Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 44

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 found bloggers pondering time and how we experience it, reflecting on reading, book reviewing, and learning languages, mourning, and daring to hope as we negotiate the ancient Celtic turning of the year and anticipate a fraught election.


I was excited to hear from my cousin Carolyn in Prague this week about the re-launch of her esteemed poetry magazine, “Literary Bohemian.” I read submissions for Lit Bo for many years and I found great joy in it, so I’m pleased as all heck to announce I will soon be back on the masthead for the new incarnation. When she invited me to be involved again, she asked me to send her an updated bio and a photo of “where I am from.” This simple request sent me into a familiar identity crisis, as questions of this nature always do. When I was a massage therapist, often clients would ask me where I was from as a way of making friendly conversation, and the question always flummoxed me. I’m not really “from” anywhere. I have little sense of home and where I am from is not clear-cut. The place that I was born in was a place that I was whisked away from shortly after birth and that I have no connection to whatsoever. I grew up in a military family and we moved multiple times during my childhood (although not nearly as often as many military families.) When I think about my home, I think first and foremost about Alaska and Upper Michigan. I think about the cold, the remote, an environment of harshness and severity, places that did not envelop humans in a warm and loving embrace. Places that taught you to survive them. Places that mandated toughness and grit.

When I was looking for a photo of my “from”, I had a memory of standing on the shores of Lake Superior when I was around twelve or so, during a wild storm. The lake was whipped into a roaring, boiling froth and the wind was savage. The sky was almost black and the cold was ferocious. In that moment I was imbued with the deep and primal understanding that this collection of raging entities didn’t care one whit about whether or not I existed, and that feeling has informed my being ever since. I believe it’s what has enabled me to survive through everything that was to come, and what will enable to me to survive into the future. All I wanted to do when I was a teen was move away from these cold, feral, isolated places and live in a city, but now I wonder if dwelling in cities is bad for a person’s soul. There is too much noise and too much disconnection, too much protection and too much ease. We begin to feel important and entitled to be alive. We forget how little nature actually cares about our existence.

Kristen McHenry, Literary Re-launch, Where I am From, Childhood Anthem

The streets are empty,
nobody but fallen leaves
and their soft rustle.

We knew of curfews
from history books, stories
our grandpas told us.

Now we’re a page too,
in a future book about
a year when the leaves

were louder than we.

Magda Kapa, October 2020

Anticipating the earlier sunset, wishing to avoid exercising in the evening streets, I went out midday for my walk in the park, an eye on my watch to get back home in time for the next videocall class. The sun eeked itself out from behind the showers, and the riverside paths beyond the weir were golden-brown with autumn leaves embedded in mud. I walked cautiously. Even in a pandemic, there are dog owners who don’t pick up after, and twice in the past fortnight I’ve come home with stinking dog mess caked into my soles. 

After class, catching up on the admin. which grows heads like a hydra, I needed to search my emails for Hope, looking for the last email I’d written to her. I tapped ‘Hope’ into the search bar, pressed Return.

What I found was that almost every email I write contains hope:

I hope you are well.

I hope we can meet before too long.

I hope you feel better soon.

I hope you are able to find time for yourself.

Search your inbox for Faith, for Charity. You may not find them there. But Hope, Hope, Hope. It’s everywhere, littering words like golden leaves in all the mud and mess, its small, round, comforting sound topped off with the softest of plosives.

Liz Lefroy, I Search For Hope

my aged cat never left my side ever I slept on feathers crossed my Ts clean as a fishwife the moment in which he rose up hallelujah I was not afraid of solitude but reckless pursuit neckties guns in the temple the low dome last week’s rent drew out the lining the ache in my side that proved resolve men rode motorcycles up and down the street pounded my door demanded open up demanded money as Russian girls in the cafeteria argued over the napkin dispensers cooed like release doves lacking a center I’m not nostalgic for the parasite the waterworm there is nothing left to talk about apples and sandwiches stuffed with fruit the mokrie dela disappeared from automats turn and slide the plastic door or the washateria the Laundra in Newport Loadstar Dryers coin tumble orbiting sensors in my bed gossiping bodies at night target practice on Thursdays in Dallas go ahead go ahead now tell me about the white capped angel of terror and desire

Rebecca Loudon, Paregoric

My father cups water from the river,
pods, leaves, algae lace his hands, residue
from the silver streams down his darkened skin.

Chandrama vaa apaam pushpam: Moon is the flower
of the waters. Who was this poet from a time
so long ago when red dust rose to the sky?

Uma Gowrishankar, The Celestial Flower

a man has
his hands
on his face
the heels across
his working mouth
that sound is
told in an
animal’s voice
one brought down
but not yet dead
he has to
enunciate the pain
so he selects
a sort of cataract
of vowels to drain
the airtight sack
of his grief

Dick Jones, NEW POEMS

Stay out of my house, and my head. When you
were alive, were you a voyeur? This is
one thousand percent creepy. Damn, they’ve queued
up to watch, to talk about flunked tests, his
leftovers, her starting over. They say
I’ve lost my colors, and life is gone gray.

PF Anderson, Ghosts

I remember at the beginning of the pandemic how people were saying, “Oh, with all this time, we ought to be able to write that novel, learn a language, study classical guitar, read Ulysses or War and Peace…” and then, when our concentration went to hell, our sleep became terrible, we fought with our partners or kids or became consumed by loneliness and confinement, and we didn’t even know what day it was — that was when we got obsessed by the news and started riding a rollercoaster of anxiety and depression, amid other days that felt more normal and optimistic. A lot of us felt guilty or confused about why we couldn’t seem to do the things that we thought we were going to do — I had hoped to finish writing a book, for instance, and I’m nowhere close. A friend sent me an article written by someone funny, who was trying to express her depression and lack of motivation, and she describes herself telling her therapist, ‘I feel like I should be learning Portuguese” and the therapist says, “Don’t you DARE learn Portuguese!” And no matter how well we may have managed in one area, I bet most of us feel like that in many others, and wish somebody would just say, “Don’t you dare…!” and let us off our self-hung hook.

My sister-in-law, a retired academic who’s gifted in languages, is studying Arabic for the third time in her life, and this time it’s finally taking hold. She’s taking a rigorous online course, and working on it for many many hours a day, and I think that’s fantastic. But I can’t do that, and don’t really want to. Fifteen minutes a day works for me, and I’ve made enough progress that when I see a Greek sentence I know the parts of speech I’m seeing, even if I don’t know the words, and my vocabulary is growing. Will I ever use it? Who knows. I think what this exercise has shown me is that the little-bit-every-day approach does pay off over time in language study, just as it does in a drawing practice. A seemingly daunting but desired goal is broken down into manageable little bits, and you commit to it, try not to get discouraged and give up, and eventually you see you’ve actually made progress. That’s all.

Beth Adams, Hermit Diary 44. Lockdown Language Learning

At our house, we’ve just completed eight months of a combination of shielding, enforced lockdown, and self-isolation. Most of it was, well, bearable. We had months of good weather to work on the garden, and reclaim another bit of the neighbouring farmer’s field for a wild flower patch. When the weather was bad I had picture framing, decorating…and in between showers, repointing various walls and gable ends. I had the ‘When all this is over’ project to keep my my brain ticking over in May and June. The annual trip to St Ives for a poetry residential was cancelled, but I managed a consolation in the form of a Garsdale Zoom course tutored by Kim Moore.

But right now I’m stalled. If you’re from my part of the West Riding the resonance of this will be understood. When my mum or my grandma said ‘I’m stalled’ they meant they were stuck, depressed, bored, fed-up, frustrated and generally out of sorts. I’ve finally become unable to shut out the appalling state of the country and its wilful mismanagement. I can’t think straight or clearly. I had an email from the poet Steve Ely (who will feature in a moment) in which he said he was ‘******* stir crazy’. He said he could go to the gym, and go for walks but (and this is the kicker) “there’s no joy in it” . Not a fashionable word joy. But I know exactly what he meant. Where’s the joy? It’s compounded by the fact that I’ll spend Wednesday in Pontefract Hospital for minor surgery. I wouldn’t think twice about it in the normal run of things. But nothing’s normal, and for the first time in my life I’m assailed by anxiety, timidity. Today was set aside for writing an enthusiastic appreciation of Steve Ely’s latest pamphlet I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heauen. But my head’s like a washing machine, and I can’t do it justice.

John Foggin, Backtrack: On sequences, with Steve Ely and Pascale Petit

It’s a Tuesday that feels like a Thursday. The past few days have been a dip in my mood and a desire to sleep all the time, which has also left me with an achy back and a feeling like there’s just a lot of emotional icky boiling just under the surface. I thought a news fast might be in order after yesterday–since cases continue to climb, we just elected a Handmaid’s Tale villain to the Supreme Court, the election is next week, and I’ve already done as much as I can (the covid precautions I’ve been doing all along and continue to do, voting, etc.) and can only wait it out at this point. But, it’s hard when part of my job (and even my creative endeavors) involves social media to, you know, stay away from it. So I get sucked back into doomscrolling. And then the news in general. And then also the attendant anxiety and mood swinginess. I am extra cagey around this time of year anyway, what with the anniversary of my mother’s death and a lack of daylight. It is not making for a good combination. 

It’s Tuesday, and I’m trying to find a center to weather out the storm–new writing projects I’ll be starting next week.  Some artmaking endeavors planned for the weekend. An invitation to send some video poem exploits to a journal. Beginning to send out some work from the plague letters.  I keep amassing books in my to-read pile hoping that I’ll have the concentration for again and this may be part of the problem.  I need more reading, less doomscrolling. Meanwhile, I watch a lot of van-life and cabin renovation videos on Youtube and dream about running away from everything to live in the woods. 

Kristy Bowen, notes & things | 10/27/2020

Time slows down     
stands 
still 
the top keeps 
spinning tottering 
neither stopping nor falling 
turning in exhaustion

We knew to cut the rug
foot-deep in the middle of the sensuous world,
each moment waking the next

Whisk, whisk.  Blow.  Spin it on its head
to rest in the dark.  
Whirl, dear life, impertinent joy. 

Jill Pearlman, THEY

The sun and moon have gone on hiatus, leaving us with just our floor lamps and ring lights to make ourselves shine.

Virtual drinking parties and reunions have become the tech form of Xanax, while failed wi-fi and cooled-off hotspots can cast us into Dante’s first circle of hell.

In our Zoom room universe, we are boredom-boned and hug-lost; flirtations reduced to pixels on a screen.

Pregnant pauses give birth to quintuplets of abrupt fits and starts of conversations stepping on one another in glitchy lag time.

Rich Ferguson, In Our Zoom Room Universe

The other day, in my Modernity in Literature class, I taught them about the poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden.

As I was working through it with them, it occurred to me that the central theme of all the literature I had chosen to teach for this course is TIME.

I won’t go into all of the texts now, but trust me: it is.

In Auden’s poem, written in 1937, he has a narrator, and two speakers:  the lovers, and the clocks.

The lovers are lyrical and delirious and full of hyperbole in the first half of the poem, and then the clocks take up their song, which basically is that “You cannot conquer Time.”

The lines that hit me this year :  The clocks sing:

“Time watches from the shadow

And coughs when you would kiss.”

It’s like a prophecy of COVID.

Anne Higgins, You Cannot Conquer Time

When I was a college freshman, I interviewed my great-grandmother (born in 1884) for a cultural anthropology project. She talked about living on a small farm, nursing her 12-year-old son through the Spanish flu, baking and slaughtering and canning and drawing water–life before rural electrification. She said:

Times was hard, but times is always hard, and our lives were no harder than anybody else’s.

Good to keep that in mind at present.

My temperament has always tended more melancholic than anxious; but in these days of covid, flu, and concerns about my bereaved and elderly mother, worried thoughts arrive, especially in the wee hours, especially as cases climb upward in my region and my mother’s assisted living center starts yet another lockdown. I try to imagine the changes the extreme elderly experience…I imagine her being ‘assisted’ by caring, gentle people she does not really know and with whom she can barely communicate due to anomia and aphasia, which makes her grief for my father truly inexpressible.

“I can’t say anymore what I say,” she tells me by phone. “On the wall, it says, what is it? Now?”

“The calendar? It’s Tuesday, Mom.”

“No, the other. The…weather. Season.”

“Oh. October. It’s October.”

“How is it? And I am trying…when was it? That he died?”

“August, Mom. August 25th.”

“Has it been since August? Was it August? Already? So many now. Many…pills. No, ice. Ices gone by. I don’t mean that. I said–“

“Many days, I know. Can it really be October already? And he’s been gone since the end of August. Summer.”

“25. 25 days, August, October. How can it be?” she asks; and I can tell, over the phone, that she is shaking her head slowly the way she does, wondering, surprised, how can it be…

There are times she says exactly the right thing.

How can it be? Something I might want to meditate upon.

Ann E. Michael, How can it be

She thinks of refugees and all they carried,
jewels sewn into hemlines
or those who flee without papers.
She checks her wallet one last time,
all the plastic cards that define
her in place.

She leaves the door unlocked
as she eats one last supper out
with a grad school friend. She writes
the wrong forwarding address on a napkin
before boarding the plane.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Poetry Process Notes: “Oregon Trail”

The house of country, the nation of us.
Whispering, whispering. America
Has become a house of secrets and lies,
A house of deceit, a house of lament.
The people are hiding, the truth is hiding;
Even the president is hiding
His true face from the sun.

James Lee Jobe, I walk the path slowly

We did not turn on our porch light for trick-or-treaters this year. Instead, I put book hedgehogs and candy in the Little Free Library in case anybody came by. Somebody did come by, leaving two bags of peanut M&Ms, my favorite! But I haven’t checked yet today to see if some books went home with kids or grownups, and whether I’ll need to bring candy back inside. I had put some solar lights in the ground that day, and they worked: they lit up fine at night.

There was a Trump rally in our town on October 22. I found out about it after the fact–900 people at the local baseball stadium. Pictures showed the masked and unmasked, and people sort of spread out in the bleachers. It was a watch party for the debate, with the debate on the big electronic screen out there. Yes, Covid cases have been on the uptick since, but that’s happening everywhere. The direct result of the rally that I saw locally was the appearance of yard signs. A news photo from the rally showed all the Republican signs stacked up for people to take, and, sure enough, they started popping up over the next few days in my precinct, which had mostly Democrat yard signs before, plus some perennial Republican incumbent signs.

Of the above, the labyrinth, the fall beauty, and the Little Free Library give me joy and peace. Hang in there, everybody. We really are all in this together. I hope we make it through with as much love and kindness as we can muster, “muster” being a battle term, alas, or a group of peacocks.

Kathleen Kirk, Yard Signs, Gun Shots, Trick-or-Treat

I am of a generation that was naive, patriotic, attached to nostalgia for what never was. Now we mourn the loss of what we thought was real, the American (United States of American) commitment to equality, possibility, responsibility, and community. We thought if we promised to be good, that would be good enough. Somehow we convinced ourselves that if we believed in equal opportunity, equal respect, equal value for all, it would make it true. 

Now we confront the actuality of our citizenship. Now we see (or try not to see) the suffering of our neighbors; suffering we benefit from, suffering we participate in, willingly or not. Now we see the bigotry in our families, in the generations before us, in our cousins and siblings, and in ourselves. We learn about The Talk, if we have refused to learn it before. 

And now we must talk to ourselves: stay home, because your neighbors will not, do not, sometimes cannot. Mask up, and recognize that some of your neighbors will not. Learn to value the lives of others, as you have learned to value your own. 

Struggle to forgive others for saying these beings, and those beings, and you – matter less. Or matter not at all. 

Struggle to forgive yourself, while still holding yourself, and your neighbors, accountable. 

I am struggling.

Sharon Brogan, 300,000

So, with a fraught election and a pretend king who doesn’t want to give up power, I notice the media has been teeming with mentions of civil war. That’s not comforting. I hope we have a peaceful, overwhelming Biden win on election day. I hope we can sleep better soon.

People are storing up food, medication, and some are buying guns. What am I doing, you ask? Why, planning to write a page a day in November on my novel-in-progress, participating for the first time in NaNoWriMo. Why not be optimistic in the face of apocalypse? I have always done it before.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Happy Post-Halloween and Blue Moon, Election Day Voting Interview on Health, and More!

Inspired by writer Liz Ward, I’m going to gently join in with National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo) and post a blog a little more regularly during November. I love reading Liz at her blog and I also enjoyed her collection of essays which she published in 2018.

One of the reasons I haven’t been posting here very much is that I’ve been writing more in the offline world as I hinted at in my previous post. Last week I took advantage of a lovely offer by Trowbridge Town Hall and rented a desk for day in their beautiful Victorian building so that I could spend a day writing in a different setting.

Although I’m lucky enough to be able to write from home without distractions, it made a difference to be somewhere else entirely, in my own space behind a closed door. As a friend commented on my Instagram post “A room of one’s own… at least for a day!” – and she’s exactly right. I’ve rented the room for one day a week for a few weeks – but this was before we had the announcement in the UK that we’re entering a second national lockdown. So, like thousands of others, my plans for the next month will be scuppered, although my inconvenience is nothing compared to most. Don’t get me started on the lockdown or the UK government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic, I’ve come to this blog for some moments of distraction. I hope that wherever you are and whatever your situation, you manage to deal with what is happening as best as you can.

Josephine Corcoran, National Blog Posting Month

Sorry if this haiku seems a little gloomy, and really, I’ve had a lovely quiet week off work with plenty of dog walks and some memorable visits to our local pub. They’ve opened their tiny kitchen to do food every night, worked their socks off to keep everyone safe and happy, only to find out at the drop of a hat that they will have to close later this week. I understand there have to be some rules and restrictions, and sometimes it ends up being one size fits all, but behind every business closure there are the hopes and aspirations of ordinary people just trying to make a living. I’m not a political poet, and I don’t want this to sound like a rant, so let’s just say that my heart goes out to them.

Julie Mellor, knee deep

Writing has felt too heavy this week; poetry requires a kind of vulnerability that I just don’t have to give in this first part of November, the days leading up to the anniversary of Kit’s death.

At the same time, it feels more urgent and necessary than ever to engage with language – so I’m working on the larger poems of these two manuscripts (the manuscript itself is a kind of composite poem, or at least that is how I think of it when editing).

Impatient as I’ve always been with publication, In wondering if I’ve tried as much as I should with [Church Ladies] or if I haven’t tried near long enough. How much do I believe this book should be a book? Was it just a learning experience? Really I do think it’s worthwhile to fight for and that I’m like a child with a shiny new toy preferring my newer manuscript to champion.

Renee Emerson, Manuscript work

From my sofa, I can look out at the changing leaves and fog rising from the valley and think about everything I learned. I learned first and most from our student poets who traveled all the way from Berlin by train (10 hours) to do our writing retreat. Years before, they traveled all the way to Germany from Syria and Afghanistan. Their stories are of fable: they weave heartbreak, hope and heroics together with a very modest thread. These are talented poets. I learned that it is truly a luxury to care about the environmental crises facing our planet when so many people can only focus on the next meal or the next life-altering bombardment. I learned that speaking in one’s heart language connects oneself to the listener in ways deeper than translation can accommodate. We spent evenings translating poems from Farsi and Arabic to English (later to German). Finding new words to make sure we shared the meaning was a joy.

Next, I reflect on the wisdom that was offered to us every day in Zoom calls with our invited poet guests: Will McInerney, Oliver Miltenberger, Romana Iorga, Craig Santos Perez, Kelli Russell Agodon, Richard Blanco, Enda Wyley and Tess Barry. Some of these folks I met by email, some I’ve known a longer while. They all gave their time to give us advice, to answer questions and to read to us. We learned a lot about Seamus Heaney’s work (Enda); the magical process of poem writing (Tess); the roles of poet, peacebuilder and researcher in interrupting apathy (Will); not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good (Oliver); how to answer questions the reader is going to ask (Romana); about narrating our reaction to things political and cultural (Craig); about tapping into the quality of the poet community (Kelli); and about personifying an object of nature to take the ego out of the poem as a more gentle way to bring politics into the conversation (Richard).

Finally, I see a clear picture for moving forward and that picture has a lot of haze in it (a continued or new pandemic, other crises, other demands on time): behind the fog is hope that writing poems and putting them into the world will create ripples. The more of us that are out there making ripples, the harder our words will be to ignore. Poetry changes the world with a collective of small vibrations that move through one, two, or a thousand people at a time.

Cathy Wittmeyer, Reflecting on Word to Action

The WHY of reviewing is probably obvious. Most poetry books don’t get much love, so you serve writers, presses, and readers by bringing your favorites to wider attention. Every poet with means and time should give public service to the art they love, and reviewing is one way to do it (panel/ event organizing like Anya’s is another). Generosity occasionally pays off–if people appreciate you, they may help you in some future, unexpected way–and any byline can increase your name recognition. That’s not the core reason for literary service, though. Fandom is at the heart of it, plus desire to strengthen a fragile community. If you write a thoughtful review, you’ve shown the author they have at least one good reader out there. It makes all parties feel glowy.

Love of poetry isn’t all a reviewer needs, though. I’ve written a ton of criticism, so I’m a faster writer than many, but reviewing a poetry book is still an eight-hour commitment, more or less. I read the book once; put it down and think about it; reread it and start drafting; then take a break from the draft for a day, or a few days, and come back, rewrite, and polish. They’re typically 750-1500 words. Writing micro-reviews (250-300 words) is quicker, but I always end up writing long then boiling them down, a process that takes time, too.

Although I don’t always have the hours, I like reviewing a lot. It feels freeing to analyze a book without scholarly protocols. No bibliography, no citing Very Important Theorists! I’m trying to write a few reviews this year because I’m on sabbatical, grateful for good notices my books are receiving, and, at this bad moment, having a hard time concentrating on big stuff. Writing a poetry review is a way of procrastinating while still putting some useful writing out there.

Lesley Wheeler, Writing and publishing poetry book reviews

Is it just my perception or have UK poetry reviews and criticism generally become – with the exception of one completely ludicrous, notorious and discredited outlier – kinder in the last few years? It’s within that context that I was surprised by the tenor and content of Rory Waterman’s review of Keith Hutson’s debut collection Baldwin’s Catholic Geese for the latest issue (#255) of PN Review. […]

One might conclude from Waterman’s condescending conclusion – ‘Every poem comes with a sprightly note about its subject, and perhaps the greatest lasting pleasure this book will give you is several hours disappearing down internet rabbit holes as you shadow the author’s impressive research’ – that what he wants to say is, ‘Jolly well done on the research, but shame about the poems’, which is grossly dismissive. Given that the book’s glowing endorsements come from Carol Ann Duffy, Peter Sansom and Michael Symmons Roberts, Waterman’s verdict is also more than a little against the grain and makes me wonder just how much time he gave to reading the book with care.

My own verdict on Baldwin’s Catholic Geese is that it lays bare, in a way which surely refracts on today’s celebrity culture, how natural an ambition it is to aim for fame and fortune by any, and sometimes bizarre, means; and that to fail in doing so is equally as natural – so few entertainers stay on the top of their game for the duration of their careers and it’s only human for the overwhelming majority to have no more than a fleeting moment in the limelight. That’s hardly an original thought (c.f., for example, ‘Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more’), but Hutson explores the highways and byways of that ambition in a rich way that emphasises his subjects’ egos, successes and flaws without ridicule and more often than not in joyous, zestful language.

Matthew Paul, On Keith Hutson’s Baldwin’s Catholic Geese

I’ve been going through San Diego poet Heather Sweeney’s new full-length poetry title, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness (Brooklyn NY: Spuyten Duyvil, 2020), following a handful of chapbooks (including one from above/ground press) as well as the full-length Call Me California (Finishing Line Press, 2020), a book published almost simultaneously alongside this one (although I have yet to see a copy). Dear Marshall is constructed as a book-length lyric suite of prose poems that employ elements of the first-person journal entry against that of the letter-poem, offering observation, memory, introspection and an immediacy that brings one right into the action of her sentences. She writes of violence, love, family and loss, a childhood of rebellion and survival, a flurry of impulse, heartbreak and outcomes deeply-felt. “My feet are unusually narrow. I can run a long distance at a slow pace. I / have had past-life visions. In one I am hunting a boar in a dense jungle. / In another I am running with a baby in one arm wrapped in a brown / blanket. We are close to death. In a field of ice. In the long neck of a / dream.” The poems run from direct statement and stories retold into abstract, lyric layerings, and is structured as a curious kind of call-and-response, as every page an opening call paired with a response directly to “Marshall.” Who is Marshall? Given the rhetorical aspect of the letter-poem, it might not be as important who Marshall is or was, but what and how she writes to him. […]

Sweeney’s poems are first-person declarations that attempt to place herself, to centre herself in a collage of experience, situations and potential chaos, shaping the chaos into a particular kind of order. “I am a sentence made of two icy twigs. Of splintered afterthought. I’m / at the airport again. The wall of windows, a stanza.” She weaves in a collage of pilfered lines, lived experiences, questions and observations into a coherent line, working a shape of the world in which she exists. This book-length poem, this book-length suite of poems, read as a journal of accumulated sentences shaped as a way to write one’s way into being, into becoming; to write through and beyond the unsettled past and present into a less uncertain future.

rob mclennan, Heather Sweeney, Dear Marshall, Language Is Our Only Wilderness

With the pandemic now (arguably) in its 8th month, I’ve been noticing lots of talk about books on social media. It looks like reading is enjoying a boom and that’s a good thing! In the past few months, though, I find that my reading choices are pickier than usual. Memoirs and Poetry are probably my favorite genres but I have loved a good dystopian novel (read Blindness by Jose Saramago or Station Eleven by Emily St. Mandel). However, I seem to have lost my taste for the dystopian in books and in tv. When I try to read or watch, I get a lump in my stomach and have to stop. It got me wondering if anyone else is feeling this way and if the pandemic has affected others similarly. I’m always interested in what others are reading so I thought I’d ask some of my writer friends what books they’ve read this year that they’d recommend for pandemic reading and why. I’m curious if the pandemic has influenced what they (and you) prefer right now – immersion in the dystopian or maybe something more soothing. Here’s what they said. [Click through to read recommendations from Candace Hartsuyker, Meagan Lucas, Paul Crenshaw, Dorianne Laux, Exodus Brownlow, and Robert Okaji.]

Charlotte Hamrick, Pandemic Reading: Writers Share Their Picks

I recently watched Free Solo, that documentary of a man’s extraordinary un-roped ascent up El Capitan. Before I saw the movie, if I thought of his journey at all, I just that “wow, that’s nuts.” I had somehow not expected the amazing preparations he made, both with his body, and certainly with his mind, but also the carefully mapped, hold by hold, route, which he practiced roped again and again until he had every move internalized. Certainly this was a tale of an internal journey, for sure, both into his certainty that he could do it, but also, I think most significantly, when he was able to say, cameras trained on him, partway up the wall face, “No. This is not the day for this.” And called it off and went back down, knowing he’d have to wait another six months to try again, knowing he was tangling up the film producer and his crew as well. But when he finally did the ascent, he knew every move so well, he went surely and rapidly right up the face in a scant few hours with no hesitation, as a strange dance with the wall. It was indeed a kind of choreography he created.

I thought of this movie in contrast to the “journeys” described by two poet friends of mine who got it into their heads to each write a heroic crown of sonnets — that is 14 sonnets of 14 lines each, the 14th of which contains the first lines of each of the previous sonnets. Or something like that. Wow, that’s nuts.

But what struck me, in contrast to Free Solo, was how each of them talked about the great unknowns of their journeys, every step being felt out in the dark. They said things like “I thought I was going to start in this way, but then decided to try this other way” or “I thought I was writing about this thing, but the more I got into the unfolding of the poems the more I realized I was writing about this other thing entirely.”

Marilyn McCabe, Lazy days, Sunday afternoon; or, On Artistic Journeys

I’ve been carrying a moment of self-consciousness since I read the galleys for my most recent book. (Not that recent, I’m afraid). The translator wrote an essay on how he experienced my development as a writer. He labeled the (then) new work as “late period”.

It was a little like reading my own obituary (flattering as it was). And I feared it would trip me up. And it has.

I wrote Friday that nothing has to try to grow. And today I’m thinking that trying to grow is counter-productive. It’s the tennis player suddenly thinking about her strong backhand, and losing it in the analysis.

I can’t speak for others, but I believe art is created through a practice of wu-wei: art as process and experience, not as product and commodity. And this kind of practice is such a far cry from the zeitgeist of knowing one’s passion/calling/brand.

I spent so many years studying craft. Only to find that my best writing is without craft.

Every time I begin to analyse my process, it stops – usually in a cloud of self-consciousness and shame. A woman once commented on my blog after I had begun writing again: “I was wondering where that woman went who wrote letters to her friends.”

Ren Powell, Amor Fati as Ars Poetic

[AW] One of the things that fascinates me about spiritual practice is the ways in which form lies at the heart of worship. We can find form in the instructions for Islamic prayer, in Communion rituals, and in meditation practice. I’m curious as to whether the formal aspects of Christian practice connect in some way to your love of the sestina form.

[EK] I hadn’t thought about that connection. I didn’t grow up with a lot of rituals, but they are valuable to me now. I didn’t grow up celebrating Lent, but it is something I practice as an adult. Something fascinating about Lent is that you can just fast from certain things, such a sugar, or add a practice during Lent. That would be a wonderful exercise as a poet- to fast from something commonly used, or to add something for a period of time.  For me, I could abstain from writing in first person, or add an image from nature in each poem.

 I recently started practicing TaeKwonDo, which has form. My instructor said that no one would use form during a fight, but it is about practicing the movement and creating muscle memory. Form can be considered an exercise to make us stronger writers. I recommend The Poetry Dictionary by John Drury because it defines many forms and other poetry terms.

What I love about form is that it prevents poets from just bleeding into the page.  The sestina is my favorite because it creates a theme with the repeated words, but it is subtle enough that the reader doesn’t anticipate the next line. Ezra Pound said the sestina is “a thin sheet of flame folding and infolding upon itself.”

Allyson Whipple, Chapbook Interview: what mothers withhold by Elizabeth Kropf

finally
in this book of chinese poets
ancient to modern i find
one born the same year as me
and still alive
i feel vindicated
but why
for we are worlds apart
he is on a mountain
i am still in a dark valley
for i have not swallowed blood

Jim Young, i simply cannot did not

Someone shakes drops of gin
on the ground and claps
like a bridegroom signaling
to start the dance.
This will go on for days,
for what is elegy but
the muffled sound of marching
along the old road that goes
down to the sea: no one
left to look out of windows,
willow fronds quiet until
the mourners start singing.

Luisa A. Igloria, Honras a los muertos

Whatever happens next week, and I hope what happens will bring us before and into some great and formidable wedge of light, leaving us blinking and gasping, whatever happens, we will need to adjust our eyes. We’ll need to continue refining our seeing. We’ll be squinting as we come into the light, or closing our eyes a little as the darkness shudders. Which perhaps sounds dramatic. So be it.

Four years ago I was listening to the then new Leonard Cohen album, You Want it Darker. It seems like yesterday, it seems like 12000 years ago. We know the darkness now in thousands of different ways though we would rather that we didn’t.

Shawna Lemay, To Go in the Dark

I always forget how dried beans swell.
They start as tiny stones in my hand

but after an overnight salt water soak
they fill my red bowl to overflowing.

This week I revise them into posole —
it’s meant to include hominy, but

in these pandemic times we all learn
to make do. I curl my tongue around

ancho and pasilla, remembering the music
of your lushly-swirled double ll’s.

Raisiny peppers soften and come apart.
I want to blend into a chord like that.

Rachel Barenblat, Soup

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