Ice and Gaywings

Ice and Gaywings
click to order from Phoenicia Publishing

At qarrtsiluni today we announced the publication of a new collection of poems: Ice and Gaywings by Kenneth Pobo. This might be of interest to Via Negativa readers for several reasons: the book was selected as the winner of our 2011 chapbook contest by VN contributor Luisa Igloria; the cover includes one of my own photos of gaywings (AKA fringed polygala) in bloom; and most importantly, the poems themselves are meditative, understated, urgent, and full of details about the natural world. Though Ken and his partner live in eastern Pennsylvania, they’ve been visiting the Wisconsin north woods for many years, and this collection is a sort of love letter to that part of the world. Let me just quote what Luisa had to say about it:

The experience I value most in reading this collection is the way its language (never romanticized) and tone (never overwrought) allows me to settle with increasing depth into the poems’ rhythms and precise observations — about the natural world, now only partially reclaimable from so many forms of artifice; about the intrusions of contemporary urban life and culture; about histories older than us that haunt and shadow place. And finally, its urgent reminder to listen, look, and learn to dwell again.

You can read all the poems at the online version of the book, which has been one of my projects this autumn. I’m kind of pleased with how it turned out. I enjoy the challenge of making online collections of poetry that people will want to browse. Last year, for Clayton Michaels’ Watermark, I hit on the idea of taking the abstract artwork we used for the cover of the paper edition and dividing it up into smaller images, a different one for every poem, with little arrows for navigation icons. It seemed essential to give each poem its own page, so it would room to breathe. This year, however, I started off looking at horizontally scrolling themes, and though I didn’t end up going that route (maybe next year!) it did push my thinking pretty far outside the usual box. I ended up adapting a WordPress theme designed for software documentation, with all the poems on one vertical page which expands or collapses, accordion-style, as the titles are clicked. (I did add permalinks below each poem for those who desire a more pristine reading environment — or just need the link.)

I hope readers don’t find this javascripty behavior too distracting. What I really liked about the design was the way it kept distractions to a minimum. Thanks to this unique arrangement, I was able to dispense with sidebars (or bottom bars) altogether — in WordPress terms, this is a site with zero widgets. I kept the page menu to a bare minimum, and decided not to hack the theme to add chronological posts back in; a static page would do fine for the news section, I thought. Anyway, I won’t bore you with all the details. Suffice it to say I had a lot of fun, even if I did have to re-do much of my work after I was kicked off my former webhost two weeks ago. Go take a look — and settle in with a cup of tea for a nice long read.

The Crowd

This month we’re soliciting for submissions to the next issue of qarrtsiluni, which Beth and I are editing ourselves — no guest editors this time. The theme is “The Crowd.” If you have poems, prose or artwork that might fit, please see the call for submissions. The deadline is June 30. Here’s our theme description:

The crowd, the flock, the herd, the mob, the swarm, the tribe: we are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by this super-organism, capable at times of great beauty and even wisdom (cf. The Wisdom of Crowds) and at other times of appalling ugliness and violence. Aristotle defined humanity as an animal whose nature it is to live in a polis, but in all ages we seem incapable of deciding whether this is a good or bad thing; one commentator’s inspiring revolutionary struggle is another’s mob rule. For the next issue of qarrtsiluni, we are open to all perspectives, positive and negative, historical and biological, on crowds and other aggregations of social animals. Inspiration can be sought in the ecstasy and fervor of the stadium, the battalion, the game, the march, the final episode, the fad, the stampede — or the collective consciousness in general. With the planet’s burgeoning human population threatening to exceed our ecological carrying capacity, and so many crises now requiring urgent collective action, it seems imperative for artists and writers, so often antisocial ourselves and preoccupied with the struggles of individuals, to turn our attention to sociality in its most vital and basic form.

We decided to eliminate our unreliable online contact form and ask people just to submit by email, and I’ve been intrigued by the variety of salutations people use in their cover letters. First-time submitters tend of course to be more formal. We’ve gotten:

  • Dear Editors,
  • Dear Editor:
  • Hello Editors,
  • hi dear Editor,
  • Hello,
  • Dear Editor,
    online literary magazine.
  • Dear Beth Adams and Dave Bonta,
  • Dear Beth and Dave,

Repeat submitters, especially those we’ve published in the past, tend to favor “Hi Beth and Dave” or some variation, which mirrors our own preference for “Hi [First Name]” in responding to submissions. We did get one “Hello q crew,” which gave me a chuckle.

It seems I’m far from alone in finding “Dear Mr./Mrs./Ms. _____” stuffy and out-of-date for electronic communications, and I almost never close with “Sincerely,” either (nor do qarrtsiluni contributors). And yet “Dear ____” and “Sincerely” still seem perfectly natural for paper letters. Odd how the physicality of a letter elicits greater formality, as if we were not merely addressing the recipient but also to some extent acknowledging the presence of the paper, too. Or more likely, the artifactual nature of a paper letter triggers expectations and responses from one’s past associations with such artifacts, a sort of muscle memory reinforcing norms of epistolary tradition at odds with the more speech-like ways in which we typically deploy email. It’s interesting to see how these styles mingle in the electronic versions of highly convention-bound communications such as the cover letter for a submission to a magazine.

Qarrtsiluni: better than your average snake oil

witch hazel 2

Some people still swear by witch hazel extract as a balm for cuts and bruises, acne and mosquito bites. But to me, the shrub’s greatest healing power lies in the visual relief and color its flowers provide — among the few splashes of color still remaining in the gray and brown woods of late autumn.

The next issue of qarrtsiluni, the literary magazine I help curate, will be all about health, broadly defined. I’ve been remiss in not linking to the call for submissions, which we published on November 1. The editors this time are Susan Elbe and Kelly Madigan Erlandson, and the deadline for submissions is November 30. Susan and Kelly have chosen a theme that should resonate far beyond the current health care debate in the United States:

We are interested in creative interpretations of health, which will of course include the health (or lack thereof) of the human body, but also of the mind and spirit, the environment, or the culture. How systems stay in balance, how one attains wellness, how we relate or respond to our own state of health and the health of others, and the extent of an individual’s physical, emotional, mental, and social ability to cope with his/her environment would all be fair game. Unusual health-related practices also intrigue us (serpents? psychic surgery?) as well as tales of spontaneous recovery. How much control do we have over our own health? Explore superstitions, regale us with symptoms, or simply make a well-written toast to our health — we’ll consider it. Keep in mind too that the etymological roots of health include “whole” and “hale,” but also “holy.”

Read the complete description if you’re interested in submitting.


If the above is news to you, then you might’ve also missed the fact that we’re doing daily podcasts at qarrtsiluni now (subscribe in iTunes here, or listen via the audio players on the site). For many of the image posts this issue, Beth and I have been indulging ourselves a little and engaging in extended discussions, prompted by the images but often going off on tangents related to other aspects of the current theme, “words of power.” I think some of them have turned out pretty well. It’s fun.


There was an interesting, brief interview with Pamela Johnson Parker, the winner of qarrtsiluni’s 2009 chapbook contest, today at Read Write Poem. Her answer to the last question, “Can Poetry Save the World?” was intriguing, I thought:

I can’t speak for the world, but it’s saved me. I had an illness this summer that affected my speech, coordination and memory. My neuropsychologist was amazed that I could immediately recall poems, whole stanzas of them. I made one of the quickest full recoveries he’s ever witnessed. I give credit to Shakespeare, Bishop, Keats, Frost, Browning, Cummings — and also to Mrs. P., the 7th-grade teacher who made me memorize poems as a penalty for talking in class.

So there you have it: poetry can heal. I prescribe one dose of qarrtsiluni a day.

New qarrtsiluni call for submissions: “Words of Power”

For the second autumn in a row, Beth Adams and I will be stepping out from behind the curtain to edit an issue of qarrtsiluni ourselves. The deadline for submissions is August 31, and publication will begin around September 15. We’re pretty excited by the theme.

This time we’re looking for words of power: curses, spells, charms, prayers, incantations, mantras, sacred scriptures, explicit performative utterances, oaths, or legal instruments. Submissions may consist entirely of such super-charged language, or may riff upon or explore such language. Submissions of visual art may of course take a more figurative approach to the topic; images of amulets and other power-objects, for example, would be welcome. But otherwise we urge contributors not to interpret the theme too broadly. Please don’t just send us a piece of writing that you think is powerful according to some subjective evaluation. We’re looking quite specifically for language freighted with mana and/or executive force, or writing about that kind of language. If you’re not sure whether something qualifies, feel free to query.

Please limit written material to no more than five items per submission, with individual pieces not exceeding 3,000 words. Please refer to the general guidelines before submitting, and note especially the recommendation to query us if we don’t acknowledge receipt within two days — occasional server hiccups and email glitches are a fact of life on the internet.

We look forward to reading your words of power with an unusual admixture of excitement and trepidation. This issue could be a real test of our editorial juju!

We’re also really pleased with the results of our first annual poetry chapbook contest. Here’s the announcement about that.

Mutating the Signature

Submissions are open for a new qarrtsiluni theme, Mutating the Signature. This is a process- rather than a subject-oriented theme, requiring all submissions to spring from a creative collaboration between two or more people. Be sure to study the theme description carefully before submitting. The deadline is January 15, and we expect to start publishing the first pieces for the new issue shortly after January 1. It seemed like a good way to kick off the new year. The guest editors, Dana Guthrie Martin and Nathan Moore, have been going great guns at their own collaborative poetry experiments, as readers of their blogs will know, so they seemed as qualified as anyone to edit such an issue.

The current issue, Journaling the Apocalypse, will continue through December. In fact, we’ll have to pick up the pace of posting if we’re going to fit everything in. Suffice it to say that we have many more good things in store — and if the holiday season doesn’t seem like the best time to contemplate the apocalypse, all I can say is you haven’t gone shopping lately.


Shortly before Halloween, I tried my hand at collaborative poeming with Dana. We used Skype IM, and followed a procedure based on the surrealist game called exquisite corpse, which seemed appropriate to our subject: vampirism. Or, as Dana would have it, hemotophagy. We wrote alternate lines, and each of us saw only the second half of the preceding line. Here’s what I saw:


We walked arm in arm on the sunset strip, red at night
___________________ inside me, my mouth parts
like a coffin lid lined with velvet & redolent of formaldehyde
___________________ carotid, its point of bifurcation
the wye-shaped crossroads of all my midnight appointments,
___________________ my hands, how I lap up
everything your heart has to say in its simple syntax.
__________________________without enormous effort,
like typing a heart smiley in lieu of using that dread word
____________________ attack, my bending over you,
mother of my suffocation nightmares, homeothermic swamp.
________________________ handkerchief, stuff it in my blazer.
It’s a gloomy affair, this filling of my coffin-sized hole
__________________________ My desires coagulate near your wounds,
plaster for that red fresco where my shadow lost its way.

Then came the reveal, as they say in TV land.


We walked arm in arm on the sunset strip, red at night
blood the only hunger inside me, my mouth parts
like a coffin lid lined with velvet & redolent of formaldehyde
I feel for your common carotid, its point of bifurcation
the wye-shaped crossroads of all my midnight appointments,
skin pulled taut between my hands, how I lap up
everything your heart has to say in its simple syntax.
This is living: to take you without enormous effort,
like typing a heart smiley in lieu of using that dread word
fang. This is not an attack, my bending over you,
mother of my suffocation nightmares, homeothermic swamp.
I wipe up the access with a handkerchief, stuff it in my blazer.
It’s a gloomy affair, this filling of my coffin-sized hole
will never bring satiety. My desires coagulate near your wounds
plaster for that red fresco where my shadow lost its way.

I found this quite a bit wordier than I was used to dealing with — which was more my fault than Dana’s — so when we finally returned to the thing a couple weeks later, I left all the heavy lifting up to her. After half an hour or so, she came up with the following edit (ignore her account of events at the link):


My mouth parts to reveal velvet lining
redolent of formaldehyde.

I feel for your common carotid,
its point of bifurcation,
the wye-shaped crossroads
of all my midnight appointments.

Skin taut between my hands,
I lap up your heart’s simple syntax.

To take you without enormous effort,
without using that dread word “fang.”

Mother of my suffocation nightmares,
homeothermic swamp.
I wipe up the excess with a handkerchief.

This gloomy affair. This filling of my coffin-
sized hole will never bring satiety.

My desires coagulate near your wounds,
plaster for that red fresco
where my shadow lost its way.

Being the contrary sort, I tried to see if I could make a poem using the words that didn’t appear in her edit. I had to add a bunch more words. I’m not sure the result could still be considered a collaboration. But it was fun!

Now You See It

We walk arm in arm
on the sunset strip,
red at night like a plush coffin lid,
like a cartoon heart used as a glyph
to stand in for that dread word
as I bend over you in my blazer
& count to ten.
The only hunger that matters now
can hide in a silk handkerchief
& reappear in a deck of cards:
club, diamond, spade.
You learn to dig.

In one final transmogrification, I ran the text of our rough draft through Wordle to produce the image at the top of this post, symbolically releasing the words and ideas we’d been playing with. That’s kind of what “mutating the signature” is all about, I think.

Brain and Nerve Food

Brain and Nerve Food

What’s interesting about these advertisements from 1884 is that they appear on the back cover of an anthology of English poetry published by Funk & Wagnalls, a volume of something called the Standard Library — evidently an ancestor to Dr. Eliot’s Five-Foot Shelf, Penguin Classics, and other such series of canonical works. It’s funny that nowadays we aren’t surprised by magazines where advertising takes up half or more of the content, but find the idea of an ad on a book — even a mass-market paperback — a little shocking. But then books are things we plan on keeping around, whereas magazines are inherently disposable.

I think about that distinction a lot, since I’m so involved in publishing a magazine online, where the average shelf-life of blogs and zines is even shorter than the xeroxed little magazines of yore. (Do the 1970s qualify as “yore” yet?) On the one hand, I accept the reality that nothing is forever, and transience is inherent in all things. On the other hand, why should artists and authors entrust their works to qarrtsiluni if it isn’t going to be around in five or ten years? Unlike a print publication, there’s no tangible artifact to sit on a shelf somewhere, gathering dust. Don’t we owe it to our contributors to keep their works online as long as possible? We’re not paying them anything, so it seems like the least we can do.

I spent much of this weekend pulling together qartsiluni‘s first-ever podcast for the Water issue, in case anyone wonders where the hell I’ve been. And my other project involved making a more secure archive for our news microblog, which will still originate on Twitter (for the time being, at any rate), but now has its main presence on the imaginatively named qarrtsiluni news blog.

Now that qarrtsiluni has a blog, perhaps its own ambiguous nature — half-blog, half-magazine — will be a little less obvious. Or maybe adding a podcast dimension simply makes our precise identity even more difficult to pin down. The Standard Library was clearly a bit of a hybrid, too, appearing bi-monthly “bound in postal card manilla,” available by annual subscription, but offered also in cloth editions and clearly meant to be permanent. Over a century later, the paper is still in fine shape — nothing like some of the pulp fiction I have from the 1940s and 50s that crumbles at the touch. Chalk it up, perhaps, to all those vitalized phos-phites.