Optics

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
How can you think
of melancholy as only weakness,
as only the stain 
                  in a row of perfect 

windows radiating cathedral light?
Whoever invented beauty
understood: 
            what moves and lifts us beyond

ourselves, shows us too that vaster space
whose edge, whenever we've tried 
to approach it,  
                        seduces  
through apparitions. And so,

where we imagined 
                  the place we'd fall
through space, we inked monsters: sea
pigs and leviathans, sirens,
pythons 
               in whose gristled mouths whole

basins of stars could drown. We don't pull
sadness out of the air; its molecules live there 
alongside the brighter 
                       atoms of expected happiness— 
Isn't that the way bodies learn to adapt? Never

absorbing more light than they can use,
treasuring what glows even as it disappears.

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 48

Poetry Blogging Network

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.

If you thought that the long holiday weekend in the U.S. would mean less blogging, think again! Some poets never rest, and others write movingly about restfulness. Thanksgiving was examined from all angles, of course, plus I found two different reviews of essay collections by poets, overlapping with several posts about spareness in poetry. Two poetry bloggers are involved with new or newly revived online journals, and I quote those at length. To name just a few highlights. Happy reading!


Freshman year in a seminar college. The class was Astronomical Physics and Cosmology. For context, Hubble had discovered red shift galaxies in 1929; cosmic microwave background was detected in 1964; Wilson and Penzias won the Nobel Prize–three years after my freshman year–for their work, which led to confirmation of an expanding universe. The term “black holes” was relatively new, coined during the mid-60s; and a theoretical explanation of them had not yet been determined. Oh, and because desk calculators were large and prohibitively expensive, my fellow students and I were using slide rules for calculations.

Did I mention I had never taken a maths course beyond Algebra 2?

But our professor was enthusiastic and encouraging and loved using metaphors to help our teenaged brains decipher challenging concepts. I have forgotten most of his analogies, but the ballooniverse stayed with me. Everything in the universe is moving away from everything else. Our future is distance.

So it seems at present. Each of us moving away from one another. Defoe’s narrator says the best method of avoiding plague was to run from it.

But oh, my Beloveds, how I wish to be close to you.

Ann E. Michael, Expanding universe

In the center of February — or was it March? I cannot tell from this vantage point, but it was the middle point of a month, a segment of time that can seem rather long depending on what you are waiting for: an exam result, a diagnosis, or a child’s birth, yours or someone else’s, an answer from an editor or a love, the love you long for or the one you already have secured, like money in the bank you can draw from steadily for the rest of your life – a lottery of sorts. So, in the center of February, it was certainly cold — the kind of cold that makes you go to bed fully clothed on some nights because you won’t bare your nakedness to the lonely air so you slip off your boots, curl your socks and jeans and sweater and scarf, all of it, under the down duvet and breathe beneath the cover: in for 5, hold for 5, out for 10, to slow your heart rate because you are nervous for some reason — maybe because it’s in the center of February and you are alone —but that was then, in the center of a different February and in the center of the next you won’t be alone because you have a love secured who keeps you warm at night and you can count on that like money in the bank.

Cathy Wittmeyer, Starting with a Line from Patti Smith

After heartbreak, the thought of another love, a tender love, can become a dry territory to be skirted, or walled off. Not in Lucy Ingrams’ Light-fall. Here, ‘loved me    loved me not’ exist in the same breaths and curvatures, to love, have loved, ‘is to carry  …  is to be carried away.’

Reading these poems again and again has enabled for me a different vision of what it is to be alert and sentient in the world after a thinning love: they are open with courage, even when (especially when?) ‘weary of flowers’.

Bound in the familiarly confident Flarestack style, each page holds levers, phrases and twists of sound, which shift and interact to unlock sensations of light and thorn, and above all a strange hope.

It is rare to find a pamphlet in which every poem sings, and I enjoyed so much about this from the very start. Its lines flex, supple as the sea rendered in the exquisite opening poem, Swimmer, right up to the final exhalation of Blue hour. The rich imagery of intimacy and distance ranges across landscapes and seasons, with an originality that requires close attention.

Liz Lefroy, I Review Lucy Ingrams’ Light-fall

This full moon is called the Frost Moon or the Mourning Moon, which makes sense, as my family is still mourning the loss of my grandmother from coronavirus, and so many others are mourning loved ones lost this year. Wishing peace, love, and light to all of us who have lost love ones.

I haven’t been sleeping well since she died, and I haven’t been able to write or send out work at all, which I guess might be normal during a time of mourning. I was lucky, at my age, to still have grandparents left, I think. This year has been so, so hard for so many reasons. As a poet, I feel I should be coming up with better ways to say that. Will next year be any better? With the vaccine on the horizon, and a new President, maybe we have reason for hope.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Low-Key Thanksgiving, a Mourning Moon, Closing Out the Year, and the Necessity of Early Holiday Cheer

But aren’t you better than a moon that cannot account
for borrowed light? Some things are better upside

down. Some things are better displaced. What if the
morning shifts as it wakes up in pain in your bed? What

if the evening changes the locus of your dream?

Rajani Radhakrishnan, Things still broken

It’s raining, a dreary gray-drenched drizzly rain. But rain blurs, takes the detail from things. What is data in rain? What is insistent, goal-driven argument? What is rain plus holiday? A chance to lay down my arms. Rest in a different kind of time. Steep in blue-gray pointillism where we can see ourselves in a continuous, constantly reimagined line. There were parents who puzzled the mysteries of cranberries and giving thanks during a World War; we once ran around Paris searching for airelles, cranberries, in a self-appointed quest. And in small pods, today all figurations of “we” will be losing some of our grievances. Yes, puzzling the mysteries of celebrating during crisis. Yes, cognizant of all the suffering and challenges – God knows we’re in the soup. At the same time celebrating the soup.

Jill Pearlman, thanksgiving in blue, quince and gray

A lump in the potatoes
proves they’re real. The masher
blames distractions, so many
people in the kitchen. The gravy maker
stays focused while other pans
change places, the drawer
at his elbow opens, closes, opens.

Ellen Roberts Young, Thanksgiving Poem

It occurred to me earlier this week that this is the first time ever in my whole life I am not spending Thanksgiving in Rockford amid some sort of family gathering or somesuch.  It’s strange, but I’ve been happily planning my menu and plotting crockpot action and content to sit this one out and get a few days at home. […] I’m sure there will be a lot of texting with my bestie over our solo cooking exploits and cat antics, and a phone call with my dad later tonight. I’m mostly grateful for a few days in which I don’t have to pretend to be a fully functioning human amid a national health crisis and can just veg. 

As for gratitude posts, it always reeks of a certain “live.life.love” vibe, thrown around by rich white women in yoga pants, but even still amidst the bad things, there are good things to be thankful for.  Family, friends,  sound relationships.  Jobs and health, things that seem to be in jeopardy most this season around us, but are holding steady.  Poems and the chance to work with other writers to make lovely books.  Art and reading, though these have been harder to get back to when my mind is in pandemic mode. Chicago and Lake Michigan, still here and still varying shades of blue.  My cozy apartment and a whole bunch of crazy cats. 

I had a lot of goals at the beginning of the year that, of course, did not pan out, but other things happened–virtual art exhibits & new ways of looking at library programming, entire manuscripts of poems, learning to make video poems, stepping back and re-evaluating some things in how I conduct myself as a writer in the world.  All good things amid the creeping fear. Also, gratitude for good decisions on a national level, and though the world is about 49 percent fucked up, racist , self-interested, deeply stupid and backward, the election proved that good wins by a slim majority, so at least its something and bodes well for 2021. And it’s something we can all be thankful for. 

Kristy Bowen, happy thanksgiving

For my friends, family & mighty lioness daughter.

Thanks for those with green thumbs & purple hearts, those that tickle me pink & others that arrive from outta the blue.

Praise for bringers of incense, flowers & music. All the poets, writers & artists that have inspired me, coaxed me off ledges of temporary insanity & uncertainty.

Graces to the teachers & healers, zen masters & car mechanics.

Mother Nature & the Mothers of Invention, animal vets & pets that say the most profound things with their eyes.

Grateful for the ground under my feet & roof over my head.

Indebted to the lights that still burn bright—in my apartment, my heart & mind.

Rich Ferguson, Longitudes & Latitudes of Gratitude

            thanksgiving 

                    so many 

                    empty chairs

Sharon Brogan, Thanksgiving 2020

I’ve been to two physical launches of issues of Magma poetry magazine. Both involved exhausting, expensive and time-consuming journeys from Somerset to London and back. Last Thursday I had the pleasure of attending a virtual Magma launch without travelling or expense. It was warm and intimate, with magnificent readings and the usual Zoomy glitches. Not by any means to be confused with gloomy Zitches. (Which, since you asked, is Urdu for “stalemates”.)

Magma 78 is mostly about collaborations. It is a rewarding and exciting read.

It got me thinking about other collaborations. I’ve been involved in a few, one of which was “Waterwoven”, a half-hour performance of poems about water. A sound-collage for six voices and rain-stick. Forty-two poems by six poets were cut up and rearranged to form a sequence for performance, beginning with the first drops of rain and ending with the vastness of the Atlantic. Solid blocks of blank verse were whittled down to slender elliptical stanzas. Sonnets and villanelles were ruthlessly dismembered. Many opening lines and first stanzas were discarded. Choruses emerged. We had the first draft of a script. Through four weeks of rehearsal it was refined bit by bit by all of us. Another week of rehearsal might have yielded further changes. We performed it in Bath Poetry Cafe and at Bristol Poetry Festival … and in the Literature tent at Priddy Folk Festival. The neighbouring tent was the venue for a programme of rousing sea shanties. I do love a rousing sea shanty, but …

Ama Bolton, On collaborations

November 2020 is the centenary of Paul Celan’s birth, and in 2020 it is also 50 years since he died. I have often written about him in this blog, but it has been lovely to see him widely commemorated this year and especially in this past month, even if many events had to be moved online due to the pandemic. And this has its advantages – in the past couple of weeks I attended a couple of excellent Celan events from Deutsches Haus in New York, despite living in the UK. 

While Celan’s poetry is often considered difficult, he has managed to gain legions of readers who haven’t been put off by this discouraging label and who often (like myself) can’t read him in German, the language in which he wrote most of his poetry. Sometimes if I’m looking at Twitter late at night (a bad habit) I find myself searching to see who’s tweeting about Celan all over the world (a good habit, or at least a better habit). English is by no means the dominant language, and I’m not sure German is either – he seems particularly popular in Spanish and Turkish. 

Celan’s identity is very difficult to pin down in any way. He was Jewish, but that isn’t necessary the dominant influence on his work (although it is massive). He was German-speaking but not German. He was Romanian, but his hometown of Chernivtsi is now in Ukraine. His greatest poetic work came from years in Paris, and he worked as a translator with many languages. All of this has probably succeeded in making him more universal. His poems are like radio transmissions directly from his mind and heart, in an new language, untranslated, somehow and mysteriously unmediated in a way that is different from most other poetry. The silences, gaps and elisions in his poems are also like the moments when the radio waves break up – but they are entirely deliberate, an essential part of the work of art, at times the most essential.

Clarissa Aykroyd, Remembering Paul Celan, 1920-1970

Like a new-
born heaving

for breath, the
poem has

preference for
air. Do not

hold back from
white space and

stanza break.
Let light shine

through the lines.

Tom Montag, INSTRUCTION

Okay, now I have gotten past the intro [to Synthesizing Gravity], and yes, yes to many of these erudite little essays in which Kay Ryan thinks her Kay Ryan-ish delighted thoughts on poems that interest her interesting mind. I have had some friends in my life like Kay Ryan in whom I totally delight and with whom I’m always a little anxious. These are people SO much smarter than I am, totally idiosyncratic in their brilliance, and they just dazzle without being anything grand or fancy but just being their often small-seeming, darkly quietly brilliant selves. And I’m anxious that they find me likable and never discover the dolt I am. This is what Kay Ryan would be like if I could be her friend. And I would love to be her friend. Or at least her roommate at an AWP conference, about which she devotes one hilarious essay, her reluctant attendance at an AWP as a visiting alien, wide-eyed and exhausted by the planet-change. 

Here is something she says, in the context of considering a Robert Frost poem, but so relevant to the poetry writing process in general, I think, and relevant to a discussion I had recently with a poet friend. About her spare, crystalline poems, which I often find engimatic, I’m constantly asking basically, “Can you tell us just a little bit more?” Ryan says: “The amount you need to say is so hard to gauge. How much can you not say, and something will still have the charge of the unsaid? There is a point at which what is said is too pale, or frail, one fears, to tip the mind into the unsaid. And the reason for the pallor might not be punctilio but a genuine failure of force.”

I had to look up “punctilio” (“a fine or petty point of conduct or procedure”) and in so doing sort of lost track of things, but she’s addressing, I believe, choice-making — how to choose the words/syntax/form that will carry the greatest resonance, undone by either too much or too little actual information. 

Here, from another essay, this one considering William Carlos Williams, she comes at the same question from the other end: “How much can you take away? It’s always a question. Or maybe it’s exactly the wrong question, posed like that. If you think you are taking away, then you probably are — diminishing something. You have to be looking for something, feeling for the contours of the thing inside the distractions, trying to add just a little bit moreto what you know.”

All this is to say that Kay Ryan is a delightful essayorial companion, and I’m enjoying this collection without the anxiety of worrying about whether she is enjoying me.

Marilyn McCabe, I want you to show me the way; or, On Reading Kay Ryan

From Driftpile Cree Nation writer Billy-Ray Belcourt, Canada’s first First Nations Rhodes Scholar, comes his non-fiction debut, the rich and remarkable A History of My Brief Body (Columbus OH: Two Dollar Radio, 2020). The author of the poetry collections This Wound Is a World (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2017), winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, and NDN Coping Mechanisms:Notes from the Field (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2019) [see my review of such here], A History of My Brief Body is a collection of short essays that blend lyric memoir, critical theory, life writing and confessional on his cultural and contemporary self, blended together into a commentary on grief, sexuality, gender, colonialism and the body across fourteen sharply brilliant and beautifully written essays. As he writes early on in “AN NDN BOYHOOD”: “Perhaps this pressurized orientation to memory—a body in the present—is always the case with life-writing. The writ  is called on by others to do the politically significant and ethically charged work of construction and then documentation. This is my job to report from the scene of an undead past colliding with a still-to-be-determined future.” Belcourt’s view is unflinching, writing on the cultural and sexual self and the contexts around which he emerged and exists, writing the dark underpinnings of racism and homophobia, the falterings of any coming-of-age and sexual awakenings, and the ongoing personal and family legacies of the residential school system, as well as multiple other concerns, experiences and explorations. As he writes to open the title essay: “Let’s start with the body, for so much is worn and lost, and lost and lost there.” The essays centre around the body, as the body is where everything is felt, everything ends, and everything begins. And from the foundation of the body, so too does he write on the requirements and statements around desire, and the possibilities, joys and complications of desire. And from there, his essays open into a meditative suite of incredible depth, range and complexity. As he asks early on, how does one exists in such a space of constant erasure and denial, citing experiences around his culture, his family and his sexuality?

rob mclennan, Billy-Ray Belcourt, A History of My Brief Body

It’s ok to not be ok

That’s what the Samaritans say and you often find this mantra in places of extremity like bridges or rail-tracks. I recall having a blazing row with a university friend of mine from Madeira about how it was more seemly to hide your feelings – ala the stiff upper lip of the butler in Remains of the Day – but he maintained that we should pour out our emotions with wild abandon. Now, nearly fifteen years on, I agree with him.

To be honest, I don’t know what the done thing is. I tend to waver between apathy and lachrimae. But when it comes to writing poetry it seems that it’s not ok to say what you feel. In my most recent publications I’ve been criticised for laying myself bare and making myself too vulnerable via self-deprecation. There’s a thin line between not being ok and being self-pitying, it seems.

I think the problem is inherent in the marketing of poetry. There are so many people clamouring for attention in such a small arena. You have to play the big-shot at all times – you have to give out the impression that you’re a grand fromage when you aren’t. Modern poetry – that is to say the stuff that is successful now and wins all the (yawn) prizes – doesn’t dare for a second doubt itself. I find that a great shame. Poetry for me is the dramatisation of aporia or deep doubts within ourselves. But in order to sell poetry (and thus yourself) you have to be bumptious – these two drives are inherently incompatible. When did the sales-people take over poetry?

It’s ok to not be ok – but don’t for a moment get ideas above your station and think you can write poetry that matters from it – that will never sell!

Richie McCaffery, It’s ok to not be ok

My booklet on getting published in UK poetry mags is selling even better than the first edition – wowsers! And THANK YOU for buying it, telling your friends/students/social media contacts all about it.

Planet Poetry, the podcast I co-host with Peter Kenny, is generating some lovely comments. Thank you for that too! Working with Peter on the podcast has been one of the things keeping me positive.

There’s so much I’m enjoying about the course I’m doing, not least of all how it’s opening my eyes to so much great poetry and ideas about poetry that I’d never have encountered otherwise. My bookshelf is bulging. There’s enough reading there to keep me going for the rest of my life, I think.

We’re still planning on having a scaled-down Lewes Singers Christmas concert: venues and singers booked, music distributed. It’ll be intimate. But OH HOW MUCH Nick and I want it to happen, even if we’re only singing to ourselves and a handful of friends and family.

Robin Houghton, – and + and so it goes

For the last couple of months, I’ve been carving out a minimum of half every weekday morning to work on my poems. I’ve enjoyed the time to focus (albeit initially with a slight annoyance that it took me 6 months of lockdown to get into this rhythm, but I’m over that now) and to a degree, I’m reaping some of the benefits in the sense of having written at least 5 poems I’d say are among my best (so far) and have revisited some older ones to improve them. One of the newer ones, while declined by a big mag (and editor/poet I have long been a fan of), came very close to publication.

Adding to that a lovely day yesterday and today celebrating my wife’s birthday, and coupling all of that with getting two of the five reviews I have to write out of the door this week has meant that a stressful and mentally demanding week has, on balance, been a good week.

However, it was when Rachael came upstairs to my little office midweek that the best bit of the week happened. She saw me writing a draft of a poem I’ve had floating about for years. I thought it was done but I went back to it to see if I could get it ready in time to submit to a web journal that had a limited submissions window. I didn’t manage to finish it in time, and the poems I did send were declined this week too, but that’s by the by.

Rach came up, placed a cup of tea by my notepad and saw the handwritten draft with my near illegible to anyone other than me handwriting on. When I draft I use stress (/) and unstressed () symbols to make sure I’m on the right track. It helps keep track of syllable counts (other methods are available and perfectly valid, of course). She looked at the scratches and scribbles, the crossings out and the symbols and declared in her most-matter-of-fact-way, “You just make marks on the page”.

Mat Riches, Interested Parties

Ozric, my lurcher, has become integral to my writing process because most of the poems I write these days are composed when I’m out walking.

Billy Collins, in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, talks about the habit of walking and writing haiku: ‘I got into the habit of walking with her [his dog] every morning along the shore of the reservoir, and almost every morning I would try to compose a haiku before I got back home’.

I don’t know about Collins, but I don’t carry a notebook on my walks, at least not in the mornings. For one thing, there isn’t time. Also, I think that carrying a notebook would be an obvious signal to my brain that I was going out to write a poem and that’s the very antithesis of what I’m doing. It’s a dog walk, with all the attendant issues of route and timing, head torch and poo bags. Weekday mornings I’m out by 6.20 am when the world is still largely silent. I’m always tired but once I’m out, I experience a sort of alertness that I see in the dog, all his senses engaged. It’s a sort of openness, a state in which the smallest details become noticeable and important.

Daily composition has resulted in a lot of haiku, although if I’m brutally honest with myself, most aren’t any good. However, there’s been a shift in my focus. Morning or evening, I’m more inclined to be listening to the wind or watching my breath mist in the light of the headtorch beam, than fretting about work or whether to put the washer on when I get home. Sometimes, I stop at the brow of the hill and take a minute to just stand and gaze at the moon. It might be cold and windy, but the moon is so changeable it is proving to be infinitely interesting. That’s the brilliant thing about haiku, by the way, there’s still room for poems about the moon!

Julie Mellor, Presence

We had eaten and were watered. Now we retired to the snug, for a conversation on mental health, our experiences of losing, finding and sustaining it, for others as well as ourselves. The space was safe and brave. Raw recollection was admitted. There were silences, there was laughter.

We did not arrive at an answer, a one-size fits all bag of tricks or tips that each of us would be able to call into play the following Monday morning. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we were aware of a fixed point, but in the end there was only the dance.

Into the final space of sharing one of us read the poem above, transporting us all to that time of not understanding, feeling left out, bullied, or ignored that we call school. There was another silence. Not a poetry-reading silence, filled with hmmms, but the silence of a room of souls confronting their own vulnerability. Several of our heads were bowed, as though in prayer.

Into the silence one of our voices spoke up. It said: ‘I bloody hate poetry.’ At which point the room erupted into laughter, helplessly, for fully five minutes.

I look back at that moment with great fondness. For its honesty. For the mismatch between the intended outcome of the sharing and the actuality of what happened. For its sheer comic timing. For that person, what had started out with one English teacher’s passion (‘You will love this…’) had led, poem by weary poem, week by mismatched week, to poetry not hitting the mark, to irritation, to loathing, to giving up.

It happens.

When we expect poetry to manufacture a solution which will somehow magic the actuality of the awfulness of this moment away. Into the gap between this huge expectation (and I am one of those who expects to have their mind blown with every poem) and the poem is where the actual poem takes its place. It is ‘what we missed’, whether we hate poetry or not.

Anthony Wilson, What you missed

When 2020 began, it wasn’t my intention to return to my poetry site And Other Poems – to be honest, I’ve been enjoying not reading through submitted poems, replying to enquiries, accepting or rejecting poems (never easy to say “no thank you” to someone, especially people who I count as friends or who I’ve got to know well), formatting poems in WordPress, chasing poets up for bio’s and sharing poems on social media.  But then… Covid-19 happened.  As spring has turned to summer to autumn and nearly winter, and the UK is still immersed in various levels of lockdown, the thought crossed my mind that people might like somewhere to place poems they’ve been writing.

But I wasn’t keen to give myself ‘work’ because this year I’ve been trying to progress various writing projects, poetry and prose, and I didn’t want to ‘gift’ myself with any extra form of procrastination.  But the niggly thought remained that I wasn’t doing anything for the Poetry Effort!  These are tough times and it’s all hands to the pump! Or all hands to Zoom for poetry readings, in any case. With IRL poetry festivals and events cancelled, the online readings are booming and I’m not pulling my weight by taking part in any, as a host or audience member.

If not Zooming (because I’m not a fan) what could I offer the poetry community, I asked myself, because I do like to contribute something to the poetry world.  Everyone knows that poetry is mostly read by people who write poetry (although I’m sure this will change one day!) so if I wasn’t giving out to the poetry ‘economy’ why should I expect anything back? The tipping point for opening up submissions to AOP was the US election, when we were waiting for results.  I badly needed some kind of distraction, the tension was becoming unbearable!  And I’m not even American.  But, as a citizen of the world, I was feeling anxious about the outcome.  And that is why I opened a smallish window for And Other Poems, from 6 – 15 November (quietly mentioned in a previous post).

The poems began to arrive at once and I started to accept them immediately, reading at speed and posting them up on the site.  Because why wait? Who cares about conventions, especially in the time of a pandemic.  Inevitably, my fast reading has probably meant that some magnum opus has slipped away without me noticing – it wouldn’t be the first time. I made myself promise that I would only post poems that made a strong connection with me and that I thought would connect with readers.  I’m trying to choose a variety of different poems rather than all of the same kind.  I like it when I sense poets aren’t playing safe.

In all, 173 poets sent in a total of 726 poems during this submissions window.  I will reply to everyone and certainly within the next few weeks. I mention this just in case you’re reading this and expecting to hear from me.

My reward, as always always is the case, has been the poetry.  What beautiful, knockout, fresh, funny, heart-melting, vibrant poems people are writing.  What a privilege to be able to read them.

I’m posting poems four times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays, from now until the end of January, 2021.  And then, And Other Poems will be taking a rest again.  For the time being.  I do have some plans to possibly find a way of opening submissions again.  I will keep you informed.  National Blog Writing Month has gone to pot.

Josephine Corcoran, Reading many poems

I was delighted to learn today that my poem from This Embodied Condition – “The Descent,” a weird hybrid prose-poem/cadralor series (with liberties taken) – has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

There is so little acknowledgement, never mind real celebration, of our work so much of the time that when it comes, it’s a lovely boost in our largely solitary pursuit.

That difficult poem also led to a connection with Gleam, the Journal of the Cadralor, for which I’m now a contributing editor.

I’d been sitting out public roles in the PoBiz, purposely, for the last 3 years, and had also taken a real break from publishing, having experienced what they call a ‘post-traumatic transformation’ of values after having my spine renovated. It left me with deep commitment to very literally embodied pursuits, and zero interest anymore in playing the games involved in being Important in the Literary World (or ever working 110 hours a week again – when only paid for 40, if that).

But the newness of this form and the journal celebrating and advancing it attracted me. There is a just-born energy in the cadralor itself, and a humble, radiant, intense flooding that it seems to inspire, that has real magic. The people associated are great – and just in love with poets, as it should be.

Sliding back into an editor’s chair in this particular context has been a total joy. It also allowed me to invite some people I intuited might connect with it to try their hand at the form, and it’s been a radical pleasure to see them just SLAY in response – particularly since for some of them, poetry itself is a new art form, or like me, they’d been sitting out the more commodified areas of the art, burned or disgusted by the high stakes and expenditures for, let’s be honest: low return. It is much more in the unofficial channels that actually exciting dialogue happens, much of the time, and I’m thrilled to be able to make bridges between these worlds when and as I can.

The idea, with the cadralor (which you can’t tell from mine because of aforementioned liberties) is:

The cadralor is a poem of 5, unrelated, numbered stanzaic images, each of which can stand alone as a poem, is fewer than 10 lines, and ideally constrains all stanzas to the same number of lines. Imagery is crucial to cadralore: each stanza should be a whole, imagist poem, almost like a scene from a film, or a photograph. The fifth stanza acts as the crucible, alchemically pulling the unrelated stanzas together into a love poem. By “love poem,” we mean that your fifth stanza illuminates a gleaming thread that runs obliquely through the unrelated stanzas and answers the compelling question: “For what do you yearn?” 

It is left to the poet’s discretion to decide how much, if any, contextual connection or linguistic connection will exist between the stanzas. The more unrelated in context, the sharper–riskier–the poem. Ultimately, the more unrelated the stanzas, the more successful the poem will be as a cadralor: they contain oblique connections that are illuminated by the fifth stanza. End punctuation between stanzas is also at the discretion of the poet.”

There is something ghazal-ish about them in feel, for me, but they also can go in so many directions that it’s been endless surprise to discover what other writers are doing with them.

I can promise you a wide range of approaches and some just gobsmacking work in the launch issue, coming soon now, to be celebrated at Gleam Journal in the week after Thanksgiving, and in a Zoom launch party and reading (come join us!) December 6th at 7pm EST.

I’m so glad for this bright spot in what is increasingly an apocalyptic landscape.

JJS, The good, the bad, the ugly: on Gleam Journal, covid apocalyptica, and the lovely bones of poets

It seems to be a widely acknowledged fact that time has been speeding up over the last few years in current affairs and newsfeeds, especially in terms of how quickly one major story is replaced by another (often on puropose, so as to bury bad news quickly!).This effect has also been noticeable in the poetry world, meaning that every magazine issue, new collection or review has a shorter time in the sun.

However, the pandemic seems to have accelerated that process even more. Zoom launches pile up, one on top of another, while social media races ever more quickly onwards, spitting out promotional posts, mini-reviews and quotes as it goes. Attention spans appear to shrink on a daily basis; books sink without trace. 

In normal circumstances, a collection would still be very much alive six months after coming out. Right now, I’ve spotted several friends bemoaning the fact that their 2020 publications have already vanished from view.

In this context, it’s important to pause, take a deep breath and keep subscribing to print-based journals with a greater time lag and thus a longer life, while also forcing ourselves to read more substantial texts online such as essays and blog reviews instead of scrolling through Twitter. Poets will thank us for doing so, while in purely selfish terms we won’t miss out on stuff that would otherwise pass us by. Most of all, we might slow down and actually take the time to snaffle a poem properly, read it, re-read it and read it again…

Matthew Stewart, Time is speeding up

This morning the crows’ chatter was grating. It shouldn’t have been. But in the dark, in the drizzle, with my shoulders aching and my mind echoing conversations (that have and haven’t actually taken place), I wanted to shout back.

I’ve always found it easiest to shift my perspective when I shift it in the material world. Stand-up. Run. Leave town for a day. Leave the country for a week. For good. How big is the thing I need perspective on?

I wanted to rush through their gathering
the way the freight train does on most mornings,
so close to the grove you can feel the wind
rerouted by its intrusion.
The trees shake. The crows wait.

I can hear it now, actually – right on cue – passing behind the neighbor’s house, metal against metal in a high-pitched howl. I can feel a cry somewhere
behind my sternum. It presses
upward and is easy to mistake for heartburn,
though not acidic: rounder, fuller
like an over-ripe fruit.

Nothing like metal shavings of the railroad track, actually.
Nothing that can compete with the world’s ills and hurts and
imperatives.

No. This withheld cry will soften into rot
and something new will eventually
emerge. A new fruit – not better – but
a potential. Because
on it goes.

And catharsis? Well, that’s the stuff
of fiction.

Ren Powell, When It’s Just Too Much

Sacramento Valley. Dusk.
Another sunset.
Up and out from under the causeway,
The bats take flight. By the thousands.
Higher, above, a red-tail hawk circles the floodplain.
And in the town?
The sounds of knives and forks against plates.
Television sets light the windows.
Define loneliness;
That empty feeling, multiplied by silence.
Your face in the mirror.
Sacramento Valley. Dusk.
Another sunset.

James Lee Jobe, That empty feeling, multiplied by silence.

Dear Mom: I wear you draped around my shoulders almost every day now. The first thing I claimed from your closet was a cashmere shawl. It is a light color, somewhere between brown and grey, like a northern squirrel in wintertime. It is soft as baby hair. Your clothes were so spectacular, and your shoes, but none of them would fit me. But this wrap is one-size-fits-all. 

It’s been a strange autumn, but November’s cold and damp have finally settled in. Your shawl lives folded on the back of my chair, and every morning I wrap it around myself like a tallit. Its wings warm me and protect me. Sometimes when I put it on I say “hi, Mom.” Sometimes when I walk past the photograph of us in my bedroom, I greet you there too. 

Soon I will hold Crossing the Sea in my hands. What would you make of it? I hope it would make you glad. To know that I am still thinking of you (will always be thinking of you). I imagine sending you a copy, there on the other side. Maybe the reference to mango mousse would make you smile, or the cheery tulips on Park Avenue, or the pale green purse (once yours) that I carry now every spring.

I carry you now. You’ve become so light on my shoulders I scarcely feel you there. Maybe that’s because your soul has ascended. Maybe that’s because my grief has ascended, transmuted, turned mostly into memory. But I feel the warmth of the shawl I took from your closet. I wear it every day. And if I listen closely enough, I can still hear the piano notes reverberating from the last time I heard you play.

Rachel Barenblat, A letter to the other side

In this time of continued suffering and uncertainty, it feels wrong, somehow, to feel as good as I have this long weekend. But what I’ve seen these past few days, more clearly than I did even in the spring, is that some aspects of pandemic life are good for me, and when we are past this enough to safely gather again, there are things from these months that I want to hold onto.

I know that it might not be easy; if I excuse myself from fast-paced living and unnecessary obligation I won’t have the ready excuse of a pandemic, which no one in my circle has questioned or pushed back on. I have been able to say both “yes” and “no” to things I normally might not, without hurting anyone’s feelings or disappointing anyone’s expectations (including my own). We have been giving each other all kinds of grace in acknowledgement of the hard time we are living through.

As I’m feeling myself come back to physical and mental wellness from just these few days of deep rest, I’m wondering: Couldn’t we maybe keep doing that for each other? It’s not like anyone I know was living particularly easy before last March. Couldn’t we keep accepting these kinds of choices as being necessary for our health (in the widest, most global sense)?

The things I want in my life are not controversial (or shouldn’t be). I want fewer superficial connections and more deep ones. I want more time at home, living slowly. I want time to rest my body and time to move it. I want to do and have fewer things, and I want the things I do have to be the right things. I want to take more long walks, spend less money, eat more good food, make more things, and live in such a way that I support people and causes that make this world the kind I’d like to live in.

I don’t know exactly how I’m going to do it, once the world starts back up again, but that’s OK for now. Figuring out what we want is sometimes the hardest part of getting it.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Choose your own adventure

The reason that I remain so stubbornly dedicated to my job, my community, my little neighborhood hospital, is that I’ve always known in the back of my mind that I have no control over anything else. My life was not meant to be big. I, like many before me who have served that hospital, was meant to be a small but meaningful light in a small but meaningful space, a space that for all its flaws and daunting issues is a place of healing and rescue, of renewal and restoration. And we are about to be very, very full of people needing all of those things. And I will do my part. I cannot control the virus or the fate of the economy or the political machinations going on with of either of those things. I can’t help the enslaved, the tortured, the starving, the victims of bombings and unjust wars across the world. I can’t rescue anyone but myself. I have to protect myself, take care of myself, and stand strong. It will not do for me to fall apart, to, as the song puts it, “be idle with despair.”I can only take solace in the fact that I am needed and that I have a community to serve.

To not end this on a total bummer: In spite of the fact that games are not adequately distracting me anymore, Steam had a huge sale this weekend and I downloaded the Witcher 3. None of the other Witcher games ever worked right on my computer, but I have a good video card now and this one works great. I am taking great solace in the fact that Geralt, the titular character, is a freak. Being a witcher is very stigmatized and he is essentially a lonely wanderer. Everyone wants his “special skills” and help, but no one really wants to associate with him other than transactionally. I’m enjoying playing a character in perpetual pain. It’s weirdly comforting right now.

Kristen McHenry, Gloom Train

plant the seed where seeds don’t grow
in the dark places
walk away
does it matter if it grows
the lonely word drops letters
everywhere it goes with you
loneliness drops hints
that every letter parchment bound
never adds or removes from the world
never blooms or runs to seed
but sits there with you friend

Jim Young, take the word loneliness

And is there a word  for the new  

scar inflicted by your silence? for how it’s fallen
on a threshold where we’ll walk, knowing

every other door is barred from within? In this world,
the cold, hard bread of the moon leaves

a trail for the broken to follow: they come to the water
looking for a thistle, a lily; silver shoots along its hairline.

Who knows how long it will take. Who knows if by then
we’ll remember the sound of each other’s voice. 

Luisa A. Igloria, Given a wing, what would you fashion

Bleeding edge

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up betimes, and by water with Sir R. Ford (who is going to Parliament) to Westminster; and there landing at the New Exchange stairs, I to Sir W. Coventry: and there he read over to me the Prince’s and the Duke of Albemarle’s Narratives; wherein they are very severe against him and our Office. But W. Coventry do contemn them; only that their persons and qualities are great, and so I do perceive is afeard of them, though he will not confess it. But he do say that, if he can get out of these briars, he will never trouble himself with Princes nor Dukes again. He finds several things in their Narratives, which are both inconsistent and foolish, as well as untrue, especially as to what the Duke of Albemarle avers of his knowing of the enemy’s being abroad sooner than he says it, which W. Coventry will shew him his own letter against him, for I confess I do see so much, that, were I but well possessed of what I should have in the world, I think I could willingly retreat, and trouble myself no more with it.
Thence home, and there met Sir H. Cholmly, and he and I to the Excise Office to see what tallies are paying, and thence back to the Old Exchange, by the way talking of news, and he owning Sir W. Coventry, in his opinion, to be one of the worthiest men in the nation, as I do really think he is. He tells me he do think really that they will cut off my Lord Chancellor’s head, the Chancellor at this day showing as much pride as is possible to those few that venture their fortunes by coming to see him; and that the Duke of York is troubled much, knowing that those that fling down the Chancellor cannot stop there, but will do something to him, to prevent his having it in his power hereafter to avenge himself and father-in-law upon them. And this Sir H. Cholmly fears may be by divorcing the Queen and getting another, or declaring the Duke of Monmouth legitimate; which God forbid! He tells me he do verily believe that there will come in an impeachment of High Treason against my Lord of Ormond; among other things, for ordering the quartering of soldiers in Ireland on free quarters; which, it seems, is High Treason in that country, and was one of the things that lost the Lord Strafford his head, and the law is not yet repealed; which, he says, was a mighty oversight of him not to have it repealed, which he might with ease have done, or have justified himself by an Act.
From the Exchange I took a coach, and went to Turlington, the great spectacle-maker, for advice, who dissuades me from using old spectacles, but rather young ones, and do tell me that nothing can wrong my eyes more than for me to use reading-glasses, which do magnify much.
Thence home, and there dined, and then abroad and left my wife and Willett at her tailor’s, and I to White Hall, where the Commissioners of the Treasury do not sit, and therefore I to Westminster to the Hall, and there meeting with Col. Reames I did very cheaply by him get copies of the Prince’s and Duke of Albemarle’s Narratives, which they did deliver the other day to the House, of which I am mighty glad, both for my present information and for my future satisfaction. So back by coach, and took up my wife, and away home, and there in my chamber all the evening among my papers and my accounts of Tangier to my great satisfaction, and so to supper and to bed.

upstairs
they are very severe

an office of briars
inconsistent as the news

they cut off my head
to prevent me from using old eyes

at a meeting
on my future there

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 4 November 1667.

Lacrimosa

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
Silver-haired, slight-boned: a circle of them 
in wheelchairs whenever the sun shawls 

the garden in some kindness. She is the one 
in the phone video recording who breaks 

into song and beats time valiantly with her hands.
You don't know if your mother, in quarantine 

at a care home with other octogenarians, 
will live to ninety or a hundred. Or if one 

of these days, a text message will appear 
on your phone, bearing news of her death. 

Pine trees rain dry needles over the ground,
loosening even in the absence of wind.   
 

The Future

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

On the great subject, that is,
time— Out of which others

carve monuments, hammer
long planks of wood into men-

of-war, each with three masts
and voluminous sails; launch

complicated quests that with good
winds and fortune might return,

after years of scurvy and tossing
on the seas. But we have only

ordinary tools—whittling a little of it
at a time, we pretend at saving; defer

fulfillment, wait for the rain to unglue
the lips of envelopes, break rust-

weakened hinges. Whatever its love
language is, it isn’t supplication.

Empires roll themselves into scrolls.
The dead, wrapped in scarves high up

in the hills, count the breath of stars
exhaling millions of years before us.


Running on emptiness

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

(Lord’s day). Up, and with my wife to church, and thither comes Roger Pepys to our pew, and thence home to dinner, whither comes by invitation Mr. Turner, the minister, and my cozen Roger brought with him Jeffrys, the apothecary at Westminster, who is our kinsman, and we had much discourse of Cottenhamshire, and other things with great pleasure. My cozen Roger did tell me of a bargain which I may now have in Norfolke, that my she-cozen, Nan Pepys, is going to sell, the title whereof is very good, and the pennyworth is also good enough; but it is out of the way so of my life, that I shall never enjoy it, nor, it may be, see it, and so I shall have nothing to do with it. After dinner to talk, and I find by discourse Mr. Turner to be a man mighty well read in the Roman history, which is very pleasant. By and by Roger went, and Mr. Turner spent an hour talking over my Lord Sandwich’s condition as to this Parliament, which we fear may be bad, and the condition of his family, which can be no better, and then having little to comfort ourselves but that this humour will not last always in the Parliament, and that [it] may well have a great many more as great men as he enquired into, and so we parted, and I to my chamber, and there busy all the evening, and then my wife and I to supper, and so to bed, with much discourse and pleasure one with another.

my Zen is a thin Zen

a bargain Zen

I have nothing to do with it

I turn over my sandwich

it will not last to supper

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Sunday 3 November 1667.

Sharps

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
The skin 
of fruit, glowing 
under its neural membrane: 
how one's mouth closes 
around the webbed strings, 
the casing, the pulp— 
It isn't the knife
that is the enemy.

I had been saying
for some time
that we cannot choose
what to feel. None of it,
all of it: one burns
just as fiercely
as the other. All
of it is ours.

What goes through you
as a great hurt—
is it indistinguishable
from other stylets
that found their way
beneath your skin?
Sharps, they're called.
Needles. A catheter. 
A probe. Something 
that knows exactly where
you are most tender. 
 

Making room

Up, and to the office, where busy all the morning; at noon home, and after dinner my wife and Willett and I to the King’s playhouse, and there saw “Henry the Fourth:” and contrary to expectation, was pleased in nothing more than in Cartwright’s speaking of Falstaffe’s speech about “What is Honour?” The house full of Parliament-men, it being holyday with them: and it was observable how a gentleman of good habit, sitting just before us, eating of some fruit in the midst of the play, did drop down as dead, being choked; but with much ado Orange Moll did thrust her finger down his throat, and brought him to life again. After the play, we home, and I busy at the office late, and then home to supper and to bed.

holiday eating
in the midst of the dead

a finger down his throat
brought him to life again

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Saturday 2 November 1667.

Oblivion

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Up betimes, and down to the waterside (calling and drinking a dram of the bottle at Michell’s, but saw not Betty), and thence to White Hall and to Sir W. Coventry’s lodging, where he and I alone a good while, where he gives me the full of the Duke of Albemarle’s and Prince’s narratives, given yesterday by the House, wherein they fall foul of him and Sir G. Carteret in something about the dividing of the fleete, and the Prince particularly charging the Commissioners of the Navy with negligence, he says the Commissioners of the Navy whereof Sir W. Coventry is one. He tells me that he is prepared to answer any particular most thoroughly, but the quality of the persons do make it difficult for him, and so I do see is in great pain, poor man, though he deserves better than twenty such as either of them, for his abilities and true service to the King and kingdom. He says there is incoherences, he believes, to be found between their two reports, which will be pretty work to consider. The Duke of Albemarle charges W. Coventry that he should tell him, when he come down to the fleete with Sir G. Carteret, to consult about dividing the fleete, that the Dutch would not be out in six weeks, which W. Coventry says is as false as is possible, and he can prove the contrary by the Duke of Albemarle’s own letters. The Duke of Albemarle says that he did upon sight of the Dutch call a council of officers, and they did conclude they could not avoid fighting the Dutch; and yet we did go to the enemy, and found them at anchor, which is a pretty contradiction. And he tells me that Spragg did the other day say in the House, that the Prince, at his going from the Duke of Albemarle with his fleete, did tell him that if the Dutch should come on, the Duke was to follow him, the Prince, with his fleete, and not fight the Dutch. Out of all this a great deal of good might well be picked. But it is a sad consideration that all this picking of holes in one another’s coats — nay, and the thanks of the House to the Prince and the Duke of Albemarle, and all this envy and design to ruin Sir W. Coventry — did arise from Sir W. Coventry’s unfortunate mistake the other day, in producing of a letter from the Duke of Albemarle, touching the good condition of all things at Chatham just before the Dutch come up, and did us that fatal mischiefe; for upon this they are resolved to undo him, and I pray God they do not. He tells me upon my demanding it that he thinks the King do not like this their bringing these narratives, and that they give out that they would have said more but that the King hath hindered them, that I suppose is about my Lord Sandwich. He is getting a copy of the Narratives, which I shall then have, and so I parted from him and away to White Hall, where I met Mr. Creed and Yeabsly, and discoursed a little about Mr. Yeabsly’s business and accounts, and so I to chapel and there staid, it being All-Hallows day, and heard a fine anthem, made by Pelham (who is come over) in France, of which there was great expectation, and indeed is a very good piece of musique, but still I cannot call the Anthem anything but instrumentall musique with the voice, for nothing is made of the words at all.
I this morning before chapel visited Sir G. Carteret, who is vexed to see how things are likely to go, but cannot help it, and yet seems to think himself mighty safe. I also visited my Lord Hinchingbroke, at his chamber at White Hall, where I found Mr. Turner, Moore, and Creed, talking of my Lord Sandwich, whose case I doubt is but bad, and, I fear, will not escape being worse, though some of the company did say otherwise. But I am mightily pleased with my Lord Hinchingbroke’s sobriety and few words.
After chapel I with Creed to the Exchange, and after much talk he and I there about securing of some money either by land or goods to be always at our command, which we think a thing advisable in this critical time, we parted, and I to the Sun Taverne with Sir W. Warren (with whom I have not drank many a day, having for some time been strange to him), and there did put it to him to advise me how to dispose of my prize, which he will think of and do to my best advantage. We talked of several other things relating to his service, wherein I promise assistance, but coldly, thinking it policy to do so, and so, after eating a short dinner, I away home, and there took out my wife, and she and I alone to the King’s playhouse, and there saw a silly play and an old one, “The Taming of a Shrew,” and so home and I to my office a little, and then home to supper and to bed.

bottle full of yesterday
and incoherence

found between two holes
in a coat

let it undo me
like an anthem with no words

I will exchange the sun
for time alone

Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Friday 1 November 1667.

Immanence

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
How the foundation is not separate 
    from the world, but is held  
          and present inside it. How,

like you, I've wondered where
     the time we thought we were building
          or collecting has gone.

Every bird  
     a bright stripe: flocks
         of them, arrows releasing 
     what we read as purpose 
into the air.

I've learned to anticipate
      the specific murmur that means
          the hour bends to rouse our bodies
      so we can offer them to whatever
emptiness needs to be filled.

Perhaps I haven't thanked 
      the earth enough; nor you; 
          nor the water that still holds

some love for us despite its moods
      and temperament—from it, I learned  
         the gesture for cupping a face in my hands.