Woodrat Podcast 22: Julia Martin on Bread for the Head

Julia Martin of Bread for the Head
photo credits, l-r: Sarah Tribuzio, Margareta Vranicar, Mary Beth Meyer

Julia Martin has been a witty and erudite presence in my corner of the blogosphere for several years now, first simply as a commenter on other people’s blogs and eventually at a site of her own, Clumps and Voids. But I wanted to talk to her about her day job as executive director of Bread for the Head, whose mission is to provide books to low-income children in the Chicago area and try to convert them into life-long readers. This is Banned Books Week in the United States as well as National Literacy Month, but outright banning isn’t the only thing keeping books out of the hands of children, and all too often literacy programs fail to inculcate a love of reading. Bread for the Head, which Julia founded five years ago, takes the radical position that, as their mission states, “pleasure reading is no indulgence, but a necessity.”

If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast right away, at the end of it, Julia asks listeners to share the titles of their own favorite books for children (which don’t have to be children’s books per se). Please use the comments below, or contact Julia directly: juliaannmartin at gmail dot com. And of course if you live in the Chicago area, Bread for the Head can always use more volunteers.

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

Autumn haibun

This entry is part 17 of 37 in the series Bridge to Nowhere: poems at mid-life


Fall is a time of strange promptings, even for those of us who never succumb to vagabondage. If I happen to spot decades-old spiderwebs like wings of dust in a corner of the basement, I glance quickly away & reach for the jar of screws. And when the green is gone, when it has leached from the last of the leaves & the ground is ankle-deep in gloria mundi, I want to know the trees as Indians once did: from the flavor of their ashes. I want to learn restlessness from the natives, stand still enough to become a landmark for a mob of lekking gnats in Indian summer. I want the little brown bat in my portico to find a hibernaculum no other bat knows about, where he can hang all winter like a stilled pendulum, safe from the killer fungus the color of snow. I want my bootprints to collect the November rain & freeze: windows for whatever Argus might still be with us, insomniac, going over & over the dwindling flocks.

The Amtrak’s
quick double blast—
then cricket   cricket.

New Odes to Tools review by Noel Sloboda

This entry is part 27 of 31 in the series Odes to Tools


My chapbook just received a great review at Verse Wisconsin Onlinecheck it out. By “great,” I don’t mean unremittingly positive, but critical in a good way. In fact, the author, whom I don’t know, has singled out some things about my poetry that bother me as well, while also happening to praise some of my own favorite lines and poems in the book, so overall it was very reassuring. I’m not saying I agree with every one of his remarks, but I really appreciate the level of critical engagement they reflect.

The same issue includes an Editors’ Note on Book Reviews in which they explain their philosophy about reviewing; evidently some poets have been belly-aching about “reviews that are less than wholly positive.” It is illustrated by a wonderful painting, unfortunately too small to make out in very great detail: “Marco Polo Forced to Eat Moths.”

Incidentally, Phoenicia Publishing is holding a fall sale: 15% off on all titles through October 1. See the site for details.

Black Gum Trail

autumn foliage on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)
autumn foliage on black gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

It’s astonishing how few local residents are aware of the fall foliage display of black gum, which begins a month or more in advance of most other trees. The oblong pointed leaves go from green to yellow to orange to red, different trees and sometimes even different branches turning on different schedules. But you have to get out of your car to see it: black gum tends to grow either in swamps and bogs or on dry, acidic, heath-oak forests. In Plummer’s Hollow we have plenty of the latter, and black gum is a major understory tree for a couple miles along our Laurel Ridge. About 15 years ago, we built a footpath paralleling the Plummer’s Hollow Road about two-thirds of the way up the ridge-side to afford maximum access to the black gum, following existing animal trails wherever possible. Today we led a small group of fellow nature enthusiasts up Plummer’s Hollow Road and back along Black Gum Trail, trying to spread the word about this under-appreciated tree. Continue reading “Black Gum Trail”


Anyone eating steamed dim sum tripe or trippa alla romana for the first time would be forgiven for thinking they were eating seafood. Surely these rubbery strips must be eels, or octopus tentacles, or sea cucumbers? Their humbler origin is not without a certain fascination of its own, though: that the stomach itself should be edible seems like the first and greatest mystery of the temple of food. But first it must be bathed and boiled in salt water.

In the European Middle Ages, Mikhail Bahktin reports (Rabelais and His World, tr. by Hélène Iswolsky), “The stomach and bowels of cattle, tripe, were carefully cleaned, salted, and cooked. Tripe could not be preserved long; they were therefore consumed in great quantities on slaughtering days and cost nothing. Moreover, it was believed that after cleaning, tripe still contained ten percent excrement which was therefore eaten with the rest of the meal.”

Tripe is a world-wide food. In Hyeonpung, Korea, a version of the hearty soup called gomguk or gomtang combines tripe with oxtails, ribs and feet: odds and ends in every sense of the term. Special care is taken to separate these meats from each other and from the broth after their original boiling, combining them again for a second boil only when the soup is ready to be served. This is a dish of astonishing blandness, as if to demonstrate the cleanness of the tripe. It is up to the diner to add salt and pepper, to ladle in fermented cabbage, fermented radish, or perhaps some rice.

Guk is the generic Korean word for soup, but to the Anglo-American ear it sounds very much like the natural response to any thought of eating tripe. If you’ve ever eaten breakfast sausages, though, you’ve had tripe. The hotdog is practically our national food, and what is a hotdog but an ersatz stuffed intestine? The reality of tripe may disgust us, but we are a people in full retreat from the earth.

Tripe-based dishes are often described as “an acquired taste.” Aren’t all tastes acquired at some level? But in a literal sense, it’s the stomach and intestines that do the acquiring, and perform the vital task of transmuting delicacies into manure. How then to turn the tables on them?

Perhaps the most infamous stomach-based dish is haggis, but haggis contains no tripe; it is contained by tripe. The heart, liver and lungs of a sheep are ground up, blended with oatmeal and flavorings, and subjected to three hours of simmering in the bound-up stomach (or nowadays, a casing). Culinary art finds its prototype in the fires of digestion.

Tripe has special powers. Japanese horumonyaki, like gomguk, is said to build stamina, while Ecuadorian guatitas and the southern Slavic soup called Shkembe chorba are prized as a hangover cure. In Panama, a ritual feast of sopa de mondongo traditionally follows the completion of the roof on a new house. “The construction workers and the future owners along with their family and friends share the meal together in what is known as a ‘mondongada.'” Chitlins — pork intestines — are the quintessential African-American soul food.

Tripe is a deeply ambivalent dish, scorned as peasant fare, honored as the centerpiece of a feast. In Spanish, menudo means trifling and insignificant, but it’s also the name for a deeply mythologized Mexican and Mexican-American tripe soup. “An annual Menudo Festival is held in Santa Maria, California. In 2009, more than 2,000 people attended and 13 restaurants competed for prizes in three categories.” My first encounter with the English word, as a child, was in its secondary meaning: my grandfather, a classical violinist, so labeled an Irish fiddle tune. It was common and low. Tripe!

Despite most Americans’ aversion to tripe as a food, we seem increasingly prone to credit our own viscera with a kind of prescience. What previous generations knew in their hearts, we know in our gut. Our last president seemed almost to prefer these lower-body intuitions to the rational promptings of his brain. But we are, after all, a nation of consumers — surely the gut must know what’s right for us! So however much our civilization may resemble Rome’s in other respects, when divination is required we no longer need to make recourse to the entrails of a bull, a creature whose digestive product we attribute nowadays to anyone with the gift of imagination.

The problem with entispicy is that our gut is not ours alone. It’s home to a teeming multitude of others who, when we die, will have their last supper on the house.

Woodrat Podcast 21: Dylan Tweney

Dylan Tweney and tinywords
Dylan Tweney and tinywords (photos by Jonathan Snyder)

Dylan Tweney is the editor and publisher of tinywords, which has been serving small poems daily since 2000. The Haiku Society of America has recognized it as the “largest-circulation journal of haiku in English.” Dylan is also a senior editor at Wired, in charge of gadget news, new product reviews, and other ultra-geeky topics. The motto at the top his website reads, “If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention.” I spoke to him last month by phone, and got him talking about everything from how he handles a large volume of submissions on a part-time basis, to what he learned from studying poetry with Louise Glück, to why he decided to live-tweet a Wagner opera.

Here are a few of Dylan’s favorite haiku and micropoems from the past ten years of tinywords.

Tinywords is currently accepting submissions (through September 30) for the next issue, on cities and urban life. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the magazine: @tinywords as well as Dylan himself: @Dylan20.

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

Another Good Question

Watch on Vimeowatch lower-res version on YouTube

I recently took the time to completely re-do this videopoem, which was a break-through video for me when I first made it a year and a half ago. I’ve now replaced that original with this new version (one of the main advantages of Vimeo over YouTube is that it allows one to upload a new file for an already-posted video), but you can still read what I originally said about it back on February 5, 2009. It was the first poetry video I made with the text in a spoken-word soundtrack instead of as silent captions. But more than that, it was the first in which film and poem were equal partners in a kind of dance. The footage had come first, and the text about five days later, but both changed dramatically in the editing.

My impetus to re-do it was simply the feeling that the audio quality could be improved, now that I have better audio-editing skills and software (Adobe Audition). When I went to look for the text, I discovered that I had apparently never saved it — a very rare oversight, but perhaps indicative of the extent to which I saw it as component rather than end product. I had to transcribe it from the video:

A good question never satisfies the way one might expect. It’s not like a conviction. There’s no warm glow of satisfaction. Everyone tells you, That’s a good question! But they don’t know how it torments you in secret with its indifference and its perplexing transformations. Living with the questions is like living with a house full of cats. Wouldn’t you rather have an uninterrupted sleep? Wouldn’t you rather be numb? Sure you would. But getting there involves a brief and jarring realignment of molecules, a hot iron fry pan going into the water, that squeal no real voice can begin to answer.

Once transcribed, I could see that it might need work: wasn’t “in secret” better left implied? Isn’t “warm glow” a bit of a cliché? As I worked through a second draft, trying to figure out where to put in line breaks, it occurred to me to try recasting the poem as a series of questions. At this point, the title changed from “The Good Question” to simply “Good Question.” Here’s the text I ended up generating for the new version of the video:

What makes a good question “good”?
Why doesn’t it ever satisfy, the way a conviction does?
Why doesn’t it impart an incandescent glow
& draw lost moths to its semblance of a moon?

Why do people say “That’s a good question”
instead of simply admitting “I don’t know”?
Why does one good question turn into so many others the closer you get?
Why can’t it stay round & whole?

When a theologian advocates living with the questions,
should we presume he has a house full of cats?
And is it wrong to prefer an uninterrupted sleep?
What if all the best questions led only to despair?

But how can we rid ourselves of them
without a jarring realignment of molecules,
like a hot iron fry pan going into the water?
And how do you answer that brief, inhuman squeal?

If anything, I think the text is actually less suitable now as a stand-alone poem, but it might be a better match for the film images. The image of the moon/(implied) bulb, for example, as well as the “round and whole” bit, were influenced by the snowball imagery in the video. The idea of questions breeding more questions would help prepare the listener for that house full of cats, I thought. Despair entered on its own during the writing, but stayed because it seemed to form an additional feedback loop with the video imagery.

I experimented with different arrangements of the footage, but in the end went back almost to what I had at the beginning. I did decide to include music in the soundtrack this time, a piece by Michael Lambright from Jamendo.com, licenced Attribution-Noncommercial under the Creative Commons. I wanted something from a solo instrument that was simulataneously spirited and a bit doleful, and “Poirot” seemed to fit the bill. The fact that its title referenced Agatha Christie’s famous fictional detective cemented the link.

I think the ending still needs work…


Over at the Moving Poems discussion blog, I’ve talked videopoetry pioneer Tom Konyves into sharing his latest “summary of videopoetry.” Here’s the essence of his definition:

Videopoetry is a genre of poetry displayed on a screen, distinguished by its time-based, poetic juxtaposition of text with images and sound. In the measured blending of these 3 elements, it produces in the viewer the realization of a poetic experience.

The poetic juxtaposition of the elements implies an appreciation of the weight and reach of each element; the method is analogous to the poet’s process of selecting just-the-right word or phrase and positioning these in a concentrated “vertical” pattern.

To differentiate it from other forms of cinema, the principal function of a videopoem is to demonstrate the process of thought and the simultaneity of experience, expressed in words — visible and/or audible — whose meaning is blended with but not illustrated by the images.

Please stop by and read the rest.

To the Unknown Tourist

Dear Blue, they shouldn’t arrest you now if you try to return. As long as Franco was alive, and for a while afterward, all the policemen wore black. Widows, too — and they were everywhere. Black symbolized the patriotic Moros, who invaded, they said, to defend the black-robed priests against the black-clad anarchists. Which was the black of conquest, and which the black of insurrection? Whose black was the right black? Which black colored the night with moans?

We arrive two years after the death of Franco, following the pilgrim road to Compostela. One day, our car is waved over by the Guardia Civil. What was our offense? we wonder, unable to speak Spanish well enough to ask. But then we notice the thin crowd of spectators, some with drinks in hand. “Bicicletas,” they explain, and somebody mimes riding a bicycle. A few minutes later the lead pack of riders flashes by, bright as a bird of paradise.

Two months after we return to the States, my dad gets a speeding ticket from Spain. At least, the post office assumes it’s for us, since we’re the only local residents who were just over there. Dad’s name is Bruce, but it’s addressed to a Blue Bowta, with nothing further to identify him aside from the name of the town.

Blue, whoever you may be: We paid your ticket.

Some thoughts on videopoetry

Direct link to video.

My first, and probably last, vlog-style video. If you’re on dial-up or have a strict bandwidth allowance, this is nothing terribly special: just a few, very basic observations about videopoetry presented in what I hope is a humorous style. The main hosting site for more artistically conscious filmmakers, Vimeo — source of at least 80 percent of what I post at Moving Poems — encourages users to designate an introductory video for visitors to their profile page, so that was my excuse. These are literally the first things that popped into my head: I didn’t do any advance preparation whatsoever. (Please note that this does include some mild NSFW language, depending on where you work. Like the late George Carlin, I tend to regard cuss words as analagous to hot sauce on food, and I do like hot sauce.)

In defense of epigraphs in poetry

I like epigraphs in poetry. But when I add them to my own poems or poetry collections, according to an essay by David Orr in the upcoming New York Times Sunday Book Review, I do so for one or more of the following five reasons. (The first he supplies himself, and the latter four are borrowed from Gérard Genette — a work called Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation, which I haven’t read.)

  1. I’m taking part in an age-old literary tradition. Orr acknowledges that epigraph-inclusion is in part just “poets doing what poets have always done,” but the premise of his essay is that we live in a uniquely epigraph-prone “Age of Citations.”
  2. I’m explaining or commenting on the title of my piece.
  3. I’m explaining or commenting on the body of the piece.
  4. I need to reference the epigraph’s author for some reason; the substance of the epigraph itself is fairly arbitrary.
  5. I feel a need to demonstrate learning, and am trying to position myself in the pantheon of great writers, and the poem within the literary canon.

“That last function is the most relevant one for contemporary poetry,” Orr maintains. Academic poets might use an epigraph to signal which faction of modern poetry they owe allegiance to, he suggests, and some poets might feel lonely or insecure without the reminder that they are part of some larger tradition. But this creates a bit of a quandary for a poet who might also want to connect with a more general audience, whose members would tend to be more familiar with currently out-of-fashion authors such as Eliot than with the ever-fashionable Wallace Stevens, say.

I don’t deny that these might all be factors influencing the use and choice of epigraphs, and I think Orr is correct that name-dropping is a double-edged sword: anything likely to impress one crowd is guaranteed to be a turn-off for some other crowd. So if name-dropping is one of your main motivations for using epigraphs, it’s probably going to backfire, unless you truly don’t care about reaching a broader audience, and poetry just happens to be the way you win friends and influence people in your pretentious little circle.

But the essay fails to mention what is to my mind the main reason poets use epigraphs. Perhaps it’s so obvious as to need no explication, but I’ve always thought that my most valuable attribute as (ahem!) a thinker is my ability to point out the obvious, so here goes: epigraphs are a convenient shortcut to alterity, a way of letting other voices in. They are sometimes integral to the original inspiration, and at other times simply a by-product of writerly enthusiasm, but in either case, they situate the poem not merely in a tradition but also within a kind of network of shared wonder at similar phenomena, ideas, or linguistic perversities.

What do I mean by “network of shared wonder”? When poets speak of inspiration, that isn’t just a literary affectation; one really does feel that images and ideas are coming from somewhere outside of, and quite different from, one’s own accustomed ways of looking at the world. Trying to write poetry is for me — and I suspect for many others — largely an excuse to open myself to otherness, a legal but powerfully addictive mind-altering experience. Emotions associated with such an encounter include apprehension, puzzlement, confusion, fear and awe: in a word, wonder.

Quite often, the spark for a poem comes from another text, and so one includes an epigraph simply to acknowledge one’s indebtedness, in the same way a blogger might include a “hat-tip” mention (albeit at the end of a post, not at the beginning) to acknowledge their source for a link. But sometimes also other writers’ words pop into one’s head during the course of composition or (more commonly) revision, and the excitement at one’s own creation/discovery is heightened by the recognition of a fellow traveler. Perhaps for some, more ambitious poets, such excitement might be colored by competitiveness or the desire to genuflect, but that’s not my experience.

Of course, concerns about audience should play a role in shaping every piece of writing, though it’s up to the writer and the venue to decide what sort and how much of a role. For the kind of poetry I write, I envision a reasonably well-educated reader who will get some allusions (from the Bible, Greek mythology, Shakespeare, etc.) without any need for epigraphs or notes. If the poem depends heavily on a current pop-culture reference that older or less tuned-in readers might not get, that’s more likely to merit an epigraph. In general, I tend to err on the side of caution and add a note or epigraph if I think readers might need it even at the expense of some notion of textual purity. Here online, a comments section can supply additional opportunities for explication, so perhaps epigraphs aren’t quite as necessary as they are in print.

I like epigraphs, as I’ve said, and it annoys me that U.S. copyright law remains murky about whether we need permission to use them, while at the same time being quite clear that quotes in a review or journal article are perfectly permissible. Why should critics and scholars be favored over creative writers? But if this is the era of ever more generous interpretations of intellectual property, it’s also the era of the remix, and I’m following the battle between the private-property zealots and the remixers with great interest. I wonder whether the recent explosion in epigraph use that Orr identifies doesn’t simply reflect the influence of remix culture.

Long-time readers of Via Negativa may remember suffering through the serialization of my epic poem Cibola, which I think represents this new zeitgeist as well as anything. There are many things about it I’d change if I ever decided to seek print publication, but the regular sections of epigraphs would unquestionably remain. I entitled these sections “Reader,” which had a double meaning: on the one hand, they together constituted a reader, i.e. a select anthology of works related to the themes of the poem. On the other hand, they were an attempt to suggest the provisionality of my own understanding of these sources by giving the reader(s) of the text equal status to the characters in the poem, who lent their names to the other section titles. I envisioned future readers of the poem and the people whose quotes I’d harvested for epigraphs as together constituting a kind of Greek chorus.

My primary practical motivation for including so many epigraphs in Cibola corresponded to the third of Orr’s reasons: to comment on the body of the text, which I didn’t want to load down with footnotes. But they were also meant to be read as an integral part of that body. Including them was an act of forced assimilation, which struck me as appropriate in a work about the conquest. “Found poetry” and modernist texts such as William Carlos Williams’ Paterson were my main models.

I’m not enough of a scholar to know if Orr is correct in attributing the modernist fascination with quoting and borrowing the words of others mainly to Eliot’s influence, but it seems to me that whoever might be responsible for starting the trend, it’s important also to understand why it continues. In the pre-modern era, major writers were few in number and came from a narrow cross-section of British and American society. In the 100+ years since, the canon has grown exponentially to include female voices, post-colonial voices, and voices from every class and ethnic background. Bewildering as this state of affairs may be to some critics and literary gatekeepers, I find it exhilarating, and I suspect most other creative writers feel the same way. And I think most of us realize at some level that if we want to remain relevant, and if we want to maintain access to the wellsprings of inspiration, we need to stay open to the influence and energy of all those new voices.