Poetry Blog Digest 2024, Week 12

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: meaning in fog, emergency language, an inconvenient cemetery, a home make-under, World Poetry Day, the spring equinox, and more. Enjoy.

Today is the 21st anniversary of starting this blog, and it’s also the spring equinox…seeing the snow that fell overnight, I’m tempted to contemplate spring rather than the reasons why I continue to keep this space. However, looking up at these objects on my desktop, all of which represent parts of my writing journey, a few words come to mind.

With all the changes that have happened during the last two decades, both in my personal life and in our world, The Cassandra Pages has always felt like home. My home, as a space for working out my own thoughts, but also a place of hospitality where I could open the doors and welcome you, my readers and friends. In that respect, it’s very much like an extension of the home that we all carry inside ourselves throughout life. That indestructible home continues in spite of physical displacement, changes in our life situation and in our bodies, the loss of people dear to us, pain and suffering as well as joy, changes in society and the world. And it provides a ground and a center for that private awareness of ourselves moving inexorably through time: shedding, learning, pondering, understanding, letting go. I’m not who I was 21 years ago, and I’m also the same person. It’s a mystery, and also utterly natural, even if it’s difficult to understand or put into words.

Writing this blog has helped me follow myself and the world more consciously and more intentionally, and, unlike a journal, it’s been a way to do that in company. The rewards have been friendship, and also the sense that I’ve sometimes been able to give something meaningful or helpful. The longer and more reflective blog form has always felt more suitable for me than social media, and now, with more than a decade of the latter having altered society and our own lives in innumerable ways, I feel this even more strongly.

Beth Adams, Cassandra’s Blog Day

Yesterday I charged my dead reMarkable. I am ready to write poetry again, despite the chemo-induced fog I’m still experiencing.

A person can find meaning in fog. It can be very soothing actually, fog filling the little depressions in the landscape. Depression is the actual scientific name for places where the fog gathers here on the Jæren bogs. No metaphor intended. All truths converge at some point – maybe language with the landscape especially. […]

Someone will read Billy Collins’ The Lanyard at B.’s memorial service next week. It didn’t surprise me to see it in the program. It’s her favorite poem. She told me a few times. But until I saw it in the program, I didn’t think it could be a metaphor for what we try to do with our lives – in her case – a life that is a gift from God. I’m feeling a bit foolish now for not having seen it before. But I think we all have our blinders when it comes to possible perspectives: our biases, our traumas, our investments.

I am not invested in mother poems. Or God poems. But I should be invested in opening up to the perspective of people I love. I think I need to start looking to understand what other people see in the poems I first think “aren’t for me”. It is embarrassing to admit, but I’m not very good at this.

Ren Powell, Embracing the Fog Creatively

“You must provide
a chapel
for those who wish
to worship it,”
they said.
“You must nourish it
with costly food,”
and: “It is meant
to ruin you.”
I was ashamed
of its gawky
its very rarity.
It lumbered
in my nightmares,
in its fragility,
as a dead

Kristen McHenry, Orchid

It was all going so well. I’d set myself the challenge of writing a quick post while the cake I am making is in the oven. I just had to finish blending the soup I was making (Turns out I was making the wrong soup according to my wife, but hey ho)….I turned around for a second and then heard the hand-held blender, the jug of unblended soup and the jug of blended soup crashing to the floor I had mopped a few hours ago. I am not ashamed to say that language was used. The wonderful poet (check out his latest at the FRIP) Christopher James described my language as “emergency language” on Friday when I commented on his poem. I like that.

Mat Riches, No use crying over spilt soup

My poem “Inconvenient Cemetery” was just published in a British poetry anthology called Enclosure, exploring how we partition land for the public good or private use. It’s available on Amazon, and has a wonderful selection of poetry. Here’s my contribution, previously published in Red River Review.

Inconvenient Cemetery

At a corner where two 6-lane highways cross
lies a 32-soul cemetery. 
Bindweed crawls on crooked markers
reading Beloved Mother, Cherished Child
Too Soon Gone, R.I.P. George Lindstrom 1842-1905.

Around it sprawls a shopping mall
with Neiman Marcus and Forever 21.
Home Depot is across the street
and a Landmark 12 Screen Cinema’s nearby. […]

Sarah Russell, Enclosure

Happy World Poetry Day! I’m almost always reading a poetry collection and right now it’s Life on Earth, Dorianne Laux’s newest.

I’ve been a fan of Dorianne’s work for quite a few years and have had a few interactions with her on what used to be Twitter. She has graciously allowed me to use lines from her poems in some of my own work such as this Creative Nonficton piece published in Love in the Time of Covid Chronicles that I wrote during the early days of the pandemic. Her poetry speaks to me because it’s about the joy and tragedy of everyday life, the hard work and love of relationships, as well as some really great pop culture pieces such as this favorite of mine that I share often. Her poem “Cher” spiked my memories of Cher as a teen growing up in the 70s, watching the Sonny and Cher Show religiously. It inspired a paragraph in my flash fiction piece Hot, Cold, & Blue published in and nominated by Still: The Journal for Best Small Fictions 2022 – and ultimately chosen for that anthology. I was thrilled since it is a favorite piece of mine. So, Dorianne has been an inspiration and I buy every book she publishes. Life on Earth doesn’t disappoint – every poem is a gem and right up there with her other stellar work.

Charlotte Hamrick, World Poetry Day

I played basketball in high school and at one point in my early twenties was so in love with weight training. I really found some poetry in it, honestly. If it had been even in existence in my youth I would have loved to have played women’s hockey. (My uncle had played pro hockey and that just seemed like such a dream game). So while I haven’t been into sports for a very long time, I still get why people are into them.

We recently watched Quirke on Kanopy (free with your library card). And it’s probably something I wouldn’t have ordinarily tuned into but we cancelled all our streaming services ages ago to save money, as one does these days, and once in a while just need to zone out and watch something. It turns out Quirke was based on the novels by John Banville — he writes his crime novels under the name Benjamin Black. And so I came across (on wikipedia) a quotation by Banville that I have been pondering:

“His typical writing day begins with a drive from his home in Dublin to his office by the river. He writes from 9 a.m. until lunch. He then dines on bread, cheese and tea and resumes working until 6 p.m., at which time he returns home. He writes on two desks at right angles to each other, one facing a wall and the other facing a window through which he has no view and never cleans. He advises against young writers approaching him for advice: “I remind them as gently as I can, that they are on their own, with no help available anywhere.” He has compared writing to the life of an athlete: “It’s asking an awful lot of one’s self. Every day you have to do your absolute best — it’s a bit like being a sportsman. You have to perform at the absolute top of your game, six, seven, eight hours a day — that’s very, very wearing.”

The trouble with the picture Banville paints, is that most writers have to also squeeze in a job or two, family, cleaning the house, making dinner, etc. But I still think he’s correct about thinking about your writing as an athlete would training. The trick is to never let yourself go, keep your focus. Keep the writing muscle in good shape. Do your drills, watch the game videos, learn, learn, learn. Push yourself. Don’t get distracted. Of course for writers, this translates maybe to: read voraciously but choose carefully, (read like a writer), write something every day, do your warm-ups, open your file. Actually write. Don’t talk about it endlessly, don’t just wish you were writing, don’t talk about how you wish you had more time to write. Don’t squander your time. Don’t squander your soul, your energy, your words, your dreaming. Don’t go to writing retreats to meet other writers. Don’t bother with courses, or visits to the writer in residence, don’t ask for advice — no one knows what the fuck they are doing really anyway because each book is a whole new thing. Get alone, and get cool with that. Also, find your people, find your community, but do not waste your (or their) time.

Shawna Lemay, Spring Training for Writers and Other Creatives

Fortunately, to take my mind off things, I got an ARC of Loving Sylvia Plath: a Reclamation by Emily Van Duyne. If you felt like maybe Red Comet left out some details, you’re right, it did! But this book explores more than unpublished letters and medical documents which Van Duyne carefully researched, it re-raises the idea of respecting Sylvia Plath’s work and reclaiming the reputation that was sullied not only by her husband, Ted Hughes, but also mountains of critics (who were mostly ex-boyfriends!) and just that feeling that you’re a silly, emotional girl for liking Plath’s work, which the new critics were out there saying for years. You’ve been gaslit, dear reader! And this book shows the exact path to how critics, terrible husbands, and so-called friends of Plath’s went about belittling Plath’s legacy and her fans.

If Plath made a terrible decision marrying Hughes and leaving America (and her support system) behind, this book made me realize just how few resources she had and how little people who could have helped her, did. It also made me value my friends and family more, because when you get yourself in a tight spot, it helps to know someone—as many someone’s as possible—have your back. This is not to belittle Plath’s mental illness, or explain how she was some kind of saint, but it does highlight the practical ways women still have to fight to be supported, to be taken seriously, to be heard.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Happy Palm Sunday! A New Poem in the Shore, Under the Weather Reading Sylvia Plath (and Parents in the Hospital), and Finding a Way Forward

Have any of you heard of the poet Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. Sarah Piatt (1836-1919) was a highly accomplished American poet who was widely published during her life but who, until recently, had been forgotten/lost to readers and scholars alike. She’s one of the women poets who has benefitted from recovery projects such as the ones undertaken by Second Wave feminists in the latter decades of the 20th century, though Piatt’s recovery was more recent.

Piatt grew up in a blueblood family on a plantation outside Lexington, Kentucky, and several of her poems interrogate the institution of slavery and her personal implication in that institution. The persona she assumes in her poetry is not the conventional naïf or simple and virtuous wife and mother, but a sexually mature woman with her own history, her own desires, her own thoughts: In short, a fully-formed person.

Likewise, Piatt’s poems often imbue domestic landscapes with a complicated and unsettling atmosphere, steeped in American sins. For example, “A Child’s Party,” a narrative poem about a childhood memory at her grandmother’s home, reveals how every element of the domestic sphere under the institution of slavery—from the fine china, lace, and carpets to the children’s games—is infected with racism such that no one and nothing is innocent. The poem “The Funeral of a Doll”* contains a similarly eerie domestic atmosphere in its description of a funeral for the “waxen saint” of a girl, “Little Nell,” about whom the reader can never quite discern whether she is a doll-like girl, or an actual doll. In the process, however, the speaker emphasizes the smallness, daintiness, and femininity of the occasion so consistently (“She, too, was slight and still and mild”; “Her funeral it was small and sad”; “And there is no one left to wear/ her pretty clothes”) that the poem becomes saturated with irony and unease. By emphasizing the cuteness of the funeral rather than its grief, Piatt points at the trivialized lives of women and girls. 

Sarah Rose Nordgren, Women and Wilderness (2)

In her essay “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” (1972), Alice Walker explores the legacy of Black women artists (“artist” denoting who one is, rather than what one does) denied the material conditions needed to create the kinds of work we define as art (paintings, poems, essays, musical scores, novels, etc.). Writing about an anonymous Black woman who created a quilt that hangs in the Smithsonian, Walker states that she “left her mark in the only materials she could afford, and in the only medium her position in society allowed her to use.”

I read this essay not long before I became the keeper of Anna’s quilt. My great-grandmother was neither Black nor a slave, but like Walker’s ancestors, she lacked the kind of materials and position she would have needed to create traditional works of art. One day, remembering the essay, I began studying it for possible clues to the woman who’d created it.

Only then did I see that the placement of color and pattern was not random. Only then did I see that there had been an attempt to create something pleasing from a jarring array of fabrics. I thought I saw that the most subdued fabrics were at the outer edges, while the most vibrant—tomato reds, deep navies, thick white stripes and polka dots—were in the center of the quilt. I wondered if it had been a kind of self-portrait, if the young woman who had spoken sassily to her employer had remained alive inside the staid woman—my father’s Nana—she became.

I wrote a poem about the quilt, wanting to honor in her and her experience what Walker said her mothers and grandmothers had given to her: “the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see… .” I wondered what she might have created if, like me, she had been able to go to college and work and create with words.

And still I wrecked it.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Everyday Use

I feel a peculiar shame when people come round and tell me my house is clean.

“isn’t it immaculate”

“sorry, I just get really stressed if it’s messy”

“I wish could be organised”

“I wish I could leave the house without having to tidy everything up first but there we go”

Behold, yet another way to pit people against each other over things that don’t matter. I’m kind of irked that I’m writing about it if I’m honest. Whereas women of my nan’s generation and (crucially) class would whisper about those with less than immaculate houses, there’s been a shift to proclaim that those who choose to be neat are somehow failing – they are dull. Why is so much store placed on housework? Why do I feel I need to apologise for doing something that makes my life simpler and my mind more calm? […]

While “dull women have immaculate houses” sounds kind of liberating, it merely strengthens the idea that carrying out household tasks somehow correlates with our own worth. Sneering about a person being “immaculate” is the same as sneering about a person for being grubby. Both acts perpetuate the myth that we are somehow defined by the state of the kitchen floor or our whether we have shiny bath taps.

Shiny bath taps may not bring me the same joy as a writing a poem or seeing new shoots emerge from carefully tended soil, but for others they might.  Some days, shining the taps may be the only thing a person can do– and on that day, that bit of reflected light brings joy.

Kathryn Anna Marshall, Dull women have immaculate houses

I look around at my resoundingly not-fashionable home and yes, I’d like to replace the peeling linoleum and the falling-apart kitchen cupboards. I’d like to finally get the molding nailed in place instead of stacked in the basement. But I can’t imagine tossing out the memories embedded in the furniture, the art, the books, the dishes, even the Pyrex measuring cup so old its markings are no longer visible.

The things that mean something to us are uniquely embedded in our memories. […]

There’s too much to show you, but I’ll close by telling you about the spectacular nose at the start of this piece. It was carved by my brother when he was 13 or 14. It has always hung in my kitchen and is one of the things I’d save if there was a house fire.

In a world of crass materialism, appreciating what we have isn’t just about frugality or simplicity. It’s about quiet satisfaction found in meaning and memory. Things made with “wakened hands,” as D.H. Lawrence wrote, “are awake with transferred touch, and go on glowing for long years.”

Laura Grace Weldon, Home Make-Under

Something apocalyptic lurks in the background of my thinking this morning.  I like the idea of linking hobbies that we see as evoking a cozy domesticity to larger societal collapse–I have always loved that juxtaposition.

I also like the idea of something that most people see as useless–embroidery, for example–to some larger skill that will be needed in the future.  The woman who can embroider will be able to suture your skin together when the emergency room has collapsed when the power grid went down.  Too much?

I only have a few hours left of Quilt Camp, so let me return to fabric arts today–back to art with words tomorrow.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Domestic Arts and Societal Collapse: An Overview

Once, what came before the trucks
with their sacks of flour,
before the bread to be baked
and then heaped with hummus,

before the fattoush salad,
the soups of lentils and fava beans,
the eggs or chicken,
the copper pitchers of sous,

was the anticipation of taste,
the clarity of a satisfied stomach,
eyes delighting at the sight
of knafeh and date-filled ma’mool.

It is four forty-five a.m.,
the morning of February 29,
and the trucks arrive.

So, too, do the soldiers.
Look: they are anywhere,
even everywhere,
the aid trucks are.

But these soldiers,
they make no exceptions
for the food-deprived.
They feel the hunger.

Maureen Doallas, Flour Massacre (Poem)

Ugh, reading the news again. I turn away. I can’t turn away. I turn away. Reading the newspaper on my computer screen sometimes I catch a glimpse of something on the screen.

Startled, I say, wait, what am I looking at? Is that a double image in that photo from some war front?

No, it’s me, in reflection on the screen. A trick of light and angle.

I’m in it. Of it. And not. It has nothing to do with me. It has everything to do with me. What do I do with it all? How to respond? I’m sure we all feel a little of that. I hope we do.

Anyway, that sort of cognitive dissonance makes me think of this unforgettable poem by Yusef Komunyakaa called “Facing It.” Although it’s of a specific place and experience, I think it is exactly what I’ve been feeling, this sense of being outside and inside the world, part of and apart. Confusing things for other things, being with actual people and with ghosts. In it. Of it.

Marilyn McCabe, I’m a window

When I write poetry, for whom am I writing? Who is my intended audience?

This is a question I have only recently started asking myself. Perhaps it is different for novelists, or storywriters, or memoirists. Perhaps it is different if you seek to earn a living from your writing; but my answer, at least until a few weeks ago, would have been in the first instance I write for myself. I need to translate thoughts, feelings, memories, impressions, imaginings,  experiences, observations, into words and structures, driven partly, I think, by a compulsion to generate some sort of order and meaning out of chaos and confusion.

It continues to be a pleasant surprise when others read my poetry and relate to it in some way. My prime motivation for writing, however, is not a desire to be read. […]

In recent weeks I have […] ventured into a new genre, writing poems with a very specific constraint for an audience of one. At the beginning of every week my grandchild is given a list of ten spelling words to learn for a Friday test. This is a chore. My grandchild enjoys reading but is not enthused by practising how to write out the words with the correct spelling. In an attempt to make the learning process more interesting, I have been constructing poems that contain all the words on the weekly spelling list. I’ve sought to incorporate characteristic elements of children’s poetry: strong rhythm and rhyme scheme, a lively narrative and plenty of visual interest using stock images, emojis, font and colour. Humour and surprise are important too. Characters, events, and vocabulary are all chosen specifically to appeal to my solitary reader.

This is not my natural genre! However, the poems are fun to write, and have certainly given me insight into the craftsmanship required to create good children’s poetry. Most importantly, my audience of one has been appreciative of my efforts. My grandchild enjoys the poems, reading and rereading them over the course of the week. And the spelling test results have improved significantly! 

Marian Christie, Audience as Constraint

I’ve been thinking a lot about why we do what we do. To be clear, I’ve been thinking about my work because I’ve been answering questions about it. What inspired you to write a children’s book? Why did you write a memoir instead of grappling with the same material in collection of poetry instead? What’s next for you? At a book festival last year, after I’d read fromYou Could Make This Place Beautiful and talked a little about it, someone in the audience asked, “Why write an emotional memoir?”

I think my eyes widened. I mean, I genuinely didn’t understand the question. So I asked, for clarification, “You mean, why take the heat? Why put yourself out there?”

“Yes, why did you do it?” This person wasn’t being confrontational. The question seemed to come from a sincere curiosity.

What might you say, if someone asked you why you wrote about your life?

I answered in the most succinct way I knew how: “Because I’m a writer.”

I didn’t say much more at the time—there were other hands raised—but I’ve been thinking about it. I could unpack the question the way I unpacked several anticipated questions in You Could Make This Place Beautiful:

I could say that I don’t write things just for me. I don’t keep a journal; I don’t write morning pages for my eyes only. If I write something down in one of my many, always-at-risk-of-being-misplaced notebooks or legal pads, or in the Notes app on my phone, or on a scrap of paper I have handy, or in the margins of a book I’m reading, my hope—and more than that, my intention—is that this idea, phrase, metaphor, or scrap of language will someday make it into a piece of writing I share with other people.

I could say that when I write, even if part of the purpose of to grapple with or puzzle over something myself, I’m always writing to the reader. For you.

I could say that writing is how I make a living. I could say that I can’t imagine anyone asking a professional baker, “Why not just bake things for yourself?” I could say that writing—whether it’s a book, an essay, a poem, or this newsletter—is how I keep the lights on, the water running, the fridge reasonably full. It’s how I pay for my kids’ clothes and shoes and extracurriculars. And it’s how I can afford to fix things in this hundred-year-old house when they inevitably break.

Maggie Smith, Pep Talk

At the end of December, 2023, I wrote a blog post about some writing goals I’d set for myself:

“I’m more interested in what’s to come, not what’s past. When I ask myself what I want to accomplish as a writer in 2024, the answers come back loud and clear. I want to take more risks in my writing, to challenge myself in what I write about and how I write it, and to help others with the same goals.”

Taking more risks, challenging myself—this reminded me of the Japanese word “shoshin,” which means “beginner’s mind.” It comes from Zen Buddhism, but the concept applies to any endeavor that requires effort and dedication: when we start to practice an activity, we lack preconceived ideas about it. It doesn’t matter if it’s horseback riding or running for public office: the idea applies equally to all pursuits. 

Something happens, however, as soon as we achieve even a small amount of proficiency. Our openness to new ideas narrows. The better we get, the more close-minded we become. When we rise to the level of experts, we are in danger of becoming conventional, of rejecting new and challenging ideas, and gradually sinking into obsolescence.

Erica Goss, Back to Beginner’s Mind

It is a truth universally acknowledged that to run a print literary magazine in the current climate of cost of living crisis, post brexit red tape and continuous reduction in arts funding, is to be slightly insane.

Spelt is a full colour print magazine which seeks to celebrate and validate the rural experience. We feature poetry, creative non fiction, poetry film author interviews and columnists.

In issue 09 we worked with an intern at York St John university whose interest was in children’s writing. We decided to devote a section to poems for children. It was a beautiful issue.

I founded Spelt magazine during the pandemic in 2020 with a £1600 crowd funded pot and a great deal of ambition. I felt there was a lack of non romanticised rural writing. When I looked for creative writing about rural life, nature, ecology etc, it was so often an observed act – a person moving to the countryside after living in a city, observing the difficulties of no buses past 6pm, the eccentric characters that lived in the village and the glorious, simple life of the rural; abandoning the grind of the hard city life for birdsong and grow-your-own. Rural life is glorious, but it’s not simple. It’s no more simple than anyone else’s life. When I looked for creative non fiction books about rural life, I found the same thing. There was a lack of creative writing about, and by, working class rural writers and rural people from minority groups, and rural people who lived rurally and had grown up rurally. I’m from a working class background myself and grew up rurally and didn’t see myself represented in the rural and nature writing that was out there.

Wendy Pratt, Notes from Spelt Magazine – The Impossibility of Producing a Print Literary Magazine

I can probably do better with
the broad bean seedlings:
after their tiny muscular heaves 

through the month’s wet earth
they are now shaking off their casings,
revealing their purpose. 

This is the truth of Spring,
its irrepressible pulse of growth, renewal.
What else can we believe in?

Lynne Rees, Poem ~ Searching for words (World Poetry Day 2024)

[I]t’s World Poetry Day on Thursday, 21 March. This year, the theme is ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’. More about World Poetry Day here. My own offering for the day is a postcard I made for World Book Night which features a poem, ‘The Sweet Arab, the Generous Arab’ by Palestinian-American poet Naomi Shihab Nye.

Josephine Corcoran, Informal Poetry Feedback Session with Trowbridge Stanza

I’m not sure I’ve ever really celebrated World Poetry Day, which was apparently adopted by UNESCO in 1999 with the aim of “supporting linguistic diversity through poetic expression and increasing the opportunity for endangered languages to be heard.” It’s held on March 21st each year, and this year in Eastbourne the indefatigable ‘Mister John’ who hosts a monthly poetry open mic is staging a special event on the theme of ekphrasis. The Hastings Stanza will well represented, and I’m taking along poems inspired by contemporary artworks by Anish Kapoor and Jann Haworth. […]

Reading poems based on artworks is tricky. If they’re famous paintings then at least some of the audience might be familiar with them. If not, do you spend five minutes explaining what it’s a picture of before reading the poem? What if the artwork is a piece of performance art? I’ve written something inspired by The House with the Ocean View by Marina Abramovic, but decided against reading it this week because explaining the artwork is too time consuming. Even with static art, ideally we would have a projector and be able to show it while reading the poem. But what if that’s not possible? I’ve opted for putting a copy of the art next to the poem, printing it out and taking a few ‘pass around’ copies with me. We’ll see how it goes.

Robin Houghton, On performing ekphrastic poems, Poetry Book Fair etc

The Qiu Jin translations include the ones shamefully used by the British Museum for their “China’s Hidden Century” exhibition, without credit or compensation. It was only by chance Wang discovered the use of her translations. It took two months for the museum to reach a settlement since the museum’s initial reaction was to take out the poems and translations as if they had never been used. Wang wanted the poems and translations reinstated with chance to check they were displayed correctly and to be credited and paid for her work. It is astounding, but sadly not surprising, that such an established museum could have budgeted and paid for the curation of the exhibition could overlook copyright of translations and then let the translator crowd-fund to take the museum to court. Translators’ work is often undervalued. It should not be. Based on data from “Publishers Weekly’s” Translation Database, of English translations of Sinophone poetry books published from 2008-2022, only 26% were written by women poets and 26% translated by women translators.

Emma Lee, “The Lantern and the Night Moths” Translator Yilin Wang (Invisible Publishing) – book review

Today. I doubt Hamburger would’ve wanted much fanfare, but I can’t let it pass.

His 2000 collection Intersections (‘Shorter Poems 1994–2000’) included, on facing pages, two of his loveliest poems, ‘Spindleberry Song’ and ‘Swans in Winter’. The final two quatrains of the first provide another example of Hamburger’s earth-rooted melancholy:

Fallen leaves, let them stay
Where they stopped, weighed down with rain.
From the season for lying low,
Get up if you can.

But time’s the mere measurement
Of motion, mutation in space.
Unbleeding though bare from this plant
Hangs the heart-shaped seed-carapace.

‘Swans in Winter’, though, is a beautiful affirmation:

Has their long marriage ended? On pastures separated
Less by our culvert than their chosen distance,
Composure that seems indifference to our eyes
While each unhuddled picks at low herbage, grasses,
Their slow necks rippling as though no fang, no weather
Could ever so much as ruffle the silk it wears.

I especially like that ‘unhuddled’, and how he presents it without commas either side, the effect of which is to change the word into a noun. Making nouns into adjectives (or verbs) is common poetic practice, but to do the reverse, other than by sticking a definite article in front, is, to my mind, very rare.

Matthew Paul, Michael Hamburger’s centenary day

            the widower has grown
a new beard

Grant Hackett [no title]

Winter is kicking us in the teeth again. Of course it is. Spring always arrives in fits and starts, keeps us on our toes. It’ll be weeks before it’s safe to trust it up here in the Northeast. Like right now, for example. After a string of warm, sunny days, it’s been windy, frigid and snowy all week. And today? Slush and ice.

It’s a good day to stay inside and write, I suppose… except hiding out and writing is all I’ve been doing the last few months. That’s not a bad thing, but I am a little punch drunk from it.

I’ve been pushing hard since Christmas, and while it’s been fruitful in many ways — an assortment of new drafts, some good thinking on revisions — it feels very scattered. I can’t seem to direct my efforts and energy toward anything that looks like progress.

Ideas are expanding out instead of laser beaming themselves at a version 2.0 of the manuscript, which is what I’ve told myself I’m “supposed to” be doing. In fact, every edit I make seems to prove that version 1.0 is nothing more than a house of cards. Every gesture — the wild ones, the quiet ones — levels the whole thing.

Carolee Bennett, Hey, Mama, How’s That Poetry Manuscript Coming Along?

I am here to confess that I have been making everything hard. What brings on such a mood—a straitjacket twisting my arms up and bunching my shoulders so my muscles cramp—is often the newspaper, its heavy thump on the drive, the leaden headlines, the AP wire photographs of bombed buildings. From there it spreads, so that my life seems difficult. A daily walk becomes a burden instead of a gift. Instead of happily co-existing with my old dog, I begin worrying over him. Gratitude, another daily habit, is only one more chore.

In such a state, how lucky to have picked up this book by Nebraska poet Ted Kooser. From the back cover:

Great poetry, like Kooser’s, like Chekhov’s stories, is not sentimental, but it is characterized by a kind of tender wisdom communicated with absolute precision.
–Jonathan Holden, The North Dakota Quarterly

I have sung Kooser’s praises before, and so I won’t go on and on today (for two of them, see links here and here.) In brief, this book came about when Kooser was recovering from cancer surgery and radiation; he writes  in the short preface:

During the previous summer, depressed by my illness, preoccupied by the routines of my treatment, and feeling miserably sorry for myself, I’d all but given up on reading and writing. Then, as autumn began to fade and winter came on, my health began to improve. One morning in November, following my walk, I surprised myself by trying my hand at a poem. Soon I was writing every day.

He walked before first light—his oncologist had told him to stay out of the sun for a year—and each day he wrote a short poem, pasted it onto a postcard, and sent it to his friend, writer Jim Harrison. What could be simpler? And how lucky are we, to have the record of these poems, a whole chain of 100, stepping stones, or a daily prescription to be taken, each made of close observation and (often) dazzling metaphor.

Bethany Reid, Ted Kooser’s WINTER MORNING WALKS

I am aware that the above poem is, like all art, a product of a particular time and culture, and so is informed by important sub-texts. These days, I feel affinity with writers in general, regardless of whether I like their work. When I read something that is flagged up (often as ‘heart stopping’ or ‘breath-taking’) that isn’t to my taste, I generally don’t spend time wondering why others like them. ‘Good for you, best of luck,’ I tend to think, and move on to seeking out something I enjoy. This evening I started to focus on why this poem didn’t appeal to me, and I found myself writing this. It isn’t meant negatively. I get carried away sometimes…

Roy Marshall, A take

Before Combustion opens with a suite of poems that focus on the new moments of parenting, of fatherhood, offering such clear and quiet moments I haven’t seen prior around the subject, one I’ve also had the experience of enjoying three different times, three different ways: “I am the oldest / living thing // you know,” he writes, as part of “In the Beginning,” “an unshaven // bristlecone / bent over // your bed.” While there is an enormous amount of territory worth covering and recovering on parenting generally, the subject matter of fatherhood is still one that emerges with hesitation; a poem or two at most by any new fathers, perhaps, although there are exceptions [something I covered across 2012-3 in my four-part “Writing Fatherhood” essay over at Open Book, which Benjamin Robinson reminded me of recently].

Bradley’s Before Combustion is a collection sectioned into quarters, with the opening cluster of poems focusing on that newness of life, that newness of expansion, becoming and being. As the two-page poem “Waiting Room” begins: “Your third night alive / I drove home // from the hospital / to find sleep // and left you sleeping / those few hours. // In darkness, having / forgotten // everything but food, / water, and how // to keep you fed, clean, / and quiet, // I entered the house / a stranger // and failed to notice / the oak leaves // letting go.” In certain ways, the entire collection is centred around that opening moment of new life, new fatherhood, echoing the way one’s entire world compresses into a single, singular moment at the birth of one’s first child, slowly rippling out a return to the world but with an entirely new perspective, an entirely new lens. The poems of Bradley’s Before Combustion begin with new life, but slowly do edge out into that return, offering graceftul turns of phrase and line-breaks and short phrases, each of which do provide a slowness, requiring deep attention, even through poems such as “There Must Be 50 Ways of Looking / at Mountain Goats on the Internet,” that begins: “Stoned, blindfolded, one /goat dangles above / a second, horns / sheathed, four / ankles bound / and then four more, / rhyming quatrains.” In certain ways, each section provides its own impulse, less leading up to combustion than reacting to a change or changes so life-altering they seem akin to an explosion. Or, as he writes to open the poem “Parable of the Drought”: “Not the end of the world but the onset / of another.”

rob mclennan, Nicholas Bradley, Before Combustion

In this deceptively simple poem, we hear not the thrush’s song in the abstract — not just a thrush singing — but its content, what the thrush is actually singing about. This is the first poem in a book of odes, and the songbird as a figure for the poet is of course a traditional motif: that is partly the force and irony of the repeated ‘familiar things’. We are used to encountering singing birds in lyric verse.

For any twentieth-century reader, the most obvious connection here is surely to Hardy’s ‘Darkling Thrush’, whose ‘ecstatic sound’ in the bleakest of landscapes seem inexplicable to the speaking voice of the poem, forcing him to conclude that the bird must have access to ‘some blessèd hope, whereof he knew / But I was unaware’. Like Bunting’s thrush in the thunderstorm (‘From a shaken bush’), Hardy’s bird is ‘blast-beruffled’. Hardy had recently turned 60 when he wrote ‘The Darkling Thrush’ in 1900, the year of Bunting’s own birth, and the ‘agèd thrush’ suggests the poet himself, reflecting on why he sings and of what, and on what kind of knowledge is involved in writing poetry.

Bunting’s relationship to the darkling thrush is ironic. Hardy imagines that some kind of hope must ‘tremble through’ the thrush, and Bunting’s poem starts and end from the perspective of the interpreting observer, from as it were Hardy’s perspective (‘O gay thrush!’), but he answers Hardy’s poem by purporting to record what the bird is actually singing about: not some powerful but intangible hope or ‘joy illimited’ but death; hunger; lust; ‘familiar things’.

Victoria Moul, One poem

If you follow me on social media, you know that fairly regularly I throw up a plea that people who run conferences or reading series or just any old writerly opportunity consider inviting writers from Alaska to take part. I mean, there are so many writers in Alaska, and we so rarely have those doors opened for us. I want to stress that this lack of opportunity has nothing to do with how talented writers in Alaska are; it simply has to do with the fact that we don’t have the same ability to make connections. Or, as I’ve been told a couple times now, travel is expensive from Alaska (not that most of us wouldn’t use some of our huge stash of air miles to teach at your conference or appear in your reading series). 

All this to say, Michael Mercurio, a poet and editor who lives in Massachusetts, asked me if it might be possible to put together an all Alaska poet edition of the What The Universe Is: A (Virtual) Reading Series that he curates and runs. And of course, I jumped. I thought of two poets, Peggy Shumaker and Annie Wenstrup, that continually astound me with the depth of their work. There was some back and forth about what to read and how to read, but the whole process was so smooth and downright fun! 

Let me share the video of the reading and also say See, that wasn’t so hard; Alaskans show up for these opportunities. To all the people who attended the reading and to all the people who might take a bit of time now to watch the video of it, thank you. Thank you for your support of poetry in the world. And to Michael Mercurio, thank you so much for your taking a chance on us and for contributing rich readings of our work and making us all so comfortable and taken care of. Thank you for not only opening the door, but for bringing us right across the threshold into a beautiful event.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Grateful for an open door

It’s been a busy week that began with seeing The Penelopiad at the Goodman, which was just the sort of female epic I would have loved to have seen when I was working on the Persephone poems. There were quite a few other movies, including a French movie where people inexplicably turned into animals (The Animal Kingdom), some monster-laden Korean sci-fi (The Host), and the remake Suspiria, which was as confusing and dream-like as I remember from watching it before. In between there were late night diner meals, lots of writing, and slow, but productive, mornings. 

In this last week or so of March, I am gearing up for April, which seems odd to call a national poetry month, since every month is poetry month round here, but it gets an undue amount of attention each spring. April is always a month of note for me with my birthday and in general, just a new momentum as the weather changes and days get longer. I am still waffling over which of a few ideas for series I want to tackle to start off NaPoWriMo, which I always have mixed feelings on. Not the daily writing, of course, but more the daily posting, which feels like dropping a dime into a deep well and never hearing it hit bottom. I post a lot of work, usually after it’s had some time to gel and gain its footing. Those new drafts can be rougher, and infinitely more vulnerable. And it’s all shouting into a void, a void that gets more echoey during April. However, some of my favorite series have had a birth or been completed in Aprils past. 

Kristy Bowen, notes & things | 3/23/2024

At the beginning of 2024, I had grand plans for my submitting my poetry to journals across the world. I would write and submit every single month, update my submission spreadsheet regularly, not delay in resubmitting work when the inevitable rejections came through. etc. etc. How’s that going for me? Well, I did submit work to 4 journals in January then wrote a submission for an arts grant in February, and haven’t submitted anything since! I planned to get back into this month and was all set to submit to Westerly Mag but I didn’t bcs I wrote the wrong date in my diary & missed the deadline LOL. Truth is, I suck at these kinds of plans, and I know I suck at them, so why do I persist in the planning?

I think it has to do with intention and process. Firstly, intention. It’s a little trick of the mind. I know that if I intend to submit to 3 journals every month, then I’ll submit to 3 journals some months (maybe 3 or 4 months in the year), and I’m okay with that. I don’t always get published, but when I do it’s a good little dopamine hit. I love seeing my work in context with other writers & artists. I really am blown away by the number of excellent writers, poets & artists in the world. […]

Secondly, submitting work is about process. I spoke to another poet recently who said it takes her all day to prepare and submit poetry for a journal. I understand. Sometimes the guidelines for formatting are fiddly and it takes time to check and re-check that you’ve got em right. But it’s also lovely to spend a whole day with your poem/s. I know they’re not babies or children (I kinda hate that comparison), but the spit and polish we apply at the submission stage is a tender act. Even when we send a poem out that we know is not ready, it lives in our bodies, our thoughts & emotions and we hope that it receives a soft landing, even if we did send it out in a cardy when it really needed a coat. Or sumthin.

Caroline Reid, POETS, How Might Submitting Your Work Work For You?

drive me home wordlessly.
here is the way i conjure a broken world.
tell me, what do you know
about mending. when i say,
“here is the fault line i am sewing”
then you know i really mean it.
i do not want to need a cipher
but there are crickets awake now
& they are speeding up time.

Robin Gow, i’ve been telling everyone “i’m sorry”

“Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Whitman, who called himself a kosmos and believed of “the true poems” that “whom they take they take into space to behold the birth of stars.”

Shortly after Whitman returned his borrowed stardust to the universe, when quantum mechanics made it impossible to take seriously the image of the atom as a miniature solar system of electrons orbiting a nucleus but no one yet knew what image to replace it with, quantum pioneer Niels Bohr told quantum pioneer Werner Heisenberg:

When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry. The poet, too, is not nearly so concerned with describing facts as with creating images and establishing mental connections.

Another half century later, after we had split the atom and split the world, James Baldwin insisted that poets are “the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.” And if the truth, the elemental truth, is that we are matter yearning for meaning — “atoms with consciousness,” in the poetic words of the physicist Richard Feynman — then poetry, this supreme instrument of self-knowledge, is the mirror consciousness holds to the cosmos.

That is what poet, translator, and Chinese literature scholar David Hinton explores in Awakened Cosmos: The Mind of Classical Chinese Poetry (public library) — an inquiry into poetry as spiritual practice, lensed through the life of Tu Fu: a man of uncommon depth and breadth of spirit, who lived as an impoverished wanderer through a civil war in the eight century to become China’s greatest poet.

Maria Popova, Awakened Cosmos: Poetry as Spiritual Practice

I’m sorry, I don’t know, I’m not from here.
Well, certainly, you could try following the blue railings.
I think it’s a long way, it might take some time, maybe.
Yes, if you keep walking I’d say you’ll get there by Monday.
Perhaps even Sunday night if you don’t mind the dark.
But then I’ve been here four days and recognise little.
I’ve seen that blue building over there before.
And that blue bus. Yes, yes, I know it’s all blue.
The whole town, the road, the pavement, the park.
Even when it’s cloudy the sky is blue, too, yes.
As I said, I don’t know. I’m not from here.


And we talk about Orkney, how the darkness came without warning, the way we clumsily tangoed through my grief (which was the sore, raw, pulpy blue of a bruise) every night to the songs of Carlos Gardell in my father’s dusty workshop surrounded by bald, white, un-glazed vases and death masks and raku bowls and jars of pigments.

We talk about how, despite all the whiskey and the weeping, we almost remembered the dance in the morning, how, some nights we slow-danced together in our dreams.

We talk about how we kept missing the bright blue, electric green, flashing, pulsing, peep show of the Aurora Borealis because we were too tired, because I was too blue, because I needed to dream of other colours for a while.

We talk about the way we made a bed up on the floor of the damp caravan, angled the pillows so that we could see the sky before we slept. tried to rename the constellations to match our moods and drifted off with sharp, bright lines of stars glowing on our tongues.

We talk about that snowy dawn in May when  you dragged me down to the harbour in my pyjamas and wellies, to hear the seals singing, to see jellyfish, the colour of Turkish Delight, wobbling amongst the deep, green dulse on the strandline.

And you say this blue I’ve brought you is the colour of a robin’s egg.

And I say this blue you’ve brought me is the colour of contentment. If I’d known before, this is the kind of blue I’d have asked for.

Gaia Holmes, My kind of blue

Leave the silence to the earth.
It learns quietness from the
countless graves in its womb.
There are scenes behind the
scenes. There are things in
motion behind the things that
cannot move. Like flowers.
Human, write of flowers that
yearn for graves and hair and
homes and the slight breeze
that said, perfumed, look, there
is love behind love, look, there
was a lover behind the lover.

Rajani Radhakrishnan, Write Right…

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