Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Weeks 43-44

A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. 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.

These past two weeks brought Halloween, Day of the Dead, and the return of Standard Time in the U.S. and Canada. Israel’s war on Gaza has, if anything, intensified. Unsurprisingly, poets had something to say about these things, although I think we tend to be more aware of the limitations of language than most. Also: parades for poets, a teetering between melody and madness, an epic poem about astrophysics, and much more. Enjoy.

Halloween this year found me wandering the rooms of the Museum of Surgical Science dressed like a dark and winged thing. The museum is always delightfully creepy in the daytime but was made even more so by candlelight and spooky costumed wanderers at a Haunted Soiree event. There was a mystery we could solve that involved a giant Ouija board and a seance, but we wound up tipsy from the complimentary cocktails and way too warm, so decided to bow out early to try to catch Halloween at the Logan (unfortunately it was sold out.) Still, I appreciated the storytelling and world-building, which seemed like a smaller-scale Theatre Bizarre but a little more Victorian in aesthetic and inspired by Francisco Goya’s work.  The seance was brief but involved calling out the ghost of a dead little girl named Little Magpie, watching her toys play and move on their own, and then a giant bird creature erupting from the table itself. It made me think of its kinship with my own work, AUTOMAGIC in particular, with all its seances and spiritualists and spooky birds.

It also struck me how much seances are like writing. Like listening very closely for some open door or rattling chain, some voice coming down and into you. How it can be gone as quickly as it appeared. I have not been devoting daily practice, only occasionally bleed something out onto the keyboard, but am kind of in a holding pattern since summer. I feel like the poems are maybe still in there rattling around like ghosts, but no one, not even me, is making a space for them to come out. 

Kristy Bowen, dark and winged

What does your memory smell like?

I have a very specific one – my grandmother’s sideboard – dark wood ingrained with vinegar, sugar, salt and pepper, with an overtone of mustard. Quite pungent. I once smelled the same in a National Trust property of great size and opulence, not long after Gran died, and I had to leave immediately, it was quite overwhelming.

What do you want your future to taste like?

Raspberries, always raspberries. Ideally Scottish ones, straight off the plant.

Favourite line of a poem right now?

Ooh, difficult, I read so much poetry, and I’m reading submissions at the moment, so that’s distracting. Right now, because I’ve just finished typesetting, Phil Barnett’s debut collection, so it’s very fresh in my mind, and he has such a vivid turn of phrase, Birds knit my ribs together, which hit me so hard I insisted we used it as the title.

Annick Yerem, Meet The Editors: Cherry Potts and Catherine Pestano, Arachne Press

What else is bringing me joy? Watching my son play soccer. Breathing in the cider-smell of fallen leaves. Taking my daughter to see a band she loves (even though it kept me out past my bedtime on a weeknight). Letting my eleven-year-old teach me how to play chess. Listening to the sound of car tires on rainy streets. Baking with apples we picked as a family. Meeting readers and writers on my travels. Cuddling my dog and seeing her smile. Feeling a new poem knocking on the door, and letting it inside.

Maggie Smith, The Good Stuff

One thing I have learned about myself lately is that – despite all indications to the contrary – I am an optimist. I may make every effort to prepare for the worse, but I don’t really belive – not deep down – that the worse will happen to me.

My spirit is the mole in a wack-a-mole game.

Today I am going to feel sorry for myself. Tomorrow, I will find myself some YouTube piano tutorials.

Write a poem.

Ren Powell, Blood, Wack-a-Mole, and A Heart-Shaped Pillow

As we drove across the mountains on Sunday, I was struck by how fuzzy they look, now that the trees have turned.  They look like they are made of yarn and other fibers.  They look folded, or as my spouse said, pleated.

Could I capture this image in words, in a poem, without seeming trite?

I also had a poem thought about communion bread dough crusting around my wedding ring.  Not sure where to go with this image, but I wanted to record it.

I am writing (or maybe I am done writing) an anti-parable poem.  What about the lost sheep that doesn’t want to be found?  What about the shepherd that is tired of dealing with the needs of a disparate flock?  Is it a poem or just a collection of ideas about tiredness of the issues that community can create?

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Folds and Fragments

As I drove through a small town recently, I encountered coming toward me a cop car with its red light whirling. I pulled to the side but it was moving slowly, followed by a school bus and a line of cars flashing lights and honking. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. Was there some road disaster ahead? Had there been an accident? It was raining and this was an area prone to flood. But nothing was ahead and I proceeded without incident. Only later did I learn that the small town’s field hockey team had just won sectionals and they were being paraded back into town. I think this is fantastically sweet in that small town way. And as I just received three acceptances in 24 hours, which, as those of you in the submission game know is probably a once-in-a-career event, it occurred to me that it would be nice if I were paraded back into town. The only member of my police department I’m acquainted with, though, is the dog warden, whom I’ve called so often to complain about the neighbor’s barking dog that he no longer returns my calls. And being paraded through town led by the dog warden’s white van flashing and honking is not quite the same. Although perhaps oddly appropriate for poetry in the larger world of Things That Are Publicly Lauded. Anyway, hooray for me, and for the Hoosick Falls field hockey team. Beep beep

Marilyn McCabe, No time for losers; or, On Small Successes

I’ve quit poetry twice during my lifetime—in my middle twenties, right after my MA when I decided the poetry world was too corrupt and became a tech writing manager for a dozen years instead, and in my thirties, when I struggled to get my first book—the one that became Becoming the Villainess—published. My love of poetry and desire to do it has flared up intermittently—the two notable times, when I had double pneumonia and was living in California, struggling to pay regular bills, at the hospital on several IVs and oxygen and thought “I can’t die—I haven’t published my second book yet!” and again when I was diagnosed seven years ago with terminal cancer and thought “I can’t die—I still have more poems to write!” Every single decision we make in life has an impact—where we live, whom we live with, what we choose to do for a living, who we hang out with, how we vote, even adopting an animal, taking on volunteer work for a charity—and sometimes it’s good to have moments when we look hard at our current situations and ask: is this right for me, right now?

Anyway, I certainly don’t have all the answers. If you are a writer and questioning whether you’ve made the right decisions, I understand. Just remember we’re not always the best judges of whether or not we live in “end times” or whether or not we’ll be considered “failures” down the line. Don’t give up too easily. I am saying that to you and to myself. Maybe there are good things right around the corner.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Welcome to the Big Dark—Halloween Costumes and Cats, Hanging with Poet Friends, When You Contemplating Quitting (Poetry, etc) and End Times Mindsets

Woke up Friday to a long read (appropriately) from Longreads about the literary world and online writing: Poets and the Machine. It was part history of online writing and part musing about why the literary world has shunned such as having literary merit, and it made me feel interested in writing here in a way that I haven’t felt in awhile. It reminded me of the possibilities for online writing that I got excited about back in the late 90’s (blogs are about to turn 30 years old!), and it got my brain turning. I felt a little spark, some ember of something within me flare.

Rita Ott Ramstad, A few (kind of random) good reads

You’d think by now that with 10+ books in I’d have the balance figured out, you’d think I’d have more bills paid, you’d think I’d be a shoe-in. You’d think I’d have learned to be more elegant, to have and give more grace.

I worked a lot of things through in my book The Flower Can Always Be Changing, about what the writing/creative life is, what it gives and what it takes. I thought I was good. (You know, like in SpongeBob, I’m good, I’m good, I’m goooood, don’t worry we’ll buff out those scratches). Well, then the pandemic. And maybe that meant that the flower fucking changed again and a lot and more than we know or want to know. Of course it did.

The writing life was never just one thing. There are so many ways to be a writer, to navigate as a writer in the world. The writing is still really just the writing though. You sit. You open. You daydream. You hope. You rage. You shut down. Open again. You continue. Sometimes you just fucking quit. (Sorry about all the swearing but I watched Ted Lasso and I’m Roy Kent now). Some people will be jealous of you and you will be jealous of some people. Some writers will get great stuff and you will not. And then you will. And then, again, you won’t. It’s fine. You will apply for a job and crickets. You will find out a producer is interested in your novels. You will be asked to travel across the world. And then in your own little world you will be shunned. As it should be. These are the reasonable expectations you need to have as a writer: you get to think about and write something every day. You get to look at the world with the lens of someone who is going to sit quietly later and make some fucking sense of it.

Shawna Lemay, The Reasonable Expectations of a Creative Life

A quick postcard from Brooklyn and the annual Modernist Studies Association conference: hello! Having a great time! Wish you were here!

The MSA was My Conference during the years in which I wrote my two wholly scholarly books. As a green assistant professor, I participated in a seminar on modernist women poets and made friends with whom I still keep in touch. I stopped attending for a while because I was working on a later period–21st century verse in Poetry’s Possible Worlds–and because I started publishing poetry collections that I needed to find audiences for, and perhaps ironically, most people here don’t read a lot of contemporary verse. Some writers have energy and money for ALL the conferences, it seems; I pick and choose, and this one just didn’t fit my obsessions, for a while. I’m back in modernist territory in the criticism I’m writing, though, so I organized a roundtable called “Avenues of Creative Scholarship.” The people I invited did an amazing job (see Suzanne Churchill’s slides about scholarship and design here, for example). Retrospectively, though, I feel a little queasy about my own presentation. Intellectually I live in a weird place, I guess, neither fish nor fowl, and I have NO idea how scholars are receiving my recent work. […]

A few deeply interesting presentations, some that were dull, but lots of lovely meals with poet- and scholar-friends: a good trip overall, although, as one friend from West Virginia put it, every dish or glass of wine is basically a hardback book, price-wise. What a way of doing the math!

Lesley Wheeler, Alternate possible worlds of poetry scholarship

Meanwhile, I am still working, still editing. The poetry has mostly been set aside, but today I was revising two poems, and that felt good. My printer broke, and ironically these would go to a snail mail publication. But I have let so many deadlines pass during this necessary time of other work. A poem came out, in Border Crossing. Other poems were (kindly) rejected. Again, gratitude.

Other people’s fathers are failing, dying. Other people’s mothers. The trouble continues in Ukraine, in Gaza, elsewhere. So much suffering continues. Yet my time has felt suspended, even as tasks went on. 

These nasturtiums are hiding under an umbrella of leaves. So am I, maybe.

Kathleen Kirk, All Around Me

Days and days and days.  In a week.  So many ways to distract self.  The annals of avoidance would fill a book of the world.  What else could lure me to my closet and sort out my sock and tights, search for runs, holes, for among the mess I cannot find a decent pair of 30 den black tights?  And what’s with the long reams of sheets on the ironing board?  And good God, a user’s manual?  Pinning myself to an online help center and following the steps, in order, one two three, to obtain access to a recalcitrant app?  To keep the cesspool of news and social media warp at bay. Also, the inarticulateness of grief.  

Then something turns my stubborn head: Emily Dickinson.  If it feels as if the top of my head is taken off, it’s poetry, Dickinson said – she knew.  Could she have been more articulate about grief in the poem titled after its first line: After great pain, a formal feelings comes—? “After a trauma, stiffness takes over, and in the poem becomes personified: “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –”

Woh.  With such delicacy, Dickinson hovers around the anesthetized parts after the adrenaline wears off.  The stony interior that is aware of the magnitude and overwhelmed by the change. Transparent and beautiful, the poem allows a subtle inner consciousness to be spied on, made alive, moved through.  Some things are made delicate, beautiful and meant to run, like nylons; others, like poetry, are delicate, beautiful and are built to last. 

Jill Pearlman, The Annals of Avoidance

It’s unnerving (and untenable) to feel so icky and low going *into* the part of the year that’s hardest for me, so I’ve been doing my best to spot moments when the universe offers me salvation. Today, I found respite in disturbing the dog and the husband with the loudest performance of RENT either has ever heard.

I’m moved by that play’s story, characters and music every time and without exception. I’ve adopted several of its songs (hello, Take Me or Leave Me) as personal anthems. There’s always something in the soundtrack that saves me, and today it was “The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation” — a line from La Vie Boheme (Jonathon Larson, Rent).

It’s pretty clear based on the news (including recent mass shootings in my home state of Maine and terror/devastation in the Middle East) that we have zero imagination addressing — let alone *preventing* — violence/conflict. Zero imagination building peace as something other than the absence of war. Making something entirely new could be better in so many ways, but even that raises questions: better according to whom? I don’t have any good answers. My imagination isn’t better than anyone else’s. It fails this.

Personally, however, creation *is* the answer to what ails me. I always feel better when I’m making something, and today’s soundtrack was an essential reminder. It’s time to refocus and it’s time to shift and these seasons I loathe (fall and winter) may be the perfect opportunity. For once, I’m thinking they could be good for me.

Carolee Bennett, “the opposite of war isn’t peace — it’s creation”

I’ve seen several poets questioning if it’s morally right to write poems or blogs that deal with a war they’re not physically involved in. It seems they’re worried that it’s inappropriate to ‘make art’ off the back of other people’s suffering.

My immediate answer is that our role as writers – of poetry, or anything else – is to react to the world around us as honestly as we can. The technology we all deal with every day means we see wars in horrible, close-up detail. A reaction is, therefore, inevitable.

Sure, poets can hide from it temporarily – and sometimes we need to for the sake of our sanity – but to avoid it altogether seems to me a kind of denial, both of our roles as writers and also of the appalling suffering of the victims. I doubt if Tennyson had watched day-to-day footage of the Crimean War that he would have come out with something as weird as ‘The Charge Of The Light Brigade’, so in that sense we’re lucky to have the privilege of access to the carnage. We should use that privilege.


Seamus Heaney wrote that “In a war situation or where violence and injustice are prevalent, poetry is called upon to be something more than a thing of beauty.”

I’ve been taking time to reflect on what I can offer you here. I made a case for the vitality and urgency of wonder in these times (Why Wonder). And yet, the unfathomable grief at the horrors unfolding before our eyes asks us to carefully consider our relationship to language and poetry.

I agree with Heaney that poetry can serve as more than a thing of beauty in these moments. I also think poems that offer us comfort aren’t always designed to be comforting. They can instead provide solace by challenging us in ways that make us feel our humanity activated and witnessed. They can share truths that resonate with our experiences and make us feel less alone. They can articulate a present reality that, through the luminous clarity of its wording, provides relief. […]

Heaney—and poetry—helps me think. He reminds me, from his place in the ongoing past-present-future, of human resilience and of the possibility of a sea change. The hope that “hope and history [may] rhyme.”

Jane Hirshfield, who writes beautifully and dynamically on ecological and political reckoning, says that “The poem carries love and terror, or it carries nothing.” I think this is one of the reasons we don’t exclusively seek poems that look away from disaster, or that tell us that everything will be ok. We recognize the human courage in a poem that stares straight at calamity and is written out of it.

Maya C. Popa, Poetry’s Place

a tree of sirens grows in the yard.
i go out each morning to tend it.
flashing lights & screams.
i don’t know how
it doesn’t wake you up.
once, we grew lemons
but inside each fruit we found a tooth.

Robin Gow, false alarm

To do nothing, to say nothing, feels like complicity. To make an attempt at responding to these events feels like edging towards performative action – or certainly risks provoking that accusation. But what a luxury, and how self-indulgent, to ponder such things when innocent people, including many children, have died and are still dying. Better to do something than nothing, so I’m listing here some actions I’ve taken that maybe you have too, or maybe you might want to take if you’re also feeling that doing nothing is not an option for you.

  • I’ve donated to the charity Medical Aid for Palestinians which gives health and medical care to Palestinians living in Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Lebanon. If you can’t make a donation, sharing the link to MAP and their donation button on your social media platforms is a way of helping the charity and its cause. […]
  • I’ve written to my MP to whom I’m in regular correspondence with, by email. We’re at opposite ends of the political spectrum and I can’t think of any time I’ve been encouraged by his voting record, but he always replies to every email I send to him and each letter tells him what matters to at least one of his constituents. The more of us who write, the more MPs know what matters to people with the power to vote them in or out of office. (For the record, in my letter to my MP, I’ve expressed my condemnation for the acts of Hamas and I’ve asked him to work to help negotiate for the release of Israeli hostages, as well as demanding that Israel abides by international law and allows Palestinian people access to food, water, fuel and medicine. I’ve also written asking him to demand a ceasefire. I’ve written twice in less than two weeks and he’s replied both times, not agreeing with me about anything but at least he seems to have listened to my concerns and explained his point of view.)
  • I’ve shared posts that have resonated with me in light of unfolding events, whether it’s poems, articles, art. These have included:
  • A new poem by Fadi Joudah, ‘Good Morning Gaza’ after the poem ‘The Final Meeting in Rome’ by Mahmoud Darwish.
  • The poem Ghazal: Will Be Free by Zeina Hashem Beck.
  • The poem ‘Don’t Mention the Children’ by Michael Rosen.
  • The poem ‘Love Letter’ by Abeer Ameer.
  • The poem ‘Do the Birds Still Sing in Gaza?’ by Hanan Issa.

Beyond this, I’ve told the people that matter the most to me how much I love them. I’ve prayed for peace. I’ve switched everything off and tried to sleep. I’ve wished for better times.

Josephine Corcoran, Feeling useless in turbulent times

Some salvage old kisses from love’s graveyard and polish them anew, while others rub hate and lies into wounds and call it medicine.

Walking the world’s streets, you can feel the mixed-message braille of broken glass and heads-up pennies beneath your feet.

A bullet here, a bouquet of laughter there.

This life, a teetering between melody and madness.

Rich Ferguson, What Grows During War

Poetry and liturgy and art work differently than essays or arguments do. They can reach us in different ways than prose does.

Pastorally, I think art and prayer can meet a need that discursive forms don’t / can’t meet. Arguments call forth more arguments, and that doesn’t interest me, especially now amidst so much suffering. 

Poetry and liturgy and art can also hold multiple meanings. Jewish tradition has beautiful teachings about God’s speech being polysemic (saying multiple things simultaneously). I’ve been thinking about how prayer and art can function like that too.

Multivocality is part of the point. No prayer or poem or artwork will be understood in exactly the same way by everyone who reads or prays or views it. For me that’s an important value right now. I need words and images that can hold multiple meanings and valances.

Anyway: all of this is why I’ve been grateful to my fellow builders at Bayit over the last couple of weeks. Much online conversation about Israel and Gaza feels fruitless to me, echo chambers talking past each other. And I’m simultaneously drawn to refresh news websites constantly to see what new horror may be unfolding, and aware that so doing doesn’t actually help anyone (and might harm me.)

But a few days after the Hamas incursion into southern Israel I reached out to the Liturgical Arts Working Group and asked if there were interest in collaborating on an offering, and the answer was an immediate and fervent yes. So we brainstormed, we drafted, we commented and workshopped, we revised, and when all of that work was done I curated a flow through what we had co-created.

The collaborators on this artistic and prayerful response span the gamut from Reform to Orthodox. Some of us are mystics, others are rationalists. Our Judaisms are not the same. Our relationships with that beloved land and its peoples are not the same.  In this we mirror the Jewish community writ large. That feels important to me, too. We are different and we are part of the same whole.

Find the new offering of liturgy, poetry, and artwork from Bayit here, as downloadable PDF chapbook and as google slides suitable for screenshare:
Our Collective Heartbreak

Rachel Barenblat, Why poetry matters (now)

In the story, it was
a child who said that the emperor wore
no clothes at all. Who will shout now
that so many children, over a hundred
a day, are silenced under the rubble?

Rajani Radhakrishnan, Untitled- 1

My mother-in-law was Armenian; I know what a genocide is. As a young girl whose father had fought in WWII, I remember the day he asked a Jewish man, his friend, to show me the numbers tattooed on his arm, so that I would see them and always remember. I know what a genocide is.

Those of us who see the present situation have to speak up, for our own consciences if nothing else. History repeats, and repeats, and it seems like we learn nothing: the strong crush the weak, and find reasons to blame the victims. Then they try to whitewash the facts, and if possible, bury those facts in a mass grave of forgetting; if the displaced and crushed people are then dispersed and homeless, with the victors taking their land and homes as their own, then it’s far easier for them to be forgotten and their memories questioned. It’s happened so many times.

But it’s not coincidental that people who do remember those histories and who have been powerless victims themselves are the ones who see what is happening now, and are protesting against it or seeking solutions within the world bodies that exist to try to promote peace, like the U.N. Those who block these efforts, and those who are complicit, will have to live with themselves in the future, and perhaps they will be judged by a higher court than exists in the world of human beings. Right now, let us all do everything we can to help the victims of war, on every side, and to promote peace. 

Beth Adams, A Word

Before any cathedral, first
there is light buried in stone.

And before bells ring,
water that tongues
the veins of copper and zinc.

Even the volcanoes
issue warnings before the dream erupts.

Before home disappears, first
there is a child in a clean shirt eating bread
with a whole mouth, both hands, all ten fingers.

Luisa A. Igloria, Agon

All along they have guarded
the power of our fragility, a weapon
we were never trained to wield. All along they have
known, and have suffered for it.
They hold up
love like the world itself, thin
arms straining to contain its lightness.
They are in the end the most
resilient, like the soft
bones of a willow, triumphant
when deferring to the storm—
shaking loose their sorrow.
Allowing, allowing, allowing.

Kristen McHenry, In Defense of Gentleness

I’ve read this poem more than 100 times and even now, I am startled by its multiple meanings, its heart; how it seems to me to be a profound love poem to the world.

This is the poem that I offered to my students at Highline College after D.T. was elected president. Recently, I’ve had one former student tell me how they came to my office in tears and together we read through this poem, line by line. That since that day, they’ve always kept Clifton close. I remember another student in my freshman comp course, a beautiful Latino man with his head bent down toward the page, parsing out the meaning of certain that it will / love your back / may you open your eyes to water/water waving forever

I recently found this quote of Clifton’s from a 2002 interview:

A human is not sections, is not parts. Stanley Kunitz says that poetry is the story of what it means to be human in this place, at this time… If something wants to be said — the poem — the poem knows that I will accept it… You allow it in yourself. You allow it to do its work in you.

On a Related Note: We are in another painful moment in our history, we are two weeks into what may become a protracted war in the Middle East. My ability to read the news stories day after day is limited. What I can do is read and share poems. In times of extremity, Lucille Clifton is a poet I return to. I am also reading Naomi Shihab Nye, another generous and brilliant poet who is up next.

Susan Rich, A Lucille Clifton Encounter

In the midst of [waves arms] all of this, I’ve met some truly wonderful humans these past few weeks. People who are working to make the world a better place in real, tangible ways. Right where they live, and in places they’ll likely never visit. As has always been the case, the bad people count on us to despair in the face of the structures they’ve built and the atrocities, large and small, that those structures enable. And as has always been the case, we refuse to stop fighting. Because there is no alternative but to build a better world. I don’t mean this in some polyannish way. Things are awful. But we’re strong and we’re guided by love and rage and community and compassion and I really do believe we’ll win. We have to.

Jason Crane, A Better World Is Inevitable

in the frost
the breath of a prayer
even when a bell rings
nothing moves

Jim Young [no title]

DMP: What do you hope that readers take away from reading this book? What kind of energy and/or vision do you hope it puts into the world of its readers?

JT: I hope people read it and get pissed at their boss, and then talk to other people. Also, I’m skeptical that my poems are going to enact some kind of grand takeaway, but I guess mainly to think about themselves and others as occupying a collective space, recognizing that a lot of this spectacle is, well, a spectacle. And If I could wish for one slightly saccharine thing, it’s that what’s radical about art isn’t some grand proclamation it makes, but the ability to see our potential outside of capitalism, that is, the act of making things outside of exchange, and maybe a chance to see that expand out to other things. Where art can be useful is in the bigger project of imagining different ways of living, that’s what I hope for for anyone making anything.

R.M. Haines, Outside of Exchange: an Interview w/Jonathon Todd

Deep awe–I’m not enough of a genius with words to create a sense of deep awe with a poem, though I admire the geniuses who have been capable of such art. But everyday awe? That’s a feeling with which I’ve been familiar since my childhood and which I have never lost sight of. For me, it arises from my favorite pastime: observation. The fog-mantled tent-spider web in tall grass, the sparrows sipping from city-street potholes, the toddler showering his baby sister with dandelion flowers, the smell of honeysuckle early in June, or campfires or cinnamon. Sea spray in my face. Sand in my shoes. The way my mother’s 90-year-old skin stretches and smooths when I stroke her arm. Skunk cabbage unfurling with the morning sun behind it. These things I can write about; the words are everyday words, and this is my everyday world. That, for me, is where the art of poetry and the experience of living intersect.

Ann E. Michael, Some awe

At the start of this year I accepted the post of reviews editor at Presence. Needless to say, it’s been a busy year, and a steep learning curve. Still, I’ve managed to fit it in, around work, my ongoing commitment to learning the guitar, and of course my own writing. At various times I’ve short-changed the hobbies, but I keep telling myself it’s okay just to keep them on the boil ( that way I won’t be bored when I retire)! But if Stevenson’s ‘named storm’ is metaphorical, I should try not to look too far ahead and stick to the here and now, which is a rainy but mild Autumn morning, half term, washing drying on the radiators, books all over the kitchen table and a few emails to answer.

Julie Mellor, a poem by John Stevenson ..

In Embark, Sean O’Brien deftly shifts between registers and tones to present and think about the world in different ways. In his elegies, melancholy recollection is expressed in a way that combines elegance with conversational intimacy. Other poems are more obviously highly wrought […]

Throughout Embark, I warmed to O’Brien’s gentle humanity. All the poems seemed to grow out of his concern for people, the emotions they feel and the lives they’re given. Though steeped in high culture, sometimes framing his subjects in almost metaphysical anguish, he never sounded cerebral or remote. His stance towards the reader always implied a courteous invitation to shared reflection.

Edmund Prestwich, Sean O’Brien’s Embark – review

I think what makes these poems so memorable is the courage and fortitude that permeate them. There is no self-pity here. Yes, there is a frankness about what it is like to suffer MS, but there is also a strength that allows Stevens ultimately to accept the illness (to ‘step into the dark’), to engage with it and not to allow it to defeat here. In U-turn, she describes how she has her bad days but in the final verse she demonstrates a resolve not to allow such days to destroy her: ‘I will gather the storms and throw them/ down the river of hurt,/ no callous air will ruin my day.’ In Stand Ready she develops this idea further. She suggests that the inner strength that allows her to do this is in us all. She asks the question: ‘What makes the body hold on,/ be fuelled with a force that knows to stand ready?’ and answers it by saying this strength is innate: ‘I suspect in every day there is a whisper:/ in the silk of young skin,/ a sound nuzzling inside.// If a body stands open, it will know it’s there.’ If we look for it, we can all find the strength within us to face adversity.

It is such reflections that give this highly personal collection a universal significance and a relevance to all readers. Julie Stevens is an emerging talent and I look forward to seeing where her talent will take her.

Nigel Kent, Review of ‘Step into the Dark’ by Julie Stevens

The first English use of the word space to connote the cosmic expanse appears in line 650 of Book I of Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost: “Space may produce new Worlds,” he wrote, and grow rife with them.

In the centuries since Milton, who lived through the golden dawn of telescopic astronomy and traveled to Italy to look through Galileo’s telescope, our understanding of space has changed profoundly — it is no longer the ethereal blank of religious cosmogonies but a fabric of energy and matter laced with forces, a fabric the warp thread of which is time. This hammock of spacetime tells matter how to move, and matter pulled by gravity tells spacetime how to bend — such is the simplest summation of Einstein’s revolutionary theory of general relativity, out of which arose the mathematics of nature’s strangest and most enchanting creations: black holes and gravitational waves, wormholes and singularities.

These cosmic wonders come alive in The Warped Side of Our Universe: An Odyssey through Black Holes, Wormholes, Time Travel, and Gravitational Waves (public library) — a labor-of-love collaboration between artist Lia Halloran and physicist Kip Thorne, more than a decade in the making, rendering the science of spacetime in an epic poem of playful free verse and breathtaking art.

What began as a series of animated conversations between these intergenerational friends — long before Kip won the Nobel Prize for the detection of gravitational waves that marked a new golden age of listening to the universe after four centuries of looking at it, long before Lia endeavored on her subversive cyanotype celebration of astronomy — bloomed into an unexampled book that does for the science of space what Erasmus Darwin did for the science of Earth when he popularized a new branch of botany with his 1791 epic poem The Botanic Garden.

Maria Popova, The Warped Side of Our Universe: A Painted Epic Poem about the Dazzling Science of Spacetime

“Farhang Book 1” is the first of a series of books planned by Patrick Woodcock as a way of honouring some of the people and places he encountered while working as a writer, volunteer and teacher for almost three decades. This book starts in Poland in 1994 and travels through Lithuania, Russia, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Colombia, North Iraq, Fort Good Hope, Azerbaijan, Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda.

The poems are grouped into sections following forms and themes rather than being presented by that they are about or by country. This is not a journal or series of diary entries. The third in the “Monoliths” section starts, “He landed in an alphabet with six new letters, and/ sounds that made him plead for two, plus one, not/ three.” Further on “When one/ language said it was too hot to work, he played/ computer hangman to learn the unwritten short/ vowels; he committed genocide, hanged thousands.”

Emma Lee, “Farhang Book 1” Patrick Woodcock (ECW Press) – book review

Alas, I didn’t have any of his collections while he was alive, but I’ve belatedly caught up with much of his oeuvre. I especially like the posthumously published You Again (Bloodaxe, 2004; available here) because, as well as including his last poems, it contains interviews, prose pieces, and memories and assessments of, and poems for, him. I love the wisdom in the following two quotes from his prose.

Neruda says, ‘If you want to learn to be a poet you must first learn to walk.’ It happens I like walking. Usually I find things, and with the rhythm of it I can think, and walking alone is best: the thought doesn’t have to be shared while you’re thinking it. More chance of thinking something out. Less chance of interruption.


Serendipity has always been my way of working, more so as the years go by, as I learn to let go more. To be open to the incidental, to suggestion and association, constitutes for me most of the business of being a poet.


Internationalist in outlook and influences, Ken’s poetry is characterised by a disciplined looseness, seriousness and dry humour; a winning combination if ever there was one. He was what used to be called a ‘public poet’, one whose opinions were sought because they were worth hearing. In our troubled times now, we could surely do with more poets like Ken.

Matthew Paul, What would Ken say?

It always felt like Barry McKinnon was a poet who deserved far more attention than he received, and how moving north to Prince George to teach in 1969 put him on the outskirts of literature (this was certainly how he felt), despite the enormous amount of activity he encouraged, prompted and hosted during his time in the north. Who else would have brought Robert Creeley to Prince George? i wanted to say something, originally self-produced through his Gorse and reprinted years later by Caitlin, is an important early long poem from the Canadian prairies, one that was hugely influential to other writers, even if the larger public weren’t aware of it until long after those influenced by the poem had published their own variations. McKinnon became an important figure in Northern British Columbia, as publisher, poet, organizer, teacher and as an example of someone in that geographic space who was able to produce interesting work, and take seriously the conversation and thinking of literature. I know over the past twenty years or so he was getting frustrated with traditional publishing (he’d long been a chapbook publisher, so one foot was always on the outside), focusing more on putting work online than sending it out to anyone. I would recommend working through his website and seeing everything he’d put there.

rob mclennan, Barry McKinnon (1944 – October 30, 2023)

John Levy’s 54 Poems is a selection of work covering half a century of writing by this seriously undervalued poet. Levy’s work as represented here engages with a handful of major concerns. The first of these is the poem as a series of engagements with a wider world of poetry, with many poems addressed to specific poets or poems. The poems addressed are woven into the wider web of experience, of Levy’s sense of being in the world:

I was reading
Ken Bolton’s poem,
“Footprints,” then
I began writing this
because the yellow butterfly (or more likely moth)
distracted me

I am trying to not
to the voices
behind me I want
to get back to the poem

on the page
[from ‘To what end’]

The beauty of this is that Levy’s poem resides in the distractions, the journey back to the new poem on the new page is via the accidentally mundane facts of the world in which poems and other things exist.

Billy Mills, Recent Reading: October 2023

This week I got to share some brilliant news announced in the bookseller. My next poetry collection, Blackbird Singing at Dusk, will be published by Nine Arches press in September 2024.

The Bookseller

This one has been a long time coming to print. I originally received a grant from the Society of Authors way back in 2021 to give me a little time to do some research. It was a brilliant experience; a rare experience of being awarded money to work on my creative writing. It boosted my confidence no end and I think if I hadn’t had that acknowledgement of my work, I may not have pursued other creative endeavours, including my memoir, The Ghost Lake, which also comes out next year.

I feel like I haven’t done much writing lately, really, but then these two slow growth projects have both arrived at publishing central in the same year, and it makes me look far more prolific than I am. […]

Having said all that about the process, and letting ideas sit, allowing oneself to be fallow, I have lately felt a bit ‘stuck’ in terms of being able to write. I’m still working on edits for The Ghost Lake, and there are long gaps between editing sessions in which I feel like I shouldn’t be starting anything new. But what I think is happening is that I am afraid that everything I write has to become something that goes on to be published, and that is freezing me in place, afraid to move forward. This is exactly what I tell mentees not to do. Writing specifically for publication sucks the joy out of creativity. If you’re always worried about getting the next thing beneath the nose of a publisher, you begin to write for that publication/publisher/agent, rather than being authentic, finding joy in exploring the story you want to tell. I find myself afraid to commit in case the next thing I write doesn’t reach the hallowed ground of publication. I need to break that spell. I need to keep the momentum of the writing going, and jump on something new. With that in mind I’ve decided to kick myself up the bum and start a novel, or rather, I have decided to pull one of the ideas I’ve had for a novel off the back burner, and actually commit to a month of dedicated writing to to see where it goes. I want to simply write, to sit down every day and get words down. This is a project which I’m holding in my mind as ‘fun’.

Wendy Pratt, The Trick is to Keep Jumping Forward

In this issue there’s quite a lot about about how clubiness and other social pressures affect poetry writing and reviews. In his editorial, Gerry Cambridge writes

  • “poetry is most valued as the vessel for issues
  • “The community is inclusive provided one shows that one is right thinking and holds the same values as the group. If one doesn’t, unconditionally … one … will be covertly or openly excluded”

Edna Longley’s essay wonders how The Waste Land (which she thinks good in parts) has come to take such an prominent (almost defining) position in Modernism – because Eliot was a critic? “because the academy may need The Waste Land as all things to all theories … Latterly, the poem has even been called an ecocritique … Ricks ingeniously or desperately proposes that Eliot’s ugly images are cast back upon the reader to test our own prejudices”

NB’s contrarian exploits in TLS are explored.

Kathryn Gray writes –

  • “Many poets – too many poets – spend the remainder of their careers attempting to rewrite their most successful book”
  • “In an age heavily policed by social media avatars, we are supposed to be good. Increasingly, and quite illogically, I think, we also desire our writers to be good
  • “I wish more poets wrote in as badly behaved a fashion as they sometimes lived. … And perhaps a readership for poetry would widen and deepen and we would see far less of the ‘school project’ syndrome that haunts many a collection”
Tim Love, The Dark Horse, issue 47

Just a quick note to share that my lyric memoir, Ruin & Want, is available for pre-order from Sundress Publications! Pre-orders help a lot in getting a book out into the world. It’d mean so much to me to have the support. The pre-order price for my book is also at a discount.

One of the dynamic, community-oriented things that Sundress Publications does for its authors is donate 10% of pre-orders to a nonprofit of their choice. For my book, I chose The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies (The Partnership), “the only U.S. disability-led organization with a focused mission of equity for people with disabilities and people with access and functional needs throughout all planning, programs, services and procedures before, during and after disasters and emergencies.”

If money is an issue, you can also support by suggesting your local library preorder the book and requesting it for checkout as soon as it becomes available. This achieves the same end—a copy of the book is still preordered and purchased—and also helps place the book in your library for readers in your community.

José Angel Araguz, Ruin & Want available for pre-order!

Something about this collection of intimate items, strewn across the floor where they presumably landed after Emin tossed them from the bed, moved me to write. A day or so after I saw the photograph, I wrote a poem about it, which I titled “Sixteen-Year-Old Unmade Bed Sells for $4.3 Million Dollars.”

I started by describing the things in the photograph. Their presence was so painfully honest, more indicative of heartbreak than any sappy love song. Here are the things—as William Carlos Williams told us years ago, “no ideas but in things”—that bear the stamp of Emin’s heartache. They told the story of this breakup in terms of the body, from the birth-control pills to the empty bottles of vodka. 

The tension in the poem comes from my question about the person who bought the bed, German Count Christian Duerckheim, and why he wanted to possess this trauma-filled piece. Like me, he was moved by this work of art, so nakedly personal, so filled with the pain of a breakup. I still wonder about him. After he bought the piece, he loaned it to the Tate Museum in London, where it’s been on display ever since. 

Erica Goss, How a Photograph of Tracy Emin’s “My Bed” Inspired Me

Back in February, Hopewell Valley Neighbors magazine began featuring my micropoems monthly with a half-page of haiku (a.k.a. one-breath poems).

Fast-forward to the November issue and you’ll see that HVN has doubled down on their commitment to poetry by putting my face on the cover and profiling me: how I came to be living in Hopewell Valley, how I became a poet, and how poetry in public places became a passion of mine!

Over the course of less than a year, Hopewell Valley Neighbors has become my primary source for reaching readers in the area where I live, and I couldn’t be more pleased! Writer / editor / content coordinator Catherine Bialkowski, photographer Josh DeHonney, and designer Micalah Taylor did an excellent job of introducing me and my work to my fellow residents across Hopewell Township, Hopewell Borough, and Pennington, New Jersey.

Bill Waters, Bill Waters, Hopewell Valley’s one-breath poet

Richard, in your recent conversation with Anthony Etherin on the Penteract Podcast, you discussed the influence of the Language poets on your writing, in particular Charles Bernstein. You also acknowledged the benefits of a conservative training in poetry, in terms of metre, rhyme and form. Tell me about your creative trajectory, and what led to the founding of Hem Press last year.

Richard: Anthony’s podcast gave me the space to join the dots from being a music-obsessed teen to getting into the avant-garde at a young age, and how that got me into poetry. After getting serious about poetry, I attended open mics and workshops throughout the West Country and quickly realised that, although most attendees were welcoming, there was no outlet for my particular interest in poetry. Being a young ’un, I made the regrettable decision to try and write how I thought I should write to fit in. Contributing to this, despite enjoying the contemporary avant-garde from America and Canada online, Faber, Bloodaxe and Carcanet were the only publishers centre-stage on the British scene at that time. I mean, Salt and Nine Arches, both still going strong, were around, but all attention was on the bigger presses. These were the factors that pushed me to get a conservative grounding in lyric poetry. Going on to study English Lit and Creative Writing as an undergraduate reinforced this.

The positives: learning canonised poetics opened the door for me to appreciate pre-20th century poetry. Also, basic metre and rhyme are troubleshooting tools most writers (not just poets: all writers) lack. If something about a paragraph feels off but everything is stylistically or grammatically correct, it might be a stressed syllable too long or a particular word has an odd internal rhyme with another.

I acknowledge the uses of a conservative training in poetry while remaining deeply sceptical of the phrase, so often parroted in creative writing pedagogy, “You need to know the rules before you break them.” This assumes poetry is a singular, straight forward, tradition that can be explicated and explained. In contrast, poetry are a sprawling, and sometimes contradicting, mess of narratives and counter-narratives. There’s little need for a visual poet to learn what a sonnet is before making a visual poem, irrespective of how formally conservative poets might see visual poetry as “breaking the rules”.

Marian Christie, The thingness of language – An Interview with Richard Capener of Hem Press

Do you need
to make sense, holding
such fire at your heart,
burning the laughter?
Here, now, let’s say no
or yes. Let’s say it
doesn’t make sense, none
of this, it doesn’t
need to. Okay. I’m
sending you love, me.
It’s all I have left.

PF Anderson, Dear You

child of ash :: may i wear at my throat
your frozen whispers

child of stone :: have you met in your dreams
the mirror that wants to live

when all that is dust returns to song, where
will the child of the wound be found

Grant Hackett [no title]

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