Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 26

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. This week: posts about the role of art and artists in a broken world, menopause, disability, inequality and pandemic; the fleeting joys of summer, books, gardening, nature, and a new album from the UK poet laureate. Among other things.


It has been over a year since I posted on this blog, a yawning gap that horrifies me. WordPress is suggesting I might like to riff on the keywords ‘toddler, delicious, politics.’ True, my thoughts these days are often split between dinner and Lego. But after a spell consumed by maternity leave and then the ongoing global pandemic, I’m back on the blog to review a really timely, genre-defying album I’ve been listening to, a new project featuring Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, a musical collaboration which foregrounds the spoken word.

Simon Armitage was a big influence on me as a young writer. I remember picking up ‘Zoom’ in an independent bookshop in Chesterfield and hiding away in the corner by the coffee shop to read it from cover to cover, enchanted by the wise-cracking narrators and shrewd observations of life experiences that didn’t seem so alien from my own. His succinct portraits of characters in crisis and his gift for finding surreal but convincing images might seem to make his work well suited for song-writing. But this project isn’t songs exactly, more poetry-meets-melody. […]

‘Call In The Crash Team’ foregrounds Simon Armitage’s words and voice, but there’s a sense of genuine dialogue between music and lyrics, haunting refrains emphasising the narrative of each piece. I found it strangely addictive, tracks instantly sticking in my head, becoming peculiar earworms.

Helen Mort, Call In The Crash Team – album review

“A lot of the lyrics have come about from writing in a time of post-industrialisation, austerity, and the recession,” explains Armitage. “And yet, even through those years and those atmospheres, there’s still been an exuberance around, an exuberance of communication, information, language. I think a lot of the speakers in the pieces are expressing some kind of marginalisation and are doing so as if they’re almost hyperventilating.”

That marginalisation reaches a sort of zenith, if that’s the right word, at the end of Adam’s Apple after a sequence of three songs that end with Waters singing/repeating  “It’s all too much for you” in ‘ the exquisite You Were Never Good With Horses, “move on, move on” in Urban Myth #91 and then “let go, let go” at the end of Adam’s Apple

Each song is written form the point of view of different characters, Never Good With Horses, for example written from the point of view of some dissatisfied with their partner’s discomfort with the natural world. The partner “comfortable with a steering wheel”  and “watching the movie of life layout through the windscreen’s lens”— a nod to Iggy Pop’s The Passenger, perhaps, but they “were never good with horses…my dear, always took a step backwards when they came near. Couldn’t bear to look in the dark rock pools of their eyes”. That last line is when you know you’ve got a poet running the lyrical show.

Mat Riches, LYR – Call In The Crash Team

This week I’ve left my phone at home for a few days and enjoyed not being in its company. We spent a beautiful day at the seaside for my daughter’s 21st birthday on Tuesday which was the first day of the most recent heatwave. The roads weren’t busy at all and there was plenty of social distancing on the beach – unlike subsequent days at the same location which you might have seen alarming pictures of in the media – so we were able to relax as a family with our picnic and swim in the sea. I am sort of regretting not taking any photos that I could now scroll through – and share with you – but at the time it was refreshingly calming not to be snapping away, replying to messages and generally falling down the rabbit hole of social media and non-stop news. I swam a bit, walked along the beach a bit, read a lot, talked to the family.

Josephine Corcoran, Once Upon a Lockdown Rose Unfolding

She tosses fistful of bleach into the vegetables simmering in the pan     the foam shores up like the salt at the estuary in Marakannam          In the town without a beach where the land lazily         copulates with the sea        the breeze at the gopura vassal  breathes into the womb  of her memory It is then she hears the machine                    in the depth of the lungs like a hawk rasping

Uma Gowrishankar, Bleached in the beachless town

Stars in a cold sky
Mend the torn butterfly wings
Underground railroad

At first these 3 lines don’t seem to go together at all. But as I’ve been thinking about them, I’ve been sensing connections.

Clearly, my subconscious is working on various connections that I don’t readily see as I move from task to task.

This morning, I made this Facebook post: “I had my first dream that had me worrying about close proximity and COVID-19 transmission. In my dream, we were packed in a Lutheran church for a high festival day. I was admiring the fabrics in everyone’s stoles and the banners and light streamed through stunning stained glass. And then I realized we were packed into the pews and had been for hours and no one was wearing a mask. It doesn’t take a trained psychologist to analyze the anxiety aspect of the dream–but in a church on a high festival day with beautiful fabrics all around me? Really, dreaming brain, really?”

I’ve spent the morning thinking about this dream, thinking about the reasons why I’m having a COVID-19 anxiety dream set in a church, especially when my local church will not be gathering in person until after Labor Day, if then.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Subconscious at Work and at Dreaming

Aubade Without End

Open a window; whistle
in the key of birdsong.

Stick your prayer flags
in the tumble drier.

Hear the kettle bubble
with laughter.

Bid the clock
keep its hands to itself.

Jayne Stanton, Postcards from Malthusia DAY SIXTY-NINE

When I had cancer? People used to say it to me nearly every day. About being brave. How we all had so much courage. Well, no. I didn’t feel it, didn’t have it, still don’t think I did. All we did was follow what we were told. And show up. We kept showing up. But, no. It wasn’t there. Not in my veins with the chemotherapy, and not in the radiation-tiredness several months later. One conversation stands out: when I challenged the radiologist to chat with me a bit more while they positioned me on the slab: that was courage. And another: When Jörn looked me in the eye and told me it might not be working and maybe to start thinking about a different outcome. God: I am telling you this now: I miss him, even though I am better.

And now? As I confront my racism? No. Please. It’s overdue and necessary. But it isn’t courageous. (Please don’t pat me on the back with a nice comment about this.)

Admitting to depression?

Facing my grief? And allowing myself to experience it?

Perhaps.

Maybe.

Those are truths I am learning to stand in. And I have to stand in them, the same as I have to stand and face and confront my racism. So I’m not sure. I am not sure. Perhaps saying I am not sure I don’t know maybe and perhaps are more courageous than I am absolutely right on this one. Perhaps more of us need to live in maybe. I’m not sure.

What about when I started writing poetry, the least profitable writing on the planet? Or this blog? Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Still don’t have it. I hit publish. I ship. I never know what is happening. What the showing up will force me into saying. But I am glad I do it. Even though as Shawna says it feels like the void. Well, lucky old void. But I do it anyway.

Anthony Wilson, Courage

Peer into mirrors

and see villages decimated by fire,
valleys from which creatures fled

toward forests of glinting knives.
From smoke, collect precious blood.

We can’t stop until our cities gleam
with the shine of our stolen names.

Luisa A. Igloria, Choropleth

Who could have predicted red excess,
unspeakable clots of denouement?
My mouths are unjammed, endless mess
of me congealing at the bottom of the john.

Ready now to lose the losing: night sweats,
palpitations, insomnia, floods of gore, done.
Dried up, a long fluent speech in crimson.
Dissolved and flushed. Yet the song carries
on, uncorkable pour of me, shameless.

Lesley Wheeler, Why You Should Be Reading About Menopause

Today I’d intended blogging about the books I read during lockdown, but after reading  Lesley Wheeler’s post, ‘Why you should be reading about menopause‘, I decided to post the poem below – first published in Tears in the Fence, issue 70. It’s a poem that uses found text, and I remember editing it a few times, each time condensing it a bit until I arrived at what I wanted, or as near as.
I was over the moon to have this poem accepted, as I’d submitted to Tears in the Fence on a number of occasions and not been successful. Then, oddly, I forgot about it. However, reading Lesley’s post brought it to mind again, so thanks Lesley for sharing your story and your reading list.
I’ll share my lockdown reading next week. In the meantime, here’s the poem:

to the militant, identity is everything
(Susan Sontag)

the older female body is needful of respect/ modes of representation must be consciously transcended/ I formulate this observation as movingly and concisely as I can/ Collette knew the sovereignty of the woman of a certain age/ drawn-out voluptuousness framed by darkness/ so powerful and indelible/ we are expected to perform the commodity we were invented to be/ in novels the older woman imparts etiquette/ the younger falls in love with a sugar beet baron/ grand salons were nothing more than a conceptual image/ depression and gonorrhea were the reality/ these days fulfilment means being obsessed by the question of your own authenticity/ when exactly does a woman achieve the menopause/ when should she stop dying her hair?

Julie Mellor, to the militant, identity is everything

I have not written here because I am wary of writing about my mental illness not only panic attacks in the store but the fact that people are shooting guns nightly loud and close for no reason other than the fact that they have guns and it’s their second amendment right to shoot them and now fireworks on top of that it really wakes up my PTSD that startle instinct is so strong I have not written here because I am tired of writing about my about my damn mental illness and I am still without a psychiatrist

I haven’t written here because my bipolar disorder hasn’t taken a breath even though the whole wolf world is on a break and last night my mentally divergent brain was cycling so rapidly I only slept for three hours

I’ve been working on a poem but my progress with it is glacial much like watching things grow yesterday I realized that my green house is simply a seashell in the world’s terrarium and benign alien beings watch over us with love and grace

Rebecca Loudon, Pig and farm report

‪‪you
tell me that we are not doomed‬
‪with words that are littered‬ out
of cars that fill extracted gardens
and the faecal hemispheres
of brains in denial of the
anthropocene such
a nice word that unfortunately
will not fit any tombstone
made from recycled denial
black plastic hate preserving
perfectly the scattering of
eulogies for rational thought
that the herds trample now
you
tell me no
it’s all
OK
isn’t it

Jim Young, you tell me no

The war we’ve been born into where our first crying breath is a bruise that never heals.

Some use their wounds to flower the blood, others carve their pain into stones and go on the attack.

Touch, turmoil, tango: a counter-clockwise dance leading us in and out of love.

Throats offering shelter for song-chakra while also making themselves just the right shape and size for strangling.

The war we’ve been born into where enemies are created by our simply being.

Others stand boldly on the frontlines, scar their lips with light, speak only peace.

Rich Ferguson, The War We’ve Been Born Into

I confess I found The Name of the Rose boring, even after giving it a second chance. I didn’t mind shredding it. But why was Thoreau on the discard pile? It’s true he shouldn’t be but I’ve read most Thoreau and assumed I didn’t need to read him again. He writes wonderfully but always seemed like a narcissist, and the story (myth?) about him living his solitary life on Walden Pond but having his mother do his laundry conjures all the snark in my heart.

Nevertheless I was combing the essays for ‘by’ and came up often in some interesting and beautiful phrases. I was distracted by the content of the text. Close an eye to century and circumstance and Thoreau has relevant things to say. He died in 1862 of TB, a few months before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

We dream of foreign countries, of other times and races of men, placing them at a distance in history or space; but let some significant event like the present occur in our midst, and we discover, often, this distance and this strangeness between us and our nearest neighbors. They are our Austrias, and Chinas, and South Sea Islands.

That’s rather how I’ve felt through the past weeks, watching everyone react in different ways to politics and inequality and ideas.

Anyway, I cut Thoreau up and tossed the scraps. But I also felt like I was ingesting the essays. I have since spit some of it back out in various collages.

Sarah J Sloat, By looking in the mirror

When I told a colleague that I’d set up the greenhouses, she said she imagined I had read up in detail on everything to do with gardening. And I see why she’d say that. The odd thing is – I haven’t. I am truly going at it with a beginner’s mind: I put some seeds in the dirt and watered them, and now I have cilantro for the next few months. The strawberry plants have white flowers and funny, green-freckled strawberry-promises. There are wild vines from the sweet potato plants that I have no idea what to do with, but I am excited to see what happens. I’m quite prepared that it may all go to hell.

I’m silently and happily ignoring everyone’s advice. I did however accept a kale plant from H. It seems she planted her bed too tightly.

Running the same old route today, I tried to see it for the first time. It wasn’t difficult. The canopies of the trees have become so lush that the trail is darker than it was just a few weeks ago. The lilypads are budding with little yellow fists everywhere. I was careful to keep an eye out for snakes.

To the artist there is never anything ugly in nature.

I wondered what you made of this quote from Rodin? I don’t know how he was defining “nature”. And I wonder how I define it. This virus is a part of nature. And we are seeing in the news are aspects of human behavior that are undeniably human nature, undeniably ugly.

And then I’m not sure if Rodin was setting out to define an artist by how they see the world, or to describe how an artist sees the world. The cynic in me wonders what he might have been excusing by virtue of “art”. Artists excusing ugly behavior on the basis of their identity as artists is something I still can’t accept. I want to strip all artists of a sense of entitlement and have them focus on obligation.

Ren Powell, Work for Pleasure

Beneath it all there’s a feeling, both with the pandemic and the heightened awareness of Black Lives Matter, which does matter to me a great deal, that making “beautiful” art in this moment is frivolous, superfluous, socially-irrelevant — and, at worst, white, privileged, and clueless. This is a dilemma into which many artists in all fields fall at some time, and I can talk my way through it to some extent: art and beauty are always relevant, but especially at difficult times, because the human spirit needs them, and because art affirms who we are at our best. But, oddly, it’s a lot easier for me to participate in making a virtual choir video than in filling sketchbook pages with color and line and form. It’s not just about me, it’s collective, and even though we’re singing European classical music, I know from comments received that the performances are a comfort that are appreciated by listeners well beyond our own congregation. It also doesn’t feel problematic to write a blog post like this or keep my journal or write letters, where I’m trying to figure things out and to communicate.

As for art, though… I appreciated a line that my friend Teju Cole wrote in a New York Times collection of essays about the pandemic: “In these bruising days, any delicately made thing quickens the heart.”

In a letter of response to him I wrote:

“I worry that all the delicate things are endangered, frivolous, or irrelevant, and that makes me sad, because I feel we need them more than ever when our hearts are so battered. Recently, inadvertently, I saw a set of collaged photographs of the youngest Black person to be executed in the United States — it was a 14-year-old boy who looked like a child, being strapped into the electric chair — I don’t remember the year. His eyes were open, frightened, but somehow uncomprehending; it was the most horrific series of images, and I can’t get them out of my mind. The cruelty of this country has been, and is, limitless.”

Perhaps that is the crux of it: we have all been seeing images and videos that are deeply disturbing, and somehow this affects our visual/mental/emotional processing in general, particularly for those like me who are somewhere on the empath spectrum. I’m able to write about how I feel, I’m able to put my emotions into music, but I’m not willing to make dark, disturbing, or violent art — and “pretty” art feels superficial — so instead, I don’t make much of any at all.

Beth Adams, Hermit Diary 31: Struggling with Art

Today’s poem is a rather poignant one, not in tone but in the circumstances surrounding it. James Aitchison is a poet who lives in Stirling. He was born in Stirlingshire in 1938 and has written a number of superb poetry collections over the years including a study of Edwin Muir’s poetry (The Golden Harvester) and the fascinating and ambitious New Guide to Poetry and Poetics (Rodopi, 2013) which explores the nature of poetic creativity. He’s a poet I discovered when I was starting to write poetry in earnest myself and he’s someone whose work I treasure very highly and return to regularly for guidance.

People who have encountered Aitchison’s poetry before probably know that one of his main themes is the mind itself, an epistemological focus on how it works (or not!), ranging from an awareness of our primeval pre-human consciousness to the very heights of artistic endeavour and how this is achieved. Today’s poem is a playful meditation on the mistakes we make as learners and looks at the eventual decline of the mind.

I began my intro here saying that this poem is a poignant one. This is because last year, shortly after this poem was written, Aitchison had a near-fatal stroke which resulted in some serious neurological and physical impairments. But he remains hopeful for recovery and is looking forward to writing poems and gardening once more. I wish him the very best and I am honoured that he has given me his consent to share this poem with you. His most recent collection is Learning How to Sing (Mica Press, 2018). [Click through to read the poem.]

Ritchie McCaffery, One poem by James Aitchison

This week, I will be back to library tasks from home after a much needed week off, including a hard press on things that won’t be as likely to happen once we’re back. Also new layouts and some author copy orders.  I did get a chance to focus on a lot of writing and revision related things, as well as send off some submissions of the work that was building up from late last year and early this one. I am still plotting ways to support and publicize the new book during the social distancing era and got a bit of a start on a book trailer. I’ve also been musing over what to do with the build up of other, newer, manuscripts –I am seriously considering publishing them through Amazon so they’ll also be available via e-book, which seems more important now than ever.  I love the presses I’ve worked with but also like the autonomy of self-publishing, though the groundwork is a little harder than if you have a press sponsoring a release. Since I am finishing a lot of projects (feed, dark country, soon animal, vegetable, monster)–most of which I am itching to make available in a more timely matter–it gives me a bit more control.   And I have the layout and design skills to make a really nice book  (and if not Amazon, who I have complicated feelings about, another POD publisher.) I’ve also been self-publishing smaller projects for years, and while I initially struggled with the legitimacy goblin and what is “acceptable” in the poetry biz world–especially in this new world where we all may die of covid next week–fuck that shit. Fuck all of it. While I was creatively paralyzed and could barely write at all for a couple months there. I am writing again and want to find the most efficient way to connect with readers and some of the old models are sometimes not the best.  

Kristy Bowen, notes & things | 6/22/2020

Of the ideas pitched to help revolutionize how we do poetry publishing, one that appears now and again is a kind of “reverse Submittable” (RevSub from here on out): rather than having poets submit repeatedly to numerous journals, this would allow for a one time, one stop posting site for your work which editors could then browse and select. Make the publisher come to the writer, essentially. The idea is appealing for poets in particular because it cuts down on the redundant, tedious task of sending out the same poems and collections over and over (to very, very high rejection rates). This could also lead to better placement for the poet, if say multiple journals all want the same poem, they could choose which would be the best fit for them. If voting and commenting were enabled, this forum in itself could be gratifying and function as a kind of publication in itself, as opposed to the arid wasteland that is a Submittable queue. It could lead to greater transparency, and possibly a more real-time sense of where an dhow ones work stands. Further, it would cut down to some extent on the hidden hierarchy of editorships and the inscrutable processes by which poems are selected and chosen.

R.M. Haines, “Reverse Submittable” and the Dream of Co-Operative Publishing

Flint is built around a central question, one that is at the heart of grief and at the heart of life: “How do we give hope to the dead?” Because we are all, in the end, ‘the dead’, and because we are all strangers to each other (it is only a matter of degree), this extended prose poem is about finding the passages that lead us towards each other, so that we might “commune”, or (to use a noun phrase which carries more specifically religious connotations), so that we might partake of “communion”: a wonderful word, which Díaz Enciso uses in relation to the crowd at a rock concert which later becomes the crowd at a funeral. It is in this communion (which, more than a coming together, is a sharing of intimacies) that hope in the form of Spring is found. Not for nothing does the poet comment at Flint’s funeral “The world is, today, an orchard”. 

I suspect, because of its unusual form and perhaps because of its use of a real-life deceased  individual with relatives and presumably an estate, that this may be a pamphlet which continues to find full publication elusive, but I hope I am wrong because it is a profoundly moving piece of work which deserves a wide readership. Anyone who has a mind open to the creative and generative potential of placing one thing beside and in place of another, should take a look at what this e-pamphlet has on offer. 

Flint – An Elegy and a Book of Dreams is available from Adriana Díaz Enciso’s website, here. 

The poet will donate one third of any proceeds to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance and another third to the NHS. 

Chris Edgoose, The Man in the Tunnel: Flint by Adriana Díaz Enciso

So, besides trying to take bird pictures while I was briefly awake every day this week, I tried to distract myself from the pain (I can’t take most pain medications, sadly) with the Apple TV series Dickinson – Emily Dickinson’s imagined life as a rebellious young woman, with a trip-hop soundtrack and a music-video aesthetic, complete with giant bee hallucinations, and caught the film of Virginia Woolf’s speculative novel of time-travel and crossing gender boundaries, Orlando, starring Tilda Swinton, which was beautiful and playful and very well done. I enjoyed Dickinson (especially a guest appearance by John Mulaney as a notoriously unhelpful Thoreau – spoiler alert: I never liked Thoreau) and it drove me to go back to finally finish the slow-and-scholarly book After Emily, a discussion of how Emily’s work eventually got published, by whom, and how it became famous. I’ve been making my way through Woolf’s work in the last year, so watching Orlando fit right into to my reading agenda. Both shows make the point of how difficult it was in each time period to become a woman writer with respect and a following. The more things change…the more they stay the same?

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Reports from a Root Canal, Dickinson and Orlando, and an Uptick in Coronavirus Cases Across the US

Rob: You mentioned our sudden new era of Zoom brunches. I think a lot of people who have gone through a major event in their personal life, as you have with your concussion and recovery, are finding it surreal to watch everyone collectively deal with the upheaval of the COVID-19 outbreak, having experienced their own upheaval, alone, previously. How are you doing? In what ways do you see overlaps between what you experienced recovering from your concussion and what we are witnessing and experiencing now?

Kyla: Isolation is not new to me. Getting groceries only once a week or once every two weeks is not new to me. Being unable to leave the house or see people and being unable to access basic healthcare is not new to me. I already know how the light falls inside my apartment at all times of days and in all seasons. It’s been three years since my injury, and symptom management is still my primary occupation.

I can see how this might sound bleak, but isolation has been my reality, and I’ve found ways to live within the restrictions my disability imposed, rather than waiting for it to be over so I could go back to “normal.” Right now, I see people questioning normalcy and who the status quo serves more than ever. Crisis can force re-examinings, it can be generative, but the cost can be unbearably high.

If I may, a few pandemic pieces by disabled writers that I’d recommend: this Grazia essay by Mimi Butlin — filed under “Health & Fitness,” because the perspectives of chronically ill folks are now considered relevant instead of fringe; this Vice piece featuring Sharona Franklin, the artist behind one of my favourite disability-related instagram accounts, @hot.crip; and Liz Bowen’s newsletter from New York.

Rob: Yes, of course! Thank you so much for those links, and for bringing in new ways of looking at and thinking about the world. Your book does a lot of that, too. In “I’m Not Better I’m Just Less Dead” you write “I have nothing / to offer Literature / or Capitalism / not even a body / just an illness.” Similarly, you write in a subsequent poem “Has illness / made me more / or less human?” All of that struck me, the separating of the body, the self and the illness, each influencing the other but apart from it. It made me think about “me” in a different way. Which of those parts (the body, the self, the illness) do you consider “you” and which feel outside of “you”? From which do you think these poems emerged?

Kyla: I think I was working at the Prose Editor at PRISM international when I wrote that first poem, but I could barely read, and I was hiding the extent of my symptoms because I didn’t want to lose my job. I couldn’t review books, I couldn’t host or attend events, I couldn’t hang out with other writers or read their work. The amount of labour I could do, either intellectually or physically, was really limited. And so much of the messaging we receive, implicitly and explicitly, is that our value is rooted in our productivity, our ability to labour in particular ways and under particular conditions. That’s part of the reasoning used to justify and perpetuate ableism.

When I became disabled, I simultaneously became less useful to capitalism (except insofar as I was spending everything I had on rehabilitation) and some of the people around me, and more useful to myself and the people who understood me. I think the self is the core, but it can’t be cleaved from the body, or the ways illness imposes itself on that body. These poems came from a need to make that imposition visible, and unmistakable.

Rob Taylor, Visible and Unmistakable: An Interview with Kyla Jamieson

But honestly, the problem isn’t within us as individuals (and so we can’t fix our feelings about them entirely through our individual actions), and shouldn’t living feel like a slog right now? The world is way, way too much with us these days. You know that old bumper sticker, the one about how if you’re not pissed off you’re not paying attention, or something along those lines? That. All of which is why one of the things I’ve been grateful for this week is learning that there’s a word for exactly what I’ve been feeling: Weltschmerz.

Isn’t that a grand word? It’s almost onomatopoeic, the way those syllables sort of crash into each other on their way out of your mouth, with that hard stop right in the middle of it and that sort of drunken-sounding raspy sibilant ending. You’ve got all the elements for a party in those letters and sounds–and you can see that–but they don’t arrange themselves into a party. They aren’t in the right order.

If you, too, have been wading through weltschmerz (aka jello, aka existential depression), isn’t it at least a little comforting to know that other people have felt exactly the same way–enough people that we have a word that captures the subtle nuances of this feeling, and of this maybe-apocalypse that we’re living through? (Hey, on top of pandemic, economic meltdown, institutional instability, and massive unrest, don’t forget the climate. It’s still melting.) It’s not boredom or depression or listlessness or ennui or anxiety or angst. It’s weltschmerz, baby. And if ever there was a moment for it, surely it’s now.

You’re not alone and you’re not broken or ungrateful or spoiled. Things are fairly terrible. Don’t let the toxic positivity crowd gaslight you into thinking the problem is you and your attitude. Maybe, instead, your feelings are a sign of your wholeness and your optimism and your hope, and of your positive vision and your love for the world. Maybe it’s all the very things we’ll need to get us through to some better other side.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Weltschmerz to my world

Just a sliver of waxing moon, one night after the new moon, and no breeze at all. A hot summer night here on the hard edge of the world. I am a speck on this huge planet, which is itself but a speck in the vastness of the galaxy, and beyond that, the numberless galaxies of the endless universe. Oh my. Just then I felt a bare hint of a breeze. 

James Lee Jobe, Just a sliver of waxing moon, one night after the new moon, and no breeze at all.

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 24

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.

It was easy to feel a little gaslit this week by politicians and an increasing percentage of the public acting like the need for social distancing and other safety measures is over; in the US and the UK, at any rate, the covid infection rate shows little sign of slowing. Many in the poetry blogging community shared this unease, as well as cautious optimism on social justice issues. Writing continued to be elusive for some and a lifeline for others. Mostly, I was just pleased to find so many like-minded souls. La lucha continua!


I said to some friends: it is like playing Monopoly. You pick up a Chance card which tells you to go to Mayfair. (At which moment, you may win or lose the game.) ‘Do not pass Go. Do not collect £200.’

You have to go straight there. You cannot delay. You cannot take anything with you. There is no time to say goodbye.

You have to leave right that second.

There is no time for sitting with the trauma and the loss and the grief of the moment because what is needed right now is a solution for how we are going to [insert your own thing in here] and plan for [insert] and cope with [insert].

There is no time.

No time for grieving. No time for sitting with it, for preparing to bleed.

Anthony Wilson, Do not pass go, do not collect £200

Fool if you expected silence,
or thought that the trees would be empty.

But the contrails have gone and the big roads
are all but deserted. I don’t hear the kids
with their acrobat bikes and clattering skateboards.
And no Mr. Singh (“Call me Ajay”) with his deep,
deep voice over the parcels and stamps. All the buses
are empty when they stop at the curbs.
Are they discharging ghosts?

Dick Jones, LOCKDOWN

One of my daily chalkboard poems was about masks. So was another, one I chose not to put up, as it seemed too harsh and might upset the mail carrier. But you can probably handle it:

Unmasked

If you don’t wear a mask         
you reveal who you are

in more ways than one.

It is a little mean and glib. (And, oddly, it reminds me of a line from one of the Batman movies.) But, really, that’s what’s going on around here, out there, many people not wearing masks, thinking it’s all over, we’re all OK. Friends and co-workers are experiencing it out in the world and are worried. My parents decided not to go to an outdoor restaurant with friends when they saw how crowded it was, how few people were wearing masks, how some were sitting indoors… I’ve only seen my parents four times since March 13, in their back yard or their huge great room, six feet apart. A friend from Chicago came to town, and I visited with him outdoors and at the proper distance, no hugging. […]

Sigh… Yes, constant chalk revisions of our very lives. Chalk circles now on park greens to designate areas to sit in the sun. But don’t be fooled, the virus hasn’t been erased.

Kathleen Kirk, Chalk Revisions

I seem to be having lots of conversations about how the world is changing as we emerge from lockdown, about how our lives will never be the same and yet at the same time we are supposed to carry on as ‘normal’. Of course, many people are still isolated, cut off from friends and family, the wider community. My experience of lockdown has been much easier. In fact, now I’m back at work I’m missing all the free time I had.

Then there are those conversations I only have with other writers, about what poetry can and can’t do, about how we should respond to current events. In terms of creativity, I tend to try and carry on regardless. The world is a fascinating place, even in times of hardship, even in times of great trauma. It will always provoke a creative response in me, although the form of that response is ever-changing. I have a second draft of a novel that still needs more work, I have a short story that I know I must go back to, if only to satisfy myself that it can be finished, and a file of haiku of which a handful are probably good enough to send out. Oh, I also have a few sketches that are embarrassingly bad and are unlikely to ever see the light of day! What I’m getting round to is that being creative has helped me through lockdown. It’s given me a purpose. I like to be active, to be doing something. Writing is a great way of ‘doing’ because it doesn’t require much space or many resources. A pen and a piece of paper and you’re away. It’s affordable and portable. It does, however, make demands on your time. You have to commit. And there’s no guarantee of success. Time. Commitment. Failure and rejection. Small moments of success. These are constants.

We are living in a very unsettling period. There’s a general feeling of apprehension. And yet the impulse to write is still there. And for that, I’m grateful.

Julie Mellor, A changing world

–It’s very strange to have spent the months of March, April, and May reading about disease in general, COVID-19 in specifics, and some general apocalyptic works of fiction, and then to see states re-open and people gather with and without masks, with seemingly no care in the world. I’m still asking myself if any gathering is worth the risk. Grocery stores–yes. Spin class–still feels dangerous to me, since my spin class is held in a gym that’s in a hospital. Protest marches–much too dangerous, all the chanting and yelling in close proximity. Of course, that’s all from an epidemiology point of view–there are other points of view, like the need to demand social justice, the need to be with humans, the need to restock, the need to take care of oneself.

–I am also struck by how our students are responding. Everyone complies with the rule that masks must be worn, but many of them can’t seem to keep them on properly. And then there are a few students who have not only a mask but a face shield and gloves.

–NASCAR has banned Confederate flags and imagery. This moment seems like a real turning point somehow, even as I realize it won’t be a teaching moment for many NASCAR fans (either because they already understand the importance of it, or they will never understand).

–These types of shifts on race make my head spin. The polls that show a huge shift in attitudes towards racism and policing–it’s a shift that seems similar to the shift towards approval of gay marriage almost a decade ago. It feels like it happens overnight, but I know it’s because of years and decades and centuries of hard work, shifting those attitudes one by one.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Days of Cognitive Dissonance

Beyond where I live, two (invisible) pandemics become visible. Daily, I am distraught by what is happening. I wish for a cure, and know that a cure comes about when we care for each other.

I listen to the news, like three doses a day. In between, I am outside working in our three gardens, or preparing reports, or courses, or writing to keep me centered and calm, because I feel overwhelmed by the hardships people are facing daily, in cities and small towns, across our country. Reports are saying the death toll from Covid-19 will reach 170,000 by October, 2020. That number is staggering and frightening, knowing the cruel way this virus work. Equally, moving into 18th day of protest in some cities means “Enough is enough.” Things have to change. Things are changing.

I had no idea, (truly) no idea, that the Army bases in the United States were named after Confederate Generals. I was stunned by that revelation this week. Why would the Army honor the Confederate Generals? It’s a strange contradiction, seemingly supporting a Confederate mindset; and, it’s been an “under-telling” narrative for years.

M.J. Iuppa, Vistations and Dreams, June 12, 2020

No baseball has been played. I filled my gas tank once, I watch thousands of protesters on TV. I saw too many fires and broken windows. I watched too many incidents of police swinging clubs at people, pushing to the ground, spraying chemicals at protesters, I grieved for people hurt and those killed. I grieved for families that lost loved ones. I wrote most nights. Failed to get enough walking in, thought about yoga but did none. Grilled BBQ stake. Had a root bear float at work. Wore mask up in public, washed and rewashed my hands too many fucking times. All this and more since my last confession a week ago.

I confess that I do not know what day of the Covid-19 pandemic it is, I just know we are no where near the end. Last I saw there were 786 related deaths in Missouri. Nationwide deaths exceed 114,000. I saw today that there are flair ups in Texas and Mexico. People aren’t exercising social distancing very well and I totally expect that we will have to go through another shut down.

Baseball is my go-to to pull me out of the winder doldrums and into the spring then summer and it just makes life remind me of poetry and brings comfort. I confess I am struggling for this comfort.

I’m awaiting some poetry books and I’m really bad at waiting for books to arrive. Amazon has spoiled me, but. I do order elsewhere and I still want them yesterday. Is this impatience a sign of a character flaw?

Michael Allyn Wells, Confession Tuesday Spontaneous Combustion Edition

I was initially afraid that we were all just shouting booklists at each other, but it turns out books related to BLM are selling out. That’s reassuring.

I keep thinking of this Tweet by Charles Blow: “Anti-racism is so hip right now. Yay! But, don’t let it be a fad; make it forever.” It should be just the basic level of what being a human is but we know that IRL it’s otherwise.

Of course, if as a white person you’re finding all of this wildly stressful, then you are feeling only a tiny fraction of what BIPOC feel all the time. So I keep thinking, let us not tire, let us not let up, and let us pledge to be in this for the long haul.

I was pretty exhausted by the Covid-19 situation. And I’m not any less so now. But I’m trying to keep alert, too. I think if we just each quietly did something positive, whether that’s buying a book and learning more about anti-racism, to donating money, even a small amount to a good cause, this can be something. If you live in Edmonton and want to support an Indigenous organization, I’m very fond of the Edmonton Native Healing Center and here is their donation page.

Thanks for reading, and looking at the photos from my backyard (which have nothing whatsoever to do with this post!), but where I’m spending a fair bit of time thinking things through these days.

Shawna Lemay, Let Us Not Tire

In these lengthening days
it’s easy to feel that we
are past any danger. The idea
of crowded hospital beds
and makeshift isolation tents inside
stadiums sounds like a bad fairy tale,
until the angel of sickness walks
across your threshold and sets down
his luggage. When he hangs up a towel,
sets a worn toothbrush on the sink.
you know he’s there to stay
a little while longer.
Even so, he is not the enemy.
Without any special malice,
he is only doing what’s in his nature.
But the enemy took ships across the water
and returned with shackled bodies
loaded in the hold. The enemy
cracked a whip across the fields
where our people bent over beds
of garlic and strawberries.
The enemy is a bullet
that will take out your eye
or stop your heart even when you’ve
knelt on the ground as instructed.
The enemy is a god unto himself.
It shows no mercy but fears
every dusky body running
and playing in sunlight,
numbers of them walking now
with a single purpose across the land.

Luisa A. Igloria, Enemy

erect a statue 
to the statue topplers
and topple it

Jim Young [no title]

You may or may not, if you live somewhere far away from Seattle, have been getting reports – mostly false – of chaos and crime and uproar in Seattle. But for the most part, we are all fine here. Hearing that Fox News doctored photos from Capital Hill’s protest zone (See: WA Post’s story here) didn’t surprise me, but I had to reassure people who don’t live here that things were mostly operating as normal, that I had friends going to the protest zone where people were sharing food and doing poetry readings, you know, truly revolutionary behaviors. Artists drew a beautiful mural spelling out “Black Lives Matter” on the street. Ah! Chaos! So you don’t need to worry about us here, and you definitely shouldn’t support sending in the military. As Han Solo said, “Everything’s fine, we’re all fine here. How are you?” […]

I’ve been talking about the defunding the police all week, and this made me think about other corrupt systems, and how we correct them, and if necessary, dismantle them. Does this make me a revolutionary? I think few people would consider me a radical, but the corruption and bias of the police is a big problem, and I don’t think “reform” is enough. At least it hasn’t been enough over the last, oh, I don’t know, 100 years. Besides racism and sexism (talk to me about how the police handle rape and domestic violence cases, in case you want some horror stories), corruption of power, problematic protections by a corrupt police union, the militarization against citizenry, and questionable immunity status…how do you reform the system of policing? Judges, sheriffs, mayors…we vote for them all. Are we holding the people we vote for accountable enough?

And there were aftershocks even in the poetry community. The Poetry Foundation had two resignations. Outrage against editors and publishers bloomed all over social media for offenses minor and major. The discussion of how much writers get paid was also a hot topic – of course, for poets, all mostly a theoretical discussion, getting paid, but interesting to see the disparities nonetheless. Do we hold non-profits and groups who support the arts to the same standards we hold, say, corporations or government entities? Is the literary publishing world as messed up as, say, the educational system (which many would say also needs a little dismantling at this point for its inequities)? Who are we holding accountable, and why? How do we build a better world, the world we say we want? A world that treats people equally regardless of race or gender or (dis)ability? How does that begin? The status quo does not seem to be working for the vast majority.

I often feel like an outsider here in America. After all, I’m disabled and chronically ill (which numerous Americans lately have been indicating makes my life worthless, in the face of the coronavirus) and a woman. I’m white, but I’ve witnessed enough racism to believe that yeah, it’s still a problem that did not magically get erased somehow in the last fifty years. Then there’s the issue of social and economic disparities that appear to be getting worse, not better. So how do we make America better, fairer, a place where everyone can actually have a chance at the American dream even without being born a healthy white heterosexual male?

Jeannine Hall Gailey, The 13th of Juneuary, Seattle is Probably More Peaceful Than You Think, Being Sick and Considering the Dismantling of Corrupt Systems

It’s useful to remember that when people like me call for the abolition of the police, our proposal is not “leave the world exactly as it is except without the police.” The idea of police abolition goes hand in hand with the idea of communities taking care of the basic needs of their people. No baby is born to a life of crime. Instead, babies are born into a world without adequate shelter, food, education, leisure time, arts, communal structures, play, and all the other things that make life worth living or even possible in terms other than mere existence. As long as we continue to allow our society to work at the whim of corporations and the wealthy and the powerful, there will always be a need for an armed force to enforce those whims. When I say “get rid of cops,” I also mean “take the money we use on cops – whether here inside our borders or via our armed forces – and use it to build a better world.”

Jason Crane, What I Mean When I Say “Get Rid Of Cops”

When I decided to go quiet,
was the time I should have been speaking out.
When the screens started going dark,
black voices said to offer lifelines.
When I wanted to write,
I knew my voice wasn’t one that needed to be heard.
I couldn’t watch the violence any more,
but can’t turn away any longer.

Gerry Stewart, Apologies for My Lack of Response to Current Events

It’s easy to understand why people would want to avoid the topics of privilege and of systemic racism. We are taught to be polite; one of the social contracts I was urged to respect was to keep conversation friendly, to avoid religion, politics, and other hot topics in order to get along with my neighbors and coworkers–to maintain friendships with people whose perspectives are different from my own. This approach does work, to a degree. Politeness, though, is not the same as compassionate interest and doesn’t always encourage listening and reflecting.

So it stops the conversation just when the conversation might be getting interesting. Or difficult. I have seen this play out in the course I teach time and again. Some students try to mediate as soon as a disagreement starts. Some tune out; some get embarrassed; some shut it down. Some talk to me after class, individually. Only a few times are my freshmen confident and mature enough to speak up assertively but in a way that admits of, and permits, other points of view.

That behavior is what I try to teach and to encourage. We need to admit of other perspectives rather than keep comparing this with that or bring up side arguments or shut people down with ad hominem attacks. That means ideologically “liberal” people also have to listen and to allow opposition, by the way. I teach in a fairly conservative university; and as a rather unconventional thinker in that environment, it can be a challenge for me to let students express views with which I disagree. But that’s the point: to listen and try to understand, and then to show where the argument goes awry–if it does–and acknowledge the validity of the stance, as there often is some.

Ann E. Michael, Just speak

I’ve been extraordinary fortunate with [dancing girl press] in that, with such a large number of submissions, I have a healthy number of manuscripts coming across the desk–a variety of ethnicities, backgrounds, gender/sexual orientations, subject matter, experiences. Others come to me through recommendations of other writers or happenstance. I can usually find a decent percentage of writers of color whose work I want to publish, but of course, there is always more work to be done if you truly want to reflect the breadth of work and decenter the glaring whiteness of the publishing world. And these are what I’ve been thinking about in the past couple weeks as this is on everyone’s mind and publishers are examining how to do things better in the future–how to welcome more writers of color, particularly BIPOC into publications and presses. How to find those authors, because they are out there, and how to bring them to the forefront of publishing efforts as an industry (which includes the biggest of the large publishers down to the tiniest of the indies). And specifically, how I can make those things manifest through dgp, where while we do get to publish a somewhat diverse list, it seems like there is still more work to be done to have a chapbook series that truly reflects population percentages in general. I’d like to do a bit more soliciting and maybe pushing POC authors to the front of queue and making them a priority this summer. In the meantime, also championing and promoting the work of writers we have published is a useful thing as well. More soon on this as I mull it around…

Kristy Bowen, decentering and publishing in the era of #blacklivesmatter

protest hate / love peace—

this battle waged on bloodied american soil / countless bodies converging in cities all across the country / human spirit refusing to become collateral damage amidst systemic brutality and oppression / see the courageous display what happens to equality long-deferred / it doesn’t go quietly to the back of the bus / it explodes out onto the streets / enduring bullets, brawls & pepper-spray halos to get its message heard

do not / protest love / hate peace

Rich Ferguson, It’s All in the Way the Words are Arranged

I’ve never had much talent for hope, and what hope I’ve managed to summon tends to get squashed. It’s a feeling I’ve learned to distrust. Yet widespread public outrage at police assaults to Black lives and dignity: it springs from that four-letter-word. Protests and anger, imply at least some tiny spark of faith that the world can change.

I’ve been trying to write more poetry from and about hope during the past couple of years, and one of those pieces, “We Could Be,” appeared recently in About Place: Practices of Hope. I’ll be reading it–and listening to some of the other fabulous contributors–in a group reading today, Friday 6/12, at 7pm EST on YouTube Live (details above). I find poems of joy, hope, gratitude, and love hard to generate. For me, poems grow more readily from complex, often negative, emotions and situations: conflict often powers the turn or volta that makes a poem surprising; ambivalence and ambiguity somehow sharpen the language (I’m not sure how that last process works, but I certainly feel it). “Unsonnet,” a poem of mine recently published by Ecotone and reprinted by Verse Daily, operates in the latter mode of darkness and uncertainty. It comes from grief about my son growing up and getting ready to leave for college, and it ends not with optimism but denial and a wish to turn back the clock. I like the vivid language of “Unsonnet,” a poem that came relatively easily last spring; I started “We Could Be” four years ago and revising it was monstrously difficult. I don’t know if one is aesthetically better than the other. But the way the latter poem puts hope out there does seem ethically better. (Those are fighting words, I know, that poetry can have an ethics, but I think it can. It’s just slippery, as language itself is.)

Lesley Wheeler, Practicing Hope

For the last two days I’ve been reading Koon Woon‘s Water Chasing Water (Kaya Press, 2013) and feeling my own heart swell upwards as if on a rising tide. Other reviewers have described him as a “writer of solitudes,” but I love the community Koon Woon invokes in almost every poem. I love his poems for his father, poems about sleeping under bridges, about the Chinese waiter reading Nietzsche and dreaming a writing life into being. In this time of madness and isolation, he gives me hope.

Bethany Reid, A Poem and a Writing Prompt

You might hear them before
you see them, the sign says
but we still look up

a little like the way we hear
the voice of our own conscience
or our fears, and look around

for a sign that might convince us
to take that first step forward.

Lynne Rees, Skylarks ~ a poem

I had a lovely phone conversation yesterday with my long-time writing mentor. We mostly communicate via e-mail, so it was great to connect over the phone. We chatted about a lot of things, but a great deal of it was about literature, which was a treat for me. This person is extremely knowledgeable and passionate, and the conversation transported me back to feeling like I was in college again and listening to a professor wax poetic about the beauty of language. I realized that I just don’t have those kinds of conversations anymore. I haven’t in years, and it’s really a shame. I didn’t realize how hungry I was for it. I don’t have anyone in my day-to-day life to talk to literature about on that level. And my reading habits have gotten very lazy. Reading for me has become just a way to unwind before bed, rather than an experience of delving deep into a rich work of art. I’ve read a few heavy novels here and there, but it’s mostly been literary junk food. I made a semi-resolution on this very blog several years ago to read one classic a month, and I never followed through. I think it’s time to dust that resolution off and give it an honest try this time.

Kristen McHenry, Poor Soup Outcome, Literary Hunger, Plug-and-Play Genius

I’ve made a poem collage for  the Begin Afresh Campaign for Poets for the Planet  following their open call for poems which reads as follows:

Poets for the Planet warmly invite you to join us in writing poems on the theme of ‘beginning afresh’.

We are calling for poems that respond to the need for change. How must the world change as we come out of lockdown? Is there anything we’ve gained from lockdown that we should hang onto? What do we need to let go of? We’d love you to share your poems of no going back, starting again, turning over a new leaf, letting go.

My contribution includes daisies, buttercups, common knapweed and yellow hawkweed – wildflowers which have grown in our back garden since we stopped mowing it.  The #NoMowMay and #NoMowJune campaigns encourage people to leave their lawns alone, so encouraging weeds to flower and provide a greater source of pollen for bees and other pollinators, and habitats for more insects and other garden wildlife. This is one small change I’ve made with my family  – not just in the lockdown because we also did this last year, influenced by this article by Alys Fowler in The Guardian – but the lockdown has made me even more aware of my desire to do more to care for our planet.  Not mowing the lawn is my very small gesture of starting afresh.

Josephine Corcoran, We found the O My! in No Mow May

I played her the song on the way home and then promptly forgot about it..until earlier today when I heard it coming from her room. I was pleased, checked my dad privilege and then got on with enjoying it as a moment. As is often the wont, that’s a poem, I thought. There’s an idea there, however shite, it’s an idea, but how to get anywhere near writing down the history of how we got to that moment (especially without referring to Beckenham Tescos) and without making it sound like I’d made her listen to it. It felt like a tall order (even once I’d navigated the internal monologue about whether it was a shit idea). And to be honest with you, I’ve got this far into this post without really knowing what my point is other than thinking that I see lots of posts about the poems we have written, the poems we didn’t write, how to write the poem we didn’t know we wanted to write (via prompts), how to edit the poem we have written (for example this great one from today by Natalie), but I can’t recall seeing one that talks about something from the moment of conception, how it got that far and whether it should then carry on.

To be fair this isn’t that post either, but it’s potentially a marker in the sand (another Pearl Jam song, as it happens) for the future. If I get beyond my internal wrangling about how to even start it and if I should start it I’ll let you know. In the mean time, I’ve linked to a few great songs on the way.

Mat Riches, Is Whilst

The farm-cabin is not for everyone–the closest any kind of restaurant is 20 minutes of driving through fields, there’s only phone /internet signal if you sit on the porch at the right time of day, and the view is fields and more fields. But for us this is perfect–we’ll only be a couple of hours away from our girls (and my generous mother who will be caring for them) so we could get home in a hurry if need-be, we’re not too far away from the hospital if I went into surprise early labor, and we actually enjoy quiet isolation and have our own writing projects that we’ve been slogging away on inch by inch. […]

I wonder too how with the state of the world if it is the right time for either of my areas of interest in my manuscripts–what do poetry readers need and want to read right now? The oppression of nuns and the mourning of a baby? I don’t know. I suppose I can’t help but write what feels important and alive to me. Perhaps these are questions to ask myself during the weekend at the cabin.

Renee Emerson, Preparing for a DIY Writing Retreat

I grieve for my finished unfinished manuscript. Ten years worth of research and scrawl that feels stillborn now even though it is still alive still kicking dust from the molding with its tiny shoes in the office of a publisher. I feel guilty for my grief for giving into it in such a powerful historic moment decade.

I stack my unread copies of the Paris Review in numerical order on the child sized roll top desk from which I used to teach pretend school as a small girl believing that one day I would actually be a true student. I’m afraid of opening them. The smell of fresh ink makes me high. Mimeograph ink was my first drug. I would shake when I held the damp slick test paper gentian letters swimming into my malleable brain.

Since the plague I’ve been afraid to turn on my pc where my manuscript lives. I tell myself the boxy computer is going to be dead or the monitor ultra bright wavy constant updates whirling away the white mesmerizing circle on the blue field Word won’t allow me access my pages will come up as Read Only and I won’t know how to fix it my story will be broken even though I have four copies maybe more in my email. It feels like sickness.

Rebecca Loudon,  Sarah Manguso wrote in the Paris Review “ How far along are you? people will ask of your book

Here I am, showing up, doing the thing I’ve assigned myself to do.

I feel a little hollow, scraped out. Writer’s block is when you have the words but can’t release them. They’re trapped behind a wall. I think I’ve got writer’s drought. Lots of arid sky in my head, dendrites dry as August dirt.

Tears came easily this week. Thursday, I had a panting, sweaty meltdown: droplets spattered everywhere. I thought some physical work would make me feel better, but instead of dissipating a persistent ennui it activated a wet rage. (At least my garage and yard look better.)

I have nothing worth saying today. Feel as if I have been swimming and swimming in everyone’s torrent of words for weeks now, and all I want to do is lie still on some shore and dry out a bit.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Showing up

In the end, COVID-19 covered the earth like a blanket covering a small and trembling child. This virus filled the sky as if it were smoke from a tremendous fire, a fire that burned for a thousand years. It flowed with swift rivers and filled the oceans. Entire oceans of COVID-19. We are simple people. We touch the virus, we breathe the virus, we wear the virus like a suit of the finest silk, perfectly cut to fit. And so now we embrace COVID-19. We embrace death. We are Little Red Ridinghood embracing the wolf at last. Come. Let me hold you. Die with me tonight.

James Lee Jobe, In the end, COVID-19 covered the earth like a blanket covering a small and trembling child.

We get to wholeness and peace both by pursuing justice with all that we are, and by surrendering to everything we can’t know about how we’re going to get there from here. It’s not an either/or: it’s a both/and. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all, and, if we imagine we know all the answers we’re guaranteed to be wrong. We need humility and chutzpah.

“Not by might and not by power, but by spirit.” The Hebrew word for “spirit” here, ruach, can also be translated as breath. I find a message in that for our current moment too. We reach wholeness not through pursuing power, but through ensuring that everyone can breathe freely. When all of God’s children can breathe, that’s wholeness and peace. 

Eric Garner’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” George Floyd’s last words were “I can’t breathe.” Racism, like coronavirus, steals the breath. Just this morning we sang nishmat kol chai — “Breath of Life, the breath of all that lives praises Your name.” We name God as the Breath of Life. When a human breath is diminished, it’s as though God were diminished. 

We don’t know when the cloud will lift — when justice will roll like thunder and righteousness like a mighty stream. (Amos 5:24) We don’t know when the cloud will lift — when the pandemic will end and it will be safe to return to the world again. We only know that right now, we’re in the cloud. It’s hard to see how we get there from here. But that doesn’t exempt us from trying.

Our task is to protect ourselves and each other during these pandemic times. To end racism in all its forms. To cultivate the chutzpah of believing we can make the world a better place alongside the humility of knowing that we don’t have all the answers. When the cloud lifts, we move forward. When the cloud doesn’t lift, we do what we can to build justice right here where we are.

Rachel Barenblat, In the cloud

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 14

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. This week, another onslaught of blog posts in my feed reader as a few more long-dormant bloggers emerged, now to post GloPoWriMo poems. Others, meanwhile, report feeling blocked or frustrated. Some are in domestic productivity mode. Some are fighting the virus. A few are too busy to feel much of anything but exhaustion or rage. By and large, it sounds as if poets are rising to the occasion.


The milk is spoiling, or has finished the job. The apple-a-day calendar is stuck at March 13, when I flew off despite misgivings about flying. Luckily I’d emptied the garbage, as I always do before leaving. The refrigerator and its white noise set to perpetual.

The collage clippings are scattered on the table, the needles are sunk in the pincushion at a courteous distance. Books, clothes… if I’d only thought a little further. My bag was lightly packed.

Sarah J Sloat, The empty apartment

Of course we introverts have feelings.  We know that real grief is sometimes too deep for words.  The Covid-19 plague blew in with a whiplash of emotional states, laced with adrenaline and black humor.  I made jokes, rolled my eyes in the vertigo of each shifting reality, rode the waves of social media — until the torrent of words, emotions, anger, f-words, words, words, f-words, knocked me down.

What exhausted me was the snap mastery, the fear-driven rush to judgment.  Then the need, akin to the Biblical Job’s friends, to mouth all-knowing vindications of tragedy.  It didn’t leave much room for the kind of tongue-tied response of silence and awe that made me sit, shaken and numb and full of longing. I pulled in and pulled from my shelf the books of my companion poets.  In the language game, whose words would stand up to reality? Great artists who had taken harrowing journeys and sent word back.  Those guides brought me across the void, helped me mourn and feel sorrow for the immensity of what is being lost.

The weeks since then have been spinning by.  Spring is celebrating itself.  Pink buds wave towards the future while we are stuck on reruns.  The new reality is taking shape.  It is technological.  It is busy while being stilled.  It used to be a metaphor that if you’re not online, you’re invisible.  Now it is a reality.  

Jill Pearlman, The Introvert’s Guide to the New Reality

Being an extrovert means I get energy from being around other people. This is one reason I love, and very much miss, my gym. It’s not just that the OrangeTheory Fitness workouts are hard and great, it’s that I’m working out with a group of people. And because my preferred time to workout was 5am, I was working out with the same group of early risers every morning. We were a community who knew each other by name and chatted happily, if sometimes sleepily, before starting our workout. Now my days start with a solo run, followed by solo yoga and solo TRX and then a solo hike with my dog. I’m still fit and healthy but I miss people. I miss high-fiving friends after a hard set, or cheering on someone as they push hard on the rower or treadmill or pick up heavier weights than usual. I miss the comradery.

Poetry is what I usually turn to in times of emotional turmoil but lately, the words haven’t been flowing as much as I’d like. April is National Poetry Month and in years past I’ve participated in 30/30 – 30 poems in 30 days, writing one poem per day. This year I’m not setting this goal as I don’t honestly think I’d be able to do it and I don’t want to feel bad or guilty or like I’m underachieving if I don’t write a poem each day. Instead I’m reading a lot of poetry and when the words come, I capture them, grateful to have them and have this outlet.

So I’m celebrating National Poetry Month by being gentle with myself, by being kind to myself, and not setting expectations so high that I’m certain to be disappointed. I’m surrounding myself with beautiful words and hopefully, this will inspire me to write some of my own. But this year, it’s okay if it doesn’t. This year is different from any I’ve experienced and so I’m taking it a day at a time, letting my heart lead me where it needs to go.

Courtney LeBlanc, Celebrating

As a comfort during this strange and difficult time, I am re-reading Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott, first read in childhood. I recalled the March family hunkered at home during the war between the states, their father off serving as a chaplain for the army, but little did I know quite how much their situation would resonate now!

When I picked up my book this morning, opening to where my bookmark had fallen in place the night before, the little women and their mother had received news of the illness of Mr. March. Illness in war is common, and our big flu pandemic of 1918 happened in war, and here we are again. So Marmee, as her daughters call her, packs a trunk and heads off to tend him, leaving the little women on their own, in the care of Hannah the cook, and with the protection of the neighbor, Mr. Laurence, and his grandson, Laurie.

The next morning, they wake to the completely changed circumstances. “’I feel as if there had been an earthquake,’ said Jo…” Indeed!

Kathleen Kirk, The Pertinence of Little Women

yes i do kiss you
right now in plain sight
right here on this park bench

in front of the ducks
in front of the trees
still bare from winter

in front of the broken
clouds in front
of the person

biking past
face covered
with a bandana

bandit-style
in front of the person
with the Ronald-

McDonald hair
turning away
from two old people

kissing, standing,
walking this little dog
crowding our feet, one

of your hands filled
with litter collected from
the river bank the other filled

with mine yes do hold
my hand, hold my hand,
hold tighter

Sharon Brogan, Day One of the Pandemic

Strange to move so poorly in these woods, shortened steps so slow: the last time I moved with such caution in here it was my back that was halved. Freshly screwed and stapled, bones on fire and nerve signals still scrambled: the risk of falling was severance, then.

Now, it’s lungs on fire, covid’s chest-spreader cracking sternum on each breath.

But better, today, eighteen days in: enough that I can slow-walk crackle and snap past the vixen’s den and down, all the way to the stream, past vulpine latrine (territory’ edge) and deer, past bear scat and scratches.

Quartz extrusions, some lifted into walls, some still in situ, are bleached to bone.

Near the water, a snapped pine is a hundred years of falling in a moss-encroached grave. It means something different to me than to others here.

In this difference, the severance. The fall.

JJS, Crack

The tradition says each of us is to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been brought out of Mitzrayim. I don’t know about you, but the idea that we are living in Mitzrayim — the Narrow Place; tight constriction; dire straits — feels very real to me this year. If we are feeling constricted, anxious, afraid, uncertain, maybe newly-aware of some of our society’s fundamental inequalities and the harm they cause to the most vulnerable… then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

When we left that Narrow Place, we didn’t know where we were going. We didn’t have time to fully prepare for our journey of transformation. We didn’t know where we were going or how we would get there. We left the Narrow Place anyway, because it had become clear that staying where we were — staying with the status quo — meant death. If we are feeling unready, unprepared, maybe thrust into a journey we don’t know how to take… then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.

Rachel Barenblat, We are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be

I signed up to receive daily writing prompts from Two Sylvias Press, and I’m planning to go back to them at some point, but I can’t find the release valve on my writing brain to let the words just come.

Instead, I catch myself staring out the window for long stretches, watching the new hickory leaves unfurl. I’ve been walking my dog and letting him get filthy in the pond where pollen pools on the surface like a film of a crushed hard boiled egg yolk. I’m washing my hands probably more than I need to, considering the raw, chapped patches on the left hand.

I’ve re-started my personal yoga practice finally, although I have taken a few Zoom classes. It’s hard for me to pin myself down to a specific time to practice now that the classes are streamed live. When I’m home, I don’t usually keep to a schedule.

But maybe a schedule is what I need, especially if I want to beckon my creative mind. Sitting myself at my desk or out on the back porch with a pen and a notebook every day, just like I roll out my mat. Yoga, meditation, and writing are interconnected for me. One leads to another.

As far as The Wasteland goes, last year I was emerging from a painful depression during April, and I agreed with Eliot’s first line that “April is the cruelest month,” though maybe it was for different reasons than his own intentions for writing.

This year April is also a cruel month. Just when the earth is greening in the Northern hemisphere, thousands of people are dying. It’s a sorrow that’s hard to reconcile with the season.

Christine Swint, Poetry Month

My English A-level was combined Language and Literature. I had a different teacher for each, and each had their own collection of classrooms. There is no denying that studying Thomas Hardy’s poetry from a language perspective was a huge influence in starting me writing my own poems, but a heavily-annotated copy of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems — not much larger than a pamphlet — was, and remains, a definite influence on my writing. I suspect that if it’d not been heavily annotated then it wouldn’t have fired my imagination. Learning how a poet could hide so many meanings beneath the words was fascinating. We weren’t studying Eliot at all, I found the book at the back of a cupboard, but I took the book home and devoured it!

Giles L. Turnbull, The Top Ten Books that have Inspired me (as a Reader and a Writer), Part 1

We have gained some perspective in the pandemic. We now know that Italo Calvino would have been more useful as a grocer. Clarice should have been an emergency doctor. And, of course, Mark Rothko should have used his time more wisely and become a rich businessman. Mir Taqi Mir should have at least composed a couplet in praise of Dettol’s scent. And Ghalib should have been a manufacturer of hand sanitizers. We have certainly gained some perspective. Pianos should be repurposed into something that will be more useful to society. I demand that from now on no resource should be wasted on the production of canvases or brushes. Every piece of stone should be used to build a useful building. I know I sound a bit radical but – hear me out – I think even flowers should be replaced with vegetables. The pandemic has taught us some important lessons. Alas, history cannot be changed! If only physics had enough funding, we would’ve been able to travel back in time and knock some sense into Bach’s head. Oh what a waste of talent! But at least now we have learnt our lesson. The other day, I don’t know why a man looked at me like I were crazy when I asked him which page of Baudelaire should be used as toilet paper first?

Saudamini Deo, Lockdown diary / 5-6-7-8

My watch conked out yesterday. Suddenly it was half past five and actually it was five to six. So now I live watch-less.

Just as well. I have started reading How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (thank you Shawna Lemay for the recommendation):

Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram act like dams that capitalize on our natural interest in others and an ageless need for community, hijacking and frustrating our most innate desires, and profiting from them. Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves, but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.’ 

Well, I have been having quite a lot of conviviality and connection right by my front gate, thanks to being in the garden so much. I have had more conversation these last two weeks than I have had for months. Even with strangers.

What is that telling me?

Anthony Wilson, Practice

I have washed my hands for twenty seconds
with soap and music. I have gloves to wear.
I have dreamed up a house with invisible walls
That let me see the sun and the moon and the trees,
Oh let me be trapped there for forty days
And forty nights, like Jesus in the desert.

James Lee Jobe, I have washed my hands for twenty seconds

So how barbaric is it to write poetry during a pandemic? How wrong to suppress a pang of guilt at the thought that there are people dying out there, while I’m fiddling with words? And if I need to keep fiddling to stay sane, should I perhaps hide that discordant, painful music under a bushel?

I keep hearing from friends, family, and the ubiquitous newsfeed in my mailbox that things will get worse before they get better. Things already are unimaginably tragic for so many families around the world. I’m afraid that thinking of worse things yet to come might somehow bring them into being. I must shift my focus or succumb to anguish for my children’s future.

Outside, the birds, the insects, the trees, and the flowers are busy making spring happen. I feel joy and gratitude when I watch them. Their tiniest gestures acquire instant symbolism, becoming a sign of hope, of resilience, of triumph over despair. All around me, nature breathes and sends her messengers to knock on my doors, my windows, my forehead. They all know something I don’t–or have chosen not to acknowledge. Not yet. I must keep watch. Any day now, I’ll find out what nature has been hiding from me. What she’s been telling me all along.

So there it is, my reason for fiddling. I’m trying to bring about spring. It’s the only way I know how.

Romana Iorga, NaPoWriMo 2020: Poetry from the trenches, Day 0

If you had asked me 3 days ago how I was, I’d probably have broken down in tears. Home schooling is breaking me, but I’ve had a few days respite as the kids were away to their dad’s so I’ve been able to catch up with my studies, go to the allotment, hang some photos that have been sitting unloved for years, do some reading and crafting and, most importantly for the blog, join in with Angela Carr’s new 30 day writing challenge which coincides with GloPoWriMo (or NaPoWriMo if you insist on being US-centric) the poetry writing month which encourages people to write a poem a day. And so far because of the isolation I’ve been able to keep up. Four new rough drafts done and as soon as I hit Publish for this I’ll start on the next one. 

In honour of GloPoWriMo, I usually include a poem by a poet I like. This time I’m including The Hill Burns by the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd. I have to admit I’ve never read her poems before, but I’ve recently started her book The Living Mountain which is part of a online read-along started by nature writer Rob MacFarlane. I  haven’t been able to keep up with the read-along and discussion, but it’s worth following Rob on Twitter and reading his books, he has a lovely way with words and inspiring people to explore nature and to write about it. I’ve only managed The Wild Places and The Lost Words (written with Jackie Morris and with her beautiful illustrations, a magical book) so far as it’s hard to get his books here, but I’m in a queue of about a million waiting for his latest book Underland once the libraries reopen here in Helsinki. 

Gerry Stewart, Corona Virus Week Three – Chinks of Light

nanny state‬
‪the goats take over‬
‪roaming‬

Jim Young [no title]

I finished reading Margaret Atwood’s 2000 book, Cat’s Eye. After ten years of mostly reading and writing poetry, I’ve regained an appetite for fiction.  I enjoyed the book very much and it felt luxurious to spend long days with the same characters, visiting another section of their lives each time I picked up the book.  It’s hard to replicate that experience when reading poetry. However, at the book’s end, I wasn’t hit by a sensation of something profound, exact and transformative.  I didn’t deeply recognise a human emotion conveyed in the story – or, if I did, the poet in me couldn’t help asking  did we need 421 pages to say that?  Could it have been said in 14 lines?

I’ve had some extremely happy moments this week: discovering that both of my now adult children can cook; watching my 19 year old son teaching himself to do handstands and cartwheels in our back garden; being in awe of my 20 year old student daughter’s ability to focus on her academic work in a houseful of people, one of whom plays his music ridiculously loud.  We’re very lucky to be in lockdown together and not alone.  I’ve felt guilty for feeling happy in the middle of an international crisis.

I’ve been trying to write a poem but I’m scuppered by the old adage of a watched pot never boils.  I need to quickly look away and let the poem do some of its work without me.

Josephine Corcoran, Corona Diary: Lockdown Continues

We should have known it well
it thrives. indeed, on being human
our touching each other; hands on face
speak out loud, droplets & breath
hold on to the handrail
move down the carriage,
use all available space
it’s proximity & closeness
shaking hands, kissing once or twice,
(don’t stand so/don’t stand so close to me)
the embrace, the popping in,
the cup of tea, the walk together,
y’alright mate,
saying cheers, give me five,
would you like a top-up,
anytime, here for you.
And they thought we could raise fences

Ernesto Priego, The Plague

Last April, I challenged myself to write a poem a day and posted the drafts on this blog. That turned out to be a useful experience, but I feel no need to repeat it. This year, I want to post about some new(ish) books of poetry. Not critiques or book reviews, just what the poems evoke for this particular reader.

~

First up– Lynn Levin‘s The Minor Virtues, 2020, Ragged Sky Press. The cover’s appropriate to the month: a lovely image of dogwood blossoms. And I have to admit that what drew me into the book is the charming mundanity of the first few poem titles, in which the speaker is tying shoelaces or buying marked-down produce. Most of the poems in the first section begin with a gerund phrase and place the reader in a present-progressive act of doing something. The poems here feel so grounded in reality (quite a few are sonnets), often humorous–grabbing the wrong wineglass at a banquet, trying to think about nothing–that I immediately settled in to the pages.

The topics, or the reflective closures, move toward seriousness at times; her poem “Dilaudid” shook me awake and left me in admiration for a number of reasons (some of them personal resonance–but). Levin’s humor tends to be intellectual–wordplay, allusions, wry asides–and I revel in that sort of thing. Her approach to craft also works for me, because she’s usually subtle going about form or rhyme schemes, so I enjoy the poem for what it says and means and then enjoy it again for how it’s structured and inventive.

I mean, that’s one way I read poems. There are other ways. Some books carry me pell mell through word-urgency or the writer’s rage or passion and some build lyrical intertwining networks of imagery and some make their own rules and some stagger me with their innovation. And I may have to be in the right mood to read a collection.

I was in the right mood to read Levin’s book. It was a good way to begin National Poetry Month in the midst of stay-at-home mandates, taking me gently through a “normal life” and reminding me of all that is surprising there, the riddles and the unexpected, the minor virtues and the actions we take as we practice them. Whether or not we think of them as virtues.

Ann E. Michael, Reading poems

How many hands move to tell the story when
the voice is lost, the voice is a violin throbbing
with loss, the voice has become a ghost, mute
and moving. The hands beat the body like a drum
and hum, the hands beat the drum as if it tells
the stories, the hands beat and are beaten. That
is the tale that must be told, the surprise ending.

PF Anderson, Shekhinah as Sheherazade

And now, the wisdom/advice/guidance comes for all of us to wear masks when we’re out in public. Of course, the nation faces a shortage of medical grade masks that might actually block the virus, but there’s some thought that a cloth mask might help.

I do have a lot of cloth that I could use to create masks. If only I had time to sew.

I see various types of posts from people who are holed up in quarantine who have made thousands of masks or written the definitive biography of Julian of Norwich or made their thirty-sixth loaf of homemade bread with sourdough starter that they created with native yeasts that they captured in their back yard. I have spent this past work week in the office.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, The Longest Week

Anyway, long story short, I am masking at work now, and it’s weird both physically and psychologically. It feels alien to have a piece of material covering over half my face. It’s hot, it’s vaguely itchy, it smells disconcertingly medical, and I am brushing my teeth and rinsing with mouthwash multiple times per day because I can’t tolerate even the slightest whiff of odor on my breath. With the amount of coffee I’m sucking down these days, this is a challenge. I’ve always been very paranoid about my breath as it is, and I’m one of those people who compulsively pop Altoids and breath gums. Now there is no escaping the smell of my own breath. I’m going to have a get a handle on this neurosis because skipping lunch and living on Dentyne is not a sustainable option.

With the advent of the mask, I’ve ditched the lipstick (the masks go to be reprocessed and they can’t reprocess a mask that has lipstick stains on it), and I have decided to go minimalist on the makeup. I just brush on a little mascara and call it good, which saves me a remarkable amount of time in the mornings.I’ve also taken to wearing tennis shoes because I’m constantly running to our Entry Control Points to deal with issues and my normal work shoes aren’t great for clocking miles on a hard surface.No one’s said anything about the tennis shoes. The way things are going, I could probably get away with jeans and hoodies at this point.This same sort of sartorial breakdown also happened during the strike, with senior management all but wandering around in their pajamas towards the end. The near-total breakdown of professional appearance is an interesting signifier of a crisis.

Kristen McHenry, Reaction Time, Sartorial Signifier, Future Cave Woman

cornmeal into the blue bowl
flour into the blue bowl
my son stands in the kitchen
to tell me the news
no no not now I say the last
of the baking powder
sifts into the blue bowl people
are dying he says no no
I say salt and sugar
into the blue bowl he tells
me about a ship in New York
I stir with my fingers he
keeps talking I add buttermilk
into the blue bowl he says
there is no room for the bodies
I crack two brown eggs
on the blue bowl’s rim
then I pour in honey
my son describes body bags
lining the harbor worse
than war honey rises to the bowl’s
blue lip I keep pouring honey
oozes out of the blue bowl
onto the counter then the floor
I keep at the honey pouring
pouring the floor thick
with it I can barely move
my feet soon my calves
are covered I pour honey
until it shimmers golden heavy
around my waist fills the kitchen
above my shoulders pressed
to my sides the most intense
perfume I pour in enough honey
to flood the yard now I see the sun
right out that window the sun
stupid and round as any
discarded toy

Rebecca Loudon, corona 10.

Still: dead labor asserts its claim. The workers and exploited ones. Slaves and caretakers. The nameless, lost, derided. The invisible. All the others. The child in the cobalt mine living inside your battery. They live in each head as well as in the complex of social fact. An entire civilization is dedicated to consuming and concealing them. How long does something like this last? How long can it? Never to confront the discarded traces. To build an infinity from denial. Acceleration as the energy required to sustain the denial forestalling absolute cataclysm. Who speaks to and for those inside of us, which we ourselves are inside of in turn? Who admits those who refuse to be part of the “I”?

Rimbaud learned early: “I is an other.” The fundamental insight. As revolutionary and poetic truth.

R.M. Haines, Identity and Its Discontents: Notes on Rimbaud

[…]They bring him wrapped, calf muscles buckled
from what the human body is not meant to do –
walk three hundred miles, drop like a yellowed leaf
to be rested under the cassia tree in full bloom
just a mile from home.

The context:
After the 21 day lockdown in India to contain the spread of Coronavirus, the states have closed their borders, bus and train services have been suspended. The lockdown has left tens of millions of migrant workers unemployed. They are from rural India, small towns and villages, but live most of the year in India’s megacities. Believed to number at least 120 million, possibly more, they are walking to their homes, hundreds or thousands of miles away from where they had migrated for work.

A 23 year old man walking from Nagpur in Maharashtra to Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, after completing 500 kilometers in the summer heat of the southern Indian plains, died of cardiac arrest in Secunderabad, many miles away from home.

Uma Gowrishankar, The Walk

I was surprised to see this week that my writing has finally turned. After months and months of writing despairing poems, I can see more light and hope in my work now. I saw a few glimmers of this before the quarantine, but what I can really pin it down to is my daily practice of writing a single description of what is around me–focusing on the here and now has brought about more hopeful poems. I was hoping to get there, to not write the darkest of poems forever (and it felt like forever). The grief is still there, and the loss, and I don’t suspect that it will go away any time soon or ever, but I am so relieved to see the Light there as well.

Renee Emerson, the turn

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

Lesley Wheeler, Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

This is a tough, tough time for all of us. In that context, it’s important to empathise with others such as publishers who’ve seen their distributors close down, festivals/readings cancel (where poetry is most often sold) and new books lose the impetus of launches. Of course, it also goes without saying that the poets in question are suffering too. They might well have been working away on a manuscript for years, only to find that publication turns into a damp squib.

One of those cases is David J. Costello and his first full collection, Heft, which has just been published by Red Squirrel Press. David had a whole host of launches and readings lined up, but he’s seen all of them gradually disappear for the foreseeable future. I was fortunate enough to read a proof of his book prior to going to press, and here’s the endorsement that I provided:

David Costello’s poetry is especially adept at evoking the passing of time. Throughout this collection, he portrays the ambiguities and ambivalences of relationships between the individual and the collective, the human and the natural, the historical and the present, moving his readers in every poem.’

Moreover, you can read three poems from Heft over at Elizabeth Rimmer’s blog, BurnedThumb, where she generously held a virtual launch for the collection. If that then encourages you to get hold of a copy for yourself, you can do so via the Red Squirrel Press website here.

Matthew Stewart, David J. Costello’s Heft

Scientists say the teeny virus isn’t alive,
exactly, just a bit of protein that possesses
our same uncanny drive to reproduce,
replace, and colonize everything
not itself with acres of its progeny.

O, the irony of being done in
by a beast with our selfsame gluttony.

But love, for this moment now,
let us set aside these fears and feast
on eggs and apples, allow me
to nourish you with all the love I can,
every sacred mouthful.

Lana Hechtman Ayers, Feast and Fear in the Time of Coronavirus

There are worse places to shelter. Not a day goes by that I don’t feel an enormous sense of gratitude. And yes, it’s time to think about moving back home. We’re ready–almost.

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Blogging keeps me limber. Gives me something to do in between binge-watching episodes of Chicago P.D., and 30 Rock with my daughter. It’s also a good way to open up my brainspace to poems.

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I’m participating in two writing groups for National Poetry Month. Pandemic poetry seems to be a theme in both. Truth is, I have been writing fairly consistently for months. It has certainly ramped up the last three weeks after I broke up with my boyfriend.

January Gill O’Neil, Kibbles and Bits

From the crossweave of the song, I stepped into the cry
of gulls. Sickle wings looped and turned in the dark.
I sat on the wall and thought of home. I lifted my face

into the rain and thought of you and the children. All of you
asleep – your hair auburn-red over the counterpane,
their faces spellbound. And I called along the alleys

of the rain and out across the tenements of clouds
to where you lay sleeping, thinking not to wake you but
just to stand for a heartbeat at the corner of your dreams.

Dick Jones, UNDER BLUE ANCHOR

Despite my frequently dire tone here, I am an idealist and an eternal optimist. (It’s why I’m so often angry and railing.) “This is an opportunity,” I have said to anyone who might listen. “Here is our chance to do things differently, to see our mission differently, to really think about what matters in education.”

Yeah, I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I mean, maybe. But not this week, and surely not next.

Instead of releasing much of the utter crap that permeates public education, it feels as if our state has doubled down on it (as have many states). We love to talk about “trauma-informed practice” and “culturally-responsive teaching” until we’re blue in the face, but we are about to embark on delivering “education” in a time of tremendous trauma in ways that are likely to exacerbate it, especially for our most vulnerable students.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Coronavirus diary #4: the wrong kind of hard

Nearly every day I share stories with a stranger thanks to Quarantine Chat. Recently I talked to an older gentleman in Canada who is staying at his fishing cabin. When we talked he’d just come in from what he said would be the last ice fishing of the season. He reported that, once again, he didn’t catch anything. I asked how often his ice fishing was successful. “It’s always successful, in that I get outside for a few hours of peace. But it’s 100 percent unsuccessful if you mean catching anything after decades of trying,” he said. His good cheer couldn’t help but cheer me. I’ve talked to people in Spain,  Russia, Israel, and many U.S. states — a graduate student, business owner, graphic artist, stay-at-home dad, insurance broker, teenaged musician, police officer. We talk about what we can see out our windows, how our plans have changed, what worries us most, what we’re having for supper. It’s like any conversation, except it’s easier to get past the superficial.

Yesterday’s call was with a retired veteran who said he was really struggling with anxiety. I asked if he had a family story, maybe even from generations ago, that made him feel he and his kids would get through this. He told me about his grandmother, who was the first Black woman in their city to become a bus driver. He called her a “little powerhouse of a lady.” He said she was a woman of faith who also took  “no guff” from anybody. Once, he said, she was robbed as she was walking to the side entrance of her apartment building. She never carried a purse, but pulled a worn Bible out of her coat pocket and told the desperate young man holding a knife, “Take this, it has all my treasure inside.” He grabbed it and ran off, assuming she had money stuffed in its pages. She turned and hurried after him. When he threw it down after rifling it through, she picked it up moments later. The police declined her offer to dust it for finger prints. The veteran said he had lots of stories about his grandmother, and realized he hadn’t told them to his daughters. “I see her in my girls,” he said. “They’ve got her fight and her big heart.”

Laura Grace Weldon, Stories: Now More Than Ever

Don’t socially distance yourself from your inner wisdom.

Don’t wear a noose for a necklace.

Don’t confuse a museum with a mausoleum, or a Cajun with a contagion.

Don’t think Gucci is better than Fauci.

Don’t think life is all one-sided when 6 can be 9.

Don’t confuse your coffee with a coffin, or you may drink yourself to death.

Don’t linger with a bee’s stinger. Don’t hide your wounds when they make you a warrior.

Don’t ask for a half-moon when you want the whole night to shine.

Don’t stop believin’ when self-quarantinin’.

Rich Ferguson, Gucci vs. Fauci

What a difference a week makes… I’ve been attempting to stay positive this week, but it was getting tricky towards the end of the week as work got busier. I heard Susanna Reid (Saint Susanna) mention something called F.O.N.D.A or Fear of Not Doing Anything. A distant cousin of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out – where have you been?), FONDA is a new one of these horrible bloody feelings we’re all meant to have according to the culture sections of broadsheets. Apparently, we’re meant to be using this time to learn Sumerian or how to perform brain surgery and recreate Citizen Kane in stop motion using only Lego minifigs or repurposed Barbie Dolls.

Well fuck that. It’s a lovely idea, and I hope you get the chance to learn a new skill and to make the most of this time. I’ve not seen any evidence of it happening for me yet. I’m too busy, either working or drinking to forget. I can’t concentrate on anything else for long enough.

Add in to this the fact that NaNoWriMo has arrived and that means signs of people being busy/writing loads…It’s almost too much. I’m not anti-NaNoWriMo (despite tweets to the contrary), I just can’t do it.

Mat Riches, Accentuate the positive

Rats in the pantry chew through boxes
of shredded wheat and start in
on the rice. We can’t keep the outside

out, anymore than we can keep
the inside in. In the freezer, a dozen
corpse cows, 40 chickens missing

their heads. How long does it take
to move through that much flesh?
Gnawing our way to hunger with sharp,

angry teeth?

Kristy Bowen, napwrimo  | day 5

Cleaning is what I do when everything else feels out of control. My parents used to ride on me unmercifully for my reluctance to clean my desk, my room, my dresser drawers — I always had something more compelling to do, and it just didn’t feel important; besides, I knew where everything was. Oddly, once I had my own spaces and shared them with a partner, I got neater — though there have always been neglected areas. But when unhappiness or chaos or uncertainty seep into my world, I’ve noticed that I instinctively look for things to do that feel ordered, methodical, and incremental: making a patchwork quilt, knitting stitch after stitch, practicing music or a language, following a complicated recipe, taking the food out of the fridge and scrubbing the shelves. There’s a quiet satisfaction today in opening the door to the spice cabinet and seeing the neatly-labeled jars and tins; maybe today I’ll do another drawer of my desk. It’s all easier than staring at a blank screen, wondering what I can possibly write to make sense of this thing that’s happening to all of us — but, ironically, that time spent doing mundane tasks is when the ideas come, and I’ve learned to trust that, too.

Beth Adams, Hermit Diary, Montreal. 12. The Spice Cabinet

We are not
what we think
we are

until we
dream: then
we are

what we are,
everywhere
at once.

Tom Montag, We Are Not

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 13

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.

This week… holy hell. Poets I know are coming down with unmistakable cases of coronavirus. Many people’s worlds are turning upside-down. And more poetry bloggers continue to come out of the woodwork, so with priority given to them, again this week I’ve had to be a bit selective, though I think this may still be one of the longest editions of the digest to date.

Be careful out there. And don’t stop blogging!


So thirsty, suddenly. Lungs desiccant. Obsession: a glass of cold Coke.

Corona: disability activists fight being triaged out.

Drum: am I drowning, or just panicking

Corona: I can grade papers this afternoon, I can. I’m good, I’m ok.

Drum: sleep. Sleep. Sleep.

Corona: the light, it’s so yellow, it’s late summer yellow, is it August? Why can’t I hear the crickets—

Drum: slow expanse of breath, wide and deep.

Corona: high shallows pant and froth. Harsh circle of hospital illumination—

Drum: No. No. No. No. No hospitals. No.

Corona: viscera of yes a myrrh-drip from my fingers upon the drum.

Drum: expand. Expel. Expand. Expel.

JJS, Corona

Well, here we are in Seattle, many of us locked in our domiciles for the foreseeable future. As someone in health care, I am considered an “essential worker” (it even says so on my badge!) so I don’t have the option of not going in to work. It’s such a wasted opportunity. As a life-long introvert, I could rock a good house-bounding. My whole life has been leading up to me being a proper-shut in, and now I can’t even take advantage of the legal mandate. I know that extroverts are genuinely struggling right now and I don’t mean to diminish their pain, but a small, mean, wounded part of myself is thinking, “Hmmph. Now you know how it feels to be the outlier, extroverts.” I’ve complained more than once on this blog about the constant pressure I’ve experienced to be more outgoing, to express myself, to speakup, to put myself “out there,” and other introvert horrors. Introverts have been dismissed and overlooked numerous times both in the workplace and socially, and I feel like this is our time to shine. We shall rise (quietly), our noses in books, silent heroes of the apocalypse, and the world will gasp in awe at our twin superpowers of Holing Up and Staying Put.

Kristen McHenry, Introverts Arise, Virus-Induced Science Hair, I Was Push-up Shamed

The only in-person conversation I’ve had with anyone other than my husband was when one of the workers from Officina ran over with a bag of groceries. With their dine-in options shuttered, they’re trying hard to stay afloat. He recognized me from my regular pop-ins to their market, where I usually buy fresh bread and pork sausages. Now they’re selling me produce straight from the prep kitchen that might otherwise go to waste: bags of parsley and broccolini, Idaho potatoes, huge onions, and a whole brined hen we’ll roast this weekend. 

Beyond that indulgence, we’re sticking to what’s in hand–pasta, rice, canned tomatoes, tinned sardines, bacon, and every imaginable kind of bean and pea. I got really excited because Cento is still shipping their basics. I have a huge jug of olive oil and a stash of white wine. When I was editing Vinegar and Char, I spent a lot of time thinking about the good, sturdy foods we deem essential in times of crisis. Yesterday, as I worked through preparing Made to Explode for W. W. Norton (the manuscript goes to the copyediting desk next week), I paused on this poem, an earlier version of which appeared in the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy~

IN PRAISE OF PINTOS

Phaseolus vulgaris.
Forgive these mottled punks,
children burst 
from the piñata of the New World,
and their ridiculous names
of Lariat, Kodiak, Othello,
Burke, Sierra, Maverick. 
Forgive these rapscallions that 
would fill the hot tub with ham
while their parents 
go away for the weekend,
just to soak in that salt.  
Forgive their climbing instinct.
Forgive their ignorance
of their grandparents who
ennobled Rome’s greatest: 
Fabius, Lentulus, Pisa, Cicero
the chickpea. Legume 
is the enclosure, fruit in pod,
but pulse is the seed.
From the Latin, puls
is to beat, to mash, to throb.
Forgive that thirst. Forgive 
that gallop. Beans are the promise
of outlasting the coldest season.
They are a wink in the palm of God.

Sandra Beasley, Hill of Beans

Thank you for this food, gathered and grown
at unknown price by unknown hands;

brought from far places by those
who would rather be at home.

Thank you for these loved ones 
who step glad and unafraid

into darkness, take my hand,
and find the courage I could not.

Dale Favier, Daily Bread

This is a weird, weird time.

****

I have enough poems to put together a new manuscript, which has some of the best work of my life.  Mississippi has been nothing but inspiring for me. And I continue to be inspired by its wondrous and tragic sides. This morning I started four new drafts, which I think I’ll finish today. I mean, I have an abundance of time.

****

We are good. There are worse places to shelter in place. We miss Massachusetts but my hope is that by the time we’re ready to return in May, the state has hit their piece. Mississippi is a few weeks behind the curve (in many respects).

January Gill O’Neill, Never Say Never

Amongst all the isolation and angst of COVID-19, some good things are happening… I’m totally amazed that my video future perfect has been selected for five (5!) international video festivals already this year: REELPoetry (Texas); Newlyn Short Film Festival (UK); Carmarthen Bay Film Festival (Wales); FILE Electronic Language International Festival (Sao Paolo, Brazil)and Cadence Video Poetry Festival (Seattle).It was first screened at the 8th International Video Poetry Festival in Athens last year.

Although these all were planned to be live theatre screenings, most of them will end up being on-line, so stay tuned for info as it comes to hand.

Here’s my blurb for the vid – maybe a harbinger of where we are and where we are going…

“Words stripped of their ornamentation, pared back to monosyllabic cores… Are these the roots of language? Or are they the skeletal remains of a lost form of communication? Who is trying to speak here? What exactly are we being told? Perhaps a coded message. More likely, a cry for help…”

Ian Gibbins, future perfect screens around the world

In Alaska, schools are closed until May 1st [at least].  As with all teachers,  I’ve spent too many hours last week online, moving my English classes to an online platform that will hopefully allow my students to keep moving forward in the month ahead.  Tuesday will offer a better idea on how effective this plan is while both teachers and students adjust to this learning curve and either gather, assess and post work OR complete and submit assignments.  The online platforms in my house will be smoking come Tuesday.  My daughter will be taking her online courses while I monitor my online courses.  Interesting times!

So it was timely that the literary journal Whatever Keeps the Lights On published its special edition anthology, “Stolen Moments:  Poem Written at Desk Jobs” at this given time.  One, we’ve all been given this strange time to tend, reflect, and — at least in my home, read.  Two, I’m happy to share that I have a couple of poems in this issue, “How to Disappear” and “Tidal Zone.”  I’m grateful the editors gave these two a home in their pages.

Kersten Christianson, Whatever Keeps the Lights On

This is my tribute to Stuart Quine, the haiku poet, who died, aged 57, this week, from coronavirus. Others who knew Stuart better than me are far more qualified to write a full appreciation of Stuart’s qualities, so this is necessarily only a heartfelt, brief tribute, rather than a thorough obituary, of a lovely bloke who also happened to be a fine poet. […]

Stuart was largely known for his inventiveness with the one-line haiku form, though his haiku career is book-ended by his use of the more traditional three-line form. He was also a fine tanka and haibun poet, and a perceptive reviewer.

Here are some of Stuart’s lesser-known poems which I’ve liked over the years:

outside the nightclub
drum’n’bass
shudders a puddle

(Presence 7 and The New Haiku)

as real as any dream cherry blossom

(Presence 54)

Such is life . . .
a pachinko ball
careering wildly
between bells
and lights.

(Presence 55)

the implausibility of it all
yet here I am stumbling home
through the rain

(Presence 55)

Stuart’s poems rarely needed any explication and these four all speak eloquently for themselves. Of them, I like the pell-mell tanka most of all, not least because it resonates so strongly now. A large proportion of Stuart’s poems contained his essence, his humility and often black humour, rather than simply being objective observations. Therein lies their power and the reason why his writing will still be read with admiration and fondness for many years to come.

Matthew Paul, Stuart Quine

Helen was a loose farmer — what bloomed
bloomed wherever; greenhouse customers
left notes and payment
clothespin-clipped to a board
by the broken door; eggs were sold
from an old refrigerator propped outside,
cartons stacked next to the change box.

So when the blood blossomed
in her brain as she drove to pick up
pig scraps from a restaurant,
she just pulled to the shoulder, planted
her foot on the brake and waited.
Twenty seasons later, hardy and startlingly
new, here again, her crocuses.

Grace Mattern, Helen’s Crocuses

Shakespeare wrote Lear, so what is your excuse? Right?

Well. I suppose Shakespeare would have written Lear quarantined or not. Sometimes I find times of stress and uncertainty to be paralytics to my creativity–I can sit down at the page everyday, and still write nothing, because my brain is always background humming over the scariness of the world.

I have still been writing though because not even a worldwide pandemic can eclipse the grief I feel over Kit, and that is what I write about.

Renee Emerson, Writing in Quarantine

I’m not sure if this strange time had a proper beginning and I certainly can’t see its end.  This week I haven’t wanted to be online much even though there has been an explosion of people offering online workshops, readings and classes.  I’ve been slightly ill and still feel under the weather but I’m  sure (more or less but who knows??) it’s not Covid-19.  I’ve downloaded the Kings College, London, Symptom Checker App – now downloaded by over 1.5 million people – in the interests of research and treatment/ vaccine development.

It goes without saying that it is perfectly OK to not be online at the moment (I’m kind of talking to myself here, but perhaps I’m talking to you, too).  I’m still trying to find time every day for myself and my reading and writing.  I also try to walk by myself every day, or to be quiet even when I’m walking with someone else.  I really need silence and stillness which is harder to find now that the house is full.  I don’t mean to be ungrateful because I am glad that l have a house with a garden, and that my immediate family is here with me.

Something I did this week that felt useful was make sandwiches for the soup and sandwich run for people who are in need which is organised by the church I go to, and to continue to commit to support it.  It’s a Churches Together project in Trowbridge, a collaborative effort by all churches to make and distribute hot soup and a sandwich to those who need it from a pre-arranged place every day.  When I made and dropped of my sandwiches at the back of the church, I waved hello to our Parish Priest and a few Parishioners.  We had a shouty conversation, keeping our social distance. How weird not to be at weekly Mass.  There are services online but I really haven’t wanted to ‘attend’.  Perhaps I will in time.

Josephine Corcoran, Corona Diary: Possibly Week 3 – but are you counting?

Like everyone else on Planet Earth, the coronavirus landed in my life like a bomb. My months-long preparations for Women’s History Month went poof. Instead, I was now fretting about the availability of bread and toilet paper. In a matter of a few days, life as we knew it collapsed.

During the first week of isolation, I found that I lacked the focus for anything more challenging than scrolling through social media and pausing occasionally on stories that confirmed the feeling I had right then: no one knows what the hell is going on and we’re doomed. I thought of my goddaughter, who gave birth to a premature baby just as the world was waking up to the danger of coronavirus. I thought of my youngest brother, a high school teacher in New York City, who worries that he’s been exposed. I thought of my other brother, forced to cut his book tour short and return from California to his home in New Zealand. I thought of my friends and family members, many of whom are in the vulnerable category due to their age or physical and mental health, now furloughed, laid off, and isolated.

This morning my husband and I went to our local grocery store during its “seniors and vulnerable people-only” hours. The store’s employees were patient and kind. We tried our best to stay six feet away from the other shoppers. There was no toilet paper, but plenty of other things, including a bouquet of “Get Well” balloons floating above the check-out stand. This seems poignant in a way I can’t yet fathom. Everyone looked worried, and a few wore facemasks, some clearly homemade. There were no children or people under age 60. 

Erica Goss, Trying to Focus During a Pandemic

I haven’t got it in me to concentrate on learning a new language or watching YouTube videos on brain surgery for beginners. However, I did sign up for a Poetry Business Virtual Writing Workshop on Saturday.

I’ve always been a bit reticent about attending one of these courses, not least because it’s too bloody expensive to get to Sheffield and back and pay for the course, but also because I didn’t think it would be any good for me – not to cast aspersions on Ann and Peter than run the courses, it’s more that I didn’t think I’d create anything of any use/value or, more importantly, that I could actually write anything in the time you get given for these things.

However, I couldn’t have been more wrong. We were put at ease immediately, the whole event was well planned and kept pretty much within the timings. I assume because they’ve run so many of these events…I won’t say what happened on the course, but the exercises were interesting, the stimuli were all new to me and I met 15 other interesting people. I think there is some way to go in terms of the technology – Video calling still isn’t second nature to some.

I think I was ok, having spent plenty of time on the aforementioned Google Hangouts with work. However, I think there’s still a lot of the etiquette to be worked out with that. It’s hard to not cut over someone talking when you can’t see the non-verbal cues of face-to-face conversation. If you factor in various broadband/wifi signals, feedback and microphones it can be a bit disorientating.

At the end of it though, I have four poems that I would never have written, 2 of them I suspect will never make it anywhere, but 1 might. I can’t say about the other one yet. I have to let the excitement of a new poem wear off. I got some helpful feedback on the poem from earlier in the week. It’s currently called People Tell Me That Talking To Plants Is Good For Them.

Mat Riches, Biddy Baxter’s Bacchanalian Bidet…

Yesterday, it snowed, what seemed like quite a lot, but judging from what I can see from the 3rd floor vantage..not a lot on the ground. Such snowfall not unusual for this time of year, and the sort of thing that would want me to hunker down today rather than go out and walk around in it.. But even so,  I’m guessing the magnolias over near the catholic school where I catch the bus are starting to bloom about now and I miss watching them. I keep thinking about my mother, while perhaps one blessing is that she did not live to see this, to obsessively worry about me and my sister being out in the world (my sister more than I at this point as an essential worker.) . I’m sure my dad is concerned no doubt, but for my mom, her worry bordered on the pathological at times.  I dreamed about her for the first time in a bit..that I had written a book that upset her.  It was strange, as all dreams seem to be these days.  Most of them where I am somehow working to solve a problem of some sort. Or that there is something important I am forgetting to do–played out in various contexts and scenarios. If anything I am sleeping a lot, and I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. I go to bed at my normal time–around 2 am, but I keep waking up as soon as it’s daylight, scrolling frantically through my newsfeed for the latest horrors, then falling back to sleep until around 2pm.

Kristy Bowen, faking it

I saw 20 million infected bodies. I saw 2 million deaths. I saw my thirty year old body and I saw 2 million deaths and 20 million infected bodies. I saw the body of a baby goat float on the Sundarbans Delta. I saw a crow eating the body of a cow floating on the Ganges. I saw 20 million infected bodies. I saw a helpless horse standing beside a dead white horse on Esplanade. I saw 2 million deaths. I saw a dream I was six years old picking flowers. I saw a man feeding pigeons in front of a homeless man. I saw a tiger drinking water. I saw 20 million infected bodies. I saw a woman collapse on the streets of Paris. I saw my face in the mirror. I saw 2 million deaths. I saw my locked door. I saw government advisories. I saw the quarantine stamp on a woman’s wrist. I saw a bottle of Polish vodka. I saw 20 million infected bodies. I saw the Spanish Flu. I saw the man I love fall in love with another woman. I saw 2 million deaths. I saw myself fall. I saw my unborn child. I saw Hiroshima. I saw a dream that I was six years old again. I saw my hand write. I saw 20 million infected bodies. I saw Vermeer. I saw myself. I saw 2 million deaths. I saw a sheep chew thorns.

Saudamini Deo, Lockdown diary / 1

The world is turning,
we reluctantly spin with
it, dizzy and weak.

We hold on the next day,
the next curve on our way,
the blackbirds in spring.

Not what we know is
now. Now is not what we know.
Yet spring, yet flowers,

yet night, yet dreaming.

Magda Kapa, Isolation Time (Part 1)

Sunday: British Summer Time began. The first bird I heard was a raven.

It’s been a week of cold clear fine weather, perfect for walking.
We have little flour or yeast, and there was none in the two shops I went to this week. I made a rather heavy loaf from rye flour and pasta flour, half and half. The next loaf was made by the man of the house.

teach me he said
I want to know how to make bread
‘when you’re dead’ left unsaid
so I did
the boy done good

Then I turned out the cupboards in the hope of finding more flour.

We have no bread

in the depths of a cupboard
I found a bag of flour
shelf-life expired

there’s mould on the outside
and I think something’s living
inside the bag

but we have oatmeal and ginger
treacle and dates
let us eat cake

Ama Bolton, Week 2 of distancing

Wow, things are changing so quickly it’s hard to believe – for example, how people are getting themselves online – to teach, to meet, to try new things, but mostly I think to keep relationships going with family, friends, customers… when the going gets tough, the tough get tooled-up on tech. This coming week our esteemed Hastings Stanza rep Antony Mair has arranged for us to hold our monthly workshop via Zoom, which is clearly the conferencing app du jour. And last week my dear husband actually started a blog, to keep in touch with all his choirs, and had 92 followers within hours. Whaaaa?! He’ll be writing poetry next. […]

On the poetry front I am loving Sharon Olds’ Arias. It’s firing up my writing too. I’ve no idea what the effect is of the pandemic on poetry magazines, whether editors have too much on their plates dealing with the exigencies of life under lockdown to be thinking about the publishing schedule, or reading submissions or what have you. No doubt they’ll be inundated with poems now that we all have more time to write. And plenty on the subject of you-know-what. I wonder how much ‘pestilence poetry’ we can all take for the next few years as the theme filters through to publication?

Robin Houghton, As the world moves online

Spring continues its celebrations, despite our mostly silent roads and store fronts, despite humanity’s disappearance from their daily activities. The cherries bloom, the woodpeckers and towhees and stellar jays and hummingbirds are busy. It’s been a cold and gloomy week, but April is almost here.

The big excitement this week was the arrival of a new birdfeeder and the April contributor copies of Poetry Magazine. I’ve been writing and reading more, watching tv less. During the forty-degree, rainy March days of grim reports of deaths and pandemics, it becomes almost impossible to remember anything cheerful. I’ve been practicing my bird photography. I ordered watercolors. I still take pictures of trees.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Spring, Quarantine, Poetry, and All

All that is before us—

the engines of disease driving us mad, unfulfilled desires, loved ones dying,

politicians with demeanors like ingrown toenails with hangovers.

Still,

there are chorus lines of birds just outside the window, fresh flowers on graves, doctors and nurses, postal workers and supermarket cashiers.

Books to read and songs to sing.

Pets with wet and soulful eyes looking up at you like you’re the god of their world.

As I write these words, my city is so quiet, like the soft hum of a womb where we’re all waiting to be reborn.

Rich Ferguson, As the 5 am Heater Hums, So Does My Pen

I’ve been asking E. for a week now, what do I do with all these numbers?

Two years ago a colleague lost a baby in childbirth. It seemed to me like something that rarely happens now. It should be a scenario documented in a black-and-white photo.

But I learned than an average of 30 stillbirths a year is normal in this town. In any town this size, in this country. Statistically.

I thought if that had been a headline in the paper: 30 Stillborn in Stavanger this Year, it would have been terrifying news. Our realities are limited by what we put our attention on. And I suppose we pay attention day-to-day to what our hearts can hold comfortably.

So what do I do with all these numbers – these past two weeks when I have had too much time at the computer to jump between tabs and read the news too many times a day to count.

I know how many people are on a respirator at the local hospital today. I have no idea what that number means. I have no idea how many were on them in December. A year ago today. Or if that is even relevant.

I look at a map of Europe and we are dark orange where Italy is red. The chart below compares countries and numbers. People, percentages.

I have no idea what to do with these numbers – not intellectually – not emotionally. How do I hold these numbers?

It’s like grabbing at fish. With the same ambivalence about actually getting your hands around one.

What now?  What do I do with this?

Ren Powell, Two Weeks Not Knowing

The little boy David came as a blessing after the catastrophe of my father’s illness, and he is now Consultant Cardiologist at the Hammersmith Hospital, London. I’ve always been proud of this fact and have to try not to mention it too often, whilst he’s unassuming about his talents, and talks about his work as if it were ordinary to perform life-saving procedures week by week.  As brothers go, he is top of the admiration list at the moment, and I’m sure Jeremy and Matthew would agree.

He phoned me yesterday to explain his role in the front-line of patient care in London during the pandemic. He will be heading a team, working with acutely ill patients in a hospital which was cleared last week in readiness for a sharp rise in complex corona virus admissions. He told me that everyone in the NHS – doctors, cleaners, porters, nurses, midwives, physios, cooks, administrators – everyone who so much as sets foot in a hospital in the coming weeks is a hero, before s/he even does anything. The courage being required of them is hard to imagine. They are feeling fear, and carrying on, organising themselves for the tsunami, the battle, the overwhelm.

David and I said more than we usually do (and not nearly enough) about our appreciation of each other, just in case. I asked if he’d forgiven me for writing a poem about a previous telephone conversation (Running Advice, below). He replied, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” – this absolution is a relief.

Liz Lefroy, I Admire My Brothers

I don’t really plan to write about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its worldwide consequences – or I won’t be doing so until I have something I really want to say.

However, UK readers of my blog will agree that the NHS needs support, especially right now. And to offer your support in a poetry-relevant way, you could buy the new anthology These Are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS (Fair Acre Press).

This anthology was published just a few days ago and was planned for the 60th anniversary of the NHS. Rather sadly, right now, it is all too relevant and important – even more so than usual. It was edited by Deborah Alma (who you may also know as the Emergency Poet and proprietor of the Poetry Pharmacy) and Dr Katie Amiel, and the foreword is by Michael Rosen. The poems themselves are by NHS employees, along with contributions from well-known poets.

Profits from the anthology go to the NHS Charities Together COVID-19 Emergency Fund. I hear it’s selling really well.

Again, you can buy it here: https://fairacrepress.co.uk/shop/these-are-the-hands-poems-from-the-heart-of-the-nhs/

Clarissa Aykroyd, These Are the Hands: Poems from the Heart of the NHS

Yesterday one of our program chairs shared that she doesn’t really have an adequate home computer.  If she doesn’t have adequate computer resources, how many of our students will?

Those were the thoughts that woke me up much too early this morning.  Each morning, a different set of panicky thoughts jolts me from sleep around midnight to 2 a.m.  For several weeks, I have rarely fallen back asleep.

This morning, I was rereading chapter 1 of Cynthia Bourgeault’s Mystical Hope as I prepared to sketch.  On p. 12, I underlined this text:  “The spiritual life can only be lived in the present moment, in the now.  All the great religious traditions insist upon this simple but difficult truth.  When we go rushing ahead into the future or shrinking back into the past, we miss the hand of God, which can only touch us in the now.”

I started making a list to describe “the now,” only to realize that much of what was in my head is worry about the near future.  Interesting.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Plague Fugue

Another restless night. At 01.20 I stood at the window watching the skyline. During previous bouts of insomnia, there was always something faintly comforting about the long, probing lights of planes flying into Luton Airport from the east and descending elegantly behind the trees. Others awake like me, but in transit from Sofia, Talinn, Lyon, Kutaisi, Reykjavik, Cork. The enigma of arrival.

But in the small hours this morning nothing disturbed the skyline. And my sense of solitude was strangely heightened by the sudden doppler whine of a motorbike speeding by one the road below. But, of course, the solitude is real. Yesterday we went for a walk. We crossed the fields and walked down the long slope of the lane. We were passed by just one car before turning onto the muddy track that took us past the farm and onto the bottom of the hill leading up to our house. As we walked alongside the meadow where the horses are grazed, half way up it a lone figure was slipping a bridle over the neck and head of a piebald shire horse. She turned as she gathered it into her arms and saw the three of us paused by the fence. With the solemnity of the stay-at-home edict still fresh in our minds, there was a curious hesitancy in the distant encounter. Then the woman raised her free arm in a strangely stiff and formal salute; we returned it in similar manner; she turned and walked towards the stable buildings and we continued on our way.

So suddenly we’re strangers in a strange land. And as the economic structure purées all standard procedure around us, the normal social protocols go into suspension. In one street an act of inexplicable cruelty and stupidity occurs; in a parallel street the self-sacrifical kindness of a stranger demonstrates the extraordinary generosity that ennobles humanity in crisis.

Dick Jones, LIFE IN A TIME OF CORONA 5.

last night I dreamed I was teaching Whitman’s last lesson I left a jellyfish red blood bloom in his bathroom then tried to clean myself his mother’s friends were there getting ready for a party and when I finally got my violin out and he got his violin out and I managed to right the wire music stand which kept slipping out of my hands I played a few notes then apologized because I knew I would never see him again

the dream woke me at 2:30 then again at 4:30 then I finally woke at 7:30 feeling anxious and sad are we all dreaming through it I feel such a strong connection to everyone I’ve ever known right now it feels other worldly it feels like religious science fiction but it is real

my csa box arrived today bringing sweet blackberries and carrots and celery and radishes and potatoes and a squash and oranges and kiwis and I was so grateful for it Page and I opened it like the first Christmas

Rebecca Loudon, Pig and farm report

All in all, the days I’ve been in have melded into a dreamy bubble. Days drifted by, or I drifted through them. Somehow, there was a large sense of drift. It feels wrong or dangerous to say that out loud, to share pretty pictures of my time in refuge. As I do, I feel superstitious fears rising up in me, based in irrational beliefs that if we draw attention to our good fortune, the gods or fate or spiteful humans will do something to ruin it. It feels callous or shallow to do so when others are suffering, and maybe it is.

Or maybe, instead, you might read my story and wonder, as I have been, why it can’t be everyone’s. It feels fundamentally wrong to me that I have had it as relatively easy as I have, when others are sacrificing so much–especially our healthcare workers, and those who stock our shelves and pump our gas and do the work we’ve all realized, in new ways, is essential.

I have been thankful over and over again that I have not had to work the past two weeks or worry about immediate income loss because it has allowed me time and space to process what is happening and keep my anxiety low-grade rather than acute. It has allowed me to do what our scientists and public health officials have been pleading with us to do: stay home.

I know life can never be entirely fair, but why, in a country with as much wealth as we have, has our public health system failed so dramatically and so many of us had to worry about how we’re going to pay rent and take care of ourselves if we get sick? It’s not that way in other countries, where lower-wage workers don’t live so close the bone, and where laid off workers and their employers are receiving more funds than ours will to keep their economies afloat. Why is it that way here?

And, if more people could have spent the past weeks the way I have–sequestered at home, not feeling the need to leave to pay bills–perhaps the virus could be managed and contained to reasonable levels in every state in our country (as we seem to be doing here in Oregon), reducing the tremendous and inequitable impact on not only our health care systems, but on our healthcare workers.

Coming up on the end of week two, it’s seeming to me that there is more than one type of impact curve that we could be flattening.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Coronavirusdiary #3: Soft monotony

Any optimistic or ‘positive’ approaches to the coronavirus pandemic should, in my opinion, be framed and motivated by an awareness of the interconnectedness of everyone and everything. In order for us to be well others need to be well too, and others will be well only if we are well too. It goes both ways- and this wellness is also dependent on the circulation of capital, and this depends on people’s ability to earn a living. The pandemic affects everyone- and this means it affects everything we humans do.

Finding the balance between critically engaging with what is happening and trying to maintain a semblance of normality is important, but not easy. Gramsci’s motto, “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”  calls for this ongoing interrogation of what happens whilst having trust in our ability to stand up to challenges pragmatically and strategically. There cannot be solidarity and empathy unless there is awareness of difference, and this implies an awareness of privilege, and of the fragility of that privilege.

In a time in which nearly everyone has the ability to broadcast publicly aspects of their private lives, and when many -but definitely not all- will be at home, some of which will be working from home- it’s to me essential that we try to reflect on the interconnectedness of everything- home, until recently the quintessential ‘private’ space, does not exist outside society, even if we never physically leave it.

Ernesto Priego, “Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will”: Empathy and Solidarity in the Times of COVID-19

The only way I manage even
a few hours of restless sleep
is to keep inventing a movie
inside my head I hope someday
some director will actually film—

unreeling across my closed eyelids
I watch strangers hugging
in restaurants, strangers hugging
in offices, in the middle of crowded
streets, hugging in grocery stores
and at gas stations—

this and only this allows me
to let go of the day’s dread,
this envisioning of humans
reaching out for one another,
with open arms and hearts,
these embraces after pandemic

Lana Hechtman Ayers, Embraces, a pandemic poem

As we are already not-quite-sick-of-saying: the garden has never looked lovelier. And we have played a lot of cards. And generally spent much more time around the table, convening for coffee and lunch as if pulled by invisible threads from different points in the house. We are so lucky to have a house. And a garden. I have spent a lot of time drinking from bowls, sometimes not even really drinking, just cradling the coffee as though it may never appear in my life again. The texting and emailing of friends, the re-connection with people over miles and years of separation, habitually and briefly fused at Christmas only for another year to go by with nothing having changed. Well, this is changing us. Slowly, but it is. A neighbour who has steadfastly refused to acknowledge me for years finally gave me a smile yesterday. We are doing a lot of laughing, and crying at orchestras who somehow manage to put on stunning music for free in their separate Toronto rooms just so we can cry and feel something deeply human while we do it (especially the triangle guy). The old battered thing, my diary (it isn’t a diary, really, I just call it that) makes a guest appearance and suddenly becomes a necessity. The poetry of James Schuyler, as if he ever went away. I have never taken such pleasure over hanging out the washing.

Anthony Wilson, Any Common Desolation

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

So far, I would say, I am physically healthy. My mental state is stable. I have adopted a “one day at a time” approach to moving through these weeks and months. I am trying to actively practice gratitude each day, lest I fall into the trap of bemoaning all the canceled events and missed opportunities. I am getting used to my own face staring at me as I record videos for my students. I realize that I miss them, and this is bittersweet; I will be very happy to be back in my classroom again.

When I’m not busy with school-related work, I putter. I completed a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, and my crossword game is growing fiercer; I have been considering cross-stitching. Writing comes in sharp little bursts, then eludes me for days. I am trying to be patient, to find a voice that’s louder than the one telling me all the things I “should” be doing. I am finding a new rhythm, as we all are, and trying to remember that this, like everything, is temporary.

Lesley Wheeler, Virtual Salon #4 with Elizabeth Hazen

On a smaller personal scale, everything that’s on going right now seems so momentous, but I haven’t been able to write about it. I edit unfinished poems, but I can’t write more than a few notes about the self-isolation. I have one poem I started just as this began to take hold where the virus is beginning to work its way into. It was supposed to be just about the drama of beginnings and endings at a hospital, but I can’t help to see the impact of the virus in the stanza. In everything, I read, watch, think about the virus seems to overwrite itself. 

I started scribbling the previous paragraph last night, far too deep into the wee hours and followed up by rewriting another half-finished poem about home isolation. So I guess it will find a way to write itself. I can’t approach it head on. I’m uncertain of where to start, worrying whether my view is worth speaking. I feel so insignificant, locked away, protected by the privilege of being able to wash my hands, stay off work, protect my family. Our lives feel on the verge of a huge change and I’m just holding my breath, waiting to see what will happen, how we will be affected, what will remain.

Gerry Stewart, Corona Virus Week Two – Facing Isolation

As we shelter in place, I see that many of my friends and online acquaintances are having trouble sleeping. And some are dealing with surges of depression and anxiety. My heart goes out to everyone in this. I go through periods of change in my sleep patterns, and, yes, I am in one now. My usual solution when I find myself awake in bed, and sense I am unlikely to go back to sleep, is to accept this and get up and go downstairs to read on the couch, where I fall asleep reading.

The new twist is that I may doze while reading on the couch, well before bedtime, and 1) just stay there or 2) go up to bed, find myself awake, and come back. This morning my husband greeted me with a kiss (ack! too close! social distancing! but we know we’ve already been too close and can’t do anything about it now!) and the comment, “You are becoming one with that couch.”

I arrange myself in various ways to 1) avoid a crick in the neck in the morning 2) have the bookmark fall into the right spot when I fall asleep and the book closes. Today I finished Rebecca Solnit’s Recollections of My Nonexistence, which I wrote about yesterday. (Was it yesterday? I know I am not alone these days in losing track of what day it is.) I’m sure I’ll share more about it, but this seemed particularly pertinent this morning:

So much of the work of writing happens when you are seemingly not working, made by that part of yourself you may not know and do not control, and when the work shows up like that your job is to get out of the way.

Kathleen Kirk, Sleeping in Place

The most-read article in The Guardian today is a letter from Italian novelist Francesca Melandri to her fellow Europeans, and to the United Kingdom. In it she says “we were just like you,” and traces the pattern I’ve alluded to here: the progression from the arguments between those who say “it’s just like the flu” to those who know it’s not, to the early novelty of self-isolation, the focus on food, the fleeting attraction of apocalyptic books and films, the obsessive fascination with online connection and video meetups, the online fitness workouts and virtual cocktail hours, the fights with our elders to try to get them to stay home, the ways we buoy each other with songs from balconies and rooftops, the dark humor, the growing awareness of domestic abuse and the divisions of class — and the gradual falling away of the superfluous and superficial, the transparency of our friends’ and families’ behavior, the sleeplessness and anxiety, and the sense that nothing is going to be the same ever again.

So, yes, writers write, some better than others.

The advice I’m giving myself today, from decades of writing and editing, and after thinking about the words of Cave and Melandri and others, is: write what you know, and then ask yourself if it feels necessary to say out loud.

Sometimes the best thing a writer can do is listen.

Beth Adams, Hermit Diary, Montreal. 11. What to say?

The cave diver has lost his way,
there is no way back
from the caverns filled with tears.
Beauty gyrating in his lamp suspended,
as he floats forever in this cathedral.
Replaying the old songs.
Rebreathing the air.
Hold me tight and
listen.

Jim Young, Look

We keep trying to imagine the future, knowing that what we should hold on to is the present. Perhaps, as writers, we know how to handle the silence. Personally, I think I’m learning how to manage my time in a different way, to keep to some sort of productive routine, trying not to panic when I look out of the kitchen window and see constant queues outside the supermarket. And when I do feel that sense of anxiety, I go back to reading Thoreau and try to keep it all in perspective: ‘I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.’

Julie Mellor, Life in the Woods

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 9

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.

This past week found poetry bloggers breathing, grieving, reading, dreaming, revising manuscripts, speaking for others, meeting with others, planning for AWP, planning for a possible pandemic, paying attention, feeling sorry, feeling out of step, shaping lines, and remembering to breathe.


Inhale. Pause. Exhale, slowly and deeply, as if you were sighing. Notice that pause at the end of the out-breath: That emptied-out moment, when you let go of everything just a little bit more, and the body settles into itself just a little bit deeper. That moment: A glimpse of the last breath, of the peace that might be possible when you let go with both hands.

And then: The in-breath, as natural as can be, filling the lungs again.

Dylan Tweney, Grief and gratitude.

Much as at the point when suddenly rain stops,
    or wind abates,
        or cloud obscures the sun,

there is a moment just between
    breathe in and breathe out
        when shock stops the spin and hum of it all

and in the silence and the stillness
    we are changed entirely.

Dick Jones, Fragile

I have taken the last few months off from the world for some internal reflection. The death of four people in my family in 12 months caused me to turn inward, to withdraw socially and surround myself with only my greatest loves: husband, family, books, poetry, home, open spaces, neighborhood walks, and yes, I will admit, binge watching High Fidelity and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Thank you Rob and Midge for making me laugh.

And now it is Spring and out my writing window I see yellow daffodils, orange pansies and purple hellebore. The 70 year-old camellia is laden in the softest of pink blooms and the neighbor’s cherry trees are ready to pop.

And for those of you who have followed my “car wash” photos, last week I took my car to get washed and began taking pictures for the 2020 series.

I submitted five new poems (the first submission in almost a year) and heard yesterday a journal in Galway, Ireland called Dodging the Rain will publish them in May and June.

By allowing myself permission to withdraw from the world for awhile, to grieve and acknowledge the losses, the color bursting before me is calling my name to rejoin the ranks.

Or it could have been the Prozac. Either way, I am doing just fine.

Carey Taylor, It’s Been Awhile

This book gripped me: Poets on Prozac, edited by Richard M. Berlin, a set of essays by various poets on Mental Illness, Treatment and the Creative Process. I checked it out of the library because it’s what came up when I searched for work by Denise Duhamel, who judged the 2019 Patricia Dobler Award. […]

I learned a lot about many things and was delighted to find in this book two of our Escape Into Life poets, Ren Powell and Martha Silano, as well as Chase Twichell, whose book The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach, co-edited with Robin Behn, sits on a shelf above my computer, ready to grab when I need a creative push. I used it when I was teaching, and I use it now.

I always love to read about a poet’s process, and Poets on Prozac has the added interest of how mental illness, whether temporary or permanent, chronic or intermittent, and the treatment or medication for it affects the writing. Excerpts and whole poems are provided in this context, and the authors include mental health professionals who write poems.

Kathleen Kirk, Poets on Prozac

In The Hidden Life of Trees, the author talks about how a woodpecker makes a wound in the bark of a tree, and then leaves to let fungus soften things before returning. The fungus keeps at it, even after the cavity is too large to serve the woodpecker. So another creature moves into the expanding space. Then another. And all the while, is the tree feeling this as pain? Like my reality of a tender hamstring and an arthritic toe joint?

*

I had a nightmare last night. I have them only rarely now. And not nearly as vividly as once. Though sometimes it takes me longer to reorient to the real world as I wake —

like turning over scattered puzzle pieces and fitting them together into a somewhat less frightening order.

It seems that, as I age, there is a shifting of the kind of pain I experience.

The cold hurts my bones more than it used to. But heartbreak hurts far less. I can only hope the latter is a matter of  it having already been cracked open once, and having adjusted to the openness, each new love moving into a growing spaciousness.

Ren Powell, Aches and Pains

I dreamed I watered my cactus. I dreamed a long scrolled piece of paper upon which my sins and good deeds were being accounted for were being shaded in by a lead pencil. The sins were shaded over and over until they were a black ribbon and the good deeds were erasing the black.

It’s so quiet this morning I hear the train whistle all the way from Mount Vernon. Sometimes sound carries weirdly over the water. There is something comforting about a train whistle. Something old fashioned and ghostly and solid and forsaken. I once rode a train from Spokane to Montana. It took several days. I was a girl. I read and rocked and read and rocked. I lived for a little while on Flathead Lake. I lived for a little while on a reservation in Havre where I chewed resin from the trees until it turned to gum and ate rosehips and sang church songs.

Mahler sings Kindertotenlieder tends the forest keeps an eye on the magnolias which is how I keep going forward. I don’t even touch them (only once forgive me) I just watch and keep track and wonder at all of it. It’s a still day. I listened to birdsong and the train and I am forgiven my sins. My trees lift up their hands.

Rebecca Loudon, On the anniversary of my mother’s birth

I’m working on revising my 3rd manuscript. Since Kit passed away, and even when she was still in the ICU—perhaps even since her diagnosis—I’ve had little passion for the project, but have instead used writing as a way to process grief. There have been good and bad, far more bad I suppose, poems come from this experiment. But I’m at a point now where I feel like it is time to revisit Church Ladies and see if it is still possibly a book.

One theme very clear in the book is suffering and fear of the death of my children; its what leads my family to sometimes say my poems are creepily prophetic. But I don’t think so—I just think losing my children is my very real, utmost fear.

So I’ve thought about including my poems where the Worst Fear actually happens—my poems about Kit—but I can’t bridge them in my own mind. I can see the bridge on paper, how it could work—but Kit is very separate to me. Eventually those poems might need to be included; or maybe they are a different book entirely.

The true problem is that I am not the person or writer that I was when I wrote Church Ladies. I can edit with an indifferent eye, but to add to it feels wrong somehow, just as I’d never add to another writer’s project.

Renee Emerson, Revising the Manuscript

The Big Smoke, [Adrian] Matejka’s book-length persona poem collection, explores the life and relationships of boxing legend Jack Johnson. Matejka writes in the voices of Jack Johnson and the women in Johnson’s life, an ambitious project that took eight years of research and writing. It wound up as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, a well-deserved honor.

In the workshop, he told us that the hardest poems for him to write were the ones in the voices of the women, and that he would never attempt to write in a woman’s voice again, not feeling able, artistically, to accurately portray a woman’s psyche in the first person.

Part of this discussion of whose voices to write in involved the subject of cultural appropriation. The week of the poetry festival, American Dirt launched, and with it, the controversy surrounding the white author’s choice to write in the first person about a migrant Latina woman and her struggles to cross into the US.

It was a timely example of the pitfalls of choosing to write in the voice of someone whose life is completely outside our own experiences.

Christine Swint, Persona Poems at Palm Beach Poetry Festival

Franny Choi’s book-length collection of poetry, Soft Science, explores queer, Asian American femininity through the lens of robots, cyborgs, and artificial intelligence. As she notes in this interview, “this book is a study of softness,” exploring feeling, vulnerability, and desire. How can you be tender and still survive in a hard and violent world? What does it mean to have desire when you yourself are made into an object of desire? What does it mean to have a body that bears the weight of history? Choi’s poetry contemplates such questions through the technology of poetic form.

Here is a little snippet from our discussion, in which Choi discusses the idea of speaking for the voiceless:

“Early in my writing career, I was really struck by the concept of being a voice for the voiceless. I think this has to do with being a young activist kid and realizing that having the ability to write and speak in a way that moved people was a privilege, and [I had] a desire to use that privledge for good. I think not that long after I encountered this concept it started to feel icky to want to speak for people that have mostly been called voiceless but aren’t — and [it became] much more important to highlight those voices rather than speaking for them.

“For someone who is politically minded and writer and is interested in the craft of persona work, I think it makes for a difficult space to know how to operate in, you know. So, I think that the ways I’ve tried to — at least in this book — manage that have been to kind of relocate the voiceless as a populace within myself, like what are the parts of me that feel unspoken for or unable to explain themselves through normal language. There’s a lot that is unspeakable within all of us. For me, I feel my job as a poet is to try to use poetry to navigate those spaces.”

You can listen to the interview here or on the podcast app of your choice.

Andrea Blythe, New Books in Poetry: Soft Science by Franny Choi

We had started online with MacNeice – this largely elicited a negative response – form over content, too difficult… My attempts to argue for MacNeice were unsuccessful. People said they wanted something ‘lighter’ (undefined), and one or two people suggested John Betjeman, so we thought we’d give that a try.

In our comfortable-ish new meeting place, we started our discussion of Betjeman’s poems. It did not go as I expected. Each person had chosen a poem to talk about. What happened was that people talked about really personal and often moving experiences, none of them happy ones. When we talked more, people recognised that their responses were not always really related to the poems themselves, and that their experiences had very much coloured their view of the poems. 

It highlighted incredibly strongly how much we bring ourselves to every poem we read – the things that have happened in our lives, our beliefs, everything. This is not a revelation, of course, but I did find it surprising that this kind of discussion was in response to the poems of Betjeman, as did the others when I mentioned it. Everyone said they were happy with the meeting though, and felt that poetry had got them thinking, so that feels right and we’ll see how it progresses.

Sue Ibrahim, A surprising reaction to the poems of John Betjeman

AWP #20 will occur in San Antonio, starting on Wednesday the 4th. I can confirm that I have already experienced a bit of the typical anxiety associated with the pilgrimage.  Each year there are generally 12,000 or more in attendance. If I recall correctly there were like 14,000 last year in Portland.

I have somewhat introvert tendencies, although at times I may break free of the chains. As long as I am able to retreat and recharge from time to time, I can deal with it. For me the stressors are being away from home, being in the midst of a crushing mob (slight exaggeration),  meeting people I am in awe of and being fearful I appear to be a complete goofball, and meeting complete strangers and feeling my first impression (and lasting one) totally sucked.

WHY EVEN GO?  Good question.  I think it has to be personal for each attendee.  For some it is seeing friends that you may see only once or twice a year.  Or it could be meeting  publishers.  Crisscrossing the book fair (always enormous) in search of bargains, newly published material, author signings, or readings. Both onsite and offsite. It could be learning more about the craft at panel presentations, or ideas, learning about marketing or working with publishers, agents, etc.

This year, I am focusing  on a couple aspects of craft. Seeing some friends, attending some readings and doing a reading myself. I want to springboard from the conference into a greater energy in my writing. I have a manuscript I am trying to finish and this could help push me over the finish line.

Michael Allyn Wells, It’s Coming – AWP #20 blogging

It seems in times of crisis I want to spend more time in nature. This last week we had early cherry and plum trees starting to flower, and I spent a lot of time taking pictures of them. Plum blossoms in particular have a strong, beautiful scent, especially in a grove of trees, which along with a little more sunlight, increases your feelings of well-being no matter what the headlines. […]

Yes, I’ll be missing AWP this year. I’m supposed to get an emergency root canal tomorrow instead of flying into Texas. Much less glamorous. But AWP kind of has a pall over it this year, especially as it is happening just as more confirmed cases of COVID-19 are appearing all over the US. Hey, let’s all get together in one big room right as a highly communicable virus is hitting! Yikes. I have a genetic immune deficiency AND MS, so this is probably a more frightening prospect for me than most people. That estimated 2 percent death rate is higher for people with other health conditions, and much higher for the elderly – up to 15 percent.

We had the first US death from Coronavirus here yesterday, at a hospital about a mile from my house, and a small breakout (fifty people, both caregivers and patients) has happened in a long-term care home in Kirkland (and Kirkland and Redmond firefighters are in quarantine after reto an emergency there.) There is a lot of uncertainty right now – the doctors and systems here don’t have enough test kits or the capacity to test everyone, we don’t have enough masks even for medical personnel due to poor government planning, and we’re showing more community-acquired illness (two high school kids at opposite ends of town just this week.) In my local neighborhood stores, there’s been some panic-buying – shelves of masks, hand sanitizer, cleaning products, even in some places bottled water and toilet paper have all been cleaned out. My husband has been running most of the errands to keep me out of crowds, so I’m getting my reports second-hand. Going back to spending time outside, which can really help you not feel too house-bound when you’re mostly confined in your home, is really important. Hence my red-winged blackbird picture (photographed down the street from my house.)

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Poems in Cherry Tree and Split Rock Review, Early Spring Flowers, Missing AWP and the Coronovirus

It’s good to take notes on the details.

There is the spot in the sky
Where the first lip of night rubs the sunset raw.
Write that down.

Or the sound of the tire sliding across the asphalt
As the stink of the burning rubber fills the air.
Note that, too.

The looks a dog gives when it gets confused.
That’s a good one.

James Lee Jobe, It’s good to take notes on the details.

I’ll be honest here; I have little hope of being placed in this year’s competition. Ultimately, I felt my poems lacked the carefree openness that I value in a good poem; you know, that lack of awareness of it actually being a poem. This might sound like nonsense. After all, when you pick up the pen, you intend to write. Poetry or prose, you’ve no doubt decided, on some level, what it’s going to be, before you start writing. So how can a poem lack awareness that it is a poem? Well, I’ve recently returned to Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky With Exit Wounds. It’s full of beautifully rich language and imagery, but what I admire most of all is the sense of the writer allowing thoughts and images on the page without telling the reader what to think, allowing the reader to take part in the poem and run with it. So, in terms of a model of what poetry should be, for me, Vuong’s debut is it, because it’s full of poems that aren’t screaming, ‘Read me, I’m a poem. Look what tricks I can do.’

This is quite nebulous, and very subjective, I know. And being brutally honest and self-critical, my poems fall far short. So why the euphoria? Well, it’s that small but vital ‘hit’ of completing the work. The manuscript will sink or swim, but that’s out of my hands now. I’ve done my bit. I’ve turned up and done the work (see Julia Cameron’s The Artists Way – she’s big on this). There’s something satisfying about completing a task, so much so that I rewarded myself with a trip to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park today, to see Saad Qureshi’s Something About Paradise (photographs above and below). 

Maybe something about this exhibition will feed into my writing. Maybe it was just because it wasn’t raining this afternoon. Whatever the forces at work, underlying it all  was a feeling of satisfaction with life which was self-induced. I’d submitted 20 poems to a publisher whom I respect, and who has been totally supportive of my work so far. That submission depended on no one else. It was down to me. The judging is out of my hands. I can’t control or influence it. And what would be the job of a judge if no one submitted? You know the saying, ‘It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part.’ Well, there’s some truth in it.

Julie Mellor, Why it’s important to finish …

I started listening to this this week. It’s Helen Mort discussing her relationship with the word Sorry and apologies. I’ve only listened to the first ep so far, but I really enjoyed what I heard. I was at the end of a long week at work and on a bus ride home after a diverted train journey, so I apologise to Helen for needing to go back to it to fill in some gaps before finishing the series.

It did get me thinking back to a draft of a poem I wrote a couple of years ago called ‘Tiny Sorries’. I was looking at all the small apologies I find myself making. I often apologise, under my breath, if I make someone deviate from their course, even by an inch, when walking along the street, or for not holding a door open far enough, for not being fast enough at the water fountain at work, even when I can do nothing about it…

The idea was that it would start there, build up to taking responsibility for not doing enough to stop something we are all collectively responsible for and then…and then…Well, I didn’t know where to go with it, or if it was even worth trying to find out. I think the answer is that it isn’t worth pursuing. However, it was on my mind before seeing that the show was on air. I think it, the poem, pops back into my head daily because of something that happens when commuting or in the office, etc.

Thankfully, what I do know from listening to Helen’s show is that there are plenty of poems about saying sorry, apologising, contrition, etc, so perhaps I don’t need to worry about adding mine to the pile.

Sorry, you’ve been witness to me working stuff out as I go.

Mat Riches, Apologies for Noogies

Clare Pollard in an article pointed out how an interest in translation can lead to escaping the limitation of local trends. She admits to admiring Somali poems “which can seem clumsy … the politically charged rhetoric … the seeming bagginess, the extreme alliteration, the shifts in address, the digressions” thinking that “they just use techniques which are currently deemed ‘unfashionable’ on Creative Writing courses.

Literature has its fashions. The “From Apocalypse to The Movement” module at Warwick looks at one lurch in style. Of course there are many parallel tracks of development happening at different speeds, but if you’re the wrong type of writer for your era you’ll be fighting against the tide.

Because culture isn’t frozen in time, one option is to wait for it to change. I notice at local writing clubs that my conventions don’t always match those of other members. Sometimes mine are more literary – in particular I puncture the sense of immersion – but often I’m just out of step. My guess is that the literary styles that I employed years ago are now becoming mainstream, and the styles I currently use were popular 20 years ago, and may well be so again.

Tim Love, Ahead of my time? Or behind?

he’s the man who draws the white lines
on the pitches every Friday
ready for the games on Saturday
always straight
always the right length
with the leftover lime tipped
and running down the red brick wall
then he goes away
and comes back the next Friday
all through the winter

Jim Young, life’s a pitch

I’ve written the starts of two new poems this week. I haven’t finished any poems I’ve started this year and only finished 10 from last year. I feel like I’m writing in slow motion. After writing everyday for so much of last year and writing so many poems, it’s harder to get back into the flow. Once I actually clear my desk of work and admin, it’s difficult to turn my head towards writing. The less attention I give it, the more I have to work at making time for it, to remember to take out my notebook rather than my phone, to not give into the tiredness on Friday night after work and go to my writing group where I usually have a bit of time beforehand to write. 

I’m back to where I was a year and a half ago when writing was work. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t come naturally, each line had to be pulled from me and shaped, rather than just me falling into a rhythm of writing.

Difference is, I know what is possible now. I couldn’t believe then that I could write a draft of a poem daily, that it could be easy. Now, I need to make the effort to slot it in on days when I’m not teaching. I should try to adapt to writing in the evening when the kids are in bed, but it’s never been a natural time for me to work. But I’ve proven that this old horse can learn new tricks, so it won’t hurt to try. 

Gerry Stewart, Dipping Back into Poetry

When your heart’s piano tuner becomes tone-deaf;

when your soul’s window washer forgets to clean your eyes;

when the walls of your thoughts are painted beige and left taken for granted;

when a bird in the hand feels more like a nail in the foot;

when every sentence you speak feels more like a life sentence in Sing Sing;

when your lips feel like the zombie apocalypse;

when you wear your face like a pair of unpressed pants;

when your socks feel like Nagasaki;

when your heart’s drummer becomes a total bummer—

for goodness sake, don’t forget to breathe.

Rich Ferguson, When at the Borders of the Absurd

Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 7

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. This week’s theme: time. Plus a bit of advice on how to better spend it.


For years I have held February
answerable to many sorrows
as though the month itself
were responsible for its appearance:
the dour days too short, long nights
steeped in frosty bitterness.
Resigned to hibernation,
February made me sleepy.
Dulled my skin, sucked dream
into a cold vacuum
like a vacant acre of outer space,
a stone of ice upon my chest.

Ann E. Michael, Apology

I am profoundly lucky to do work I enjoy. It’s been a long haul to get here and I’m grateful to write, edit, and teach for a living. I don’t have much time for my own projects but know if I possessed greater focus I’d be making some progress on them.

I meant to write a paragraph or two here about getting beyond self-criticism and telling myself a more positive story. But you know that skittering mind I mentioned? Yeah, it’s skittering off in another direction.

Because it seems time has gotten more slippery of late. Morning somehow slides into afternoon’s lap or what feels like Thursday is actually Tuesday. A week takes forever but suddenly a month is gone. Time falls into a jumbled stew of our own crises heated up by the shock of each day’s news. It’s not just me. Friends and colleagues complain about this same problem.

On top of work and home pressures, I suspect the era we’re living in is so unexpected that it’s just too hard to concentrate on our own daily minutiae. Things like getting the laundry folded or the next big project done make less sense when each day overflows with startling political changes and new environmental outrages. Perhaps this swings our sense of time toward an altered trajectory.

Laura Grace Weldon, Overwhelmed

I’ve been doing a small project with a novella called Sleepless Night over the past week or two. As with Misery, the recto pages have the title at the top and I’m sticking with those for now. It is a good recurring title for a poem, I must say. The author’s writing is not particularly interesting linguistically and it’s short on good nouns. But I’m making the poems small, like aquariums, or dark little rooms where your thoughts or your grave concerns or all the things you are looking forward to keep you awake.

I’ve also been doing the Februllage collage-a-day challenge on Instagram, as I did last year. I’m not striving to do every day, though. I go back and forth on so many things . . . poetry, collage, myself. Some days we’re all ok and other days I think there is no reason to continue to engage with those three.

Sarah J Sloat, Those Three

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

Lesley Wheeler, Poetry and heart

He tells me snow
is a product of the air’s
despair.  Perhaps

he’s right: seedheads
of the tall grass are weighed
down, shawled in white.

Ellen Roberts Young, February Snow Times 2

We will soon leave the time of epiphany. We will trade the star and the angel messengers for ashes on our foreheads.

We may not have realized that the time of epiphany stretched on beyond January 6. We might not have recognized the wise ones and the gifts they would give us.

We may have already been living in the land of ash. We may feel that our frozen surfaces will never thaw.

We cannot fathom how we will stitch the fabric of society back together again. Our arthritic fingers throb with pain even before we have started.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Returning to Resurrection

There are life’s grinding engines driving us to madness:

fracked lands and hacked computers, illness and unwillingness, death too soon and freedom too late, the homeless and hopeless, crosstown traffic and trafficked humans.

Still, there’s the green grass beneath our feet bright as child laughter. Dependable cars and well-tuned guitars. Feasts and flowers. Warm bellies filled with luck. Pets that know us better than we know ourselves. Fresh curiosities making out in the backseat of our brain. The puzzles of our lives put back together after a hard come-apart.

The rise and fall and the rise again.

Rich Ferguson, What Doesn’t Kill Us Cures Us

While making dinner — or reflecting excitedly on the importance of making dinner while sipping wine — I began to shape ideas that have been pressing on me during the week.  What had been expected and feared to happen in bad faith presidential action was happening.  Many of us could see the vindictiveness coming; now it almost felt posthumous.  

My anger had been simmering into something else: into a rich, bittersweet sorrow for the “we” of country. How distant we are from our “exceptional” goals (hardly the first time, hardly the last).  What poor flawed creatures!  In my wash of compassion, I felt that old-style pity. Recognizing my pivot, my poetic turn and dance move, I saw, again, that we can open to the other, be medicine to counteract the poison.

So here’s to pounding the garlic cloves with thyme with mortar and pestle!  To sizzling onions in a pan over the flame, to share.  Here’s to winding up to the big question: Can everyday life be a moral response to political failure? 

Jill Pearlman, Everyday Life: Antidote to Political Poisons

One morning last week, as I was gathering my things for the day, there was something about the clutter on my kitchen table that stopped me. It struck me as beautiful, the arrangement of things I did not arrange. The unposed mix of textures, colors, and shapes so pleased me I reached for the camera, trying to capture how it looked for me.

Of course, I didn’t really.

The 17th century Dutch assigned layers of meanings to the objects in their still life paintings, which functioned almost like a code (mostly of judgement, it seems), but there’s nothing like that going on here. Each object is simply what it is: a beleaguered basil in a dull clay pot; an empty Ikea vase; a $3.00 bunch of chamomile from Trader Joe’s; a bowl of common fruit; a chipped Franciscan ware lid sitting on its matching bowl, protecting the salt within it. Apparently, still life paintings rank low on the painting hierarchy–or at least they did in 17th century France. Ordinary, inanimate subjects were deemed less worthy than living ones, but I rather like these things on my table that talk to me without words or movement.

I couldn’t quite catch through the camera how it felt to me, the cluster of objects in late winter’s early morning light, but I can look at the image and hear something of what they are saying: Here is a life with flavor. Some simplicity. Healthy sweetness, and a touch of ordinary pretty.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Late winter still life

You and your friends celebrated everything you could find. Not just birthdays and anniversaries and Jewish holidays, but Valentines Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Fiesta, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday… Once, before I was born, you and Dad held a campaign party celebrating an imaginary candidate. You made up the most ridiculous name you could think of. You printed elaborately designed invitations, and hung red, white, and blue bunting everywhere. There was always an excuse for a party, and I used to roll my eyes at that. It seemed over-the-top, even frivolous. I’m sorry about that now, Mom. Now that you’re gone, I understand your parties in a new way. No matter what we do, life will hand us sorrow. It’s life-affirming to choose to seek joy and togetherness in the face of that truth.  I don’t own a red Chanel suit, and I’m not attending a ladies’ lunch on February 14. But I’m wearing a string of your garnet beads, and my dress today is burgundy — a cousin to red, if you squint. And on this day of red and pink paper doilies, and flower arrangements, and boxes of chocolate, I am remembering you.

Rachel Barenblat, A reason to celebrate

Light up a cigarette
and watch

the smoke write
your thoughts in the air,

this valentine,
inhale     exhale.

Claudia Serea, V-Day

The time has come to stop keeping up appearances.
Let others mourn; I did my crying as a child.
I felt the sting & dreamed of death
both given & received.
I hid a mountain of dirt beneath my clothes.
Those who knew them less well
can toss handfuls into their darkness.

Jason Crane, POEM: Abstention

— It took me a long time to let all that go. I am in my sixties now, and only just beginning to write about it all, to tell the stories. 
— I’ve been writing since I was eight years old. At first I wrote in secret notebooks, by my late teens I was going to open mic poetry readings, but I didn’t tell my family. It would just caused me new abuse; mockery.
— I went outside just before sunrise today. It was windy, and the moon was setting in the west just as the first light of the dawn was glowing in the east. Very lovely. I went inside and wrote a prose poem about it.

James Lee Jobe, 10 Things. Journal notes. 10 Feb. 2020

in the downing days of heavy time
cadillac was as strange a meme
as winsome as the movie toffees
and the longing for the other side
of any walled hillside
or the veneered panelled walls
behind which the cockroaches slept
until the fire died and we were abed
and then they came over the coal-grit
floor to eat the crumbs of the crumbs
that our meagre dinners had left ledgered
here in this corner of a neglected village
in wales
a people tipped under slag tips and
toil so numbing that the sinews of life
crystallised in grime and death that never died
in relief of times best forgotten now
for when you think of it
we cried enough dryness
to last a lifetime

Jim Young, hearth and tired

I have a cough which entered my body the way a bird or small animal would enter it flew or crawled into my mouth and inside my chest when I was standing at the beach during a windstorm my head is happy maybe the cough is a diorama in the medicine chest of my imagined illness

I’m going to go stand in the garden and yell at my tulip bulbs for a bit

Rebecca Loudon, Waking up in spite of it all which feels like spring

Besides my group this week, sketching out the beginning of a poem in one of my breaks and submitting to one journal I haven’t managed much poetry related. Besides Twitter. I have filled my Twitter feed with a mix of magazines, established and emergent writers. Some just comment on the world, many promote their books and readings, some post snippets of their writing, some post poems written by others that they love. I enjoy the latter most. I don’t buy as many poetry collections as I should and getting them in the local libraries here is almost impossible if they were written after Shakespeare. So reading online journals and poems selected by other writers is my way of keeping in touch with the poetry world and the writers I enjoy. I can fit it into small pockets of time or scroll by if I don’t want to head down a specific rabbit hole. 

Gerry Stewart, Stepping Up

When I wrote PR for Poets,  I was grappling with a terminal cancer diagnosis (my tumors have since been classified as “stable” but I still have to get them scanned every six months). I was about to get a diagnosis of MS. These things have changed how I view book promotion in my own life and also how I might write about it next time.

Since I started promoting poetry books in 2006 (I’ve had five books published since), things have changed – the technology, the realities of travel, and in my case, my health has become a constraining factor. Last year, for instance, I was invited to read at a college for money – but ended up not being able to go for health reasons. I was also invited to be a featured speaker at a lovely-looking conference in Colorado – but given how difficult travel has been with a wheelchair, and the impact on my immune system, I had to turn it down. In both cases, I offered to appear virtually, but that offer was declined. AWP is coming up, and one reason (well, besides the money AND persistent accessibility problems at the conference itself) is that the travel is so hard on my system and the rewards don’t seem like enough to balance that out. The book addresses ways to reach new audiences that don’t involve physical travel – blog book tours, for instance, or virtual appearances at book groups or colleges, as well as social media outreach – but it could have gone further.

If you, as a healthy able-bodied writer in the world – an editor or a professor or someone who runs a conference –  want to support disabled or chronically ill writers, teach their books. Encourage your students to buy books, or request their books from libraries. Give disabled or chronically ill writers chances to do phone interviews, Skype sessions, radio appearances.

The reality is, my health and disability can limit my ability to have a writer’s life – the way traditionally the writers make money from books is being invited out to speak at colleges or at readings at conferences, so if you limit your travel to, for instance, locations you can drive to because the last two times you flew you caught pneumonia or the airlines lost your wheelchair (yup, both happened to me) – you’re also limiting how much you get paid, how many audiences you reach, how many copies of the book you sell.

Or…is that still true? I started thinking harder about this. When I started promoting my first poetry book, the number one way to sell copies was to travel to readings and people would buy books there. For my second book, the best way to sell was to send out paper postcards with buying information on them. By the time my last book came out, yes, I sold books through readings and postcards, but I sold the most copies through my blog and Facebook/Twitter announcements. If the world is really getting more technology oriented – working from home, virtual meetings – then maybe the way you sell poetry books has changed, too. I think about Instagram poets, who have a million followers and sell a million books – all without even making a personal appearance.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Valentine’s Day (and Day After) and a Discussion of Book Promotion and Maintaining the Writer’s Life with a Disability or Chronic Illness

Let’s get something out of the way right from the beginning. The odds of your winning a poetry competition are dramatically increased if you enter. Simultaneously, so are the chances of losing, but not by the same amount. And I guess most of us don’t buy a Lottery ticket expecting to win. If you’re like me, you buy yourself a dream.

In earlier posts on the cobweb, I’ve riffed on my own reasons for entering competitions. First comes the dream. What next? I look out for competitions run by small publishers, because when you pay for your entry, you’re in a win-win situation. Your entry fee is going to keep these small concerns alive…I’m thinking of ones like Prole and The interpreter’s house And, of course, Yaffle, and The Red Shed . Or you may be helping to promote a small festival, like Havant. The point is, you’re not wasting your money.

Next thing is: who’ll be judging the competition. With the small presses, I don’t mind, but when it comes to medium and high-profile affairs then what’s important to me is whether I like that poet’s work. Why? Because part of the dream is not anything to do with money (and there’s often not a lot of that involved) but the thought that my work is going to be read by someone I admire and from whom I’ve learned. If the judge’s work is not the sort of thing that floats my boat, then I don’t enter, because I guess it’s more likely than not to be mutual. For example, if Pascale Petit were to judge a competition I’d enter like a shot, but not if it was someone who went in for avant-garde shapes on the page. It’s just how I am. I certainly think twice about competitions where the work is filtered by a selection committee before it reaches the star judge….The Bridport comes to mind….but they’re likely to be the ones with big prize money. Take your choice.

Is there anything else? I’m personally attracted to competitions which offer publication of your work as a prize. Some will guarantee that runners-up will appear in their magazine (as in The Rialto/ RSPB), but I’m thinking particularly of Indigo Dreams, where the prize is publication of a full collection.

Finally, some poets I know will tell me they would rather submit to magazines. My answer is always that it’s not an either/or choice. I do both. But I know I’m always less disappointed by not winning a competition than getting ‘sorry, but no thank-you’ emails from magazine editors. I get a lot of those. I suppose it’s because I don’t expect to win a competition, but I’m absolutely convinced that Magma, The Rialto and the rest would be mad not to jump at the chance of publishing my poems.

John Foggin, Poetry competitions and small presses: it’s a win-win situation

But it did get me thinking about the half life of these popular culture references. How much distance is too much distance? Is it too obscure? Does that matter if it works for the poem? Can you cover it all off with notes? Should you need to use notes?

Is a reference to a Jewson’s ad from the 80s any better or worse than say a reference to an obscure character from The Iliad? I don’t know the answer here, I’m more thinking out loud. My degree taught me that a text was a text was a text and that a text could be anything really – a Britney Spears song, The Wasteland, a painting, a chocolate bar wrapper, and so on…

I came back to these questions when I had my first initial scan of the latest issue of Rialto. I found a reference to Dr Martens in the first poem, Hannah Lowe’s ‘Pink Hummingbird’ and old school rave events like “Rain Dance, World Party, Fantasia” in ‘ ’89’, and “Marlborough (SIC??) Lights” in ‘Love’.

Each of these references work as a way of dating the time they are evoking, elsewhere in the mag Tom Paine’s excellent ‘Harmonium’ contains the line

‘Give everyone an orange popsicle, an iPhone, a garden,
and let’s go shoot some hoops? You won monopoly, okay?’

You couldn’t ask for a more contemporary set of references…well, you could, but hopefully you see what I mean. While I’m still trying to work out what’s going on in the poem, the iPhone dates it to within the last decade or so and therefore gives me some frame of reference.

What am I saying here? I don’t think I’m saying anything, I’m asking something.

I guess I’m asking what we, as writers, are thinking when we include these contemporary references in poems? Do we have half an eye on the now and half an eye on the future—both near and more distant? What will readers in eg 2120 make of a reference to iPhones or Jewsons? Should we even care?

Mat Riches, The Jewson Lot

I must spend
more time
standing in
wind learning

to fly like
sky, grasses,
leaves, learning
to let go,

to go.

Tom Montag, I MUST SPEND