Poetry Blog Digest 2021, Week 14

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: just a lot of poems, poetry reviews, and posts about poetry. I mean, you’d think that would be the case here every week, but as regular readers know, I’m fond of quoting poets (or poetry publishers) musing about all manner of things. But for once, I stayed on task. Almost.


It was a long hard March, and now evidently it’s April, as the poems and flowers prove. On March 6, my mother fell down the (carpeted!) stairs—we hope only 2 or 3 of them—and broke several bones in “non-displaced” ways. That, and the fact that both parents were already fully vaccinated, was the lucky part! She is making a steady and remarkable recovery, with good days and bad days, and great home health care, plus lots of family and local support. Our fragility and resilience continue to amaze me. 

During this time, I participated in an outdoor event on the steps of the history museum, a Remembrance of those lost to Covid-19 in the past year. Candace Summers, Education Director at the McLean County Museum of History, had arranged it, bringing speakers, a singer, young dancers, and me. “I’m no Amanda Gorman,” I had warned her, but I was honored to be asked. My inspiration came from our shared experiences over the last year, plus words from the community, offered in the 12 Months in 6 Words project, and I used many of the shared words, ideas, feelings I found there, creating a poem of 6 stanzas of 6 lines each of 6 words each. (The 666 association was, sadly, not lost on me.) My sister, who had come from Nebraska to help, set it up on her laptop for my parents to watch as it streamed live, and the audience sat or stood in the blocked-off street at safe social distances, bundled against the March chill. Candace had placed 175 small white flags on the museum lawn, one for each of our community’s residents who died; later, updated statistics raised that number to 200+. It was good to come together, safely, solemn and amazed. 

Kathleen Kirk, Long Hard March

I managed to draft a sonnet in 15 minutes, thanks to Molly Peacock, and heard some new-to-me voices in poetry, and listened to poets who are deeply engaged in the work and art of poetry discuss their processes, enthuse over their influences, and say what drives their curiosity. I found kindred writers who are, like me, endeavoring to put voice to people with dementia and express the grief we experience as our Best Beloveds lose personality, language, ego-consciousness.

Lesley Wheeler shared the writing prompts her panel put together on her blog, here; she and her four co-panelists (see blog) reflected on feeling across distance, another apropos topic in the current times. It seems we can and do find methods to be human together, even when we are apart. I think of all the letters I wrote when I was in college, and afterward, as I moved around the eastern USA, changed addresses, and tried to keep my friends and family informed as to who I was and what my interests were. In my attic, there are boxes of correspondence written in the days before email. Many of them are now letters from ghosts. Words I will never hear again from living mouths, but a way we kept “in touch” despite, and over, distance. And still do.

Ann E. Michael, Conferencing, distance

Swinburne is bemused as Betjeman wins at whist yet again
and scoops the coins off the formica. Anybody would think
you knew what cards I’d got
, Swinburne says. Betjeman smiles.

Holub selects Tonight At Noon on the jukebox
and stands looking confused as it spews out Adrian Henri
Live In Liverpool ’69 instead of Charlie Mingus.

There’s a collective shout of Switch It Off!
Holub kicks the machine, pulls the plug from the wall.
Coleridge runs from the kitchen with a kitchen-knife, screams

Holub when are you going to get it through your thick skull?
This is a poetry cafe. The jukebox plays poetry, not jazz.
And none of us like the bloody stuff, so nobody plays it. OK?

Dryden is mumbling, trying to make his laptop work. It won’t.

Bob Mee, STREAM-WRITING AFTER MY 68TH BIRTHDAY

Another influence is John Wills’ wonderful haiku:

going
where the river goes
first day of spring

(taken from Allan Burns’ Where the River Goes, Snapshot Press 2013).

I love the spare use of language in this poem, the plain-spoken and utterly clear image of following the river’s path, the sense of freedom it suggests, but also the possibility that we’re not free, that the river must take the course dictated by the lie of the land, and therefore we can only take certain paths as circumstances allow. There’s a sense of adventure too – rivers are beautiful to follow, and yet they can be difficult as well. Sometimes the river bank has eroded and the path falls away. We turn back, or we scramble on. Either way, it’s spring and there’s that feeling of optimism that comes with longer daylight, birdsong, milder weather. Wills’ haiku opens with a single verb; it’s hard to pare writing back further than this. By leaving out the subject, we can place ourselves in the poem (I am going) although it’s equally possible to read the haiku as ‘the river is going’. Either way, the journey this poem evokes is at once truthful and metaphorical, as much about stillness and contemplation as it is about movement. For me, this is one of those poems that stays with you. I often hear it in my head when I’m out walking. I don’t walk by the river much, but when I do, it’s the River Don, which starts its course just a few miles up the valley from where I live. The photographs, above and below, were taken further downriver near Deepcar, where the river widens and the remains of old iron works can be seen along the way.

Julie Mellor, following the river

“and moonlight on naked skin.”
– even one more word
could be too much for a poem

Rajani Radhakrishnan, Moon Poetry

I’ve been thinking about the poetic breath this week, how poets use punctuation and line breaks to direct the reader. I’ve been reading my own collection out-loud, listening for mistakes and difficult phrasing, but also how the speed of the poem is directed by these little internal controls. I’ve also recorded a couple of poems recently which requires you to slow them down even more for clarity. 

A poet in my writing group said he uses line breaks like punctuation, but then we noticed he used both randomly in his poem we were discussing and when he didn’t pay attention to it, it lead to confusion for me. I’m not sure if he’ll change it, but it was good to discuss.

Some poets are hyper-aware of how they use punctuation and line breaks to add emphasis and control how the poem is read. I enjoy this, read their work out-loud, measuring how I read to their layout. Short or long lines, big pauses and smaller intakes of breath, commas, full stops, line ends, it lends life to the poem that isn’t always felt on the page.

I’m wary when reading other poets’ work of placing my values on how they create pauses for breath in a poem. I read a poem this week that seemed so badly broken up for no reason that it made it painful to follow, sentences broken repeatedly across stanzas it seemed just to keep the two stanza format going. It made me wish to hear the poet read his own poem, so I could understand how he envisioned the poem. 

Gerry Stewart, Breath and the Poet

I call out to you when I run through the underpass,
my words echoing back from the walls in the cold, still air.
And when I pass the quarry, I throw the same words
across the excavated chasm into a towering wall of layered sand.
And again, as I cross the motorway, high above the traffic.
I let them ride the bitter wind rushing from the North Downs.

Lynne Rees, Poem: wherever you are … For Mammy

This week I am proud to feature the work of Quintin Collins whose debut collection The Dandelion Speaks of Survival arrives this month from Cherry Castle Publishing. I have been admirer of Collins’ work both on and off the page for a few years now. As an activist and organizer, Collins has helped foster a dynamic community as assistant director of the Solstice Low-Residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program.

On the page, Collins’ work is marked by a direct engagement with the physical world, lingering over it with a curious attention that pays off in nuanced and fateful meaning. In his poem, “Exegesis On a Chicken Wing,” the act of eating is given space so that it is honored but also meditated on in a way that gives over its essential stakes. That to be human is survival and celebration–this is a key message in Collins’ work.

In “This is Where You Belong” (below) one encounters a similar engagement with the physical world. Through a catalogue of a neighborhood, the poem ruminates over the coming and going of many lives with such clarity that nothing feels ephemeral despite its fleeting nature. Like Galway Kinnell, Collins writes of place with a gravity that is accessible and essential. One feels the weight of “The American flag, / two hundred fifty pounds of polyester” flapping over the life the speaker is witness to, but also feels the horizon it flaps against, made up of human life and sky.

José Angel Araguz, writer feature: Quintin Collins

my head is full of oceans
full of plastic

sea foam memories
pass for wisdom

sea green trees
whisper like grey waves

come home come home

trickle down through chest
and lungs and drown and drown
where plastic bits break down

where seabirds soar
and drift beneath the sea-
glass shards of stars

James Brush, Oceans

I was listening to the January 25 The Poet Salon podcast with hosts Gabrielle Bates, Luther Hughes, and Dujie Tahat and their guest Ada Limón. They discussed the virtues of poetic “play,” among other wonderful topics. The play topic stuck out for me because the craft talk I did for my final residency of my MFA was on just that. 

Since the subject popped up two more times that week on Twitter and somewhere else, I decided to post the video of my craft talk, “Play: the Craft that Turns Words Into Poetry.” Unfortunately, the quality of the original talk wasn’t great so I used Zoom to record my voice over the stop-motion video I had used for my presentation. The result isn’t perfect: the sound cuts out in parts. The closed captioning should suffice to fix this problem. 

If you too are interested in the subject of play and poetry, check my talk out on YouTube:  https://youtu.be/KaVITYEojGI (don’t forget to turn CC on).

Cathy Wittmeyer, April 2021

it was my understanding there would be no math on this

a vi-
gin-
tillion
is a

one

with
s i x t y – t h r e e
zeroes

you can
look it up

Jason Crane, POEM: it was my understanding there would be no math on this

I am delighted to welcome Sue Wallace-Shaddad as my guest poet for this mini-series of posts. Sue and I both live in Suffolk and have known each other for nearly a decade. Sue is Secretary of Suffolk Poetry Society.

Following the publication of Sue’s poetry pamphlet, A Working Life, Sue had her first short collection, A City Waking Up, published last year by Dempsey & Windle. The book costs £8.00 and can be purchased here by PayPal (UK) or by contacting the poet (international and other orders).

Sue has been visiting Khartoum since the 1970s, and has recently begun to draw her poetic inspiration from the city itself. Khartoum is not only the place at which the Blue and White Nile converge; but also, as Paul Stephenson points out, the ‘Meeting Point’ (the title of Sue’s opening poem) at which so many aspects of Sudanese life, not least ‘city and countryside’, come together against a backdrop of tradition and fast-moving political change.

First impressions are important, and the glossy cover photograph, taken by the poet herself, invites the reader into this sun-baked land as day begins. Sue’s poems are often tight, and not infrequently short in length, which means that each piece has been given what I might call its own space in which to breathe. The glossary of Arabic words at the back of the book is brief and helpful. The Arabic words for food items in the poem Al fatur – Breakfast add a sense of the exotic to a piece that is almost a list poem.

Sue’s palette is a colourful one. In a few deft strokes, she conjures up cameo after cameo before the eyes of her readers; take for example her vision of Sudan in the early morning. Pastel-green houses, we discover, dot the khaki landscape, scattered like fresh mint. I am drawn to the poet’s description of pyramids of cucumber, tomatoes ready to be sold (A City Waking Up, p.10). Sue’s images are crisp and visual, but we are also invited to experience Khartoum via the senses of hearing (‘unseen ghosts screech into life’), touch (‘the desert smothers us in its sticky embrace’), smell (‘the scent of pink grapefruit lingering in the air’) and taste (‘Feta, hard squares, salt to the tongue’).

Caroline Gill, ‘A City Waking Up’ by Sue Wallace-Shaddad (Post 1: Mini-Review)

In some language
the word for language
also means stumble.

Tom Montag, IN SOME LANGUAGE (31)

Dhaliwal’s relationship with languages finds its way into most of the poems in the collection, but nowhere more beautifully and poignantly than in the brilliant villanelle ‘Migrant Words’ where she expresses “a vain hope” that the “buried…words” of her ancestral tongue “will grow / into a dialect of some hybrid descent” and that her Punjabi vowels “will plough / a cadence that my anglophone tongue could not invent”. It could not be a lovelier, sadder poem, which I think could stand as a fine representative of the collection as a whole.

On the evidence of this work, we have in Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal a poet who sees complexity with great clarity, and who does not allow her sadness to turn to rage. She writes with genuine lyrical beauty and while she has surely benefited from the several top-level Irish lyric poet teachers and mentors she lists in the acknowledgements, there is a sure-footed handling of cadence and rhyme, and a fluidity to both the stricter closed forms and the prose poems, which indicates that the heart of a natural poet beats inside her. As with much diasporic poetry (that I have read anyway), the work itself seems to become something not entirely unlike the hoped-for, intangible and perhaps impossible home whose absence drives the lyric – and this prompts me to ask the question (it seems appropriate to end this review on a question): where, I wonder, will this remarkable poet’s journey lead her next?

Chris Edgoose, The Wisdom of Questions – The Yak Dilemma by Supriya Kaur Dhaliwal

It is not enough to write our feelings down on paper. Write them on flesh. Better yet, go deeper.

Scribe them on bones, commit them to memory, to bloodflow.

Give those feelings a home on the tongue, in the heart and soul, so that everything that is said and done comes from the beginning and end of everything wondrous inside us.

So that all those feelings can lead to something pure and true; meaning even blindfolded, we can find one another during rupture or rapture.

Meaning when we catch sunlight in our hands, we choose to caress it, not crush it.

Rich Ferguson, It is Not Enough

It’s coming up on a year now since I printed out Derek Mahon’s ‘Everything Is Going To Be Alright’ and Blu-Tacked it to the wall near the skylight in the home office I made for myself when it looked like this was going on for a bit longer than a month. […]

On Tuesday this week, the printout finally fell off the wall, and while it’s now up on the pinboard I put on the wall the day before, it felt like something of a sign. Something to pay attention to, that perhaps the ghost of Derek had chosen to tell me something.

That sign from beyond had me starting to think that the last line might be right, that things are starting to recover, that it is all going to be ok or alright; but perhaps that’s very naive and very foolish of me. Am I placing too much focus on the powerful last line, and not enough on what gets us to it…not enough on the “There will be dying, there will be dying”? Arguably, there very much is the need to ” go into that”, Del…!

However, that does feel a bit like being one of those Whataboutery-wankers…You know the kind, the type that finds it impossible to believe you can hold different concepts together in your head at the same time. It is possible to be happy about one thing, and then sad about another at the same time.

So, I’m choosing to focus on the sense of some relief that is coming down the line, the sense of things opening up again – in a literal and metaphorical sense. That may come to bite us on the literal and or metaphorical arse further down the line, but in a week where I’ve seen more people in one place (well-spaced out gardens, of course) than in the last year, and in the week where things in our garden have started turning green (as they should), and in the week we have wifi back, there’s some cause to focus on Mahon’s last line.

Mat Riches, Derek Mahon’s Toilet Roll Holder

“Life could not better be,” my song today.
I’ll let Danny belt it out, and whisper
along in the background. “Luckiest girl
on the planet” to follow. What went right?
A day almost like beforetime, when I
could walk if I wanted and still breathe, twirl
as if music is lilting or play twister
and not fall. The luxury of an airway
uncluttered, muscles not withered, and hey,
look at me: hefting cast iron when Mister
Ladyhands feels unwell, lays down, and curls
on the couch, leaving the food prep to blue skies
and me, suddenly able and headstrong,
making noodles with grins and a singalong.

PF Anderson, Singing

The last year of suffering and doom in this flesh sets my self-image low: my body is changing so fast I can’t even keep up. Pants are slipping, hips emerging from pandemic and cruelty-padding, my swimmer-triangle shape uncovering itself by the day with all its utility of lats and pecs and steel-cable hip flexors; muscle – more than anything, muscle – is growing back with the speed of sudden green in the forest in April: wasn’t this laurel dry and dead half an hour ago? Solid wall of luscious green, reaching visibly for sky. My god, I can SEE it GROWING, we say, every year, amazed. Wreaths of entwined green extending, extending, right before our eyes.

I’m whiplashed from the speed of change, of return: new body who dis my fleshly answer to every call.

JJS, Day 5: 2×800, a DRAMEDY

When a butterfly
When a bird of a different color
When a residue of ash forms the hand-
drawn shapes of your names

When a pattern of lifted fish scales
makes a trellis on the body—

Memory makes a silk knot
in the vein.

Luisa A. Igloria, Poem for Making our Dead Visible

I had such a wonderful experience working with Moment Poetry on this unique poetry format! Special thanks to Berenika Polomová for the lovely artwork made just to go along with my poem “Ode to a Young Screech Owl.” You can read more about the story behind this poem here.

Trish Hopkinson, the author of Moment Poetry poem #7, is one of the few poetry bloggers we followed even before launching our own project. We find the energy and enthusiasm with which she provides her readers with valuable information from the literary world truly inspirational.”

They are a new poetry press publishing poems in a printed visual format similar to a small vinyl record with an exterior sleeve with beautiful artwork and the poem slipped inside, signed by the author. Each poem is a limited edition of 100 prints, so don’t wait too long before ordering! Their “ultimate goal is to help spread good poetry and support aspiring poets. That is why 25% of the sale price (€ 8.50) of each sold poem goes directly to its author.”

You can check out their store to see what type of work they publish and support this unique press. They are always open to submissions of previously unpublished poems to feature in this print-run series. Read my interview with founders Ivan and Sonja.

Trish Hopkinson, My poem “Ode to a Young Screech Owl” published by Moment Poetry

a cold snap
is that snow or plum blossom
blowing around

Jim Young [no title]

I purchased a copy of Julio Cortázar’s Save Twilight (City Lights Books, 1984) years and years ago. I remember that I was trying not to spend any money at the time, but I told myself I would give the book to my friend Paul as a birthday gift. Almost every year, I think, “Aren’t you going to give this to Paul?” And then I reread it. And I keep it.

Cortázar was born in 1914, to Argentinian parents, and spent his childhood and youth in Argentina. He is primarily known as a novelist and was a revered and early influencer among Spanish-speaking writers. He died in 1984, and if I had known he was buried in Montparnasse, I would have visited in 2019 when I was in Paris. Once again, I pick up the book and it works its magic (“my loves, my drinks, my smokes….little black book for the late hours” [87]).

Bethany Reid, Julio Cortázar

I think periods & semicolons, I think language
bleeding from imaginary mouths like meager
light. I think parentheses where words are
insufficient & I fill them with silence.
I think musk & deer & secretion & how certain
shapes are drawn in the mind for pleasure
& can only be conjured in certain moods.

Roman Iorga, NaPoWriMo, Day 8

In years past, as I read past blog posts for April, I noticed I would attend about three readings a week, give a couple of readings, attend a conference or a ‘con, get together with friends for their book launches. It was so much it was overwhelming even to read about!

This year feels quieter and more muted. So how are you still celebrating Poetry Month during the pandemic? I managed to squeeze in a couple of Zoom talks this week, one by Dana Levin (who talked about strangeness in poetry) and C. Dale Young (who talked about rhetoric vs the image among other things) – two poets who would be hard for me to see in person, so that was cool.

I’m giving a Zoom reading on April 18th (I’ll post more when I have the link) and I’ve been reading more and trying to write more (although I haven’t been able to do a poem a day this year.) Too many in-person re-entry things to do! It takes more energy than it used to to do simple things, like go a store or the doctor, in person. This is part of the re-entry pains. My favorite all-poetry bookstore hasn’t re-opened yet for shopping in person, but soon, and I’ll enjoy browsing there again – it’s a great place to run into poets books you might not have heard about anyplace else.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, On Re-Entry, MRIs and Tulip Fields, National Poetry Month – What Are You Doing?

So much gets buried. The song,
The worm. The soft feathered
spring. We all lose our innocence

as soon as the ground goes soft.
Its muck and tumble. I was looking
away when the nest unraveled

and out fell a half dozen eggs,
blue as the ocean. Before long the earth
devoured them—little shell, little yolk.

I broke my wing thrashing into
the same window, the same time
every March.

Kristy Bowen, napwrimo day no 8

5 – Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

To answer this question from the isolation of COVID-19 is to become flagrantly nostalgic for a “before time” that involved impossibly cold winter walks to Librairie Drawn & Quarterly to stand at the back of a sweating, snow-damp crowd, as well as long and humid summer nights in green-lit bars on Saint-Laurent with a troupe of poets or performance artists or both. Sometimes I was invited on stage or to the head of a friend’s charmed living room to partake in the reading and I have always felt so terribly honoured by this opportunity. It is also with a sepia sort of longing that I think of the person-to-person readings I will not host as my first book enters the world.

6 – Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m having a difficult time answering this question because I am equally provoked to say yes and no. Yes, every syllable of my writing is engaged in the feminist project of redefining experience and personhood, as inspired by the uncanny language of the French thinkers Cixous, Irigaray, Kristeva and the re-visionary citational praxis of Ahmed. It’s also sparking up against the minor-becomings of Deleuze and Guattari and circling back (with the modernist poet H. D.) to the foundational mistakes by Freud. But no, when the poem comes out, the thought is not theory-inflected. Not in an explicit way. It’s a far too elemental struggle to say anything at all that I’m engaged in when pencil lead is hovering over the notebook page.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I believe there are too many types of writing and too many types of writers for there to one role for the writer in culture. I can say, however, that my greatest service to the public at large, as a writer, was as the teenage author of erotic Harry Potter fanfiction. A service I may never surpass.

rob mclennan, 12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jessi MacEachern

Words growing like fresh whiskers, no shave lasts forever. If I write long enough this beard might someday reach the floor. 

James Lee Jobe, watching the heron wade

This extract contains a pivotal, beautiful turn of phrase, the archaeology of home, that very much encapsulates the drive behind The Marks on the Map. Moreover, Johnstone’s tracing of the gradual loss of the souvenirs plays a pivotal role in pitching his own ageing process against that of the building. Of course, the evocation of autumn in the last line invites connection with the four seasons of life, human beings, nature and buildings all coming together. There’s no instruction to the reader, just juxtapositions that allow implicit connections to be made.

Brian Johnstone’s interpretation of the role of maps, landmarks and buildings in our lives is not only skilled and infused with experience, but it also provides a personal perspective that encourages us to view those roles afresh, leaving us to ponder the marks on our own maps. It might be time to stow our Sat Nav and dig out those old Ordnance Surveys once more.

Matthew Stewart, The archaeology of home, Brian Johnstone’s The Marks on the Map

This evening I’m going to dive back into Rachel Barenblat’s book Crossing the Sea. […] I’m halfway through and incredibly moved. I’ve been thinking of Dave (at The Skeptic’s Kaddish) who set up a blog as a way to grieve his father. Barenblat is a rabbi and this collection is about her mother’s death.

People say that everyone goes through this, but I never will. I say that to point out how powerful these poems are. The speaker draws me into her relationship with her mother and her grief. Her poem “Mother’s Day” begins with: It’s a year of firsts/and most of them hurt.

In “Pedicure”, she talks about the simple thing of removing the nail polish that she had on for the funeral: […] replaced with periwinkle, luminous and bright/like your big string of pearls you do not know/are mine now that you’re gone.

There’s a reason why I couldn’t read this book in one day. It’s like trying to eat a whole mayonnaise cake in one sitting. But I’m looking forward to picking it up again.

But first, there’s housework. And some yoga. Trying to get back into – oh, I don’t know, integrated with the rest of the world here: friends I haven’t seen or spoken with in nearly two months. And then there is work later this week. Students. There’s clothing that isn’t loungewear. Make-up. Shoes.

In some ways I’ve been
in a womb, cocoon, nestled
with the dull sounds of
blunted percussives, every
thing in the world – swaddled

Ren Powell, Imagining the Real World

“A Woven Rope” is a lyrical exploration of maternal lineage through transitional roles of daughter becoming mother, mother becoming granddaughter and the potential for the line to continue through the new daughter. Jenna Plowes’ attention to details, whether marks that create a watercolour, phrases used by a mother realising she’s quoting her own mother, the tension in a high wire, let the reader admire the intricacy and feel their deceptive strength.

Emma Lee, “A Woven Rope” Jenna Plewes (V. Press) – book review

The relationship with [Elie] Wiesel that Ariel Burger describes is enviable. He says that his professor “didn’t respond to my struggles with answers. Rather, he saw what I actually needed was someone with whom to share my questions, someone who would be with me without trying to fix things.” He describes Wiesel’s teachings in the classroom as a “methodology of wonder” which “has the potential to awaken students’ ethical and moral powers.”

At an earlier point in the book, the author comes to the professor with questions and is given this:

“We all ask questions, and we should. It is more dangerous if we do not. But perhaps you are not looking for answers. You are looking for responses to your questions, to your life, for ways to live rather than ideas to espouse. Answers close things down; responses do not.”

Shawna Lemay, Methodologies of Wonder

out in the rain
that girl who twirls
her umbrella

Bill Waters, Haiku about things that make us happy

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