A few quotes + links (please click through!) from the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, plus occasional other poetry bloggers in my feed reader. If you’ve missed earlier editions of the digest, here’s the archive.
What a great week for poetry blogging this has been! The year is now half over, and many of those who began 2018 vowing to blog every week have slowed down (or stopped altogether), but thank Whomever for that because otherwise how would I ever find time to read it all? And it’s fascinating the way themes continue to emerge most weeks in the process of compiling this digest: this time, for example, I found quite a few people pondering how to organize poetry manuscripts, and there was some strong blogging on the perennial subject of death. And I continue to be impressed by the varied and creative ways in which poet bloggers are responding to the political moment. I think Lesley Wheeler had the quote of the week: “While poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.” And I was excited to see George Szirtes firing up the old blog again to start a series on political poetry…
Everything in this country is falling apart and the things I value and hold dear are in jeopardy of being taken away, dismantled, overturned or burned to the ground. In short, it’s a hard time and I struggle with feelings of loss, hopelessness, anger, frustration, rage, helplessness, and fear. It’s a difficult place to be yet every time someone says, “Things can’t get worse,” they, in fact, do. And so when I’m feeling this way I turn to poetry.
As part of the research for my craft paper for my MFA, I’m currently reading a book titled Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism edited by Danielle Barnhart and Iris Mahan.
This book of poetry is exactly what I need right now. The very first poem, A Woman’s Place by Denice Frohman, is one of my favorite in the book. The opening line: “i heard a woman becomes herself / the first time she speaks / without permission // then, every word out of her mouth / a riot”. Damn. DAMN that is powerful. And just what I needed to know that I do have a voice and not all is lost. This doesn’t mean any of those emotions I’m feeling go away, but it does mean I feel a little less alone. I feel like I can keep fighting and I can make myself heard. And while the world is still scary and there’s still a lot of things that could potentially fall apart, I feel like I’m up to the task of helping to fight it.
Courtney LeBlanc, When the World Falls Apart
This is not a poem about children being ripped
from their families. This is a poem about gardening.
The dirt is just dirt, the hands are just hands,
and the butter lettuce is just a vegetable. Roots hang
from its body like roots, not like marionette strings.
Not like marionette strings, I said.
Crystal Ignatowski, The Butter Lettuce Is Just a Vegetable
I’ve learned to tell the fir from the yew; the silver
from the red cedar. At sunrise, there is a thin glint of light
northeastward where I await Mt Baker’s frozen specter
careening over Discovery Bay. The lamps of Port
Townsend blink; strands of fog hang over fields.
Peckish deer nibble dandelions.
Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Muse on A Cloudy Morn
Nature plays a key role in Where Wind Meets Wing. Rather than viewing nature as a separate pristine, pure space, your poems address the ways people and nature come into conflict with each other. Is this a subject that you work with often? Or was it discovered through the more organic process of crafting this collection?
It’s a subject I’m now working with more often. […] Mostly, this is the world work that I do. My day job is in pest control so those conflicts between humanity and nature are a part of my daily life. And, as we often say, I write what I know.
To Gain the Day was written early in my pest control career and focuses more on the humanity of that work — on the people who work these kinds of jobs — and on my transition from academia to pest control. I think of it as a Whitman book (and its title comes from a line from “Song of Myself”).
Where Wind Meets Wing developed after I had processed a lot of that strange career transition stuff but while I was still trying to navigate my work with my strong concerns about the environmental impacts of people, something that is heightened by my job. If TGtD is a Whitman book, focused on people, WWMW is a Dickinson book (with a Dickinson epigraph), focused on spirit and nature and self.
I consider myself an environmentalist, which some people consider odd considering what I do to pay my bills. WWMW tries to explore my relationship with my job and my love of the planet and my concerns for the planet. And I’m interested in what you say here about nature being viewed as “a separate pristine, pure space.” Because it isn’t separate (we are a part of our ecosystem and we are animals ourselves so we are nature as much as a tree is). I partly want to honor that — that we are an intrinsic part of our world — while also looking at the effects we have on our world (and on each other).
Andrea Blythe, Poet Spotlight: Anthony Frame on the environmental impact of people and making poetry dance
In keeping with the title, Field Notes, I intend the poems to be observational, a record of the natural world as I experience it, less a chronological account than an emotional exploration. I want them to interlock, to borrow a phrase from Susan Grimm’s introduction to the wonderful book, Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems. On the first page, she asks, “Which is the more useful question – How do the poems fit together? or What is the whole trying to do?”
Erica Goss, Organizing the Field
For some reason, this manuscript has been a bear to work with. And not one of those friendly Winnie the Pooh types, all sweet and honey covered, this is the bear that wanders into a forest so large you can hardly see him until you do, then you realize he is chasing a camper or shredding a tent.
This bear is surrounded by poems and so many, he’s not sure which are good anymore. He’s eating sour blackberries and pulling thorns out of his wrist.
This bear doesn’t want to be organized, it wants to run wild through rivers while grabbing a fish.
This bear growls at the thought of having to “have a theme” or any sort of structure.
This bear doesn’t even want to be named. Just call me “Bear” he says. But you name him something clever, and for a week, he’s happy, then he says, “I hate my name and so do you.”
Kelli Russell Agodon, My Poetry Manuscript is a Bear…
Most poetry books today (including mine) are broken into smaller sections. Sometimes these sections are thematically linked to tell a particular story (the first parts of both The Trouble with Rivers and Reckless Constellations focus on specific people and narratives). Think of those sections as necessary detours on your trip—but they still need to function as steps toward your goal. If you’re driving across Pennsylvania, you may make detours to visit the Anthracite Museum or Gettysburg, but how will those stops contribute to the overall experience of the trip? How will they help bring you to the end of the book? Do they support a transformation that happens in the book? Do they expand or contribute to themes you’re working toward?
Grant Clauser, How to Organize or Arrange A Poetry Book, GPS Style
Manuscript 1 is my Church Ladies collection–nearly complete with about 60ish poems, a large number placed in literary magazines already. I’ve got a full vision for this manuscript, right down to the table of contents, and it is exciting to see it almost finished. The poems are primarily in persona, from the point of view of various ladies from church history–missionaries, saints, pastor’s wives. These poems have required a bit of research so they feel a little more demure and academic than the poems in Manuscript 2.
Manuscript 2 began as a folder of misfit poems–poems I wrote because I was inspired to write them but that weren’t about church ladies. When it so happened that all the poems were centering on a certain theme, I knew this was the core of a new manuscript. This one is riskier for me personally. I’m a firstborn girl and concerned with being “good” so I never wrote things that would make people upset or feel uncomfortable, all the way until a couple of years ago, after writing my first manuscript.
I had the good fortune of having dinner with Sharon Olds, the queen of uncomfortable poetry, and I asked her how she did it, how she wrote things that would make people she loved upset. She said she could either write it now, never let them read it, or wait til they were dead, but she was going to write it. I felt after that, that I needed to give myself Permission to write what I wanted to write–even if I never published it or waited fifty years to publish it, I did not need to censor myself during my writing process.
Renee Emerson, Two Manuscripts Diverged in a Wood…
The Emily Dickinson Collages
These were made for an Instagram competition which was organised by The Poetry Society and people linked to the film The Quiet Passion. You can read about the winners and see their splendid work here. Brilliant poet/artist Sophie Herxheimer went on to do a whole series and you can see them on her Instagram.
Mine weren’t in the same league but I like them and they were fun to do: I write each as a poem too.
Out of my window
the women cooling the flames
as if truth had
never been dis storted
This one has a background of a long bathroom tile, some paint and tissue paper with cut out figures and headlines.
Pam Thompson, “Part of the fun of being …”
Take a word, image — slice & dice them through
like sausage (or the stuff of which sausage
is made). Scrap old meanings, & stuff in new.
Things you see but can’t say become bossage,
old words carved into new symbols, bone bright,
delicate & sharp.
PF Anderson, Suicide Sonnet
In previous years I felt no impulse, as Orwell put it, “to make political writing into an art”. As a poet I would secretly have agreed with Auden’s In Memory of W B Yeats, where he says that poetry makes nothing happen but survives in the valley of its saying, a way of happening, a mouth; and would have argued that that precisely was the point of poetry, that it did not set out with a specific intention to achieve an aim, but was deeper, more various and more troubling than that: an intuitive enquiry, through language, into some kind of intuitive truth.
And I would have backed that up with Keats’s feeling that we hated poetry that had “a palpable design on us”. Poetry was not an advertisement for our views but an exploration of the nature of things, standing at an angle to action, not a spur to it, or means of it. That which Keats called ‘negative capability’ seemed to be the whole raison d’être of poetry.
It wasn’t that I felt that poetry should be closeted away from the public world but that its necessary engagement with it would be on other terms: as witness, clown, or prophet.
Last week I was at Lumb Bank tutoring developing poets among whom was a seasoned foreign correspondent who had spent extended periods in Liberia and Rwanda reporting on the carnage there. Having come back he was turning to poetry to find a way of understanding events of which he had given factual accounts. It seemed vital for him to do so. The poetry is harrowing but formal and disciplined. It is not polemical. It is another kind of reportage as filtered through memory and the wounded imagination.
George Szirtes, Worlds on Orwell and Writing: 1 Political Purpose
Honey, I love you
like salt in food:
all it takes.
I don’t love you like sugar,
but like salt and pepper
for which wars were fought.
Claudia Serea, Don’t ask me to love you like sugar
It’s funny, eleven-year-old-me making solo hikes through the woods to the drugstore for Colgate. It’s also awful, because my family was so poisonously miserable, so hostile to the person I was trying to become, that I couldn’t imagine staying in that house one second longer than I absolutely had to. And, of course, freedom was a long time coming, even with scholarships and summer jobs and, eventually, teaching assistantships. As my professional life has demonstrated, I’ll take a certain amount of abuse, playing the long game, as long as I have some safe space in which I can retain dignity, do work that feels worthwhile, and speak my mind.
Take that space away, though, and I’ll break, whether or not I break and run. This is one of the many ways poetry has saved me–reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.
Poetry’s doing just fine during the current political mayhem, but other spaces seem way less safe than they ever did. Not that I ever felt welcome and at home in Lexington, Virginia!–but I had friends’ houses, and a few public spots that I felt comfortable in, and a creek to walk beside. Ever since the co-owner of the Red Hen, a few blocks from my house, took her moral stand against hatred and lies by asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, the full ugliness of where I live has been on inescapable display. Media that are often depressing–from Facebook to the local paper’s editorial page–got vicious; picketers with offensive signs staked out the restaurant, which has not yet been able to reopen; the KKK leafleted our neighborhoods with fliers reading “Boycott the Red Hen” as well as “Wake Up White America.”
I want to get out of here. Aside from short trips, I can’t. My husband just got tenure; I also receive, for my kids, a major tuition benefit, which we need for the next five years. I’m finding it really difficult, however, to negotiate the fight-or-flight response that keeps ripping through my body. I hate living in the middle of the Confederacy. I hate how my government commits abuses in my name.
I said so to my daughter the other night, and she answered something like: I’m not leaving. I’ve committed. I’m going to fix this country.
I know that’s a better answer. I just have to figure out how to get through this woods of bad feeling. To feel peace in my body as a prerequisite for helping make peace in this damaged, damaging place.
Lesley Wheeler, Not fleeing
I met [Donald] Hall for the first time when he read with Charles Simic at the Library of Congress in early March 1999. We spoke after the reading and he asked how the Haines anthology was coming along. After that we continued to correspond until we met again in the autumn of 2000 when he gave a reading from Kenyon’s posthumous collection, One Hundred White Daffodils, at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University. I was there doing literary research at the Houghton Library and saw an announcement for the reading on a kiosk in Harvard Yard. That evening I wandered over to the museum after the library had closed and once again I enjoyed a nice conversation with Hall as he inscribed Kenyon’s book to me as “Jane’s remains.” The next day we bumped into each other at the minuscule Grolier’s Poetry Bookshop near Harvard Yard. Hall used to hang out there during his undergraduate days and was making a few purchases before returning to Eagle Pond Farm.
Our correspondence continued for many years after that as age and infirmities began to take their toll on Hall’s body although he continued to reside at his ancient farm up until his death. His mind remained sharp when the well of poems eventually dried up eight years ago. He nevertheless continued to write essays in which he described the afflictions of age. Essays After Eighty appeared in 2014 and he recognized that his own mortal coil was quickly shuffling off. “In a paragraph or two, my prose embodies a momentary victory over fatigue.” Still he kept writing.
Last year I received a nice letter from Hall informing me that he was assembling yet another collection of essays. He included a mock up of the proposed cover – A Carnival of Losses: Notes Nearing Ninety – along with a couple brief excerpts. “In your eighties you are invisible. Nearing ninety you hope nobody sees you.” Just a few days before his passing I wrote to Hall telling him how much I was looking forward to the publication of the new book in July. Unfortunately I doubt he saw my letter, and it is sad to think he will not see the publication of his last book and revel in its success. It will be hard to read knowing Hall is no longer among us. Writing about his friend Richard Wilbur, who died last year at age 96: “In his work he ought to survive, but probably, like most of us, he won’t.” I disagree. I am certain Hall’s legacy will live beyond my own years.
Today Donald Hall was buried beside his beloved Jane in Proctor Cemetery, sharing the “double solitude” they experienced together for two decades at nearby Eagle Pond Farm. But his poetry and prose will remain with us as we carry on – Don’s remains. They are his prodigy, his miracles of art.
Steven B. Rogers, The Miracles of Art: Remembering Donald Hall
At this point the surgeon reads morbidity into
the shift and twist of tissue,
the plasticity of form,
the salt and vinegar of spirit.
And from then, back on the street,
you may glimpse over and again
around the crook of each and every corner,
mortality’s black sleeve flapping
like a torn flag.
Dick Jones, Fragile
Some might keep ashes,
but I dig from your compost patch,
the place where you buried
the scraps left from every meal you ever ate.
You followed the almanac’s instructions,
but I don’t have that resource.
I blend your Carolina dirt
with the sandy soil that roots
my mango tree.
Some of it I keep in a jar
that once held Duke’s mayonnaise.
I place it on the mantel
of the fireplace I rarely use,
to keep watch with a half burned
candle and a shell
from a distant vacation.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Poetry Tuesday: “Artifacts”
Inadvertently, I discovered conditioning on my own, when I was about twelve. I decided to study some things I was afraid of–spiders, bees, darkness–and managed to unlearn the fear. It does not work with everything: I’m still acrophobic.
My biggest fear was one most human beings acknowledge–the fear of death. From the time I was quite small, I worried and feared and had trouble getting to sleep because my mind raced around the Big Unknown of what it would be like to die. Many years into my adult life, I decided to explore that fear through my usual method: self-education. I read novels and medical texts and philosophy and religious works in the process. Finally, after visiting an ICU many times during the serious illness of a best-beloved, I decided to sign up as a hospice volunteer.
It’s one way to face death–one sees a great deal of it in hospice care. But the education I received from other caregivers, from the program instructors, and from the patients and their families, has proven immensely valuable to me. Am I afraid of death? Well, sure; but fear of death (thanatophobia) no longer keeps me up nights. I possess a set of skills that helps me recognize how individual each death is–just as each life is. More important still? I treasure and value the small stuff more and am less anxious about the Big Unknown. It’s going to happen, so why agonize over it? This is conditioning. For me, anyway.
Conditioning does not have the same meaning as habituation, because conditioning requires learning and is more “mindful” than habituation. Habituation occurs when we just get accustomed to something and carry on; perhaps we repress our emotions or our values in order to do that carrying on. People can habituate to war, poverty, all kinds of pain, and can make not caring into a habit. We are amazing in our capacity to carry on, but it isn’t necessarily healthy. Getting into the habit of warfare, hatred, ignorance, hiding our feelings, or other hurtful behaviors is often easier than getting into more helpful habits like daily walks. I do not know why that is.
I am, however, endeavoring to condition myself to stay awake to new perspectives, to stay inquisitive, to plumb the world to find, if not beauty, at least understanding and compassion and gratitude. Maybe one day I will even manage to get that perspective from somewhere very, very high up… [yikes!]
Ann E. Michael, Conditioning
Q~Why are you drawn to poetry?
A~It is the human heart on fire.
Q~Tell us more about Collective Unrest. Why did you found it? What do you hope to accomplish?
A~My friend, Mat, and I had this idea for a magazine that is solely focused on social justice, humanity, and unity. We are both anti-Trump and everything that he and his administration stand for, as are hundreds of thousands of artists around the world. But Trump is just one piece of the puzzle. As much as we despise him, there has been injustice in the world ever since human beings came to be. We want to highlight the human experience in the face of discrimination, cruelty, abuse, oppression, or otherwise. We want to humanize the victims of injustice through their art and expression. Our goal is to create a safe space for people who are feeling unsettled, terrified, angry, and powerless.
Bekah Steimel, my allergy pills / an interview with poet Marisa Crane
Last year, Big Machine – a storm of an album by Eliza Carthy and The Wayward Band – won awards and was performed at festivals and venues up and down the land. Outside of The Wayward Band was another contributor, Dizraeli aka Rowan Sawday. I remember when I first saw Dizraeli and The Small Gods at the Beautiful Days festival perhaps ten years ago and I was struck by Dizraeli’s fusion of politics and rhythm and The Small God’s fusion of rap with reggae, folk and Balkan music. For someone who is a mix of many things, it was inspiring to see.
Dizraeli is a rapper and poet from Bristol in the South of England. He moved to London to seek his fortune, and brought out his first solo album in 2009. He joins the bombastic Big Machine album to rap over Eliza Carthy’s vocals and the band’s instruments on the track You Know Me. You Know Me is about the UK’s strong tradition of hospitality – do we extend it to people fleeing conflicts? The refrain of the song, “the fruit in our garden is good” is a reference to Jesus’ words about the people who follow him. Eliza Carthy said that You Know Me reminds her of her great- grandmother’s quoting of the Bible, when Jesus said we are to serve others and in doing so, we won’t know it, but we may have been serving angels disguised as humans in need.
On the second CD of Big Machine, all the music is stripped away and allows us to hear Dizraeli the poet. He recites Aleppo As It Was. He reminds us that Syria was a thriving and wealthy nation with computers and all the trappings of modern life, with citizens who were friends who worked in their professions and welcomed each other in the cafes. And then Dizraeli reminds us that the way these people are described by our politicians in their hour of need is dehumanising. These people were referred to as insects, cockroaches, so that people like you and me would not view them as fellow human beings who deserve a safe place to sleep. Dizraeli, in pausing the music on Big Machine, makes us pause and reflect on our own lives and responses to people in need.
Catherine Hume, Dizraeli, Tim Matthew and Eliza Carthy
I’ve been a bookworm for as long as I can remember. As a young child, I spent many a night reading by torchlight under the bed covers. Aged 8, I’d cycle to the nearest branch library just over half a mile away and spend my Saturdays getting lost in the worlds of books. During school holidays, I’d sometimes take a book into the blissful silence of the reference room and copy out whole passages, for the love of words. O’ and A’ level English Lit followed by a B. Ed degree (English Lit and History) meant I did fall out of love with reading for a while (all those holidays spent chewing my way through set books for the following term’s syllabus). Then we emigrated to South Africa and, when the new life we’d craved seemed largely unfamiliar and daunting, the town’s public library became my sanctuary.
I don’t remember when I went from borrowing books to buying books. Perhaps it began with the appearance of cheap paperbacks on supermarket shelves. Or when library stocks no longer satisfied my growing appetite for poetry. But I do know that, for years now, my buying habit has out-stripped both my reading speed (I’m a slow reader as I sub-vocalise everything) and available time for reading. Concerted efforts to quit have been short-lived. My habit is fed by my poetry social life, social media links to reviews, publishers/small presses, book vloggers, etc. My collection of poetry books remains relatively intact despite a massive cull of ‘stuff’ when we down-sized last year. The reading of poetry is a vital part of my writing process and my ongoing education. Much of what I read is published by small presses and unavailable on library loan. But I do wonder if my buying habit is, in part, consumerism by another name.
Jayne Stanton, Public libraries
I’ve just been reading Sarah Passingham’s article, ‘Finding Flow’, in Brittle Star (issue 42). I’ve been lucky enough to have a few poems published in Brittle Star, including one in the current issue.
This poem, entitled ‘Testing the Water’, was definitely written while I was in flow or ‘in the zone’. I remember writing it at a Poetry Business Writing Day. Unlike some of the poems I’ve written there which have gone on to have a life of their own, I almost forgot about this one. I typed it up but never sent it anywhere. It was only when skim reading a word document with lots of other poems in it, looking for something to bulk up a submission, that I found this one again. I worked on it, but when it came to sending it out, I chose the original version (a block of text, no line breaks, minor edits on the grammar).
To achieve ‘flow’, Passingham suggests we look at the idea put forward by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose argument she summarises as follows: ‘boredom and relaxation need to move into control, but worry and anxiety must be simultaneously channelled towards excitement’.
Control and excitement. Channelling worry and anxiety. All this rings very true to me.
Julie Mellor, Flow
I actually meditated on the differences between last year’s solstice – still reeling from a stage IV liver cancer diagnosis, right before the MS flare that sent me to the hospital and left me house-bound for several months with problems eating, talking, and walking and this year’s – relatively calm, despite the first paragraph of this post. Last solstice, I had a coyote sighting on my street – this year, it was a pair of quail and an immature eagle, and seeing a turtle laying eggs in the Japanese garden. I’m learning, slowly, how to manage symptoms, avoiding MS triggers like stress and heat, and after having to be “up” for a day, taking a day of rest. Being thankful that my liver tumors have been “stable.” I’ve learned to appreciate the good days, the small things like the visits of goldfinches and hummingbirds, time spent talking poetry with a friend. I’ve also learned I have to prioritize things that bring joy, because life will certainly bring you enough stress and pain, so it’s important to take an afternoon to just focus on writing, on one other person, or on the changes of the seasons. I am trying to schedule these things in between the necessary evils. I’m trying not to get overwhelmed by the dark.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, After the Storm, and a New Review of PR for Poets