Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 7

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’s theme: time. Plus a bit of advice on how to better spend it.


For years I have held February
answerable to many sorrows
as though the month itself
were responsible for its appearance:
the dour days too short, long nights
steeped in frosty bitterness.
Resigned to hibernation,
February made me sleepy.
Dulled my skin, sucked dream
into a cold vacuum
like a vacant acre of outer space,
a stone of ice upon my chest.

Ann E. Michael, Apology

I am profoundly lucky to do work I enjoy. It’s been a long haul to get here and I’m grateful to write, edit, and teach for a living. I don’t have much time for my own projects but know if I possessed greater focus I’d be making some progress on them.

I meant to write a paragraph or two here about getting beyond self-criticism and telling myself a more positive story. But you know that skittering mind I mentioned? Yeah, it’s skittering off in another direction.

Because it seems time has gotten more slippery of late. Morning somehow slides into afternoon’s lap or what feels like Thursday is actually Tuesday. A week takes forever but suddenly a month is gone. Time falls into a jumbled stew of our own crises heated up by the shock of each day’s news. It’s not just me. Friends and colleagues complain about this same problem.

On top of work and home pressures, I suspect the era we’re living in is so unexpected that it’s just too hard to concentrate on our own daily minutiae. Things like getting the laundry folded or the next big project done make less sense when each day overflows with startling political changes and new environmental outrages. Perhaps this swings our sense of time toward an altered trajectory.

Laura Grace Weldon, Overwhelmed

I’ve been doing a small project with a novella called Sleepless Night over the past week or two. As with Misery, the recto pages have the title at the top and I’m sticking with those for now. It is a good recurring title for a poem, I must say. The author’s writing is not particularly interesting linguistically and it’s short on good nouns. But I’m making the poems small, like aquariums, or dark little rooms where your thoughts or your grave concerns or all the things you are looking forward to keep you awake.

I’ve also been doing the Februllage collage-a-day challenge on Instagram, as I did last year. I’m not striving to do every day, though. I go back and forth on so many things . . . poetry, collage, myself. Some days we’re all ok and other days I think there is no reason to continue to engage with those three.

Sarah J Sloat, Those Three

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

Lesley Wheeler, Poetry and heart

He tells me snow
is a product of the air’s
despair.  Perhaps

he’s right: seedheads
of the tall grass are weighed
down, shawled in white.

Ellen Roberts Young, February Snow Times 2

We will soon leave the time of epiphany. We will trade the star and the angel messengers for ashes on our foreheads.

We may not have realized that the time of epiphany stretched on beyond January 6. We might not have recognized the wise ones and the gifts they would give us.

We may have already been living in the land of ash. We may feel that our frozen surfaces will never thaw.

We cannot fathom how we will stitch the fabric of society back together again. Our arthritic fingers throb with pain even before we have started.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Returning to Resurrection

There are life’s grinding engines driving us to madness:

fracked lands and hacked computers, illness and unwillingness, death too soon and freedom too late, the homeless and hopeless, crosstown traffic and trafficked humans.

Still, there’s the green grass beneath our feet bright as child laughter. Dependable cars and well-tuned guitars. Feasts and flowers. Warm bellies filled with luck. Pets that know us better than we know ourselves. Fresh curiosities making out in the backseat of our brain. The puzzles of our lives put back together after a hard come-apart.

The rise and fall and the rise again.

Rich Ferguson, What Doesn’t Kill Us Cures Us

While making dinner — or reflecting excitedly on the importance of making dinner while sipping wine — I began to shape ideas that have been pressing on me during the week.  What had been expected and feared to happen in bad faith presidential action was happening.  Many of us could see the vindictiveness coming; now it almost felt posthumous.  

My anger had been simmering into something else: into a rich, bittersweet sorrow for the “we” of country. How distant we are from our “exceptional” goals (hardly the first time, hardly the last).  What poor flawed creatures!  In my wash of compassion, I felt that old-style pity. Recognizing my pivot, my poetic turn and dance move, I saw, again, that we can open to the other, be medicine to counteract the poison.

So here’s to pounding the garlic cloves with thyme with mortar and pestle!  To sizzling onions in a pan over the flame, to share.  Here’s to winding up to the big question: Can everyday life be a moral response to political failure? 

Jill Pearlman, Everyday Life: Antidote to Political Poisons

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Late winter still life

You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday… Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I’m sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you’re gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It’s life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth.  I don’t own a red Chanel suit, and I’m not attending a ladies’ lunch on February 14. But I’m wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy — a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.

Rachel Barenblat, A reason to celebrate

Light up a cigarette
and watch

the smoke write
your thoughts in the air,

this valentine,
inhale     exhale.

Claudia Serea, V-Day

The time has come to stop keeping up appearances.
Let others mourn; I did my crying as a child.
I felt the sting & dreamed of death
both given & received.
I hid a mountain of dirt beneath my clothes.
Those who knew them less well
can toss handfuls into their darkness.

Jason Crane, POEM: Abstention

— It took me a long time to let all that go. I am in my sixties now, and only just beginning to write about it all, to tell the stories. 
— I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. At first I wrote in secret notebooks, by my late teens I was going to open mic poetry readings, but I didn’t tell my family. It would just caused me new abuse; mockery.
— I went outside just before sunrise today. It was windy, and the moon was setting in the west just as the first light of the dawn was glowing in the east. Very lovely. I went inside and wrote a prose poem about it.

James Lee Jobe, 10 Things. Journal notes. 10 Feb. 2020

in the downing days of heavy time
cadillac was as strange a meme
as winsome as the movie toffees
and the longing for the other side
of any walled hillside
or the veneered panelled walls
behind which the cockroaches slept
until the fire died and we were abed
and then they came over the coal-grit
floor to eat the crumbs of the crumbs
that our meagre dinners had left ledgered
here in this corner of a neglected village
in wales
a people tipped under slag tips and
toil so numbing that the sinews of life
crystallised in grime and death that never died
in relief of times best forgotten now
for when you think of it
we cried enough dryness
to last a lifetime

Jim Young, hearth and tired

I have a cough which entered my body the way a bird or small animal would enter it flew or crawled into my mouth and inside my chest when I was standing at the beach during a windstorm my head is happy maybe the cough is a diorama in the medicine chest of my imagined illness

I’m going to go stand in the garden and yell at my tulip bulbs for a bit

Rebecca Loudon, Waking up in spite of it all which feels like spring

Besides my group this week, sketching out the beginning of a poem in one of my breaks and submitting to one journal I haven’t managed much poetry related. Besides Twitter. I have filled my Twitter feed with a mix of magazines, established and emergent writers. Some just comment on the world, many promote their books and readings, some post snippets of their writing, some post poems written by others that they love. I enjoy the latter most. I don’t buy as many poetry collections as I should and getting them in the local libraries here is almost impossible if they were written after Shakespeare. So reading online journals and poems selected by other writers is my way of keeping in touch with the poetry world and the writers I enjoy. I can fit it into small pockets of time or scroll by if I don’t want to head down a specific rabbit hole. 

Gerry Stewart, Stepping Up

When I wrote PR for Poets,  I was grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis (my tumors have since been classified as “stable” but I still have to get them scanned every six months). I was about to get a diagnosis of MS. These things have changed how I view book promotion in my own life and also how I might write about it next time.

Since I started promoting poetry books in 2006 (I’ve had five books published since), things have changed – the technology, the realities of travel, and in my case, my health has become a constraining factor. Last year, for instance, I was invited to read at a college for money – but ended up not being able to go for health reasons. I was also invited to be a featured speaker at a lovely-looking conference in Colorado – but given how difficult travel has been with a wheelchair, and the impact on my immune system, I had to turn it down. In both cases, I offered to appear virtually, but that offer was declined. AWP is coming up, and one reason (well, besides the money AND persistent accessibility problems at the conference itself) is that the travel is so hard on my system and the rewards don’t seem like enough to balance that out. The book addresses ways to reach new audiences that don’t involve physical travel – blog book tours, for instance, or virtual appearances at book groups or colleges, as well as social media outreach – but it could have gone further.

If you, as a healthy able-bodied writer in the world – an editor or a professor or someone who runs a conference –  want to support disabled or chronically ill writers, teach their books. Encourage your students to buy books, or request their books from libraries. Give disabled or chronically ill writers chances to do phone interviews, Skype sessions, radio appearances.

The reality is, my health and disability can limit my ability to have a writer’s life – the way traditionally the writers make money from books is being invited out to speak at colleges or at readings at conferences, so if you limit your travel to, for instance, locations you can drive to because the last two times you flew you caught pneumonia or the airlines lost your wheelchair (yup, both happened to me) – you’re also limiting how much you get paid, how many audiences you reach, how many copies of the book you sell.

Or…is that still true? I started thinking harder about this. When I started promoting my first poetry book, the number one way to sell copies was to travel to readings and people would buy books there. For my second book, the best way to sell was to send out paper postcards with buying information on them. By the time my last book came out, yes, I sold books through readings and postcards, but I sold the most copies through my blog and Facebook/Twitter announcements. If the world is really getting more technology oriented – working from home, virtual meetings – then maybe the way you sell poetry books has changed, too. I think about Instagram poets, who have a million followers and sell a million books – all without even making a personal appearance.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Valentine’s Day (and Day After) and a Discussion of Book Promotion and Maintaining the Writer’s Life with a Disability or Chronic Illness

Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.

In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house And, of course, Yaffle, and The Red Shed . Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.

Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind, but when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess it’s more likely than not to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. Take your choice.

Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), but I’m thinking particularly of Indigo Dreams, where the prize is publication of a full collection.

Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.

John Foggin, Poetry competitions and small presses: it’s a win-win situation

But it did get me thinking about the half life of these popular culture references. How much distance is too much distance? Is it too obscure? Does that matter if it works for the poem? Can you cover it all off with notes? Should you need to use notes?

Is a reference to a Jewson’s ad from the 80s any better or worse than say a reference to an obscure character from The Iliad? I don’t know the answer here, I’m more thinking out loud. My degree taught me that a text was a text was a text and that a text could be anything really – a Britney Spears song, The Wasteland, a painting, a chocolate bar wrapper, and so on…

I came back to these questions when I had my first initial scan of the latest issue of Rialto. I found a reference to Dr Martens in the first poem, Hannah Lowe’s ‘Pink Hummingbird’ and old school rave events like “Rain Dance, World Party, Fantasia” in ‘ ’89’, and “Marlborough (SIC??) Lights” in ‘Love’.

Each of these references work as a way of dating the time they are evoking, elsewhere in the mag Tom Paine’s excellent ‘Harmonium’ contains the line

‘Give everyone an orange popsicle, an iPhone, a garden,
and let’s go shoot some hoops? You won monopoly, okay?’

You couldn’t ask for a more contemporary set of references…well, you could, but hopefully you see what I mean. While I’m still trying to work out what’s going on in the poem, the iPhone dates it to within the last decade or so and therefore gives me some frame of reference.

What am I saying here? I don’t think I’m saying anything, I’m asking something.

I guess I’m asking what we, as writers, are thinking when we include these contemporary references in poems? Do we have half an eye on the now and half an eye on the future—both near and more distant? What will readers in eg 2120 make of a reference to iPhones or Jewsons? Should we even care?

Mat Riches, The Jewson Lot

I must spend
more time
standing in
wind learning

to fly like
sky, grasses,
leaves, learning
to let go,

to go.

Tom Montag, I MUST SPEND

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