Ai and the art of monologue

No guest this week, just a monologue in honor of the poet Ai, who died on Saturday. I chant Noh and read poems by Ai (obviously), Richard Shelton, and the O’odham of southern Arizona.



(Update #2, 3/27)

(Update #3, 3/28)

Japanese temple bell audio is from Daniele Salvati on and is licenced under a Creative Commons Sampling Plus 1.0 licence.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Skunk Cabbage

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Bestiary


Direct link to photoset. If watching the slideshow, be sure to expand to full screen.

Symplocarpus foetidus

Here’s to the skunk cabbage,
first plant to raise a toast to spring,

even if it sometimes has to melt a hole
right through the ice,

a plant that grows
its own hothouse

& keeps it at 22 degrees Celsius
for weeks on end.

Half monk, half cobra,
it shares its solitude

with the earliest flies & beetles,
whose springtime fancy

turns to putrefaction: gut piles,
winter-killed deer, & in the swamp

a leathery curl of old meat.
It gives off a heat & fragrance

the real thing can rarely match—
pornography for insects.

Only after pollination is consummated
does the skunk cabbage unfurl

its eponymous leaves—
huge sails with yellow stitching

& a green that stays fresh
long into the summer,

while dark berries
swell on the spadix

& the roots tighten their grip
on the pungent mud,

the whole plant inching
into the earth.

Sugar Baby

This entry is part 27 of 34 in the series Breakdown: The Banjo Poems


I had total recall. I was
loitering at a strip mall
on the outskirts of town,
replaying Dock Boggs’
“Sugar Baby” in my head
note for note as I heard it
the first time, before I knew
what was coming next—
the red rocking chair,
the every dime.
Streetlights flickered on,
& they were a new kind
of streetlight that turned people
transparent, like ghosts
as they hurried from car
to store & store to car.
Every third person
was talking to someone
in their hand, saying
I’m in the parking lot &
Do you want the plain rice
or the fried?
I noticed there were those
who said honey
& those who said sugar,
but white or brown, they all
had something sticky
to keep solitude at bay.
I began wishing
I’d heard the song
from the master himself
so I could taste it too,
raw & unrefined.
I wouldn’t have to take
rides in cop cars.
My feet would find
their way to some
sweet home.