Poetry Blog Digest 2021, Week 45

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. You can also browse the blog digest archive or subscribe to its RSS feed in your favorite feed reader. This week, though I tried to avoid finding common themes, they found me nonetheless—a recurring focus on time, several posts on Covid poetry, and a lot of wrestling with writerly dilemmas such as “Why write?” and “How do we survive?”


I have so much to say on days I can’t make time to sit here in front of the computer. So much to say while I’m running on the beach or sitting on the train. All these thoughts pressing to be sorted and seen. And most days if I can’t catch them, sort them, form them and pin them down in a way that later will seem both true and strange, I worry that I will never have really existed. I will have let myself slip through my own fingers. Wasted time.

Ren Powell, Following a Lead

What is it that peeps from the book at the shelf?
A slip of the sky to mark the page: a day in early
November, winter dormant between sepia covers.

Uma Gowrishankar, A Window

Reader, I have contracted it. All for a few luscious days away on my birthday, not a moment of which I regret. We went to Bristol on the train, revisited Nick’s old university haunts, explored the Georgian terraces and the harbourside, had a lovely day in Bath, ate and drank well. We’re now two days off finishing our ten-day quarantine. We’re both feeling tons better than this time last week, even the sense of smell is gradually creeping back (starting with smells I’m not keen on, like coffee, maddeningly!)

Someone on Twitter commented that ten days enforced isolation gives you all the time in the world to write – but frankly I haven’t really felt like it. I have done some reading and research in preparation for the forthcoming collection. At the moment the difference between a planning a pamphlet and planning/producing a full collection feels like the proverbial yawning chasm. I can do this! And yet I keep printing off my notes, usually with headings that might motivate me, like ‘Why I’m interested in writing about X’, and ‘Key themes and identifying the gaps’, then staring at them with nothing to add. Meanwhile all the new poems sit there looking up at me like baleful dogs desperate for a walk. I try to tell myself they have promise, even though they seem tired or lacking in originality. And then I go back to reading, avoiding Twitter or wondering if I need to just do a bit of yoga.

Robin Houghton, Notes from the sick bay

[Rob Taylor]: Writers seemed to divide into two camps during the first year of COVID-19. One group wrote prodigiously while the other wrote little or nothing. You’re certainly in the former group, writing all these new poems (especially, of course, your thirteen-part crown sonnet, “Corona”). What drew you to writing about COVID-19 head-on and with such energy? 

[Barbara Nickel]: The “Corona” sequence was the main work I completed during the first part of the pandemic. With the exception of four other poems written in 2020, most of the book had been written years before.

Maybe I was poetically prepared for the series when COVID-19 came along because I’d already written a sonnet corona for Domain; the “room” sonnets you’ve mentioned formed a sort of circular foundation to my book about the reach of my childhood home. Like so many households across the planet at the start of the pandemic, ours was stressful and chaotic. Suddenly everyone was home at the same time and space felt limited. Computers (including mine) were in high demand. I was constantly washing my hands and reading the news and stressing about it.

The idea of writing a “corona for the Corona” had been simmering for a little while. Looking at images of the spherical virus with its spiky crown, I knew that these physical and poetic shapes would need to merge; how couldn’t they? Then late one night I couldn’t sleep for desperately itchy hands (from all that washing), and I decided enough is enough, this project needs to begin.

Rob Taylor, That Prism of Perspectives: An Interview with Barbara Nickel

Rather than worry about all the inevitable books about the pandemic, it might be worth thinking about the books which won’t be written, because nothing else is on people’s mind, or because what they had been going to write doesn’t make sense to them any more, or even because their whole life has changed and writing doesn’t seem a priority right now.

To put things very crudely, again, we are good at remembering wars, but perhaps less good at remembering their aftermaths. We see the casualties, but we don’t always see the long-term impact on the people left behind. I don’t think Britain likes to see itself as a war-torn nation: war is something that happens only to soldiers, and only in other places.

I don’t think we like to see literature as circumstantial, either. It is more gratifying to talk of stories or poems as things which change lives, rather than something made by them: it gives both the writer and the reader more freedom. Think of all the Covid books implies a kind of (understandable) despair that the pandemic ever happened. It did. But we can still chose how to respond.

Jeremy Wikeley, What’s next?

I find myself captivated by Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm: Poems and Essays (New York NY: Astra House Publishing, 2021) by Chinese poet Yu Xiuhua, translated by Fiona Sze-Lorrain. Born with cerebral palsy in 1976 in Hengdian village, Hubei Province, China, Yu Xiuhua was, as the book copy offers, “Unable to attend college, travel, or work the land with her parents, she remained home. In defiance of the stigma attached to her disability, her status as a divorced single mother, and as a peasant in rural China, Yu found her voice in poetry.” The collection opens with the now-infamous poem “Crossing Half of China to Fuck You,” a poem that became an “online sensation” in 2014, and thus launched Yu’s career as a published writer. “Fucking you and being fucked by you are quite the same,” the poem begins, “no more / than the force of two colliding bodies, a flower coaxed into blossom [.]” I’m fascinated, as well, by how this book is structured, offering, after the opening poem, essays by the author as section-openers, which allow the possibility for more of the author’s own thinking around history, language, morality, suffering, disability, politics and poetry, and of exploring the possibilities therein. I don’t know if this was structured by the poet herself or her editor, but it allows for a collection built as a singular unit, incorporating the essays in conversation with the poems; as an essential part of the text, instead of the usual offering of including them at the end, almost as afterthought.

Set as eight essays, six of which open sections of poems composed as abstracts through direct statement, as the author writes her own way into being. “Yes, it can’t stand on its own,” she writes, to open the poem “Dust,” “so it leans west in the wind [.]” There is a meditative and even wistful clarity through these poems, as well as a self-deprecating humour, through a poet who writes of the erotic, of love and the land, and of her immediate and imagined landscapes. She writes with a clarity and a humility, offering her meditations in line with the nature poets, attentive to the movements and shifts of the world around her. There is something quite compelling in the way Yu writes, through Fiona Sze-Lorrain’s attentive translation, against such forces that would erase her voice, whether through her disability, her poverty, her gender or as a divorced, single mother. Through these poems and essays, she claims her own space in the world with an openness that refuses to be contained, while remaining a humble and quietly attentive observer, even of her own life, thoughts and experiences. As she writes to close the essay “I Live to Reject Lofty Words”: “I am desperately in love with this inexplicable and obscure life. I love its conceit, and the haze that surfaces at low points in my life. I am grateful for being well and alive, and all because of my lowly existence.”

rob mclennan, Yu Xiuhua, Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm: Poems and Essays, trans. Fiona Sze-Lorrain

Loneliness
and its blessings
so fill my hut
I can barely
move around,
the old monk said.

Tom Montag, THREE OLD MONK POEMS (58)

I’m not going to lie: this has been a tough week. The weather has been a series of emergency alerts: wind storms that knock out power, rain that brings flooding and mudslides. Absolutely no outdoor time for me this week, even on my deck or to get mail. My computer (six months old, too expensive) is on the fritz and looks like it needs replacing already. I’m worried about my parents, aunts, uncles, in-laws, many of whom had health crises this week: falls, hospital trips, illnesses, house problems. The news isn’t so cheery these days either. Three snow leopards at a Nebraska zoo died of covid. Damn it covid, stay away from our snow leopards! A GOP school district in Kansas banned books by Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Alice Walter, among others. Book burnings next? Yikes.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, November Gloom: Too Many Storms and Rejections

Today the skies are heavy. Rains come and go, as do high winds. I suspect the autumn leaves we marveled at yesterday are on the ground now, beginning their journey toward becoming mulch. Challah dough is rising, soon to be shaped into a spiraling six-pointed sun or Jewish star.

I wonder whether we will look back on these years as the end of something, or the end of many things. The end of when we could have stopped the global warming juggernaut, the end of the myth that “red” and “blue” America actually understand each other — or even want to try.

I think about climate grief and rising authoritarianism and mistrust. I’m so ready for Shabbat, for 25 hours of setting worries aside. All I can do is trust that when I make havdalah, I’ll be ready to pick up the work again. That the fallen leaves will sustain growth I can’t yet know.

Rachel Barenblat, Leaves

Tell them that the winter is here.
If they want to visit,
they must wear their thick skin,
forget about the virtues of the sea,
and wait until the fog clears
for the surprised birds to sing.
Tell them we are here.

Magda Kapa, Windows

As we consider Climate Crisis and other world issues, such as Covid-19, we become acutely aware that it is in many senses only now that we have the opportunity to make things change. The past has happened. Tomorrow is uncharted territory.

Caroline Gill, Thoughts on conferences, COP26 … and birds

I have been thinking a lot this week about a line from Tomas Tranströmer’s masterpiece, ‘Alone’. (I have also blogged about it here.) Driving alone at night, the speaker’s car spins out across the ice and into the path of oncoming traffic, with its ‘huge lights’:

They shone on me while I pulled at the wheel
in a transparent terror that floated like egg white.
The seconds grew – there was space in them –
they grew as big as hospital buildings.

Just as everything slows down and sound goes missing from the action, as in a film, ‘something caught: a helping grain of sand/ a wonderful gust of wind’, and the car breaks free.

I have been trying to practice gratitude this week for the helping grains of sand in my life: the kindness of a colleague talking me down from the tree when I fail to understand the new digital platform we have started using; the kindness of a poetry editor friend for helping me make my work half-way presentable; another poetry friend getting in touch with an encouraging email; an old school friend writing to update me with his news; a meal with friends; Simon Parke’s blog; a blogger from the other side of the world writing to say hi; the colleague who listens to and sees me; The Joy of Small Things, by Hannah Jane Parkinson.

There are other perhaps more famous grains of sand, William Blake’s or Wislawa Szymborska’s for instance, but the helping kind is what I am reaching for this week, behind the wheel or not.

Anthony Wilson, A helping grain of sand

A book with a thousand minds. Counting backwards through a thousand dreams. Why are you crying? I don’t want to tell you. You won’t have me around if I show you the teeth of the dog. A thousand dogs, hermanas y hermanos, and each dog has a thousand teeth. Growling and howling. A poem with a thousand hard lines. The most cruel blows on the flesh of the most quiet child. Why are you running? I have to run. Something is after me. Music that brings death. Not joy. Death. The face of the priest that melts into the face of the devil. Do you pray? God isn’t watching the sin as it happens. Just after. When it is far too late. We all have free will. Then what do you do? I run, I cry. The dreams are sometimes ugly, and I record them all in this book.

James Lee Jobe, a thousand minds

My editor helped me locate and rewrite the crisis moment Susan Forest describes. At the outset of Unbecoming, the main character, Cyn, refuses to recognize her own strength, magical and otherwise. And when you don’t admit the power you have, others get harmed in ways you could have mitigated, or maybe even headed off, if you had your wits about you. Cyn does come to terms with power and its consequences by the end, but the choices she makes about how to use her magic are problematic: some good, for sure, but some ethically questionable, to put it mildly. The problem she faces lies in the nature of magic–by definition, power is inequity, right? The MOST ethical thing is to give up your magic/ privilege, to redistribute it, but that’s ALSO hard, for a million different reasons. In short, I’m sympathetic to Cyn, but I don’t entirely like her.

A book of poems creates characters, too, some of whom are strong or strongly-written. Eric Tran visited campus this week, and while his poems seem intensely autobiographical, he emphasized their fictionality, how many of them rely on invention rather than personal history. One of my favorite’s of his is “I Tell My Mother About My Depression” (scroll down at the link and you’ll find it), and, interestingly, that was the one he chose as an example of writing in persona–not what I would have expected. Yet all poems fictionalize, even when they hew closely to fact. How you experience your life, after all, changes all the time; the you who writes the poem won’t exist in the same exact way tomorrow. I often feel distant from and critical of earlier poetic selves. Some of the poems in my most recent collection, The State She’s In, like “The South,” involve a version of me looking back at an earlier mindset and telling Former Lesley off.

Lesley Wheeler, Writing/ being a “strong female character”

Time, you beckon. Before
you were a proliferation of billboards;
double-armed streetlights rising
                        from a continuous median,
evenly spaced parade of réverbères
going down a crowded avenue.
Checkerboards of light fell
                        out of buildings where, in each
square someone was working
or doing sums at a table, someone
was reading a book or ironing
                        a shirt, washing potatoes
in a colander, or singing
a child to bed. Today, I watched
a neighbor load bag after bag
                        into a van, and still
there was more—a lifetime’s
accumulation of things.

Luisa A. Igloria, Poem with a Line from Neruda

Sometimes that heady frenzy is the point, and it’s enough just as it is. Maybe you’ll walk away from it, grateful for some thing it helped you see or know or remember. Maybe it was just an itch you needed to scratch. Maybe it was nothing, and you can see that and it’s fine, just fine. It was what it is. You go back to walking the dog and buying groceries and picking up library books, perhaps more primed to notice the world’s glances that come your way, that spark that could turn into a real poem.

Sometimes, though, you know it’s the beginning of something more than words scrawled through some feeling’s heat. It’s something you could sustain, that could sustain you. So you turn toward it and hold on.

Rita Ott Ramstad, How to write a poem

I am starting to write again, after losing our unborn son Shepherd a few months ago. It has been slow going–a few minutes here and there, a long, very long, time spent on a single poem. Writing has always been a helpful way for me to process and take note of my emotions, to process what happened, to understand it. But I have found myself avoiding it for a few months, not ready to get back into it again. I didn’t actually–it came back to me in the waiting room for a follow up appointment. There have been so many times I have said, Well, now is the time I will stop writing, but it does always come back.

Renee Emerson, writing while grieving

The birds gossip to the breeze.

The breeze buzzes to the trees.

Tree roots chitchat to the earth.

Earth’s deep dirt talks to coffins.

Coffins, in their quiet way, discourse with the great unknown.

And well before we’re born, the great unknown whispers into our seed of an ear.

Sing a song for the living, it tells us. Sing a song for the dead.

Rich Ferguson, Hum

My grandma, Ethel, who went deaf, who sat
with her head in the swelling horn
of the wind-up gramophone.

Listened to the scratchy tinnitus
of brittle shellac records until
they hissed like the sea on a shingly shore.

Who drowned herself, a poor Ophelia,
in the beck that ran hot from dyehouses,
than ran blue and plum and crimson red.

John Foggin, Armistice Day

Veterans Day 2021, the second year of a pandemic, when I can feel case numbers ticking up, as surely we all knew they would once colder weather arrived and people went indoors to breathe on each other.  I think about the forces that shape society:  disease and war and random terrorism that catapults a culture onto a different trajectory.

Before Veterans Day was Veterans Day it was Armistice Day which celebrated World War I, the war to end all wars.  Except it didn’t.  Research the amount of death in World War II and try to process that many humans gone in just a few years.

Will we some day say the same thing about these pandemic years?  Which is the more efficient killing machine, war or disease?  They so often go hand in hand, so it’s hard for me to know.  And I know it depends on the war or the disease.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Veterans Day in the Second Year of a Global Pandemic

Your ceramic bird fell and shattered like our dreams of a long, shared life. I didn’t mean to drop it – my fingers went numb. As numb as I’ve felt since you announced you were leaving. You opened the bedroom door and I quickly shoved a few pieces under the sideboard, fluttering wings beating in my chest. I am exhausted after hours of my tears and your tantrums, your shrill recriminations keening through the house. I am bombarded yet I stand here clutching a ceramic shard in my palm. As you brush past, I grab your arm and raise mine. A sharp blue feather flies to your heart.

Charlotte Hamrick, Clipped Wings

If you’re a writer, artist, musician or other creative, how do you get noticed? Is it enough to be good? How will people find you?

One way that’s become popular in the age of the Internet is to send out bits and pieces of your creative process, sharing the project as you work on it. This approach claims to be an alternative to the more direct forms of self-promotion, and even has the potential to help the viewer, or reader, or listener with their own artistic projects. (Austin Kleon wrote a delightful book about it called Show Your Work.)

With this method, you give others access to your process with the aim of building a following of fans who are just dying for the next sketch, chord, or draft.

I used to think this was completely fine, even innovative, but lately I’ve changed my mind.

This sharing/showing, meant to create a group or fan base, is still a lonely and energy-draining endeavor. You, the creative person, must constantly curate what you’ll share with the world, which not only adds to your workload, it drains your creative energy. It obliges you to explain and answer questions about what you shared. It gives the impression that you’re available for discussions about what you’ve shared, especially if you’re posting about your process on social media.

Not only is it harmful to you, the creative person, in terms of time and concentration, to share these tidbits with others, it might even be harmful to those who come across your shares.

Erica Goss, Should You Show Your Work?

falling
into a bed of emojis 
forty winks 😉

Jim Young [no title]

In my efforts to rekindle my enthusiasm for just about everything in life, I often find myself sometimes thinking about 2001.  I was 27 and had been living back in the city for a year. Why this year as opposed to others?   Why then and not, say 2002? Or 2003? When things really began to happen in terms of publishing and doing readings, and starting my MFA studies?  2001 was sort of this strange calm before the storm, a period of time when I was just discovering online publications and starting one of my own.  A time when I was creating my very first websites and learning about design while working the night shift at the circ desk.  A time when, having no internet at home, I was still mostly offline much of my life otherwise. At home, I’d read and journal and write late into the night. I still drafted every poem by hand on yellow legal pads or spiral steno notebooks then typed them into my e-mail at work. 

It was also the first rush of excitement to be connecting with people through poems.  Those online publications–the really nice fan letters that sometimes appeared in my inbox. Every online journal publication would find me printing out the pages and tucking them carefully between plastic sheets in a binder for safekeeping (a practice I eventually stopped.) I didn’t start a blog til 2003, so my journaling happened in more private spaces. Since we were years before even MySpace, most of my interactions with writers happened on discussion boards and listservs. Later on blogs.  

It feels a little more pure though, since it was very much a space unpolluted by some of things  that later muddied my waters. Mostly, I thrived on writing and sharing.  On finding readers and placing poems in journals. I’m not sure I would have persevered or written half as much as I did in the vacuum of print journal culture, which seemed to put so much distance between writer and editor, and even more between writer and reader.

Kristy Bowen, twenty year itch | 2001

Thanks to the Madwomen in the Attic (out of Pittsburgh), I recently had the opportunity to hear Denise Duhamel read from Second Story (her newest collection) and to participate in a craft talk/Q&A with her. As a result, I took a walk down memory lane to 2009 when I was still a baby poet attending a generative workshop Duhamel led through Louder Arts in New York City.

The hope I tended back then about who I may become as a writer and what I may accomplish is a sure cousin to the self I pictured in Tucson and BFF to the writer who opened this blog post with a question about why we keep writing.

I haven’t achieved half of what I imagined back in 2009, and that’s ok. I still hold a flame for that earnest girl. The self I love now is the self who creates for its own sake. I still want to publish book after book after book, but for me, in this dreary world, it’s enough to make things new — to discover new selves and new worlds in which she may live. The self I’m constantly chasing is intoxicated by wonder and tension, by words and bodies, by questions and heat. That self can’t contain curiosity and passion. They spill onto the page.

Like you were being saved.

Carolee Bennett, why do you keep writing?

Raindark woods and the step of deer. Coyote arias. There has to be a way forwards but I can’t find it: all I know to do is tell the truth, if I can find that. It sits, I guess, at the center always, but sometimes even Cassandra can’t read, even peregrine can’t see, even jaguar can’t feel: I’m scoured, food makes me sick, I cannot swim or smile, there is no thirst, no light. I ask for compassion, not instruction: just let me fail to be a superhero for a minute, I say. Trauma stacked so deep I can’t see over the boxes full, piled too high and I’m stuck in the center. Hopeless, I scour: am extracted, everything used, for no hope of reciprocity. Somehow stacked so deep I don’t care anymore: I try to, I say it’s wrong, state what is right, but I need the paychecks. After they strip me, I expect to be discarded now. Everywhere I look I’m a temp. Clouds of anger form, dissipate rapidly into grief again, cirrus wisps over yellow November moon. There must be a way but I do not know what it is. There isn’t even silence. Just a cold snap, bone and branch fallen underfoot.

JJS, pit

We sat in her apartment in the assisted-living wing and arranged the flowers I’d brought. Then we spent 20 minutes in a kind of conversation, to which I’ve become accustomed, during which she tries to convey information about something she needs to have done. In this case, after much of the usual (really, rather humorous at times) confusion, I deciphered that she wanted some sweaters taken to the dry cleaner.

Such minutia. And yet, so difficult to get across, across that divide of language and cognition. The incredible concentration and effort it takes her just to dial a phone number to call her ailing sister. To tell the nurse aide that she needs more yogurt. Anything.

Then she surprised me. She pointed to my forehead and then to her own. “This,” she said. “Is wrong. For you. What?”

Was she reading a crease in my brow? I told her I had not been feeling great. She wanted to know, so I told her details, the way one tells one’s mother. Even though I am never sure quite how much gets through.

“Lie down. Take off the peaks.” By which she meant shoes. Why not comply? We both took off our shoes and spent the visit relaxing. We even indulged in a glass of wine because she loves to offer wine to her guests. Never mind it was 11 am. My mother has lost that rigid cognitive sense of time that the rest of us spend our lives obsessing over. There’s something valuable in that loss, though it is a loss.

She’s still teaching me things. Other ways to live with loss (my dad, her “normal” brain, mobility, words…).

Ann E. Michael, Getting through somehow

where is the grave of the autumn :: from which i never returned

Grant Hackett [no title]

they come to the flower bazaar

for jasmine, for marigolds, for roses —
for funerals, for weddings, for worship —

at night, the unsold flowers
become this city’s story
of all that did not happen

Rajani Radhakrishnan, City Cherita – XII

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