Poetry Blog Digest 2021, Week 2

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: moments of insight, lessons in forbearance, the good news found in new books, and much more.


Vials, frozen. Chest-freezers, full.
She’s not using her wheelchair today,
she’s walking. Slow, but walking. Good,
I answer, that will help. Too late, we give
consent. Ashambles, the whole ward now.

JJS, Protection

Mary is delighted to live in the moment of what she currently sees, despite knowing that the star is dying. A similar sentiment to the earlier poem “A Fire” where the narrator wants to stay in the process of losing a friend, not yet ready to acknowledge the loss. Mary’s voice seems childlike, but Mary is the also name of Jesus’ mother. God, naturally, is paternal. The reader is left not sure who Mary is or who she represents.

“You Do Not Have To Be Good” leaves an opaqueness at the heart of each poem, inviting readers to speculate and try to figure out the narrator’s relationship with others in the poems. That said, the poems do explore trauma effectively, particularly losses that come from being unable to fully reveal a self to a listener or someone who might be of help. They come from a place of affirmation and healing.

Emma Lee, “You Do Not Have to Be Good” Madeleine Barnes (Trio House Press) – book review

What a lucky chance, then, that Dr Zhivago is currently on iPlayer, and that after forty years of adventures I have 1) A TV, 2) A TV licence, 3) A range of techniques learnt in psychotherapy enabling me to side-step any feelings of guilt incurred by watching a film whilst it’s still light outside. We all need doctors more than ever these days, so maybe it was this that prompted me, finally, to satisfy my curiosity, watch the film. 

As it turns out, Dr Zhivago is more like early 2021 Shropshire than you’d think, filled as it is with snow, difficult decisions, furs, untimely deaths, beautiful vistas, confusion, heroes, quiet resolve, and drumbeats. And with trains (although ours are largely empty). We also lack a famous, but strangely irritating as the hours ticked by, theme tune.

Liz Lefroy, I Relax With Dr Zhivago

staying up most of the night working on poems 
oh lonely bones – can’t you rest 
why should i 
even now a strong wind carries 
some pine seeds to the earth 
even now the boats slide 
down the long sacramento river to the bay 
a new day begins and i am alive

James Lee Jobe, on the nose of the puppy

At about the same time, the house began hollowing out, it shed plaster – chunks of them. They were getting old – both her father and her house. Cracks bisected diagonally a wall in the storeroom; timber room, part of the study upstairs, wooden steps leading to the terrace were advised not to be used, and they became nesting places for scorpions. Saferoom remained safe with its iron vault which was for the most part empty but for my grandfather’s silver plate. The vault was weighed in rupees and sold as scrap when the house fell after my grandfather died. The money that came from selling the land and the strong wooden doors were shared between my mother and her siblings. My uncle’s share was put away in a bank and used for his medicines and stay as a life-long resident in a home. My mother used her share to re-lay the floor in our house, the cement floor was replaced with mosaic tiles. Houses are not meant to speak and care must be taken to keep them mute.

Uma Gowrishankar, laid to rest

For years my partner and I cared for elderly parents, one way and another, and I watched as their worlds shrank, physically, as did their curiosity. Slowly and inevitably they stopped taking any notice, stopped listening, stopped reading, being interested, talking. They were just busy dying. 

I’ve decided I want none of it. I can learn from Solzhenitsyn and his take on Epicureanism, especially in One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch. The idea that happiness lies, at least in part, in taking inventory of the day and identifying how it could have been much worse if X or Y had not happened or didn’t exist. And then focussing on X or Y. Things that made life better. An extra bowl of kasha. A bit of hacksaw blade. Building a wall. 

What did I do in 2020? I have a house, I have a garden, a field beyond the garden, a view beyond the field. I have a garage full of bits of timber and power tools. In February three days of incessant horizontal rain worked through the gable end and round the kitchen window and poured in. So when the rain stopped, I got out the gear and repointed all the damage, and replastered and painted inside. I enjoyed it. Most of it. 

The weather was nice this summer. I repainted a lot of the outside woodwork; when it rained I decorated indoors or resprayed picture frames.

On a whim, via the cobweb and Facebook I invited folk to send me poems inspired by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s wonderful, artful poem Swineherd. Scores of people sent me poems, and then Bob Horne of Calder Valley Poetry suggested that we make a book of them, which involved asking Kim Moore to select the 26 best ones in an alphabet of occupations we’d leave When all this is over.  

It’s only just struck me that probably every single submission involved a future of being left alone. You’d have thought that lockdown might have inspired dreams of crowds, of festivals of concerts. What most folk seemed to dream of was travelling alone, and almost invariably, in wild places or on the sea. Yes. My dreams too, I realise. But there you are. A book out.

I missed physical poetry courses, but I’ve been, virtually, to Garsdale Head with Kim Moore, to Sneaton Castle with the Poetry Business; I’ve joined in Joe Bell’s project To heal the mutilated world …and that was terrific…as well as Winston Plowes’ and Gaia Holmes’ Muse-li courses. And every Monday night, via Zoom, there was the Albert Poets’ Workshop. What else…oh yes. Tom Weir and I will be zoom-workshopping together, hopefully right through 2021. A lot of extra bowls of Kasha.

John Foggin, Busy being born

Let people be divided over and over and over again
till they fit in tiny spreadsheet cells.
Let me be gathered as a data point by a factory of
algorithms that build a bubble around me.
Wasn’t it the scriptures that said that the world is just
perception. (And that was before Facebook.)
What do you want to resist most, today?
What outrage fills your coffee cup this morning?

Rajani Radhakrishnan, RIP

It’s cold and dark, friends. Not my favorite time of year. (I am not happy with the weather unless it’s July.) When we say in Upstate NY that it’s cold for six months a year, we aren’t exaggerating; it may even be seven. And I wonder each year how I’ll get through it. I’ve been trying (recently) to get outside for a walk every day, but I’m not really happy about it. I’ve been listening to books on Audible as a way to tempt myself and get out the door. So far, I’ve listened in full to Convenience Store Woman, a novel by Sayaka Murata, and started The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit, a true story written by Michael Finkel.

What intrigues me most in each is that the central figures make a conscious choice about who they’re going to be — and then they play it out turn after turn. They double down, repeatedly, and in doing so, forego much of what the rest of us call “normal” parts of life. And though the natural assumption may be that they’re renegades of some kind, both rely heavily on following strict — almost clichéd — rules of specific “character” types: store clerk (Keiko Furukura) and hermit (Christopher Knight).

Encountering these stories back-to-back has me thinking about who makes the rules and why we follow them and how expectations (our own and those from others) have so much power. If you can believe this story in The Onion (lol) — “‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Their Day” — we even abide by the self-imposed rules of inertia and accept, not just the need to work, but most painfully, its drudgery. The truth hurts.

It makes me wish to be the heroic figure in a story like Furukura’s or Knight’s. Admittedly, they’re tragic figures, as well, but allow me to indulge in oversimplifying a bit; let me romanticize breaking free of Undesirable Things without having to trade them for Different Things That Are Also Undesirable. Who would I become if I could take on any type/character? What kind of world would that create for myself?

Carolee Bennett, on showing up and setting poetry goals

Late on a pale afternoon in January,
sitting, unmoving, the puff-chested blackbird.
She has been there for a while now,
just under the reflection of my reading lamp;
just the odd stretch of a wing and the thought
of preening the day down.
You cannot see it from there; don’t move!
It will scare her. We are sharing this
moment? Call it what you will.
Soon, too soon, she will be gone. Around, yes,
but busy nesting. Just like the pecking dunnock,
the darty robin, the acrobat tits.
But now, twelve lines written, and she is still there.
The pallor of the day ivory poached; a north breeze
stirring; tea and scones have jammed the day.
She is still there, a sparrow riding shotgun.
Sonny Rollins on the radio.
Whoops!
She’s gone now.
She’s gone.

Jim Young, The sitting

I’ve been trying to keep my mind off troubling FBI reports of white nationalist terrorist threats leading up the the inauguration, and focusing on the cheerful fact that the youngest poet ever chosen will be reading at the inauguration, and soon Trump won’t be able to hurt us anymore. One hopes. I’ve been noticing strangely unseasonable things, like the first bloom on my camellia, long before it should be blooming. We’ve been having wet, cold winter, so it’s very odd but I will take an out-of-season flower where I can.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, First Blooms, New Poems in Gargoyle, Hoping for Better Days Ahead

Somewhere
an old silence
waits for me

to enter
the emptiness.
It is like

swimming naked–
the knowledge
you are

who you are
when you walk in-
to cold water.

It is not like
light piercing
a dark room.

Tom Montag, SOMEWHERE

The morning her veterinarian woke in her bed he fed her spaghetti smashed the noodles into her mouth lit a candy cigarette after sauce on her white coverlet the vinegar-bleached sheets. There wasn’t a fight. She simply wished him empty of music. He was not allowed to tell her how his feet burned how bright steam rose from the dog’s bowl. He held her head under water and sang Mahler Saint John has let his little lamb go to the butcher Herod. They watched TV at night drowning. It felt like progress. Life was good under the ginger bell the animal hospital’s glowing blue cross.

Rebecca Loudon, And angels bake the bread

There it is, sketched in red-
ochre, head lifted and watching.
Broad strokes of its rounded back
and short legs, found on a karst
wall in Leang Tedongnge. Now
it’s the oldest-known animal
cave painting. But why,
as I read about it, does my brain
think party pig? Perhaps it reminds
me of Andy Warhol’s Fiesta Pig:
ballet-slipper-pink, nosing around
in the excess of some post-bacchanalian
frenzy. Migration in packs, in the wild,
through curtains of berries and matted
roots. They’re mostly feral, but sometimes
give in.

Luisa A. Igloria, Brief History of the Sulawesi Warty Pig

I’ve always been a little fascinated by conspiracy theories, by the stories that take shape to impose order on the world and make it feel like net of carefully placed happenings and facts and not a chaotic swirling mass of randomness and chance  Alien autopsies, for example. Explanations for strange phenomena.  Untimely deaths and crazy historical coincidences.  They are fun to look at, less because I am seeking a pattern of order or cause/effect, but more that they are a way of understanding things, or at least the obsessions behind them.  A couple semesters ago, our Strange Fevers  Mass Delusions, Illusions, and Obsessions programming delved into this a little bit. 

I often think about how they go wrong.  Obviously the events of this past Weds. are a perfect example.  In my own work, the necessary violence series and the girls who tried to stab their friend based on Slenderman lore.  I think about these girls a lot when I think about politics. The mental illness in one girl who influenced another, and it’s not hard to make the jump to political conspiracies and the inevitable bad outcomes.  These are everywhere and inscribed in our history long before the current ones–McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic of the 80’s. All usually fueled by someone’s agenda–the goverments, men who wanted working women to stay home and keep an eye on their kids. .  A lot of the mythmaking of these was believable..communist infiltrations of Hollywood and the media, missing housepets,  the rise of latch key kids getting up to god knows what in the off hours. Most not things one had to stretch their imagination too far into the absurd to get to, which made things all the more believable.

At some point, contemporary conspiracies got crazier.  Even alien abduction lore is easier to believe than a lot of what is floating out there.

Kristy Bowen, absurdities and atrocities

One does not realize, until one does it, how heavy the burden of all those opinions is, how anxiously they must be defended, how vulnerable they make you to every passing stranger. I practice not having opinions about other drivers, when I’m on the freeway. What do I know of what they are rushing toward, and what they are fending off? “No one made me a traffic cop,” I murmur. Thank God. I am so grateful that no one made me a traffic cop. And I am correspondingly grateful for the people who undertake that burden, leaving me to float, irresponsible and free, in the flow of traffic. If someone’s driving strikes me as aggressive or erratic, I simply drop back in the current till I’m well away from them. 

Dale Favier, Opinions: Throwing Rocks: Being a Traffic Cop

In November I took a Hugo House class on “writing angry poems,” taught by the poet Sharon Bryan. One of my discoveries was that it is freaking hard for me to express anger. Feel it, yes; turn it loose in poem: no. So I struggled. “This is like a poem about repressing anger,” was one of the comments I received. Another: “This poem doesn’t seem to be about anger, but maybe mild annoyance.”

One of Bryan’s recommendations was to read Deaf Republic: Poems, by Ilya Kamnisky. I dutifully ordered a copy and have been avoiding it ever since. This week, I read it. It could not have been more timely for me. In the 1960s people used to say, “the personal is political.” Over the last ten days, we have seen how true that still is.

Deaf Republic is profoundly personal. It struck me as being less a collection of poems than one poem, or a play-in-verse perhaps. Tracy K. Smith writes that what she finds here is “conscience, terror, silence, and rage made to coexist alongside moments of tenderness, piercing beauty, and emphatic lyricism.” Kaminsky’s story opens when a young, deaf boy is shot down by soldiers in an occupied town, and then it winds through the perspectives of other characters in the town, which is struck deaf by the violence, introducing a couple expecting a child, then Momma Galya, the puppeteer who rescues their infant. But the poems transcend their place of “otherness.” As Smith, who has served as the United States Poet Laureate, continues in her cover blurb: “It hurts to read these poems. It hurts to read them and find the world I belong to stricken by a contagion of silence.”

Bethany Reid, Writing the Political Poem

Uncertainty has a daughter whose body is smoke and mirrors. Her eyes, numb and numberless. Her mouth, covered by a mask.

In her more sober moments, she tells me, the heart is no place for a graveyard. Barbed wire, no place for a bed.

She smells like wilted flowers and the whiskey of cold contrition.

I whisper in her ear, let us hope this winter doesn’t last forever.

Rich Ferguson, The Graveyard Bed Where the Heart Says I Love You

Apathy is a kind of cruelness, and denial is a tricky thing. More and more, I look back at the pre-2016 me and feel shame and disgust at all I didn’t see and know that I now do. The information about who and what we are was there all along. I saw much of it a long time ago and turned away from it and then forgot it. I told myself that things were not really as bad as some said. I cautioned myself against over-reacting. I know that denial is a protective mechanism we employ without awareness to protect ourselves from truth we aren’t yet equipped to manage, and in my good moments I can feel empathy for my pre-2016 self. I suppose she was doing the best she could with what she had. In my bad moments, I want to shake her and yell at her to wake the fuck up. I want to hide her in a closet and pretend she was never me.

Rita Ott Ramstad, On vertigo, normalcy, and light: revisiting Sarah Kendzior

when we turn against the sea
how many deserts appear

when the poem sheds its final skin
why does one still have to wait for dawn

for how many lives after i am gone
will my heart come searching for me

Grant Hackett [no title]

Back in April 2020, in the first lockdown, my collection, The Unmapped Woman was launched by Nine Arches Press on Zoom with great support from the fab poets Katie Griffith and Robert Peake. I didn’t know at the time that Jane Commane was in conversation with Helen Dewberry about a variety of film poems including one for a poem of mine. Helen is an Associate member of the Royal Photographic Society and has worked with a variety of poets on film poems which have screened at festivals. You can find a number of them at Elephant’s Footprint Film Verse. I have my favourites, but dip in and see what appeals to you.

It was later in the year that Helen and I had a chat on Zoom to discuss which poem had all those visual qualities just crying out to be shown in another medium. It was interesting that both Helen and Jane had selected Neap Tide as one of their favourites and it is one, which when Helen ask me questions about, I realised, as I unpicked the poem line by line, I had a very clear image of place and people without having made that conscious decision when writing it. I am hoping to catch up with Helen later for an interview, so will keep details of the process for that post, but working with her on this collaboration renewed my interest in my work during what had felt like a very fallow furlough.

Abegail Morely, Creativity in Lockdown – A Film Poem by Helen Dewberry

They’re dwindling,
those who might turn up to mourn,
and some of those are just in tow.
Some went before –
the ones you mourned the most
the ones that would have
mourned you most –
to be expected.

Some you lose through death,
some fade away,
some are blocked,
some block you,
some you knew well,
some just slightly,
the rest you didn’t know at all –
to be expected.

Sue Ibrahim, Expectations

I must confess, though, this interests me intellectually, but it’s the other book I happened to grab in quick Covid-breathing-down-my-neck visit to the library that grabs my poetry heart. It too takes its cues from something concrete, in this case a video clip and some photographs. Ross Gay seems to be attaining incadescence in front of my very eyes with each new book. Be Holding is magnificent, as it achingly slowly tells of the fleet seconds details of an improbable dunk, a “baseline scoop,” by Dr. J during a 1980 NBA finals game, interspersed with curling and twining tendrils of sidebars and meditations on holding, on flying and falling, on love. This is poetry that truly engages me as a reader, a writer, and as a human bean.

This is news of the finest kind. Oh, boy.

Marilyn McCabe, I heard the news today; or, On Poetry Making Use of Non-poetic Texts

The latest from American poet and translator Joshua Beckman is Animal Days (Seattle WA/New York NY: Wave Books, 2021). As the back cover offers: “Written from inside of illness and gathered over several years, these fragments or moments invite readers to contemplate how the compromised body transforms our conceptions of selfhood and our sense of the world.” Animal Days is composed via six extended poem sequences, each threading together an accumulation of short fragments: “IT SEEMED TOO MUCH,” “LITTLE PRICKLY COMING OF STORM,” “THE GLACIAL TRIP,” “DRAWING X’S ON THE TABLE,” “AUGUST” and “ANIMAL DAYS.” Beckman writes from the inside of an awareness of the frailty of the human body, even from the first page of the opening poem: “the pursing / and bursting / of cells / blood / in the skin / in the face / blood exploding / inside us / like that [.]” There is such a slowness etched into the lines and fragments of these accumulations, extended stretches of thought that sit perfectly against each other. There is such a slowness etched into every word—a slowness that coheres and allows for simultaneous pause and quick thought—and one that is remarkably physical. Honestly, for anyone who is attracted to slow, thoughtful work with remarkable speed—one could think, also, of Cameron Anstee, Michael e. Casteels, Jack Davis and the late Nelson Ball—Beckman’s dual essay collections The Lives of the Poems and Three Talks (Wave Books, 2018) are perhaps the finest collections of critical prose I’ve read (so much so that I’ve been completely unable to articulate how good they are).

There are moments when his sketched-out fragments give an epistolary sense, as though he is writing from his kitchen table, perhaps, out to someone (whether generally or specifically) in the wider world: “reading it / even as I / got reading / it even as / I write you / this letter” (“DRAWING X’S ON THE TABLE”). Throughout the six threads of Animal Days, Beckman’s lines adhere to a particular minimalism, but one that furthers the line of thought as far as might be possible, stretching out across the lyric. “a sheet / of it / held,” he writes, as part of “LITTLE PRICKLY COMING OF STORM,” “constellation-like / in the back yard / responding / to wind // clothespins for / fingers // houses / blown down the road / through the town // like a toy [.]”

rob mclennan, Joshua Beckman, Animal Days

There was a real nip in the air on Wednesday afternoon which created frost ferns on the Velux windows in our kitchen. I stood underneath and took some photos, and although it wasn’t dark outside and there was plenty of light, the flash kept going off, so I assumed all I’d get was a blur. In fact, I got these finely beaded images, frost ferns pearled with light from the flash, almost like underwater photos of coral. It was the sub-aqua atmosphere that gave me the word ‘surfacing’, and originally I had ‘frost ferns’ in the poem, but that seemed too obvious, so I was left with what appears above.

Julie Mellor, night frost

winter night
— from out of our wreath
a wren

Bill Waters, Winter night

Yesterday’s later part of the onground intensive revolved around silence, and the leader of the last session offered us an extensive guided meditation.  I tried so hard to follow the directions.  I sat in my desk chair and closed my eyes.  I visualized energy moving through my body.  After what felt like an endless journey from head to toe, we got to a space where God was waiting for us.  We visualized the space.  We visualized God.  Then the leader said, “God has a special word or phrase for you. Let’s sit in silence and wait for that word or phrase to emerge.”

It didn’t take long for my word to emerge:  patient.  Not patience, but patient.  I thought about the difference between the two.  I sat resisting the urge to open my eyes and flip through other online sites.  I was not concentrating on God or my word.

I opened my eyes and reached for my sketchbook.  I decided to write the word across the page, and then I wrote it on other parts of the page in different ways (all capital letters, block print, cursive).  I turned the page around.  I wrote patience instead of patient, but I turned that word back to patient.  I revolved my sketchbook again.

Then I wrote Pain. I only realized what I wrote when I paused to think, how do I spell patient again? Then I looked down and realized that I wasn’t just a letter or two off. I looked at the word.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Unsettling Mystical Experiences and a Special Word from God

This year seems to be taking its toll on me more than all of last year did. I don’t know why, although I suspect I could hazard a few guesses. All of them would be different and all of them would likely be correct (I suspect insider trading).

I am certainly losing track of the days as I could have sworn today was the TS Eliot prizegiving. It isn’t – I think it’s next week. I guess as long as the poets, the judges, and Ian McMillan all know, then the rest is irrelevant. That said, I do enjoy following along on Twitter, although one year I’d like to actually go. Maybe next year.

I think I’d got my wires all crossed about dates as I finished J.O. Morgan’s ‘A Martian’s Regress‘ this week. It’s the only one of the books on the list for this year that I’ve read. I will eventually remedy this, and while I loved it I can’t say whether I want it to win or not because I have nothing to balance it against. I’ve read poems by most of the authors on the list and enjoyed them, so come join me on the fence; it’s comfy.

Mat Riches, Gravy Reservoir

Many thanks to They Call Us for publishing my poem “All Words for a Woman” in their most recent issue. I love the aesthetic and artwork in this feminist zine! Make sure to check out the entire zine while you listen to the corresponding curated playlist.

They Call Us is a new  online, feminist literary magazine publishing a themed issue every three months. Past themes include They Call Us Flawed and They Call Us Theirs. They seek “to showcase the talents of writers, designers, and artists. However, our goal first and foremost is to tell the stories of people who feel like they often don’t have a voice.”

You can read more about what they are up to in my interview with them from last year here.

Trish Hopkinson, My poem “All Words for a Woman” published by They Call Us “Bossy” zine + list of Feminist Lit Mags

First things first, I do understand and respect that prompts and exercises help certain poets unblock ideas at specific difficult points in their writing lives.

However, as a poet, I personally find that my own poetry is best served when I get on with my daily business, making sure I read, read, read in the gaps between the stuff I’m doing, thus allowing poems to ripen in my mind before putting pen to paper. As mentioned previously on Rogue Strands, sometimes it’s better to wait rather than forcing work to come out.

As a reader, meanwhile, I get the impression that certain collections seem to use prompts and exercises as a systematic method of writing. I’m afraid I have to admit these are books I don’t tend to enjoy because I find it extremely hard to connect with the poems in question…

Matthew Stewart, Prompts and exercises

Richard Nicholson (aka the singer-songwriter Billy Penn’s Brother) burst into my life towards the end of the 80’s when he invited the band I was in to play at Harry, a tiny festival of faith, arts and politics in Harrogate (get it?), North Yorkshire. Way ahead of its time, and therefore tiny and fleeting, Harry attracted a loving mixture of what Theodore Roethke called the ‘innocent, hapless, [and] forsaken’: misfits, visionaries, burnt-out charismatics, and house church and acid house refugees. Such was the size of the crowd, you felt by the time you went home that you had encountered everyone present: road crew, singers, and punters alike. It was heady and intoxicating and beautiful. In the sense that I met people there who seemed to think, question, doubt, pray and haphazardly pretend they were artists while doing other things (and that this was fine, normal, even), I do think it changed my life.

Around the same time, Richard became a mainstay of a writers’ and artists’ group I used to host in my kitchen. Without the resources of the internet we now take for granted, it was a word of mouth affair, friends of friends of dubious friends pitching up with their entry fee of Bulgarian red, to read, pontificate or argue about their latest masterwork. Naturally Richard came and held forth with the best of them, making lugubrious wisecracks in his deep Geordie voice while sipping Oolong tea through his pipe smoke. One week he would bring a painting, the next a new song, another a manifesto in reply to Marshall McLuhan.

Then, one week, he brought a little sequence of poems which stunned me with their brevity, mordant humour and precision. I think there were no more than half a dozen of them, but each seemed to carry the freight of a lifetime’s reading, study, reflection and rage. I told him at the time I thought they were as good as Ivor Cutler, one of our shared heroes. I still think this today. I saw him perform the poems once, in the basement of Holy Joe’s, the Harry crew’s London base, below Brixton’s Acre Lane. He declaimed them without introduction sitting upright in bed wearing striped pyjamas and a Scrooge nightcap. The effect was charming and unsettling in equal measure.

Anthony Wilson, Intense

The lake has frozen.
Ice fishermen scatter,
tiny dark figures

making their way
across its flat
white expanse.

My heart pounds
gunfire
in my chest.

If the ice breaks
there is no one
to call.

Rachel Barenblat, Watching armed insurrection from afar

I haven’t been sleeping well. Though I suspect few of us are these days. This weekend several of the local lakes were declared to be “safe”, then on Sunday two men fell through the ice of two different lakes. On the other side of the country, an environmental activist fell through and died.

I know that “liminal” has become one of those overused words, but the truth is these liminal spaces are dangerous. The in-betweens and the uncertainties and this continual sense of being on the edge.

Flight, freeze, fight, faint or f#%&. But before that, the suspense, the suspension of our own unconscious flow. Heightened awareness is exhausting.

Even with the yaktrax this morning, the asphalt is dangerous. There’s a light dusting of snow over the ice. The small plow pushes snow into the street and spreads sand on the sidewalk. I want to run this morning, but don’t dare. I’m too unstable, too tired. I won’t be able to catch myself and find my balance if I slip.

A time-out would be nice. Is nice, when I allow myself this. Last week my youngest son visited and told me there is another possibility to the “Flight, freeze…” scenario: submit. Startled and frighten dogs sometimes do it. It’s not the same as playing dead. There’s no deception involved. It’s a matter of softening.

We are so sure that surrender is a bad thing. I’ve been thinking that there is a reason so many religions demand it. We need a time-out from our own will. A reality-check in the midst of all the prophets. Surrender to, acknowledge this moment and its omnipotence. And the next.

Ren Powell, Playground with Dreamcatcher

Finally, I identified with the problems of writing itself: “You write a thing down because you’re hoping to get a hold on it. You write about experiences partly to understand what they mean…. But there’s always the danger of the opposite happening. Losing the memory of the experience to the memory of writing about it.” [Sigrid] Nunez makes that connection to people who realize some of their memories arise not so much from events themselves but from photographs of these events.

I know I sometimes lose track of what really happened if I make a poem of my own experience, or base a story on observed life and behaviors. I often write to better understand something or someone, to expand my compassion for someone who hurt me or behaved badly or inexplicably. What would make someone do that? I ask, and then try to answer that question in a story that loves the character who did it, in part by exploring the character’s motivation, as I would as an actor…  By the time the story is finished, my compassion is expanded, yes, but my imagination has already taken over, and my fiction-writing self has mixed and matched details as needed, and who knows what the “facts” were on the way to the new truth? That’s why it’s fiction.

Kathleen Kirk, Still the Right Book at the Right Time

This year, I intend to make more collages and poem collages to add to those I made in 2020, and previously, which I’ve shown you in several posts, such as Collage Poems (from 2017); Once Upon a Lockdown (sequence of nine prose poems/collages from 2020); Collages of Exasperation (also from 2020).  In my collage work, I’m inspired by poet, writer, artist, and teacher Sophie Herxheimer.

I’m mentioning my collage project now as a means of recording my intention to do the work, and in an attempt to avoid procrastination. I would love to set myself a target of at least two pieces a month but I am going to say at least one piece a month, to be less demanding on myself.  Having said that, I have in January 2021 made two pieces so far.  Hurray!

For my first 2021 piece, I’ve used a cut-up calendar from last year, headlines from The Guardian newspaper (which I tend to buy on a Saturday) and flowers and foliage from my garden.  I’ve made another piece in tandem, without any foliage, so that I can retain this month’s collage.  I plan on doing this with every piece I make from now on (as much as possible).  Last year, I used a lot of natural materials (flowers and foliage) in my collages which meant that I couldn’t physically save them – I only photographed them.  I set up a separate Instagram account for my visual pieces last year – @andothermakings.  I recycled and composted all unsaved materials, by the way!

Josephine Corcoran, Collages for 2021

Traveling to an alternate universe of thinking and writing has been helpful lately given an attempted coup, and racist police response, AND the apocalyptic daily death count and a catastrophically lame vaccine rollout. I don’t manage the leap into literary concentration every day, but that’s actually what my next book is about: what helps us slip into the reading trance, where poetry is concerned, and what that border-crossing does for a reader.

I’m polishing and updating my forthcoming essay collection, to be called Poetry’s Possible Worlds or Taking Poetry Personally depending on what my editor says. It requires reading and rereading widely and wildly to make sure my thinking and research are up-to-date: Carolyn Dinshaw’s exhilarating How Soon Is Now, Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism, and essays on narrative theory, deep attention, presentism, poetry of witness, and much more. New to me is Brian Attebery’s Stories About Stories, of interest partly because I’m thinking about story in poetry but also because of my investment in speculative fiction. Attebery argues that the cultural importance of literary fantasy as a genre lies in how it “redefine[s] the relationship between contemporary readers and mythic texts.” I’m not wholly satisfied with that as a definition, yet the book is useful and interesting. He describes genre, for instance, as “fuzzy sets”: “the question of what genre a particular text belongs to will never be resolved, nor need it be. The interesting question about any given story is not whether it is fantasy or science fiction or realistic novel, but rather what happens when we read it as one of those things.”

In the larger sense, I write in many genres–poetry, fiction, criticism, reviews, literary nonfiction–but I also think of myself as operating in the borderlands between smaller categories. My poetry has appeared and been reviewed in both “mainstream” and sf venues; it’s been called lyric, political, formalist, fabulist, and more, to which I say, cool. My forthcoming hybrid essay collection (blending criticism, theory, and personal narrative) argues that most poetry is not just fiction but fantasy. It’s fiction because framing it on a page as literary art sets it apart from truth and lies; it’s fantasy because, notwithstanding, it’s obsessed with what’s true. I define fantasy in a way that’s tangential to Attebery’s idea; I think of it as fiction exploring questions of what’s real, what matters.

Lesley Wheeler, Multiple worlds in poetry, fiction, and politics

I’m not gonna sugar coat it. We are in the rubble.

This blog has more or less been built around the idea that we are all required to make something beautiful. But it’s been a long time since I’ve quoted the passage from which the line is taken. Here it is:

“The barrenness of the poetic task: as if every day we look out at a courtyard of rubble and from this are required to make something beautiful. ”

— Theodore Roethke from Straw for the Fire

Well, we have no shortage of rubble at present. No shortage of barrenness, if that’s even a possibility.

I’ve read a lot of advice about how to continue to get through this time and probably I’ve thrown out some of my own. But honestly whenever I read anything in the realm of “thou shalt” my brain just turns off. The best tips seem to come from previous times, for me, anyway. Fernando Pessoa, for example, said this in 1931: “Don’t squander yourself, giving what you don’t have.” And, “Enjoy being the little you are. The hovel you’re given is a better shelter than the palace you’re owed.”

Shawna Lemay, Don’t Squander

How does the writer’s brain work? It is a bewilderment to me, why it must be this particular word, or that particular image. How is it that now, in this time of several national and global crises, I emerge from sleep holding to this juxtaposition: 

    i wake 

    my face is wet 

        the blue heron stands 

        one foot 

        on a slate roof 

Sharon Brogan, questions

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