Economy, ecology, and trees

A quick post to point readers to three exciting things happening today:

  • Qarrtsiluni announces the theme of its summer issue: Economy.

    Whatever medium you choose to work in, be it words, photography, music or video, make economy earn its keep to deliver a piece that nails thought, character, place or plot. As Anne Carson wrote in Economy of the Unlost, “Economy is a trope of intellectual, aesthetic and moral value.”

  • The Clade — a brand-new group environmental blog — spreads its wings.

    Who are our contributors? You are. The whole point of this experiment in reinventing environmental journalism is to put you behind the wheel. You need not be a journalist, nor an expert, nor an activist: if you care about the environment and you have something to say, we want you on board.

  • The Festival of the Trees celebrates Beltane at Orchards Forever.

    Beltane was originally a fertility festival, and what better inspiration for love and romance than trees festooned in delicate, fragrant blossoms?

Binding words

This entry is part 3 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


Publishing houses that will print poetry are almost extinct (I know Dave B. Porcupine would argue that so are readers of poetry), yet the numbers of people writing poetry seem to have grown at an equal or greater rate. Some of them self-publish online or at print-on-demand shops like, but there can be a considerable cost to doing even small numbers in this way.

Just to get a bit low-tech on you for a second: you can hand-bind books yourself.

Through coverWhen a poet friend, Rachel Barenblat, had a miscarriage earlier this year and worked her way through the trauma and grief by writing poetry, yet wondered how to make these poems available to others going through a similar experience, I suggested a small hand-bound edition. Ten poems, title page, table of contents, acknowledgments: this adds up to 15 pages, plus one blank at the back. The magic 16. (Bookbinders think in multiples of eight and get super excited when all the pages add up to multiples of 32…) We settled on a tall, skinny format which conveniently fit on a standard letter-size sheet, folded in half: a pamphlet.

How to do it

Get familiar with your printer, and with whatever software you use to produce sheets with your poetry on them. (I use Adobe InDesign because I’m a designer but you can do this quite adequately on a word processor.) Always make a dummy and number its pages and then unfold them, so you know where the poems are going to fall. And then put them all together before you run off large numbers to be sure it still works. You can use imposition software but it’s not necessary; what IS necessary is a good understanding of where each page is going to end up after folding. Automatic pagination is not your friend here.

Find the longest line of any of your poems and work backwards in the design of your page from that (if the line will be split, find the longest line that won’t). Try and leave a generous gutter/central space, which should almost never be smaller than the optical margin of the outside when the booklet is held open. Remember to leave a wider margin at the foot of the page than the top and outside margins, to avoid that sinking feeling.

Through middleIn terms of typography, remember that you can use a relatively small font size if you allow generous leading (interline spacing). Look at books of printed poetry and see what they do and what you like, and why, and what you don’t like, and why, and use those to guide your page design. Try and identify the character, the personality, of typefaces and match the character of your poetry. Less is usually more with typography… it is almost never a good plan to use more than two typefaces in a book of poetry (or much else), and if you are tempted to do this, ask yourself why. Let the poems sing for themselves rather than be tripped up by clunky type.

You can use a simple sheet as the cover or you can use different paper, or papers. You can do collage, you can paint on them, you can use photos. Experiment. You don’t have a publisher’s marketing department breathing down your neck! Just make sure that the grain of the pages matches the grain of the cover or it will buckle.

There are many online resources for bookbinding.

  • Short chapbooks can be bound with a simple pamphlet (figure 8) stitch.
  • A longer book can be done easily as a stab-bound (Japanese-style) book, where the folded edge faces the outside, not the spine.
  • Accordion-fold books are sculptural and lend themselves well to open display, though require a long sheet which may not work well in most printers — consider hand-lettering or cutting poems or stanzas out to stick to this format.

What you need

  • paper for text pages and cover
  • cutting board
  • metal ruler
  • utility or exacto knife
  • bone folder (optional, but this is a great tool)
  • awl or long needle to punch holes
  • needle for sewing
  • linen thread, silk ribbon, etc.

A better reader

Through last pageAs I folded the sheets for Rachel’s book, 176 in all, getting engulfed in the rhythm that comes from doing a repetitive task for love, I started seeing the same lines over and over. A different word would jump forward. I noticed connections within stanzas, within poems, across poems. In short, I was reading the poems in a different way. A better way. Binding poetry makes me a better reader. Try it; I think you’ll discover new things about your poetry — or someone else’s. And you’ll have a few hand-bound booklets to give or keep or even — gasp — sell.

—Alison Kent (Feathers of Hope and Bird by Bird)


Still to come in this series, I hope, are guest-written pieces on typewriters, Twaiku, Facebook update poetry, Second Life, and more. If you have an idea for an essay you’d like to contribute, let me know.


Highways and birds

Ten Poems About Highways and Birds by Sarah Bennett

One of the greatest things about being a blogger — aside from the fame and riches — is that sometimes people send me handmade things in the mail. Now and then someone sends me a book, too. Last week I got both in one package: Ten Poems About Highways and Birds, a new chapbook by Via Negativa reader Sarah Bennett. It’s definitely handmade: she told me she taught herself how to silkscreen just so she could do the covers, and the book appears to have been stitched on a sewing machine. It has a great kitchen-table vibe.

Sarah is blogless, so far as I know, and I first “met” her a year ago, when she began leaving comments on some of my tool odes. She emailed a poem that she’d written in response, “Advice to a Nail” (follow the link for a brief bio as well). Then a couple of weeks ago she’d emailed me to say she’d made this chapbook, and would like to send me a copy in return for all my blogging. Sure, I said. I don’t think she had any expectation that I would review it here, and in fact I had to write back for ordering info (see below) once I discovered that the book was, in fact, excellent. So the following is completely unsolicited, albeit influenced by our online friendship.

“Ten Poems About Highways and Birds” is a very unprepossessing title, I’ll admit, and ten poems may not seem like very much — there’s a lot of whitespace in this chapbook. But birds are, among other things, almost universal symbols of aspiration and beauty, and as for highways: they are perhaps the most inescapable and enduring expression of Americans’ passionate monologue with the land. I mean, obviously this isn’t the only nation with highways; it just happens to be one of the few modern nations where even the most fervent of conservationists is still at the mercy of the road system for basic transport. I am acutely aware of this myself since I don’t own a car. (Which can make it tricky to get to Audubon board meetings, as I’ll be doing tonight.)

All ten of the poems are indeed about either highways or birds, and many are about both. Bennett hails from eastern Massachusetts, and she told me that she used to have a long commute, and would often compose poems in her head and jot them down when she got to work, “a la Wallace Stevens (without the secretary).” In that respect, this book reminds me a little of Tom Montag’s distillation of poems from his Morning Drive Journal, The Sweet Bite of Morning, a somewhat longer chapbook published by Juniper Press in 2003. Where Montag is spare and often aphoristic, though, Bennett’s poems are each about a page long, and often pack considerable emotional punch.

In the opening poem, “Early Morning on Route 128,” vehicles and wildlife are seen to share a common destiny:

Crows commute, heads down,
their line of black Fords slow
but steady. A heron keeps his Bentley in low gear.

Are we talking about birds or people here? Bennett never tips her hand.

A page later, our attention is drawn to a “beautifully named” invader of the continent.

The flank of a very large animal occasionally
flexes above me, her curves
revealed as flocks of starling.

Some of the poems tackle more personal subjects. In “Eastbound on the Mass Pike,” Bennett and an unnamed companion are having a fight as they drive, and it’s all she can do to avoid “open[ing] the door / at 75 miles per hour” and bailing out.

Above us one large hawk
and another spin round each other, connected
by a quarter mile of nothing.

Roadkill is of course an unavoidable subject, mentioned in one poem and dealt with head-on in another. But I was even more impressed with the way Bennett relates driving to flying, as in “Aloft,” where a fragment of memory about a blackbird falling out of the sky is interwoven with a story about her mother being afraid that she would forget how to play the organ until she got to church, and the narrator herself confessing that driving was always like that for her — and that in some way it helped her to remember how to be human.

More than anything, I guess, that’s what I like about this book: it’s full of ambiguities. “Love Poem for a Barred Owl,” for example, might really be nothing more or less than that. For a reader with any knowledge of the environmental consequences of sprawl or the big-woods requirements of barred owls, the poem cannot fail to awaken longing and wistfulness.

You should not be
here. The dark fields you fly
over are filled with new
cellar holes and the forest is only trees

in peoples’ back yards.

But when the call recedes into the distance, even readers who know nothing about habitat loss would be forgiven for thinking that something more than fields have been hollowed out and filled with darkness.

My favorite poem in the book involves not birds but earth-bound wildlife instructing each other “On Crossing the Highway.”

Go at night.
It is easier
at night. They give off a light of
warning and
your feet won’t burn.

I particularly like the description of the median strip: “a tiny field full of / wind and roaring.”

The book ends as mysteriously as it began, with a poem involving “of all things a bluebird / in January.” I can’t really quote any more, because, as so often with understated poetry, you have to have read and absorbed the poems that precede it to fully appreciate its impact. As I’ve been typing this review, I’ve been watching of all things a snow squall in April, and thinking that anyone who pays attention to the natural world will have to become much more conversant with anachronisms and strange bedfellows in the years to come. Ten Poems About Highways and Birds is a great place to start.

Ordering info

Sarah writes:

The book costs $6.00, plus $1.00 for postage (I went to the post office today and checked, finally). People can send me a check for $7.00.

Sarah Bennett
47 Sampson Avenue
Swampscott, MA 01907

Or they can email me shbennett5[at]gmail[dot]com for more info.

Thanks, Sarah!


It sat down in my pool.
Swayed like a sapling.
Spoke to me in its dreams,
which were as plush as truffles
fruiting in the dark.
Luna, it said, Luna— as if I
were its pale progenitor.

Others of its kind boiled in & out
like tiny, earth-bound storms,
chewing with a fury,
& my cousins shook the mountain
when they came down.
My strange familiar clung to me
with its naked forelimbs & howled.

It had one short root with which
it communicated to others
of its kind, reaching through
the air somehow.
Where did it go, that larva?
Did it ever manage to spin
a real cocoon?

Legacy of Luna

Submissions for the next edition of the Festival of the Trees are due Monday — March 30. Details here.


Miscarriage: such an odd and innocuous word for such a potentially traumatic experience. As a single man in a male-dominated society, I’ve had the luxury of ignoring the reality of that experience for most of my life, aided by the fact that, for whatever reason, we don’t seem to have a way of really talking about it. Neither “pro-life” nor “pro-choice” rhetoric seems adequate for addressing the pain and loss that accompany a spontaneous, unwanted abortion. And what might it mean for a religious woman in particular? Job’s dilemma might come to seem all too familiar, I’m thinking.

I don’t know; obviously I’m way out of my depth here. But I had my eyes opened a little bit when my friend Rachel Barenblat — the Velveteen Rabbi — asked me to read the manuscript of a small collection of poems she’d put together, Through, which arose from her own experience with miscarriage in January. A month or so later I received a beautiful, handmade chapbook (y’all know how much I love chapbooks), and I asked Rachel how other people could get a copy, because it seemed important to start filling the language void about this virtually taboo subject. Here’s her answer. Rachel has generously made it available in three forms: as a free download, an at-cost print-on-demand bound copy, or a free audio edition. Please help spread the word.

This can’t have been an easy experience to write anything about at all, let alone to distill into ten brief, searing, and luminous poems. As with Rachel’s earlier chaplainbook, these are accessible poems with several different layers of meaning, so I think almost anyone who’s ever gone through a miscarriage will get something out of it. Which is not to say the audience should end there: miscarriage is a subject every bit as relevant and revealing of the human condition as warfare, for example. So why doesn’t it get more attention from writers and artists? As Rachel says in “Wordless Melody,”

There is no song
which asks why a soul

dips a toe in these waters
and then turns back

leaving a woman
bereft, bleeding.

But there is now. Go listen.

Spoil alert

Spoil: selected earlier poems by Dave BontaI spent entirely too much time today moving my old e-book Spoil off of and onto a sub-domain of this blog. The new address is I’d tell you to change your links and bookmarks, but I’m not sure anyone actually links to it.

I considered taking it down altogether, but I’m just too fond of the header image (which is by the multi-talented Lori Witzel) to let it go yet. And moving it should be good practice for moving Shadow Cabinet, whose contents I am slightly more invested in. That move will probably take even more time, because I’m not as wedded to the header image there, and therefore will be freer to play around with templates. I want to explore the available options for e-book presentation with a self-hosted WordPress installation so that we can do a good job with the electronic version of the winner of qarrtsiluni‘s first chapbook contest, which we expect to publish in November.

Why not just use Issuu, you may ask? Online flip-books are very cool looking, but I personally don’t find them as easy to read as regular webpages. More than that, though, I’m not willing to write off the visually handicapped, forgo search engine access, and deprive users of the ability to link to (and promote) specific poems. Issuu is great for print publications that just want to have something online — if you already have a nice-looking PDF, you don’t have to do anything further — but it would represent a step backward for a truly online magazine like qarrtsiluni. I also really admire good web design, and enjoy giving exposure to some of the more talented designers out there. (My new site Moving Poems represents, in part, my desire to do something with Oulipo, by Andrea Mignolo — the most attractive blend of minimalism, whitespace, and good typography in a free WordPress theme since Ulf Petterson’s Modern theme, if you ask me.)

That Old-Time Religion

I remember this one metalhead I used to know, guy
about my age, told me the first time he heard that Quiet
Riot song Bang Your Head on the radio, he was so impressed,
he fell to his knees in the middle of his suburban driveway
& began to smash his forehead against the asphalt
as hard as he could, & it was bleeding something awful
& his mother came rushing out & stopped him, yelling
What in God’s name do you think you’re doing, but little
did she know he’d just been saved. I was a metalhead
from that day on, he said. I almost passed out, but it felt
so good to just let everything fucking go. I saw stars.

A few good chaps


At qarrtsiluni, we’re looking for a few good chaps.

Why a chapbook? Regardless of what you call it, the fact is that a pamphlet-sized collection of poetry can be an astonishingly beautiful thing. It’s not just for emerging poets anymore; a poet at any stage of her career might find she has a collection of work too long for a featured section in a journal and too short for a full-length book. And a chapbook designed to be read in a single sitting offers a nourishing alternative to a magazine or newspaper. With roots in the 16th century, it’s the original sleek and sexy mobile device.

I don’t have nearly as many poetry chapbooks as I’d like, but the photo does give some sense of the variety in their production style: the sewn and the stapled, the offset and the xeroxed, the book-shaped and the pamphlet-shaped. This outer variety suggests something of the variety in their contents, as well. I suppose it might be no greater than the variety one encounters among regular books of poetry, but sometimes I do think chapbook publishers are a bit more tolerant of eccentricity, more willing to take risks with content than they’d be if they were publishing a full-length book, which after all is a bigger investment. I’ve found some of the most satisfying short collections of poetry housed in really cheap, copy-shop editions — such as Howie Good’s latest collection of prose poems, Tomorrowland, which has just been very well reviewed at One Night Stanzas. And if your taste runs to sonnets, you can’t do better than Water Signs, Katherine Durham Oldmixon’s thematically unified gathering of three sonnet chains, where the last line of one sonnet forms the first line of the next. This, by contrast, is a beautiful production (aside from a flubbed table of contents) from Finishing Line Press, which specializes in books of poetry up to 26 pages in length.

For qarrtsiluni‘s inaugural poetry chapbook, we’re hoping to marry good design — courtesy of Beth, who’s worked in design for three decades — with great content, courtesy of all y’all. Or some of y’all, at any rate. Everyone who enters the contest gets a copy of the winning chapbook, so if you have a shortish cycle of poems lying around waiting to be spruced up for publication, it should be worth your while. Here are the guidelines.

Book Arts

inspired by the work of Luz Marina Ruiz (hat tip: Natalie d’Arbeloff)

I entered a book tall as a clock tower.
Its pages all had timers set to self-construct:
bird, leaf, crescent, an orogeny of stairs.
The seasons were orderly as line dancers.

You can make a book from anything that folds.
Waves & breakers, for example, with
the ocean for a text: the reader bobs
like a boat with a shark’s-fin sail.

Books can be small as wallets bulging with bills,
those go-betweens everyone thumbs through
but nobody reads. (This, by the way,
is why money always smells of sadness.)

Books can be rooms completely taken over
by feral wallpaper, patterns unavailable
in any store. Some books can’t be opened
without changing all their contents.

That’s how it is with dreams, too: they change
in the telling. Night falls, & the words
merge with the black paper. You need
the moon’s red monocle to make out the stitching.

“A dusky train of ink”: Darwin in Cape Verde

What if, instead of brilliant naturalist, Charles Darwin had been an epic poet? Actually, he may have been both. Here’s how The Voyage of the Beagle begins.

After having been twice driven back
by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship
Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command
of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed
from Devonport on the 27th of December,
1831. The object of the expedition
was to complete the survey of Patagonia
and Tierra del Fuego, commenced
under Captain King in 1826
to 1830, — to survey the shores
of Chile, Peru, and of some islands
in the Pacific — and to carry a chain
of chronometrical measurements round the World.

On the 6th of January we reached Teneriffe,
but were prevented landing, by fears
of our bringing the cholera: the next morning
we saw the sun rise behind the rugged
outline of the Grand Canary island,
and suddenly illuminate the Peak of Teneriffe,
whilst the lower parts were veiled in fleecy clouds.
This was the first of many delightful days
never to be forgotten. On the 16th
of January, 1832, we anchored
at Porto Praya, in St. Jago, the chief
island of the Cape de Verd archipelago.

The neighbourhood of Porto Praya, viewed from the sea,
wears a desolate aspect. The volcanic fires
of a past age, and the scorching heat
of a tropical sun, have in most places
rendered the soil unfit for vegetation.
The country rises in successive steps
of table-land, interspersed with some
truncate conical hills, and the horizon
is bounded by an irregular chain of more
lofty mountains. The scene, as beheld
through the hazy atmosphere of this climate,
is one of great interest; if, indeed,
a person, fresh from sea, and who has just walked,
for the first time, in a grove of cocoa-nut trees,
can be a judge of anything but his own happiness.
Continue reading ““A dusky train of ink”: Darwin in Cape Verde”