Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 19

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 was for many our 8th under quarantine, which prompted reflections, as did Mother’s Day—in a darker vein than usual—as well as mounting death tolls, incompetent leaders, and other recurring themes of life in a pandemic. But also there were appreciations of new books, memories of libraries, writing experiments, and as always, newly birthed poems in all their rough, raw beauty.


There is a lot of grief in the world right now.

For you.

For me.

I hope your grief is not unbearable.

Despite all of it, I have gratitude as well. I don’t exactly like that word, “gratitude.” It has religious connotations to my ear. But, well, it works.

I am lucky that I can work from home. My company has been fantastic, and actually quite surprisingly agile.

All of my loved ones are still with me. We have had to be in the hospital with unrelated illnesses, and yet we are safe.

Since the last time I wrote on here two years ago, the new baby has grown. He’s two and a half now. […]

You would think there’s all kinds of extra time to do things like productive writing, yard work, etc. But no.

There is no time. There is even less time than when I was commuting two hours a day.

What a strange world.

What strangeness it is to see profit opportunity instead of humanitarian opportunities. What grotesque macabre times we live through.

Inane cruelty. Stupid selfishness.

What protest can we mount while physically distancing?

Find a way. Write. Put it out there.

Vote.

Eric M. R. Webb, Grief and Isolation

I started baking for porch drop-offs in my small rural township over a month ago. I figured I had a good stockpile of flour, butter, and sugar. I had way too many eggs from our chickens. And I had to do something with my despair. […]

Although we’ve lived in this township for nearly 23 years, we simply haven’t gotten to know many people. Perhaps it’s because the houses are farther apart than in our previous neighborhoods. Perhaps because we homeschooled. Perhaps because of other encounters in our first few months here that made us wary, starting with a veiled death threat.  But as the baking donation weeks have gone by I’ve started to feel closer to my community.

And also, as I’ve baked muffins and loaves and cookies, my mood has leveled off. I’m starting to catch up on work. I’m back to writing and reading and happily tending seedlings nearly ready for the garden.

I’ve also gotten some perspective on despair after talking with my friend Maureen. She told me she’s been inert and ineffectual, retreating into herself. She also said she was feeling on a deeper level all the loss she’s been through in the past few years while at the same time feeling guilty about her grief because so many people are going through far worse.

I realized I’d been feeling the same way, not depression at all but some kind of collective mourning. All that our species is going through can’t help but ask us to more intensely feel our own losses. Perhaps feeling our own grief more fully — seeing it, naming it, letting it walk with us –may help us on a collective level.

Maybe the different ways we react rise from wise inner promptings, helping to heal what has felt unbalanced in our lives while, on some level, we process the world’s larger fear, loss, and terrifying uncertainty.

As I pack up today’s Hermit Bars, I am grateful that offering homemade sweetness to strangers restores sweetness to my life. And I choose to believe everyone who claps for healthcare workers, or shops for neighbors, or sends cards to nursing home residents, or donates food, or adopts shelter animals, or plays music from balconies, or supports local businesses, or abides by social distancing to keep others safe is remaking a more connected and compassionate future for us all.

Laura Grace Weldon, Hermit Bars, Despair, and Collective Renewal

Alex Trebek is a fit fitter
coal mine canary
if contestants don’t know
an answer I shout it to them
through the blue water screen
in Poplar diphtheria sweeps
the town and every single
person gets tested all I do
is stand in the forest and stab
the dirt with a shovel
as ivy widdershins
up two hemlocks I have named
The Sisters if I tell you
I pray it’s a lie god
does not live in my ear
god bless or goddamn let’s finish it
the american president wants us
to illuminate our guts
with poison The Sisters
are guards and looming gates
history drowns itself
let me lick your Kevlar vest
let me drink your mask
there is still so much to do here
in the sorrow church I look up
just in time to see Ed Harris tumble
through an open window
bang bang how dare the world
mirror itself back to me

Rebecca Loudon, corona 18.

The dead of COVID19 visit you in dreams and ask you to remember them, to remember their names, their lives. Morning comes to you, and these dreams are forgotten. You awaken each day to a feeling of sadness, a dull emptiness. Nights come and go, and you are, in time, full of these forgotten dreams, forgotten names, and everyday the number of COVID-19 deaths grows. Everyday.

James Lee Jobe, The dead of COVID19 visit you in dreams

I try to document the change of seasons, the flowers, the birds. With quarantine I’ve become a better documentarian of local birds; I notice species I could swear I’ve never seen before. I glimpse an osprey overhead with a fish, a red house finch lands briefly on my balcony while I water flowers. I see my first ever black-headed grosbeak. Paying attention to something, taking your time, staying quiet, that’s birdwatching, and gardening, paying attention to something outside yourself. It is surprisingly rewarding. This seems like a metaphor, doesn’t it? If we just stay quiet, and still, we can much better observe the world around us, in all its surprise and beauty. Woodpecker and hummingbird were there the whole time; we just don’t usually notice them.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Flower Supermoons, the Art and Science of Birdwatching, and Mother’s Day with Social Distancing

In a time of pandemic, I sustain my sanity the usual ways. Garden. Poetry. Walks. Family. Reading. Tai chi. Going, most of all, for balance and observation. On the lookout for the things that delight me, though those things may seem “small” or easily overlooked.

Which brings me to the book I’ve been savoring, Ross Gay‘s The Book of Delights.

Nicole Rudick, in The New York Review of Books, has already composed a wonderful write-up about The Book of Delights–so I don’t need to. (Do read it: here). But, back to last month’s posts about responses to poetry collections, Gay’s latest–not-poetry, mini-prose, essayettes–evoked from me the response I suppose the author sought from his readers: delight. Delights, plural. Gay’s close observations and slightly goofy sense of what is funny (fallible, silly, skewed but not skewered) feel kin to my own, though my perspective differs from his due to how we are differently embodied and differently socialized, or non-conformist as to said socialization. For any human being, perspective’s inherently lodged in the body; and other people’s perspectives about us, or assumptions about us, are socially based upon the bodies in which we dwell.

Which is to say that he is a Black man in his 40s and I am a White woman in her 60s; yet Ross Gay and I have overlapping backgrounds and interests. Hoosierism and Philadelphia-dwelling, for a time. Poetry. Students, whom we love. Gardening. Passion for figs, awareness of pawpaw fruit and hickory trees. Observers, the sort of people who want to learn more about animal scat and bee species. “Jenky” gardeners. [My term is jury-rigged, but it means about the same thing, without the urban/ghetto connotations: adapting to one’s immediate need without overmuch consumerism…which is to say, making do with a crappy substitute. I learned that from my folks, too.]

And the urge to recognize, and celebrate, delights.

Ann E. Michael, Delights

As we’ve been transitioning from spring to summer and finishing up the last of this year’s curriculum, I can feel our house fall into new rhythms. We don’t follow a strict daily schedule, but sort of an “ish” one–we start school at 8ish, have lunch at 11ish, nap around 1ish, etc.

I’ve finally managed to start waking up before the children; there are seasons where this works for me, and seasons where it doesn’t. I know as I get more pregnant, I’ll not be able to do it anymore, and of course when the new baby comes this August he or she will bring his or her own schedule along with.

Waking up before the kids has been good for me though. During the day and even after B gets home from work, I have very little time where I can sit quietly and think–and consequently, very little time for grief. It is hard to fully feel my emotions and really give my grief space when I’m reading a picture book to D, doing the dishes or helping Z with math. […]

I’ve been keeping up my daily writing practice–usually about 15 minutes during “quiet rest time” in the afternoon–I’ve been a little more strict about this time actually happening, since I’ve been getting more tired and needing the time to actually get off my feet and rest. […]

I know when Quarantine finally lifts we’ll shift again, but this is a pretty pleasant season actually–with all our natural space from each other being taken away from us by forced shelter-in-place, I’ve had to be more purposeful about making space for myself (hard to want to do) and learning how necessary that space is (hard to want to do until you find you have to do it).

My prayer is that I can continue to meet each new season with gratitude and hope.

Renee Emerson, Spring-to-Summer Rhythms

You have such potential, I tell the small oak tree that Tony found sprouting in a damp corner of the lawn, dropped there by a bird, I guess, or perhaps, now I think about it, from one of the oaks the railway men cut down some years ago, to clear the track, then brought the logs up to our barn, the thought not entering anyone’s head that this was not an end, only a beginning.

I draw the line at showing it the photo I took this morning of a great oak sweeping its low branches across sunlit bluebells and resist the weaving and unravelling of any stories of its possible future, after all none of us want our paths mapped out for us by others.

But look how the light on those young leaves illuminates the pulse of chlorophyll. Sometimes it’s the science that breaks open our hearts with gratitude.

Lynne Rees, Sometimes it’s the science…

How many times have I thought that I needed to go back and study medicine? Become a gardener, a carpenter – someone to be stuck on a desert island with.

And here we are, now: socially distanced. Each of us feeling a bit like an island. And each of us looking at what we valued in the work done by the people in our communities.

The nurses, yes. But the people who wash our desks, drive our buses, put the fresh fruit in the bins.

No one is banging on my door to hear me recite an original epic poem. But I find myself answering a phone call from a student on a Saturday afternoon. Because I want to. Because it is what I do.

Nine times out of ten I say the wrong thing. But I talk a lot, so there is that one time when I say what is needed.

And I know I threw out numbers, but I’m not keeping a tally: “You win some, you lose some.” 

I’ve stopped questioning motives. I’ve stopped thinking of myself as a character in a play. (An unexpected advantage to having aged-out of Hollywood storylines.)

Something has shifted in me. Somewhere along these last years I have lost a lot of need, and desire has flooded into that space. And I hadn’t even noticed.

Maybe every kind of truth, told or achieved, must be approached obliquely?

Tell all the truth but tell it slant  – Emily Dickinson

What do you fill your life with? What do you dare to take?

I do believe I am getting old: It’s not that I’ve lost ambition. I’ve lost fear. And it is wonderful.

I have a round life
and it keeps expanding, like
dough rising for bread.

Ren Powell, What We Do With Our Lives

There’s so much I want to say about the beauty of libraries. I’m not yet mourning or grieving the closure of the library. I guess I’m busy looking to the future of libraries. And let me say also, that I have no idea what they’ll be like. That’s not even really my job. I’m lucky that I work where I have perfect confidence in our library system and executive to guide us through this (I’m just gonna use the word however tired we are of it) unprecedented time. The one thing I do feel convinced of is that libraries will persist, they will lead, and they will find a way to do the important things that libraries have always done: libraries share knowledge, they help us to learn and grow, and they will find unique ways to do it.

Do I sound like a library infomercial? I mean, it’s fine if I do. I find hope in libraries, in my library, and I hope you do too. I’ve been criticized in the past for making libraries sound like simply happy cozy places, but I know about the layers; I have lived the layers. I have dived deeply into those layers. In my branch we have a lot of at-risk customers and difficult conversations and tricky behaviours, a lot of really difficult and rewarding and emotionally intense moments every single day. But we are instrumental in guiding and helping and referring people or just being there for them. In fact, that’s what I miss the most. I’ve had conversations with some of my co-workers about this — that this is what we miss most. Helping people. Being there. Listening. Making whatever small difference we’re able to. […]

There are so many things to say about libraries. But I think right now it’s okay just to love them. One of my favourite writers (C.D. Wright) once said about the trees in the Ozarks, “the trees true me.” I would amend that to, “libraries true me.” Wright said of poetry that “the radical of poetry lies not in the resolution of doubts but in their proliferation, in an ongoing interrogation with what Roberto Juarroz called the poet’s one untranslatable song.” What libraries do is what poetry does: they engage in a radical and ongoing interrogation with the untranslatable song of the universe. They live with doubts, they are interested in the human condition, they are never indifferent spectators.

Shawna Lemay, Are You Missing the Library?

I find myself missing my mom, even though she’s still alive, and I can call her later today. My mom is/was a great mom in so many ways, but the one that was perhaps most important to me was that she kept me supplied in books. Before I could drive myself to the library, she drove me and checked out as many books as I wanted (the Montgomery Alabama public library only allowed children to check out 5 books at a time–5 books??!!–I could read that amount in a lazy afternoon!). And when our family only had one car, we biked to the library. She was supportive in any number of my future endeavors too, like writing and drama and choosing a college and writing a dissertation and oh, the list is so long–but all those quests are rooted in my early reading. It was those books that showed me all the possible lives that humans could have. And it was my mom that made it possible for me to have books.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, “Necessity of Moisture”: A Poem for Mother’s Day

I knew only
my mother’s laugh,
her head thrown back,

my father’s tread
on the rising stairs,
and your silence.

Yet, even then,
its bending edge
cast light enough to read by.

Dick Jones, AIW – 2007

I don’t understand her terrible,
insatiable hunger. How she calls
through the day and night
to be fed,
           though she has eaten;
though the day is a conjugation of meals
that will pass through her as if
it is her ghost
                whose mouth closes around
the spoon and gums rice or bread
into pieces that can be swallowed.

Luisa A. Igloria, Poem in Which the Woman I Knew Only as my Mother is Never Appeased

There have been many moments in the past two months when I was again thankful about not having my own children. About the choices I’ve made. Not just the more practical reasons of wanting time for myself, now more than ever, when I see others struggling with work and homeschooling and children that really don’t want to be inside and are going stir-crazy. That would be another life, of course, but I’m not sure I’d be as content in it as I am in my current one. Those desires could probably be called selfish by some , and maybe they are, but it’s a kind of selfish I think is okay. Women shouldn’t have to not be selfish if they don’t want to (and men don’t feel that sort of pressure at all, nor are they burdened with as much of the child-rearing.) But also, the whole other thing– the worry of having children in this world, whether they’re locked in the house, or worse out in the world. How I’m not sure my heart could handle that sort of strain, so endless hats off to all the mothers who manage it without their hearts utterly breaking in half.

Kristy Bowen, mothers and the worry monster

I have never been a mother
to any but four-legged creatures.
Suddenly I have this lethal urge
to hug this young man—
Coronavirus be damned—
tell him he is wonderful
and loved and the world is
better for his presence in it.

I do neither.
I don’t know him.
But I do wish him well
and thank him
for his heroism in this time.
I hope the world will be
the kind of mother
he needs most.

As for me,
today is as good a last day
on earth as any.
Though I’d rather rain
than this balmy sun.
I’ve had a mere five decades to
practice my humanity,
still very much a work in progress.

Lana Hechtman Ayers, Mother’s Day Gift in the Pandemic

When I think of all the things my son is losing this year, I grieve. I tell myself that he’ll be okay, that he’s resilient, that he is learning good tools.

Time becomes fluid. The two months (so far) of sheltering in place and social distancing feel simultaneously shorter and longer than they measurably are.

And of course this is a journey of unknown duration. It’s easier if we know when a thing will end. There is absolutely no knowing when this will end.

And yet life goes on. I make coffee. I cook meals. My son does math problems, plays Minecraft, re-reads a favorite book. It’s like normalcy… almost.

I know how fortunate we are to have something like normalcy. I try not to think about how precarious that is. How easily these comforts could fall away.

Rachel Barenblat, Almost normalcy

In a phone conversation I try to tell my son, the Marine I don’t know when I’ll see again, how the world felt to me when I was growing up in my working class home. Although some definitely had more than others of us, I don’t remember any of the kids I went to school with worrying about food or living in cars or surfing for sofas to sleep on, the way so many do now. In my memory, almost everyone looked down upon racists and fascists and censorship and monopolies and religious zealots, and it was socially taboo to openly express that some of us were lesser than others of us–because we all knew such a belief was wrong. The people I knew respected science and education. We knew there were problems (racism, sexism, all the -isms), but there was such surety in our elders’ belief that we were forever on a march forward, that each generation would do better and have it better than the ones that came before it, their belief felt like fact.

No one I know feels that way now. “I’m worried for our kids,” we say to each other, not in large groups, but privately. Guiltily–not only for not passing on the same prospects, but for having had them when others did not. For not understanding, earlier, that not everyone had them and that others were working to strip them from many of us who did. For wondering what else we might not be seeing now, because having been profoundly blind once, we can surely be as blind again.

My son and I catalog all the ways in which his grandparents and I had it better than any other generations of Americans (including his), which, perhaps, makes us supremely unprepared for this time. “I feel soft,” I admit to him.

“I don’t want to go back in time,” I tell him. I don’t want to go back to an incomplete understanding of my country, or to a time in which so many people like me didn’t understand that only people who looked like us had the kind of security we took for granted. Still, I want my children–everyone’s children–to have what I had, and in profound ways they don’t. “It doesn’t have to be like this,” I say. “We could make so many things better for everyone.” I wonder if my belief is naive, as little tied to evidence as any faith.

Rita Ott Ramstad, What’s left

On Zoom today, I told about how wonderful it was to talk to my mom on the phone when I was young and alone and homesick on my own in the big city. Sometimes I’d call up and say, “I’m sad, sad, sad,” and she would help me remember the beauty of the world. Today on Zoom, my daughter began to tell how I helped her learn to breathe…to handle pain…and then she cried, and I cried, and the Zoom went on, and we had our quiet tears and quiet recovery, and here we are again.

Kathleen Kirk, Mother’s Day, Again

One of the first phrases I underlined in Ruth Dickey’s debut collection, Mud Blooms, occurs on page 5 in “Four-twenty-one,” a poem about a beloved calf Dickey’s parents wouldn’t let her name. It’s the last line: “my brother and me leaning on the fence, stretching our hands through.” The first poem, “Somoto, Nicaragua, #3,” tells you Mud Blooms will be about hunger, but by page 5 you see the book also concerns a longing for connection with the human and more-than-human world, past all the barriers thrown up by difference. Dickey expresses humility about these efforts, especially in her deeply moving poems about working at Miriam’s Kitchen in DC. She orders apples people can’t eat before she knows that “almost everyone who is homeless has dental problems”; “my stupidity galls me,” she adds in an intermittent, abecedarian prose poem sequence called “Alphabet Soup Kitchen.” Sometimes, too, Dickey doubts the worth of her own efforts, because homelessness and hunger are such huge, seemingly intractable problems. There’s so much loss and suffering here, but what impresses you most about the book is its big-heartedness and radical openness. I love this collection and the spirit that shines through it.

Lesley Wheeler, Virtual Salon #10 with Ruth Dickey

A while back, I read an article about the lost art of memorizing poems, and I was intrigued. I resolved to build up a catalog of memorized poems, but I never followed through. Recently, this came up for me again and I decided to actually do it, starting with a beloved favorite, “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry. It’s short and has beats that make it easy to commit to memory, so I figured it was a good one to start with. I only started memorizing it a day or two ago so I don’t have it completely “in there” yet, but the process of memorizing it has given me an even deeper appreciation for the genius of this seemingly simple poem, which is not simple at all. It’s quite the musical feat, actually. I’m excited about this new plan of mine. I can already sense that this process will deepen my appreciation of poetry and help my own poetry improve. But more importantly, if we ever have gatherings again, it will be a great party trick to pull out.

Kristen McHenry, Warrior Mindset Meets Crushing Blow, Bright Spot, Literary Party Trick

I’ve finished Nan Shepherd’s A Living Mountain. I love her sweeping language, totally caught up in her place. As a sweet coincidence, my copy of A Scots Dictionary of Nature by Amanda Thomson has arrived. I knew the author as an artist before I left Scotland, so I was surprised to see there’s not a lot of illustrations in the book and they seem to be photographs. But I’m looking forward to rummaging through the book with ideas for writing. I don’t write in Scots often, but I love the feel of the words I do use. I mean, curl-doddy for a pine cone just screams ‘write a poem about me,’ doesn’t it?

I also ordered Moder Dy/ Mother Wave, a poetry collection by the Shetland writer Roseanne Watt. The poems flit between English and Shetlandic, sometimes as translations, sometimes within the same stanza. I can’t wait to have a look tonight when the craziness of home-schooling and kids has passed. I just had to interrupt writing this to help a child understand his math lesson and because another dropped a laptop on her lip?! But even the first poem pulls me in…

Gerry Stewart, Corona Virus Week Eight: Distracted

When I picked up Madwoman [by Shara McCallum] in my hands, noting what appears to be a scribble and a line drawn in crayon line and also noting its size (slightly larger than standard), I had the sense that I was about to embark on the kind of journey one enters when reading a child’s storybook out loud. And so I began with that feeling, best described, perhaps, at least for me, as a kind of tumbling. Remember rolling down hills as a kid? Anticipated dizziness. Invigoration. Fear. Speed and rocks as questions. The halt at the end both a relief and the realization of wanting more. Except for how the book felt in my hands, I am [not] entirely sure why I settled into reading the book to myself this way (the way we read to children), but I did. In a voice that wasn’t quite mine. In a rhythm that took over and propelled me (like that tumbling). In wide-eyed greeting of characters and struggles and triumphs. Whatever the impetus, I have to say that it worked. I don’t mean to imply that the verse is sing-song. It isn’t. I don’t mean to convey that its themes are simplistic. They are not. But there was something to feigning a kind of innocence in the beginning — and ultimately, of course, watching that innocence unwind itself — that really worked. […]

I can’t stop thinking about this pair of lines: “Stories wake in us what is inconsolable, / begin in us again our animal mewling.” It’s one reason I turn to poetry: to validate my thirst/hunger, which feels — regardless of what I’m craving — absolutely primal. Anyone else?

Carolee Bennett, “the sun / is a mound of butter”

If the mind were a bullet, perhaps it would never stop screaming. But I am not screaming. I am speaking to you in a whisper. I am saying my heart feels vast and bright, like an oasis of spilled ink when writing your name across the sky. I am saying there are bruises that leave the body when sung home by angels. That sometimes the breath calls the voice collect. Inside that breath and voice—light. Torn lives mended. Mended lives torn into the bright confetti for love’s parade. Perhaps I am not phrasing any of this in the right way. What I am trying to say is: we will all reach one another when the time is right.

Rich Ferguson, If the Mind Were a Bullet

Spring is only
this sauntering.

Its leaf-green
offering is

only a tug at
our wanting more

every day than
the grey memory

of winter’s
bitterness.

Tom Montag, SPRING IS ONLY

I had begun to envision this as a digital object, something you could watch while the erased words disappeared before your eyes, and the essay text appeared down the side of the virtual page. But I didn’t know how to do this, nor did I know how to contact an organization or person that did, nor did I know how I would get such a thing out into the world. So I created a paper-based version, at first having the essay text running sideways on each page, so you’d actually physically have to turn the page around. But some beta readers questioned this, so I ran the text across the bottom.

But the idea of a visual version haunted me, so I began experimenting with what software I did know how to use to try to approximate my vision. This was arduous and had several dead ends, but I finally figured out how to make it all happen in iMovie, and created some music/sound and manipulated some of my own photos.

So more than any other collection of poems, this one came together through a series of “lemme try thises” and “maybe I’ll try thats.” I felt through much of the process that I was moving through a combination of instinct and blunder, like walking around a familiar room but in the total dark. I was never entirely comfortable. It was a really stimulating process, and fun, in the end, if a bit bumbly in the middle.

So I encourage you to get uncomfortable. Turn out the lights, get up and wander around. Let something catch your eye and turn toward it, try it. Don’t think too much. Have a little fear, but not too much. Whether my book or video appeal to you or not, you will have a very interesting experience, I can promise you that.

Marilyn McCabe, I don’t know I don’t know; or, On Writing a Chapbook: The Story of Being Many Seeds

This is third haiku/lockdown post I’ve done and I’m beginning to realise I need to hang on to some poems, otherwise I won’t have anything to send out to magazines!

Still, I love the video poem format, no matter how cack-handed I am at it. Poem plus visual image gives such a neat little hit. Also, it’s made me focus on my surroundings and re-instilled a sense of place into my writing. Of course, the lockdown has done this too. I’ve had to stay local and I’ve had to stay in the moment. Form and content have come together in a way I hadn’t thought of as being my sort of thing. I tend to worry if I sit down to write (whether at home or in one of the excellent online workshops the Poetry Business have been running) and don’t produce a sizeable wordcount. Haiku force all that to one side. I’m tempted to sum it up as quality over quantity, except to put a ‘quality’ judgement on work that’s so recent is probably unfair, and not really in the spirit of the endeavour, which is simply this: to remain creative in these strange and difficult times.

I understand that many people’s lockdown experiences will be far more difficult and claustrophobic than mine, so I hope my focus on creativity doesn’t come across as shallow or selfish. It’s just my way of coping, and maybe it’s yours too.

Julie Mellor, Haiku/ lockdown #3

Little Richard’s
obituary on radio
I spill my soup

Jim Young [no title]

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