Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 3

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 brings an extra long and meaty digest—with posts about making it big, careerism, “the internet with its weird prying snake eyes” (R. Loudon) and much, much more—because in all likelihood the digest will be MIA next week while I’m off doing this.


The new year has certainly begun with bangs and whimpers.

During the strangely mild weather, as snow geese and buzzards return but before the juncos leave us, I have been watching the flocking behavior of starlings.

For lack of anything more relevant to write at this time, I’m posting here my poem “Liturgy,” circa 2002 or 2003, from Small Things Rise and Go. […]

We will not know peace.
Here, the caterpillar
Tires chew fields into slog;
Here a child’s toy erupts
Into a village of amputees.
Sands shift under an abstraction,
The sea grows warm.

Ann E. Michael, Peace & starlings

Time grows, after New Years, like a cauliflower–
half handsome, half deformed, blooming
at its own isotropic rate. On the 3rd we skate
towards war; a plane of travelers crashes
in Iran; Down Under, animals, mostly sheep, burn.

Did the bubbly not last long? At midnight
we’d stomped and danced, undid ourselves
like Mandelstam shaking caraway seeds from a sack.

Jill Pearlman, A Poem for 19 Days into the New Year

The poems capture truths, experiences and feelings for which ordinary prose/description/definition would fail. See what [Mary] Biddinger does here [in Partial Genius] to depict something like the doldrums or stagnation: “I frequented a desolate pie shop. The drinks were lukewarm and all songs on the jukebox were about dying. I did not do this because I thought it would make me authentic. I was lukewarm about everything, often felt war was imminent. I lived in a neighborhood full of homeowners terrified of being first to roll the trash cans down to the curb.”

Carolee Bennett, “regardless of previous circus employment”

For all that I can sometimes add to a well-turned sentence a word too far, only to have it collapse in on itself like some poorly constructed architectural folly, I have problems with language on the fly.  Listening to cornered politicians turning on the tap and shamelessly letting it flow unchecked has me barracking from the sofa.  Hysterical Oscar winners in verbal free fall, pretentious artists endeavouring to translate piles of house bricks into meaningful messages, pop stars who read a book once and now imagine themselves to be sages – all who sling words around like frisbees – have me grinding my teeth down to stumps.  This is not language in search of light; it’s language whose sole context is sound.

Dick Jones, LINGUA FRANCA.

In a book about therapy I read about the technique of replacing “but” by the non-judgemental “and” – e.g. using “he’s cute and he’s a scientist” rather than “he’s cute but he’s a scientist”. This challenges the underlying thought-pattern – the root of my stylistic problem. The underlying thesis-antithesis rhythm’s ok for representing disappointment and dashed hopes (which is why [Margaret] Drabble uses it, I guess). It needn’t be used at the sentence level so often though, even if the piece as a whole is structured along thesis, antithesis, (then maybe synthesis) lines.

Using “and” instead of “but” reduces structural detail and contrast, but opposition is the most simplistic of structures. Using “and” to make lists lets the reader decide what the contrasts are.

Tim Love, But

Most of my personal journal writing, as well as many of my blog posts, tends to be self-reflective and self-referential, often musing on the nature and challenges of writing. It’s writing about writing, or, often, about being unable to write. Why do we write? Why do many of us feel like we need to write? What do we write about? Does it matter?

After more than two decades of blogging, I still believe I should blog more. I realise it’s perfectionism what often stops me from writing publicly more. I also know that becoming a full time academic also meant being in the crossfire between my ideals for the future of scholarly communications and the conventional expectations around academic “productivity”. When time is poor, it may seem as a waste of time and effort to spend time writing in a format that will not “count” nor satisfy others’ expectations.

However as I find some rare reflective time this Saturday I would like to say I still find it essential to be able to have different channels for expression, sandpits where ideas can be rehearsed and, why not, anxieties exorcised.

Ernesto Priego, Scraps- Quick Drafts

In his book, Fearless Creating, Eric Maisel talks about completing work for the purpose of showing: ‘It may mean rewriting the first chapter three times so that it is really strong’.  He says that work is not ready to be shown if you cannot speak about it clearly, and he also suggests that there is a period of transition between the ‘working stage’ and the ‘showing stage’. It makes me wonder if I’m stuck in the period of transition. I’m avoiding the redraft, perhaps because I’m scared the novel won’t be any good when I return to it. I tell myself that doesn’t matter. What’s important is to complete it, to complete a manuscript that is ready to be shown.

Julie Mellor, Making time …

Back in the summer I decided to read Dante’s Divine Comedy, in a Penguin parallel edition with the original Italian and Robert Kirkpatrick’s translation. Many decades ago I was an eighteen-year-old ingenue in Rome, arriving by train and taking up an au pair job while speaking no Italian. My host family were kind enough to enrol me in the Dante Alighieri School to learn the language. This was my first encounter with Dante, and I’m ashamed to say it took me all this time to decide to actually read his most famous work. It would have happened sooner if I hadn’t changed course at University and ditched Italian literature. So – I galloped through Hell (Inferno), then spent around two months in Purgatory. There was so much to process. When I reached the end, I felt I needed to re-read the introduction. But now I’ve just started Paradiso – although I’m still only on the introduction, which is itself daunting. Interestingly, Nick is conducting a performance of ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ in Brighton in March, which is basically a story about a soul’s journey after death through Purgatory and beyond. So we’re been comparing notes over dinner: is there actually a Lake in Purgatory, or two rivers (as Dante describes)? Is it possible to be regaled by Demons trying to lure you to Hell once you’re in Purgatory (Gerontius) or are you impervious to that? (Dante) I have to remind myself now and then that this is all pretty much theoretical.

Robin Houghton, A chilled start to the year

Anyway, there was a Titian, a Raphael, and several El Greco paintings, but that painting is one I had been obsessed with since I saw a slide of it in in Art Appreciation Class when I was 19 – a painting of Judith Beheading Holfernes by Artemisia Gentileschi. The painting itself is striking, the portrayal of the female body in struggle amazing,  but the story behind it even more so – Artemesia was seventeen and an apprentice to another painter who violently raped her. Her father, also a renowned artist, took the rapist artist to court, but it was a strung out procedure and Artemesia did not find justice. She did, however, find the inspiration to paint her new subject – female saints and Biblical figures, usually unfairly attacked or in the middle of attack.  My art history teacher said that Judith is modeled on Artemesia and Holfernes on her rapist. The dark and light, the shadow, the blood, and the odd muscularity of the action would all make this a fascinating piece even without the history. They recently discovered a self-portrait of the artist and she did, indeed, resemble this Judith very much. I just ordered a book about her history because it deserves more study, don’t you think?

Jeannine Hall Gailey, A Week of Being Snowed In, Art Date at the SAM, and a Little Poetry Catchup

The tomb of the monastery’s founder, Luke (not the evangelist), was originally in the crypt, but his bones now lie in the tiny glass-topped coffin shown above, in a passage between the two churches on the site. Luke, known as a great healer, levitator, and worker of miracles, died in February 953, and for centuries afterward, pilgrims came to be healed by “incubation,” which meant that they slept in the main church building (katholikon) or in the crypt near his tomb, breathing the scent of the myrrh, being exposed to the oil from the lamp above, and experiencing dreams in which the saint would appear and tell them what they needed to do to be healed. I found this practice particularly fascinating, because earlier in the trip we had also been to the 5th century BC Shrine of Asclepias at Epidaurus, where pilgrims did pretty much the same thing — sleeping in the katholikon, among holy snakes that slithered on the floor, and experiencing dreams whose healing instructions were interpreted by pagan priests.

Beth Adams, A Byzantine angel, and where she came from

Countless poets imagine on a daily or nightly basis (or both!) just what it would be like to make it big in poetry. They’re convinced that they only need one major win or acceptance for their path to be cleared to stardom, for their arrival at some hidden inner sanctum to be declared. […]

[Christopher] James has gone through the process of winning and has come out the other side. He tells his story beautifully, with self-awareness in spades and zero narcissism. Making it big in poetry is a fantasy that blurs our focus on the most important things: the reading and writing process itself, followed by a search for readers. Even if we just find one, we’ve discovered real success.

Matthew Stewart, Making it big in poetry

I like the idea of traditional publishing in that it gives an editorial eye. I appreciate that extra once-over and perhaps a bit more publicity support and wider reach than doing it on your own. Also the camaraderie of fellow press-sibling authors and that feeling of belonging.  Editors work really hard, and obv. as an editor, I appreciate that.  But you could also have a friend edit your book.  You could pay a publicist yourself. (Literary presses in general are strapped–no one is doing this for fame or money.) There were a few models that were collective initially that I really liked the idea of–people chipping in to publish others’ books along with their own. So many ways of getting that work out there.  Which is why it makes me sad when I see writers who have really good books sinking money into contests they lose year after year that seem so much like lotteries.  Or worse, that they will never find their audience and give up.

You might look at instagram poets.  While I don’t necessarily like the work I see there sometimes, I also don’t like what I usually see in the The New Yorker, so there’s that.  Neither one more valid than the other, but I would argue that one is far more successful in its reach than the other.   I would take instagram fame in a heartbeat over a magazine geared toward the Lexus crowd. Someone like Rupi Kaur’s reach is enviable, if not for the work itself, but its audience scope. The academic may scoff and dismiss, but hopefully there is something we can learn there.

I do like books and presses and journals, but only moreso because they get things out there a little farther and engage me more with community.  I love my little zines & objects series, but I have only a handful of regular subscribers. yearly. I sell more online separately throughout the year and give many away and trade them at readings . I post a good amount of work on social media and submit/publish in journals, to generate interest.   But I also like putting pdf versions online to get more eyes on them eventually.  I feel like the most read thing I ever wrote my James Franco e-chap @ Sundress.   That and probably my poets zodiac poems–all of them published on instagram.  Poetry publishing feels like an experiment to find that sweet spot sometimes..and I’m not at all convinced it’s landing in the “right” journal or with the right press, but more catching an audiences eye at the perfect moment in the absolute perfect way.

Kristy Bowen, poetry and careerism revisited

this morning the wind is crawling up again so far it’s at an easy going 20 mph I’m still in bed with two cats rereading Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential because I wanted to have his voice in my head I have not forgotten what a great writer he was before his television shows and that’s how I knew him first

“I’ve asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands—using all one’s senses.”

This is very much how I feel about being a musician that I am in a secret society a strange little aquarium of skilled obsessives closed to the outside world that the sound of rehearsals the guts of the music library their stacks ceiling high and valuable the after hour parties the competition and the ache that hours of practice brings the sharp emotional pain of having a student you’ve taught for eleven years go away to school the smell of rosin in a cold church on a Saturday morning are things that the world at large cannot gain admittance to not even the internet with its weird prying snake eyes can take it away I don’t feel that way about being a poet I never have perhaps because you can fake being a poet but you cannot fake playing a Mozart violin concerto but to be honest it’s probably because I’ve never felt like I belonged to poetryworld where having an MFA attached to your name or at least a college education is what allows you access to the top tier journals and conferences no matter the quality of your work no matter that I have published five books no matter that one of those books was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize I will never feel part of  but plop me down in any size group of musicians then I feel it always and immediately ahhhhh yes this is it this is home and I am so grateful for that strange eccentric family

Rebecca Loudon, Saturnday

Nevada sunrise
a hot-air balloon floats
above the brothel

Dylan Tweney [untitled]

As I drove, I was intrigued to watch my thoughts.  You would think I’d be having contemplative thoughts as I drove to the first of my onground intensives for my certificate program in spiritual direction.  Perhaps you imagine hour after hour of prayer.

Alas, no.  For much of the trip, I found my thoughts circling back to work.  I thought about creating some sort of poem that linked runaway slaves to how hard it is to get away from modern work, but I’m not sure I can pull that off.  I always have the history of the nation on my mind as I drive through the U.S. South, especially during foggy mornings like yesterday.

I listened to the radio for much of the trip.  When John Cougar Mellancamp’s “Jack and Diane” came on, I thought of Sandy Longhorn’s recent pair of poems that imagines both Diane and Beth (of the KISS song) grown up.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Journeys

Late at night I’d sometimes catch
the Jackson frequency, hear
“Born to Run”, feel a bright
cold jetstream run through my veins,
leather under my hands.
It was always about the leaving,
movement, knowing there was something
else out there –
something besides pine trees
and kudzu, besides cruising
Main Street and parking at The Lake.

I never thought of evolution as
a by-product of time passing – or
that the 70’s would become
the 80’s, 90’s, then 2000’s,
that my teenage yearnings
would turn into been there,
done that.
I never thought one day I’d
be homesick for those damn pine trees
and my recycled hometown.

Charlotte Hamrick, Seventies

I remember a coveted ice cream cake from Baskin Robbins in the shape of a train. And a fun fifth grade birthday party with a homemade yellow sheet cake from mom that my friends and I got to decorate ourselves, thanks to food coloring and different frostings.

I like how a celebratory cake shows up in poet Natalia Diaz’ poem No More Cake Here. The narrative turn she takes at the end is especially compelling. She is remembering a cake from a celebration (we can call it that) that possibly never happened.

Diaz holds the memory of her brother in two hands, with both a firm and a loose grasp. There lies love and anger side-by-side, at once asleep and blowing up balloons. Our families will celebrate and mourn, many times together. We hold each other loosely when we have to.

Lorena Parker Matejowsky, lovely lemon birthday cake

I have a hard time sitting in front of a puzzle without trying to solve it. Don’t we all mindlessly reach down to fit the shapes together? At the doctor’s office, I’ve seen 60 year-old men slide the wooden pieces of a children’s puzzle into place.

If I can solve the puzzle, I can pin down a truth. I can have expectations. I can expect other people to behave accordingly. Puzzle-solving as an act of prayer.

There’s nothing new here. I know that.

In school we line up after recess. We sit in assigned seats. We face each other in a pleasing circle, and sometimes we hold hands. We make adjustments. Palms facing forward or backward out of habit, are silently negotiated. We are laser-cut pieces that can flip and turn: even in our rigidness we can fit so neatly into one another’s hands.

But sometimes there is a painful beauty in risking it all, trusting ourselves to improvise: upright and unbalanced, throwing our arms around one another in praise of Chaos.

Ren Powell, Performative Existentialism

The owl
knows
the night.

Wisdom
is a
soft-

feathered
flight
through

darkness
to that
quietest

of moments,
a mouse.

Tom Montag, The Owl

Unrelenting. That’s a good word to describe Karen Neuberg’s chapbook the elephants are asking, a collection that sounds a clear alarm about the environmental catastrophe that some refer to as “looming,” but that is clearly happening all around us.

The title poem lays the responsibility for addressing the issue squarely at the feet of the reader. It states,

the elephants are asking—
and the bees and the bats, the prairie dogs, the lemurs, the dolphins—one in six species—asking!
And the coral reefs, the rivers & oceans, the islands & shorelines—asking!


The poem goes through a longer list before nothing that the baby, with wiggling toes and plump arms, is asking. “Even God is asking,” Neuberg writes. With urgent work to be done, these animals and babies are asking us what we plan to do about the situation, and maybe why it exists.

The poem I liked most in the collection is called “Information,” and it starts with an epigraph by Gertrude Stein: “Everyone gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” It’s a powerful indictment, I can say after noting that I have been on phone or internet this entire day as I write this. It’s no wonder the environment has gone to hell; its caretakers are asleep at the wheel.

Karen Craigo, Poem366: “the elephants are asking” by Karen Neuberg

When I think of a chapbook, I think of a slim volume. But the poems in Katrina Roberts’s collection Lace are large—generous and wide-ranging. When I think of lace, I think mostly of the spaces, the air inside the shapes. But here, Roberts gives stitching a weight of strength and consequence, threads tightly woven, a density of images like swathes of lace, heavy bolts of it. These poems evoke the threads that hold us together, tether us to each other, tie us to the land. They speak to how life comes together and unravels, the knots that we embroider, the knots we pick apart like scabs.

In the poem “Threads,” she describes the yearning to both be free of wounds and to sustain them: “Index finger nattering a scab’s edge, lifting it to leave the hole gluey like meat,” and later in the same stanza, “As soon as it’s crusted, / it needs to be picked. Scars with scars under ooze.”

In “Ode to Absence,” Roberts evokes another kind of lace in “crackers, nets of meal, oats, and corn / moths have knit to lace, inedible.” There’s a tension between the decay, the waste, and the creation of those webs. Like the ephemeral shrouds of cobwebs, their constant haunting.

Joannie Stangeland, Saturday Poetry Pick: Lace

I’ve also received the new Hedgehog Poetry Press Cult bundle, a big pile of pamphlets that come with my subscription. I was especially looking forward to Raine Geoghegan’s new collection they lit fires: lenti hatch o yog, monologues, songs and haibun about her family’s Romany life. I had read her previous collection Apple Water: Povel Panni and was really taken by the mixture of poetry, culture and language woven into her writingIt was actually some of Raine’s poems on Chris Murray’s Poethead website that led me to Hedgehog. I was so taken by her writing and thought the house that published her would be worth looking into and it definitely was.

The new collection doesn’t disappoint. I love the colours, the sound of the Romany words her writing evokes. Each piece makes me feel as if I was by those fires listening to those stories, travelling down the roads with a warm, tight-knit family. Raine Geoghegan’s writing offers a different and welcome insight to the Romany culture than most popular media offers these days. 

Gerry Stewart, Too Tired to Think of a Title

You say tomato and I say there are far too many wine-stained pages in the book of this questionable existence. Still, one shouldn’t consider that tome a tomb. The book of life is still legible and well worth reading. 

Rich Ferguson, You Say Potato and I Say

i went for a swim
in a storm with no name
the waves were huge
there was no one to blame
no one in the sea but me
no one there but me and the sea

Jim Young, Storm swim

But what all this has brought out is this – when the news of the demise of someone culturally significant drops, why is there suddenly this frantic race to be the first to offer some sort of encomium? Alasdair Gray’s death generated a supra-tsunami of tweets and obituaries and tributes. You go on YouTube and like a rash, every video featuring the deceased is peppered with ‘RIP’ bromides. I remember as a child my father getting almost giddily excited when someone majorly famous died and being the first to announce it to us. I’m as guilty as anyone else – I mean, I wrote memorial blogs of a sort after the deaths of Marcus and Tom Leonard. But in most instances I managed to say to the face of the person / poet what their work meant to me (as if it ever mattered what I thought) while they still walked the earth.

Richie McCaffery, The RIP Race

They said that the wind would come today, son. It didn’t, but that’s alright. I have my grief and your ghost to keep me company. Who needs the wind?

James Lee Jobe, They said that the wind would come today, son.

Almost eleven months now I’ve been
writing to you, each line a monument

to memory. These poems,
the pebbles I leave on your stone.

Rachel Barenblat, Pebbles

Each street grows its people.
They ripen and wait to be picked up.

I fear that future in which I live
less than I die. Beyond the window

pregnant buildings
hide what they carry in their wombs.

Romana Iorga, On the Bus

Speaking of the weather, bitter winter has arrived! So has the first poem of the new year, which has a little snow in it. And a boombox. And Cole Porter. And that reminds me that I want to hear Harry Connick, Jr. sing the songs of Cole Porter on his new album, True Love. And to read Sontag, by Benjamin Moser, a new biography that awaits me at the library. So much to read, such a nice soft corner of the couch to read it in!

Kathleen Kirk, Right After the Weather

One Reply to “Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 3”

  1. Hi Dave, I’ve only just come across your poetry bog post. Thank you so much for writing about my work and giving it such a warm and rich endorsement. Go well and stay well. I would love to share this on Twitter.

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