A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. You can also browse the blog digest archive or subscribe to its RSS feed in your favorite feed reader. This week, I made the questionable decision of trying to set up a new phone at the same time as I was compiling the digest, so what follows may seem more of a jumble than usual. If so, my apologies. All I can say with confidence is that there’s a lot of good stuff here.
Snow covers the beachLuisa A. Igloria, Say Winter Without Saying White
and drifts over dunes
like a ghost sail. It falls
without a sound,
without an echo—
that locks hundreds
of travelers for hours in
their cars, on the black
ice stretch of highways
from south to north.
Even in this world, light
can have a thousand
names. Cypress and pine
and fir link arms,
reminding me of green.
“Make it new!” It’s been over 20 years since I got my MFA, but that command still resounds. I remember learning it from Liam Rector, of blessed memory, then the director of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Liam was big and brash and often urged us to “make it new,” though the thing he said most often was “Always Be Closing” — words that took on new resonance after his suicide.
“Make it new” comes from Ezra Pound, or so I learned at the time. It turns out those words are quite a bit older, and I’m glad to know they originate with Ch’eng T’ang, since Pound turns out to be a fascist and an antisemite. The poets to whom I most frequently turn are masters of taking the familiar and making it new. Naomi Nye, Jane Kenyon, Mary Oliver: they make it look easy.
This requires both noticing (like Moses at the burning bush) and craft. I want to do what they do. I want to weave something luminous and lasting out of the threads of daily life, like the cloak of mitzvot the Zohar says the righteous will wear in the world to come. But sometimes I sit down at my loom, as it were, and the threads break in my hands. This week is one of those times.
My father’s been in the hospital with COVID. I’ve been bracing for a death that has miraculously not come. (The miracle is the vaccines; his doctors said so repeatedly, as though we needed convincing.) It’s not clear what “recovery” will mean, but I’m not racing to Texas for a funeral. A week ago, I was sure I would be. Finally I can exhale. But I don’t seem to have poems in me now about that.
I don’t have poems in me now about the terrorist attack at the synagogue outside of Fort Worth, or about how it’s rippling into Jewish community life. I don’t have poems in me about what it feels like to sit with my community and talk about what we would do if. Someone can probably make great poems out of balancing spiritual vulnerability with a panic button, but not me, not now.
I don’t have poems in me about the spike of adrenaline every time my child has a symptom, or I have a symptom, or a loved one has a symptom, after two years of pandemic. I don’t have poems in me about the constant sense of living in Schrödinger’s box: is that an ordinary virus or is it COVID? Should I use one of our few at-home tests to find out? If I use a test, can I trust the results?Rachel Barenblat, Making it new
For this poetry prompt to help you write a love poem to a word, start by reading “Lover” by Ada Limón and give some thought to what you like/admire.
My affection for this poem starts with how Limón manages to write what reads to me as a pandemic poem* — as many of us have tried! — without mentioning the pandemic at all. She adeptly describes feelings I recognize as the despair and haze of lengthy social-distancing practices and lock down:
– “nothing, nothing is funny”
– “an oblivion-is-coming sort of way”
– “this gray waiting”
– “I trust the world to come back”
Limón’s instinct here is brilliant: the pandemic can’t claim sole ownership of those ideas about the world. As much as I hate to say so, there are and will always be plenty of reasons to despair. If Limón is in fact writing a pandemic poem, she wisely limits those references to subtle gestures, extending the shelf life of this poem. The poem is vaguely set in our current pandemic moment, but it isn’t about the pandemic.
The poem also isn’t about the narrator’s lover/s. It’s not really about lovers at all. Instead, it’s about the word lover.Carolee Bennett, choose a word and write a love poem to it
gentle in January
folding and sticking
it’s an ideas month
a genetic thingAma Bolton, ABCD January 2022
In “Notes on the Danger of Notebooks,” an essay in Synthesizing Gravity, Kay Ryan writes, “Isn’t it odd to think that in order to listen we must be a little bit relieved of the intention to understand? This, of course, is the danger of notebooks. They are the devil’s bible. They are the books of understanding later.”
Notebooks are “a shell to protect us from loss,” Ryan declares, in an existence where “almost everything is supposed to get away from us.” As beings constantly moving through time, we keep notebooks as letters to our future selves about what’s already happened.
Ryan, a practitioner of what she calls “derichment,” the opposite of enrichment, advocates radical simplicity. Only then, she says, will we really notice change, which leads to ideas and creativity. “Change will enter and twist like a drop of ink, the tiniest bit of new per old.” About enrichment, Ryan asks, “Children, it is often maintained, must be enriched; bread must be enriched. Weren’t they rich already? Wouldn’t you have to degrade them somehow in order to make them need enrichment?”
It’s not notebooks, or “spiral hinged objects,” as Ryan calls them, but “getting stuck in them.” We write things in our journals that strike us at the moment, but upon reflection, these notes to our future selves may or may not—usually not—deliver on the promise of a new idea.
I say this as a dedicated journal-keeper for many years, with stacks of notebooks filled with my jottings, lists, sketches, and freewrites to prove it. I absolutely advocate and am a practitioner of journal-writing, but, as Ryan notes, with some caveats.Erica Goss, The Danger of Notebooks
I will admit to mixed feelings about prompts. Prompts can act as shortcuts to the process of composing, but I am the kind of writer who prefers the long haul; for some reason, the struggle of finding something to say, and an interesting way to say it, assists me in writing poems. I’m not in a hurry. I revise frequently. If it takes a long time to get to the finished poem, so be it. Sometimes I’ve followed a prompt and produced quite a nice poem, but maybe the voice or style or approach does not feel like my own. That’s a potential downside to prompt use. I have read poems by other writers that sound like prompt-produced poems. Some of them are fine work and yet…
This isn’t to suggest prompts lead to inauthentic or cookie-cutter poems (though that can happen, especially with inexperienced poets new to the task). I think it depends on how the prompt is presented or written and, in addition, the environment surrounding the process of thinking about writing. What works best for me is a prompt that makes suggestions I have to complete or devise for myself. Ambiguity with specifics, if that makes any sense–or specifics with ambiguity.
The environment in which I’m currently working includes a group of seven people, with whom I had not previously been acquainted, meeting online, and a moderator/leader who makes observations non-judgmentally and asks questions concerning where this poem draft could go next. And yes, there are also prompts. What I like about Elena Georgiou’s prompts is their open-endedness. Because none of us are beginning writers, we feel free to disregard any part of the prompt that doesn’t appeal to us–or to follow it closely to force us out of well-worn poetry habits–depending on our internal environment on the day we happen to be tuning in or trying the prompts. We are a group of independent people who are collectively thinking about writing. That’s something of value.Ann E. Michael, Prompted
For me, midwinter is a time of introversion. I’m three weeks into my university’s winter term, so I’m planning and leading discussions and meetings constantly, but they’re usually based on study and solitary thinking–not extroverted stuff, even though there’s a social, performative aspect to the work.
The class based on NEW reading and thinking is an upper-level seminar on Contemporary Poetry. I think of it as a spiral: we start locally, broaden out to work from other countries, and finally cut back to North America again to end with Joy Harjo. The first four weeks are based on books I’ve never taught before: the anthologies Literary Field Guide to Southern Appalachia and Counter–Desecration: A Glossary for Writing Within the Anthropocene, and the very new individual collections White Blood by Kiki Petrosino and The Adjacent Possible by my near neighbor, Julie Phillips Brown. (You’ll see below a poster for a reading this week pairing Julie with my colleague Brenna Womer; February readings are only advisable in iffy winter weather when the authors are REALLY local!) All this was a little ambitious: 10-20% revision of a syllabus is advisable to keep things fresh, but 50% means a lot of work, and it’s not like there’s criticism yet to guide my thinking. Teaching White Blood last week, I didn’t find any reviews that extended my ideas, although they were good. There was, however, an interview with Petrosino in The Adroit that helped enormously. Since the book contains three erasure poems based on an ancestry test, I also had my class try their hands at erasure based on a segment of the university’s website explaining why Washington and Lee is still named after the leader of the Confederate army. One of my students created a particular cutting one, implying that the decision was all about money. His was much better than mine!Lesley Wheeler, Mind of winter (not)
The fun of digging out is that we are digging out from what we are seldom digging out from. We are not working our way out of spates and chains of email, nor piles of snail mail, nor escaping oppressive debt, nor solving social tangles of our own absurdity, nor pulling back from excess of adjectives or superlatives that have piled up in a crush of ecstatic emotion, a dizzying sense that this equals that — therefore the more metaphor, the more alike the underlying structures of the whole world.
Phew! We are digging out from snow. Two glorious feet of it. With shovels and muscle and terrifically repetitive motion. Some with snow blowers, and some with plows attached with pickup trucks with brackets. We are scraping off layers to get to deeper layers that will eventually yield a familiar bottom.
We are digging out. The spinning that we often do, as poets, is calmed. Replenishing, never static. We can feel ourselves like birds gathered in trees, shaking off the branches, thinking of nothing but delight.Jill Pearlman, Digging Out, Literally!
We are living in a new Age of Authoritarianism, and it is incumbent on all of us to fight its oppressive spirit wherever we find it, even when it is within us. Technology has created new tools for state surveillance, mass disinformation, and capitalist exploitation, but it has also given us new means to highlight injustice, organize resistance, and express solidarity. The Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar does not concern just the Burmese, but all of us. One year after the military coup against a democratically elected government, if we permit the Burmese dictatorship to legitimize itself, we reinforce the powers of totalitarianism and weaken the forces of liberty everywhere.Jee Leong Koh, “Tyranny Needs No Companions”
We need to heed the voices of resistance in this vital anthology, Picking Off New Shoots Will Not Stop the Spring: Witness poems and essays from Burma/Myanmar 1998–2021. The voices are many and various, but they all say, Courage! Fatefully, eight days before he was shot dead by Myanmar security forces in a protest, the acclaimed poet K Za Win wrote, “The fuse of the Revolution/ is either you or myself!” The gauntlet is thus thrown down to all, like me, who would claim to be poets. A schoolteacher too, I cannot help but be moved by Min San Wai’s poem, dedicated to Pan Ei Phyu, a 14-year-old girl who was killed by a bullet that penetrated her home. “There’s a hole the size of a pencil tip,” Min writes, “in the bamboo wall of our house.” Pan Ei Phyu will never hold another pencil, but we can hold it for her, by writing her story large.
Gaudy Boy is honored to publish this necessary collection of witness writings in the US—together with ally publishers Ethos Books in Southeast Asia and Balestier Press in the UK—and pledges to donate all profits to the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar. We will take to heart the courage of these inspired defenders of democracy.
No God but capitalism,
the new religion, fascism disguised
as businessman, always male,
always taking what is not his.
Brute heart, not enough stakes
to keep you dead.
We thought we had vanquished
your kind permanently last century
or was it the hundred years before?
As our attics crash into our basements,Kristin Berkey-Abbott, International Holocaust Remembrance Day
what soft rains will come now?
The fire next time,
the ashes of incinerated bodies,
the seas rising on a tide
of melted glaciers.
I watch the presenters on wildlife/nature programmes, walking through the empty countryside, enjoying the beautiful views, the flora and fauna, and I think: I want to be there – or at least out and about. Some people can get out into nature. Some can’t. Access to nature is a topic covered in numerous articles and official papers and is a vast subject. This is just my view, doubtless coloured by how I feel right now.
It’s not a straightforward issue, because different people want different things, obviously. For example, how do we protect the feeling of actually being in nature? If everyone has access to nature and uses it, then you could find you’ve gone out into a crowd rather than into nature, unless you go somewhere really wild, and, oh yes, less accessible. Difficult to reconcile the two. There’s also the issue of protecting nature, not damaging it, while out enjoying it.
I am very lucky in that I live near the sea, on an island with wonderful habitats for nature, where, theoretically, I could walk for miles or just sit and observe. But I can’t walk for miles – I have MS, my legs are not as strong as they were and I have real balance issues and can fall very easily. Many of the places I want to see I need a car to get to, and some places now charge for entry too. There are other issues as well, which I’ll get to. But I’m still one of the lucky ones, because, with help, I can still get out and about, but oh, how nice it would be if I could do it on my own. Oh, and I have a small garden, so I can go there.
But large numbers of people don’t have a garden, or a local green space, let alone access to nature reserves or the wide open spaces of the countryside. And if they can get there, will they be able to get about independently? Wheelchair users and people with disabilities of all kinds may find navigating open spaces difficult, if not impossible, on their own. Many places are not accessible by public transport and most places where you go by car, if you have one, now charge for parking and/or entry, so it’s also a question of whether you can afford it.
Women often don’t feel safe alone on the streets. There is no good reason why they’d feel any safer in natural open spaces. You could go in a group – which can be great, if you’re a group sort of person – but what if you’re trying to get away from everyone and everything? You just want peace and quiet and nature. Some people like groups, some like crowds, but some want to be on their own, at least some of the time. And if you don’t feel safe, you can’t.Sue Ibrahim, Access to nature
Years ago, I was involved in a long, drawn-out poetry competition wherein one poet was eliminated each week over twelve weeks. It caused me a fair bit of literary trauma and it is an experience that I shall not deem to repeat. It was frankly quite vicious and soul-destroying, and it’s when I first learned that poets are cruel. That having been said, I came in fourth overall, and I won a few of the weekly challenges. This poem is one of the winners. I can’t recall all of the specifics of the assignment, but we had to write a poem about Dolly Parton using phrases from some of her songs. My poem was deemed by the All-Knowing God King of Poetry Judges to be the best one that week. The following week I got completely brutalized, of course. Nothing like a little psychological abuse to keep me on my toes. Enjoy! […]
When did you love Dolly most?Kristen McHenry, Poem of the Month, Ah, Memories
When she was a raven,
bedraggled with sorrow,
and I sought soulfulness to borrow.
My first in-love-with, Lady Lament.
We sang together of sweet descent;
baptized anguish, but never drowned.
Little sparrow, little sparrow,
your voice has that high, lonesome sound.
About 25 years ago, I wrote music to a childhood poem one of my closest friends wrote when she was in her early teens. At her funeral a few years before — she committed suicide in her early 20s — this was the poem that was used to memorialize her.
I’ve been wanting to make something with this poem and this tune since then as a tribute to her and to somehow capture something of my memory and grief over her loss, now about 30 years ago. I still think of her often. I hope this captures something of the beauty, sensitivity, and bittersweetness of her words and that there is something of her in the music. My sister-in-law sang the beautiful vocals for me and I’m grateful to have this tune sung so hauntingly after all these years.Gary Barwin, Geese of the Wild: In memoriam Margo Sim
Yes, she is a poet made of bird feathers and truth.
She writes on the blank page as if she were creatingJames Lee Jobe, creating a flag for a nation
the flag of a new nation, as if she were drawing
the sky from memory.
My tip for today is to mine your curiosities (and obsessions!). What are you thinking about a lot? Listening to podcasts about? Reading books about? Perhaps, like me, you may have a range of things catching your interest right now (mine are Puritans, Pokemon, MFK Fisher, Wendell Berry-esque homesteading).
So, let’s take Pokemon for example (gotta catch them all). Let’s say you are interested in all the different little creatures, and how did they think of so many, and what inspired the show, and why are some of them really close to animals but some are more human like, and isn’t that weird for a trainer to train the more human like ones (like Mr. Mime)?
Research the crap out of all that stuff! Then start writing poems about it. And maybe you write like three pokemon poems, and it’s over. Obsession faded, something else prettier walks by.
But maybe not! Maybe you write 100 poems about Pokemon! And you start sending them to journals, and you make a collection, and all of a sudden you have a poetry book “Gotta Catch Them All!” that wins some hoity toity prize.
And it all started with your obsession. Actually — your curiosity. So want to write more? Get curious!Renee Emerson, Tips for Writing Productivity: Follow your Curiosity
A few weeks ago I received an email from the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS) that an occasional poem I wrote for the Emma Lazarus Project: Poetry Contest was the first of two finalists, along with a winner. I was most delighted due to the fact that my poem “Dear American Lady” will be archived with Emma Lazarus’ original sonnet “The New Colossus.”
In her acceptance email with the AJHS, Manager of Programs & Operations Rebeca Miller wrote, ” Our judges had an incredibly tough time choosing from hundreds of incredible entries made from across the country. Only two finalists were selected for each category, and in honor of this accomplishment we have posted your poem on the AJHS website in our Poetry Gallery…[and]your poem will be placed next to the work of Emma Lazarus in the AJHS archive to be appreciated for generations to come.” (italics mine)
I have to say those are pretty stellar digs for my poem to be archived with “The New Colossus.”
And coming on the heels of my intentionally taking a break from writing/publishing the whole of 2021.
As defined by the Poetry Foundation, an occasional poem is one written to “describe or comment on a particular event…,” and generally not considered the most pleasurable of endeavors to execute, as the subject matter is handed to a poet on a prescribed platter and while not distinctly uttered, a party line is courteously insinuated. That said, “I acknowledge” the latter half of the last line of “DAL” is a party line. I felt the need to wrap it up, and I was sorely limited to 14 lines, a truncation of my natural narrative poetic voice.Cynthia Schwartzberg Edlow, Onward 2022
We come from the stone age:
the magic happens here.
It is medicine,
sediment of history
it is everything
multipleErnesto Priego, 35. El molcajete
One thing I did do this week was think about cover art! BOA sent me an author questionnaire and also some forms about cover art for my upcoming book, which sent me into a deep dive and thinking about what the cover of “Flare, Corona” should look like. First, I found out there’s an anime character from a series called “Fairy Tails” named “Flare Corona.” So that was a discovery. Then I found out it’s sort of hard to find a perfect picture of an eclipse with a corona and solar flares, and even if I do, does that really convey the ideas that the book contains? In other words, does it do what good cover art should do – make you want to read the book? I also thought about using a close up from an MRI of a brain lesion, which is only black and white but sort of cool, a black hole with a white halo, but ultimately nixed the idea as too depressing. Most of my books have an identifiable human female on the cover, so going more abstract would be a departure.Jeannine Hall Gailey, Still Sick with Ice Fog, Thinking About Cover Art, And When Will the Pandemic End?
Many decades ago, there were places in the US/UK that published snippets of prose – I think Readers Digest had little pieces for example. But these outlets dried up so the authors of these short texts, if they wanted them published, had to send them to poetry magazines. Putting in line-breaks helped. Of course, prose-poetry existed, but that term was reserved for surreal, discontinuous works. Also popular was the idea of making all the stanzas of a poem the same size of rectangle, as if there was a metrical/rhyming pattern. Read Paul Durcan’s poems to see how it’s done.
Then Flash emerged, providing a natural home for short narratives again. Various other short prose formats became popular too. Authors of short pieces no longer needed to add gratuitous line-breaks. Some authors have taken advantage of this. Carolyn Forché has re-published her famous “The Colonel” poem as prose. […]
Nowadays poetry readers seem capable of not caring about line-breaks. When they start reading a poem I think they decide whether it’s the sort of piece where line-breaks matter and read the piece accordingly. Neither do they care much if there’s obvious prose in a poetry book. I suspect it’s been going on covertly for a while. I read a U.A. Fanthorpe book recently. It looked like a mixture of poetry and prose. Her famous “Not my Best Side” is like the prose I try to write. I doubt if the Trades Description Act can be applied. That said, I think Poetry judges could be braver.
If you can’t beat them, join them. I have prose and poetry versions of some pieces. I’ve short-lined and long-lined versions of poems. I’ve even (shame on me) taken a paragraph from a story of mine, added some line-breaks, and had it published in a poetry mag.Tim Love, Mixed genre poetry books
My hiking shoes punch into the crusted snow. I’m not hiking, just walking across the landscape of what might be my next stop. The barn is empty. The education center is empty. The bathrooms are open. The lights are on in the welcome center, but the sign in the window has been flipped to CLOSED. No matter. I want to get the lay of this land and I don’t need to talk to anyone to do it. At the end of the plowed path are two hopeful solar panels, pointing up through the clouds. An act of faith. A sign tells me to watch for beavers. I don’t see any.
spiked solesJason Crane, A hopeful haibun
pull the ground up
through the snow
I ran before writing this morning. Heading out, we heard a songbird along the trail, and turning back I saw her in a beam of light from the trail lamp. A chaffinch. I think it’s another six weeks before they all return. Another three months before we see the sunrise on our runs. Until then, the crows squabble in the dark. And on occasion, a duck laughs and splashes.
A lonely chaffinch chatters.
This morning there is something tight in my center. A clenched fist shoved under my diaphragm, and I have to keep my mouth closed. I am still not sure how I feel about observing this separation of emotion and intellect. I know this is something I am cultivating for a reason. But often I just want to rebel against my intellect and scream. There is a steady stream of soft curses coming from my mouth these days and it surprises me. My vernacular is unnecessarily colorful, though impassioned. I used to tell my kids not to curse unless they needed to. That powerful words lose their cathartic magic when they are overused and worn thin. Yet, here I am now. Under my breath, on the breath, rolling through my inner monologues.
I blame the darkness and the cold that makes a body tense.
Leonard is curled on the rug. Part of his body slipped under the desk. He loves lying under tables and in corners. Like most dogs, I suppose. Why can’t I be more like him? To curl into the darkness and cold, tucking into himself. Relaxing. If I could I would head off to a dark cabin and light a fire and curl up with a notebook. Womb-safe.Ren Powell, Prayers and Curses
The thing is, I don’t have a problem with titles. What I do have a problem with is the business of working on a full collection. Because (I think) I’ve just finished one. I realise that it’s the first time I’ve admitted it in print and that it’s the first one that I’ve done that wasn’t the result of winning a competition or of putting stuff together to submit for a competition (or the one that I had to do for an MA that I hated doing). Quite simply, it arose from the realisation that I’m running out time, and the accompanying sense that I’d like to tie up loose ends and leave everything neat and orderly. It’s the kind of urge that had me stripping my classroom at the end of each term, cleaning, sweeping, ready for a new term and new ideas, or, if I was leaving, a new occupant. It’s a collection that includes a sequence that’s taken me at least five years to fettle. Whether it works or not, I can’t say, but the two authors I shared at the beginning made me think I’d like to reflect on why it took so long. Here we go.
Nearly six years ago I wrote a post called “Please, Miss, I don’t know what to write.”
I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now, a lot less sure of myself; I said, brusquely enough, that if you can’t write right now, if you’re blocked, or whatever, it’s because there’s nothing you urgently need to say, and you’d be better off going out into the world and collecting memories and experiences.
I need to rethink this, because the problem as often as not is not having nothing to write about, but possibly too much.John Foggin, Watching the river flow…..
Yesterday, I put the final touches on the galley and cover for animal, vegetable, monster and uploaded it, which means it is one step closer and I should have a proof copy within a couple of weeks. No doubt there will be much tweaking once I see that before it’s finalized (margins are always a beast) but I am getting speedier on the process than I was a year ago when I was working on feed, which took significantly more trial and error to come into being (and even the end result still had a couple errors I plan to fix when I order a new batch of copies, but for the moment am well-stocked..) dark country was definitely better, despite the changed up trim size that made it trickier. I am getting the hang of it, which, if all goes well might mean some anthologies might be possible on the horizon (that is, once I am able to knock out the book art-ish one devoted to mermaids I may actually finally have time to make happen now that I won’t be at the library so much of my days.
I am also getting more comfortable in this strange world of self-publishing (well, longer books, I’ve been issuing my own work for a couple decades now in smaller installments.) There is something great about working with a press to bring a book into [the] world, but also something singularly enjoyable about this. (I wrote a comparison last year that sums it up.) I hope I will continue to be able to do a little of both–I have many, many projects and some earmarked to submit / already under consideration elsewhere. Someone asked me recently if I wasn’t worried a little about that nasty little hobgoblin “legitimacy” but really, at this point, I really just want to get things out there for interested readers, which blissfully, since I am not tied to tenure tracks and other limitations is how I conduct this crazy little thing called po-biz. I’m not saying I don’t occasionally need an editor’s fine tuning hand, but also it’s finally middle age is paying off in how many limited fucks I really give about what people might say. Which is all a little hilarious since I spent so much time in my baby poet days fretting about it and now it feels exactly like it should be.Kristy Bowen, the self publishing diaries
I’m charmed by the prose sweep of Davis, California poet Katie Peterson’s fifth poetry collection, Life in a Field: Poems (Berkeley CA: Omnidawn, 2021), winner of the “Omnidawn Open,” as judged by New York poet and essayist Rachel Zucker. Peterson is the author of This One Tree (New Issues, 2006), which was awarded the New Issues Poetry Prize by judge William Olson, Permission(New Issues, 2013), The Accounts (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which won the Rilke Prize, and A Piece of Good News (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2019). As her author website writes, Life in a Field is built “as a collaboration with the photographer Young Suh,” a photographer who also happens to be Peterson’s husband. As Rachel Zucker begins her piece to open the collection: “I found the book you are about to read delightfully easy to enjoy, and yet I find it difficult to explain what I love about it, and why I knew, with conviction, that from among a group of extremely strong entries, I would pick this manuscript for publication. Like most great poetry, Life in a Fieldis impossible to summarize or paraphrase. More than most poetry, it eludes formal categorization. Life in a Field is hybrid, mongrel—part allegory, part parable, part fable, part fairytale, part futurist pastoral set in the past or an alternate reality. In this short collection, Peterson has created her own original, heterodox form.” Peterson’s texts exist as the best kind of collaboration, in that the connections between text and image aren’t obvious or even replicated between them. These aren’t pieces depicting in photography or written word, for example, what is offered in the other form; it is as though the text and image exist in a curious kind of conversation with each other, each in turn reflecting upon and building beyond the other. As Peterson offers, herself, towards the end of the collection: “I have always thought that the opposite of chance was focus.”
In this story there is a girl and there is a donkey. The girl approaches the donkey because the girl has something to say. What is it?
Through blocks and stretches of contained prose, she writes the narrative of the donkey, and the narrative of the girl: two threads that run throughout, occasionally meeting, mingling and spiralling out again, in among the other elements. One could offer how Life in a Field is a story of how perception works to telling a story, or how narration shapes perception, whether the truth of the donkey or the truth of the girl, or the truth of the girl within her church, and the boundaries such offers, contains and constricts. “Because we are so far past this story,” she writes, “I wish to linger on it. This story is not your story. You are not meant to relate to it. You are meant to pitch a tent inside this page like a down and out person might do by the American River, under the trestle tracks, where the outgrowth and heat and greenery and shade in proximity to water makes a drought as unlikely as a marriage of equals in a century where women can’t read. You are meant to believe you can live there.” Between text and image, this is a book of mood, tone and shifts, writing far more than the writing might first offer, and threads of narrative that float, rather than hold, hang or pull.
Peterson writes of a donkey, and of a girl. One could almost suggest the collection as a whole—prose poems, poems and image—is constructed not as a narrative-per-se but as a collage across a large canvas, one that speaks around privilege, love, labour, time, decay and empathy. The book, Life in a Field, is simply the final, completed single image; one simply has to stand back far enough to get a good look, and take it all in.rob mclennan, Katie Peterson, Life in a Field: Poems
I’ve been feeling bad for poets whose books were released during the Pandemic, poets whose book launches were cancelled or never scheduled, poets who haven’t been able to do in-person readings. I asked myself, Aside from buying lots of books, what could I do, especially for my own Terrapin poets? So I devised an idea for an interview series. I invited all of my Terrapin poets to select one poet whose book had come out during the Pandemic. They were invited to choose a poet whose book they’d read or wanted to read and then to come up with five questions for that poet to respond to. The response was wonderful! Thirteen poets offered to do a Q&A. Some of these were poets with a Pandemic book themselves but some were poets without a Pandemic book. Lots of generosity among my poets! Yvonne Zipter was the first Terrapin poet to volunteer; she chose to interview Heather Swan about her Terrapin book A Kinship with Ash.
Yvonne was also the first poet to complete her interview. Here is that Q&A.
[…]Diane Lockward, Terrapin Books Interview Series: Yvonne Zipter Interviews Heather Swan
Yvonne: Your love of nature is evident throughout A Kinship with Ash. Have you always loved nature? From where does this appreciation spring?
Heather: I feel like I have always been a part of the natural world. I spent so much of my time outside as a little girl. The studios where my mother and father worked were luckily near spaces I could explore with my dog. I moved from the prairies and woodlands of the Midwest to Colorado where I lived in the mountains. Later we moved again to a town on the east coast by the ocean. Because I moved so often, my human friendships didn’t last long, but my dog was a constant companion with whom I explored these landscapes and this allowed a deep connection to the birds, the insects, and the land. All the beings we encountered in those spaces led interesting and important lives and spoke in languages I didn’t understand, but recognized as valuable and mysterious.
Yvonne: A number of the poems in this collection grapple with the effects of pesticides and climate change. They are all both heartbreaking and beautiful. What does writing such poems afford you?
Heather: The experience of loving this beautiful, fragile, miraculous planet at this historical moment also means being in touch with enormous grief as so many species are going extinct, as forest after forest is being killed, as fish are struggling to survive in toxic waters, as frogs and insects are disappearing. When I write, it is part elegy, part plea. When I write, I want to remember that while so much is being lost there is also so much to be grateful for. I hope that my poems are an invitation to readers to pay attention to the outrageous beauty and vast number of different intelligences out there as well as to question our impact on the world.
Yvonne: Your sweet motherhood poems also showcase your love of nature. My sense is that this entwining is part of what fuels your anxiety about the state of our world. Can you elaborate on this?
Heather: Funny, this question made me tear up. Yes, of course. I am a parent and a teacher. My children have grown up on trails, in trees, in canoes spotting birds, insects, and frogs. A part of their community. They ache knowing so much of what they love is at risk. I invite my students to connect with each other and the planet, so they will be invested in the work of care. I think all the time about the next generations. Will polar bears still exist? Will the oldest trees survive? Will the coral reef thrive? I want so much to be a responsible ancestor, not just to my children, but to all humans and non-humans. I would like my work to offer an invitation to intimacy with the earth and also hope that we can change things for the better.
Yesterday was the memorial service for my poet friend Bill. What a lovely event, and we read several of his poems aloud. His wife and sons spoke, colleagues, and a close friend who is a retired Unitarian minister. Bill was not a churchgoing man, but he wanted her to say his eulogy. His son and grandson, opera singers, sang! Laughter and tears. Cello music. Veterans presenting colors. Masks. Exactly what was needed. Life goes on, and loss is part of it.Kathleen Kirk, Bathsheba and the Stinkbug
Today I want to talk about making marks, making your mark, mark-making. If you’re an artist or writer or creative person, you’re making marks on a regular basis. But everyone makes marks, even if it is on a screen. I’d like to make a case for the simple joy of making marks on a regular basis.
I love what Lisette Model said of the snapshot (photo), “We are all so overwhelmed by culture that it is a relief to see something which is done directly, without any intention of being good or bad, done only because one wants to do it.” And then there is the Andy Warhol quotation that gets a lot of airing out: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.”
So I believe that that is extremely true and useful at the same time as I believe that we need to hold art and artists up to the highest standards. Art is not easy; art is not hard. Don’t let yourself off the hook. But also, just make your marks, and worry later if it’s just for you, or which ones you want to discard, which you want to show to your circle of friends, and then possibly a larger audience.Shawna Lemay, Make your Mark
Beneath the four-count of a jukebox moon, we strip down to our underwear, bras and panties.
We navigate the slap and caress of cool summer waters, a feeling of liquid electricity shocking us crystal clear despite the smoke and booze in our blood.
We paddle through the post-pubescent murkiness:
blossoming acne, body hair, raging sex drives.
We push one another under; we lift one another up.
We swim away our blues.
We swim away the future.
We swim to outrace that strange feeling inside us, the ache of a deep blue empty.
Some of us glide effortlessly through the water; others swim with all their might—
caged birds discovering their first flight beyond the bars.Rich Ferguson, Teenage years of nightswimming with friends in our small-town lake.
to dive into that waveJim Young, the sea swimmer
not the next one
but this one now
to gasp at the grasp
of a life resurfaced
seething in angor animi
ashore being assuredly
as absurd as this sea is
home to that thought