Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 31

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, lamentation and celebration—like every week, I suppose, only thrown into sharper relief by current events. But mostly the joy of reading and writing poems.


America is now a map of lies, a map of bigotry. Perhaps it always was, and I just didn’t see it. It is easier to buy a gun than it is to find a safe place to live. If you hate the right people, the bulk of the population will love you; your hatred will be admirable, like an achievement. If you hate the right people, the brown ones, the map of lies will unfold at your feet. At last you will have a place to go where hate is love, where servitude is equality. The collective hatred and bigotry will take on the shape of hot air balloon to lift the true believers up to their make-believe heaven.

James Lee Jobe, prose poem – ‘America is now a map of lies’

I’ve curated a new prayer for Tisha b’Av that interweaves quotes from Lamentations with quotes from migrants and refugees on the United States’ southern border today. In reading the prayer aloud, we put the words of refugees — parents separated from their children; children separated from their parents; human beings suffering in atrocious conditions — into our own mouths. May hearing ourselves speak these words galvanize us to action.

Here’s a taste:

They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’

I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.

For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son?…

The prayer is online (and also available as a downloadable PDF) at Bayit‘s Builders Blog, and you can find it here: Lamentations (Then and Now).

Rachel Barenblat, A new prayer for Tisha b’Av

This poem [“Your Body” by Ann Gray] confronts and unnerves because, unlike the Victorians, we have removed ourselves from physical contact with the dead. Some of their customs persisted into the 1950s. As a child I was shocked when a classmate of mine in Primary School, Geoffrey Brooke, died of meningitis (none of us knew what that was; just that it was frightening, that it could visit any of us). More shocked when his mother invited us, his 8 and 9 year old classmates, to come and see him laid out in his coffin in the single downstairs room of their terrace house. When it came to it, I stayed outside. Some of my friends went in, and when they came out they would say nothing about it. Not then, and not later.

When my dad died, and years later, my mother, they were whisked away before I could see them. They vanished.

I wonder what I ever made of Sassoon’s line from The Dugout
You are too young to fall asleep forever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.

It was just an idea, a notion. I think we too often persuade ourselves we understand. Unlike Hamlet, we are happy to conflate sleep and death and leave it there.

Which is why I need poems like Your body. One of my sons committed suicide by jumping from a high rise block of flats. The police told me that I wouldn’t want to see him, and I was too stunned to argue. I have no idea who identified him, or how, but it wasn’t his mother, or me. We couldn’t have a funeral until a long-postponed inquest was over, and his body was released. In his coffin, only his face was visible. His face was like the death mask of a beautiful stranger. It was unmarked, and he really did seem unnaturally asleep. I kissed him, but he didn’t wake.

Years later I had to go with my partner to identify the body of her ex-husband in the morgue in Wakefield. It was so bizarre, so unreal, like a piece of theatrical still life. I thought I would never find words for it and maybe I shouldn’t try. Now I know I was wrong in that, as in so many things, because of this lovely, tender, terrible, astonishing poem. 

John Foggin, Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray [Part One]

We text. She sends me Poké gifts,
and I say thank you. She says for what, and I flash
my phone so she can see we’re both in the same app.
We roll our eyes at the same time. We drip. We drift.
We cheered the drag queens, hot sun on glitter and sequins.
Drag queens still dance, music pounds, but us? We are done.

PF Anderson, After Performing at Pride

There are so many magazine and literary journals out there, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and to not know where to start. For me, Twitter is a great place to discover new poems, poets, and journals I want to follow. Here are a few poems I read recently and loved. And yes, I discovered all of them via Twitter.

“People call her Bride of. The Bride of. Of this broken man
who made a broken man from parts of broken men.”
~ from The Bride of Frankenstein Considers Her Options by Meghan Phillips, published by Strange Horizons

” —& so i am learning to call unpleasant histories by their real names—such as what i demand of love—and that i used to be a boy—to think that if this body was a prison what happened when i escaped”
~ from If the Body is a Prison-House Where is the Warden I Have Some Complaints About the Plumbing by Danielle Rose, published by Third Point Press

” In other news, this is the top. Weep for what little things
would make them jealous. I publish a poem”
~ from In Which I Am Accused of Sleeping My Way to the Top by Jill McDonough, published by The Threepenny Review

Courtney LeBlanc, A Few More Poems I Love

Away from my normal routines for ten days in Portugal, I looked at Twitter occasionally and kept seeing references to “that essay” by poet Bob Hicok. I’ll scout it out later, I thought, first busy with the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon; then laid up in my hotel room with a stomach bug; and finally traipsing around Porto, making up for lost time and calories. I arrived home late this Thursday, and catching up with other people and tasks seemed more important. Scrolling through social media Saturday morning, though, I saw a smart set of questions Paisley Rekdal had posted in response to the piece, along with a link to the essay itself (which had been a little hard to find–people clearly don’t want to promote it). Okay, okay, FINE, I grumbled, brewed another pot of chai, and read it.

The essay isn’t good, no matter what you think of the argument. It belabors its point, which is basically that Hicok is “dying as a poet” (meaning, apparently, not attracting as many readers as he used to), and while it’s good, he concedes, that writers who are not “straight white men” like him are now getting attention, and he’s grateful to have had a good run, he’s sad to lose the limelight. If a writer-friend had told me this privately, over drinks, I would have felt embarrassed for him–listen to yourself, dude! Literature is not a zero-sum game, and nobody has taken your micro-celebrity away from you! I suppose it’s useful, though, that someone has voiced all this in print. I know other people think similarly: I’ve heard the asides, and seen the facial expressions, by white writers of various ages and genders, although whenever I’ve sensed a lament like this emerging in my company, I’ve either cut it short or walked away. […]

It is certainly true that while there are more presses and contests than ever before, there’s now a larger pool of people competing for them, as well as a real hunger from readers for stories and poems from less-familiar perspectives. I’m one of those readers, and I’m very glad publishing is more inclusive than it used to be–I hope the trend continues, and as poetry editor of Shenandoah, I try to help it along. Such richness benefits everyone who cares about literature. It’s also true that I’m striving, meanwhile, for my own foothold in the scene, and I get sad about the difficulty of that sometimes. What I keep coming back to: the only way to stay sane is to make sure your writing is urgent, well-crafted stuff, and to use whatever space and advantages you have to help others do good work, too, and feel some love for it. Then, whether or not you earn a lucky spot on the stage yourself one day, you’ll feel okay about how you’ve spent your hours.

Lesley Wheeler, Sharing space in poetry (“that essay”)

So, I posted a couple of observations on that Utne reader Bob Hicok essay on Facebook (if you are interested, you can read the threads here) and thought I might develop further here. This is not just to pile on to Bob’s racist/sexist/privilege issues but to discuss other issues his essay brings up. I think he’s missing a few larger issues in publishing, book sales, and mindset.

  • Bob has won two (!!) NEA fellowships and a Guggenheim, as well as a pretty cushy teaching gig, and has published ten books. I just, sorry, don’t feel like weeping for him because I (and most of my friends) have never had any of those things. Never been in Poetry or the New Yorker either. So, you know, he needs to check his privilege before he gets whine-y. Lots of poets have never been the flavor of the month, but Bob has had a lot of time in the sun. So it was an insensitive essay in more than one way.
  • My friend Kelli is always talking about “scarcity mentality” in poetry – the feeling that because someone else gets something, you get less. She points out that it is not true, even if it feels true, and not only that, it’s destructive. I wrote a little last week about poets cheering on other poets and how important that is. It definitely makes being the poetry world more rewarding. Helping others – by mentoring or reviewing or publishing – will increase your happiness, I guarantee. Everyone feels hurt when their book doesn’t sell or get reviewed or their book or grant gets rejected – but that hurt can be mitigated.
  • What Bob is lamenting – that his books sell less, that he gets fewer reviews – has nothing to do with poets of color, LGBTQ writers, or women getting more air time. It has to do with the landscape of publishing. The print book market is very fragmented, and I’d bet that most poets are selling fewer books and getting fewer reviews because there are so many books out there now. Gen Z have their own book buying tastes and habits – very different than his generation. Instagram poets, for instance. It’s not bad, just different, than it used to be. I’m sure, say, Billy Collins is still doing fine. Book publishing in general is changing. Book reviewing is in flux, too.
  • Also, it seems strange to talk about how all these troublesome non-white-male poets are taking up space when most of the prestige poetry presses and journals ARE STILL RUN BY WHITE MEN. I was trying to name the poetry presses run by women and people of color – can you help me? Are they the ones most poets want to be published by with, or get good distribution? (People have mentioned: University of Akron Press, Mayapple Press, Alice James Books, Sundress, Two Sylvias Press. as presses led by women..I’d love to hear more (especially presses run by people of color?)
  • Most tenure track teaching jobs are still given to men. In academia in general, women have much less chance of being offered tenure, and I’m sure poets of color and poets with disabilities could talk more about their experience with this. You’ve already lucked out if you’re an older poet with a tenured teaching job.
  • I don’t know about other reviewers, but there’s a reason I like to shine a spotlight when I do reviews of poets of color, women, LGBTQ poets, and poets with disabilities. In general, these poets are more vulnerable to prejudice, so I think it’s more important that their voices are heard above the crowd.
  • What am I missing? Anything else to add to the discussion?
Jeannine Hall Gailey, Taking the Fall, A Few Thoughts on that Utne Poetry Essay, and Poetry Reviews, Sales, and Empowerment

Ammons’s poetry is a poetry of open-endedness, rather than of closed forms.  In line 121 [of “Corson’s Inlet’], he eschews the “easy victory” of traditional formal poetry (identified in the “narrow orders, limited tightness” of line 120), knowing that the deeper nature of the world is anything other than such “narrowness” of form might imply.

In some sense, poetry, of course, is inescapably form.  So Ammons admits in his conclusion to “Corson’s Inlet” that he has no choice but to try
     to fasten into order enlarging grasps of disorder, widening
scope, but enjoying the freedom that
Scope eludes my grasp, that there is no finality of vision,
that I have perceived nothing completely,
     that tomorrow a new walk is a new walk.

This statement suggests that, at least in Ammons’ view, a new poem must also create poetry itself anew, that a poet cannot simply rely on the predictable patterns of form but must allow the poem to find its own form in response to nature and the changing world it grapples with.  Ammons asserts that that world is necessarily disordered and in a state of ongoing change and that, therefore, instead of trying to show one’s poetic mastery by imposing a predetermined form over it, the poet must listen to nature, must listen to language itself, and allow him- or herself to “go with the flow” of that flux: “I have perceived nothing completely” — a nor can one ever, for all is mediated by the particular dynamics of the mind.

It is interesting to compare this poem with another Ammons piece, which is overtly an ars poetica, being titled “Poetics” (pp. 26-27).  It does very similar things.  Where, in “Corson’s Inlet,” the poem runs “like a stream,” here it is “spiralling from a center” (line 3).  Ammons opens himself to “the shape / things will take to come forth in” (4-5), yet when they do, as the birch tree in lines 6-10, it is merely or even “totally its apparent self.”  The poem, for Ammons, is not only the shape of the poem as written down, “but the / uninterfering means on paper” (17-18) — and more important is that the poet be
     available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours. (20-24)

In other words, it is not about the individual poet, the supposedly autonomous individual artist (as “great,” or what have you) but in fact more about forgetting the self, the ego, and opening up outwardly to — let’s call it the “cosmos,” at the risk of sounding over-serious and for lack of a less grandiose word.

Mike Begnal, On A. R. Ammons, “Corson’s Inlet” & “Poetics”

The last few months, I’ve been working on a more meta project, spawned by some less coherent thoughts I had when I was working on my actual artist statement. How to convey a whole world–a whole aesthetic framework, without delving into something a little more creative when it feels like you are supposed to be more expository somehow.  What wound up resulting was a lot of fun.  How to write about the endeavor of writing poems (and I use “poetry” loosely since most of my stuff takes the form of prose lately).

The subject matter of the pieces take a lot from my experience writing as a woman, of subject matter, of the academic-poetry complex.  Of desire and sex and writing.  The closest thing I can compare it to in my past writings would be this poem, which opens major characters in minor films, which touches on some of the similar ideas, but in a less specific way. Some of the artist statement pieces are coming soon in an issue of TYPEHOUSE, so watch for that to get a sampling. 

Kristy Bowen, artist statements

So I have some news. It’s kind of stellar and I just can’t stop smiling. It’s been almost a week and the effect hasn’t worn off yet. I am beyond thrilled and mega excited to announce that my book, GALLERY of POSTCARDS and MAPS: NEW and SELECTED, will be published by Salmon Press of Ireland (with US distribution). This makes this getting older thing not so hard to take. 

Over the past 20 years I’ve published four books of poetry starting with THE CARTOGRAPHER’S TONGUE / POEMS of the WORLD which focused on my time in the Peace Corps in West Africa, my Fulbright in South Africa and the death of both my parents. This book won both the PEN USA Award and the Peace Corps Writers Award. Next was CURES INCLUDE TRAVEL and then THE ALCHEMIST’s KITCHEN and CLOUD PHARMACY, all published by White Pine Press. You might notice they all seem to be on sale at the moment!

There are so many people to thank for helping make this book and its publication a reality (well, it’s not going to be out for a little while) but let me start with the main inspirations: Ilya Kaminsky, Geraldine Mills, Sandy Yaonne, and of course, the amazing Jessie Lendennie.  Sometimes the stars really do align. Or as my dear friend, the poet Kelli Russell Agodon says, maybe it was the chipmunk that came out of nowhere to stare at me for a good long while on a summer morning.

Susan Rich, Announcing a Forthcoming Miracle from Salmon Press: GALLERY OF POSTCARDS AND MAPS

One of my favorite poems in the collection – since I also mine pop culture for images and inspiration – is “Mission Dolores.” That’s the church in Vertigo where Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak when she leaves flowers on the grave of Carlotta Valdez. The poem not only summons up Hitchcock and Novak, but Dusty Springfield, Pet Shop Boys and Bridget Bardot, while noting that the 80s have become reminiscent of the 50s for the fearmongering and dread. Let’s not forget that it was nearly a  decade into the plague before President Reagan even uttered the word AIDS.

The mythology derived from the symbol might be an illusion
but not the reality in the fact that Thank God and thank you
General Motors Cadillacs are getting bigger again
so that this dreadful era becomes reminiscent of the ’50s
as if escape were indeed possible
as I walk by the Mission’s garden and all at once a stiff breeze
affects even my pompadour stiff with pomade 
and from out of the fog a long black Cadillac passes me by
and I needn’t wonder if inside the body is still alive. 


That poem was written on my birthday, Sept. 17, in 1989. It’s just another incident of synchronicity and a sign from the other side as I begin compiling my next manuscript, which focuses on my late uncle, Terry Graves, his time in San Francisco and his death from AIDS just a year before Karl. Terry and Karl were in San Francisco at the same time, and I can’t help but wonder if they encountered each other. Maybe in a poem they will.

I have a love//hate relationship with San Francisco, but I’ve been feeling the need to return. Urgently. And Karl’s poems only solidified that. It’s amazing when poetry can move and motivate you enough to want to travel across a continent. That’s what Karl Tierney’s will do for you.

Thank you, Sibling Rivarly, for bringing this book [Have You Seen This Man? The Castro Poems of Karl Tierney] into the world and making Karl Tierney immortal.

Collin Kelley, In the Castro with Karl Tierney

I love breaking words apart, especially words in foreign languages, and learning their etymology and usage. The idea of having a word warehouse in my head feels like the perfect analogy. The words all stored in various boxes and filing cabinents. I’m sure the organisation is an absolute mess, like most of my real-life storage. Items organised by need, use and more random connections rather than some systematic method. When I lived with my parents I kept my library card in a laundry basket in the basement. If someone moved it, I could never think where it should sensibly be, but I could always find it with my way. Our own systems work.

So when I look for the word ‘door’ in Finnish, I know I’d be shuffling through files of Scottish Gaelic to find it. I was just watching a video of the Scottish Poet Laureate Jackie Kay reciting her poem ‘Threshold’ to the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 2016. She mentioned that in Gaelic they say ‘dùin an doras‘ for ‘shut the door’ and that took me back to learning Gaelic in Glasgow, so many years ago. ‘Don’t shut the door’ was also one of the first phrases I learned in Finnish when my son shouted it over and over at nursery when it was time for me leave. These memories pile up on top of the word ‘door’ in a wonderful scrapbook.

It’s also how my writing works, I start with a prompt, specific or more general and I just follow it where it leads me, jumping from one image or connection to the next. I might look at crafting a poem from the idea of shutting the door in several languages just from writing that paragraph. My poems have begun to cross over into Finnish and other languages more and more as I shuffle through the collected images and memories in my brain while I write. 

Gerry Stewart, Scattershot

And then the door swung wide
and the music bloomed like a tin flower:
John McCormack singing The Rose of Tralee.
And a four-square farmer’s wife came stepping
high over the tussocks, scarved and booted,
ringing a bucket like a broken bell.

And she’s singing too, singing in a wild
soprano, keen as the edge of a spinning
slate, plaiting her voice around McCormack’s
skinny tenor, scattering the gulls and lifting
a fishing heron out of the shallows
and into the all-accommodating sky.

Dick Jones, Looking for U2…

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