Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 6

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 (deadline: February 14).

Some weeks, if I didn’t know better I’d think that the poetry bloggers in my feed were responding to an essay question in some class that everyone but me is in on. (Why yes, I do have mildly paranoid tendencies.) This week, that assignment would’ve been something like: “How might risk, difficulty, or discomfort shape a poem’s creation? Illustrate with examples from your own or others’ work. For extra credit, discuss the importance of play.”


I keep seeing myself in the center of the lake.
On a still day, and everywhere is blue and quiet – except for where I am
waving my arms about, thrashing my legs against imagined, deep threats

complaining about the turbulent water.

This is my morning meditation as my mind passes through the blue candle
towards the yellow. Yellow is equanimity. The giving and the receiving.
Secure in a sense of enoughness.

I can’t let go of this longing for spring – when the morning runs are no longer a matter of pushing through darkness and trusting that all is well though
obscured.

Ren Powell, February 6th, 2019

On this sunny morning.  I know the snow will follow.

This time next week I will be having surgery. 

Here’s a poem from my book  How the Hand Behaves:

Garden gloves huddled

in a paper bag hanging on a hook
by the window where the ice clotted
bare branches quiver
and the sun sends their gnarled shadows on the snow below.

Garden gloves clean, soft, bleachy perfume,
stained brown and green,
some holy fingers clutch each other
while they wait.

Anne Higgins, Dreaming of Spring

People losing power, icy patches where you can slip and fall or where your car can skid out of control or just get stuck. Or, you might, like me, worry about the rhododendrons and go out in your pajamas and a jacket, with a broom and no gloves (I realized too late that I needed those gloves) to shake the heavy weight off the branches before they split off.

On the other side of snow’s beauty is risk.

And isn’t that what a poem is? The sounds and images collecting, building, and balancing between a palpable beauty that can make us gasp and the tension, discomfort, fear that makes us hold our breath?

Recently, I’ve been looking at my poems to locate where that tension begins–or if it’s even there. If it isn’t, what is the poem trying to do?

Joannie Stangeland, Poem as snow

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

John Foggin, Keeping up with keeping up

It’s important, I think, to experience discomfort–it means I am facing a new task, a new perspective–that I’m learning something. I tell my students that if they are totally comfortable with the concepts in their coursework they are not learning anything yet. Education does not come without risk, whether the risks be physical, social, emotional, or intellectual. When we feel uneasy, it may mean we sense danger or sense the presence of someone manipulative, dishonest, or unkind. It may, however, mean we are simply “outside of our comfort zone.”

Tony Hoagland‘s poems offer examples of how we learn through leaving our familiar attitudes. Daisy Fried’s insightful 2011 commentary on his poem “The Change” notes the need for such uncomfortable moments. Poems Hoagland wrote as he headed toward his death from cancer at age 64 do not shy away from making the reader feel awkward, unhappy, or–in some cases–relieved, even glad. It can feel wrong to acknowledge relief as part of death. That recognition tends not to follow U.S. culture’s social norms.

I’m not claiming all good poems rile up discomfort; some poems offer joy or embrace a comforting openness; and, as readers bring their own differing experiences to the reading of a poem, the same poem that discomfits one person may appeal beautifully to another reader.

This post came about because I feel I have come to a period of discomfort in my work, and it troubles me but in a good way. I would rather feel discomfort with my writing that disengagement with it. Disengagement is writer’s block. That does not describe where I am at the moment. Instead, I feel rather as I did when I began to write and revise using formal patterns. My written expression up to that point had all been in free verse or prose, so adapting to villanelle or sonnet structure or sapphic meter seemed risky, difficult, “wrong.” Wrong for me, for the writer I believed I was, for the writing voice I had developed for 20 years.

And I was wrong about that, too! My initial discomfort aside, I learned so  much about poetry, including about my own style, through the practice of formal verse. The wonderful online journal Mezzo Cammin (formally-inspired poetry by women writers, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford) has published several of my poems in the past. Now, two more of them! Please click here.

Ann E. Michael, Discomfort

As many teachers have repeated in many classrooms, there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers. (Maybe it was there are no wrong sandwiches, just wrong condiments.) When we’re talking about poetry, or about the making of it in particular, again there are no wrong questions, but there may also be no wrong answers. The question, however, is crucial the poem’s very existence. It’s the heart of each poem.

Here’s how it works. After I’ve gotten the bones of a poem down, maybe established the situation or narrative, the shape and the rhythm, but I’m failing to find a way to bring it all together, I go back to the idea of the question. I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems. My attempt to answer the question can sometimes help me through the poem’s speed bumps or can help me navigate safely through the poem’s turn. Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader. If you ask the reader a question, they feel compelled to answer–or look for the answer.

Grant Clauser, The Poem is the Question

Last week I  mentioned that the Poetry Society had a callout for poems that take note, in some way, of 99 of the mostly commonly used words used in 40 years of the National Poetry Competition.  I wasn’t going to write anything for this because I thought it was too much of a distraction from my aim to write poems that might fit into the theme of my next book.  That is to say, I’ve set myself a loose target/goal/aspiration to write poems that sit well together, with the hope that I produce a cohesive, fluent and not too disparate book.  It’s fine to hope, right?

But then I found that I’d worked hard on a few poems during January, persevered, stuck with them even when the going was tough, and by the very end of January I seemed to have made headway – and then the snow came, so I allowed myself a diversion.  A few days later, I had a poem of sorts – but was it enough?  Although I seemed to have responded to the writing prompt, I wondered if that was all I’d done, and when I read the poem, it seemed rather flat – in fact, rather dead!

This got me thinking about the value of writing prompts and themes.  I know that some writers love them and write well from them but I wonder if I should focus instead on poems that have started from scratch, from my own notebooks.  Then again, I have sometimes started a poem from a prompt, in a workshop for example, then put the draft aside for months or even years, come back to it and written a decent poem.  Maybe it’s time that’s needed then, regardless of how the work first started.  I doubt that my poem is any good at all but I’ve sent it off.  I’ve let go of it.  Maybe my next poem will be better. Hope, again.

Josephine Corcoran, A few poetry notes

Last weekend had us celebrate Candlemas (the presentation of Jesus at the Temple) on Feb. 2 and the feast day of Saint Simeon on Feb. 3.  One of my Facebook friends posted “A Song for Simeon,” the T. S. Eliot poem that imagines Simeon at the end of life, perhaps having an existential crisis, or maybe just feeling the age of his bones. 

I immediately thought about a companion poem, a song for Anna, the prophetess who is also mentioned in the Presentation at the Temple text in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:  22-38).  But until this morning, I haven’t had time to play with this idea.

This morning, I wrote these lines:

In this temple of old bones and white whiskers,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

Then I stopped, struck by the idea of a villanelle.  I find the villanelle form to be one of the most difficult.  A villanelle needs a first and third line that can be repeated and thus can stand on its own.  The lines need to end in words that can rhyme (if you want to know more, go here).

I made a change to make the rhyming easier:

In this temple of white whiskers and old bones,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

I wrote out the villanelle structure, leaving blank lines.  I’ll come back to it later.  I wanted to write the original poem that I envisioned, without struggling with the villanelle structure.  So, I flipped the page of my legal pad, and I was off and running.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, A Poem for Anna the Prophetess

If I’m not actually writing, I try to be at least making something — a video poem, a series of drawings, some act of creativity. Recently I made a, as it turns out, rather elaborate and complicated accordion-binding book with a cover made of two small picture frames within which I made collages. (Yeah, I haven’t been doing much writing lately….)

It was quite an undertaking, and I had never made such a thing before, so it has some flaws — I folded some of the pages incorrectly and had to refold, so the old folds are still evident; I pasted some of the sections together on the wrong side so the pasted portion shows instead of being hidden behind the new page; an item has already fallen out of one of the collages. You know how things go. But it was a process, and a product, and therefore, satisfying.

I showed it to a friend, who said, “Oh, what are you going to do with it?”

I became confused. Was I supposed to do something with it? I thought the doing was the doing. I thought the showing-someone was also a sufficient doing. Was there more? Am I supposed to…what?…submit it to an art show…sell it on eBay?

Okay, I write poems, and some of them I send out to try to get published. Some of them I put together with others into a manuscript. Some of them get thrown away. Some sit around in their underwear for a very long time. If I was required to “do” something with everything I made I’m not sure I’d make stuff at all.

Marilyn McCabe, D…do do do..d..da da da da is all I want to say to you; or Why Make Art

The threadbare day
spun yarns from empty tales
when I could not choose

between the sea and the mountain
Both were a gateway to another life

Uma Gowrishankar, Tree Talk

Throughout her lifetime of writing poetry, Mary Oliver was largely ignored by the literary establishment.

Crickets.

I have the sense she was humored, discounted, or metaphorically speaking patted on the head for being too plain-spoken. Yet, countless readers have found a home in her words, her style, and her reverence. Some found a greater appreciation for all poetry through her work. Aside from those poets attempting only to appease the publishing gods, shouldn’t we all hope our work brings readers to greater enjoyment of poetry?

For the most part, Oliver led a quiet and unassuming life—preferring serene walks at dawn near Blackwater Pond with her dogs and reveling in the silence of her natural surroundings. Far be it for the literati to understand much less value those qualities and daily patterns when so many promote an urban ethos of steel, concrete, asphalt, and 24/7 ambient cacophony. Instead, she chose the primal sounds of birds, the surf, the crunch of pine needles underfoot and, yes, crickets. She wrote about all this and God—sometimes veiled and sometimes right up in the front seat. While I, grounded in the also overlooked Midwest and Great Plains, considered her a hero.

Bonnie Larson Staiger, Mary Oliver & Crickets

I begin to think the eagles in the tree outside my window are channeling Ursula Le Guin. When I read her essays in Words Are My Matter, the eagles trumpet from their perches in the high cottonwood trees. Trumpet is rather wrong, it is much more like emphatic flute players.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ursula had the thin squeaky voice that, incongruous as it seems, eagles possess. But rather, when I start reading these by turns serious, by turns funny, essays, I have the distinct impression of a voice from above, slightly disappointed and frankly exasperated, pointing out where I have gone astray. A voice from a being who could easily rip my heart out with knife-like talons but who will, for now, try to put me back on the path gently but persistently. 

Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Ursula Le Guin and Eagles

I’ve been a fan of horror as a genre since I was a kid, but only recently became aware of how poetry and horror intersect to provide beautifully dark verses capable of illuminating the shadowy side of the human experience. Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of horror poetry collections written by women in the world (in part, because I’ve been more actively looking for them). It’s exciting to see this develop. Below are a few of the horror poetry books I’ve read and love, and I hope to discover many more in the future. […]

Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar
Basement Gemini is a gorgeous chapbook of poetry that draws on horror movie tropes to explore female power and agency. There’s a kaleidoscopic beauty to these untitled lyrical prose poems that feel cohesive a cohesive whole. Chelsea says, “Basement Gemini was kind of born out of that idea — the simultaneous, seemingly-contradictory-but-not-really victimization, vilification, and empowerment of women that’s encountered so often in horror.”

Heliophobia by Saba Syed Razvi
Razvi’s collection tangles together darkness and light into a dark tapestry of power poems. As Razvi describes her book, “I suppose these poems are some kind of unholy fusion of museums, goth clubs, meditations, and global diaspora — all rewritten through dream logic, in some kind of ink made of the timeless decay of memory!”

Andrea Blythe, Fives Books of Poetry to Check Out for Women in Horror Month

Thanks to Gingerbread House Literary Magazine who posted this Q&A feature on fairy tales and poetry with me today: Gingerbread House Q&A with Jeannine Hall Gailey.

Ironically they posted my poem about the White Witch last week, and then it seem the White Witch of Narnia has descended on us in Seattle to install an unending winter! Seriously, we have no temperatures above freezing on the forecast for a week and more! This is much colder (and snowier) than average for us. By late February we usually have some trees starting to bloom – not this year, it seems. […]

So, with no way to escape and trapped indoors, what are my plans? Working on a Plath essay on spec, a fellowship application, and received two acceptances in the last few days (both of which, unfortunately, were stuck in my spam folder, so I didn’t even get to celebrate them right away.) I may send out one of my poetry manuscripts another couple of times, too. Still reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath’s letters, and checked Mary Shelley’s apocalypse novel The Last Man out of the library. And although January was full of rejections, I’ve had two acceptances this week. Thinking about starting our taxes, finally. If I hadn’t already gone a little crazy from being stuck inside last week by the snow, I’m sure I’ll be a little “The Shining” by the end of this one.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Q&A Up at Gingerbread Lit Mag, Seattle Snowpocalypse 2019, Snowbound (with Cats)

I’m honored and so pleased to have my poem “Three Miracles” published in the winter issue of The Penn Review. This poem is the third to be published from a series of personal poems about healing and recovery. In 2015, my son (21 at the time) was in a horrible accident in which he was hit on his bicycle by someone driving a pickup truck in downtown Salt Lake City. He nearly lost his life. Recovery was difficult, but he made it through and I’m grateful every day that he’s still here with us. It took me a long time to begin writing about the incident, and I’m hoping to soon have a home for the complete chapbook length collection. You can read the other two published poems from this collection here: Bone Music – Contrary Magazine, Resurrection Party – Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

Trish Hopkinson, My poem “Three Miracles” in The Penn Review! + no fee call & editor interview, DEADLINE: Feb. 24, 2019

twisting down the mountains
ran a river road

we knew it so well
knew it wouldn’t end

but we’re clocks
& we cannot tell the time

James Brush, Pony Express

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