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. This week: signs of spring, political and philosophical reflections, loves and deaths.
There’s an air of spring
examining the frozen
earth by touch, shyly.
We’re not ready yet
for happiness, the heavy
curtains are still closed.
At least the winter
would not lie to us, would not
say all will be good.
One doesn’t know now.Magda Kapa, February 2021
A teetering peregrine at the pinnacle of an iced tree. But chickadees. Orioles? Nuthatches. Voices changing. “I can smell the leaves under the water, under the ice,” I say. “Not spring, but evidence of it. Can you?” Amazed, he cannot. The infinite distance. Animal.
He says please don’t give up on me. The time of ice shatter and mud seems never to end, is always beginning and beginning: it’s nearly March again. “The sap is up in your willow, did you see?” I mention. He hadn’t, but now that I point it out, he can.
The horse is mad at me for being away. He shoves me pointedly, eats his apology carrots refusing to meet my eye, then caves and kisses me profusely. I laugh. The birds’ voices are new. Spring is just there, just outside the frame, in their tiny lungs and mouths.
I am lost, confused, clear, present, gone, awake, asleep, disoriented, alert. Loss is permanent, but it has no end, and mind doesn’t change the shape of it. Animal loyal. To faultlines. I saw a plain moth tonight,
her gray drab elation—JJS, spring
because the existential subtraction of the past year laid bare the excesses of my carefully contrived alignments,
because the new minimalist right angles of being are putting to shame the cursive blooms of February after a summer, a monsoon, a winter, of letting go,
because so much was so unnecessary, so exhausting, so mindless that turning away was turning inward, hearing myself, allowing the words to come when they were ready — like rain, like a storm, like the night — filling the spaces between here and sky, between me and myself, becoming a bridge that leads to another chance,
because when this stillness has passed, the chaos will come rushing back but there will be a memory of this time when so much nothing happened that it was still a little something,
because sometimes, something is more than enough
then the sky looked downRajani Radhakrishnan, Because February 2021
at the sea, and asked—
what is that strange colour?
around the headstone
of one who died at twenty:
This haiku of mine, published in Presence 56, resulted from a trip a couple of late-Februarys ago to Sheepleas, a nature reserve maintained by Surrey Wildlife Trust between West Horsley and East Horsley. […]
In his magnum opus Flora Britannica (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1996), Richard Mabey, the doyen of British nature writing who’s just turned 80, reminds us that the word ‘primrose’ derives from ‘prima rosa’, i.e. that it – Primula vulgaris – is the first flower of spring. […]
In my poem, I went for ‘first thought, best thought’ in describing the impact of the wind on the flowers. Sometimes, one can over-complicate a haiku by thinking too much about whether an adjective (or a verb) is the best fit. In this instance, it was definitely a case of following Roy Walker’s advice. But in one of those nice incidences of synchronicity (or deeply-buried unconscious association), a beautifully illustrated book, Shakespeare’s Flowers by Jessica Kerr (Longman, 1969), which I bought in Warwick on a visit there with John Barlow about 10 years ago, has jogged my memory of a famous quotation from Act 1, Scene iii of Hamlet: ‘Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine, / Himself the primrose path of dalliance / treads.’ Despite having studied Hamlet in depth several times in days gone by, I can’t claim that the allusion in my poem was deliberate. Pleasingly, the book lists several other mentions of the primrose in Shakespeare’s oeuvre, including the Porter’s line in Act 2, Scene iii of Macbeth, about ‘the primrose / way to the everlasting bon-fire.’ In The Two Noble Kinsmen, listed as a joint work between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, the primrose is described as ‘first-born child of Ver / Merry spring-time’s harbinger.’Matthew Paul, Sheepleas
second doseJames Brush, 02.26.21
winter rages deep
There are days in the circle of the year that carry an emotional weight. Children’s birthdays, parents’ death-days, anniversaries of weddings and disasters. I didn’t know the reason for my heavy heart last Sunday until I remembered that it was the day my father died 41 years ago, much younger than I am now.
On Monday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti died aged 101. One of the most influential poets of his generation. I saw his spellbinding performance at the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall in London. June 11th 1965. Keele to London and back the same night by thumb. Does anyone hitch-hike nowadays?
John Keats died 200 years ago on Tuesday, aged 25. His poetry is still resonant and memorable, still popular, still on the GCSE curriculum, still being learnt by heart as I did many years ago.
Imagine – I am sixteen
and suffering my first heartbreak.
English homework this week:
learn a stanza from Keats’s
Ode to a Nightingale. In class
Miss Wilson asks me to recite.
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
to cease upon the midnight with no pain …
Someone giggles. Someone guffaws.
To thy high requiem become a sod.
An explosion of mirth.
Miss Wilson tries to hide a smile.
Did I get it wrong?
No, says Miss Wilson,
you said it as if you meant it.
Next Friday will be the fourteenth anniversary of the car-bombing of the booksellers’ quarter in Baghdad. Commemorative readings have been held around the world every year since then.Ama Bolton, Anniversaries
Every time I write 2021, it seems like an impossibility. Still, the latter part of this week, the very last of February, has been warmer and the snow in its enormous drifts, slowly whittling away. I watched a video of the ice breaking up on the lake, which is a good sign (I know she’s over there, but the mounds of snow and sand make it hard to see her from the bus in daytime, and it’s all blackness on my way home in any season.) March is technically the beginning of spring according to meteorologists, but we have at least a few weeks where anything at all can happen. Still, I am in better sorts this weekend, even though it’s been a long grindy week that began with webpage building for a fairly large faculty publication showcase and ended with meetings and zooms and a backlog of ILL shipments needing to go out. Still I can walk freely on the sidewalks without dodging slush and ice, so it’s much better than even a week ago.
Today, I’ve been getting poems ready for my Pretty Owl Poetry reading this evening, the first I’ve done from home (the Poetry Foundation one I did in the library) I will likely shut the cats in the bedroom to stop them from interrupting as they occasionally do for most work-related meetings. I’m reading some of the tabloid poems, including the one in the journal (“Dick Cheney is a Robot”), as well as some of the conspiracy theory pieces that I’ve been working on this year. On one hand, virtual readings are nice since they let me read for things I would not have before due to location and with an unlimited audience to boot. I also do not have to spend 45 to an hour on public trans getting to readings in seeming every part of the city but my own. Also, my social awkwardness feels less acute via zoom in some ways, but more in others. We’ll see how it goes. I also need to keep reminding myself of time zone variations in the virtual world. It’s still strange to think that even a year ago, we’d never have dreamed the norm of reading to web cams instead of real people in a real room. That I’d even be doing a reading from my living room on a random Saturday night. What’s been lost, what’s been gained.Kristy Bowen, notes & things | 2/27/2021
I’m writing, here and there, editing pieces that have been hanging around ‘in progress’ for the last year or longer. My Scottish collection is up in the air. The publisher is struggling with the changes Brexit has brought to the publishing industry as well as personal issues and everything has been delayed and delayed again. I’m just trying not to think about it because I’m sure my living in the EU is going to throw up new problems when my book is considered.
My writing group went through a rough patch and has re-emerged a bit bruised, but hopefully stronger. I am grateful that we’re managing to reshape the group into something of which we can be proud. They have been a lifeline over the past year, even if only virtual and I would have hated if it broke apart.
Spring is coming, I’m sure. I can see it, patches of dead grass reappearing in the garden, but find it hard to put much faith in its promise. Covid is getting a stronger foothold here in Finland and while we’re trying to get the vaccine out, it’s a slow, painful wait. There is that chink of light slowing expanding.
I’ve had a few poems published while I’ve been dormant here. I’m very grateful to all the time and hard work all these editors and their staff have put in to produce these issues. I know it’s not easy. I’ve been wallowing in memories of my experiences in publishing in Edinburgh and though it’s very rose-coloured at the moment, I do remember it being very difficult and rarely rewarding from the day-to-day perspective.Gerry Stewart, The Light is Starting to Return
Like a sad dragon, I’m currently sitting on a diminishing hoard of potential poems for future issues of Shenandoah—Fall ’21 and Spring ’22, presuming we get there–knowing I can’t keep ALL the gold. I’m already rejecting good poems, trying to get down to 20-ish from more than 700 batches. The last couple of weeks have been largely a sifting process: holding each poem against the light, seeing how pieces might fit together.
One issue I’ve been pondering, in part triggered by a tweet from Kelli Russell Agodon: how are the poems I’m reading manifesting the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic? The answer I gave Kelli is that the poetic worlds seem a notch smaller: I’m getting more poems about the flora and fauna close to hand, fewer about conversation and art and the randomness of being a human walking around in the built world. That’s not a bad thing, but it can make the submission pile less various. I’m certainly coming across references to Covid-19, too, as well as elegies and poems about anxiety, depression, and isolation, but not as many as I expected. This may be because poetry has such a slow burn that we won’t really see the literary results of any crisis for a few years. It may also be because a lot of people just can’t write lately–their lives are busier and their brains can’t rev down enough for reflection. I’m interested to see how things shake out in the literary world and otherwise.Lesley Wheeler, The present and future of pandemic poetry
This is the second in my mini-series on UK & Irish poetry magazines. The three featured today are all long-standing publications.
Stand started up in 1954, when, according to the website, “Jon Silkin used his £5 redundancy money, received after trying to organise some of his fellow manual workers, to found a magazine which would ‘stand’ against injustice and oppression, and ‘stand’ for the role that the arts, poetry and fiction in particular, could and should play in that fight.”
What a brilliant story. Jon Silkin died in 1997 and the magazine has had a number of editors over the years, and a long association with the University of Leeds that continues to this day. John Whale is the current managing editor, and each edition seems to include a nice mix of both well-established and newer poets. It runs to around 150 pages and the landscape layout, while interesting, offers I suspect some challenges. The name of every contributor since 1999 appears on the website!Robin Houghton, On poetry magazines: Stand, Agenda, The Dark Horse
I’m startled by the poems that make up Denver, Colorado poet Wayne Miller’s fifth full-length poetry title, We the Jury (Minneapolis MN: Milkweed Editions, 2021), a collection of lyrics on public executions, American justice, family and what we fail to understand. In an array of simultaneously devastating and stunningly beautiful lyrics, Miller writes on culture, class and race, and the implications of how America has arrived at this particular point in time; poems on trauma, death and violence, hidden beauty and America’s uneasy ease with what people are willing to endure, and willing to impart. There is an unerring lightness to his lyrics; a remarkable precision, as an arrow piercing the reeds to reach an impossible target. As he writes at the end of the short sequence “RAIN STUDY,” one of multiple poems that write on and around the subject of rain: “On the undersurface / of a raindrop / as it falls: // a fisheyed reflection / of the ground / rising at tremendous speed // and that’s it—” Or how he writes of a bird at the airport at the opening of “THE FUTURE,” “A bird in the airport / hopping among our feet— // dun puffed chest, / a sparrow I think— // collecting bits of popcorn / beside the luggage // while invisible speakers / fill the air with names // of cities irrelevant / to the air outside // from which this bird / has become mysteriously // separated.” Miller strikes at the intimate heart of so many subjects, and it is the intimacy through which he attends that provide these pieces with so much power. His is an unflinching, steady gaze, and he clearly feels and sees deeply, attending to the world around him through a lyric that manages to unpack complex ideas across a handful of carved, crafted lines. The poem “ON PROGRESS,” for example, “PARABLE OF CHILDHOOD” or “ON HISTORY” providing, in their own ways, master classes in how one writes out such complexity and contradiction of ideas and emotion; how to pack into a small space that which can’t be easily explained or described. In Miller’s poems, he knows that judgement is not the same as comprehension, and rarely synonymous with justice, healing or absolution; he knows his country, and his culture, has much to atone, and even more to acknowledge, so willing to pass over events for the next one, fully ignoring the implications, the trauma or the patterns.rob mclennan, Wayne Miller, We the Jury
It’s been wild y’all. Some minor emergencies. Some heavy conversations in and out of the classroom and mentoring spaces that I work in. The thread continues to be survival and understanding, in that order.
These themes run through Dash Harris’ “No, I’m Not a Proud Latina” which I taught this week. This article, which calls out issues of anti-Blackness in the Latinx community, stirred up a number of reactions which had me lecturing on speaking truth to power, how marginalized writers are often necessarily making decisions at the intersection of politics, culture, and experience in order to survive and understand this world. I also spoke about how community should hold space for the positive while also acknowledging and working through the negative. That for community to matter it must be an inclusive practice, not just an ideal or romanticized gesture. At one point, I found myself talking about identity, how in the U.S. we often discuss it in terms of a possession or territory. The trope is how we have to “find ourselves” before we can be ourselves. What else can it be beyond this? What if identity, or really identities, are sides of the self we’re privileged to be able to honor and exist in, however briefly?José Angel Araguz, survival & understanding
The World Health Organization reports 2,462, 911 souls have been taken by Covid-19 so far. WorldoMeter reports 2,479, 882. By some accounts we have already passed a half million deaths in the U.S. Each death the loss of a uniquely precious being.
There are many, this last pandemic year, who have fervently pushed for life to “return to normal.” Under that noise is another sound, the human community wailing. Each new grief amplifies our losses. Everywhere, keening.
The largest share of deaths, here and around the world, are our elders. What has been taken cannot be fathomed. A proverb from Mali reminds us, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.”
We haven’t yet begun to address what brought us such a toll, including the greed underlying disinformation, mismanagement, and structural inequality. I hope, as we do, we center on regenerative justice for people and for all living systems.
We haven’t yet begun to fathom our losses, let alone how to honor those lives. I hope, as we do, we tell stories, we create, we cherish. I hope we, in the end, make this about peace.
you who are living,
restore us, renew us.
Speak for our silence.
Continue our work.
Bless the breath of life.
Sing of the hidden patterns.
Weave the web of peace.
Judith AndersonLaura Grace Weldon, Under The Noise
Today many people will be writing tributes to Lawrence Ferlinghetti and with good reason. He was an amazing poet, founder of the Beat movement, founder of City Lights bookstore, publisher. What an amazing life, and how fortunate that he lived to be 101.
But today I am feeling the deep loss of Octavia Butler, who died 15 years ago today. I’ve written about her often, it feels like. But there’s a reason for that–she wrote her most important work decades ago, and it feels more relevant now than it did when I first read it, decades ago.
Consider this passage from Parable of the Talents, published in 1998:”Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Octavia Butler and All the Realities
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.” (p. 167)
If I am told one more time by a newsperson or magazine article that I need to build more “resilience,” I will scream. It has been a year since the pandemic was recognized here in the states, a year in which we lost 500,000 people in our country and 5,000 in our state. I am still waiting to hear when Washington State will start vaccinating people like me – disabled, chronically ill types who would certainly be at risk of death if they caught covid – but alas, they are only focusing on age as a risk factor, so I guess I’ll be waiting forever? It’s enough to give a girl a nervous breakdown, especially with the news that more contagious, more deadly variants of covid-19 are developing in CA and NY.
Add on top of that, the writer’s life that is mostly rejection, rejection, rejection, and the advice to build resilience can get really old. I did get an acceptance today, and I have some poems coming out soon in “dream journals” of mine, journals I have been loving for years, like Fairy Tale Review and Image, among others. So I am thankful for that.
But as I as listening to hail hit our roof and windows the other night, I was wondering if one of my three manuscripts I’ve been sending out will get taken soon, or at least before I die. I’m not kidding about that, and I’m not being melodramatic. Everything feels dangerous right now – I have to go to the dentist for a broken tooth this week, and get an MRI for my liver tumors which could kill me if we don’t keep a close eye on them- and without a vaccine it literally feels like I’m risking my life. And let’s not even talk about how impatient my neurologists are being for me to get brain MRIs and other MS tests I have to do in person. I can’t imagine how it feels for my friends who are young but have cancer and are going to regular treatments – and I have several – and be unable to get a vaccine while constantly being in a dangerous hospital environment. Much worse than me, probably. In the meantime, I’m happy for friends in other states who are able to get the vaccine, but I wish my own state would start acting like it values the lives of people like me. I’m happy the third vaccine, Johnson & Johnson, has been approved, but no word on rollout yet. No amount of resilience is going to make up for the tension, anxiety, loneliness, boredom, danger and strain of the last year, and platitudes do not make things better. My usual coping mechanisms- spending time in nature, reading and writing, and connecting with friends (these days, mostly by phone) – may not be adequate to what we are facing.Jeannine Hall Gailey, Almost Spring, Tired of Resilience, and Contemplating Ten Years Ago
Well, how about that February, huh?
Seems like more than a few of us have had ourselves quite a month. Sometimes, when I’m feeling a little overwhelmed or worn out, I like to go back through my camera roll to see what sense it can give me of a time. Often, it helps me see that my feeling about a time isn’t the whole picture of it. Because I often take photos of what delights me, it can be an exercise in reminding myself of the small moments that don’t (but probably should) carry as much weight as some of the larger ones.
(I’ve been listening to Tana French audiobooks for a few months now, and there are some Irish words seeping into my thoughts.)
Look at me up there in that last full paragraph, sounding so wise and grounded. Cue the montage of lovely little life vignettes: flowers on the table, a stack of good books, snow sparkling under the rising sun. Oh, I meant every word as each came through my fingers (and I could easily create such a montage), but re-reading them as a whole I could feel my whole being rise up in resistance to such facile positivity–which is probably evidence of how easily inspirational Insta quotes can seep into a person if she’s not careful.
Attaining peace and contentment is not necessarily about finding delight, or about making sure you put every little thing on some balance scale, so that a multitude of small good things somehow mitigate or outweigh a fewer number of heavier bad things.Rita Ott Ramstad, Goodbye to you, February
I mention this playlist because a song from it came up during my run on Tuesday morning that got me thinking.
The song is called Made Up Love Song #43 by The Guillemots. […]
It’s a lovely pop song that I think should be more widely known, but there are plenty of those around. A couple of things struck me as I was hyperventilating my way up a hill towards Crystal Palace when I heard the lyric “there’s poetry in an empty coke can”.
Firstly, I haven’t really written a new poem for a while (not worried about that, there are notes and drafts aplenty), but the other thing was how might I respond to what is essentially a creative prompt from the singer, Fyfe Dangerfield. I know folks have mixed feelings about prompts, and I do too. I am generally ok with them, but not when they are your sole source of inspiration.
However, I got to thinking about how I might respond to the prompt. I’ve not gone anywhere near writing it yet, but here are the thoughts I have for exploring it…perhaps these even count as my own prompts…
How did the can get there? Was it thrown away, left there by someone? Is it in a bin? Has it fallen from a lorry on a way to a recycling plant? Is it still awaiting recycling because its owner is next to it?
Who is the owner? Is it someone on a picnic, are they alone or part of a group? A runner (them again) gasping on a hot day?
Where is it? On that picnic? Outside a pub, inside a pub (Oh god, I’d love to be doing that right now), left after a dad took his kids to the pub on his day with them.
Is it in the street being kicked about by kids, or grown-ups, is it being blown about by the wind?
Who is near it? Is there a wasp hovering around the ring pull?
Is it cold or warm?
Is there any liquid left in the can at all?
Is this just an excuse to post this song because it mentions poetry?
Who knows?Mat Riches, I Can, I can’t…
When I was in art school, I once had a poetry professor who, on the first day of class, introduced himself as a failed painter. Immediately, that proclamation (and others) rubbed me the wrong way and I ended up dropping the class in favor of a film course instead. A year prior to that, I had taken a course entitled “Word & Image” that spoke to impulses I’d had since childhood: pairing words and images together and understanding how they co-exist. One of the main questions was, Why can’t you make words and images? As someone who studied both art and literature as an undergraduate and went on to earn an MFA in interdisciplinary art practice, I embrace the notion that you can write and make images for your writings. William Blake, Beatrix Potter, Shel Silverstein, Kurt Vonnegut, and Faith Ringgold all did it. And plenty of other authors, too! There are also image-makers who, while better known for their visuals, write splendidly for their books. Take Sally Mann’s prose for her photography books, for instance.
A few of my published books combine my words and images and I have titles with “illustrative” and “disruptive” approaches, which I will explain in later in this post. My poetry books, Water for the Cactus Woman (Spuyten Duyvil) and Belladonna Magic: Spells in the Form of Poetry & Photography, feature “disruptive” photographs, whereas the poetry collection Heaven Is a Photograph features “illustrative” photographs. I have also created the covers for a few of my books and chapbooks, but that’s really a separate topic from interior artwork. Book covers largely serve to market a book, whereas interior artwork is part of the book itself.
If you’re intrigued by the idea of incorporating photography into your poetry manuscript, read on. But, first, a note: I am using photography as the visual art example here because the barrier to creation is lower than it is for other media. However, you can just as easily apply these two approaches to other types of visual art, including drawing and painting.Weaving Your Photographs Into Your Poetry Manuscript – guest post by Christine Sloan Stoddard (Trish Hopkinson’s blog)
True to my word, I made some new collages for February, which I’ve posted on Instagram. My collage work is growing and I’m going to have to find a folder to keep the work safe from coffee spills and creases.
My poetry collection What Are You After? was published by Nine Arches Press in 2018, which means that I now have nearly three year’s worth of uncollected poems which I need to give my attention to. Some of have been published in various places, some are yet to find a home. I’m keeping an eye on the poetry, in between the plays and the collages. As well as my own work, I have some poetry reviews to write for The North and I must choose three poems from And Other Poems to nominate to the Forward Prizes, Best Single Poem. The deadline for nominations is fast approaching. I’m also gradually adding links to recordings of poems already published at And Other Poems, from SoundCloud, Vimeo or YouTube, so that the poems can be experienced by more readers in different ways. If you have any poems at And Other Poems, do please send me a link to a recording and I will add it to the site.
I’ve gone for walks outside without a coat for the first time in a while, making the most of the mild, gently sunny weather that we’re currently enjoying in west Wiltshire and elsewhere in the UK. Lots of crocuses out in our local park. Spring is coming.Josephine Corcoran, No Big Leaps in February
A friend said I seem lighter these days.Jason Crane, The Accidental Balloonist
It’s true I’m shedding the ballast of memory;
at times I float high enough to see.
I see the Hoover Dam rise from the desert floor.
I see the waxing moon set the cacti alight.
I see a woman laugh in a YouTube video.
I see a dog watching from down the hallway.
These things too I add to my memory;
in the spaces made by what I’ve left.
Last night, many of us gathered for a YouTube watch party for the virtual premiere of Tasty Other: A Dramatic Song Cycle. What a gift to have Victor Labenske compose this song cycle from nine of my poems! Elda McGinty Peralta and Judith Spaite Labenske brought so much humor, skill, beauty, and brilliance to the vocals, and Victor’s playing and back-up vocals were gorgeous too. The YouTube video will remain available to view; it includes the audio track and the sheet music, which is also available for purchase here.
When I wrote poems based on anxiety dreams during my pregnancy ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined that some of them would become a song cycle, but last night I got to watch and listen with my nine-year-old son eagerly watching and listening with me, and that was such a joy.Katie Manning, Tasty Other Song Cycle Premiere
In January, it was 130 years since the birth of the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam. Mandelstam is widely translated and read in the English-speaking world, but unsurprisingly, his influence is greater in Russian-speaking countries. A victim of state persecution and of the efforts of other literary figures who opposed his subversive views, Mandelstam is as readable and relevant as ever today.Clarissa Aykroyd, Keep My Words Forever: a tribute album for Osip Mandelstam
This year, a group of popular musicians have released a tribute album which sets Mandelstam’s words to music. The album is called Сохрани мою речь насегда (in English, Keep My Words Forever) and can be found on streaming platforms including Spotify, Apple Music and others. […]
I have listened to the album and was very moved by it. My own grasp of Russian is still nascent and as a result, I’m obviously missing some of the impact of the words. The musical styles featured include jazz, 80s-style pop, rap and more, and the poems include works such as ‘I despise the light’, ‘This night is irredeemable’ and ‘I returned to my city, familiar to tears’. Personally, I definitely liked some tracks better than others. But above all, this project reveals the extreme vitality of Mandelstam’s work in our time, and a desire to bring him closer to new audiences, many of which I am sure will embrace his poems if they haven’t already. I love to see that Mandelstam is still loved so much.
In 2010, Terrance Hayes published Lighthead, his third collection, which would go on to win the National Book Award. In the notes at the back, he spends the most time defining the pecha kucha, a mode based on the format of Japanese business presentations. But he also acknowledges that his poem “The Golden Shovel” “is, as the end words suggest, after Gwendolyn Brooks’ ‘We Real Cool.'” A few entries later, he notes, “‘The Last Train to Africa’ is after Elizabeth Alexander’s poem ‘Ladders.’ Like the form used in ‘The Golden Shovel,’ the end words come from her poem.” Hayes would later elaborate on the backstory, which involved asking his two children to memorize poems–one by Langston Hughes, the other by Gwendolyn Brooks–and, after becoming preoccupied with their nightly attempts at recitation, deciding to “string the whole poem down the page and write into it.” Multiple drafts resulted, two of which made it into the collection.
“The Golden Shovel” would be a striking, classroom-friendly poem under any circumstances, because it showcases Hayes’ gift for the heightened lyric vernacular, his disciplined and yet playful lineation (sometimes enjambing mid-word), and an ongoing thematic concern with the father figure. But something caught afire about this “nonce form”–a term I assign because it’s invention that can be credited to a particular poet, in a particular moment, that may or may not carry forward. What fueled interest is both excitement for Hayes’ work and shared reverence for the figure of Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), an incredibly brilliant poet–the first Black poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first Black woman to act as poetry consultant for the Library of Congress. The opportunity to teach these two important voices in conversation helped move the form from the realm of “nonce” to “contemporary form,” as multiple poets began engaging the mode at the same time.
The chief engineer of this initiative is Peter Kahn, himself a noted slam poet with an MFA from Fairfield University who, as a Visiting Fellow at Goldsmiths-University of London, founded the Spoken Word Education Training Programme. Kahn has taught in Chicago’s high schools since 1994, and his investment in distilling and assigning the Golden Shovel to students seeded a cohort of young poets. He co-edited, with Ravi Shankar and Patricia Smith, The Golden Shovel Anthology: New Poems Honoring Gwendolyn Brooks, which came out in 2017 from the University of Arkansas Press. The anthology’s intent, which Kahn described in an interview, was the place student work alongside that of more established poets, all of whom would constitute a “second generation” to Hayes’ original experiment. Hayes’ blessing, in the form of introducing the anthology, offers the clear dictate that “the ‘Golden Shovel’ form belongs to no one so much as Ms. Brooks. Peter Kahn, a citizen of Brooks’ Chicago understands as much.”Sandra Beasley, The Golden Shovel: On the Legacy of Ms. Brooks and the Future of the Form
Welcome to the Dionysian spring holidays — Mardi Gras, Carnivale, Purim, falling in love — that turn things upside down during a year in which everything has been turned upside down. It makes for fascinating spatial — and metaspatial — thinking. If I turn upside down while I’m standing on my head, am I right side up?
No, but it opens the imagination up to all kinds of interesting propositions! What kind of reversals or forays into chaos would you induce to find some new stability, some reemergence of order? The rabbis back in the day allowed all kinds of forbidden habits to happpen, even commanded them. The faithful get dead drunk, so that their utterance is completely and totally confused. Up is down, he is she, heavy is light, mourning is celebration. Surprise breaks into the expected to shatter fixed concepts of reality. Inside that reality was a little miracle lurking all the time, another divine reality, a seeming opposite joined by a hinge to a larger unity.
What seems like happy confusion is a whole field of philosophy, naturally, with twists and turns through the nonduality of mysticism and literature. Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, illustrates simultaneous difference and sameness with the famous aphorism:
“The road up and the road down are the same thing.” It’s a succinct vision to hold as we approach the anniversary of the pandemic.
I’m rarely so clear-sighted. I’m in the camp of Artsi Ifrach, an Israeli-Moroccan fashion designer who said, “All those phantasmagorical connections might seem odd to certain people, but for me they create an inner, quiet logic.”Jill Pearlman, Topsy Turvy Holidays during an Inverted Year
I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.
The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.
I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!
Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?Marilyn McCabe, I was gambling in Havana; or, On Creativity and Intent
My life revolves around lists. As soon as I arrive at my desk in the morning, I check the list I made at the beginning of the week. If it’s Friday, I hope to see a bunch of completed tasks which I’ve been able to check off: “prep for tutoring,” “write review,” “what the heck’s wrong with my website,” “submit.” I write my lists in a 200-page, 99-cent, wide-ruled composition book, which usually lasts about a year. I save my list books and occasionally go through them, noticing that, for example, tasks from 2017 have still not been checked off or that a certain task—i.e., “make new lead magnet”—remains, from week to week, undone.
A list is not just a way to manage your life. It’s also a way to write poems. I use list-making often; in fact, at least half of my poems started as lists. Writing lists is a great way to wake up a sluggish brain, especially one that seems resistant to sudden inspiration (mid-winter doldrums, anyone?) You can make lists of literally anything: words, sounds, flavors, colors, things that make you happy, sad, or angry, seasons, planets, places you’ve visited, places you’d like to visit, and on and on and on.
Making lists is an effective way to break out of writer’s block. One of my tried-and-true methods is to go through the work of a poet I admire and make lists of random lines from their poems.Erica Goss, The Power of the List
For this poetry prompt for the dead or wounded, start by reading “Fall” by Didi Jackson and give some thought to what you like/admire.
Quite simply, I’m in love with Jackson’s poem. The tenderness in it, not only for the injured bird but also for the little girls as they learn about death, is just lovely. And isn’t it paced perfectly? Its short lines — along with the space between the couplets — allows the moment to unfold slowly. It eases us into the ceremony of caring for our dead and makes room for us to feel the loss. We’re also given space to wonder along with the narrator how we may be teaching children (or others) how to grieve. The narrator is aware of the weight of her words. She is careful with what she shares and what she withholds.
Ultimately, as is so often true, we carry on for the dead, make their work our own. In this case the girls “pick the song // and sing it / over and over again.” And somehow the poem’s form — a long string of short couplets — contributes to the sense that we, in tribute to what we’ve lost, carry on… even if that itself is a sense of falling, stumbling forward as if drawn there (down the page, perhaps inevitably, by a certain kind of gravity).Carolee Bennett, poetry prompt for the dead or wounded
After my father’sLuisa A. Igloria, Tremolando
funeral, she stayed in bed for weeks—
En esta tierra, tan solo a mi, all alone
in the land of her living. I don’t know
why the bars of this song have come back
to her now; but she is smiling even in
the parts with yo te quiero and que
me muero. Of course we understand
that to love is to die a little until the end;
even as the throat holds onto that small
tremolo for as long as it can.
in the moment of
is love, as when
does not know
what the skin
knows.Tom Montag, LOVE
Be the mirror your lover longs to encounter first thing in the morning.
Dare to let your words go without makeup; those thoughts can often reveal the rawest beauty.
When reading between the lines, make sure you can interpret the syllables of secrets.
From your deepest, most daring and adored dreams, discover a new penpal and write daily.
Know that Van Gogh’s ear hears all the colors of your heart.Rich Ferguson, Abyss / A Bliss
Today, in another part of the park, I heard someone whistling in the distance, as if calling a dog, but when I got closer I saw it was a man with a bag of seed or breadcrumbs, whistling to call the squirrels, and sure enough, there were dozens around him on the snow and climbing down out of the trees.
And I admit I wondered: if I still lived here when I was really elderly, or really alone, would I turn into an old lady who wanders through the park, feeding the squirrels?Beth Adams, Hermit Diary 57. Winter Scenes in the Park
At this point in the pandemic, a year-ish in now, it’s safe to say the disappointments will be piling up. Maybe there has even been a time or two where you have been disappointed in yourself. I know I have been. It’s easy, as they say, to be a buddhist at the top of a mountain or in a cave, but it’s trickier to practice buddhism among non-buddhists.
By now you’ll have lost loved ones, attended a Zoom funeral, had fallings out with people you thought were friends, gotten hate mail, and you’ve also had to confront the fact that we live in a time where a great many people think it’s okay to just sacrifice old people, people with health conditions, people living in poverty, houseless people. A great many people think it’s okay to be racist. And so it’s not surprising that a lot of people have been talking about hitting yet another wall. Or is it just the same wall we’re bashing into again? For me, it’s not the isolation, or the taking care, or the mask wearing that’s getting to me, it’s all the people who are blatantly not.
I’ve read articles and listened to talks on finding the courage to have nuanced conversations in these difficult times and in all honesty I’m so down with that from an academic stance. But in reality, I’m exhausted. I feel like I’ve spent the last decade seriously engaged in all sorts of conversations with all sorts of people, and also writing about these things here and in my novels, and yet here we are. It’s like having all our work erased and then asked to do it all over again, with angrier, more careless, more entitled, more ill-intentioned, and more misinformed people than before. Like, okay, sure, I can do that. After I nap for a thousand years.Shawna Lemay, The Disappointments Will Be Piling Up
During the last general election campaign, my attention was drawn to several articles that described the echo chamber effect of social media. In other words, supporters of a party tended to follow people of their own political persuasion. Their timelines and newsfeeds were consequently stuffed full of views that reflected theirs, which led to a misguided belief that everyone was of a similar mindset. Of course, many disappointments on polling days were colossal.
Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the parallels that exist between the above-mentioned scenario and poetry on social media. These parallels have several manifestations.
First off, there are poets who only surround themselves with others who write within their same aesthetic, thus encouraging them to look inwards, feeling they’re the only true believers. This is very much along the lines of political beliefs, as per my previous anecdote.
Then there’s the bubble, the misguided belief that Twitter or Facebook make up the only poetry world that remains, when huge numbers of poets and readers actually don’t have social media accounts. Moreover, this sensation has grown during the pandemic. Physical contact has been stunted, so there are no opportunities to have conversations with people at readings who’ve never heard of supposed big fish from Twitter, for instance.
And to top it off, there’s a shrinking of the world on social media, as poets only look in on themselves, using their own jargon, their own frames of reference, their own allusions, their own entrenched positions and axes to grind, all going round in ever-decreasing circles. I often think that any non-poets who might venture onto many poetry threads would be scared off for life.
All of the above forms part of my concern that poets tend to cut themselves off from wider society. Social media, while providing excellent chances for people to feel less alone, is unfortunately adept at developing echo chambers. As poets, I feel we should use such platforms to reach out to readers, to share work, to show that we’re inclusive. That way, we might earn ourselves a few votes at the next literary genre elections and at least keep our deposit…!Matthew Stewart, The echo chamber
There are halls of
people are like
The ones that played
with me in childhood,
Nor I in 3D, in my
One theory of existence is
we are holograms.
Or maybe life is a
blinking in and out,
as with breathing,
but faster than
the speed of light.Marie Craven, Infinity
These poems are like a dog’s dirty footprint in the middle of the kitchen floor, or like a traffic signal that has gone dark; someone is always right there to complain. If you can get beyond complaint and praise, there is a river. Did you know that? It is always summer there under the shade trees, and the trout are biting.James Lee Jobe, the early blossoms on my peach tree
of this covid year:
in the kitchen window,
of green onions
trying to miracle
fresh green from
tap water and sun.
When it catches
in my throat
I choke, then
if my sense of smell
I am.Rachel Barenblat, Scallions
Last March you became seriously ill with Covid and the recovery time is long and slow. How did this experience change the way you perceived things in general, and creativity in particular?
Yes, it was a rough time. I was hospitalised on oxygen for six days, and although luckily I didn’t get Long Covid, I have noticed differences. I think I’m fully recovered now (touch wood) but I got so tired for a long time and also had such bad brain fog that I couldn’t remember even basic words, not ideal for a writer!
I’ve had a lot of help – my local hospital, Pembury, have been brilliant, and the respiratory physio there actually told me to read as a way of regaining concentration which was interesting. I can see the benefits, reading stops me doomscrolling on social media – doomscrolling, there’s another word I hadn’t heard before this year.
When I got ill, I’d been working on a novel about an 18th century gardener, but it seemed ridiculous to be writing about the past when what was happening right now was actually where my heart was. I started writing blog posts as a way of helping other people, but also making sense for myself about my experiences.
And then I felt a real urge to write poems. I think this was because the shape worked as a container for a lot of difficult emotions, and also because it helped to lose myself in choosing the exact right word, line break, and even rhythm for what I wanted to say. There was an element of organisation in the writing that I wasn’t finding in my life!
Recently though I’ve been loving reading and watching TV for escapism, and I keep finding myself thinking about my handsome Georgian gardener so who knows! To go back to your original question, maybe this is the answer – to let ourselves follow what we need to do right now.Abegail Morley, Creativity in Lockdown: In Conversation with Sarah Salway
the tidelines of the mindJim Young, insteps
no one’s asphalt
in everyone’s visual field
the paths are cross
life is a boundary state
It’s the last day of February.
The sky still glows now past seven in the evening. A few impatient primroses are up, and there are bird calls I haven’t heard since fall. We sputter towards the summer. A day of snow, a day of hail, a day of blue-blue sky, and a south-westerly wind. Snow again. E. is pulling up the cobblestones in the drive, filling in the hollows with sand, and laying them again. Between the weather systems.
Walking Leonard I have an eye out for the lapwing’s return. I listen for the squeeze-toy call. I thought I heard it last night, but E. said I was mistaken. Anticipation, uncertainty. And the funny thing is, I have no idea why it matters to me. I grip onto this though — the lapwing — like gripping onto a handrail to hoist myself up the next step when I am too tired to just let my body move of its own will. Somewhere in me outside of logic, it means something.
About all I know of the lapwing is that it nests in the fields and is vulnerable to the tractors that drive through them.
If winter’s darkness is difficult, spring’s prodding and unpredictability are a trial to endure. Nothing returning from the dead comes back easily. The rearranging of matter causes morning sickness.
Persephone comesRen Powell, Persephone’s Ambivalence
& spring, her colicky infant
cannot fix his gaze
on the world – sleeps & shudders
– no idea what lies in store