Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 11

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.

This week: aging, mortality, ambition, procrastination, and books; preparing for the AWP; preparing for spring.


I don’t remember the first time I read W. S. Merwin’s work. I feel as if his words and spirit have always been with me. I do remember the first time I met him in person. Another student poet I knew, Andie, from Pamela Alexander’s weekly poetry class (held in Pam’s living room outside Central Square) had heard that Merwin would be at Harvard for a reading and reception. This very quiet poet and total rule follower asked me if I would attend the reading with her — and then crash the reception.

My friend and I (young, awkward, and brave) sidled up to the very small group where Merwin was chatting and joined in. Was it a Harvard Review event? The fancy pants people (dresses and heels and perfect make-up) stared at us. We did not fit in. My friend addressed Merwin telling him in a flash flood of words how important his poems had been to her, how they allowed her to believe she had permission to write her own. Andie went on for awhile. I had never heard her talk so much.  And when she was finished, perhaps believing that we were both about to be ejected from the premises, she stepped back. And then I remember — as if it was not 34 years ago though it was — Merwin smiled broadly and said, “Thank you. That makes me feel useful.”

And there was no doubt that he meant this. Andie’s effusiveness, her awkward praise, visibly filled him with a humble gratitude. There were so many ways the conversation could have gone but this gentle thanks from Merwin altered the universe of poetry for me. This poetry god had just ambled down the mountain and spoke to us as if we were his trusted friends. He was the only one in that stuffy room who welcomed us in and made us feel as if we had a right to inhabit the poetry world. Or at least try.

Susan Rich, Remembering W.S. Merwin (1927-2019)

At 76, I’ve lived longer than anyone on the male side of my Dad’s family (and all his sisters, too). Sometimes I’ll do the maths, and think something like, “well, with a following wind I could probably have five or six or seven years left. Four would be good. Every day’s a bonus. You’re a lucky man.” It’s not for a moment depressing, but it’s made me notice that I’m reading poems I might not have taken much notice of before. Life enhancing poems that didn’t seem that relevant or interesting at one time. Your stories will be similar, I imagine. When I was in my 30s and my Dad was dying I found myself reading and re-reading Tony Harrison’s sequence of sonnets from The school of eloquence… Book ends(especially), Continuous, Marked with D.They gave me a vocabulary, a language to shape my grief. In the break-up of my first marriage, and in finding a new love, it was A kumquat for John Keats, that midlife thankyou for coming through, for love, for survival. I remember him reading it when it had just come out, the relish with which he read the lines

I burst the whole fruit chilled by morning dew
against my palate. Fine, for 42

I loved the way it came after:

Then it’s the kumquat fruit expresses best
how days have darkness round them like a rind,
life has a skin of death that keeps its zest.

I saw him reading last summer, still going strong at 80. And I wondered how those lines sound to him now. I think he might give them a wry smile. It’s the same kind of wry smile I reserve for young men’s poems about their imagined end. Rupert Brooke, for instance

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England……….
a pulse in the eternal mind, no less

I don’t imagine for a moment that he had any intention of ending up like that; he just thought he did. Since he never got to the Front he never got to rethink it, unlike Sassoon, or Rosenberg, or Owen and the rest. But I’m pretty sure it spoke to me differently when I was 16, when I believed sincerely (because of the H Bomb) that I’d not see 21. We read who and where we are. We change and the poems change with us.

John Foggin, Staying Alive: me and Mr MacCaig

In 62 years this body has become worn;
Lumps and bumps and bald spots. Aches.
Places that hurt and I’m not sure why.
Other things have changed with age, too;
I spend more time thinking about the sun and moon,
The trees and watersheds.
Much less thought goes to the curve of a shapely thigh.

James Lee Jobe, ‘In 62 years this body has become worn’

I have been reading Hayden Carruth’s poems, admiring the breadth of his experiments in styles from sonnets to jazzy free verse to prose poems and extremely short poems–even haiku. One thing becomes clear after awhile: his appreciation of song, of the poem as song, of the need to create song as an expression of life and against the things one wishes to resist, even when (especially when) it is impossible to resist.

His poem “Mother” says all of the things I wanted to write about my mother-in-law’s death, and more. It is achingly honest and achingly sad and deeply loving.

After reading it, I thought to myself, “You do not need to write those poems; Carruth has achieved what you are trying to accomplish.” But we compose poems under individual circumstances and for personal reasons, and I suspect that reading “Mother” will help me to revise my own poems in probing ways.

This is why we read other poets’ work. One reason why, anyway.

Ann E. Michael, Come let us sing

It’s only as “swift” sank in, and I felt the distance of “landscape” that I “got it.”  The paved path is a road; I’m on that Interstate, if it is one, not beside it.

Because she doesn’t name it as road, and because she delays the fact that the pines are gone and doesn’t spell out why or how (removed for farming? cut down to build the road?) I have wandered inside her poem and so find myself complicit at the end in all that taking the fast road ignores or denies.

Thank you, Carol Barrett, for this reading experience.  Carol has two books, Pansies, just out, and Calling in the Bones.  I’m looking forward to reading both.

Ellen Roberts Young, Reading a Poem: Barrett’s “The American Dream”

This morning I was feeling like a dried out husk, with no ideas for writing, a poet who would never write a poem again.  I thought about approaches that often work:  taking a real or fictional character and writing a poem from a different angle or taking a minor character and giving the character a voice.  Nothing.

I scrolled through my blog posts that get an “inspiration” tag so that I can find them when I need inspiration.  I went back several years and again, nothing.

Then a line drifted across my brain:  I keep this garlic press although it only has one purpose.  I thought of my juicer, which also only has one purpose but takes up more room in the cabinet.  I was off–and I finally wrote a poem.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Of Poem Composing and Travel Fretting

I happened upon this great piece from Susan Minot this weekend and it got me thinking about not so much how we write, but how the world, in fact, opens itself up to us in possibility every day.  I’ll be sitting on a bus, or pushing a cart of books through the library, and there it is, that shimmering idea.  Or in that weird morning space between waking up enough to look at my phone to check the time and the alarm actually going off.  Admittedly, so much is lost because I didn’t write it down.  Didn’t force myself to commit it to memory for later when I had time to consider it as creative impulse.  This week, one night, I was up in the stacks and heard strange inexplicable noises a few rows away and got to thinking about the plot of a horror movie or novel where a woman is haunted by the ghost of herself from the future. She would then have to solve her own death like a puzzle.   Or a title for a poem, or a concept for a book will come to me. Friday, I was tweaking the dgp website and for a second “&nsbp” or “non breaking space” seemed like a great title for a book of poems written in html code style.

Kristy Bowen, sometimes the world writes itself

In a desert zoo, a jaguar slashes a stupid tourist who felt entitled: all I can think of is her cage, her pacing, her desperate desire to kill something. I nightwalk on ice, in dark, on thickly beaten-down snow. It’s exhausting, how fast it slips out of our hands, claws, teeth. How hungry we are. To be ourselves. All things are happening at once, they say, as though this is news.  All the endings. All the beginnings. Vitality and decay, simultaneous.

JJS, March 10, 2019: jaguar stars

If we’re to be nothing after death
let it be nothing like nothing on,
like a dress you take off
on a very hot night
to feel the slightest breeze,
a dim light that gives you goosebumps.

Magda Kapa, Like Nothing On

I took the train from Paris to Chartres.  It was a Friday in Lent, and on those Fridays, they take the chairs off the Labyrinth, which is designed right into the cathedral floor.

Not too many other people there.  I walked it.

Later, I wrote this poem:

Thin Place

I walk the labyrinth at Chartres.
The subtle knife can cut the veil.
I hear the whisper on the other side.
I stretch my hand and touch the air.

The subtle knife can cut the veil
where walls are thin as plastic wrap.
I stretch my hand and touch the air.
Heaven and earth just feet apart

where walls are thin as plastic wrap. […]

Anne Higgins, On this day last year

The picture of my cats contemplating the excellent Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing is here to inspire some pre-AWP reading – of course you’ll come home with a bunch of new reading material, but I’m trying to warm up – trying to place a review of a new book, Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic, (excellent!)  and I’ve been trying to mix up my feminist reading material – sometimes being outside of academia I feel I miss out of some books that are familiar talking material in the academic world, and this book is one of them. (It was mentioned heavily in Sophie Collins’ Who is Mary Sue?) It’s a fascinating, fairly easy read, sharp and funny in places. Joanna is a science fiction writer as well as a critic, so I’m going to look for more of her work.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Getting Ready for AWP, Part I: Schedule, Packing Tips, And How Not to Panic

Speaking of the bookfair– The bookfair has become SO LARGE, you actually need to spend A LOT of time there… AND it’s worth it.

Here’s why–while sitting in on a panel, may feel like “wow, I am learning important things,” walking around a bookfair actually connects you with people and publishers and poets and presses. You will make connections, you will learn about the presses you want to publish you, and you will meet the editors behind the scenes.

This is SO important as a poet or writer. You will have the opportunity to hold the books they publish, look at the covers, read the words and decide if this is a press you’d want to have publish your work. 

So take the time. Buy books. Support presses and poets. Look at the books and educate yourself in what kind work presses publish. Ask questions. Present your best self. Be professional. Learn about all the presses and what they do.

Kelli Russell Agodon, AWP 2019: Tips from an Introvert #AWP2019 #AWPTips

Looking awkward is one of my natural gifts. I probably look awkward in photos because I am awkward in real life. Like the time I was attacked by vegetation. Or the time I threw myself into a cute boy’s locker while trying to play hard-to-get.

But now, to my horror, I’m told I need an author photo to promote my new book. Although I successfully eluded requests to put my picture on the back cover, I’m told I need such a photo for publicity materials. Whaaa? This is my third book (or fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count) and I’ve never had to assemble anything resembling publicity. But book reviewers, apparently, want to check the flesh-covered skull I smile from before they consider cracking open a copy.

In an effort to put this off longer, I have procrastinated by looking up what sort of photos truly laudable writers have gotten away with over the years. [Click through to view examples.]

Laura Grace Weldon, Author Photo Angst

I’ve been making a lot of stuff lately, not just found poems but collages to compliment them, even a found poem in a box (see below). I loosely term all this stuff ‘composite fictions’ and last week I started to realise I’d got quite a number of these pieces. So, I’ve created a gallery page on this blog where you can view them under that heading.

Sometimes, the cutting and sticking has felt like it’s taking over from the poetry all together, but I’ve kept at it, in the belief that that you learn through doing, and completing, things. That’s not to say I’m happy with every finished piece, but completing is a stage in the process. Unfinished work makes me feel uncomfortable. What would it have been if I’d got round to finishing it? Good or bad, I’ll never know – unless I complete it. And it’s reassuring to be able to put one project aside in order to concentrate on something else, then go back to the first one later.

Julie Mellor, Side projects and procrastination

Not really a blog post but an ageing woman cycling on a static bicycle half crying, half laughing listening to an old George Michael song and thinking that she used to imagine George was singing to her about

oh there was so much unrequited love in those days! and she never imagined anyone wasn’t straight, she was very young

now Paul McCartney is duetting with George, she didn’t know about this version, the wonder of spotify, looking sideways through the windows she could almost be cycling down a country lane

it would be a good idea

Josephine Corcoran, Not really a blog post

What’s it all about? The tendency of “life” to want to live in the now and onward. The meaning of life? Well, I don’t think there is intrinsic meaning to this random fallout. You want meaning? Make it yourself. We just flail around, a bunch of bacteria and dividing cells, and then it’s over. Well, except for the bacteria.

Which brings a certain amount of perspective on the idea of success, something else about which I’ve been thinking.

I’ve tried a number of pursuits in my life. Had a number of ambitions, both realistic and outlandish. Numerous fancies. Many dreams. One by one, all these things fall away. Pursuit falters; ambition lapses or faces the grim reality of oh-just-forget-it; dreams, well, dreams are forgotten, tossed aside with regret, relief, bitterness, or remain clutched in the hand like a magician’s coin, invisible but caught in the fingers.

I thought I’d be this thing, do that thing, or be that kind of person. With each passing life phase I’ve tried to get clearer who I am, what I’m here for, and how I define success. It’s an ongoing project.

Marilyn McCabe, Pass Go; collect $200; or, On Success…or Successishness

I am always smoldering
like a stubborn campfire
or a pair of new lovers
two months into their affair
I am not a flickering candle
fearful of the wind
or even a strong set of lungs
I cannot be snuffed out
blown out

Bekah Steimel, Lit

Look, Mom, he’s taking up

needle and thread to be like me, and I’m
taking them up to be like you, to finish
the canvas you started. Isn’t that what

we all do, in the end: add clumsy stitches
to the unfinished tapestry of generations?
He’s trying to make something beautiful

from hard work and yarn. I told him
I’m proud of him. I told him
wherever you are, you’re proud of him too.

Rachel Barenblat, First letter

This morning I dawdled more than usual and was a half-an-hour late to hit the trail. But it is spring now, and the sun is catching up with us. For now, a half-an-hour is the difference between running in the dark, and running in predawn’s pink and blue watercolors. Next month the sun will beat me to the trailhead every morning.

The lake is still edged with ice and roughly textured in the soft light.
The ducks’ calls can sound like mocking laughter, but I no longer mind.
They are a promise (and a reminder) for the day to come.
Let it come, and go – and keep it easy.

For now, there are sunrises.
There will be sunsets in the autumn
when it comes.

Ren Powell, March 11, 2019

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