Poetry Blog Digest 2024, Week 5

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: a journey to the underworld, an allotted plot, becoming your own god, finding joy as a writer, and much more. Enjoy.

Poor fools!  Shivering but starting its 
percolation, sap begins to rise in February.

It has listened to the light, like others:
young shoots and lovers in strappy gowns 

with bare legs and backs who beat the dull
winter ache […]

Jill Pearlman, Of Fiancés and Saplings

I can see him chuckling about it, poet Stu Bartow. He wrote this haiku after taking himself to the ER to address a troubling pain in the springtime:

journey to the underworld
the doors open

To a haiku writer, the world is filled with haiku, I guess. That is, moments and details that show themselves as opening outward to the universe. A haikuist is a live-er of moments, a lover of moments. The highest form of existence, isn’t it, this presence to the present? The now and the now fills the senses. The universe winks and nudges in a sunsparkle there, a birdsong here, a certain bend in a road, erotic flash of pink in the mottled bark of a pitch pine in winter. Eternity presents itself in the moment. A flash of wisdom offers itself to the senses. Until it does not. And there are no senses, no sense, nonsense.

What else is full living but this? This attention to being. This being.

Marilyn McCabe, The doors open

The brain’s go-to response will always be to flood you with adrenaline and cortisol while lining up an expletive-ridden invective. But, that’s often only if you object to or resist the present moment. That’s if you tell yourself that fear is bad, discomfort is bad, and the person who cut you off is a Class A moron. Our response to discomfort is what pours gasoline over the fire. We are the ones who start an inner battle, and we are the ones who come away bruised. […]

What if it’s not someone who wants to do us harm? What if the thing that weighs on you at the moment will prove to be the key to a better version of your life?

Nothing in our culture promotes this kind of thinking, which is dismissed as wishful. I’m not sure what we gain by privileging negativity, by expecting a half-empty glass to further drain itself. The fact is that you are the only person listening to the story you tell about the events and feelings in your own life. You are listening to everything you think, and you have a body that reacts to that story. And it is just that: a story. So, what if it’s three strange angels knocking?

Maya C. Popa, How do we know that what happens to us isn’t good?

Because of that job loss, other doors have opened, and I’ve been able to walk through them.  I’ve had the experience of living on a seminary campus, and we now have a paid for house in the North Carolina mountains–both of those are dreams come true.  I’ve been able to be a part-time minister, a job that has been even more rewarding than I expected, and I expected it to be rewarding.  I’ve gotten a part-time job teaching English classes at Spartanburg Methodist College–at last, I’m at the small, liberal arts college that was my career goal when I went to grad school.

On Thursday, I helped a student with an essay which was about navigating high school during the Covid years.  For a brief moment, I was staggered by all the losses contained in those years.  Instead of weeping, I said to the student, “Be sure to keep this essay.  Some day, you’ll have grandchildren or grandnieces and grandnephews who will want to know this history, and you won’t remember.  But you’ll have it written down.”

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, My Last Day at my Last Full-time Job

In September 2022, I applied for an allotment about half a mile along the river, and in a bit. There was a lockdown flurry of interest in growing things, so I was surprised to get an email a couple of weeks ago saying I’d reached the top of the waiting list. Here I sit, typing this, the key to the padlock for the shed of plot no. 78a burning a hole in my pocket. 

An allotment is a piece of land on which to grow fruit and vegetables for private consumption. A full plot is 10 poles, or perches, long: about the size of a doubles tennis court. It’s an ancient measure. Having been allotted an allotment I must, to avoid warning letters and then eviction, allot time to keeping it tidy and cultivated.

Here’s the plot so far: I’ve taken the shed door off its hinges, sawn a little from the bottom so that it opens more easily, screwed it back. I’ve uncovered treasures: fork, spade, two saws (luckily), trowel, hoe, long-handled shears, broad bean seeds, slug pellets, seed trays, bamboo canes, a white plastic chair and several lengths of twine. I’ve thrown out some things that the mice and damp had got to. I’ve had a new piece of glass cut to size, and fixed the broken pane of the greenhouse. I’ve dug over the strawberry bed, spacing 15 plants more evenly, in the interests of their equal opportunities. After all that, I sat eating my lunch in the sunny, sheltered nook between shed and greenhouse, listening to birdsong. 

Liz Lefroy, I Allot My Time

I like to think about families of sound, words that somehow resonate together. A recent sonnet that appeared in the current Poet Lore (below) got a lot of comments from readers about how they enjoyed the sounds of the poem. Some said they wanted to keep reading it aloud, and that’s a compliment that makes me smile.

I worked hard on the sonics of this poem—not just the traditional end rhymes for its sonnet form, but other diction choices as well. The s’s in the first half are deliberate – swirl, sweet, sticky, supple, snow, same, chrysalis—creating a euphony of images to describe the softness of youth. The poem then shifts to harder sounds – drunken, buzz, leaping, wreck, fuck, grit—using those sounds to imply aggression or recklessness. Then both of those things combine in the final image —something smooth and lovely that disguises grit.

Donna Vorreyer, Euphony

What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I once had a therapist accuse me of ‘being in love with a dead woman’ (Virginia Woolf). I devoured every word by and about her and about the Bloomsbury group when I was young, and Woolf still gives me wondrous shivers. She taught me how to write letters that are daring and fun and defamiliarized, for example—or at least to enjoy trying. To mention Ford again, though I don’t write like him at all and couldn’t, he is a major ‘lamp unto my feet,’ to quote another great book. I’m reading Atwood again right now after a long hiatus (Old Babes in the Wood) and really loving it. I’m glad I was early exposed to the Bible, and should mention that, since I see I’ve inadvertently referenced it above. I can’t think of a better preparation for a writing career than a foundation in the King James Version and an education in Art History. Other than those books, I’m in Mexico right now, and I can’t stop thinking about Under the Volcano (Malcolm Lowry).

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Judith Pond (rob mclennan)

This week, I read John Pavlovitz’s “I Want to Grieve Normal Things Again,” and I felt the heaviness we feel when someone articulates a truth so hard we haven’t given our own words or thoughts to it, but we recognize it immediately when someone else does. I, too, miss ordinary grief, from the kinds of loss that any living person can expect to endure. Pavlovitz lists the ways in which our society is breaking and broken and tells us, “We shouldn’t be grieving continually this way, we shouldn’t be perpetually lamenting newly appearing fractures, and we shouldn’t need to constantly defend ourselves from the wounds inflicted by those entrusted with leading us.” 

I watched, too, Inua Ellams’s stunning video poem “Fuck/Our Future” and realized how much I have not been letting myself consciously see, much less grieve, what we are doing to our planet. This week I encountered articles about the early end to an outdoor Minnesota art installation,1 the changing nature of winter sports,2 and social media posts from midwestern friends lamenting this winter’s lack of snow. 

Of course, the loss of winter sports and cultural traditions is only the tip of what changing winters mean, but still. All of these things made my body feel heavy, as I let it know, for a few moments at a time, the enormity of what we are living through, and I let myself feel my profound sorrow and fear. I know what it is to grieve the loss of a person, but the loss of winter as we’ve known it? I don’t even know how to grieve something as unfathomable as that.

Rita Ott Ramstad, 004: What we talk about when we talk about pain

The order to 
kill anyone 
           over the age of ten and make of the island 

a howling wilderness.
 Humid clouds blanket
           the trenches, 
hide piles of bodies twisted 

bits of rusted candelabra.
  Up north in 
           the Cordillera, green earth also changed 

hands—the terraced hills, their hidden 
           veins of gold and silver. 

Luisa A. Igloria, Possessions

A kiss above the abyss is still a kiss.
It was there you stood in front of me, hung your arms around my neck.
We’d go to the end of the line, or for as long as the tightrope held fast.
Or that’s what you always said. But others turned farmland into desert,
animals died of thirst, ancient places disappeared. Soft, the dew of youth.
I heard you say the moon was crumbling, shrinking. You talked, I listened.
You played piano, the poet read his poem on Vietnam. The dancer danced.
The old folk watched. Bang on the top of the telly, will you, my dear?


This anthology, A Mollusk Without a Shell: Essays on Self-Care for Writers, from University of Akron Press came out at a great time, no? I’m so proud and happy to have an essay in the collection, along with many friends like Kelli Russell Agodon, Charles Jensen, Lee Ann Roripaugh, and many others. (Thanks to Mary Biddinger and Julie Brooks Barbour.) Topics range from the distractions of social media and AWP hazing to dealing with issues like cancer and death of a family member. And with AWP, Valentine’s Day, the Superbowl, and Lunar New Year all happening in the same week, what do writers need more than a reminder about self-care? Charlotte (above) poses with a copy of the new book.

A lot of the anthology contributors are Gen X, who might have some unique knowledge about self-care, having been brought up as latch-key kids, the forgotten generation, the first generation to do financially less well than their parents, the sandwich generation (taking care of children and aging parents at the same time these days), and raised on teen apocalypse literature before it was cool. As a kid as young as 10, I was up before daybreak, walked a mile along a highway to the junior high to take a transfer bus to my school with my little brother, made my own breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner, and then spent two hours after school at various activities (often finding my own ride home among friends and other people’s parents). I went to unchaperoned parties where yes, sex and drinking and drugs existed. I ran away from policemen (once with a friend on crutches), sketchy characters on motorcycles (after an ill-advised TP-ing sleepover activity), and a crotchety parent (of a house party he was not aware he was hosting, thanks to his son) with a shotgun. I was told I wouldn’t be able to have children when I was 19. On the cusp of a long weekend away, a doctor told me a year later, “You either have AIDs, lupus, or cancer, have a good weekend!” Since that cheery experience, I’ve been diagnosed with multiple life-threatening illness. Are these good qualifications for someone to give advice about self-care? You be the judge!

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Self-Care for Writers, and the Anxiety of Turning Fifty—a New Poem in Rogue Agent, and Anxiety and Its Antidotes

These days I am either completely serene or raging. I have “lessons learned” and all my demons are under control, or I am even more of the hot mess I’ve always been.

I legitimately wonder if this is because there IS serenity in total self-absorption: when things are forced on you, and there are no real decisions or negotiations to make – just floating down the narrow river and thinking about how cold the water is and how warm the sun feels. Trusting the people you love are floating along, too. Feeling their presence even when they aren’t.

I’ve been arguing with dead people again, when I thought I was finished with that. I’ve been staging conflicts in my mind’s eye with colleagues. I read other points of view as direct attacks on my own. If you are right, I must be wrong.

Ren Powell, Addendum 1

But then, I thought, as I’m already fuming, I’d write something about how annoying some tweets and posts are when it comes to poetry. Don’t get me wrong – there are some open discussions about poetry – where people are genuinely asking for ideas, and discussions about a poem or a pamphlet which accept their subjectivity, and/or are descriptive rather than judgmental. And there are really supportive people out there too.

But the ones that make me angry are the ones where people don’t just say what they think. They say, or imply very strongly, that they’re right, and therefore everyone else is wrong. You don’t like something – fine. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t like it. And vice versa. You don’t think the form of the poem is right – fine. That’s your opinion. It doesn’t make it a fact. And so on.

Sue Ibrahim, Frustration

Between these positions lies the vast potential to have conversations about the different values and expectations each of us brings to reading a poem, why the same small block of text might provoke feelings of joy in one person, feelings of fury in another, and nothing at all in a third. Occasionally one such conversation breaks out, but it’s all too often a brief interlude in a major bust-up, one that ends once the big factions have retreated to their respective corners and habits, muttering sourly at each other. What if we were to alter our expectations, such that distinct experiences of the same poem were something sought out as an opportunity for learning, rather than something mostly avoided – something which, once brought to light, can only be resolved by the conclusion that one or other person is a nitwit?

Jon Stone, We should talk more

My second step has been to consider what to replace my scrolling with. If I’m physically tired and beset by porridge brain, then choosing a hefty intellectual book may not meet my need. This is expressed brilliantly by Roz Goddard in Poetry Projects to Make and Do

Currently my addiction to soft-boiled crime fiction is telling me I’m feeling overwhelmed in my life and need to carve out the time to enter the world of forensic archaeology, sand dunes and peril that isn’t my own.

Poetry Projects to Make and Do published by Nine Arches Press

My first major change was to stop reading books I felt would add gravitas to my online persona and return to reading books I enjoy. I feel a little embarrassed to write this– a little exposed – but honesty is the key to everything and if this article is to be of any value, I need to show how entrenched I had become in the creation of a curated life. The pressure to read books that impress, rather than books that bring joy is another consequence of the grip social media has on my inner as well as outer life.

Since I’ve made this decision I’ve enjoyed reading, laughed, cried, looked up new words, finished a book in a day, read another in tiny fragments because it moved me so much and flicked through a magazine with a lightness no stream of targeted ads could possibly deliver.

Kathryn Anna Marshall, How I’m weaning myself off social media

spring sunshine
the top of a mole hill
drying out

Jim Young [no title]

I’ve had the poem I’m about to write about open in a tab on my iPad for a couple of months at least, trying to think of a way to get into it. I’ve started this post a half-dozen times at least, written three or four paragraphs and then pushed them away. In one, I wrote about my meager attempts to write short stories set in a universe with superheroes, but it turned into thinking about how those are all war stories with the victims largely erased; another would have required me to re-watch significant parts of Mr. Destiny for the first time in at least 30 years and I tapped out of that pretty quickly; a third included a list of all the times I could have died earlier in my life and a wonder if maybe of all the Brian’s in all the universes out there, I’m the last one standing. I’m not going to list them all. Suffice to say that this is the one that’s held this long.

The poem is Carl Dennis’s “The God Who Loves You.” I don’t remember exactly how I came to see it—my gut currently says someone posted it on Bluesky because that’s about the only place I’m online these days—but I read it and then reread it and it’s been worming around in my head ever since then, enough that I think I need to locate a copy of Practical Gods, the volume it comes from.

Brian Spears, Becoming Your Own God

So here I was, in my early fifties, and still had no idea how to be a professional writer. I freelanced for a local lifestyle magazine, but the pay per article was tiny. I won a few prizes, published my (mostly unpaid) work, and discovered blogging. And then I was browsing in Bookshop Santa Cruz, when I noticed a little black square of a book, titled Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon. I picked it up and turned it over to read the following list:

  1. Steal like an artist.
  2. Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.
  3. Write the book you want to read.
  4. Use your hands.
  5. Side projects and hobbies are important.
  6. The Secret: do good work and share it with people.
  7. Geography is no longer our master.
  8. Be nice. (The world is a small town.)
  9. Be boring. (It’s the only way to get work done.)
  10. Creativity is subtraction.

I bought that book, took it home, and read it in an hour. From Steal Like an Artist I moved on to How to Make a Living as a Poet by Gary Mex Glazner, Making a Literary Life by Carolyn See, Company of One by Paul Jarvis, and Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. As I read these books, I began to see, dimly at first, that I had a very narrow definition of what it takes to be a successful writer. A truly successful writer is many things: a poet, essayist, blogger, writer of articles about various topics such as food and pets, and, yes, a teacher. 

Erica Goss, Business Books for Poets

We’re writers because we love writing. Sure, some of us are trying to make money or launch a career or publish a book, but at the end of the day we are writers because we enjoy the work and play of writing. If we lose that joy, then we’ve lost our first love. We can’t wait until we have “arrived” at some future achievement to be happy, because we might be waiting forever. Even if we do achieve that dream, we’ll feel amazing for a week, or a couple months, or even a year—but then what? So I’d like to suggest some ways to cultivate contentment and find joy in all parts of the writing journey. I think we should stop waiting to “arrive” and realize we’re already here.

Bethany Jarmul, Cultivating Contentment in Your Writing Life

Poetry’s a long game, full of tough waits and disappointments, but all of them pale into insignificance on a humbling day when someone whose critical opinions you value, who never chucks compliments around like confetti, writes incredibly generous stuff about your book. This is one of those special days.

Thanks are due to Matthew Paul for writing an exceptional review of Whatever You Do, Just Don’t for Wild Court, and thanks to Robert Selby for publishing it. Here’s a quick quote as a taster, but you can read it in full via this link.

Without fanfare and with measured economy, Stewart impeccably, and unbeatably, encapsulates the impact of time and culture on the minutiae of everyday life as it both was and now is.

Matthew Stewart, Matthew Paul reviews Whatever You Do, Just Don’t for Wild Court

I got home from that to see in my RSS feed a review of Collecting The Data by Tim Love over at LitRefs Reviews. I’ve always enjoyed reading these and wondered if I’d ever be on the receiving end, and how I’d react. Well, I can wonder no more. I will say thank you to Tim for both buying a copy and for engaging with it to the degree he has. I thank him for the notes of positivity and for the “less positive” parts. There’s certainly something to be said for the honest review over fawning praise, and that’s certainly a live argument in some circles in poetry world (and always will be), so let’s not rake over that here.

While I wholeheartedly disagree with some of what Tim’s said, I can see some sense in some of it, or more likely his notes play into some of my own private fears about levels of anecdote to poetry. And that will act as a spur in the future…(As an aside, should it? Should I let this one semi-review get under my skin? Probably not, and I am trying not to let it.)

However, what really hit me like the proverbial ten-tonne truck going down and icy hill was “I think I’ve had Flash published which is more poetic than some of these pieces“. Look up “fucking brutal” in the dictionary and you’ll see a screen cap of that sentence. (As another aside, I am contemplating a) having it tattooed somewhere about my person, and b) using it in promotional material in the future).

I’ve not read Tim’s Flash fiction to be able to form an opinion as to the veracity of the sentence, but I have read Tim’s book of poems, Moving Parts, and recommend you do too. I’d argue we’re not that dissimilar in styles, but to be fair that book came out in 2010, so I have no doubt he’s moved on since then.

Mat Riches, Bursting bubbles and not balloons

This book is what the literary world calls “hybrid,” meaning that it melds more than one genre. In a way, the content of the book dictated this form. Magazines are already hybrid or multi-genre texts, since they combine journalism, image, advertisements, letters, and any other number of forms all in one place. They are also polyvocal, meaning that the various components of any issue are from different voices and perspectives, and that the overall identity or feel of the text arises from the combination of those voices. Since the women’s magazine of the 1880s-1920s was the locus of debate around bird hats, violence, and “natural beauty,” they became the inspiration and primary model for the book I wrote about these questions. I hope that the result is fun – if maybe a little unsettling – to read, as feminist theory about gender and violence is juxtaposed with fashion spreads, advertisements, and snippets of memoir. It might be a perfect gift for those in your life who love weird and beautiful texts or are interested in feminism and gender studies, birds, fashion, and conservation. 

Sarah Rose Nordgren, Weaving These Threads Into A Nest

This morning I sent out my first poetry submission since October. It’s hard to keep up, to catch up, since all the big family events. Lately I’ve felt like three people instead of one, keeping track of everyone’s personal health details and doctor’s appointments. A juggling act and an identity challenge. (I have to put initials on my calendar, so I know whose appointment it is.) Since my mother died, I’m down to two people, but even that’s hard. Anyway, while I’m behind in many poetry-related things (submissions, reviews, new poetry features at EIL), at least I got this done, and the October submission is forthcoming this spring, so there’s progress.

Meanwhile, I am participating in a solstice-to-solstice poetry-postcard writing project, and it is delightful to get postcards in the mail with such marvelous creativity on them. I love snail mail!

Kathleen Kirk, Submitting

Just now I’m reading Kidnapped to Martha, and we are taking deep delight in it, and mean to go on to Catriona; and I’m going to tackle the second volume of Underwoods. I stupidly skipped it a few thousand years ago when I was first reading Stevenson, because the poems in that volume were in Scots; which at the time was a discouragement rather than an inducement. I was in a hurry then. Now I’m so old that I don’t need to hurry ever again, so I have time to read it.

Dale Favier, A Blue-Behinded Ape, Home from the Hill

What does it mean to say that a literary culture was bilingual? That literature is being read and, at least to some extent, written in two distinct languages, with their own literary conventions and associations; but also that the wider literary conversation — the shared intimacies of drafts and recommendations, the tenor of correspondence in literary circles — draws on both backgrounds. This was the case in early modern England with Latin and the local vernacular, English, as it was across much of Europe at that time. Classicists might think of the role of Greek literature in first-century Rome, and the telling Roman self-consciousness about trying to do “Greek” things in Latin. Others might think of, for instance, the role of French in Tolstoy or of the many interacting languages of literary production (including English) in India today.

I am particularly fascinated by the link between bilingual literary cultures of this kind and literary creativity. Today, I thought I’d do something a bit different and look at a single, typical, even rather ‘everyday’ artefact of such literary bilingualism: in this case, a single brief letter. This is a good example of the sort of thing that doesn’t have much, or any, literary merit in its own right, but sheds a great deal of light on the literary culture from which it emerges. […]

There are quite a few difficulties here, especially in the verse section: this appears to be a genuinely impromptu composition and truly part of the letter, not a fragment of poetry Goad had already composed and inserted here as a tribute or to show off. He is unselfconscious enough to leave it unfinished and apparently unrevised. The first six lines are quite coherent but after that the syntax begins to break down. There’s no verb in the final three lines and several words are hard to make sense of: this section is more of an accumulation of suggestive descriptions than a coherent sentence, and I’ve tried to capture something of this feeling of dashed-off sincerity in the translation. Material like this is extremely hard to translate and it’s certainly not particularly artistically successful, but it’s hugely revealing: what moves Goad to switch first into Latin, and then into Latin verse, even if he doesn’t have the time to polish it into a real poem?

Victoria Moul, One letter that’s not from Milton (but almost could be)

The hidden past,
with its myths of Romans and lost queens
of the Iron Age, threads its careful way
through thickets of imagined story, and I,
not immune to this casual appropriation,
imprint my own lost ancestors, finding
or inventing the feel of home here, roots
where there may be none, whole trees
growing into the open wind and sky.

Elizabeth Rimmer, World Wetlands Day

8. Flag of childhood: Poems from the Middle East is an anthology edited by Naomi Shihab Nye with contributions from poets from all over the region. She reminds the reader in her introduction that we all share a common flag of childhood and we need to come together under it.
9. The book includes 60 poems that talk of family and relationships, patriarchy and gender, freedom and war, faith and land, baklava and olive trees:
10. Read evocative poems that sing of pain: “We pluck night from the forty thieves / Sing it a lullaby in our arms / Should not its arms enfold our sleep? / Who is rocking whom?” – A voiced lament, Gulten Akin, Turkey (Tr. Nermin Menemencioglu)
11. Read powerful poems that sing of courage: “she hoists the saddle in the air, then lowers it onto her head. / She stands tall, this Palestinian Yoga-woman, her head not merely holding a saddle, / But the world.” – A saddle and the world, May Mansoor Munn, Palestine,
12. Read delicate poems that sing of peace and beauty: “I hear the sounds of gardens breathing
the sound of the darkness raining from a leaf / the light clearing its throat behind a tree” – The sounds of water’s footsteps, Sohrab Sepehri, Iran (Tr: Massud Farzan)
13. And read stirring poems that sing of life and dreams: “But to know that you are free / and to remain free / you must steady yourself on a foothold of earth / so that the earth may rise
so that you may give wings to all / the children of the earth” – Freedom, Saadi Youssef, Iraq (Tr. Khaled Mattawa)

Rajani Radhakrishnan, Reading list update -21

The Slow Subtraction is a collection of love poems. Difficult content, yes, addressing the diminishment visited upon a beloved with a chronic illness, but love poems, no less.

We never think of coughing
as a blessing
until we can’t cough. (“Ironies”)

Practical realities, the minutiae of care-giving, but also the gift of close attention: “A studious winter light magnifies the afternoon” (“Yakima Canyon in Winter”). Or consider these lines:

the carnelian arrowhead found in the garden,
the painted floral plate she bought in Greece,
the cinnabar snuffbottle (“Ringing”)

According to his biographical note, Joseph Powell now lives on a small farm outside Ellensburg, gardening, fly-fishing, and scrounging, “hunting mushrooms and agates, picking berries,” after thirty years teaching in the English department at Central Washington University for thirty years. Lucky students, to have had the grace of such attention to the trajectory of details, beauty and danger, in every life.

Bethany Reid, Joseph Powell: THE SLOW SUBTRACTION: A.L.S.

Formally, the most obvious feature of the poem is that it’s completely unpunctuated, apart from the initial capital.  This is a bit of a fashion, I’d say, in contemporary poetry. Here was Morgan doing it in the early nineteen sixties, which is roughly when WS Merwin began doing the same thing to, as he put it, unstaple his language from the page. 

In place of punctuation,  in ‘Strawberries’, Morgan uses line breaks, at pretty much every phrase boundary, and only at phrase boundaries.

This makes it relatively easy to read but introduces some syntactic ambiguities that lead to semantic ambiguities, which are important for the poem’s force.  In particular there are ambiguities about the attachments or bracketings of phrases.

There’s nothing unusual, of course, in claiming ambiguity as a positive feature of poems.  Famously, William Empson’s ‘Seven Kinds of Ambiguity’, argues that it is a defining quality of poetic language. I think several of Empson’s kinds of ambiguity feature powerfully in Strawberries.

Stephen Payne, Finding Edwin Morgan: a reading of ‘Strawberries’

Eric Selland’s Brushworks is a book like few others you’ll come across. It consists of a set of pages from Selland’s notebooks, consisting of a number of abstract calligraphic figures made using brush techniques traditionally used for drawing kanji (in fact one actually kanji appears, the character ‘ryō’, which translates as understanding or enlightenment). These brush and ink drawings are frequently accompanied by handwritten texts, often partly obscured by the brushstrokes, and unobscured transcriptions of the same.

Some of the texts are self-written, but many are quotes from writers who clearly mean a lot to Selland: Celan, Dostoevsky, William Watkin, Walter Benjamin, Wittgenstein, Nishida Kitaro, Hannah Arendt and Adorno. These texts tend to circle around ideas of the self, representation in language, and doubt. For me, the key text is Selland’s own:

One’s aloneness
is always spoken

I have been
Thinking about this
For a thousand years

This sense of the solitary figure is mirrored in the drawings, which even though they are abstracts, show stylised solitary figures in a kind of dynamic stasis, until the last two, which I read as one becoming two. Given that Selland is at pains in his introduction to underscore that his notebooks are concerned with process, not product, it’s probably wildly incorrect to think in terms of these drawings as representing any kind of resolution, but being visually semi-illiterate, that’s how I read them. One way or another, these pages shared here are full of interest and well worth reading, and rereading.

Billy Mills, Recent Reading January 2024: A Review

I recently finished reading Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative by Jane Alison, a series of essays that considers the structure of written narratives in fiction, mostly in novels. Alison’s background context is the Western-developed Aristotelian dramatic arc, that “exposition/rising action/climax/falling action/denouement” plot that generally follows chronologically. She then examines several novels, modern and contemporary ones mostly, that don’t adhere to the classic structure.

I’ve read some of the books she looks at, and have decided to put others she mentions on my to-read list, but mostly what I took away from her text is my own recognition that poets have been varying structures for a very long time. I don’t mean just the patterning difference between, say, a sonnet and a pantoum or free verse but a poem’s narrative structure, its approach to chronology, imagery, argument, world-building, and more. When I was reading, I thought of examples of poems that spiral, meander, make wavelets, are fractal in nature, or explode (to use some of Alison’s terminology).

In particular, the cellular or networked ‘form’ of storytelling seems basic to poetry–each cell a room or stanza, interlocking or sitting nearby with space around each one. The space connects as well as makes gaps, leaves room for reflection and recombined connections and new patterns; sometimes the stanzas float like little blocks on the page (or screen)…interrupting the narrative and enhancing it as well. Poetry’s narrative is often collage-like, and I notice this aspect in some newer novels as well–but I read much more poetry than fiction these days. Maybe it’s time to plunge into more novels again? At any rate, Alison’s book has made me reflect on narratives, lyrical narratives, literary structure. Maybe even the structure of a new manuscript? (I ought to get to work on that.)

Ann E. Michael, Patterns

A friend in my writing group and I were discussing yesterday why we want to get books published. He writes fiction, I poetry. I accept I’ll never make any money from my poetry, but he’d like to see some return. At least, not lose money trying to get his books published. He’s self-published but now wants to try magazines and other publishers.

Traditional publishing has changed a lot since I worked in it. He was talking about rights, that fantasy and sci-fi writers don’t have their rights protected anymore. I have no experience in fiction, but I’m not surprised. Big publishers have control of the market and little publishers just try to get by and get noticed.

In poetry publishing, it’s become more and more that the poet does most of the publicity and sales. Small publishers expect you to pay for various services. Often they don’t edit the collection. 

And yet, I still want to be published. To be considered part of the scene, to be considered good enough.

Gerry Stewart, Submission Stats 2023 – Why Try?

When you’ve known someone for almost a decade, you can rarely shock them. The other night, as we were getting ready for bed and Game of Thrones, J rolling a joint, me moving the cats out of the way that are always perturbed at giving up prime spots, he joked about taking his art seriously (the rolling technique) and I laughed loudly and said I never took anything, least of all art, seriously. This seemed to surprise him, which got me thinking about how artists (writers, what have you) should never take things too seriously, since seriousness seems the antithesis of art. And truly, it didn’t occur to me til I said it out loud in that conversation that you CAN’T take yourself too seriously, otherwise it will make you want to cry. Or quit. Or die.

I think maybe there was a time of taking poetry too seriously. Not necessarily the game of it, which was writing, so of course it should bring joy, but the rules of the game of it. The things you are supposed to do or very much not supposed to do as you conduct yourself in the world as a writer. This led to much angst and much vitriol leveled at things that seemed unfair or unjust or just wonky in the publishing world. It played out in real-life conversations with writers in bars or over dinner, on social media, on this very spot you sit. And even the actual writing is perhaps dangerous to take too seriously. It cuts you off from a sense of WTF and WHY NOT?  Some of the best writing I’ve done were projects, like the James Franco pieces more than a decade ago, where I gave my self permission to not care. To not look so heavily with an eye toward making “ART” and yet, they were perhaps some of the truest, most artful writing I’ve done. 

Kristy Bowen, not so serious fun

A few months ago, I had probably my most meaningful speaking engagement of the year. Was it on book tour for my memoir? No, though that was wonderful. Was it giving a presentation for Creative Mornings? No, though I had a great time doing that. This pep talk begins in a high school auditorium full of fifth graders. My son Rhett was one of them.

When the district reached out and asked me to present on word play and word choice to all of the fifth-grade classes in the district, to dovetail with their ELA unit, I first asked my son if it would be awkward or weird for him. I wouldn’t have agreed to do it without his okay. He said, “No, that’s cool. Whenever you talk, you’re usually out of town, so it’ll be fun to see you do it.”

Okay then! No pressure!

The kids were terrific—they listened, laughed, wrote quietly when I gave them a generative writing activity, enthusiastically volunteered to share, and shot their hands in the air when it was time for Q&A. They asked about where I get my ideas, and what my next book is about, and when I started writing poems.

And then one girl up front asked, “Did anyone ever try to stop you?”

Wow. Talk about a pointed question. This is what I told her, in so many words: “If anyone has tried to stop me, it’s been that little voice in my head that says I’m not good enough, or no one will care what I have to say, or my idea isn’t very interesting. And my job is to turn down the volume of that little voice—the ‘inner critic’ we sometimes call it—and believe in myself and keep going. And I hope you do that, too.”

I didn’t know what the takeaway would be for them, but I found out a week or so later when my son came home with a huge envelope of bundled homemade thank-you cards from each school.

Maggie Smith, Pep Talk

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It’s the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: “From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!”  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 

Rachel Barenblat, Old hope

Hubble tells us nothing is lost, not even
what’s distant, or dead. It waits to be seen,
patient as a book.
You remind me, hot sauce,
how wisdom ferments. How
we live into other forms. I give thanks
as I pour your marvels back into wide-awake soil.

Laura Grace Weldon, Spicy Story

how do you
prevail through your own smallness?
i do not know. sometimes i live
whole weeks inside a pill. i’m someone else’s
100% daily value of degeneration.
take me to where the acorns go
to talk about god. i want to know what
they believe in that spurs some of them,
still, & despite everything, to decide
to become trees.

Robin Gow, supplement

Don’t worry if you feel a little joy in a dark and decrepit and terrifying time. Don’t worry about feeling joy, it’s not likely to stay too long, it won’t cling to you endlessly.

W.S. di Piero talks about having coffee in a cafe in San Francisco which suddenly transports him to Bologna twenty years prior. He begins his reminiscence, “The things of the world, their chancy stirrings, all in motion, as the Soul is in motion in the world.” He goes on to talk about joy: “What is this joy, so irrational and plain it makes me want to weep, to be here with these words of book and voice with the taste of the cities and the sound of the bells?” Whatever it is, he says, “the whole of it is what is merely given.”

Don’t worry if your irrational joy makes you want to weep. Whenever it arrives, it is what is merely given. It’s that splendid, that special, and filled with light.

Shawna Lemay, Finding Your Joy

2 Replies to “Poetry Blog Digest 2024, Week 5”

  1. The juxtaposition of Maya Popa with Kristin Berkey-Abbott (how do we know if what happens to us is good / that job loss led to this beginning) really landed with me. Also the juxtaposition of my bit with Laura Grace Weldon’s lines about Hubble and how nothing is lost. Wow.

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