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, subscribe to its RSS feed in your favorite feed reader, or, if you’d like it in your inbox, subscribe on Substack. This week: mortality, masks, summer reading, road trips, and more. Enjoy!
Pushed myself to take a 10 minute walk with Leonard last night, but that was a mistake. I crawled into bed with a migraine.
But I woke this morning without one – for the first time in six days. I’m taking the morning slowly. I don’t even dare move this head through an asana sequence. Coffee and water. And prophylactic paracetamol. I have a long day of writing ahead. It will be good to focus on something besides my senses: an imaginary world where the smell of chemicals, body odors, and dog breath really don’t come into play.
The “cancer hour” I promised myself has bled into the long days of this past week. I distracted myself with sitcoms and slept through half of every episode. The exercise and activity chart I made for myself before I started chemotherapy is still hanging on the refrigerator. I really should take it down. At this point, it’s just mocking me.
I hear the birds outside. And the train passing by every now and then. Leonard is sprawled on the floor, taking up more than a square meter of this little room. He’s got his head on a stack of books. I hope he’s not drooling. Here I sit. In my tiny room with the French doors, because I still believe elegance is more about attitude than scale, more about framing the parts than interrogating the whole.Ren Powell, Que Sera Sera
Change equals living: no life without alterations of one kind or another. My current situation is one of those so-called Life Events: I have retired from my position at the university where I worked for about 17 years. I suppose it is A Big Deal (see how I’m capitalizing?), but I must admit that so far it doesn’t feel terribly fraught, major, or even bittersweet. It just feels appropriate. Part of the reason for that is that I’m not a person who has defined herself by her career. Thank goodness, since it was a fairly modest career. I enjoyed my work with students; and I was part of a terrific team of earnest, funny, and supportive folks. So yes, that’s something to miss. However, I have many interests beyond work at the college. Time to pursue those, methinks. Time to spend with my mother as she wanes. Time to travel with my husband and on my own and to visit our far-away offspring. Of course, there are all those things that will keep me unexpectedly busy…gardening, house maintenance, trying to get the metaphorical ducks to line up (as if they ever will). And then, poetry; I want to devote some serious brainpower to revising, reorganizing, drafting, reading, learning more about the art I love. Maybe even submitting more work, putting together another manuscript or two. Who knows what changes are ahead?
When I note the fewer numbers of fireflies, I do not mean there are none. It’s just that some years, by June 18th, the back of our yard simply dazzles; we don’t need fireworks! Because they pupate in dampness, such as in rotting logs or underground, and because they need moist earth in order to feed (on soft-bodied invertebrates, according to the Xerxes Society’s informative page here), a spring drought can limit their numbers. And I miss them, the way I miss the little brown bats and the green ash trees. Those types of changes may be more or less inevitable, but I can’t help thinking that such transitions feel less timely than my departure from running the university’s writing center. The ash and the bats are still around, but in vastly decreased numbers. I hope the lightning bugs bounce back.Ann E. Michael, Lightning bugs
It’s June and the rhododendrons are in full bloom. From my window, shades of scarlet, blush, magenta, neon pink. These colors remind me of the various lipsticks my Ballard grandmother would wear and I explored this in a poem I’ve been working on all morning. There’s no shame in too much coffee and pajamas at noon, especially when the rain pours and the drive to write is hot. But I’m also leaving soon for roadtrip through Yukon, British Columbia, and Washington. So a blog entry before my departure.Kersten Christianson, Approaching Solstice
My last two uncles died a couple of months apart, at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023. At one of their funerals a cousin expressed the same idea that Linda Pastan so eloquently describes in the second stanza of her poem: we are the older generation now.
The idea of being next in line ‘to die’ does not bother me. I am deeply grateful for all of my own ‘torn scraps of history’ and I do not feel alone on any shore. I don’t know what lies ahead and I have no need to imagine what it might be. Not believing in any kind of afterlife, or second chance, is a comfort rather than the source of any fear. Having survived to be a part of the older generation feels like a gift, not a burden, or riven with loss.
While we were waiting outside the chapel of rest for Uncle Michael’s coffin to be taken inside I heard the ubiquitous, unintelligible call of the rag and bone man along the main road beyond the cemetery’s gates. The juxtaposition was both startling and somewhat reassuring. Is there always some use for what is thrown away or discarded, what is unwanted, abandoned? Even our bones and flesh, once our consciousness has departed?Lynne Rees, Reflection ~ On being the next in line to die
Penny kept him safe from the other pigs; draggedKristen McHenry, Penny the Pig
him off and buried him each night, sat
jealously near his dirt hole,
until she dug him up again, rolled
him with her overheated tongue, and
shook him in her mouth as though to snap
his rigid little neck. After a week
he was a pockmarked mess, his brows
mottled with teeth pricks and his
blob-shoes dull with grime.
Penny had made him his own. Broken him in.
As I move into the last leg of writing the book, or at least the first draft of the book, and prepare to start working with the editors to bring it to a shine, I am beginning to look back at this stage of the journey with something like nostalgia. I’ve learned so much about myself as a person, and as a writer, on the way. One of the things I have learned, a skill really, is to trust my own voice and my own story, to ‘shut the door’ and write. There were times when I felt blocked, and the block came from me worrying about the validity of my story; comparing myself to other writers and their intimidating, blazing talent. Whenever this happens, my writing starts to thin out, my voice starts to peter out like the thin waves at the edge of a lake. I have to pull myself back and back, remind myself that the passion is always what saves a story, that writing authentically, about what interests you, is the way to make your writing sing. To write freely, as if no one is watching you, as if social media doesn’t exist, as if no one will read your book; that’s the key. I’ve stepped back from social media in an attempt to nail the final stretch of the book. I am ‘figuring out what I want to say’ and how I want to say it, and it is like solving a glorious puzzle. I haven’t missed social media as much as I thought I would. Stepping back has allowed me to embrace the life I want – writing, thinking. I hope I look back on this time and recognise the absolute joy of existing in this moment; getting up, writing, walking, writing. I shall miss writing this book, I shall miss the discoveries, the journey it has taken me on. But I’m ready for the next part of the journey too. How strange the act of writing, that a person could exist entirely in words fished from the air.Wendy Pratt, “Write like no one is looking over your shoulder…”
I’m not sure what provoked so fluid a flow. I’d had the opening section – headed Superstructure in this draft – hanging around for several years. The original notion was an anecdotal account of experience working in a mental hospital laundry, but it never got further than a description of the huge gothic edifice that housed the institution. In spite of the fact that my three months in that dreadful place were full of incident, the anticipated graduation to a depiction of what actually went on never occurred.
As so often happens, it was an entirely unconnected stimulus that sparked off the next stage of the poem. During the ongoing (and seemingly never-ending) process of unpacking and sorting documents after our house move, I came across some research and planning notes I had drawn up for a projected production of Peter Schaffer’s play Equus. I had homed in on the play’s central theme – that of the psychiatrist Dysart’s growing fascination with the perverse, amoral theology that has driven his 17-year-old patient Alan Strang to blind several horses with a hoof pick. Appalling though the act is and in spite of the explanatory pathology that emerges through analysis, Dysart becomes increasingly aware of the sacrifice of visceral passion and engagement that Alan must make in order to be liberated from his compulsions. Passion, you see, can be destroyed by a doctor. It cannot be created, observes Dysart. And later, as a cri de coeur: All right! The normal is the good smile in a child’s eyes. There’s also the dead stare in a million adults. It both sustains and kills, like a god. It is the ordinary made beautiful, it is also the average made lethal. Normal is the indispensable murderous god of health and I am his priest.
The planned production never went ahead. A combination of concern about suitability for an all-ages school audience, probable casting difficulties and a sense that Schaffer presents his compelling scenario just a little too tidily had me tucking the notes away and moving swiftly on to something more negotiable. So rediscovering them so long after their compilation gave them a renewed freshness and impact. But instead of causing me to reflect wistfully on the production-that-never-was, I found myself thinking about the poem-that-was-yet-to-be. And I realised within a moment of revelatory shock that aspects of what I had seen and heard in that mental hospital conformed precisely to the informing agenda of Equus. I realised – maybe for the first time fully – that I had been witness to a demonstration of that nexus between the limits of conventional human behaviour and the abandonment and chaos that lies beyond and that it had shocked me to the core. The poem investigates – as maybe only a poem can – the true nature of my perception of the event witnessed at the time and what, with the understanding that only comes with time, it meant to me now.Dick Jones, BINNERS
I had another recent poetry acceptance, this time for a poem about my mother that is also about the time I played Marjorie in the play Marjorie Prime, a few years back. I played an 80-year-old woman, and afterwards 1) everyone mistook me for my mother 2) I cut off my long hair streaked white that I wore in a braid (just like my mother) and 3) people asked what I did with makeup to look 80. Basically, the answer was “no makeup.” For those not so familiar with theatre, the stage lights will wash you out, so wearing no makeup did make me look 80! But still. So now it helps me 1) understand my parents and 2) brace myself to be reading Successful Aging, by Daniel J. Levitin! I like it a lot, and I hope I am aging successfully!
I found this book, and got it through interlibrary loan, after I read his book This Is Your Brain on Music, which I discussed with the Stranger Than Fiction non-fiction book club. It meets in a wine bar! Our next book, already in progress, is I Live a Life Like Yours, a memoir by Jan Grue, about living with a disability…and just living his own life, which is like…yours, or mine. The Levitin book on aging is delightful in its examples, many of whom are musicians that he met in his other work! Joni Mitchell, Sonny Rollins.Kathleen Kirk, Acceptance
I love the way the poems in Terminarchy build on the work in Angela [France]’s previous collection, The Hill. And the (not-so) gentle reminder at the end of this poem that it’s likely to be the funguses of the world and other plant matters that will inherit/repossess our planet if we don’t buck our ideas up. There are plenty of other poems in Terminarchy that act as such a reminder. Can a poem make us buck our ideas up? Possibly not on its own, but it was timely to see this article about whether art can change attitudes towards climate change. I think if we can present the issues in contexts such as France has done then we can look again. That seems to be the gist of the article—he says having skim read it so far.Spores, the Pity
The title of Tim Allen’s The Indescribable Thrill of the Half-Volley is both gloriously on and off topic. It’s not a book about football, indeed not a single ball is kicked, although one or two are thrown, but it does hover around the indescribable. The book consists of 97 four-line poems, in couplets, each numbered ant titles. The titles all consist of the word ‘invisible’ followed by a noun. Here’s number 25:
A simply dressed man clowning around
For no one in particular in a general street
The man goes home to paint his face
In the mirror the stillness of his world suspends all fear
How do you render the invisible visible in words? Obliquely and through suggestion, perhaps. The contrast between the man’s dress and behaviours evokes an image of politics as farce played out under a surface veneer of conventional blandness.Billy Mills, A Basket of Small Delights: June 2023 Pamphlet Reviews
One of the unique experiences of being a poet / poetry reader is becoming accustomed with the creature known as the “selected poems.” The closest equivalent from outside the poetry world comes in the form of the “greatest hits” album. Yet, the novelty and nostalgic flash of such an album doesn’t exactly feel right with poetry.
Perhaps a volume of selected poems allows us to tap into a similar experience Italo Calvino speaks about in his essay “Collection of Sand”:
“I have finally come around to asking myself what is expressed in that sand of written words which I have strung together throughout my life, that sand that seems to me to be so far away from the beaches and desert of living. Perhaps by staring at the sand as sand, words as words, we can come close to understanding how and to what extent the world that has been ground down and eroded can still find in sand a foundation and model.”
This idea of glimpsing “a foundation and model” for literary experience through engaging with a writer’s collected body of work is, for me, an apt guide into the selected poems experience. Just as Calvino invites his reader into a communal act of assessment and study, readers of poetry are invited into a similar communal act, only one that includes celebration as much as reckoning.
Which is another way of saying: selected poems allow us to catch up.
It is in the experience of catching up that I encourage readers to enter What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems (FlowerSong Press) by Roberto Carlos Garcia. Across the three poetry collections gathered here in this volume, one can see Garcia establishing a foundation and model for poetic experience, meditation, and interrogation that ranges in depth and practice.José Angel Araguz, microreview: What Can I Tell You?: Selected Poems by Roberto Carlos Garcia
The first I’ve seen from Montana poet, as well as 2015-2017 Poet Laureate of Montana, and ferrier Michael Earl Craig, the author of Can You Relax in My House, (Fence Books, 2002), Yes, Master (Fence Books, 2006), Thin Kimono (Wave Books, 2010), Talkativeness (Wave Books, 2014) and Woods and Clouds Interchangeable (Wave Books, 2019), is Iggy Horse (Wave Books, 2023). The poems in Iggy Horse have a crispness to them, and the poems hold echoes of elements one might also see in the works of Canadian poets Stephen Brockwell and Stuart Ross: a slight narrative distance, as the nebulous narrators of each poem slowly form as each poem unfolds. As the poem “SPRINGTIME IN HORSE COUNTRY” begins: “Lady Aberlin of the oarlocks. / Colonel Mustard in the cherry trees. / Lady Aberlin with a custard, / Lady Aberlin in waiting. / Colonel Mustard in the pantry with an almond.” Perhaps it is but a single voice throughout, or perhaps the differences between them are there, and perhaps it doesn’t, in the end, actually matter. “One leg looks to have been swung / the way wooden legs often were,” he writes, as part of the poem “PORTRAIT OF THE WRITER / MAX MERRMANN-HEISSE,” “up and over a real one. / Or even over a second one. / It’s hard to tell because it’s Berlin / in the ‘20s, all those wooden legs / coming in from Rumburk / on the Spree, with good hinges / and shellac jobs that could stop / a luthier in the street.”
Composing poems around voice, character and examination, Craig’s poems offer a kind of folksiness, composing intimate portraits of ghosts, individuals, landscapes, techniques in medieval and modern paintings and other small moments.rob mclennan, Michael Earl Craig, Iggy Horse
After a short break it’s good to be writing reviews again and I can think of no better debut collection to resume with than Alexandra Fössinger’s Contrapasso (Cephalopress, 2022). These fine poems explore the themes of incarceration, loss and survival, but above all, perhaps, offer a unique take on the nature of love.
The collection is split into two sections: the first begins with a quote from Dante’s Inferno: ‘Through me the way to the city of woe,/ through me the way to everlasting pain,/ through me the way among the lost.’ The quote together with the title signposts the reader towards the nature of the poems in this section: they focus on punishment, namely the impact of a period in which lovers are separated due to the male’s imprisonment. Section 2 deals with the period after his release. Again it is prefaced with a quote from Dante: ‘Now I shall sing the second kingdom,/ there where the human soul is cleansed’. This time the poems concentrate upon a period of readjustment and resolution, as the lovers come to terms with the ordeal once it is over.
The poem Cell in Part One deals directly with the psychological, physical and emotional impact of imprisonment. It begins with a sequence of numbers. It also describes the cell in terms of the number of square metres of floor space and later specifies the number of hours in the day, the number of days of the sentence and the number of letters despatched by his lover. This emphasis on numbers suggests prison is a place where the incarcerated have no control, sharing a cell with ‘a stranger you/ don’t know a thing about/ but let reign over the remote control.’ Counting and measuring is a form of compensation for that lack of agency: it makes the infinite finite and the makes the unfamiliar familiar and manageable. It is also a place of hardship and danger. Fössinger writes: ‘that which rages / outside will eventually/ creep in/ one morning you wake up/ with a tooth next to you/ lying on your pillow’.Nigel Kent, Review of ‘Contrapasso’ by Alexandra Fössinger
Publication is over-rated as the end goal of your work because so much of the publication process is out of the writer’s control. Decisions are made by agents, publishers, editors, marketing staff, possibly, but not always by consulting the writer. An editor leaving or a publisher changing their focus can mean that an acceptance turns into a withdrawal and the process of submission, rejection and trying again can start all over again. My first collection was accepted by a publisher who sadly and unexpectedly passed away before publication so I had to start over.
A first book has had years of work behind it. The author has had to learn their craft along the way, there may have been several false starts, significant structural changes and then the publisher’s edits. Seeing the published book is both a triumph: finally something to show for all that effort. Please do celebrate your name on the cover of the book you’ve written: have a party, go out for a celebratory meal, buy yourself a treat, do something meaningful for you.
But it’s also not the end of the journey. What it signifies is the beginning of the next stage: marketing, promoting, getting the book reviewed, keeping in the public eye. And, above all, writing the next book, if you haven’t already started.
Writing is the bit writers have the control over. During the submissions process, start the next project. As your first book nears publication, your next project is your future goal.Emma Lee, Publication and Writers’ Mental Health
At some point in the past twenty years, a shift happened. Funding was cut, readership declined, costs rose. Rather than trying to innovate, the indie lit world turned inward. Mechanisms to profit off of writers became the norm, the go-to. Want to be published? Pay. Want to meet other writers? Pay. Want to succeed? Pay. Want to study writing at University? That’ll be an arm and a leg. Nom, and nom.
What I am saying is that with so many juicy writers to squeeze for cash, why the hell would any corner of the literary world spend their money targeting readers? […]
Rethink funding for magazines. Read, support, purchase magazines. Tell friends. Create local Lit Mag reading groups. The ‘funding/grant’ model is broken. At Chill Subs, we want to create a way for journals to collect donations and sell subscriptions through our platform. Many have this option on their website. Donate what you can. This is often the only way fledgling magazines can stay running.
We will also soon create an affordable submissions manager that doesn’t charge as a magazine grows. And we’re working on a way to help journals present their work beautifully and connect them directly to audiences. (Others working on this: CLMP, Moksha, Oleada, Motif, crowdfunding platforms.)
Reduce pay-to-play costs for writers, and maybe help them make some money. Editors, consider linking to contributors’ books on your magazine site. Celebrate your writers. (Some are very good about this. Others, not so much. Great example: Points In Case). Support their ongoing publications. Help writers earn money from outside sources. Subscribe to newsletters of writers or entities that encourage transparency in the literary world. Substack has made this easier than ever.
As long as we continue down the path we’re on, indie-lit will never find new methods of profit-making. But if we can shift gears, have standards for market participants, and encourage innovative use of funds, we have a chance. The money is out there. The creative energy is here. Let’s try to harness it as a community. It may take a long time. And if we fail spectacularly and the wide world rejects the idea of literary magazines having a place in it, well, we’re all used to rejection.Benjamin Davis, Are We Eating Each Other Alive in the Indie-Lit World?
As a disabled and chronically ill person, most residencies are not built for me. If they require ladders to loft beds, or building fires, or steps, or even providing food that isn’t food-allergy safe (I’m allergic to about nine things, the most dangerous of which is wheat, in almost everything)—yeah, they’re not a good fit. I stopped applying for most residencies years ago when I realized—hey, they’re not built for non-perfectly healthy, able-bodied people. They’re not built for me. But I hear from a lot of people that they can’t do “normal” writer’s residencies for a variety of reasons besides their health—kids, jobs, or caretaking roles among them. So, here’s some ideas for people who can’t do the “normal” residencies.
Build your own! I live in a lovely area and there are a variety of places to stay at a variety of prices (yes, they tend to be higher in the summer as that’s our high season, but not always). If you can housesit for a friend going out of town, that can also count as a residency. Renting an AirBNB down the street. Anytime and anywhere you can get away—even just for a couple of days—to focus on your craft, your art and your writing, that counts as a residency in my book. I’ve got one planned in a couple of weeks, and I’ve already printed out poems for my next book to look at and started some relevant reading to prepare for it. Just this last week I spent over fifteen hours sitting in (virtual) doctors’ offices. Health problems are time-and-energy-and-money consuming. If I don’t set aside time (and energy, and money) for art and writing, it won’t happen—everything else will swallow it up. I’m sure you know how it is—if it’s not doctor’s appointments for you, it might be your family’s needs, your job’s needs, or the seven things you volunteer for (hey, I used to be addicted to volunteering, too).
Residencies should involve down time, too—you don’t have to spend the whole time reading and writing—you can goof off, sketch, visit local things you don’t normally get to, have a picnic, listen to music at full blast—anything that helps you get into your writing groove. And you can involve writer friends! Inviting a friend might help your residency to be even more productive, as you can get together and talk shop, plus friend time is important for artists of all stripes. Think about as building space for your creative self. It is just as important as any other aspect of your life, and deserves time, money, and attention. You know how, if you’re married or living with a partner, you reserve “date nights?” It’s the same for your creative self. So, think about creating your own personal artist’s residency. Good luck! And leave a comment if you’ve successfully done this!Jeannine Hall Gailey, Visiting (and Supporting) Local Lavender Farms, Building Your Own Residency, and When You Know You’ve Done Enough for Your Book
It’s valuable to just do the work and build practical habits instead of waiting for a muse.
But my perpetual exhaustion in the face of small crises, one after the other, can’t handle routine and habit-building. I mean, I’m trying, but I feel derailed quite frequently. I’m so discouraged by the slightest bad news, and it feels like there’s a lot of “little” bad news, even when faced with evidence of all that is good and right in my life (maybe not the world).
Trying not to make this a crybaby post. Now that the apocalypse fires in Canada are blowing smoke in another direction(!!!), the weather on the island is beautiful and skies are clear and I should be feeling naturally optimistic with so much Vitamin D and fresh air coursing through my system. Right?Sarah Kain Gutowski, Feeling Stabby and Full of Foul Language (This Too Shall Pass)
Like many poets who write because they can’t not write, I started in my youth writing poems of my feelings or ideas and was very literal, using I when I meant myself and the past tense when I was writing of what had been. Having no poetry courses, it took me a long while to grasp that the person of the poem is not necessarily the writer, and the time of the poem is what fits the poem, not some external reality. This poem, another from the old workshop files, is one where a major part of revision was putting that second realization into the service of the story:
When Billy Joel sings
“You may be
right, I may be crazy,”
I sing along,
off key longing,
not for him.
I ache for
the caged creature
under the mask
that shapes my
Come on, I say,
crash my party,
leave a great hole
I can walk through,
to go riding,
if I want to,
in the rain.
The mask does not tear.Ellen Roberts Young, Poem in Present Tense
The neighbor boy’s mask was supposed to make
him look like a warrior or hero,
but he couldn’t pull it off, the bully.
I knew my mask wasn’t working quite right
because all the teachers kept on talking
to my mom, asking me to repair it.
I kept stitching new smiles onto my face
and checking them in the mirror. Smile. Not smile.
Smile. Not smile. There weren’t remote controls yet,
so these were manually operated,PF Anderson, MASKS
and one got stuck in the smile position.
Unexpected delays has meant the publication of Look to the Crocus has yet to materialise and, quite honestly, I’ve no idea when it will… Putting together the collection now feels like a project from the distant past.
However, my writing is moving on. I’ve moved into dabbling with writing creative non-fiction essays over the last few months and I’m thoroughly enjoying the space to write in essay form yet with the feeling of the work coming together in a way not too differently from when a poem comes together. And I may be finding my way into writing poems in a different way from before too, it’s too early to say if the poems are working out but I’m enjoying the process.
I suppose I had become quite bored with my usual approach to writing, it was becoming ‘samey’ / repetitious, no sense of tapping into anything new.Marion McCready [no title]
I noted with a little bit of horror that we have crested the middle of June. Part of it is that summer, real summer, seems slow in coming, since my windows have more often been completely closed against rather cool and ungainly weather this far into the summer (at least the meteorological designation of its beginning.) There’ve been a couple days where they were all open, but then a couple days where I had to run the space hearer for a minute. I open the windows. I close them. I put on a sweater to run packages to the mailbox. I got a new quilt at the beginning of the month that is less bulky than my duvet, but seriously thought of pulling the other out of the trunk a couple nights recently when I was shivering. It’s not rainy or wet really, just breezy.
I wrapped up the governess series last week and have embarked on a new little something that still murky in its nature, though I am liking what I have so far. They are wild little poems about cats and cryptids and heartbreak. My main writing goal for the rest of June is to get COLLAPSOLOGIES at least to the point where I have a physical galley in hand, which will vary in timeline depending on the printing and shipping, which can be as long as a few days to over a couple weeks. Once I have that, I can make the final adjustments, one final sweep for needed edits, and maybe have a book in hand by mid-July if all goes well. I loaded in the cover (see the post below) and she’s looking fabulous so i cannot wait to see the finished product.
Since we are technically halfway through the year, I’ve been plotting what I would like to see happen before the end of the year. The new book, obviously, but also some image/text zine projects I’ve been planning (the governess-inspired series, the home improvements stuff, technogrotesque), a video chap similar to what I did last year, an advent project with art for December. I feel like once we hit the 4th of July, summer slides down the hill at a much faster pace into autumn, so I want to be ready and not flailing about quite so much come September.Kristy Bowen, notes & things | 6/18/2023
I am delighted to announce the publication of The Wind and the Rain, with Blue Diode Publishing.
Thank you to Rob Mackenzie for accepting the manuscript and doing such a fabulous job with the production of the book.
Thank you to Lucy Runge for permission to use your stunning painting for the front cover of the book.
Thank you to Helena Nelson for your endless editing advice, wisdom and patience. The book would not exist without you.
And thank you to Tatty. Without you, nothing.Anthony Wilson, The Wind and the Rain
On May 30th, Dead Mall Press began accepting pre-orders for MJ Stratton’s new chapbook, River, Our River. This collection of poems was written during a single month and comes from a place of fluent imagination and feeling. Moving through a variety of forms, the poems are both dreams and exposed nerve ends, asking us questions about identity, need, suffering, and the body, while revealing a garden of cinders, moons wrung out into jars, and bees singing in the chest. MJ’s poems draw us into a river of language, at once gentle and cruel, that accepts fluidity and refuses to claim anything for itself as final.
Recently, MJ and I had a chance to discuss the book a bit over email, and you can read our conversation below.
DMP: Thanks for doing this interview, MJ! Maybe we can begin with some basic context for readers who are unfamiliar with you. Would you mind giving us a brief sketch of your background?
MJ: Oh no, thank you so much for having me! Genuinely, the pleasure’s all mine. The basic facts are that I live in Providence, RI, and I work as a receptionist. It’s a Pam Beesly situation without the love story or boss that hits people with their cars. I also write, of course, and you can read a bit more about it at my website. Beyond that, though, I struggle to answer any question that even vaguely resembles “who am I?” I’m the authority on that particular subject, right? And yet I can never get over the fact that really, I don’t know—at least not completely (we’re always changing, myself included). I’m also not particularly interesting, and I don’t like having “the floor” when there are so many better, more deserving dancers I can/should be standing behind while aggressively clapping them on. Clapping, or fist pumping.
DMP: I know you are quite prolific, often writing multiple poems a day, and have well over a thousand pages of poetry in manuscript. And River, Our River contains nineteen poems selected from a larger crop of writing from July 2022 alone. Can you tell us a bit about your writing process in general and how you write so much?
MJ: I think it involves both external privilege and internal need. It takes time to write, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that I’m very lucky to be able to devote some of my time to something I love. That’s the privilege aspect, or a fraction of it. The “internal need” I mentioned is harder to characterize, probably because it doesn’t have societal or economic infrastructure you can point to and trace with your finger.
A large part of why I write is because I have to—and I hope that doesn’t sound grandiose or pretentious or insincere. I picture it like this: I largely live in a state of white noise; while I’m very self aware, I also really struggle with revealing myself to myself. I don’t know what I’m thinking or even how I’m feeling unless I write it out, usually abstractly. The pen serves as both a translator and a processor for me.
There’s a Joan Didion quote that dissects the body I’m vaguely pointing at and cuts out the beating heart of it: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”
Really, writing is how I step out of my own blankness and exist. Then, luckily, hopefully, I can go a step beyond existence and connect.R.M. Haines, Interview w/ MJ Stratton
all aloneJim Young [no title]
with the monotonous voice
of a fan
Much of my poetry video is set up to work at different levels. In general, I don’t mind how they are interpreted by others – that is an essential aprt of the process. But when someone really gets into the multiple layers of a piece, it is incredibly satisfying. I did an English / French version of my video Palingenetics / Palingénétique that was accepted for the 2023 edition Traverse Video Festival in Toulouse, France. Each year they produce an annotated program of the event and this time it includes an article about Palingenetics / Palingénétique by Simone Dompeyre. The original poem is very complex, and refers to evolutionary and developmental biology, ancient number counting systems, discredited social theory, and climate change (!!!!). But as you can see below, Simone Dompeyre gets it as well as the visual / audio aspects… I was quite overwhelmed by her words. Merci beaucoup!Ian Gibbins, Palingénétique at Traverse Video, 2023
Storytelling outside the square: prose poems, haibun and other experimental forms is the panel I’ll be on Friday 6/16 at 4:30 pm CST. Since many of my readers here are poets, I wanted to invite you to watch if you can and care to. Roberta Beary, Haibun Editor for Modern Haiku, is also on the panel, among others. The entire flash festival is great with participants from all over the world! I hope you can drop in.
All events are being live streamed on Flash Frontier’s YouTube channel and can be viewed there afterwards if you can’t make it. You can also see what’s happened at the Festival of Flash so far (it began last weekend) as well as everything coming up.Charlotte Hamrick, You are invited….
This year, after I announced Haiku Girl Summer (my limited-run online haiku journal), a haiku friend asked me if I’d heard of the Buson Challenge. I had completely forgotten about it! 2022 was a terrible year for my creative life, and writing 10 haiku a day for 100 days was not going to work with everything else I was juggling. But now I’ve settled into a job I like, the house is getting more organized, and I have the brain space to actually write again.
As of this writing, I’ve successfully completed 12/100 days. I’ve definitely written more mediocre and genuinely bad haiku than good, though since most of the haiku are still in my notebook and not typed up, I don’t have sense of the overall proportion so far. But I’m surprising myself; the overall quality each day is better than anticipating. Most days, I manage at least one haiku that has potential.
Preferred notebook: Field Notes
Notebooks filled: 1
Places I’ve written:
- My back patio
- My kitchen table
- My neighborhood on dog walks
- Tower Grove Park
- Forest Park
- Soulard Farmer’s Market
- City Coffee and Creperie
- Mission Taco Joint
- Kampai Sushi Bar
- Goshen Coffee
- Seoul Taco
- Bruja @ Mad Art
- The neighborhoods surrounding my workplace on my lunch walk
So far, I’m having a fantastic time with this challenge, and feel optimistic that I might actually get all the way through!Allyson Whipple, Buson Challenge Days 1-12
But you too may be of an age to have inflated your pyjama bottoms while engaged in Bronze / Silver / Gold awards in school swimming lessons.
I walked with my schoolfriends to the Swiss Cottage baths. This memory came up for me while holidaying with my Longest-Serving Friend in North Wales.
Did you wrestle with your pyjamas while treading water and fifty years later wonder why, if it was even possible?Liz Lefroy, I Inflate My Pyjamas
Almost always, entering a library feels like coming home. My earliest memories are of going to the library, and libraries haven’t changed radically in appearance in my lifetime, so it makes sense. Libraries have more stuff now–computers, meeting rooms, non-book media/items–but libraries still have books, shelves and shelves and shelves of books.
I got my card with no trouble, since I now have a North Carolina driver’s license. The librarian asked me if I’d ever had a Buncombe county library card before, and I said no. Suddenly I realized that I’ve had a library card in almost every state south of the Mason-Dixon line and east of the Mississippi River. I have no particular desire to live in the missing states (Mississippi, for example), so this might be the end of my run.Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Library Love
Good thing this wasn’t a full-on poetry pilgrimage. Mostly my family enjoyed fine, cool weather during our week’s vacation in midcoast Maine, and I’d planned a stop, as we drove away, in Edna St. Vincent Millay territory, just for an hour, before visiting the Farnsworth Museum. Enter heavy rain and flood warnings. I insisted on paying the park fee anyway so we could drive to the top of Mt. Battie and I could imagine Millay there, cooking up her famous early poem “Renascence.” As the plaque at the summit says, rather melodramatically and with imperfect comma usage, “At the age of eighteen, a frail girl with flaming red hair left her home in early morning to climb her favorite Camden hills where so deeply affected by her surroundings, she wrote ‘Renascence.’ The poem received Immediate public acclaim and was the inspired beginning of the career of America’s finest lyric poet.” I’m putting aside the latter assertion because I don’t think “who’s the best?” arguments are worth having, but I have to observe that Millay wasn’t so frail if she hiked that high.
I’m a Millay fan and sometime scholar, but while I’m glad “Renascence” won the young poet some prize money and a scholarship and the beginnings of fame, it’s (shh) far from my favorite of her works. The poem is full of beautiful turns of phrase (“To kiss the fingers of the rain,/ To drink into my eyes the shine/ Of every slanting silver line…”). I’m moved by her awe; I’m interested in the poem as a representation of something like a panic attack, an overwhelming physical and mental response to the largeness of the world and the pettiness of human ambition in the face of suffering. But much of the poem’s intensity strikes me as funny; I’m trying not to use the word “adolescent.” I don’t have any right to condescend to a woman who faced serious headwinds yet climbed so very many mountains.
It also struck me as hilarious that when I retraced her steps–by economy car–in the aged half of middle age, with plantar fasciitis and a pulled muscle in my back, after repeatedly shaking my head at ticket-takers who asked if I was eligible for a senior citizen discount, what met me was not “three islands in a bay” but drippy pines and a sea of fog. I could have been anywhere. Ah, the grand view from my fifty-fourth summer on the planet! There’s a poem in there somewhere.Lesley Wheeler, For rain it hath a friendly sound
At Nanyuki, they say, the equator runs under asphalt
and bush. I imagine it like the seam of a cricket ball,
six rows of coarse stitches, acacia trees and thorny
scrub sewing the path. Two unequal halves held
together. Somehow. The me walking on water
and the me wrecked at the bottom of the sea.
The me going through the rituals of being andRajani Radhakrishnan, Part 51
the me talking in binaries with the moon.
What I’m listening to: My Goldenrod playlist from summer 2021, The National’s new record, and a lot of music that my kids and I agree feels like summertime: Superchunk, Nada Surf, Harry Styles (Rhett is obsessed with “Watermelon Sugar” right now), New Pornographers. We’re looking forward to a summer full of live music: boygenius, Metric, Nelsonville Music Festival, Old 97s.
I also recently listened to the incredible Julia Louis-Dreyfus read my poem “First Fall” (from Good Bones) on her podcast, Wiser Than Me. Julia’s mother, herself a poet, shared “First Fall” with her. Just…wow. The whole episode with author Amy Tan is terrific. The beautiful reading of my poem is in the first couple of minutes.
Best reads this month so far: Elise Loehnen’s On Our Best Behavior and Airea D. Matthews’ Bread and Circus, which are both out now; Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Cacophony of Bone and Leslie Jamison’s Splinters, which you can and should preorder; and Jedidiah Jenkins’ Mother, Nature, which you will definitely want to read and share with a friend or family member, so preorder one or two.
Just a handful of the books I’m planning to read between now and August (and may be seen with in a chair at the pool): Monsters by Claire Dederder, The Twelfth Commandment by Daniel Torday, I Keep My Exoskeletons to Myself by Marisa Crane, and early copies of Psalms of Unknowing: Poems by Heather Lanier and How to Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair.Maggie Smith, The Good Stuff
Ten Toes Coffee, Somerset St, was the venue for this spring’s pre-press fair reading. Apparently it’s been open a few months. What a sweet little spot for coffee, tea, snacks, or laundry in the back apparently. A green and orange and stained glass and retro glass decor. Next time I’ll have to try the matcha latte. Their bathroom has a wooden sink, which is fun. But do I digress or bury the lede?
The reading. Yes, the reading. It was super fun and super full, probably over 2 dozen, some familiar faces, some faces new to me. (Although they have all owned their faces for decades obviously.). I haven’t been to many reading over the last 5 years since concussion then Covid-era starting. I was glad to see some masks in the room.
Some nice conversations had, catch ups and getting to hear aloud a chapbook I loved reading, Fossils you can Swallow by Vera Hadzic (Proper Tales Press, 2023). You can get your copy at Stuart Ross’ table on Saturday.
The audience was beautifully open and attentive to all. Option of zoom is lovely but there’s something to be said for live energy in a room.Pearl Pirie, Pre-press fair reading
A song can be carved from stone, river, or wind.
A fist and a heart can fit into the same size clothes; it all depends if you’re going to a wedding or a war zone.
Ashes to passion, dust to desire.
Keep my casket open when I die. Nightmare gallows are no match for these singing bones.Rich Ferguson, At the crossroads of my lips
The strawberries are only available for a few short weeks in June, a gift fleeting as that month’s green grass, mild sun, and rose blossoms. I used to try to make the gift last longer, boiling the berries into jam or freezing them whole. I had fantasies of perfect June berries in my January yogurt, a spot of sunshine in the cloudiest time of year. The jam proved to be no substitute for a solid berry, and the whole ones I froze defrosted into a sloppy mush. I threw them all in the compost bin the next June, after thinking all winter that I would surely do something with them, and finally admitting that I wanted them only the way that I can have them in June, or not at all.
I now have them only once a year, for a few short weeks that are never enough and always so much.
This week my friend Lisa brought Hood strawberries and angel food cake to an impromptu dinner. We talked of many things that are changing: our bodies, our work, our environment, our world. “Enjoy avocados while you can,” she said as we discussed diminishing water supplies and schemes to desalinate ocean water and pipe it to southwest states.
I used to want to dole the berries out and eat them slowly, as if that might somehow make them last longer. Or, I’d only get them when I could make them into some dish worthy of their greatness. Or, I’d only eat them when I could savor them, fully appreciate them. I was afraid, if I ate them too quickly, that I wouldn’t have them when I really wanted them. Inevitably, some would rot while I was waiting for the right time, or I’d end up getting only one carton in a season.
Now, I buy them whenever I see them and eat them while they are fresh. I’ve given myself permission to take a few each time I open the refrigerator. I get them as often as I can, because the season is so short and nothing is guaranteed. For all I know, this is the last year I will get to eat Hood strawberries. I know for sure it is the last year that this version of me will. Next year’s Rita might not be able to enjoy them in the same way that this year’s Rita can.
Life is so full of big, hard things we can barely swallow. People lose their land, their names, their loves, their lives. The more I lose the more determined I am to eat all the sweet things that I can, while I can, with love and appreciation and gusto.Rita Ott Ramstad, Fleetingly sweet
After the warning
sirens, egrets come back
to fish in the shallows.
A man takes off his shoesLuisa A. Igloria, Evening, with Hailstorm and Tornado Warning
to walk in the flooded street.