Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 17

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.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes: Of making many blog posts about making books, there is (thankfully) no end. Also this week, as Na/GloPoWriMo winds down, posts about the making of many poems. Plus thoughts about productivity in general, questions about dream presses and whether there’s a distinctly American way of writing poetry, and several advanced cases of the walking blues.


What I learned from my understanding of the medieval Books of Hours and what I felt I could translate into my project were the following aspects: the text, (in my case the poems) would be an embarking point for reflection. This reflection would not be a religious one but a contemplative one, offering responses to the modern world. It would be presented in a calendar format, following the months of the year, times of day and the seasons. It would contain a linear structure  (a calendar year) but the reader/viewer could choose when and where they accessed the films. My final aim was to somehow replicate the everyday quality of the medieval Books of Hours, and to depict the ‘illustrations in the margins.’ By creating a digital project which utilizes our accessibility to screens and downloads, I could also replicate the portability of the medieval books. I wanted the colours and sounds of the films to complement the total experience just as the illustrated pages in the medieval manuscripts complement the texts in the book. The themes which link the whole collection are reflections on the passage of time; reflections on the impact of urban lifestyles on rural landscapes and the transience of memory.

Each poetry film was created ‘in conversation’ with the film-maker rather than me ‘giving’ them a poem to adapt. Sometimes we started with an idea, sometimes we started with a sound track, or static or moving images. So all the poetry films in The Book of Hours have been created in collaboration with other artists.

Lucy English, The Book of Hours

[Susan Rich]:   Who are the poets (or other writers) that you recommend? Who do you return to over and over?

[Lena Khalaf Tuffaha]: I recommend reading everything. Classics, newly-published works, what you friends are reading, what your favorite indie bookseller recommends. If a writer you admire raves about a book, check it out. And don’t just read; listen. Go to a poetry reading. Watch a video of a spoken word performance if you can’t attend one. If you know another language, even if you’re not proficient, give yourself permission to muddle through poems in that language. I’m always reading in Arabic, in French, and stumbling through original Neruda poems (in the privacy of my own reading spaces). Nourish the sources of sound and prayer in your poetry.

I’m currently obsessed with several hybrid works: Marwa Helal’s Invasive species (Nigthboat, 2019), and a book of essays, All The Fierce Tethers (Sarabande, 2019), by poet Lia Purpura. Books that have awed and thrilled and taught me in recent years include Solmaz Sharif’s Look, and Ada Limon’s The Carrying. I’ve spent this poetry month tweeting a poem a day by an Arab American poet, a love letter to my community, and in the process I’ve revisited so many treasures. Books across centuries, from Khalil Gibran to Suheir Hammad to Fady Joudah to Nathalie Handal. In my writing practice, I often return to June Jordan, to Sharon Olds. So many loves, too many to list!

Susan Rich, Five Questions and Answers with Poet On the Coast Alumna Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

I went to Jeremy Dixon’s reading from his pamphlet In Retail, a sequence of numbered, untitled poems resulting from his time working in a well-known pharmacy chain. “Most of the poems,” writes Jeremy in his introduction, “began life as hurried lines scribbled on the back of a length of till-roll in the lull between sales. As staff members were not allowed to carry any personal items while on the shop-floor, I hid these scraplets in my sock and prayed that today wasn’t the surprise-spot-search-in-the-store-cupboard day.” Now, that is what I want to read! Urgent poems that demand to be written. Poems smuggled out of a hostile environment.

The design of the book (by Cherry Potts at Arachne Press) deserves mention for its meticulous attention to the spirit and origin of the poems. The head and foot of each page carry mirror-text in a faded grey utilitarian font: very much like what one might see showing through the flimsy paper of a till-receipt. Moreover, the text at the foot of each page can be read in either direction as a found poem running through the sequence.

Ama Bolton, Bristol Artists’ Book Event 2019

I didn’t know what she was:
that brittle, reed-like,
human-like riddle.
A paper whisper.
A burn.

She made an ark
for a language the color
of loneliness.
Words rushed to her.
So did the clouds.

Romana Iorga, Alter Ego

This mind map was on the wall near the entrance to the exhibition of Eva Jiricna’s architecture, so I’m not sure if she created it, or if it’s there permanently. Either way, I identified with the creative process it details: the mess-ups and detours, the going in circles and the dead ends. It also made me question the way I work. Look at the right hand side, ‘work, work, work’. Is that really me, nose to the grindstone. Probably not, at least, not in terms of writing. Why? Well, things get in the way, my job for example, cleaning the house, walking the dog, going for a swim, going to the pub or a gig, messing about with collages and composite fictions (a phenomenally rewarding distraction).

I used to be able to cut myself off and I probably had more focus (in terms of poetry at any rate). These days, however, I embrace distractions. I won’t allow myself to feel bad about this because it’s a way of feeding my thoughts. I do realise though, that when you’re fixed on a goal, writing or otherwise, your work has more of a purpose. You know (at least vaguely) where the writing’s going, what you want to achieve. I’ve had eighteen months or so where I’ve not been sure of where I’m heading, even though I still write and get poems published fairly regularly.  This lack of direction is self-induced; after my last pamphlet was published, I was determined to experiment, and to do something different. Up to now, I’ve let that principle guide me.

Julie Mellor, Follow the map …

I had a bad week at work, or I should say a difficult week, since, truthfully, nothing bad actually happened. It just felt bad. Like I was driving a clunker, almost out of gas, miles from an off-ramp, behind an 18 wheeler going about 40 on a 55 mph highway. And more than just slowing me down, with me watching the little red gas pump light up on the dash, I couldn’t see what was up ahead.

I have, however, kept my commitment to write a poem a day all of April, and now I have 28 sonnets sitting on 28 pages, pretty as you please, waiting for the revisions to begin. Writing is the joy, the reward. Of course there were some very disappointing rejections to swallow, and, I’m afraid, more of those to come soon. I’m usually pretty tolerant of rejections, but I have to admit that when slight faith didn’t make the long list for the Suk prize, it stung. It’s been out for almost a year now, and it feels like it’s run is over without really getting out of the starting gate. Lord, I’m full of corny metaphors today.

Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Muse with 28 Poems and an Herb Garden

The last time
I wrote daily poems
during April

you printed them
and paperclipped them
in a sheaf.

I was so grateful
that you saw me
even a little.

When I spotted them
on your bedside table
my cup overflowed.

Rachel Barenblat, April dailies

What prompts a poem, really? Probably differs from writer to writer to such a degree that discussing inspiration can be an intriguing discourse among fellow poets but not a method to instruct anyone “how to.” A poem, or any work of art, can be interpreted or reconstructed through analysis, but simply following someone else’s instructions is unlikely to lead to meaningful results.

Among my Best Beloveds are a few people who are excellent how-to writers. They can write about how to build a boat, debug a software program, light a face for photographic portraits, construct a Windsor chair, use a beading pattern to make a bracelet. This sort of work is surprisingly challenging to write well–think of how many times you’ve been frustrated by a poorly-written manual for one of your digital or mechanical devices. Good, clear, concise how-to writing requires intelligence, accuracy, awareness of the reader’s skill level, critical analysis, and a clarity of style the unpracticed writer lacks. And by unpracticed writer, I mean most of us!

After 25 days of writing poetry drafts, I cannot suggest to anyone how to write a poem. Perhaps someone with more experience in the process (such as Luisa Igloria) can weigh in on how to write a poem (she teaches creative writing, after all, at Old Dominion). At the end of this month, I will resort back to my usual process of intermittent drafts; though it’s possible that this month of discipline will stick–maybe I will be more productive for awhile. Mostly what I will need to do is to REVISE! Because with 30 drafts to work on, I can stay busy tweaking and reworking (and giving up, occasionally) on poems for months to come.

Ann E. Michael, How-to

But what does “self-sabotage” really mean for me in regards to my art and how do I avoid it? It means, if my life is falling down around me, I will still put poetry, writing, and art first. If I made a commitment to a group of friends that I am going to submit my work once a week–I do. If I signed up to be in a group where I said, “Yes, I promise to show up and write a poem each day”–I do.  If a magazine writes to me with the proof of my poems and says they need the contract back in 3 days and they need my poems proofed–done.

Yes, my house may look like a ransacked mess. I may be pulling my clothes from laundry baskets or more so, the actual dryer. We may be having appetizers for dinner or I’m eating canned chili I found in the pantry. I may be driving and be so tired I have to pull over and sleep in a parking lot for 30 minutes before I get home. I may have a list of things I need to do, appointments I need to make, but when it comes to my writing life, I will be the worker bee as I love the honey, the sweetness poetry can grant me even in the toughest of time.

And I know for me, my writing is my place of flow. It’s why I’ve been writing a poem-a-day since March (and only missed one day–Easter). It’s where I can disappear from the world, or better, take my over-the-top, this-is-terrible life and turn it into art–I actually wrote a poem last month called “My Husband Falls Down a Flight of Stairs and Lives, and I Cut My Hair.” Because all of this is fodder for our art. And sometimes the stress life is giving me actually makes my work better because it offers a tension in my poems–note: I am not asking for more stress and do not believe in creating drama or struggle for the sake of writing, I mean, if nothing was going on, I’d still be writing. BUT if life is going to be kooky, it’s going to end up in my poems…

Kelli Russell Agodon, Catching Up and Undoing the Art of Self-Sabotage

I am discovering that I can use my free time to actually disconnect from the time-is-money 24/7 network, and remember what writing was to me before all this noise. What reading was to me. What painting, bookbinding, ceramics, dancing, yoga were to me — all these things I did not need to signal to the world and find a way to monetize it to justify/signal my existence as a “deep and knowledgeable” person.

I am a teacher. And how many times have I caught myself designing an entrepreneurial project that would allow me to … continue to teach, but with a fancier title? And a sh*tload of uncertainties and risk.
 
I am a writer.
 
But I am done trying to sell that identity to anyone, or contemplating twisting my life around to it written on my tax returns.
 
At least for today.

It is so easy to get sucked back in.

Ren Powell, April 27, 2019

Sometimes I think I just submit poems to American magazines via Submittable, the portal which many magazines use for receiving work, just to get my reject rate up. I’ve had very few acceptances via Submittable in general, but of the six over the last 4 years, half are from American magazines, the other half are international magazines. I don’t seem to appeal to American writers, even the ones I approach via email. Of the nine acceptances I’ve had so far this year, one has been via Submittable and I think it was the only American one, the others have been from Europe.

I was brought up in America, studied literature in America and started writing my poetry there, but it seems I can’t write poetry that American publishers like. I wonder if I write in a British or Scottish style or if it is like my accent, a hybrid of the three with a dash of that foreign flavour that can’t be pinned down.

There are lots of styles of poetry in both groups, many poetic ‘schools’, but I’ve never been able to categorise the differences between British and American poetry. I could Google of course, find articles to give me ideas, but I’m not sure how up-to-date they will be and it is a more organic thing, I believe. There’s the language, of course, I can hear America in so many American poets’ poems, the casual, loose sound of the language. It’s not that British poetry is more stiff and formal, but there is a feel to American poetry that I can’t emulate or properly explain.

Gerry Stewart, Can you write American?

What does your dream press look like? Mine looks like this: pays royalties, does some PR for you, helps get your book reviewed and puts it up for awards. What qualities does your dream press have? Does the press help you place poems after they take your manuscript in high-profile journals? Get blurbs for you instead of making you beg for them? How many author copies does it give you? Does it give you input on the cover? Answer e-mails promptly? Helps you set up a book tour? Helps promote you on social media? Has great distribution in bookstores? Has careful editors? Tell me more about your dream press in the comments!

I’d love to see this in public conversation, because my perception is that most poets (and even fiction writers) are so excited to get a book published, they don’t think about what kind of press they want to work with and send to every contest and open submissions. Does the press represent poets of color, women, people with disabilities? That’s something I look at now more than I used to. […]

I’m thinking hard about this as I send out manuscripts for what will be my sixth and seventh books. I feel like at this point I need to think hard about what presses are a good fit for my work and would be great partners in the process. If this means I send out a little less than I used to, that’s okay. I’m hoping to find the perfect partner for each book.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, My Review of Deaf Republic up at Barrelhouse, Blooms and Studies in Pink, and Let’s Talk About What Makes a Dream Press

[John] McPhee described the process in one story of realizing that an encounter with a bear that happened, in chronological terms, about three-quarters of the way through the narrative, could serve to shape the entire piece. So, understanding that particular story as a circle, he started with the bear, and everything else led back to that moment.

It seems like a good idea to start with a bear. I find often people are committed to the chronological narrative of what they’re talking about in a poem, and can get visibly shaken when it’s suggested that they throw that chronology out the window.

I was thinking about this while reading Diane Seuss’s poem “Still Life with Turkey.” The center of the poem is her recollecting being asked, when she was a young child, if she wanted to view her father in his coffin. She said no, and the poem reflects on her role now as someone thirsty for seeing. So the poem starts with sight, not the father but a turkey in a still life: ” The turkey’s strung up by one pronged foot…” The poem lingers on the turkey for a few lines, then wanders to the memory, reflects then, “…Now I can’t get enough of seeing…” and ends with the turkey: “…the glorious wings, archangelic, spread/as if it could take flight, but down,/downward into the earth.”

The journey of the poem, like the journey of a story, should start with — and take you to — the bear.

Marilyn McCabe, Coming round again; or, THIS is the post on structure I meant to post last week

I like to read poems that hurt like I hurt,
that swell in my throat like sugar, and cut
my tongue like rosehips (red, bitter, and curt),
like black tea carves new landscapes in the mouth.
Poems that don’t fake it, and don’t have to. They
can take it, being chewed up like gristle,
and sometimes you have to put them away
or swallow whole. Standoffish ones, bristle
and glare, part bear, part ice, loping across
a bridge crumbling under their weight, and fate
alone says if the bridge falls or they pass
thru.

PF Anderson, I Like to Read Poems (A Double Sonnet)

Reading it out loud to that roomful of people, I realized that one of the great strengths of this poem is that each line ends at a spot where you’d pause or
take a breath. This poem talks, like the poet is sitting next to you in a café and relating this story. And the way he tells it, it’s one remembered assertion after another, just as you’d say it to someone: “No, / I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton, / I said confetti, and no / not like the confetti / a tank can make of a building.”

Every time I read this poem, I think about how many conversations we have like this on a national scale, in our jobs, and in our personal lives. How many white people are going around saying they know how things are and how to fix them, when they don’t know the reality at all? And how often are misinformed people trying, and succeeding, to control the narrative when they don’t know what they’re talking about? Whitesplaining (as in this poem), mansplaining, a whole lot of other splaining. When really, what they should be internalizing is “Shut up and let someone else do the talking while you listen.” This poem says that, beautifully. What a gift.

Amy Miller, 30 Great Poems for April, Day 23: “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May

Sometimes, it’s hard to determine where I do my best work.  There’s home, where much of the creative plotting and dreaming happens in places like the shower and the bed.  There’s my daily bus ride, where I come up with a lot of ideas for all sorts of projects (and also where I get the bulk of my daily reading done–obviously related).  Weirdly, I sometimes have amazing ideas walking down Michigan or waiting for my coffee on my way to the studio.  I do however, have several intentional workspaces where any number of different things happen and I’ve been musing over the right conditions under which things bloom and are constructed.

Kristy Bowen, places and spaces

We are walking, with every step
Our shoes caress the broken sidewalk.
An old song comes to mind
And when we are sure we are alone
We begin to sing aloud.

James Lee Jobe, ‘A hot day in the valley. The sun’

Ladybugs had chosen the same beach to rest
We tiptoed on the stones trying not to step on them
They and we, all helpless in the strong north wind
They couldn’t fly away and we couldn’t stop walking
Pretending that the sun was enough was difficult
Just like in the lives one leaves behind
So sunny and colourful death can be

Magda Kapa, Ladybugs at the Baltic Sea

I felt raw-boned & rusted
Dragging my hands in pockets full of scared

Pockets full of scared &
Walking a road rutted with wanting to get out

I was wanting to get out
That red dirt prison, that green-treed mess

Charlotte Hamrick, Raw Boned

So last night I had a dream that  I was visited by another poet. We drank wine, overindulged in pastries. Chatted with my wife. Listened to music and I must have taken my blood sugar three or four times in the dream. Talking shop might have been fun but we didn’t do that.  I don’t often have poets invited into my dreams for some reason but when it happens it is usually a delight. I confess usually there is something a bit eccentric that happens.

It seems that living in the now becomes harder with all the stuff in the world going on. It’s not at all easy to do and not think about worldly problems.  I hope to immerse myself more into reading and writing in the week ahead. 

Michael Allyn Wells, Confession Tuesday – Good Week for Writing & Stakes

Napoleon’s site of self-coronation
burns, but the work of daily life must
continue. I revise the accreditation
documents again. Others complete
their taxes, clean, make sure to feed
the children, the pets, all the helpless
creatures. Parisians gather to sing
the hymns we had forgotten
that we needed.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Poetry Tuesday: “Lessons from the Cathedral”

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