Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 13

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: world-building and destroying, drafting and revision, travel and homelessness… “How do we go on, heart open, in the presence of mortality?” as Jessamyn puts it. Let’s join Josephine Corcoran in toasting: “Here’s to poems, wildflowers, insects and weeds.”


My mother was the earliest form of Google I knew.  People called her with questions all the time. She kept files of clippings with financial advice, addresses of agencies, lists of experts, research findings — all updated with her ballpoint wiki. She had her travel skills to reference, her training as a registered nurse to summon, her experience with the dying to share when, inevitably, people needed her counsel.

Before the Internet, people were our search engines.

Laura Grace Weldon, Humanity is a Search Engine

I spent most of last night on Mars. All of it, actually. And the night before that. And the night before that. And the year before that …….

Colonizing Mars, actually, although that sounds grander and empowering than the experience. Let me tell you, Mars feels a lot like Kansas or Nebraska during the Dust Bowl. Well, except for spacesuits and cold.

There’s this grinding isolation, which I’m okay with, surprisingly, but it flattens everything. A numbness that comes with having a really predictable daily experience. I guess kids can adjust to all kinds of things as long as it seems normal to them. It was normal for me to study, do my chores, watch threads of wind scour the flat plains, lift the dust, and drop it back down.

PF Anderson, Mars Memories

In Los Angeles, I had to forget that entire tent city I’d seen five minutes before arriving at a gorgeous art space, Hauser and Wirth, forget the waste spaces of highway with people like driftwood, to get to the art.  The scale of homeless population reflected the west – vast, long vistas I wasn’t prepared for.  We’d landed an hour earlier.  Welcome to confusion.

The art, fortunately, didn’t exclude life – Annie Leibovitz’s retrospective was excessive and marked by raw vital messiness, mostly of another era of culture clash, the 70s, both seemingly more violent and more innocent.  The humanness of desire and struggle was poignant, marking a swath of human history.  In the maelstrom was music, drunkenness, ecstasy, sadness, communion.

It took me a while to get onto the thing about LA – the wastespaces and no-places are the thing, and the places where people gather to eat, drink, play are little happenings.

Jill Pearlman, One Big Tented L.A. Thing

There’s a story here:

Something was built.
Something was broken.

That’s the essence of story, but I have no idea of the particulars.  Make them up for yourself; the possibilities are numerous.

Ellen Roberts Young, Spring Walk and Story

I find whenever I’m in Portland and especially in Old Town, someone interacts with me–all the interactions have ended up okay, but there have been some odd moments (Note: not all the interactions have been homeless/drug user related, there is just an energy to this city I can’t describe, but it usually shows itself by feeling as if you’re in one big impromptu improv event.)

An example of what I’m talking about is once I was standing at a crosswalk and a man jumps out of nowhere, puts a cup of “water” ?? (I hope) over the head of a friend I was with and then directly in front of my face and yells, “You are hypnotized!” before deciding we were not hypnotized and wandering away. While these moments make me laugh afterward, the “that was weird” part of the trip, they remind me to tell you to keep your eyes open and do travel with a buddy, especially if you’re a woman.

Again, I have been to Portland numerous times without incident, but every. single. time. It’s something. Someone wants to dance with me on a sidewalk, someone is yelling something my direction from across the street, someone is shouting “let me hold your kneecap” out a car window, someone is blowing bubbles at everyone who passes by, someone has decided to ask random people their favorite type of shoe. It’s both inspiring and tiring. It’s “I’ll use this in a poem” and “I think we’re done here.” 

Kelli Russell Agodon, #AWP19: Need a break? My Favorite Things in Portland

On a flight crowded with sleepy creative writing professors—the kind with teaching-intensive jobs who can’t escape to the AWP convention until late on Wednesday—I probe for existential dread the way you tongue a loose tooth. No, not sore, not yet.

This surprises me, given how my children’s current transitions have predisposed us all to panic. My daughter is applying for jobs plus finishing her senior honors thesis at Wesleyan; her adviser is moody and keeps missing meetings. My son will hear about the rest of his college applications while we’re at the conference, and he’s anxious, too. I’m not actually worried about either of them, not in the long run, but suspense is keen.

This is my first AWP since stepping off the Board of Trustees and even though I have a few residual duties, I feel giddy. Or is that jetlag? On Thursday morning before heading to the convention center, I pull out a small sewing kit I’d packed, intending to reattach a button on my favorite velvet jacket. The needle has rusted from disuse and I can’t thread it. I’m having issues with orderliness and containment.

Lesley Wheeler, Time out of joint at #AWP19

Last Sunday, 3 members (myself and two others) of our poetry club, Casa los Altos, collaborated with the PoetrySlam group of our city in their annual “Grito de la Mujer” (Woman’s Scream) live performance event. This year, it was held in our Central Park.

Guatemala consistently ranks, unfortunately, as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman. This annual event invites poets from our city and the surrounding region, both men and women, to give voice to the often invisible and unspoken fears, heartbreaks, hopes, desires, experiences, spirit, anger, and more that we are often called upon to suppress. The power of the written and spoken word to shine light into places that affect us, cannot be overstated. This event is not for poetry that is merely “pretty” or that sounds “nice.” Our presenters this year talked about being mistresses, about balancing motherhood with career, about being accosted in the streets, about being young, about being men trying to navigate a world where power dynamics are changing.

Marie Anzalone, “A Woman’s Scream” Live Poetry Event

The first session I attended in the afternoon was Revelation or Resistance:  Form or Narrative at the End of the World.  I was less interested in the authors reading their works than in the discussion that followed.  It was a good discussion, but if you know me, you know that my Apocalypse Gal self can talk end-of-the-world for days and never get tired of it.  I wanted more conversation about what to do in terms of retirement planning and the knowledge that the world is seriously screwed, but I understand that not everyone has floor boards that are 2 feet above sea level.  One of the presenters did early on present information from the latest, most serious climate report that came out a month or two ago; I’ve only heard from a few people who have actually read the whole thing, and he’s one of them.  He mentioned 20-30 feet of sea level rise in the next few decades, which is a much more compressed time frame than originally thought and a much greater volume of water.

I made lots of notes of my own thoughts during this session, and they ran along the lines of future generations who will be aghast at the fact that we spent lots of time and money in fancy conferences talking about narrative form and planetary destruction and not much time actually working on the issue.  I do agree with the one presenter who observed that this slow motion apocalypse on many fronts is moving so slowly that it’s impossible for us to react effectively.  It’s not like a world war that might galvanize and mobilize us.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, AWP:  Report on Day 1

What an inspiring day! The March meeting of Bath Writers and Artists was co-chaired by Sue Boyle and Peter Reason. Sue began the morning workshop by reading a thoughtful and passionate essay by Chrissy Banks, “The Place of Poetry in a Time of Catastrophe”. Are we fiddling, she asks, while real people burn? […]

I came home with an altered (less anthropocentric, I hope) perspective and a heightened awareness of “hyper-objects”: things that are everywhere but too big to see — like anthropocentrism and other habits of thinking and feeling that lead, not deliberately but inevitably, to disaster. I think I have already demonstrated that I can morph into a fictional post-apocalyptic unicellular extremophile, but it’s time to face the apocalypse head-on and do something about it. The expression it’s not the end of the world has gained a horrible new relevance.

Ama Bolton, Of Trees and Tygers and Catastrophe

From one perspective, the idea that art needs to wallow in the ugly that we want to avert our eyes from is condescending in terms of respecting the life experiences that other people have and how they choose to deal with them.

Not everyone needs to be confronted with a mimesis of each of life’s horrors, nor do they need to be overwhelmed with expressionistic/exhibitionistic sharing of other people’s feelings in order to “understand” or “appreciate”, or feel empathy for other people.

Not everyone is healed by a performance of their pain.

Isn’t the drive to create a beautiful moment from the complexity of such an experience as real and as authentic as it is to focus on the ugly? Can’t a glam shot of a new mother in her clean sheets also be interpreted as an expressionistic portrait of the joy inherent in the moment?

Staged is staged. Regardless of the fact that we seem to unconsciously hold up the “ugly” as authentic, and the beautiful as false or narcissistic. Could a case be made for our fascination with our own flaws as being more honest than our filtered selfies?

Ren Powell, March 31st, 2019

Of course, there is no real risk. I know that. I can save each and every draft, if I want, and trace my way back if I get lost. But reason has no standing where irrational fears hold sway. What I am really fearing is that I’m not up to the challenge. No longer a careless writer of what comes to mind, no playing child, but an editor, choicemaker; which words will I befriend, what voice will I take on?

And will any of the strangers I meet like the result? In editing mode, that question rises, grim as the sun on the hot sidewalk on the walk to the first day of school.

I wonder if other people share this editing dread. It’s normal to fall in love with a fresh draft of something exciting and new. Why mar the lovely face of this beloved with some virtual red mark of the editing pen? Surely it’s brilliant as is. First word, best word. And maybe it is. Maybe it is. But I won’t know until I voyage into the process of questioning what’s there — does this belong? does that sound best or is there a better way? does it contain more vitality if I turn it upside-down? — and come to the destination on the other side.

Marilyn McCabe, Off We Go Into the Wild Red-Penciled Yonder; or The Hesitant Editor

And what do we do as writers but build worlds? I suppose this applies to poets as much as fiction writers, maybe even creative non-fiction.  Some writing may have more in common with the non-created world, may live and breathe inside it, may exist alongside it simultaneously and occasionally wander back and forth.  Things may be plucked from reality and stretched or bent into the shape, even amongst the most autobiographical work. These are perhaps the most interesting kinds of worlds, the ones that disorient you somewhere along the way, not sure where you are–in fact or fiction, and that confusion is part of the point. 

Kristy Bowen, worlds within worlds

I’ve been waiting in my writing, setting poems aside, picking them up again, panicking because I might not have the most recent draft. Sometimes, the poems grow on me, and I see opportunities for nuance, for the subtle shadings. Sometimes, I grow tired of them, convinced that they are terrible. Time for waiting is running out, with just over a month before I turn in my thesis. But I can still get close to the ground of them, inspect their stems and blades, their rhythms and imagery (and I suspect that imagery is at the root of my worries). A garden is always in revision—something for me to keep in mind as I keep working at these poems.

Joannie Stangeland, Rye diary: Day three

Once I get past the initial rush to lay out images or the plot, I love the fine tuning, the balancing of all the finer points of writing, playing with the language, weighting words by their placement, drawing out imagery. I try to keep the reader in my mind, what they need, how much I want to lead them and how much I want them to run off on their own with my words. But also giving precedence to what I want the poem to do and say. It’s a delicate act of balance above the poem while stepping within it. 

Sometimes it works and sometimes I focus too much on what I want, the ‘thing’ I’m trying to make the poem do that I force it into shape and it shows in its reluctance. This is when I need mentors, writing group companions and other readers to step up and tell me something isn’t working. I find it so helpful to have these dialogues because I am mired deeper within my own writing than another reader and often I cannot see where the problem is, even though I may have a sense of their being one.

Gerry Stewart, Finding Balance

Go easy on yourself: NaPoWriMo is a bit of fun, not another chore. If you miss a day, start again the following day. If need to take a day to catch your breath, same. Don’t write off the whole challenge because of a couple of missed days. At the end of the month, you will still have achieved much more than you normally would or had even thought possible.
Manage your mindset: The challenge is derived from NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month in November, where the focus is on quantity, not quality. Think of it as a 30-day scavenger hunt – you want to spark an idea, capture the essence of it and move on. Switch off your critical voice. Knowing that these are fast first drafts takes the pressure off. As Jodi Picoult says: ‘You might not write well every day but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’

Angela T. Carr, Surviving NaPoWriMo: Tips for a 30-Day Poetry Challenge

Among other things, I’m teaching ancient Near Eastern epics this semester. I don’t often get to do this, and it’s my favorite.

My students read the Enuma Elish. They read the Hymns to Inanna. They read my beloved Epic of Gilgamesh. We study archetypal character and archetypal story, the role of catharsis in human survival, the integral nature of creation/destruction and eros/thanatos, sacred marriages and descents to underworlds, hero’s journeys.
 
I say, and say again:

The question at the center is: how do we go on, heart open, in the presence of mortality?

Heart open. Not numb.

In the presence of suffering and death.

At the intersection of medicine and Humanities, heh.

How?

JJS, Two Years: An(other) Open Letter to my Surgeon

When Depression Talks Over Me by Lannie Stabile in Kissing Dynamite – This is one of the most expressive poems I’ve read about depression and anxiety that doesn’t slam you like a sledgehammer. No, it’s calmly desperate which is a large part of its strength. Lannie is a poet to watch.

“I remember the first time I unhinged my jaw,
            vomiting the swollen stories,
            watching them gurgle in the open air”

*

Burn Barrel by Allie Marini in The New Southern Fugitives – This poem begins with how to assemble an actual burn barrel. It caught my attention because when I was a kid in rural Mississippi, we had a burn barrel and it was my chore to burn the household trash. As the poem progresses the barrel transforms, becoming a metaphor for the poet’s own suppression. It’s so very skillfully written.

“refashion yourself

into something clean & less—become a grate, a burn cover, become hardware cloth & trap hot cinders in

your mouth. limit the risk of combustion. just swallow everything down.“

Charlotte Hamrick, First Quarter Favorites: The Poets

Never passed it on to me
who watched her pinching
pastry: butter, sugar, flour;
how it fell from her fingers,
how it fell through the air.

She tried. She did. But grew impatient
with the way the mix would clump
and stick. O, give it here she’d say.
The pastry would flake, and fall.

You need cold hands she’d say.                    
Yours are too warm.

John Foggin, On Mothers Day, for my mum, Marjorie 1911-2007

At the end of shiva I wrapped myself
in your monogrammed sable stole

and walked around my neighborhood,
blinking like a mole bewildered by sun.
Like my child, still wrapping himself
in the plush blanket from your funeral

carrying you with him from bedroom
to living room sofa and back again.
As I prepare to leave this first month
I’m still learning how to carry you.

Rachel Barenblat, Four weeks

Editing poems at night
Under the influence of hot chocolate.
Life opens like a flower.

James Lee Jobe, ‘Editing poems at night’

When I was much younger, I considered myself “spiritual.” I stopped using the term once I began a more serious exploration of my life and began to study philosophy, psychology, aesthetics, phenomenology, and consciousness more intentionally. But the crucial components–connection, relation to and with others (sentient and not), and love–those I have always understood as necessary. Even though my ego has never “dissolved” quite the way [Michael] Pollan describes [in How to Change Your Mind].

So maybe I can go back to considering myself somewhat spiritual. At this moment in life, Nature and Others matter more than accomplishments and outcomes.

Welcome Spring, welcome Spirit. Namaste, Amen.

Ann E. Michael, Book review, mind review

I’m not taking part in #NaPoWriMo as such but I am going to make a concerted effort to sit down with my notebooks every day and work on some new poems. […]

Meanwhile, we’re trying to encourage more pollinating insects into our garden so we’ve abandoned our lawnmower for the time being – although we (I really mean Andrew since he is the chief gardener in our house) have mowed a sort of path around our wild lawn.

Roll on April – here’s to poems, wildflowers, insects and weeds.

Josephine Corcoran, #NaPoWriMo

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