Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 9

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 past week found poetry bloggers breathing, grieving, reading, dreaming, revising manuscripts, speaking for others, meeting with others, planning for AWP, planning for a possible pandemic, paying attention, feeling sorry, feeling out of step, shaping lines, and remembering to breathe.


Inhale. Pause. Exhale, slowly and deeply, as if you were sighing. Notice that pause at the end of the out-breath: That emptied-out moment, when you let go of everything just a little bit more, and the body settles into itself just a little bit deeper. That moment: A glimpse of the last breath, of the peace that might be possible when you let go with both hands.

And then: The in-breath, as natural as can be, filling the lungs again.

Dylan Tweney, Grief and gratitude.

Much as at the point when suddenly rain stops,
    or wind abates,
        or cloud obscures the sun,

there is a moment just between
    breathe in and breathe out
        when shock stops the spin and hum of it all

and in the silence and the stillness
    we are changed entirely.

Dick Jones, Fragile

I have taken the last few months off from the world for some internal reflection. The death of four people in my family in 12 months caused me to turn inward, to withdraw socially and surround myself with only my greatest loves: husband, family, books, poetry, home, open spaces, neighborhood walks, and yes, I will admit, binge watching High Fidelity and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Thank you Rob and Midge for making me laugh.

And now it is Spring and out my writing window I see yellow daffodils, orange pansies and purple hellebore. The 70 year-old camellia is laden in the softest of pink blooms and the neighbor’s cherry trees are ready to pop.

And for those of you who have followed my “car wash” photos, last week I took my car to get washed and began taking pictures for the 2020 series.

I submitted five new poems (the first submission in almost a year) and heard yesterday a journal in Galway, Ireland called Dodging the Rain will publish them in May and June.

By allowing myself permission to withdraw from the world for awhile, to grieve and acknowledge the losses, the color bursting before me is calling my name to rejoin the ranks.

Or it could have been the Prozac. Either way, I am doing just fine.

Carey Taylor, It’s Been Awhile

This book gripped me: Poets on Prozac, edited by Richard M. Berlin, a set of essays by various poets on Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process. I checked it out of the library because it’s what came up when I searched for work by Denise Duhamel, who judged the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award. […]

I learned a lot about many things and was delighted to find in this book two of our Escape Into Life poets, Ren Powell and Martha Silano, as well as Chase Twichell, whose book The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, co-edited with Robin Behn, sits on a shelf above my computer, ready to grab when I need a creative push. I used it when I was teaching, and I use it now.

I always love to read about a poet’s process, and Poets on Prozac has the added interest of how mental illness, whether temporary or permanent, chronic or intermittent, and the treatment or medication for it affects the writing. Excerpts and whole poems are provided in this context, and the authors include mental health professionals who write poems.

Kathleen Kirk, Poets on Prozac

In The Hidden Life of Trees, the author talks about how a woodpecker makes a wound in the bark of a tree, and then leaves to let fungus soften things before returning. The fungus keeps at it, even after the cavity is too large to serve the woodpecker. So another creature moves into the expanding space. Then another. And all the while, is the tree feeling this as pain? Like my reality of a tender hamstring and an arthritic toe joint?

*

I had a nightmare last night. I have them only rarely now. And not nearly as vividly as once. Though sometimes it takes me longer to reorient to the real world as I wake —

like turning over scattered puzzle pieces and fitting them together into a somewhat less frightening order.

It seems that, as I age, there is a shifting of the kind of pain I experience.

The cold hurts my bones more than it used to. But heartbreak hurts far less. I can only hope the latter is a matter of  it having already been cracked open once, and having adjusted to the openness, each new love moving into a growing spaciousness.

Ren Powell, Aches and Pains

I dreamed I watered my cactus. I dreamed a long scrolled piece of paper upon which my sins and good deeds were being accounted for were being shaded in by a lead pencil. The sins were shaded over and over until they were a black ribbon and the good deeds were erasing the black.

It’s so quiet this morning I hear the train whistle all the way from Mount Vernon. Sometimes sound carries weirdly over the water. There is something comforting about a train whistle. Something old fashioned and ghostly and solid and forsaken. I once rode a train from Spokane to Montana. It took several days. I was a girl. I read and rocked and read and rocked. I lived for a little while on Flathead Lake. I lived for a little while on a reservation in Havre where I chewed resin from the trees until it turned to gum and ate rosehips and sang church songs.

Mahler sings Kindertotenlieder tends the forest keeps an eye on the magnolias which is how I keep going forward. I don’t even touch them (only once forgive me) I just watch and keep track and wonder at all of it. It’s a still day. I listened to birdsong and the train and I am forgiven my sins. My trees lift up their hands.

Rebecca Loudon, On the anniversary of my mother’s birth

I’m working on revising my 3rd manuscript. Since Kit passed away, and even when she was still in the ICU—perhaps even since her diagnosis—I’ve had little passion for the project, but have instead used writing as a way to process grief. There have been good and bad, far more bad I suppose, poems come from this experiment. But I’m at a point now where I feel like it is time to revisit Church Ladies and see if it is still possibly a book.

One theme very clear in the book is suffering and fear of the death of my children; its what leads my family to sometimes say my poems are creepily prophetic. But I don’t think so—I just think losing my children is my very real, utmost fear.

So I’ve thought about including my poems where the Worst Fear actually happens—my poems about Kit—but I can’t bridge them in my own mind. I can see the bridge on paper, how it could work—but Kit is very separate to me. Eventually those poems might need to be included; or maybe they are a different book entirely.

The true problem is that I am not the person or writer that I was when I wrote Church Ladies. I can edit with an indifferent eye, but to add to it feels wrong somehow, just as I’d never add to another writer’s project.

Renee Emerson, Revising the Manuscript

The Big Smoke, [Adrian] Matejka’s book-length persona poem collection, explores the life and relationships of boxing legend Jack Johnson. Matejka writes in the voices of Jack Johnson and the women in Johnson’s life, an ambitious project that took eight years of research and writing. It wound up as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved honor.

In the workshop, he told us that the hardest poems for him to write were the ones in the voices of the women, and that he would never attempt to write in a woman’s voice again, not feeling able, artistically, to accurately portray a woman’s psyche in the first person.

Part of this discussion of whose voices to write in involved the subject of cultural appropriation. The week of the poetry festival, American Dirt launched, and with it, the controversy surrounding the white author’s choice to write in the first person about a migrant Latina woman and her struggles to cross into the US.

It was a timely example of the pitfalls of choosing to write in the voice of someone whose life is completely outside our own experiences.

Christine Swint, Persona Poems at Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Franny Choi’s book-length collection of poetry, Soft Science, explores queer, Asian American femininity through the lens of robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. As she notes in this interview, “this book is a study of softness,” exploring feeling, vulnerability, and desire. How can you be tender and still survive in a hard and violent world? What does it mean to have desire when you yourself are made into an object of desire? What does it mean to have a body that bears the weight of history? Choi’s poetry contemplates such questions through the technology of poetic form.

Here is a little snippet from our discussion, in which Choi discusses the idea of speaking for the voiceless:

“Early in my writing career, I was really struck by the concept of being a voice for the voiceless. I think this has to do with being a young activist kid and realizing that having the ability to write and speak in a way that moved people was a privilege, and [I had] a desire to use that privledge for good. I think not that long after I encountered this concept it started to feel icky to want to speak for people that have mostly been called voiceless but aren’t — and [it became] much more important to highlight those voices rather than speaking for them.

“For someone who is politically minded and writer and is interested in the craft of persona work, I think it makes for a difficult space to know how to operate in, you know. So, I think that the ways I’ve tried to — at least in this book — manage that have been to kind of relocate the voiceless as a populace within myself, like what are the parts of me that feel unspoken for or unable to explain themselves through normal language. There’s a lot that is unspeakable within all of us. For me, I feel my job as a poet is to try to use poetry to navigate those spaces.”

You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.

Andrea Blythe, New Books in Poetry: Soft Science by Franny Choi

We had started online with MacNeice – this largely elicited a negative response – form over content, too difficult… My attempts to argue for MacNeice were unsuccessful. People said they wanted something ‘lighter’ (undefined), and one or two people suggested John Betjeman, so we thought we’d give that a try.

In our comfortable-ish new meeting place, we started our discussion of Betjeman’s poems. It did not go as I expected. Each person had chosen a poem to talk about. What happened was that people talked about really personal and often moving experiences, none of them happy ones. When we talked more, people recognised that their responses were not always really related to the poems themselves, and that their experiences had very much coloured their view of the poems. 

It highlighted incredibly strongly how much we bring ourselves to every poem we read – the things that have happened in our lives, our beliefs, everything. This is not a revelation, of course, but I did find it surprising that this kind of discussion was in response to the poems of Betjeman, as did the others when I mentioned it. Everyone said they were happy with the meeting though, and felt that poetry had got them thinking, so that feels right and we’ll see how it progresses.

Sue Ibrahim, A surprising reaction to the poems of John Betjeman

AWP #20 will occur in San Antonio, starting on Wednesday the 4th. I can confirm that I have already experienced a bit of the typical anxiety associated with the pilgrimage.  Each year there are generally 12,000 or more in attendance. If I recall correctly there were like 14,000 last year in Portland.

I have somewhat introvert tendencies, although at times I may break free of the chains. As long as I am able to retreat and recharge from time to time, I can deal with it. For me the stressors are being away from home, being in the midst of a crushing mob (slight exaggeration),  meeting people I am in awe of and being fearful I appear to be a complete goofball, and meeting complete strangers and feeling my first impression (and lasting one) totally sucked.

WHY EVEN GO?  Good question.  I think it has to be personal for each attendee.  For some it is seeing friends that you may see only once or twice a year.  Or it could be meeting  publishers.  Crisscrossing the book fair (always enormous) in search of bargains, newly published material, author signings, or readings. Both onsite and offsite. It could be learning more about the craft at panel presentations, or ideas, learning about marketing or working with publishers, agents, etc.

This year, I am focusing  on a couple aspects of craft. Seeing some friends, attending some readings and doing a reading myself. I want to springboard from the conference into a greater energy in my writing. I have a manuscript I am trying to finish and this could help push me over the finish line.

Michael Allyn Wells, It’s Coming – AWP #20 blogging

It seems in times of crisis I want to spend more time in nature. This last week we had early cherry and plum trees starting to flower, and I spent a lot of time taking pictures of them. Plum blossoms in particular have a strong, beautiful scent, especially in a grove of trees, which along with a little more sunlight, increases your feelings of well-being no matter what the headlines. […]

Yes, I’ll be missing AWP this year. I’m supposed to get an emergency root canal tomorrow instead of flying into Texas. Much less glamorous. But AWP kind of has a pall over it this year, especially as it is happening just as more confirmed cases of COVID-19 are appearing all over the US. Hey, let’s all get together in one big room right as a highly communicable virus is hitting! Yikes. I have a genetic immune deficiency AND MS, so this is probably a more frightening prospect for me than most people. That estimated 2 percent death rate is higher for people with other health conditions, and much higher for the elderly – up to 15 percent.

We had the first US death from Coronavirus here yesterday, at a hospital about a mile from my house, and a small breakout (fifty people, both caregivers and patients) has happened in a long-term care home in Kirkland (and Kirkland and Redmond firefighters are in quarantine after reto an emergency there.) There is a lot of uncertainty right now – the doctors and systems here don’t have enough test kits or the capacity to test everyone, we don’t have enough masks even for medical personnel due to poor government planning, and we’re showing more community-acquired illness (two high school kids at opposite ends of town just this week.) In my local neighborhood stores, there’s been some panic-buying – shelves of masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, even in some places bottled water and toilet paper have all been cleaned out. My husband has been running most of the errands to keep me out of crowds, so I’m getting my reports second-hand. Going back to spending time outside, which can really help you not feel too house-bound when you’re mostly confined in your home, is really important. Hence my red-winged blackbird picture (photographed down the street from my house.)

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Poems in Cherry Tree and Split Rock Review, Early Spring Flowers, Missing AWP and the Coronovirus

It’s good to take notes on the details.

There is the spot in the sky
Where the first lip of night rubs the sunset raw.
Write that down.

Or the sound of the tire sliding across the asphalt
As the stink of the burning rubber fills the air.
Note that, too.

The looks a dog gives when it gets confused.
That’s a good one.

James Lee Jobe, It’s good to take notes on the details.

I’ll be honest here; I have little hope of being placed in this year’s competition. Ultimately, I felt my poems lacked the carefree openness that I value in a good poem; you know, that lack of awareness of it actually being a poem. This might sound like nonsense. After all, when you pick up the pen, you intend to write. Poetry or prose, you’ve no doubt decided, on some level, what it’s going to be, before you start writing. So how can a poem lack awareness that it is a poem? Well, I’ve recently returned to Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It’s full of beautifully rich language and imagery, but what I admire most of all is the sense of the writer allowing thoughts and images on the page without telling the reader what to think, allowing the reader to take part in the poem and run with it. So, in terms of a model of what poetry should be, for me, Vuong’s debut is it, because it’s full of poems that aren’t screaming, ‘Read me, I’m a poem. Look what tricks I can do.’

This is quite nebulous, and very subjective, I know. And being brutally honest and self-critical, my poems fall far short. So why the euphoria? Well, it’s that small but vital ‘hit’ of completing the work. The manuscript will sink or swim, but that’s out of my hands now. I’ve done my bit. I’ve turned up and done the work (see Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way – she’s big on this). There’s something satisfying about completing a task, so much so that I rewarded myself with a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today, to see Saad Qureshi’s Something About Paradise (photographs above and below). 

Maybe something about this exhibition will feed into my writing. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t raining this afternoon. Whatever the forces at work, underlying it all  was a feeling of satisfaction with life which was self-induced. I’d submitted 20 poems to a publisher whom I respect, and who has been totally supportive of my work so far. That submission depended on no one else. It was down to me. The judging is out of my hands. I can’t control or influence it. And what would be the job of a judge if no one submitted? You know the saying, ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.’ Well, there’s some truth in it.

Julie Mellor, Why it’s important to finish …

I started listening to this this week. It’s Helen Mort discussing her relationship with the word Sorry and apologies. I’ve only listened to the first ep so far, but I really enjoyed what I heard. I was at the end of a long week at work and on a bus ride home after a diverted train journey, so I apologise to Helen for needing to go back to it to fill in some gaps before finishing the series.

It did get me thinking back to a draft of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago called ‘Tiny Sorries’. I was looking at all the small apologies I find myself making. I often apologise, under my breath, if I make someone deviate from their course, even by an inch, when walking along the street, or for not holding a door open far enough, for not being fast enough at the water fountain at work, even when I can do nothing about it…

The idea was that it would start there, build up to taking responsibility for not doing enough to stop something we are all collectively responsible for and then…and then…Well, I didn’t know where to go with it, or if it was even worth trying to find out. I think the answer is that it isn’t worth pursuing. However, it was on my mind before seeing that the show was on air. I think it, the poem, pops back into my head daily because of something that happens when commuting or in the office, etc.

Thankfully, what I do know from listening to Helen’s show is that there are plenty of poems about saying sorry, apologising, contrition, etc, so perhaps I don’t need to worry about adding mine to the pile.

Sorry, you’ve been witness to me working stuff out as I go.

Mat Riches, Apologies for Noogies

Clare Pollard in an article pointed out how an interest in translation can lead to escaping the limitation of local trends. She admits to admiring Somali poems “which can seem clumsy … the politically charged rhetoric … the seeming bagginess, the extreme alliteration, the shifts in address, the digressions” thinking that “they just use techniques which are currently deemed ‘unfashionable’ on Creative Writing courses.

Literature has its fashions. The “From Apocalypse to The Movement” module at Warwick looks at one lurch in style. Of course there are many parallel tracks of development happening at different speeds, but if you’re the wrong type of writer for your era you’ll be fighting against the tide.

Because culture isn’t frozen in time, one option is to wait for it to change. I notice at local writing clubs that my conventions don’t always match those of other members. Sometimes mine are more literary – in particular I puncture the sense of immersion – but often I’m just out of step. My guess is that the literary styles that I employed years ago are now becoming mainstream, and the styles I currently use were popular 20 years ago, and may well be so again.

Tim Love, Ahead of my time? Or behind?

he’s the man who draws the white lines
on the pitches every Friday
ready for the games on Saturday
always straight
always the right length
with the leftover lime tipped
and running down the red brick wall
then he goes away
and comes back the next Friday
all through the winter

Jim Young, life’s a pitch

I’ve written the starts of two new poems this week. I haven’t finished any poems I’ve started this year and only finished 10 from last year. I feel like I’m writing in slow motion. After writing everyday for so much of last year and writing so many poems, it’s harder to get back into the flow. Once I actually clear my desk of work and admin, it’s difficult to turn my head towards writing. The less attention I give it, the more I have to work at making time for it, to remember to take out my notebook rather than my phone, to not give into the tiredness on Friday night after work and go to my writing group where I usually have a bit of time beforehand to write. 

I’m back to where I was a year and a half ago when writing was work. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t come naturally, each line had to be pulled from me and shaped, rather than just me falling into a rhythm of writing.

Difference is, I know what is possible now. I couldn’t believe then that I could write a draft of a poem daily, that it could be easy. Now, I need to make the effort to slot it in on days when I’m not teaching. I should try to adapt to writing in the evening when the kids are in bed, but it’s never been a natural time for me to work. But I’ve proven that this old horse can learn new tricks, so it won’t hurt to try. 

Gerry Stewart, Dipping Back into Poetry

When your heart’s piano tuner becomes tone-deaf;

when your soul’s window washer forgets to clean your eyes;

when the walls of your thoughts are painted beige and left taken for granted;

when a bird in the hand feels more like a nail in the foot;

when every sentence you speak feels more like a life sentence in Sing Sing;

when your lips feel like the zombie apocalypse;

when you wear your face like a pair of unpressed pants;

when your socks feel like Nagasaki;

when your heart’s drummer becomes a total bummer—

for goodness sake, don’t forget to breathe.

Rich Ferguson, When at the Borders of the Absurd

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