The mower against gardens reading Tadić

Out of nowhere, the question came to me: Why are you not reading Novica Tadić right now? And you know, I didn’t have a good answer for that.

I’d been about to head out for a walk, but I’d just been mowing the lawn for an hour and a half, so it’s not like I needed the exercise; I just wanted to go up in the woods. So here I am in my favorite close-to-the-house spot in the oak forest—close enough to carry a camp chair—with three volumes of Tadić in my lap, two translated by Charles Simic—Night Mail and Dark Things—and one translated by Steven and Maja Teref, Assembly. A hen turkey is going past with some chicks, by the sound of it, less than 100 feet behind me, but I can’t see them among the lowbush blueberries. A red-eyed vireo drones on and on. When the wind blows in a certain way, one of the nearby trees squeals, rubbed raw by the fallen corpse of a comrade.

And so to Tadić. The first poem I open to reads almost like a translation of a modern tanka:


through smoke rings
I see a yellow tongue

a crested sparrow hawk
swoops down
Novica Tadić, Assembly, tr. Steven Teref & Maja Teref

Mosquitoes are beginning to find me, and I them. I doubt they appreciate my findings, which are very heavy-handed.

I’m guessing that poem was from Tadić’s 1990 collection, Sparrow Hawk. Simic also translated some of the poems from that collection, including “Apple”:

This morning
I cut an apple in half
and found there
the familiar signature
of the last

In the sky
a jet plane
was leaving a white trace
just then
Novica Tadić, Night Mail: Selected Poems, tr. Charles Simic

I love how effortlessly he suggests the analogy between airplane and animal emissions, and how it draws a literal and figurative line under the whole thing.

There’s a twin-prop plane going over right now, a sound I rather like—I guess because it triggers memories of happy summer days when I was a kid and no day of freedom could ever be long enough. A world away from the Yugoslavia of Tadić’s youth, I’m sure.

Still not keen on the sound of the lawnmower, but it’s a vast savings in time over hand methods to achieve my goals, which are to provide the garden with mulch and compost. For years we didn’t own a working lawnmower, just used the tractor and brush hog to whack down the grass in front of the parents’ house every few weeks. Two years ago when my brother was living with me he got Dad to agree to get a new push/powered mower, and initially I was not a fan, because I do much prefer looking at a weedy meadow to an utterly domesticated would-be monoculture. Only this spring did it occur to me to wonder whether the mower might have an attachment to catch mowed grass so I wouldn’t have to rake it. It might, and it does!

The thing wouldn’t run after only two years of sitting idle, but our neighbor Troy, who understands engines and anything mechanical in a Vulcan mind-meld kind of way, determined that the problem was the poorly formulated gasoline they sell these days with too much ethanol in it, so its carburetor needed some special magic which he took it away to perform. The mower was healed a few days later and has been working fine ever since.

I hadn’t mowed a lawn in decades, and had forgotten just how meditative it can be. I haven’t settled on a fixed time to do it but today the grass was plenty dry enough to cut during what I think of as my peak creative time, mid to late morning, which used to find me at my laptop but nowadays usually finds me on a walk. Well, mowing lawn with this kind of mower is a walk, too, albeit at one mile an hour.

And the finished product! So green and uniform (if you squint and ignore all the broad-leaved plants)! And two days later, if it’s a rainy summer, you’re already seeing unevenness creeping back in… I can see how the mania starts, this very American rage for order amid the increasing chaos of our lives.

Just heard a weird scream from up on the powerline right-of-way. Must go investigate.


Well, of course I didn’t find anything, so I filled a small collecting bag with sweetfern leaves and carried on with a walk. For one thing, I need breezier spots to stop and write now that the mosquitoes are out.

Today is not a day for photography. I don’t know why. Is this flatness I see in the light, or in my head?

Yellow cinquefoil — something else with fond childhood associations. I might be more of a forest creature now, but I clearly spent a lot of time in old meadows as a small child in Maine, but also here. I was pleased to notice, the other week when I was stalking the wild asparagus, that there’s still a half-acre of brome among the acres of goldenrod above the barn, where as kids we spent countless hours playing in the long grass.

Which of course refutes one of the prime arguments for mowing vast swathes of suburbia: the children need somewhere to play! Bullshit. Get them to download some good nature ID apps and send them on a scavenger hunt. Scavenger hunts helped preserve Mom’s sanity whenever we three boys became too much of a handful. And it was all field guides back then, in the waning decades of the second millennium.

I suppose any writer’s children would quickly become acquainted with the out-of doors, let alone a nature writer’s kids. We were doomed from the start.


I’m now at the high point on the southwest corner of the property, a maturing oak–black cherry ecotone. I had thought last winter I might like to have a bench up here, but now with the leaves out and everything alive with the wind, I like the spot I’d chosen much better as it is, a circle of trees with only a few clumps of native grass and some random seedlings in it. It looks like a high point should. A very low high point to be sure, but let’s allow it some dignity. I need to fight the urge to domesticate wild places.


Watching a male scarlet tanager at eye level 50 feet away. When he flies, I feel an almost physical pang. I might say I’ll never fall in love again, but how can that be true when I fall in love several times a day?

I find in reading Tadić some excellent guidance, as I thought I might:


To live without any news
in the boonies
like any wretched, luckless person.

Go to town and buy a spade
as if intending to turn over a garden.

Instead, find your humble place
in the village graveyard,
swing high and dig yourself a grave.

Set it up, decorate it, write on it.

Find your humble place
in a world gone mad.
Novica Tadić, Dark Things, tr. Charles Simic

In the blues, I believe that state of mind is known as “down so long it looks like up to me.” And maybe that’s where I am, but you know, I feel fine. Like, yeah, that-R.E.M.-song fine. And the poem has an odd resonance of the videopoem-of-place I posted at Moving Poems this morning. My Father’s Bones by Zoe Paterson Macinnes, who grew up on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides and talks about knowing from an early age exactly where she would be buried.

I wonder sometimes if my life would’ve been more coherent if I’d chosen a more conventional lifestyle. As it is I’m resistant enough to herd behavior that I’ve never gone full lifestyle with any of my passions. For example I’m obviously very interested in Japanese short-form and diaristic literature as a model for my own writing, but I’m not going to go all Zen and turn my weedy front garden into the Daisen-In.

Though I would kill for the chance to visit Kyoto and see some of those temples again. It’s a myth that Zen played a major role in the haiku tradition, but certainly if you idolize Basho in particular, Zen might be a good fit for you. I was always way more of a Pure Land guy (to the extent that I was into Buddhism at all) because c’mon, Shinran was like a Japanese St. Francis, a truly inspired populist. Zen was for the Samurai oppressors.


I do have to smile at some of my parents’ choices of spots for their benches. Who else would place one next to a vernal pool, which in normal years turns into a damp spot in the woods by the end of June? Though last year it never dried up at all…

big ripple—
a tadpole trying out
its legs

The rise of Twitter poetry

From The Independent, a good article on the “The rise of Twitter poetry” in the U.S. and U.K., though as so often with online articles from newspapers, it is strangely lacking in links to any of the people it mentions, making it less useful than it could’ve been. And I question their decision to illustrate it with a photo of Benjamin Zephaniah, who follows all of four people despite being followed by more than 10,000, instead of George Szirtes, Alison Brackenbury or Ian Duhig, who are much better and more generous netizens. Anyway, here’s a quote:

Ian Duhig – twice-winner of the National Poetry Competition – wrote a tweet poem about the Bramhope Tunnel disaster: “They wove the black worm/ a shroud of white stone/ and thought it was nothing/ But the worm turned.” Would he ever publish his Twitter poems? “I’d have no problem using Twitter poems in a book and may well do in the next one,” says Duhig, whose Twitter poem “Yew”, is more romantic: “Each root of church yew/ reaches a skull:/ mistletoe/ for kissing above.”

The director of the Poetry Society, Judith Palmer, says: “There’s a renewed interest in the form of British poetry at the moment and the constraints of the 140-character limit play to that, in the same way as the 14 lines of the sonnet or the 17 syllables of the haiku. Twitter poems tend to be playful and are often collaborative, but they’re also good for ‘Imagist’-style observation, or philosophical musing. They can reach a wide audience in moments but they’re also ephemeral, evaporating pretty as the Twitter-feeds roll relentlessly on.”

Read the rest.

A few good reasons to use Twitter

  1. It’s superficial. Surfaces are beautiful and necessary, especially to us primates with our extreme reliance on vision.
  2. Chaucer Doth Tweet.

  3. Enforced concision has a way of sorting the sheep from the goats where writers and humorists are concerned.
  4. Continue reading “A few good reasons to use Twitter”

The Morning Porch, five years on

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


Today is the fifth birthday of The Morning Porch. I thought I’d mark the occasion by sharing some lesser-known facts about the blog and my daily writing practice.

1. You’d think that this discipline would have made me a better, more assiduous devoteee of the early morning hours, but if anything, it’s been the opposite. I was a very early riser when I started back in 2007, as my first entry attests. Now I sometimes sleep in so late, I’m lucky to get out on the porch before noon. In my defense, there’s no doubt that waiting at least for daylight, if not late-morning warmth, does give one a lot more to write about in terms of (for example) bird and insect activity. But I can’t really claim that’s the motive for my increasingly late-rising tendencies.

2. I was very skeptical about Twitter when it got started, and felt like a relative late-comer to the platform when I finally joined five years ago. I had two ideas in mind: use the 140-character limit to literary advantage, and use the novelty of what I was doing to spread interest in nature among ordinary internet users. For most of the past five years, I’ve been very poor about using Twitter to communicate, and for several years, I was barely on it at all, preferring the open-source alternative Identica. I still feel guilty about using a social platform for broadcasting, but I just find Twitter awkward for carrying on a conversation. Part of that is because:

3. When I’m not forcing myself to be concise, I’m actually very long-winded. Browse the first couple of years of Via Negativa if you don’t believe me.

4. And I guess the other reason I’ve never really taken to Twitter is I don’t own a mobile device of any kind, and therefore don’t use an app. I interact with Twitter exclusively from the web interface.

5. I am still not sure that The Morning Porch is a particularly good fit for Twitter. I do follow some other people who use Twitter for literary purposes, of course. (One curent favorite: British poet George Szirtes’ surrealist microfiction.) But my personal favorite twitter feeds are the humorous ones, the purveyors of pop-culture snark and whimsy such as KimKierkegaardashian and Your Life Coaches. Above all, I think Twitter was made for such displays of wit. Which is why I’m never too bothered by the occasional negative reaction to The Morning Porch: people accustomed to a steady diet of snark who encounter retweets of my posts must find the sincerity and attention to nature really jarring. I think I would.

6. I’m still inordinantly proud of the fact that my Twitter feed made a sports writer’s list of Worst of 2010 at the Gawker media site Deadspin. With fewer than 3000 followers at the time, it felt like a real honor, albeit a perverse one, to be singled out as the worst feed on all of Twitter! Evidently the dude thought my use of common names such as “mourning dove” was a literary affectation.

7. From the beginning, I’ve archived my tweets at a blog, but for the first couple of years, I used Tumblr. I migrated it to a WordPress installation to take advantage of plugins and features that give better access to the archives, such as tagging (which didn’t exist on Tumblr at the time) and especially the “on this date” column in the sidebar, which fills me with geekish delight.

8. Though I don’t really think of The Morning Porch as poetry, a lot of other people do, and I’m fine with that. At one time, I was part of an active community of poets exploring the microblog medium on Identica, where I coined the term “micropoetry” to describe what we were doing. The irony is that I don’t actually think I’m very good at haiku or other types of short-form poetry. Writing haiku is hard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the knack for it, though that won’t stop me from writing and sharing the things from time to time.

9. Writing The Morning Porch is as much or more about the writing than it is about the observing, but my most successful posts over the years have been those I’ve composed in my head, while sitting on the porch, rather than those I’ve composed inside at the keyboard. My usual approach is to try to stuff at least two observations into each post and rely on the relationship between them to do most of the literary work, augmented by as much alliteration and assonance as I can muster. If you go through the archives, you’ll notice that metaphors are very thin on the ground.

10. Apparently a lot of readers suffer from the misapprehension that I’m a good naturalist; I’m not. I was raised in a nature-loving family, so of course some of that rubbed off on me, but when I was growing up I was actually somewhat in rebellion against the family culture — especially what I saw as the obsessive compulsion to identify everything. I felt that assigning a name to a creature put it in a conceptual box that kept us from seeing it as it truly was. Also, I was very lazy about looking things up — and still am. But writing The Morning Porch has forced me to become more disciplined about it. So if you’ve ever wondered “How does he know all that stuff?” the answer is I don’t — not always. Many times I have an idea, or several ideas, and have to rush inside to consult field guides and the internet. And sometimes those names turn out to be poetic enough that a mere roll-call comes to resemble a poem.

11. I almost never use binoculars. I just don’t like them.

12. One of my biggest disappointments is that more people on Twitter haven’t followed my lead and begun tweeting what they see from their own front porches or stoops. Despite what I said above about preferring witty Twitterers, I’d also love to read other porch sitters, especially if they’re in urban and suburban environments filled with colorful specimens of humanity.

13. Completing five years of a daily journal may seem like an admirable achievement, but it doesn’t really compensate for the fact that to me, my front yard is a landscape of loss. Gone is the big, spreading butternut tree that once shaded it, the focus of an earlier, short-lived chronicle from the porch. It fell victim to a canker that threatens the very survival of the species. This puts me in mind of all our other tree species under threat from non-native blights and insects, such as the eastern hemlock (hemlock woolly adelgid), American beech (beech bark disease), and white ash (emerald ash borer) — all of them common trees here on the mountain. The dead elm tree recently truncated by Sandy was very much alive when I started writing the Morning Porch; it fell victim to Dutch elm disease and died in less than two years. It snapped off a few feet above the flicker nest-hole, which reminds me of that little domestic tragedy (nestlings eaten by a black snake) every time I look at it. The ornamental cherry beside the porch, now reduced to a tall cluster of limb-stumps, was also alive in 2007. It fell victim to a native disease, black knot. It was never a great tree, but I miss its messy sprays of blossoms in the spring, and the way it served as a bird-perch all year long. And finally, the dog statue next to the lilac, which may well mark the grave of some forgotten family pet from 80 or 100 years ago, was smashed when the top of the elm blew over.

14. I guess this doesn’t really qualify as a lesser-known fact, but: I really don’t get off the mountain much. So in a certain sense, writing The Morning Porch amounts to making lemonade out of a lemon. I suppose I could claim that some mornings, my porch-sitting feels more rewarding than a journey of a thousand miles. And it does! But many other mornings, it’s just kind of humdrum, you know? And at those times, I don’t feel as if I have anything especially original to share. But I do it anyway.

15. Doing The Morning Porch has made one thing very clear to me: I don’t take writing as seriously as many of my peers. When I discover, as I often do, that I’ve repeated myself and used the very same image or analogy for some critter as the previous time I wrote about it, I tend to be amused rather than depressed at the limits of my imagination. And I have no trouble acknowledging the truth behind the accusation that The Morning Porch can be a bit formulaic:

But it’s not just the product; it’s the process. And part of the process, for me at least, involves growing so sick of one’s own words, one lurches in a new direction from time to time and inadvertently produces something brilliant.

16. When I started, my goal was to keep it going for five years. I am not a very goal-oriented person, to put it mildly, so the fact that I’ve made it astonishes me. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would become a source of writing prompts for a number of talented poets, and that one of them would become a co-author at Via Negativa, driven by the much more impressive goal of writing a poem every day, no matter what. Luisa’s been at it for nearly two years now! That alone makes me feel as if I should keep doing this Morning Porch thing as long as I can. If nothing else, it will force me to get my ass out of bed before noon.

Vacations: the videopoem

Watch on Vimeowatch on YouTube

What do we vacate when we go on vacation? What do we re-create when we engage in recreation? Here are four one-line poems (AKA monostiches) about summer vacation activities which may or may not answer these questions. One thing is certain, though: a bear in a berry patch knows exactly what she’s doing.

Process notes

Saturday’s collection of six one-line poems, “What we did on our summer vacations,” was a blog post of last resort. I’d actually spent much of the day trying to figure out how to make a video for the whale-watching piece, which I’d drafted as a haiku on Twitter the day before. I looked at a ton of free-to-use footage on the web, but didn’t see anything I liked, so finally I got the idea of writing some thematically linked monostiches instead. This turned out, of course, to make an excellent blog post, because so many of you responded by leaving one-line vacation poems of your own in the comments. I love it when that happens.

At mid-morning on Sunday, we got a real downpour, and I went out on my porch to shoot some video. When I looked at the results on Monday, I noticed a couple of interesting things. One is that I had unknowingly captured a box turtle struggling to cross the torrents of water in the road, and narrowly missing getting crushed by the tires of our neighbor’s truck. I was simply shooting the road without, obviously, paying a great deal of attention to what was in the viewfinder screen. This footage doesn’t appear in the above video, for the simple reason that I couldn’t make it fit, but it says something about my level of attentiveness while filming, I think. I did use two other pieces of front-porch rainstorm footage, however, one of them for the original one-liner about whale-watching.

I’ve always preferred the text-only approach to videopoetry when making haiku videos, and that seemed like the best approach this time, too. I was constrained in which poems I could use, because I wanted each to fit on a single line at a legible font-size. I thought about using a musical soundtrack to give the video a unified feel, but it seemed important instead to use found sound — and I got lucky, because someone on had uploaded a recording of whale vocalizations made while SCUBA diving in the Pacific. I don’t know if they’re humpbacks or not, but what the heck. To keep the video from growing too long, I made each sound sample exactly 15 seconds long, and trimmed the video to match.

Thanks to the frequent crashes of my woefully inadequate video-editing software (Adobe Premiere Elements 7), I wasn’t able to save the project in a form suitable for uploading last night. This turns out to have been a good thing, because this morning I got the idea of adding some extra footage after each segment, which had the effect I think of giving each poem more breathing room, and also suggesting another interpretative dimension. A video that last night struck me as kind of hum-drum now seems to have the requisite pizzazz — though granted, my standards are fairly low. As for the content of that extra, unifying footage: it was a toss-up between a black bear and a millipede. The bear won.

Woodrat Podcast 21: Dylan Tweney

Dylan Tweney and tinywords
Dylan Tweney and tinywords (photos by Jonathan Snyder)

Dylan Tweney is the editor and publisher of tinywords, which has been serving small poems daily since 2000. The Haiku Society of America has recognized it as the “largest-circulation journal of haiku in English.” Dylan is also a senior editor at Wired, in charge of gadget news, new product reviews, and other ultra-geeky topics. The motto at the top his website reads, “If you’re bored, you’re not paying attention.” I spoke to him last month by phone, and got him talking about everything from how he handles a large volume of submissions on a part-time basis, to what he learned from studying poetry with Louise Glück, to why he decided to live-tweet a Wagner opera.

Here are a few of Dylan’s favorite haiku and micropoems from the past ten years of tinywords.

Tinywords is currently accepting submissions (through September 30) for the next issue, on cities and urban life. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow the magazine: @tinywords as well as Dylan himself: @Dylan20.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence)

Of words and birds, Tweety and otherwise

I have a real post coming, honest! But in the meantime, I have to share a couple of the web goodies I’ve come across in the last few days.

I and the Bird #133 is a treasure-trove of extended literary quotes, mostly from poems. You almost don’t have to click the links (though of course you should.) The host this time is Matthew Sarver, a fellow Western Pennsylvanian with serious naturalist chops and a gift for writing and photography. He’s still in his first year of blogging, but he seems to have taken to it like a duck to water. I and the Bird, in case you’re unfamiliar with it, is a hugely successful, bi-weekly blog carnival about birds and birding — our original inspiration at the Festival of the Trees.

Matt’s one of many birdwatchers on Twitter now — the medium seems like a great fit for birders, and not just because of the avian iconography — and it was on Twitter that I caught the news about Matt’s edition of IATB as I was doing a quick check through the five accounts I maintain there. Yes, five, and I neglect than all! But I’m primarily still focused on Twitter (and as a medium for micropoetry.

Back when I first started tweeting my Morning Porch entries in November 2007, one of the relatively few Twitterers then sharing haiku was @tinywords, the feed for a daily haiku site with quite a few followers. Then it fell silent in July 2008. Well, just last week I noticed a tweet from @tinywords announcing that tiny words the website was going to start back up, and I clicked through to find a brand new site. And this time, the editor has broadened the focus:

tinywords is now accepting submissions for issue #1. This issue will be edited by tinywords publisher d. f. tweney and will be published, one poem per day, starting December 1.

I’m looking for very short or micro poems of no more than 5 lines, and ideally less than 140 characters. This could include haiku, senryu, tanka, cinquains, or other forms.

Longer works (e.g. haibun) will also be considered if they include a very short poem that can be excerpted.

I’m also interested in artwork and/or poem-artwork combinations (e.g. haiga) that could fit with the theme of miniature poetry.

I’ll accept submissions for a 2-week period only, from November 10-24.

It’s great to see new venues for micropoetry popping up. Tiny words joins Fiona Robyn’s A Handful of Stones and the group blog I contribute to, Open Micro. There’s also an entirely Twitter-based microjournal called Seven By Twenty. And there are quite a few individual purveyors of micropoetry on Twitter these days.

Now, it’s easy to dismiss this efflorescence of short-form verse on the web as pandering to the fractured attention spans endemic to a distraction-rich media environment. There may be some truth to that. But my idea with the Morning Porch was always to try to make people stop for a moment and go “Huh,” and to the extent that I’ve succeeded there — and led others to begin using Twitter and for similar purposes — I count it a success. More than that, poets have been writing various forms of micropoetry for centuries, and why? Because it turns out to be an exceptionally good way to focus the attention. What words are really necessary? What dazzling metaphor has to remain implicit if we are to capture the whole mood? I love the way my Twitter-inspired microprose-poetry discipline forces me to grapple with these questions every morning.