Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 6

Poetry Blogging Network

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. And if you’re a blogger who regularly shares poems or writes about poetry, please consider joining the network (deadline: February 14).

Some weeks, if I didn’t know better I’d think that the poetry bloggers in my feed were responding to an essay question in some class that everyone but me is in on. (Why yes, I do have mildly paranoid tendencies.) This week, that assignment would’ve been something like: “How might risk, difficulty, or discomfort shape a poem’s creation? Illustrate with examples from your own or others’ work. For extra credit, discuss the importance of play.”


I keep seeing myself in the center of the lake.
On a still day, and everywhere is blue and quiet – except for where I am
waving my arms about, thrashing my legs against imagined, deep threats

complaining about the turbulent water.

This is my morning meditation as my mind passes through the blue candle
towards the yellow. Yellow is equanimity. The giving and the receiving.
Secure in a sense of enoughness.

I can’t let go of this longing for spring – when the morning runs are no longer a matter of pushing through darkness and trusting that all is well though
obscured.

Ren Powell, February 6th, 2019

On this sunny morning.  I know the snow will follow.

This time next week I will be having surgery. 

Here’s a poem from my book  How the Hand Behaves:

Garden gloves huddled

in a paper bag hanging on a hook
by the window where the ice clotted
bare branches quiver
and the sun sends their gnarled shadows on the snow below.

Garden gloves clean, soft, bleachy perfume,
stained brown and green,
some holy fingers clutch each other
while they wait.

Anne Higgins, Dreaming of Spring

People losing power, icy patches where you can slip and fall or where your car can skid out of control or just get stuck. Or, you might, like me, worry about the rhododendrons and go out in your pajamas and a jacket, with a broom and no gloves (I realized too late that I needed those gloves) to shake the heavy weight off the branches before they split off.

On the other side of snow’s beauty is risk.

And isn’t that what a poem is? The sounds and images collecting, building, and balancing between a palpable beauty that can make us gasp and the tension, discomfort, fear that makes us hold our breath?

Recently, I’ve been looking at my poems to locate where that tension begins–or if it’s even there. If it isn’t, what is the poem trying to do?

Joannie Stangeland, Poem as snow

I suppose the first breakthrough of sorts came in the guilty relief and release –for both of us, I want to believe – that came when my mother died in her 90s . She spent the last fifteen years of her life in a nursing home following a  severe stroke. She fought against every moment of it. She resented and hated it. I took her ashes to the Valley of Desolation, her favourite place in Wharfedale, and soon after, wrote a poem about it as a sort of atonement or prayer for absolution. Then I felt guilty that I’d not written for my dad, so I wrote about his birdwatching, his shoe mending, his singing; and then I had to balance it up with more about my mum. It’s a strange thing, guilt, but the outcome was that over about three years I’d written a handful of poems, and more about my grandparents, and it seemed to come more easily with each one. I didn’t feel as if they were looking over my shoulder, tutting.  Or not as often, or not as loudly.

But I can pinpoint the big breakthrough to specific dates. In October 2013 I was on a writing course at Almaserra Vella in Spain, and the tutor was Jane Draycott. She gave us a quick writing exercise…first impressions, get-it-down stuff on a randomly chosen postcard, which happened to be a Penguin book cover that had images of flame on it. And I wrote about our friend Julie who we’d visited in her flat in Whitby a couple of weeks before. Julie was dying of an incurable cancer; she’d confounded the specialists by outliving their predictions by over a year.

Flames. The most tenuous of connections. But a flame burned fiercely in Julie, and in the underlit smokestacks of the Boulby mine just up the coast. Maybe that was it. I typed it up with very few changes the week after. When she died a couple of weeks later, I nerved myself up to give the poem to her brother at her funeral. I was genuinely frightened. But he liked it, shared it. Gave me a permission I realised I needed: to write honestly about and for real living people. That poem Julie won first prize in the 2013 Plough Competition. Andrew Motion had liked it! I used some of the prize money to put together and print my first two pamphlets.

John Foggin, Keeping up with keeping up

It’s important, I think, to experience discomfort–it means I am facing a new task, a new perspective–that I’m learning something. I tell my students that if they are totally comfortable with the concepts in their coursework they are not learning anything yet. Education does not come without risk, whether the risks be physical, social, emotional, or intellectual. When we feel uneasy, it may mean we sense danger or sense the presence of someone manipulative, dishonest, or unkind. It may, however, mean we are simply “outside of our comfort zone.”

Tony Hoagland‘s poems offer examples of how we learn through leaving our familiar attitudes. Daisy Fried’s insightful 2011 commentary on his poem “The Change” notes the need for such uncomfortable moments. Poems Hoagland wrote as he headed toward his death from cancer at age 64 do not shy away from making the reader feel awkward, unhappy, or–in some cases–relieved, even glad. It can feel wrong to acknowledge relief as part of death. That recognition tends not to follow U.S. culture’s social norms.

I’m not claiming all good poems rile up discomfort; some poems offer joy or embrace a comforting openness; and, as readers bring their own differing experiences to the reading of a poem, the same poem that discomfits one person may appeal beautifully to another reader.

This post came about because I feel I have come to a period of discomfort in my work, and it troubles me but in a good way. I would rather feel discomfort with my writing that disengagement with it. Disengagement is writer’s block. That does not describe where I am at the moment. Instead, I feel rather as I did when I began to write and revise using formal patterns. My written expression up to that point had all been in free verse or prose, so adapting to villanelle or sonnet structure or sapphic meter seemed risky, difficult, “wrong.” Wrong for me, for the writer I believed I was, for the writing voice I had developed for 20 years.

And I was wrong about that, too! My initial discomfort aside, I learned so  much about poetry, including about my own style, through the practice of formal verse. The wonderful online journal Mezzo Cammin (formally-inspired poetry by women writers, edited by the amazing Kim Bridgford) has published several of my poems in the past. Now, two more of them! Please click here.

Ann E. Michael, Discomfort

As many teachers have repeated in many classrooms, there are no wrong questions, just wrong answers. (Maybe it was there are no wrong sandwiches, just wrong condiments.) When we’re talking about poetry, or about the making of it in particular, again there are no wrong questions, but there may also be no wrong answers. The question, however, is crucial the poem’s very existence. It’s the heart of each poem.

Here’s how it works. After I’ve gotten the bones of a poem down, maybe established the situation or narrative, the shape and the rhythm, but I’m failing to find a way to bring it all together, I go back to the idea of the question. I’ll scrounge around in the poem to try to find what it’s asking. If I figure out the question or the motivation in the poem, then I’m better equipped to solve its problems. My attempt to answer the question can sometimes help me through the poem’s speed bumps or can help me navigate safely through the poem’s turn. Sometimes it helps to actually put a question in the poem–either as a crutch that you’ll eventually remove–or as a permanent part of the poem. A question is a pretty interesting part of speech in that it’s one of the few that almost always demands a response from the reader. If you ask the reader a question, they feel compelled to answer–or look for the answer.

Grant Clauser, The Poem is the Question

Last week I  mentioned that the Poetry Society had a callout for poems that take note, in some way, of 99 of the mostly commonly used words used in 40 years of the National Poetry Competition.  I wasn’t going to write anything for this because I thought it was too much of a distraction from my aim to write poems that might fit into the theme of my next book.  That is to say, I’ve set myself a loose target/goal/aspiration to write poems that sit well together, with the hope that I produce a cohesive, fluent and not too disparate book.  It’s fine to hope, right?

But then I found that I’d worked hard on a few poems during January, persevered, stuck with them even when the going was tough, and by the very end of January I seemed to have made headway – and then the snow came, so I allowed myself a diversion.  A few days later, I had a poem of sorts – but was it enough?  Although I seemed to have responded to the writing prompt, I wondered if that was all I’d done, and when I read the poem, it seemed rather flat – in fact, rather dead!

This got me thinking about the value of writing prompts and themes.  I know that some writers love them and write well from them but I wonder if I should focus instead on poems that have started from scratch, from my own notebooks.  Then again, I have sometimes started a poem from a prompt, in a workshop for example, then put the draft aside for months or even years, come back to it and written a decent poem.  Maybe it’s time that’s needed then, regardless of how the work first started.  I doubt that my poem is any good at all but I’ve sent it off.  I’ve let go of it.  Maybe my next poem will be better. Hope, again.

Josephine Corcoran, A few poetry notes

Last weekend had us celebrate Candlemas (the presentation of Jesus at the Temple) on Feb. 2 and the feast day of Saint Simeon on Feb. 3.  One of my Facebook friends posted “A Song for Simeon,” the T. S. Eliot poem that imagines Simeon at the end of life, perhaps having an existential crisis, or maybe just feeling the age of his bones. 

I immediately thought about a companion poem, a song for Anna, the prophetess who is also mentioned in the Presentation at the Temple text in Luke’s gospel (Luke 2:  22-38).  But until this morning, I haven’t had time to play with this idea.

This morning, I wrote these lines:

In this temple of old bones and white whiskers,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

Then I stopped, struck by the idea of a villanelle.  I find the villanelle form to be one of the most difficult.  A villanelle needs a first and third line that can be repeated and thus can stand on its own.  The lines need to end in words that can rhyme (if you want to know more, go here).

I made a change to make the rhyming easier:

In this temple of white whiskers and old bones,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

I wrote out the villanelle structure, leaving blank lines.  I’ll come back to it later.  I wanted to write the original poem that I envisioned, without struggling with the villanelle structure.  So, I flipped the page of my legal pad, and I was off and running.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, A Poem for Anna the Prophetess

If I’m not actually writing, I try to be at least making something — a video poem, a series of drawings, some act of creativity. Recently I made a, as it turns out, rather elaborate and complicated accordion-binding book with a cover made of two small picture frames within which I made collages. (Yeah, I haven’t been doing much writing lately….)

It was quite an undertaking, and I had never made such a thing before, so it has some flaws — I folded some of the pages incorrectly and had to refold, so the old folds are still evident; I pasted some of the sections together on the wrong side so the pasted portion shows instead of being hidden behind the new page; an item has already fallen out of one of the collages. You know how things go. But it was a process, and a product, and therefore, satisfying.

I showed it to a friend, who said, “Oh, what are you going to do with it?”

I became confused. Was I supposed to do something with it? I thought the doing was the doing. I thought the showing-someone was also a sufficient doing. Was there more? Am I supposed to…what?…submit it to an art show…sell it on eBay?

Okay, I write poems, and some of them I send out to try to get published. Some of them I put together with others into a manuscript. Some of them get thrown away. Some sit around in their underwear for a very long time. If I was required to “do” something with everything I made I’m not sure I’d make stuff at all.

Marilyn McCabe, D…do do do..d..da da da da is all I want to say to you; or Why Make Art

The threadbare day
spun yarns from empty tales
when I could not choose

between the sea and the mountain
Both were a gateway to another life

Uma Gowrishankar, Tree Talk

Throughout her lifetime of writing poetry, Mary Oliver was largely ignored by the literary establishment.

Crickets.

I have the sense she was humored, discounted, or metaphorically speaking patted on the head for being too plain-spoken. Yet, countless readers have found a home in her words, her style, and her reverence. Some found a greater appreciation for all poetry through her work. Aside from those poets attempting only to appease the publishing gods, shouldn’t we all hope our work brings readers to greater enjoyment of poetry?

For the most part, Oliver led a quiet and unassuming life—preferring serene walks at dawn near Blackwater Pond with her dogs and reveling in the silence of her natural surroundings. Far be it for the literati to understand much less value those qualities and daily patterns when so many promote an urban ethos of steel, concrete, asphalt, and 24/7 ambient cacophony. Instead, she chose the primal sounds of birds, the surf, the crunch of pine needles underfoot and, yes, crickets. She wrote about all this and God—sometimes veiled and sometimes right up in the front seat. While I, grounded in the also overlooked Midwest and Great Plains, considered her a hero.

Bonnie Larson Staiger, Mary Oliver & Crickets

I begin to think the eagles in the tree outside my window are channeling Ursula Le Guin. When I read her essays in Words Are My Matter, the eagles trumpet from their perches in the high cottonwood trees. Trumpet is rather wrong, it is much more like emphatic flute players.

I don’t mean to suggest that Ursula had the thin squeaky voice that, incongruous as it seems, eagles possess. But rather, when I start reading these by turns serious, by turns funny, essays, I have the distinct impression of a voice from above, slightly disappointed and frankly exasperated, pointing out where I have gone astray. A voice from a being who could easily rip my heart out with knife-like talons but who will, for now, try to put me back on the path gently but persistently. 

Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Ursula Le Guin and Eagles

I’ve been a fan of horror as a genre since I was a kid, but only recently became aware of how poetry and horror intersect to provide beautifully dark verses capable of illuminating the shadowy side of the human experience. Over the last couple of years, I’ve noticed an increasing number of horror poetry collections written by women in the world (in part, because I’ve been more actively looking for them). It’s exciting to see this develop. Below are a few of the horror poetry books I’ve read and love, and I hope to discover many more in the future. […]

Basement Gemini by Chelsea Margaret Bodnar
Basement Gemini is a gorgeous chapbook of poetry that draws on horror movie tropes to explore female power and agency. There’s a kaleidoscopic beauty to these untitled lyrical prose poems that feel cohesive a cohesive whole. Chelsea says, “Basement Gemini was kind of born out of that idea — the simultaneous, seemingly-contradictory-but-not-really victimization, vilification, and empowerment of women that’s encountered so often in horror.”

Heliophobia by Saba Syed Razvi
Razvi’s collection tangles together darkness and light into a dark tapestry of power poems. As Razvi describes her book, “I suppose these poems are some kind of unholy fusion of museums, goth clubs, meditations, and global diaspora — all rewritten through dream logic, in some kind of ink made of the timeless decay of memory!”

Andrea Blythe, Fives Books of Poetry to Check Out for Women in Horror Month

Thanks to Gingerbread House Literary Magazine who posted this Q&A feature on fairy tales and poetry with me today: Gingerbread House Q&A with Jeannine Hall Gailey.

Ironically they posted my poem about the White Witch last week, and then it seem the White Witch of Narnia has descended on us in Seattle to install an unending winter! Seriously, we have no temperatures above freezing on the forecast for a week and more! This is much colder (and snowier) than average for us. By late February we usually have some trees starting to bloom – not this year, it seems. […]

So, with no way to escape and trapped indoors, what are my plans? Working on a Plath essay on spec, a fellowship application, and received two acceptances in the last few days (both of which, unfortunately, were stuck in my spam folder, so I didn’t even get to celebrate them right away.) I may send out one of my poetry manuscripts another couple of times, too. Still reading Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath’s letters, and checked Mary Shelley’s apocalypse novel The Last Man out of the library. And although January was full of rejections, I’ve had two acceptances this week. Thinking about starting our taxes, finally. If I hadn’t already gone a little crazy from being stuck inside last week by the snow, I’m sure I’ll be a little “The Shining” by the end of this one.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Q&A Up at Gingerbread Lit Mag, Seattle Snowpocalypse 2019, Snowbound (with Cats)

I’m honored and so pleased to have my poem “Three Miracles” published in the winter issue of The Penn Review. This poem is the third to be published from a series of personal poems about healing and recovery. In 2015, my son (21 at the time) was in a horrible accident in which he was hit on his bicycle by someone driving a pickup truck in downtown Salt Lake City. He nearly lost his life. Recovery was difficult, but he made it through and I’m grateful every day that he’s still here with us. It took me a long time to begin writing about the incident, and I’m hoping to soon have a home for the complete chapbook length collection. You can read the other two published poems from this collection here: Bone Music – Contrary Magazine, Resurrection Party – Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

Trish Hopkinson, My poem “Three Miracles” in The Penn Review! + no fee call & editor interview, DEADLINE: Feb. 24, 2019

twisting down the mountains
ran a river road

we knew it so well
knew it wouldn’t end

but we’re clocks
& we cannot tell the time

James Brush, Pony Express

Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 2

Poetry Blogging Network

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. And if you’re a blogger who regularly shares poems or writes about poetry, please consider joining the network.

This week saw some poets continuing to blog about their 2019 resolutions, goals, or plans. I also found a number of interesting reports on morning routines and local weather conditions, and thought-provoking, brief essays on such topics as poetry and place (Erica Goss), music vs. poetry (Marilyn McCabe), and creativity in poetry publishing (Ann E. Michael). And of course it’s fun to hear what people have been reading. As usual, I’m sure there’s much I’ve missed, and I encourage all who can spare the time to put together their own blog digests. It’s a fun way to kind of stroll around the blog neighborhood—that’s how it feels. All you really need is a free Feedly account.


Two of the books I received for review consideration in 2018 came from poets who live and write in the Mojave Desert of southeastern California: Starshine Road by L.I. Henley, and Waking Life by Cynthia Anderson. Henley writes of growing up in the Mojave, of walking down dirt roads as a child past a house filled with sketchy humans to catch the school bus, while Anderson focuses on the desert as an ever-changing presence, balanced between reality and mythology.

These books caught me by surprise, not just because of their subject matter, but because of my own history with the Mojave Desert. My grandparents built a cabin on top of a hill in Landers, fifteen miles north of Yucca Valley. Before they retired, the cabin served as a weekend and holiday getaway for their children and grandchildren. I spent many happy days in the desert while I was growing up, exploring the area around the cabin, and going on adventures with my grandmother in her ancient El Camino.

In June 1992, the Landers quake destroyed the cabin. I went to see the destruction in August of that year, and I haven’t been back since.

These two books evoked nostalgia for the Mojave Desert that took me completely by surprise. I remembered the brightness of the stars at night against the blackest sky I’ve ever seen, kicking up anthills and running from the huge, furious ants as fast as I could, and peering into the faces of desert tortoises. I remembered sitting at night with my grandmother and watching fake bombs from the Marine base explode over the eastern mountains. I remembered the looks on my parents’ faces when I stomped on a scorpion in my bare feet. And I remembered the heat, silence, and the smell of the creosote bushes.

Erica Goss, The Poetry of Place

night bleeds in from the east
count the tourniquet stars

so slow we dream
like poisoned trees

in the morning I take
the same little walk I always do

James Brush, routine

I woke up before I meant to–I had a coughing fit and found myself fully awake.  I got up thinking I might go back to sleep, but as is often the case, I didn’t.  I spent some time looking through my poetry notebooks from October 2017 to now; one of my goals for this year is to type more of my finished drafts into the computer.

I am struck by all the hurricane imagery in these poems, which is no real surprise–Hurricane Irma came through in September of 2017.  I’m still seeing hurricane damage mainly in terms of trees that are permanently bent and roof repairs in various states of progress.  Of course, I also see the trees that aren’t there, like the beautiful frangipani tree that I saw on my way driving to and from work.  I had looked forward to growing old with some of those trees, but now, they’re gone.  And of course, because of the hurricane, along with reports of faster sea level rise than expected, we’re rethinking those retirement plans too.

It’s been a delightful morning.  I often wonder if I wake up early because I so treasure these early mornings of creativity.  I suspect that’s true.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Hurricane Hauntings

In the dark I hear the rustle of wings in the treetops: on Wednesday, E. commented on the quiet, the crows having already flown north to start their day. Then the rustle again, and a call of a bird of prey. A hawk maybe? The dog doesn’t even look up, but keeps the steady pace of “Gå pent” on the morning run. We’ve discussed renaming him Pacer.

Stuck in traffic last week and late for work, I had time to look around and over the fields. Now brown and flooded in places – edged with ice, and mostly empty. A hawk was perched on a fence post right next to motorway. Still and beautiful in the sunrise, he was like an exclamation point highlighting the exceptional.

Ren Powell, January 12, 2019

My black and white tuxedo cat with milk-dipped paws is fast asleep in the other room. He is more interested in actions than in words with food coming in a close second. Poetry is pretty far down his list. Getting a job doesn’t even enter his mind.

Tomorrow I return to work after an extended break which had me writing full-time, traveling to Morocco, and generally feeling more myself. I exercised more, read more, ate healthier, and was a kinder friend and lover. My goal is to keep things going in this direction even as I enter back into the work world.

Tonight this poem reminds me that even when time is short, I can take 5 minutes and watch the sky, study the Olympics outside my window and check out the morning bird population which changes daily. If you are a teacher or a professor, a student or colleague—may it all go well tomorrow.

Susan Rich, Extended Outlook for 2019 – Tuxedo Cats, Sabbatical Look Back, and Happiness

So what are your survival tips for surviving the dark, cold winter months? January and February are my least favorite months to live around Seattle, it’s pitch black by 5 PM and the sun doesn’t really come all the way up…ever, plus the cold wind and rain mean you never really enjoy being outside. It’s cold and flu season so I’m not surprised I finally caught something, and this bug is a loooong one. I’ve reorganized my office, written a few poems and revised both my poetry manuscripts, but honestly, I’m restless, ready for a little springtime. (I know, we’re still a long way, but Seattle does start to have some camellia and cherry blooms sometimes as early as late February.) I’ve already started thinking about how to successfully approach AWP – I’ll be doing one offsite reading, and I’m planning to spend max time at the Bookfair saying hi to friends and checking out books and lit mags, my favorite part of the conference. My big goals were: getting more sleep, trying to do something fun once a week, and reaching out and socializing with more people, have all been rendered moot by this evil virus (waking up with early asthma attacks and tossing and turning with fever not conducive to more sleep, sadly, and you definitely don’t want to give this bug to anyone you like), but I hope to be getting better soon and back to my 2019 goals! I also made a playlist called “Survivor 2019” which includes this Sam Smith song from the Netflix series Watership Down, called “Fire on Fire.” Happy January!

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Review of Who is Mary Sue in The Rumpus, New Poem in Scryptic, Poems set to Jazz, and the January Doldrums

The painting above is “Breath” by Lee Krasner, which I found in the New Orleans Museum of Art last week, on a breather from work (the new term starts tomorrow). I don’t know much about Krasner, but the exhibit caption says this painting’s “rhythmic marks…call forth the rise and fall of breathing, as well as the more meditative act of taking a deep breath. Krasner’s paintings were often more subtle and introspective than her husband Jackson Pollock’s frenzied ‘action painting’…one reviewer condescendingly claimed, ‘There is a tendency among some of these wives to ‘tidy up’ their husband’s styles.” I was drawn to the canvas for its beauty, but that caption transformed me into an ally.

Looking at art, I’d been wondering about my lack of interest, this year, in making new year’s resolutions. Do I really need another list? I’d also just read this article about resolutions and was considering a couple of points the reporter made. For instance: “Imagine it’s the next New Year’s Eve. What change are you going to be most grateful you made?” Hmm–living a more peaceful life, I guess. Concentrating effort more thoughtfully and taking care of myself so that I can be more open to unpredictable emotions, and to other people. I love January O’Neil’s “Poetry Action Plan”, but I tend to tick so doggedly down checklists, virtue becomes bad habit, in that I get so busy fulfilling promises to myself and others that I don’t take enough meditative, restorative time. Also, one of the experts the journalist interviewed (oh, so many experts out there on self-improvement!–shouldn’t we all be perfect by now?) recommended “reflecting on what changes would make you happiest, then picking a ‘theme’ for your year. That way, even if a particular habit doesn’t stick, your overarching intention will.” As someone who has tried and failed to create a meditation practice about five million times, that resonated.

So, standing in front of “Breath,” I chose my theme for 2019. Breathe.

Lesley Wheeler, Breathe (a brief post on posting)

If I were the type to make resolutions for self-improvement, I would resolve to start doing yoga again, schedule a mammogram, get outdoors more, and lose some weight.  But I’m more the type to break, rather than keep, promises to myself. So I’ll just say I have some goals for the next 12 months or so, which are some of my commitments to poetry.
Publish at least 12 reviews of books of poetry.
Start a new website devoted to reviews of poetry chapbooks. (BTW, if anyone wants to join me in this endeavor, just email me at risaden@gmail.com)
Accrue at least 50 rejections of poetry submissions to journals, and 10 rejections of my current manuscript. (I’m not quite ready for the 100 club!)
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.

Also planning to attend the Palm Beach Poetry Festival this month; share a booth for Headmistress Press with Lana Ayers of MoonPath Press at AWP in Portland in March; do a workshop with Carl Phillips at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in July and meet monthly with the Upper Room Poets for workshopping poems.

Most notably, I plan to retire in 2020 (which probably won’t mean leaving healthcare entirely, but a big workload reduction) to clear up time for more poetry-related activity. And, after I retire, I hope to plan a road trip across the US to visit with poets that I’ve only so far met in cyberspace.

Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Muse in 2019

As 2018 ended I spent a lot of time reflecting on the past year, both on the good things and the not-so-good things. In early 2019 I would complete my MFA in poetry and turn 40 so the year would start off with some pretty big milestones. I thought about what I wanted for 2019 and as I entered a new decade of my life. After a bit of thinking and reflecting, here are my goals for 2019 – I’m not calling them resolutions because those seem fleeting. So I’ve settled on calling them goals.

1. Write reviews and leave ratings for the books of poetry I read. I read a lot, 221 last year to be exact, and at least 50 of those were poetry (I don’t have the exact numbers in front of me). One way to easily support poets is to leave ratings and reviews for their books. This is something I ask of people for my books of poetry so I need to always do this for others. I always leave ratings but reserve my reviews for books I love. I need to spend the time to write a review for each book of poetry – it doesn’t have to be a long essay, but a few sentences go a long way.

Courtney LeBlanc, 2019 Goals

Despite so  many low energy days I’ve been doing a lot of reading and research. I don’t think I’ve shared that I’m a Contributing Editor for Barren Magazine and Mockingheart Review now. I recently published an interview on MR with poet Sam Rasnake and I’ll have an interview with poet and writer Tina Barry on site later this  month. I love doing interviews with writers and I thank Clare Martin, creator and Editor, for giving me this beautiful gift of a venue to publish them. The new issue of MR will publish some time after January 25 and the new submission window will open March 1.

I read Flash Fiction and Short Fiction for Barren and I just love it. It’s so exciting to read such a diversity of writing and to find golden nuggets to share with our readers. We get submissions from all over the world which is so gratifying. Our new issue will drop tomorrow, January 14 and I can not wait for y’all to read it! Submissions are always open so polish up your poetry, fiction, CNF, and photography and sent it to us!

Also, I’m working on a project for Barren that has me so excited I can hardly keep from blurting it out to everyone. Watch this space, watch my Twitter account (@charlotteAsh) and Barren’s Twitter (@BarrenMagazine). I don’t know exactly when it will be revealed but it’s dynamite!

I’ve been reading some great poetry. Right now I’m reading Duende by Tracy K. Smith, A Woman of Property by Robyn Schiff, Tropic of Squalor by Mary Karr, and The New Testament by Jericho Brown. Only As the Day is Long by Dorianne Laux is on it’s way to me via snail mail and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Love me some Dorianne!

Charlotte Hamrick, What I’ve Been Up To: #Writing #Reading #Poetry #Books

I love words, poetry, but it’s music that wrenches me most deeply, often vocal music, often that magic of tune and word and beat that creates a live thing that enters me, skin and bone, gut and vein. Many things move me, but only music guts me. Well, with an exception: Hearing Ilya Kaminsky orate “Do not go gentle.” That was transformational.

I dabble in music but am no musician. Still I can hope and strive to create in my own written work this kind of reaching and opening, this level of capturing light. If I could write a poem that could even slightly glitter like those performances, I will have done what I set out on this path to do.

So for this new year, I wish for all of us that we find some light to let loose from our jagged edges, that we find our shine.

Marilyn McCabe, This Little Light; or, A Wish for the New Year

Having lost about 50% of my hearing, even with hearing aids, there’s a lot of music I can’t listen to because I’ve lost all the top end (which makes the sublime Everley Brothers sound as though they’re singing flat), and being in a pub for a reading can produce a sound effect in which all the individual sounds claim equal value and lose their relative depths and distances…the sound equivalent, I suppose, of an out of focus image, which can be quite pretty until the image you’re looking at is print. […]

I’ve been to several readings since the start of December, and what I especially liked about them was that I could hear the poems. It was nothing to do with the mic being set right. It was all about the the readers and their delivery, which was so clean and clear I could do without hearing aids. One reader was Julia Deakin, who is always accurate, distinct. One was Tom Weir (twice) who read quietly, but always with that concern for the heft and texture of the words, who, like Julia, tastes the consonants that matter, and also, like her, reads with a rhythm that falls on the key words, so sound never displaces meaning, never over-rides the syntax and the sense, and lets the words have their surrounding silent space, which is the aural equivalent of white space on the page. And one poet was today’s guest, Emma Storr, who I’d never heard reading before and who was a revelation. We all know poets, some of them famous, who simply can’t read like that. I wish they’d make the effort. It’s not about theatricality, or volume or elocution. It’s about diction and a concentration on the meaning of the words they say. Thank you Tom and Julia for letting me hear the poems, and thanks to both of them for respectively guesting at the last session of The Puzzle Poets Live (at The Shepherds Rest) and at the first of a new venue which we hope will now be our permanent home..The Navigation in Sowerby Bridge.

John Foggin, On hearing and listening. And an (un)discovered gem: Emma Storr

In the later 80s, I started doing some editing and publishing of other people’s work. My dear friend, David Dunn, and I had a small press that put out two broadsides and four chapbooks. Taught me a great deal. I helped to edit a Xerox-zine in Philadelphia in the 80s. Meanwhile, I kept getting work into small press journals nationwide, mostly these photocopied deals with tiny readerships; but the minor successes kept me going. After awhile I had enough hubris to try the better-recognized journals, with some success. This is how it works: persistence, but not bull-headed, blind persistence. One persists through the learning process; revises, practices, finds trustworthy people for feedback.

My sister, husband, and I all have worked in the publishing business-as-business, in how-to and B2B magazines; I was a typographer, proofreader, copyeditor, writer, indexer. All of that background was valuable in its way and never kept me from pursuing creative work. So I did eventually go for my MFA, in my 40s, and I got chapbooks and a collection published at long last in spite of—oh, you know—life.

Because I feel that poetry needs audience, I was early to jump on the online publishing wagon, despite colleagues who warned that it wasn’t really as acceptable a venue as academically-affiliated print journals. Nonetheless I’ve found myself enthralled by online journals, by audio-poems, moving-poems (video), podcasts, blogs. I’ve watched well-respected magazines migrate to the internet. And there are problems with online publishing. I know about them, wrestle with them, yeah—keeps life interesting.

My route has not been the academic route, although I work at a college today; I am more of an outlier. Poets and writers can be nurses, doctors, mechanics, or landscapers, grandparents, people with disabilities, insurance industry managers, post office workers, tutors. Each of us discovers her own process for writing and for getting the poems into the world. Mine is pokey and slow and frequently interrupted, and my next long collection won’t appear until 2021, nine years after Water-Rites, my first. But I feel satisfied with my publishing record, such as it is. People do read my work, which is kind of the entire point of writing, no?

When everything is easy and there’s no chance of failure, life is boring. Writing creatively means taking risks, creating tension. Publishing creatively requires the same things. Risks, imagination, persistence, curiosity, analysis and a willingness to be open-minded. Fun pursuits, but not always easy ones.

Ann E. Michael, Creative publishing

A stormy week here in the Sacramento Valley,
Rain on and off, on and off.
Above, in the high passes of the Sierra Nevada,
Deep drifts of snow. The bears are sleeping.
Down here, rain on the rooftop,
No finches, no crows, no owls.
And like them all, I am also laying low;
It has been days since I even went outside.
James says it doesn’t matter where you are,
It is what you do that counts.
So.. back to work on these poems.

James Lee Jobe, ‘A stormy week here in the Sacramento Valley’

All day long the air has been full of the promise of snow. It’s just twilight and it’s not here yet, but any time now.

I have hunkered down, slept, gone out for the groceries early in the morning, prayed, listened to an audiobook  (Over Sea, Under Stone  by Susan Cooper) and finally, finished a poem I’ve been struggling with.  I sent it, and five others, to the New Yorker just now.  Always hoping!

Anne Higgins, Waiting for Snow

It’s quite cold in Alaska right now. The kind of blue cracking cold that is beautiful but stinging. The kind of cold that makes iron of snow and ice beneath all. And yet, it’s important to get outside, to fill our eyes with sunlight, to remember that this time has beauty unavailable at other, perhaps more temperate, times of year.

Erin Coughlin Hallowell, Some winter solace

Every January there is a day when I first return to my desk after the hectic rush of December. My son is back in school. I’ve discharged my responsibilities to the community I serve, and today is a home-day. I resist the temptation to fritter it away on laundry and unloading the dishwasher — the little endless maintenance tasks of daily life.

The first thing is to clear the desk of extraneous things that have landed there during the annual hiatus from writing. I need a clear physical space to call forth the clear internal space within which poems can arise. Maybe classical music is called-for. Kronos Quartet’s Early Music has a spareness that matches my heart, matches the season.

Next I reread all of last year’s poems. It’s an annual ritual. Some of them are familiar to me: I remember writing them, revising them, I recognize them in all of their incarnations. Inevitably I find one I had forgotten altogether. I read the scraps and partial poems, too. I don’t know the shape of my next book of poems, but I get glimpses.

Then I open a blank file and let the words come. The first poem of this new year surprises me. When I started out I thought I knew where it might go, but it takes a turn midway through. When I reach the end I realize the poem was always intending to go there. I just had to open myself to surprise, letting it take me where I didn’t know I needed to go.

Rachel Barenblat, Where I needed to go

Poet Bloggers Revival Digest: Week 1

poet bloggers revival tour 2018

poet bloggers revival tour 2018 If you’re new to the Poet Bloggers Revival Tour, read Donna Vorreyer’s explanatory blog post with the official list of participants (and leave a comment there if you’d like to join). Please note however that I reserve the right to occasionally also include links from other poetry bloggers whom I’ve been following for years, and who may be too antisocial to join the revival tour. As for my own blogging, this week I added two posts about poetry to my oft-neglected author site, so I’m definitely feelin’ the revival fever! If you missed last week’s digest, here’s the archive.

What is it to be a poet in this world? International, intercultural, intergenerational. Virtual.

My social-media life was the opposite of poetry. Since 2016, I’ve experienced it as divisive. I am tired of labels.  Even the silly ones. What kind of pizza are you? Which French philosopher? I understand that categories are useful. Scientists find use in them. But poets shouldn’t. Poets are occupied with the truth. And the truth is always a platypus.

I crave the deep work. The work of sincere attention necessary for poetry. I want to close my eyes and rediscover my senses. I want to fight against the stenciled concepts I’ve adopted.
Ren Powell, Poetry is the Unknown Guest in the House

 

I was very, very late to Twitter, but once I latched on, I saw a vibrant, diverse, and engaged set of poets. I initially followed old poet friends, and then I started to pick up all these new voices. At first, yes, I was dismissive of it all, from the registering of liking and retweeting of tweets, all about instantaneous, mindless, and cost-free feedback, to the humble-bragging about followers-to-following ratios. I wondered if Kaveh Akbar ever read a book a poetry without his phone ready to snap a new favorite stanza. I wasn’t sure what to think about Jericho Brown’s latest report of his body-fat percentage. And yet, poets like Akbar, Brown, Eve Ewing, Danez Smith, Shaindel Beers were not only accomplished in their craft, beyond woke in their politics, and genuinely enthusiastic about their art, but were challenging me to love more and assume less. These poets were kicking my ass.

Soon, the nosiness was rather pleasing to me, even with all the self-promotion, because it was this deep buzz of human activity. It was also useful for me to remember that these poets had much more serious, deeper engagements with their craft than their latest tweet-storm, and that the twittersphere is just one access point. It’s also useful to remember just how lonesome poetry writing can be, which is another quality that I do love about it, and Twitter is one means to connect.
Jim Brock, Broken Links

 

Work is a complex thing. It can be a soul-sucking, time-burning depletion, or it can be an expression of the full being. There can be grace on a production line, I imagine: pride in efficient, high quality work done safely by a team who believe in their product. But when I think of work, I think of solitude. That’s just me. I think of the times I’ve lost myself in my work of mind and hand — the swirl of thinking and logic and overcoming obstacles, being imaginative in problem-solving, articulating something effectively. And having fun in the process. Loving, in fact, the process. I also think of all the jobs I’ve had that were not that at all, were depleting in various ways, mostly because I either didn’t care about it or didn’t feel valued, or both.
Marilyn McCabe, Let Me Give You a Hand; Thoughts on Work

 

Here’s what I believe: writing in a supportive environment when the rules are: be playful and yes, anything goes are a great recipe for success. Unlike most other workshops, we focus on creating our own writing prompts (new ones for each class) and for each one, we have a secret mission whether it is to write image driven poems or create new forms — everyone leaves with at least six drafts of six poems they never would have written otherwise. Kind of wonderful.
Susan Rich, What I Love About Teaching Poetry Workshops

 

I liked this process of adaptation. When movies are adapted from books and stories, filmmakers change things. They fire characters and compress scenes in part to save money on paying actors and renting space, but also because there is often no need to say what is shown. Why not something similar with poetry?

I think writers and probably poets especially can get locked into the sanctity of their words and lord knows there are times when that makes sense, but if poetry is to be a conversation even if as in this case with oneself, I think it’s important to let go a little bit especially when changing mediums. My academic background is in film production and screenwriting where the expectation is that the written word is not final so maybe this comes easier for me, but it’s a comfortable way for me to work and I think it’s useful to see where your words can go and a worthwhile exercise to keep playing with what you’ve made and, if you dare, open it up for others to do so as well.
James Brush, all roads lead here & Notes on Adapting Poetry

 

Poetry is not meant to speak clearly now.
Circumlocute. Paint pictures, white
upon white upon white. Associate.
There is something to be said for fragment,
flash illuminated, a freeze-frame strobing.
Memory breaks like that. Stuck to glass.
Millibars drop, pummel backs with snow.
Whose scapular muscle twitches? What
feathered thing flies, heart hammering.
JJS, January 4, 2018: To the Small Bird Flying Under It

 

Ada Limón and I were part of a cohort of poets who came up at about the same time in publishing our first books. Now, I say that word “cohort” with two asterisks.
The first asterisk is that we were a cohort uniquely born of the internet era. Yes, we each had the communities created by school—which in her case, was a rock-star class of New York University MFA graduates. But in the larger sense, we were that first virtual community of poets who had a meaningful dialogue via comments left on each others’ blogs. We muddled our way through NaPoWriMo together. We cheered each other on when no one else was paying attention.
The second asterisk is that Ada’s first book and her second book were simultaneous, thanks to having Jean Valentine select the manuscript Lucky Wreck for the 2005 Autumn House Poetry Prize, and then—literally, within months—winning the 2006 Pearl Poetry Prize with The Big Fake World. That never happens. She made it happen.
Sandra Beasley, Introductions

 

When I make money from poetry, I try to put money back into poetry. I want to support the literary community as much as I can. I spent some time at the end of the year subscribing to a few journals, as I do every year – I try to rotate the journals so I can support as many as possible. I buy a LOT of poetry books (although I get a decent number as review copies) because 1. I want to support my local stores that carry poetry and 2. I want to support small presses that publish poetry. But I do also support the idea of literary publishers, organizations and journals trying to raise money outside the small circle of poets that want to publish – by reaching out more, trying more ways to gain subscribers, maybe advertising? What do you think? I remember being poor enough that every book contest fee hurt. I feel that fees have gone way up since I started trying to publish work waaay back in 2001-2.
Jeannine Hall Gailey, 2018 so far: A Poem in Rogue Agent, New Year Zoo Lights, Luck and Poetry Fees, and Thinking About the New Year and New Poetry Blogs!

 

January slid in on the light of a cold full moon. Like a winter wolf, I am denning, exploring the dark that is so much part of this time of year where I live. I curl up on one end of the sofa in the evening and plunge into the pages of book after book. I am twitchy and witchy and my reading choices reflect it. I began the year with Patti Smith’s Devotion, followed swiftly by Kiki Petrosino’s Witch Wife and the Em Strang’s Bird-Woman.

My dreams are full of skaters, spells, and wings. These are just the types of books I love, ones that bring you along head-tilted and stumbling, not sure if the path beneath your feet is solid or black ice. Books full of spells and enchantments. Images that carry the tang of fallen leaves and the hiss of snow.
Erin Coughlin Hollowell, Balancing dreams and reality

 

we undress together   down to our satchel of lost poems   refusing to be more than alive
Grant Hackett (untitled monostich)

Favorite poetry books of 2016: a crowd-sourced compendium

Don’t you kind of hate those year-end “best of” lists that magazines love to compile? They always seem more about positioning the authors as Serious Culture Critics who are hip to what’s fashionable rather than showcasing potentially over-looked works that they sincerely enjoy. And sure, Luisa Igloria and I could’ve set ourselves up as judges to pick a Top 10 list from among our personal favorites, but I thought it would be more fun to throw it open to poetry lovers at large and ask (here and on Facebook) for mini reviews of your single favorite poetry book from the past year: a new book, an old book, a book in whatever language.

The responses have been wonderfully varied and interesting, and Lord help me I want to read (or in a few cases, re-read) every one of these books right now! I’m presenting them in the order they came in. I haven’t numbered them, lest that imply some sort of ranking, but there are 28 books in all.

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Paradise Lost original coverParadise Lost by John Milton (Samuel Simmons, 1667). I nominate it (short answer) because of the rhythm and concision of the text, but also (long answer) because I read it in a book club with people much smarter than myself, including my daughter. (None of us “believers” — but that maybe made it better.) It reads aloud like Creation itself. We only had two meetings for the book, but they were the best of conversations.
Steven Arnerich

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cover of "Of This World"The single book that’s been among the rotating 10 bedside books of mine — probably for two or three years now — has been Joseph Stroud’s Of This World: New and Selected Poems, from Copper Canyon (2008). Just can’t get enough of it. I came late to Stroud, and this is the first & only book of his I know. It’s hard to generalize about Stroud’s virtues, not just because this book collects decades of work, but also because he’s a master of many forms, themes, and tones. He can do a tight lyric in the mode of the classical Chinese masters, and he can stretch out in longer sequences. I love that he doesn’t either hide or particularly flaunt his erudition. He keeps his eye on the things of this world at all times (I guess you could call him a nature poet), but the things of his world definitely include his wide reading in literature. Anyway, his poems are consistently smart, sharply observant, and gorgeous. One of the few books I’ve bought based on a blurb — in this case a rave from the late Jim Harrison (“I don’t recall when a poet unknown to me has struck me so deeply.”)
David Graham

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cover of Luminous SpacesOlav H. Hauge’s Luminous Spaces: Selected Poems & Journals (White Pine Press, 2016). Why? Because he can see into things in a way that few can. The poems are terrific and journal entries are special.

Tom Montag

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cover of Teaching My Mother How to Give BirthTeaching My Mother How to Give Birth (Mouthmark, 2011) by Warsan Shire. I think this is really only chapbook-length. This is just a superb little book by a London–based Somali poet. These words of hers have already been often quoted:

later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
and whispered
where does it hurt?

it answered
everywhere
everywhere
everywhere.

Though her experience is particularly hers, her truth is all women, and this is what will make her work last. Beautiful, dangerous, and syntactically diverse, her poems enthrall me, something that I am finding rare these days. “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Susan Elbe

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cover of The RiverI’d like to recommend The River by Irish poet Jane Clarke (Bloodaxe Books, 2016). It’s a wonderful collection of accessible, musical poems that illuminate daily life. I was lucky enough to meet Jane at the Los Gatos-Listowel Writers Week, held in Los Gatos, California (where I live) in October of this year. Jane’s poems are full of rain, fishermen, farmers and flowers; they seem innocent at first, but pull you into a deeply affecting, emotional undertow. I love lines like “Piebald and skewbald” from “Broken” and “I have known storms that buffer and batter the heart. / I chose a hard bed, bare boards, a bulwark” from “Enclosed.”

This is a book of poems you could give to almost anyone, including people who insist that they don’t like poetry. I return to my copy again and again.
Erica Goss

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Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón (Milkweed Editions, 2015) is full of set-down-the-book-because-you-are-weeping poems. Reading it is to be intimate with the extent to which life — joy, loss, etc. — transforms us every minute. Reading this book is to be stung. There is pain. Specifically, the electrical, intense sort of pain. A physical sensation. It’ll give you goosebumps long after the initial zap, and you’ll be glad for the experience. There’s so much beauty in it.
Carolee Bennett

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Rabbit Rabbit coverThe best poetry book I read this year would have to be Rabbit Rabbit by Kerrin P. Sharpe (Victoria University Press, 2016). I was blown away by the poet’s superb control of language, how she used the surreal to illuminate the world. It is saved from perfection by virtue of hitting the same note every time — but what a note. Though I am a comically slow reader of poetry, I swallowed this whole.

She’s new to me, and I’m now a fan.
Ivy Alvarez

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Seam coverSeam by Tarfia Faizullah (Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry, Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). It’s a beautifully wrought collection that weaves together history and personal narrative with tender attention to craft and form.
Christine Swint

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Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (Copper Canyon Press, 2016).

Beautiful. Raw. Gutting. Luminous.
LouAnn Shepard Muhm

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cover of Saint Aldhelm's RiddlesI’m picking the most unusual (for us, in our day) book of poems I reviewed this year. Here’s the opening of my review, “Riddled with Light,” from a recent issue of First Things: “The riddle of Samson’s strength, the riddle of the eagle’s way with the sky and the ship’s way with the sea, the riddles in royal dreams of Pharaoh or Nebuchadnezzar, the riddle of things hidden since the world began, the riddle of a temple that can be destroyed and yet rebuilt in three days: riddling runs like a seam of gold through the rock of the Old and New Testaments. The mystery and praise of Creation and sub-creation that we find in the books of the Bible emerge again as bright knowledge in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles (University of Toronto Press, 2015), poems of the seventh-century Aldhelm, noble and bishop and poet and saint. Translated by poet A. M. Juster from Aldhelm’s Aenigmata, these poems suggest that all things possess a mystery. Salamander and raven, candle and cauldron find their secret wonders revealed in riddle.”
Marly Youmans

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Death Tractates coverOf the many excellent poetry books I read this year the standout was Brenda Hillman’s Death Tractates (Wesleyan, 1992). The title makes it sound like some kind of plodding, ancient tome — and it is suffused with grief — but Hillman puts suffering off to the side to ask questions about existence. It’s gorgeous.

The poems convey death’s mystery, and treat the deceased as if she were still present, only separated a little, and unreachable. The dead woman is often referred to as a bride and she is nowhere and everywhere. The poems aren’t filled with tears or wailing, but with questions and careful wondering. Here’s the start of “Seated Bride”:

She had died without warning in early spring.
Which seemed right.
Now that which was far off could become intimate.

I said to the guides, let’s stand
very close to the mystery
and see how far she’s gone…

One of the best poems is “Much Hurrying,” which begins:

—So much hurrying right after a death:
as if a bride were waiting!

Crocuses sliced themselves out
with their penknives. Everything well made
seemed dead to them: Camelias. Their butcher-
paper pink. The well-made poems

seemed dead to you …

Sarah Sloat

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To The House of the Sun coverThe best poetry book I read this year was To the House of the Sun (S4N Books, 2015), Tim Miller’s epic poem about the travels of an Irish-born Georgian seeking revenge against his own father during the Civil War. Miller contacted me back in the spring because he found me online and thought I might like his work. He was right: To the House of the Sun is a sprawling, strange, deeply moving poem inspired by the the world’s great religious texts and definitely in conversation with them. It’s a difficult, harrowing, inspiring, incantatory book, and I’ve never read anything like it.
Jeff Sypeck

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De Willekeur coverThe book that got to me the most over the last few ye​ars was De Willekeur by Jan Lauwereyns (De Bezige Bij, 2012). It’s a bundle of death and happiness, adversity and cruelty, the paradoxical aspects of human life, which sometimes produce ironic discoveries. But more than the subject it’s the poetic adventure in which Jan Lauwereyns takes us in this particular book full of alternation: pieces of prose (on a seventeenth-century pornographer, for example), epic pieces of text, simple poems, a senile sonnet. The randomness is itself a poetic tsunami that drags you in. It’s poetry about the miserable, great humanity.

In my view Jan Lauereyns is the most exciting writer/poet that we have in Belgium. And he’s an inspiration to me. I created several videos for his poems and his latest novel led me to make an entire EP based on certain lines from the book.
—Marc Neys A.K.A. Swoon

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A Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon - New (Soma)ticsA Beautiful Marsupial Afternoon: New (Soma)tics by CA Conrad (Wave Books, 2012). I liked the structure, somatic exercises (none of which I have tried at home) followed by the poems they generate. I liked the urgency of the voice moving between rage and laughter. I just like CA Conrad’s wildness, the feeling that he will say anything that needs saying.
Martha McCollough

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The Country Gambler coverThe Country Gambler by Erica McAlpine (Shearsman, 2016). First collection from a UK-based American poet who writes a lot in strict form, both rhymed and unrhymed, and with such skill that it melds entirely with content: sublime, brief evocations of nature, relationships, mood and emotions. A scholar and translator of Horace, her favourite form is Sapphics (see first poem in sample at link).
Jean Morris

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cover of Every Love Story Is an Apocalypse StoryEvery Love Story Is an Apocalypse Story by Donna Vorreyer (Sundress Publications, 2016). This tightly themed full-length collection chronicles a relationship that starts out rocky and seems to have more passion than promise. By itself, that topic might have kept this book in the “seen it before” category, but then a sharp twist pushes the stakes much higher and the collection morphs into something else, a meditation on the indelible but fallible nature of memory and how it bleeds into everything that comes after. Vorreyer’s lean, elegant verse takes occasional leaps into prose poems and hybrid forms, a welcome change of pace, but the book is anchored by her tight, pared-down poems that pay close attention to line length and visuals while wielding powerful language stripped of all but the essentials. This is a book to read in one gulp and then savor again in small pieces.
Amy Miller

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cover of Jane Kenyon's Collected PoemsThe Collected Poems of Jane Kenyon (Graywolf Press, 2007) I’d known “Let Evening Come” and “Otherwise” for a long time but after reading “Let Evening Come” to a women’s group struggling with the election aftermath I decided to dive into the corpus of her work. Two features fascinate me — the similarities in our life paths. Born in 1947. Dealing with severe sadness on and off. The simple work of a gardener to clear the garden and compost. And then, the relationship between titles and subject matter in her poems. I’ve been covering up the titles before I read a poem to guess what she titled it. Every poem takes some sort of twist down to the final lines that surprises me.
Tricia Knoll

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cover of The Book of QuestionsThe best book of poetry I read this year was The Book of Questions, Volume I, by Edmond Jabès, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (Wesleyan, 1991). In a 1989 LRB review of several books by or about Samuel Beckett, Patrick Parrinder wrote:

…[I.A.] Richards suggested that a good test of a poem’s sincerity would be to meditate for a while on the following topics: 1. Man’s loneliness (the isolation of the human situation). 2. The facts of birth, and of death, in their inexplicable oddity. 3. The inconceivable immensity of the universe. 4. Man’s place in the perspective of time. 5. The enormity of his ignorance. The poem should then be recited, slowly and silently, and, Richards thought, ‘whether what it can stir in us is important or not to us will, perhaps, show itself then.’

The Book of Questions in its entirety passes Richards’s “sincerity” test more definitively than any book of poetry I’ve read in the past decade or so.
—Kuahine Makalapua

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Four Reincarnations coverMax Ritvo, Four Reincarnations (Milkweed Editions, 2016). I don’t read as widely in new poetry as I ought, probably, but this book seems head and shoulders above anything else I’ve read this year. Ritvo’s poetry is a bit like Ocean Vuong’s in that it’s incredibly emotional, vivid, difficult to read simply because of its horrible intensity. But his language is amazingly restrained, precise, almost ordinary. And yet he manages to convey very surreal and strange images through this plain language. It’s the work of a very accomplished writer with an unusually vivid imagination and a surprising sense of humor. Someone I am happy to have inhabiting my mind for an hour at a time.

I do however have to ask myself the uncomfortable question of whether I’d be taking this book as seriously if he hadn’t just died at the age of 25. And the awkward answer is no. I didn’t even hear about Ritvo until the day he died, and everyone who mentions him talks about his early death, so there is no question that his terribly shortened life has amplified the reach of his poetry, as awful as that sounds. I think he knew this, and his writing addresses his terminal illness head on, without pity or melodrama. It doesn’t make it any less awkward for us, his readers, though.

I will be reading and rereading this book for some time, I think.
Dylan Tweney

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Reasons (not) to Dance coverMy favorite poetry read this year was yet another re-read of the poetry chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance by José Angel Araguz (FutureCycle Press, 2015). Other layers of meaning seem to keep unfolding from each poem every time I read through them, each a three-way hybrid of parable, koan, and poem.
Laura L. Kaminski

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cover of bindweed & crow poisonbindweed & crow poison: small poems of stray girls, fierce women by Robin Turner (Porkbelly Press, 2016) reminded me how much I love chapbooks. I’ve been reading mostly full-length collections (some quite wonderful), but I single this one out because it’s the only chap I read this year and it reminded me how much I love these one-sitting collections, so easily reread. I had the pleasure of publishing two of these poems at Gnarled Oak (and nominating one — “bindweed” — for a Pushcart) in 2015, and it was nice to reread them in the context of this beautiful little book. The poems in this collection come mostly from the family of erasure, remix, collage and found poems. They are short and wonderfully open, letting the reader catch glimpses of the stray girls and fierce women of the title. They remind me how much can be said with just the right few words. I will probably reread it a time or two in the coming weeks.
James Brush

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Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude coverAmong the best poetry books I read throughout 2016 (and which I will continue to use in the poetry workshops that I teach, either in part or whole) is Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (Pitt Poetry Series, January 2015). I will return to this book again and again because it reminds me that we should not have to apologize for poetry: for making poetry, for wanting to write poetry, share poetry, read poetry, make poetry out of everyday experience, eat poetry, pluck poems like fruit from a fig tree growing in the middle of the city. And we should not be ashamed to say thank you, to be grateful as we sit in the mud of all of it: for “what do you think/ this singing and shuddering is,/ what this screaming and reaching and dancing/ and crying is, other than loving/ what every second goes away?” The book won several major poetry awards, including the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Prize.
Luisa A. Igloria

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The Halo coverI read C. Dale Young’s The Halo (Four Way Books, 2016) earlier this year, and I thought it was stunning. It’s the narrative of a young man who has been in a horrible car accident, a young man discovering his sexuality, a young man who finds wings growing out of his body. All of these are true, and the metaphor keeps slipping so that we’re never such what is metaphorical of what. The physicality and music of this book are extraordinary.
Ed Madden

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cover of The Whole Field Still Moving Inside ItThe best book of poetry I read this past year (other than the ones I published!) was Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It (The Word Works, 2014). The poems, ostensibly about farming and farm life, are of course — as Heaney showed us so convincingly — about life itself, in all its beauty, bewilderment, and violence. I was impressed by Bashaw’s use of language, and deeply moved by her ability to describe but not over-explain, because so much of what she talks about defies explanation or even analysis. She leaves things as they are, but also leaves a great deal of room for the reader. Barshaw grew up on small farms in New England and upstate New York, but graduated from the Eastman School of Music and worked for 12 years in Germany as a professional bass-trombonist — so it’s probably no surprise that her poems resonated with me. She’s young and her work has won a bunch of prizes but that doesn’t matter to me; I certainly wish I had published this first book of hers myself and hope to meet the poet someday so I can tell her.
Beth Adams

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The Black Flower coverI keep re-reading The Black Flower and Other Zapotec Poems by Natalia Toledo, translated by Claire Sullivan (Phoneme Media, 2015), puzzling over a seamless blend of the wild and the domestic, the real and the surreal; wondering at the understated, even casual assimilation of astonishment; and greatly admiring the fractal-like completeness of the smallest fragments. In a year when indigenous people throughout the hemisphere have mobilized and joined forces like never before in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, poetry such as Toledo’s stands as a reminder of just how diverse and vital literary traditions are in the Americas. (Not to mention ancient: Zapotec culture and writing go back at least 2500 years.) Here’s a bit of an untitled poem:

Fire is reborn on the soil of the earth
a tender leaf sleeps upon my eyelids.
My shadow walks the four paths
content, my skin shivers with ants.
A garden is my house
and the firefly on my back makes me translucent.

—Dave Bonta

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Bodymap coverReading poetry is one of my guilty pleasures. I tend to wander by the poetry section in the local bookstore (Literati) around each payday, and if I miss the bus and have to walk to the bus, well, life has FORCED me to walk past the poetry books, right? Recently (meaning months to years), I’ve been asking the bookstore over and over to stock more diverse poets. I was finding classics, and new books by academically acclaimed poets, and poetry books I’d already read, but was longing for the poems and voices of people of color, women, from other countries, people who are poor, or ill, or disabled, or immigrants, or… well, you get the idea. Diversity. I’d had a tough year, had lost several dear friends, friends who were diverse, so very diverse. I wanted poems that reverberated with experiences that stretched views and minds and hearts.

Then one day I stumbled upon Bodymap by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Mawenzi House, 2015). I felt the electricity shiver through it even before I bought the book. I couldn’t buy it fast enough, and that was just based on the back cover blurb: “Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha sings a queer disabled femme-of-colour love song filled with hard femme poetics.” Oh, yeah, baby, that’s what I need. The book itself did not disappoint. I read it luxuriously, in strict order, as if it was a story and each poem depended on the poems before. I read about terrible, terrible fatigue, and people who get it and don’t judge you for it. I read about growing up poor and colored and with so many cultures around you it becomes confusing to others when you are just being you. I read about hard life, hard sex, “alternative” sex, and vibrators for pain relief. I read about going to the hospital with friends who are afraid. I read about rape, best friends, moving from one country to another. I read about people who look at you, and you know they are afraid of you because you are ‘different,’ whatever that means.

I carried the book with me everywhere for months. I showed poems to people on the bus, in choir rehearsal, at orchestra concerts. I shoved it in their faces, scrambling through the pages, and saying, “Here! Read this! And this one! Isn’t it AMAZING?” I am not quoting from the poems because they are too powerful and too real to section, and squeeze the juice from them. These are poems to read greedily, and carefully. Stuff your mouth and mind full of them, and let the juice run down your chin. Then read another one, peeling it carefully, removing every shred of bitter white, and marveling at the glorious architecture of how each word glistens inside.

I cried, and laughed, and gasped reading this book. I went back and read who commented on the book, who wrote the “Praise for…” sections, and I bought books by all of them. This was a book that opened to me a mature world of poetry like the one I fell in love with as a teenager, when I discovered “Mountain Moving Day” and “Beginning with O” and “Queen of Swords.” This is woman’s poetry that opens a window on lives rarely witnessed in our culture, powerful poetry, poetry for the excluded and marginalized, poetry for those who want or need to bear witness, to understand, to peep inside a life that is unfamiliar in print but oh so very familiar in the lives of my friends and neighbors. I love this book of poetry in a way I haven’t loved a poetry book in many years. I cannot praise it enough.
PF Anderson

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If I Go Missing coverMy pick for the book of my year is Octavio Quintanilla’s debut collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014).

The poetry sings true and the matter matters.
Katherine Durham Oldmixon

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Highway Sky by James Brush (Coyote Mercury Press, 2016). It reads like a road movie, and there are film references in it. Diverse poetic forms give a range of rhythmic experiences, like musical variation. The poems evoke nostalgia for a wilder freer time, a time of wrestling demons and coming to a new understanding of life. The tone is serious, at times confessional, and also at times humorous, at others uplifting: many shades as the narrative progresses. Themes of history in the American landscapes traversed are a strong thread in the collection. I love the pared back writing style, which is also somehow rich with detail.

My disclosure of interest in this collection is firstly that I had the pleasure of reading and commenting on the manuscript prior to its publication. I was later also involved in a musical piece and video incorporating one of the poems, ‘God Bless Johnny Cash’. This was possible because James has licensed the whole of ‘Highway Sky’ on a Creative Commons remix license, though he also gave his permission when I contacted him by email. He and I are friends over the net.
Marie Craven
[Click through to the book’s webpage to watch all the videos and listen to the music based on its poems. —Dave]

Birds Nobody Loves by James Brush

Birds Nobody Loves Birds Nobody Loves: A Book of Vultures & GracklesJames Brush; Coyote Mercury Press 2012WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
This evening was our local Audubon chapter’s annual spring banquet, featuring a presentation called “Confessions of a Reluctant Birder” by naturalist-blogger Jennifer Scott Schlick, so how better to prepare myself this morning than by reading another blogger-friend’s graceful and entertaining new book of poems about grackles and vultures? James Brush is from Austin, Texas, where grackles are almost as despised as the Texas state legislature, though I think they are in session at least twice as often. Years ago, when my brother Mark was getting his M.A. from the University of Texas, I took the bus down to visit him a couple of times and was deeply impressed by the size of the grackle flocks and the variety of interesting sounds the birds could produce. Watching them come into roost along the riverbank at dusk was an impressive sight, rivaling as a spectacle the emergence of the Mexican free-tailed bats from underneath the Congress Avenue Bridge on the other side of the river. Oddly, though, few of the people gathered to wait for the bats did more than glance in the grackles’ direction. Why not?

James Brush’s poems offer a few clues. A humorous haibun, “The Grackle Tree,” begins: “After a few days under the grackle tree, the blue sedan began to develop a white pox, which spread with each passing night.” People fire shotgun blanks into the tree with little effect, and

After a month, no one remembered what color the car had been, and no one ever discussed its owners or what became of them.

grackle tree
boughs shake and chatter
at the cars

Brush uses hyperbole to good effect. In one poem he imagines fundamentalists from Kansas coming down to Austin to demonstrate with signs that read “God hates grackles.” In another, “Quiscalus Mexicanus,” the Mexican great-tailed grackles come under fire on right-wing talk radio:

Grackles are socialists. They weren’t born in the U.S. Grackles do what Hitler did. Shouldn’t even call ’em passerines; they’re not even birds. Sub-birds at best.

Another poem describes the reactions of various people when Brush tells them his greyhound Joey ate a grackle: “Yuck, but your dog will be fine,” says animal emergency. “Ewww,” says another veterinarian. And a friend relishes the dog’s new appetite: “Thank goodness. Grackles are awful.” For his part, the author simply notes how much more attentive Joey has become to his daily filling of the fird feeders. Dog and master share a new tie, bound by their appreciation for this “bird nobody loves.”

Grackle poems alternate with poems about turkey vultures and black vultures — both species that we have here in central Pennsylvania, as well. I don’t know that these birds are as disregarded by serious birders as Brush says they are in Texas, perhaps because we’re on the Eastern Flyway and people at the spring and autumn hawk watches tally migrating vultures with as much enthusiasm as anything else. Also, there’s nothing more elegant in flight than a turkey vulture, its wings curved up in a very shallow V, rocking back and forth in the wind or circling on thermals but rarely flapping. Brush captures some of this grace in his micropoem sequence, “A Committee of Vultures”:

shadows
across a brown field
vultures       circling

[…]

in a cloudless sky
a vulture circles the prairie
seeking an ending

Of course, vultures can be somewhat repulsive, too: “We shit on our own feet,” begins “Creed for Cathartes Aura.” And black vultures clustered around a corpse seem to be plotting how to hone their predatory skills.

Straightening their ties, they discuss
elaborate plans to go public. Someday,
they claim, they will become hawks or eagles.
(“Good Authority”)

Since some of the poems are autobiographical, I couldn’t help wondering whether Brush might’ve put a bit of himself in “Lines Discovered in an Aging Ornithologist’s Field Journal”:

When the end comes, don’t
plant me in the ground, trapped
in just one piece of earth.

Why not leave me by
the highway for the vultures
and maybe for the crows
who will take my unseeing eyes.

Then, at last, I could soar,
finally fly on dusky wings
outstretched,

buried in the sky.

This is a fun book, and light-weight enough to slip easily in a knapsack with the field guides.