Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 10

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. Major themes in the blogs I read this week were travel (especially to AWP), COVID-19, and the unruliness of language. If you only have time to click through and read one blog post, I recommend Chris Edgoose’s “White Poets & ‘Usefulness’“.


We were seeing ghost towns and big sky and lots of road.  Baby antelopes feasting on desert agave, on desert willow and scruff.

When the land gives way to settlements again, one wonders about pressures that shape the human.  We came to Roswell, a town where people swear UFOs landed.  Out of town, a scent rises over the plain — stockyards, cattle squeezed into small spaces, then oil rigs and pumps.  Then the relief of groves of pecan trees.  The peaceful desolation on the sage desert gives way to industrial ravage.  Boomtowns like Carlsbad sprout from the business of fracking, and people are slick and giddy with money.  I’ve never seen so many trucks or ads for liability lawyers (“Get burned in an oil rig?  Call the big guy.”)  

The faces, the drawl, the ten-gallon hats, the gang of four cheerful sheriffs coming into a wood-paneled joint for their breakfast of huevos rancheros; even Tony, the Trump enthusiast who wanted to buy me dinner — all make rich the human landscape along the strange road. 

Jill Pearlman, Amurika, the Open Road

Yesterday, I still had some time to explore San Antonio, especially after discovering that the AWP sessions I wanted to attend had been canceled. […]

Off I went, under Interstate 10 and other major highways.  I’ve now been on either side of I 10 (in Florida and in California) and now stood underneath the middle.  I walked by sports fields and people fishing and a funeral procession later on, as I hiked through city streets to get to the mission. […]

In a few hours, I’ll get on the plane and head back to Florida, home of similar missions, much of which have been obliterated by the pace of development.  I’ve enjoyed the time to get to a different part of the country, explore a different history.  I look forward to seeing what poems and other creative stuff might emerge.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, A Mission to Find the Mission

These days,

you gotta be equipped with the lowdown while traversing the high roads of chaos.

Gotta have cars with prayer wheels.

Gotta be drip-dry and permanent-pressed, ready for success while dwelling in the shadows of possible pandemics.

Gotta sport the kevlar of good karma, be Steve McQueen-cool while battling the reaper whose scythe is made of hate and ignorance.

These days you gotta refuse to be reduced to an illegible back-page obit.

Gotta count the seconds between lightning and thunder to gauge your distance from the divine.

These watermarks on our spine—

dreams still rising.

Rich Ferguson, Things I’ll Say to My Daughter When She’s Older

Later,  the upended flask.  The snake current.
The   tear  climbing   back  into  its  socket.   I
should have been there. Like an eye that  saw
and a hand  that  held.  Like  driftwood.  Like
hope.  Not stuck  in the after.  Not  where the
notes  shattered  air.  Not  with  that  muffled
song,  trapped inside a scream.  The one that
sings me,  still.

Romana Iorga, Silence at Dawn

I’m so sad about AWP. I decided to opt out for several reasons: I have a cold and didn’t want to expose people to it on the plane, nor deal with their alarm at my sniffles, nor pass through security wariness. Further, one of my panels got canceled, I knew attendance levels were crashing, and my press (very understandably) decided to not to come. Advance sales at AWP are a big deal for the success and visibility of a poetry collection, which is my best yet and which I’ve been hoping would make a tiny splash. If you’re interested in it, I hope you’ll consider ordering it at an excellent discount from the Tinderbox Editions website. Just use the discount code AWP2020. In fact, check out all your favorite small presses, many of which canceled and are giving similar #virtualbookfair deals. I’ve been buying a lot of books myself.

Lesley Wheeler, #Virtualbookfair, disappointment, little gifts

Since a lot of us couldn’t go to AWP this year for various reasons, (I personally think it should have been rescheduled for the safety of immuno-supporessed people and, because, you know, you don’t want to increase germ spreading during a pandemic) we’ve been having a Virtual AWP Bookfair and a faux-AWP. I ordered books from local poetry-only bookstore Open Books, because small businesses all around Seattle are hurting (they ship for free with over $25 purchases) and because a lot of small presses were financially harmed because they had to withdraw from AWP. I also signed up for a couple of new literary magazine subscriptions, including EcoTheo and A Public Space. (A Poetry Magazine subscription was a recent gift.) I was trying to spend the money I would have spent at the bookfair had I gone. My book purchases, you might notice, are apocalyptic in theme.

I’ve also been working on pitches for essays and reviews during this extremely down downtime. And I’ve got a suite of coronavirus poems now in case anyone needs them.

I would also encourage you to please purchase a copy of Field Guide to the End of the World directly from Moon City Press, because they could not go to AWP at the last minute, and support them.  Plus, I mean, I could not think of a more timely book to read right now. I mean, look at this cover! It’s all about survival in the face of all kinds of apocalypses.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Living, Loving, (and Going to the ER) in the Time of Coronavirus, Spring Continues in Seattle, Virtual or Faux AWP

Everything we touch
touches us with the

touch of everything
that ever touched it.

It is all too much
for us to know, so

we must ignore it.
We must turn and turn

away. The shock of
it, the wonder, would

put us on our knees.

Tom Montag, EVERYTHING WE TOUCH

I’ve done minor grouting before, but this bathroom’s major. I’ve been carefully scraping grout, this way and that, across the gaps between tiles to fill them. These gaps seem hungry, eager to eat the grout, and today I had to cycle to B and Q to get an extra tub. I appeared, from the lonely state of the bike rack, to be the only person who had arrived in this way.

It strikes me that grouting is more the work of a novelist than a poet. The gaps between the words are pretty much the point and attraction of poetry. So filling in gaps, making sense of the whole, making things watertight, seems, judging by my aching right hand, prosaic.

On the plus side, I reckon this venture into prose-style DIY justifies me eating the last of the ‘For when you’re writing your novel, Mum’ biscuits that my son gave me at Christmas, even though the novel still has plenty of gaps in it. Yum.

Liz Lefroy, I Grout My Tiles

Manuscript #3 is a finalist for the Paraclete book prize! Of course I’ve since done an edit on it that makes me feel the new revised manuscript is so much stronger than the old manuscript and wish I could switch them out. But so it is with editing–you enter something, then figure out the ending that Should Have Been.

I’m excited though to see it getting semi-finalist/finalist anywhere–I only sent my work out to 4 open reading periods (for free) and 3 contests. In the world of submitting-poetry-manuscripts, that is pretty paltry. So this means that the manuscript is at least close, very close.

So it is sometimes hard to explain the desire to get one of my manuscripts published because:

1. I don’t really want people to read it. I only really like other poets to read it because I feel like they are the only ones that speak that kind of language…I don’t know why I feel that way. I guess I feel sort of exposed when someone who isn’t a poet reads it?

2. I will not make any money or any fame from a poetry book. Not ever, ever, ever. If you are trying to publish poetry books to get rich and famous, this will never ever ever happen. EVER.

I guess the main reason I want to see it published is because it is finished. I’m done! And it looks unfinished in its loose-leaf printed out scribbled on draft. I’d like to see it all neatly bound and on the shelf.

Renee Emerson, finalist!

The book [Winter: Effulgences and Devotions, by Sarah Vap] is a curation of pieces written while trying, over years, to write a poem about winter. In this way, the book is a museum. The title of Donald Hall’s book, The Museum of Clear Ideas, comes to mind. Here, though is a museum of chaos and investigation and yes, clear ideas, and yes, those effulgences, those tendernesses, an ongoing devotion.

In the book, Vap sets up systems and smashes them. For example, Most of the poems are titled Winter, except when the pattern breaks by expanding (“Winter, my mind”; “Winter, the beginning”) or just breaks (“Sovereign Good”; “Christmas Eve, Miscarriage”).

In the book, every page is bordered, top and bottom, in tiny type, by the sentence “Drones are probably killing someone right now” with no end stop, so that the killing is as relentless as the reminder of it.

Joannie Stangeland, Saturday Poetry Pick: Winter: Effulgences and Devotions

Even feedback online is now diametrically polarised into two distinct bullshit camps – something is either irredeemably awful ‘1 star’ (‘if I could give zero stars I would’) or it’s the best thing since sliced bread (which is not that great). It’s the pubs that have walls all scrawled over with syrupy sentiments like ‘there are no strangers here, only friends you’ve not yet met’ that in actual fact come across like the tavern in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Straw Dogs’. We watch TV shows (maybe not you though) where greedy property developers buy up houses at auction and instead of unashamedly admitting ‘we’re only in this for the money’ we instead get some sort of self-congratulating homily on how they are in fact saints who are helping to ‘remedy the housing shortage in this country’. On the news the other week I was told there are now over eight million ‘economically inactive’ people in the UK and the task of the current government is to ‘upskill’ these people to make them more attractive to employers. What about the economically inactive people who are perfectly skilled as it is, thank you very much?

In the poetry world, all poets are ‘critically acclaimed’ and ‘prizewinning’ and appearing in the ‘best poets of god-knows-what’ anthologies. They’re ‘brand-building’ and ‘networking’ and frittering away their energies on Twitter and Facebook feuds, or else writing blogs like this, hoping against hope that they’re not just talking to themselves in an echo chamber or rubber room.

We’re drowning in this morass of bullshit on a daily basis, and no area of life is safe from it. In fact, even the word itself ‘bullshit’ reeks decidedly of bullshit.

Richie McCaffery, Hear no bullshit, see no bullshit, speak no bullshit

Now, we are taught to ask,
“What happened to you?” That’s not what people
used to ask. Neighbors. Coworkers. We said,
“Why did you do that?” “Why do you do such
terrible/wonderful things?” What were you
thinking?” Or we asked nothing, just blamed. Or
praised. Either way, it was a fiction, and
it was real. As real as the comfort of
your daily rosary, the beads shifting
in your hands, over and over, the prayers
a shield and a gift. I light a candle
you would never have lit, and murmur prayers
you never learned, and remember you as
a puzzle, with pieces missing.

PF Anderson, On My Father’s Fifth Yahrzeit

I often wonder if those unloved poems are my favorites because I’ve taken more risks with them.  That they are somehow more raw and unruly, and therefore less palatable to editors.  But being an editor myself, I am looking for the raw and unruly, but maybe I am more alone in this than I think.  I wondered at first if it was more that my subject matter wasn’t striking a match with publications, so I went looking for mostly female ran pubs, but still no.  Maybe no one cares about poems about little fat girls, but I hope this is not the case.   I also think they are perfect as they are, so none of that “kill your darlings” nonsense rings true. So I’m not really sure what to do with them.

Kristy Bowen, unlovable darlings

Palimpsest: When you discover you are the writer of your story – part journalist/part poet – and your script is pulled, redacted, with a sloppy cut and paste job that leaves plot holes and a jarring lack of continuity. Overly-written, overwrought, suspicious amounts of detail inserted by unrecognizable voices from a shifting point of view.

Yeah. I’m gonna leave that paragraph there. No. Scratch that.

At some point palimpsests become illegible. There is nothing between the lines and everything between the lines, and when the lines are no longer there

everything is nothing.

Ren Powell, An Unreliable Narrator

There’s an American poet in my writing group, the first poet we’ve had besides myself in a while. Last week she read a poem and it was so American. I can’t explain why, the strong rhythm, the long line breaks, the subject, I don’t know.  I clumsily tried to explain to her after her reading that it was like being back in my creative writing classes in Idaho or out in nature there with my fellow Forestry students.

It’s odd, I liked the reading style, but again I didn’t. Like most of America, it doesn’t fit me anymore, but it’s familiar and slightly comforting. Maybe too much so, I knew that poem, that voice as soon as she started, it took me somewhere I’d been. It made me understand why I struggle to get accepted by American magazines, my poems don’t sound like that, don’t have that feeling anymore. I want to explore more, I don’t want to go back on that mountain path I’d walked before.

I also listened to some poems by Angela Carr on her website. She has a little Sound Cloud box at the bottom on the right hand side. Her style of reading also felt familiar, but more what I heard in university in Scotland where I really got into writing. Treading familiar boards of long halls rather than walking in the woods. 

Gerry Stewart, Wandering the Words

A blog is one of the magnets for spam. My blog host site reroutes spam messages almost daily, and periodically I view them, just to see what’s coming in. Amid the Viagra ads and other odd sales pitches are some bizarrely worded messages whose spam purpose I cannot begin to imagine, but which have a sweet funniness to them that makes me fond of them. There’s even some good advice offered, however ungainly the language. Here are some of my favorites over the years:

I admire your supply on time and exquisite flower.

Article writing is also a fun, if you be acquainted with afterward you can write otherwise it is complex to write.

Marilyn McCabe, You know, I took what I could get; or, On Spam

I am much more familiar, though not intelligently conversant with, Kant’s writings on art and aesthetics. It does cheer me that he posits poetry as the “greatest” art because it expands the human mind through reflection, stimulates the imagination [not that I am at all biased about poetry, myself].

Much of Kant’s thinking about what is provocative, expressive, and beautiful in art seems logical on the page but does not quite feel true to my experiences of art, however; except that it does feel true that creating art is an act of willing, not wishing, and that art emerges from the will to express.

Is what philosophers call “will” the same as what psychologists call “motivation”?

~

How about this statement, which I hear frequently from students and which I readily admit to having uttered: “I wish I were more motivated.” Is that wishing to have the will, but lacking the will to have the will?

(No wonder learning English is so difficult.)

Perhaps needless to say, these past few days I have been feeling a lack of motivation.

Ann E. Michael, Wish, will, motivation

the poem came home
to the forest be it
pulp fiction or even the bible
returned to mulch the same place
as the forebears of the words
in detritus dying to be free
of the canopy the panoply
of late poets the last train
of thought has pride open the
book of words and the fungi have
their sporangia nodding in slow motion

Jim Young, home came the poem

I’ve spent the last year and more attempting to write poems about race and the legacy of empire in the UK. Some of these have been okay, some pretty good, some terrible; all of them remain unpublished at the time of writing, and I’ve never posted any of them on my blog. Without looking for an “Aww, you poor lamb”, I must say, it’s not easy for a white person to write honestly about race and empire in the UK. I’m sure it’s not easy for anyone, but I’m white and so that is what I’m qualified to talk about. Why isn’t it easy? Well, on one level of course it’s obvious to say that published white poets, or white poets who want to get published, are nervous about saying the wrong thing and ending up actually getting something published which then prompts a career-ending twitterstorm and blaze of publicity. This is true – and I imagine editors have similar nerves around any white-written, race-based submissions they may have received (not all publicity is good publicity, if that myth was not debunked before social media came along, it surely is now) but it’s a bit poor, isn’t it? I mean, the nerves are understandable, there really is a lot of senstivity and anger around this issue, but let’s not be cowardly: white attitudes to race and empire matter, if only because those voices which represent and constitute the hegemon need to change if anything is going to change. There’s another obvious reason, too, this: white liberal/left poets (I’m not sure I need the slashed adjectives here – pretty much all UK poets fall somewhere on that spectrum, don’t they?) are likely to feel that white voices should not be cluttering up the spaces where voices of colour need to be heard more. They (I should say we) are quite right about this, but again I don’t think it will quite do. As Reni Eddo-Lodge pointed out in ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race’, white people will never be ready to talk to people of colour about race and ongoing structural racism – and therefore begin addressing social change – until they are able to talk to each other about it openly and honestly. It seems to me that poetry, with its capacity for concise and acute self-reflection is the ideal place to start doing this. A third reason might be that white poets genuinely don’t think we have anything to add on this issue, that we should step back and allow poets of colour to say what needs to be said because racism happens to them, not us. For a third time: this is not good enough. As DiAngelo says, thinking that racism is only an issue for people of colour is a classic internalised strategy for deflecting responsibilty. Beneficiaries of power rarely notice that they are beneficiaries at all, and those who have always stood at the podium cannot always see that they have been artificially elevated above the crowd. Until the present generation of black and Asian and mixed-race voices came of age and began speaking with clarity and strength, voices of colour, although they were there (and strong, clearly, you only need to think of Benjamin Zephaniah), they were relatively easy for the ‘85%’ to ignore, simply because they were not present in any numbers. This, I think, is no longer the case. Demographics are changing. We, white people, have to think through who we are and how we got here – and to talk it through.

Chris Edgoose, White Poets & ‘Usefulness’

At work I had a conversation with a colleague about the idea of decolonizing education, the topic of a workshop she recently attended. We explored what that might look like in practice and planned a research unit for her students with that idea as our foundation. We talked about what people who have endured colonization have done to endure it and, as much as possible, be OK in it. We talked about how, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, so many white women were so freaked out. I shared that I was one of them, but that I have realized since then that the people of color I was talking with in those early days and weeks of the current administration were not freaking out.

My colleague, a woman of color, just smiled. “Yes,” she said.

“I realize now,” I said, “that for them, what was happening was bad, but also business as usual.”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling.

“And I think,” I said, “the problem for white people, maybe especially white women of my generation, is that we haven’t ever had to develop such coping mechanisms, not really. We don’t know how to be OK in the presence of truly knowing the ways in which we are powerless against forces that don’t care about us and are using their power against us. Because we haven’t really seen it until now.”

“Yes,” she said, still smiling. It was a kind smile. Maybe the kind you give a child, but maybe not. It’s hard for me to know.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I am returning to a craft of my childhood to help me cope with all kinds of things. Honestly, I don’t really care to explore that idea too deeply. It’s not a particularly interesting one and the answer to the question inherent in it doesn’t really matter.

My needlework doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t have to be good (a good thing, because it’s not really) or do good in some way that extends beyond me. It is not going to be the beginning of some life- or world-altering something, and I’m not going to become a craftivist. Because I don’t think cross-stitching “fuck the patriarchy” on pillows and such is going to do much to end it. Although, maybe it’s activism if it helps others endure it. I dunno. I don’t think my embroidery is going to either heal anyone or inspire them to revolt, which is OK because that’s not what it has to do.

All the embroidery has to do is keep me going.

Rita Ott Ramstad, A post in which the F-word appears. Repeatedly.

This is how we line
the nest; feather, horse hair, cotton.
This is how we catch with our mouths
in midair. This is how we return time
after time, voices cracking winter’s
scab, voices humming, pitched
like warmed paraffin. I’m not afraid
to say it. I never wanted this great
distance, all those miles ringing out.
Darling, my desire sings from mudslide,
bees frozen in the comb, magnolia lifting
her stingy pink fingers to heaven.

Rebecca Loudon, Nest

In 2008 we went on holiday to Brittany and I took Angel by Elizabeth Taylor with me.  A book I’d bought in a charity shop and been carrying around with me without ever reading it. On holiday, I read the entire novel, the first novel I’d finished in years. Thinking about this now makes me tearful, remembering the feeling of returning to something I love after years away.  The poem ‘Ironing’ by Vicki Feaver (one of my teachers at Chichester by the way!) seems to express the return to life I experienced when I started writing again.  Not that I had felt dead! But, in a way, that creative side of me was pretty dead, when I think about it now.

I also think that it was the reading that came back first.  The reading and then the writing.  And helping students with the GCSE meant that I was reading poetry, more poetry than I’d ever read, and I began my first attempts at writing my own poems.

I told Andrew that I fancied writing again, giving it a go, focusing on writing and maybe giving up my daytime job.  Look, there’s this competition, the Bridport Prize, I said.  The money for the first prize is virtually what I make as a Teaching Assistant.  I’m going to enter this comp, win first prize, give up my day job.  OK, he said.

It took me 18 months to write my first poem, ‘Honeymoon’,  I sent it off to Bridport.

I didn’t win but I was a runner-up.  I won £50, not £5,000.  But Michael Laskey chose my poem, told me it was good.  It was enough encouragement for me to keep writing and to keep reading.  I did give up the day job but took on another, more part-time, more freelance.  I live simply, I don’t earn much money, I’m lucky to have a fantastically supportive husband and children who help me along the way.

And that was ten years ago!  One pamphlet, one full collection later, here I am, still gathering notebooks, accumulating books, and, for the first time in ten years, writing fiction again.  Who knows where that is going to take me…?  If you’re reading this and experiencing a dry spell, please don’t give up hope, please keep reading, please know that change happens.  Also, try on different genres – if you’re struggling with fiction, try poetry, try scriptwriting, and vice versa.  For me, long form writing became overwhelming once I became deeply preoccupied with children, perhaps if I’d started with poetry I would have never stopped.  But everyone’s experience is unique.  Whatever your situation, keep going.

Josephine Corcoran, Ten Years of Notebooks

I love these poems, even if no one else does; they live in the thick red book of my dreams. And I love my dreams, especially the ones that come just before morning. Those dreams wear rubber boots, and walk carefully through my late father’s garden. My father’s garden was huge, and to me, a city boy, it seemed like a farm. Dad would walk out among the tomatoes with a knife, a pail of water, and some salt. He would rinse a few tomatoes and eat them right there. He loved this so very much, more than he loved me, or so it often seemed. Really, who knows? Poems, dreams, gardens, love, doubt, memories; these things populate my inner world. It is sunrise as I write this, folk music is playing, and I feel rather good about the day.

James Lee Jobe, I love these poems, even if no one else does

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.