Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 4

A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. And if you’re a blogger who regularly shares poems or writes about poetry, please consider joining the network.

This week saw poetry bloggers continuing to write about Mary Oliver, as well as reacting to current and celestial events. There were posts about creativity and overcoming writer’s block, reviews, philosophical reflections… the whole mix. I should mention that I am slowly becoming more selective as I continue to add more blogs to my feed. It’s a good thing most people don’t post every day, as Luisa and I do here at Via Negativa! That would be nuts. Anyway, Enjoy.


Those of us who are still here: we are still, always arriving.  We’re not in the Promised Land, that’s for sure.  All we can really do, is to be in the becoming.  Still, always arriving.  We’ve been still, always arriving since we left the ennui of Paradise. We throw questions, try to dominate, cure. We try to stare down the enemy though, as if in a mirror, we’ll see our own face in its acts of aggression.  Learning to love the questions themselves, rather than the answers relaxes the drive to conquer. As King said, mental freedom, illumination can move things. 

Today also on the Jewish calendar: Tu B’Shevat, festival of the trees. Today trees are sheathed in ice in New England. The sap is there, held in tension, in suspense, waiting, always arriving.

Jill Pearlman, MLK, Always Arriving

I don’t know about you, but I process confusion by getting my ass into a chair and my pencil onto a page. So when the video of the young man staring down the Native elder surfaced, I watched it and paid close attention to the emotions that rose to the surface in my body. I didn’t respond on social media. In fact, it didn’t take too long for me to stop looking at social media altogether on the issue. I wrote about it in my notebook. […]

When I taught high school, I spent a lot of time choosing novels that I hoped would expand my students’ empathy, help them walk in another’s life for awhile, break down some of the barriers. That’s what literature and poetry does best, it shows us how it is to be another person. I remember how hard it was for my students in a small town in Alaska to really put themselves into the place of Ishmeal Beah in A Long Way Gone or Amir in The Kite Runner. But when they succeeded, the transformation was permanent. They could not go back to their own small lives without carrying some of the lives of other people who were different than them…. and the same as them.

When I write, I try to offer my reader that same chance to step into the poem. “Did you lose someone to Alzheimer’s? Was it like this?” I offered in Every Atom. “Are you lost and looking for the way some god might be all around you? Does it feel this way?” I wondered in Boundaries.

Recently, I look at my new poems and think I am asking, “Do you love the world? Are you open to the way the crow flies across the cold sand? Are you willing to listen for the soft compression of wings on air?”

“Are you ready to have faith that what you call other is only you on a different day?”

Erin Coughlin Hollowell, On a different day

So I am up and out the door. But the blood moon has rolled over and pulled the thin blanket of clouds with it. The sky reflects a sickly orange spill from the green houses in Bore.

I feel that I’ve written that sentence before. I’ve written about how we impose on the world.

But still, this morning was once in a lifetime.

Sporadic hail through the tree branches.
The dog tugging the lead,
still unlearning to hunt. 

Ren Powell, January 21st, 2019

In the end, all that mattered was blood
relations, forgiveness, love. In hospice, I left him alone
the night before he died. Still thought he’d walk

out of that place. The nurse said he was afraid on his own
in the dark. Even with opiates, he couldn’t find a way to sleep.
He asked for me. I drove right over. He stopped breathing that day.

There was a blood moon, auger of end times, in the days
before his death, a lone orb pointing the way,
an opening of sorts, a door for him to slip through, quite easily, on his own.

Christine Swint, Driving My Father Through the End Times, a Sestina

After her tea she gets
the big pot and scrubs vegetables for soup.
Her knife is rhythmic against the cutting board,
her felt slippers scuffing from counter to stove
and back again. I see her mouth move sometimes
as she sways, mincing, mincing her life.

Sarah Russell, Mornings after breakfast

Ever since my daughter planted cover crops in the fall of 2016, I’ve been fascinated by winter rye. How tall and glorious it grows. The subtle colors of its ears. The Catcher in the Rye, and the delicious homophone with wry.

Although it’s almost February, I finally ordered the seeds, and this morning went out to plant. […]

And while I’m out in the dirt, I have time to think about writing, think about how messiness gives the eye and the mind nooks and crannies to explore. How it feels to dig in and turn over, to break the blockages apart, to weed through the words. How the rake finds new roots and clumps get rid of. Sometimes I get an idea for a poem.

This morning, I thought about how I’ve been working on a poem that complains about those people who say home-baked bread can’t be “from scratch” if you don’t grow your own wheat–and here I was planting rye! And I thought about how it’s better to experiment–and risk failure–in a poem, just as this rye patch may fail. This might be the shortest diary ever. We’ll see.

Joannie Strangeland, The rye diary

It’s been two snow & ice storms, four poems submitted to one venue, plane tickets to AWP19 bought,  more presidential candidates announcing than I can remember, lots of reading and lots of writing since my last confession. […]

Going through another of those writing funks where I am not happy with much of what I put on a page. Of course, this is not the first time this has happened and I confess that I am well aware that it will happen again. I’m writing a lot trying to push through it. It’s the only way I know to get back on track. Still, it is frustrating when this happens and you wonder if you will ever put another poem on a page that you are happy with.

Michael Allyn Wells, Confession Tuesday – Federal Workers on My Mind

We can get so hung up on not writing that it makes us anxious and can block us. In a recent issue of Mslexia, poet Tara Bergin says that to combat the terrible fear of starting a poem, instead of saying “You’re going to write a poem tomorrow”, she leaves post- it notes for herself that say things like, “Read such and such an article and take notes” and other notes reminding her to read different things. This means she’s always got something to do and is not failing because she isn’t compiling an actual poem. I did something like this on the long haul towards my PhD – lots of notes to self on my desk, in books and on my phone.

My insomnia is a thing I don’t necessarily like but have come to accept. so in the particularly fevered early hours of PhD days, I made it a thousand times worse by making visual Insomniascapes on my phone -tiny images of me placed in surreal landscapes, or just the landscapes themselves. These were places I knew and ran or walked around to clear my head or to think more but the various apps made them nightmarish. This was possibly a useful kind of displacement. I’ll never really know. Maybe I ought to write poems to accompany them. Even though I wasn’t writing words there but I was still “writing”. The practice was connected with certain emotional and psychological states and was undoubtedly a creative one which was linked with writing.

Pam Thompson, “Writing” Towards Writing

It’s been really helpful to read these posts by poets writing about how they find their way into poems:  Writing” Towards Writing by Pam Thompson and fearless creating by Julie Mellor.  As well as containing useful and practical advice, the posts are a comforting reminder that I’m not alone in finding writing hard going at times.  I have a poem that’s been kicking around for months.  It’s there because I realised that another poem I was writing was really two poems.  So I managed to finish poem one but had these scraps of ideas, lines and words for the second poem.  I suppose it’s something like knitting a jumper and finding there’s some good wool left over that it would be a shame to waste.  Or realising you bought too much expensive wool and that it would be plain wrong to leave it lying around going to ruin.  Do you understand the kind of nagging feeling I’m left with?  All January it’s been going on and January hasn’t been the best of months to begin with!

Josephine Corcoran, Finding your way into a poem

I’ve been experimenting with combining sketching and poetry writing, and last night, I took a larger leap.  I had been looking at an old manuscript, and I was intrigued by some of the images (not all of them mine–I can trace at least two of them back to this poem by Luisa Igloria).  I started with those images and wrote the words of the poem.  Then I sketched a bit.  […]

These new creative directions come with questions.  Do the poems work without the image?  Is there a market for these poem-like things with images?  As I continue to do them, will a narrative arc emerge?  As images continue to make an appearance, should I read anything into them?

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, When Sketches Meet Poems

Day Three: Thursday, Jan. 24:  This day began later than the others thanks to a dentist appointment. (Apparently, after 40 everything falls apart, even if you’ve been taking relatively good care of your teeth.) I could still sip coffee with half my jaw shot up with Novocaine, so I trekked to Starbucks despite the late start.

Sure, it’s totally a cliche to be a writer working in any coffeehouse, let alone Starbucks, but cut this working mom of three some slack, okay? At $6 a day for coffee and a bottle of water (+ tip), with free WiFi and a corner seat next to an outlet, plus the ability to focus for three solid hours without the distractions of home or the office, it’s probably the most convenient and cheapest residency a poet-mom can get.

And even — or maybe because — I’d arrived later in the day, I stayed later too, (the Starbucks baristas must love my loitering ass) and finished a solid draft of the review. I concentrated on the beginning and writing about all of the parts of Esperanza and Hope that make it worth reading and found quotes to demonstrate and by the end of the day I was over-caffeinated, under-fed, and more than a little grumpy as a result, but very satisfied that I finished the week with a completed piece of work.

Sarah Kain Gutowski, Micro-Sabbatical 2019

Delighted to receive my copy of “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” a new short story published by Faber & Faber that Sylvia Plath wrote when she was 20 years old, and Mademoiselle rejected. She didn’t work on the story again for two years, and when she did, she diminished the mystery and darkness of it. A reminder that we, as writers, often let editors guide what and how we write way too often – and just because something is rejected, doesn’t mean it isn’t good. She was just way ahead of her time. This story seems today, Murakami-esque, in the school of magical realism or symbolism – some resemblances to the story of Snowpiercer, in fact – at the time, it must have been very surprising reading indeed. I wish she had been encouraged to write more short fiction – this piece shows she had a real talent for it. One more lesson from Sylvia: don’t let editors discourage you from writing something different, or something people haven’t seen before. Or, in modern parlance, F&ck the haters.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Midwinter Sun, Four New Poems up at Live Encounters, Spy Animals, and Plath’s New Book

One thing that is interesting about reading some of the lesser-known or recently translated Tang poets (e.g. Meng Chiao, Li He, Li Shangyin) is the realization that, beyond the Li Po–Tu Fu–Wang Wei axis, not all of the Chinese poets were as focused on the clarity of the image the way these (and some others) often were.  From the standpoint of English-language poetics, we tend to see Li Po, through Ezra Pound’s translations, as the avatar of imagism, though he also wrote poems of mystic journeys that veer into the surreal and dreamlike.  […]  But the emphasis on the imagist “thing” has until recently tended to leave a lot of other Tang-era poets out of picture.  A. C. Graham began to remedy that somewhat in his Poems of the Late T’ang (1965), and in recent years, further translations of individual poets have been more frequently published.

The latest of these is the work of Li Shangyin (813-858), translated by Chloe Garcia Roberts (New York Review Books, 2018).  This volume includes not only Roberts’s translation of approximately 50 pages of Li’s poetry (with facing original Chinese), but also the versions by Graham and some by Lucas Klein (most of which are duplicate poems, making for interesting comparisons).  Li’s style is at times naturalistic and imagistic, but more often allusive, metaphorical, and, like Li He’s, surreal.  His work has historically been considered extremely obscure or, as Roberts puts it in her introduction, “unknowable and elusive . . . almost baroque, opulently layered with distinct mythological, historical, personal, and symbolist imagery” (xi).  This, of course, makes him difficult to translate. […]

Perhaps of use is an ars poetica, which begins,

At dawn, use clouds
To conceive the lines.
In winter, hold snow
To divine the poem. (33)

Mike Begnal, On Li Shangyin

I’m thinking of the whole complicated continuum from Pastoral poetry to the current imbroglio of ‘eco/environmental poetry’. I’ve been wrestling with this ever since I read Yvonne Reddick’s tour de force of exegesis in Ted Hughes: environmentalists and eco poet. I think I lost my way in the second chapter in which she summarises the sects and subsects of ecopoetry criticism: the topological, the tropological, the entropological and the ethnological. There are probably more by now, but they didn’t help me to entangle what I think of as ‘nature’, living as we do in a land where every metre has been named, walked, farmed, exploited, fenced, walled, built on, abandoned and reclaimed. All I know is that is if we continue degrade the ecological balances of the world it will die. The earth will get over that. It doesn’t care. It’s already gone through four major extinctions, not least being the one caused by the emergence of oxygen in the free atmosphere. It doesn’t care for us. But it seems obvious that we need to care for it if we care anything for ourselves.

When it comes to poetry that concerns itself with the natural world (and I’ll strenuously avoid that capitalised cliche Nature) I guess my first big eye-opener was Raymond Williams’ The country and the city which was my introduction to the idea that words like that are culturally constructed, and go on being deconstructed and reconstructed. Very little of the poetry we were given at school concerned itself with the city and the urban. It was pastoral, nostalgic and often sentimental . Poems like ‘The deserted village’. Poems like ‘Daffodils’. It took me a long time to work out why I distrusted ‘Daffodils’ but the clue’s in the first line:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

The first word; I. It’s not about daffodils, is it? It’s about the poet and what the daffodils can do for him as he wanders (ie purposelessly) and lonely (ie in self-elected solitariness) as a cloud (ie diffuse and without responsibility). It’s what I thought of when I heard Gormley’s phrase ‘ a pre-narcissistic art’. He did a revolutionary thing, Wordsworth. It’s a shame this poem is what he’s chiefly remembered for by folk who aren’t that interested in poetry. He opened our eyes to a power and loveliness beyond the bounds of a predominantly urban and urbane culture.

John Foggin, Green thoughts, and a Polished Gem: Alison Lock

“Nature poets” can be fierce, asserting the need for stewardship of our blue planet; poets who write happiness well understand–and convey–that pain and sorrow remain our companions in life. That does not mean a focus-on-the-positive Pollyanna attitude. No–to compose poems that show us we have every reason to love what we encounter takes bravery, because we so often fear what the world offers. To do so takes deep acknowledgment of suffering, not just a glancing nod, but compassion. The poet may not “behave well” in his or her own life but has the practiced gift of observation and enough craft to show the reader difficult perspectives.

Sometimes, gladness and optimism and beauty get obscured by experience and griefs. Next time that happens, maybe turn to poems?

Ann E. Michael, Remembering joy, redux

I just finished listening to the podcast “On Being with Krista Tippet” where Tippet interviews Mary Oliver. I am still in the glow of Ms. Oliver’s voice, her words, her generosity. It originally aired in October 2015 and so was conducted in the last years of her life when she had left Provincetown, Massachusetts after the death of her longterm partner, Molly Malone Cook.

One of the many things that I jotted down while listening to Oliver is:  “Poetry wishes for a community.” She also spoke about “the writer’s courtship” and the importance of creating time and space in one’s life to write — preferably while being outdoors. […]

Here is what I know: poetry needs community; it thrives when poets come together to write, to share ideas, to acknowledge the poetic voice in one another. These retreats always leave me feeling nourished. I do not know what I would do alone in a garret unless I had my poetry community to gather with in early autumn and late winter.

Susan Rich, Poetry Wishes for a Community — Mary Oliver, Poets on the Coast, and Groundhog Day Writing Retreat.

I’ve been reading about the art of wood carving in David Esterly’s fascinating The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making. The author said several things of interest to me as a writer.

Here’s one that echoes Rilke’s idea of “being only eye,” that is, looking at something so intimately that “self” consciousness falls away but something of the deeper self rises up. Esterly writes:

“Once I gave lessons in foliage carving. I proposed to the students that we reject the idea that carving should be a means for self-expression…The assignment would be to carve a laurel leaf, a leaf of extreme simplicity. I asked the students to throw themselves entirely into the leaf, seek its essence and express only that, putting aside their personalities and carving only with hands and eyes…At the end of the day? There were eight individual leaves, some more compelling than others, but each distinct from all the rest…Trying to express the leaf, the carvers inadvertently had expressed themselves. But it was…a self-expression…from a union with their subject.”

I talk about this a bit when I lead writing workshops at an area art museum. I ask people to give themselves over to looking, and then, by challenging them to write constantly in a timed session, invite the inadvertent utterance onto the page. In this way we give ourselves the chance to surprise ourselves.

Marilyn McCabe, Whittle While You Work; or, Considering Wood Carving and Writing

The passing of Mary Oliver, and the subsequent news articles and social media messages about her, made me realize something about contemporary poetry. There’s so little joy in much of it.

The range of emotions and experience available for poets is limitless, yet the predominant themes in journals and books makes it seem like poets choose to spend more of their energy on the darker side of the spectrum. Now there’s a lot to be depressed about today and a lot to be upset about. Clearly social and political issues influence, and sometimes dominate many poets’ work. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Good writing, whether it concerns tragedy, anger, sorrow or grief, is still good writing. And as I said in a previous post, pain lends a poem a kind of emotional energy that’s useful for a poem. In fact, I think negative emotions are easier to drive than positive ones. But that doesn’t mean that every poem has to feel like a gut punch.

Grant Clauser, It’s Not All Misery: What Mary Oliver Taught Us About Joy

When the moon turned red, so many more stars appears and everything had that crisp look which is hard to explain but the night sky felt as if someone had used the “sharpen” tool in Photoshop, making sure each pinprick of light was detailed and perfectly placed.

As the eclipse went on, I thought–I should be writing. I have this weird superstition about monumental moments–New Year’s Eve, lunar eclipse, birthdays, solstice, Day of the Dead, etc–that I should be writing on these days because it’s a nod to the universe that yes, this is my passion and if you see me writing on these days, it means it’s what I should be doing with my life (and hey universe, if you see this, send me some good luck and inspiration too). 

I realize this doesn’t really make any sense, but it’s a strange belief I’ve carried since I was younger. On New Year’s, let me start the year by reading a poem or writing one, on my birthday, let me be laughing so it carries on through the year.

But during the lunar eclipse, I realized that even though I wasn’t physically writing a poem, I was experience one. I was in the middle of a poem looking out. Insert shooting star. Insert the moment you hear your neighbors laugh because they are out on their patio with a drink watching as well. Insert telescope zooming on a crater. 

I now want to write the poem to create the feeling I had on Sunday. I want to be lost in a poem and not know it’s a poem. Maybe that’s life. Maybe it’s when we’re mindful. Maybe this is something I need to think about more when the reader is reading my poem, is she lost in the poem and looking out, shooting star filled, or is she just lost? 

Who knows if we are the poet or our life is the poem? Who cares to find out?

Kelli Russell Agodon, During the Super Blood Wolf Moon Lunar Eclipse, I Find Myself in a Poem

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