Poetry under the Big Tent

Big Tent Poetry
I am now officially a sideshow barker for Big Tent Poetry, a new poetry prompt site and the most direct successor to Read Write Poem, which ceased publication and shut down its associated social network on May 1. The Big Tent organizers — Carolee Sherwood, Deb Scott, and Jill Crammond-Wickham — are published poets (each has had work in qarrtsiluni, for example) and long-time bloggers committed to a culture of sharing and mutual support among online poets. As lead organizers at RWP, they helped foster a spirit of playfulness and irreverence which I always thought was one of the best things about that site, and which looks to become a defining feature of Big Tent, as well.

This time, there’s no Facebook-for-poets, which is probably a good idea: the time and effort required to run such a thing proved debilitating at RWP, I gather. And I hate to say it, but Facebook itself does at least as good a job at connecting writers as RWP did, with the added advantage of including tons of other friends, family, and assorted contacts who, while not necessarily as smitten with poetry as some of us are, still might be persuaded to click on a blog link once in a while. I may not care for the centralization, much less for Facebook’s corporate culture, but as with Twitter, I figure it’s there and we might as well take advantage of it. My alternative? A decentralized internet where we all have our own sites (whether blogs proper or sites on Tumblr, StatusNet, etc.), subscribe to each other’s feeds, and link and comment back and forth with the enthusiasm now reserved for Facebook and Twitter.

O.K., that day will probably never come. But Big Tent Poetry’s mode of operation definitely contributes to the dream of a decentralized social web. Carolee, Deb and Jill have made the wise decision not to try to line up a bunch of regular columnists, but instead get a bunch of us to agree to send along links whenever we write something poetry-related, and let them decide whether to feature it on the site. They have dedicated a whole third ring (the circus kind, not the Dantean kind) to collect such contributions, and I’m pleased and honored that they chose my piece about Poetry Reading Month as the second entry there. I like the idea of Via Negativa as sideshow and me as its barker. And I’m in good company — see the complete list of barkers on the site’s About page.

I’m sure the main attraction at Big Tent Poetry will be its weekly writing prompts, which will appear every Monday. I don’t know how often I’ll join them under the main tent of the circus, but I’m glad they’re providing a venue for blogging poets to come together and share their work. Since so many literary magazines, including online ones, actively discourage writers from posting original work on their own blogs by refusing to consider blogged work for publication, it’s really helpful to have prompt sites like Big Tent, Writer’s Island, and the new We Write Poems to help build alternative audiences — which can often be larger and more diverse than the audience for a literary magazine. (I can tell you, for example, that Via Negativa has two to three times as many readers as qarrtsiluni. I wish it were otherwise.)

The challenge with any kind of online poetry community, I think, is keeping the cultural version of Gresham’s law from driving out those who take craft seriously, because of course the downside of a self-publishing landscape where anyone can post their stuff, and build an audience without the interference of gatekeepers, is that a horde of people who just want to share their feelings and call it poetry risk giving poetry blogging as a whole a bad name, kind of like the way zealots, anger addicts and purveyors of snark have come to define the political blogosphere. RWP did an amazingly good job of attracting serious writers to its prompts. Here’s hoping Big Tent Poetry enjoys similar success.

Dictionary Fruit

I didn’t have the name for it
in English: lumpy fruit soft
as thin leather, knobbed with
the biggest outie I’d ever seen.
She took it back, sliced it in half,
& handed me one of the hemispheres
together with a Western spoon.
Kezuro wa ne, oishii desu yo,
she said, speaking slow & smiling
as if to a child. That first seedy,
pulpy spoonful tasted like
it could have been any fruit.
I remember the brush of her fingers
on mine, & how it suddenly became
difficult to meet her gaze.
I placed the empty skin cup
upside-down on the table & fumbled
for my dictionary. Pomegranate,
I said, handing it over with my finger
on the word. Her brows knit
as she sampled the unfamiliar syllables.
I still have it, that little red dictionary
bound in thin fake leather.

For Read Write Poem’s pomegranate prompt.

Dave and Beth’s excellent chapbook adventure, and Dana and Nathan’s far-from-bogus collaborative journey

At Read Write Poem, Dana Guthrie Martin has interviewed Beth Adams and me about our experiences publishing a chapbook — check it out. As with our live podcasts at qarrtsiluni, we seem to fall naturally into roles quite analogous to those of sports commentators on the radio: Beth calls the plays, and I provide the color commentary.

Speaking of Dana Guthrie Martin, last night I stayed up much too late reading the final, “curated” version of the inaugural issue of Mutating the Signature, a new and very innovative online literary magazine spun off from a qarrtsiluni issue of the same name. The inaugural issue is the work of Dana and her usual writing partner (and qarrtsiluni co-editor) Nathan Moore, writing in collaboration as described on the About page:

Mutating the Signature is a place for two poets — or one poet and one artist of any type — to work and write to, for and with one another as creators and curators of an issue of the journal.

Curators will select a theme to work with for the duration of their issue. Each issue will unfold over the course of one to three months, depending on how long it takes for the curators to fully explore their topic and the issue they are creating.

Curators are encouraged to “talk” to one another not only with poetry but with prose, artwork, music, photography, and other means of communication and expression, and to explore fully the possibilities of the online journal space. Each piece shared will contribute to illustrating, furthering and even complicating their issue’s theme, whatever that may be, wherever that may go.

Since this is kind of a new concept in literary periodical publishing — to put it mildly — Dana and Nathan decided to go first and show what was possible. The result is Untelling Stories, a very satisfying, nicely designed PDF book of 86 pages. It is by turns earthy and cerebral, and despite watching it unfold in draft form on the website, in many cases I had trouble telling who wrote what — that’s how well-matched their styles are. I was surprised to find a quote from yours truly as an epigraph at the front of the book, but that was minor compared to my surprise and pleasure at how well all the disparate parts fit together: paintings, diagrams, lists, B.S., and of course poetry, ranging from the lyrical to the postmodern.

Perhaps my favorite thing about it is how many incantations it includes — artful repetition can make even the driest of material come alive. And there is plenty of material here that could’ve become dry as dust in the wrong hands: as the title suggests, Untelling Stories confronts the human preoccupation with narrative head-on, kind of like the Talking Heads with Stop Making Sense, but employing less obvious rhythms. The writing process included exercises in which the same words and phrases were reused in different forms, which provides refrain-like motifs and helps knit the book together. There are a few parts I don’t get, but they are vastly outnumbered by images that astonish and lines that delight. Overall, Untelling Stories tastes like a small cosmic soup, wholesome and warming and full of strangeness:

  • A delicate rumor of dust coagulates on the table.
  • Love is acoustic tile where there should be sky.
  • His beliefs can be reduced to a single gesture.
  • The dog forgets/ our tension and the dead don’t believe we exist.
  • Shoelaces untied, you stumble through the exit./ You haven’t spoken to yourself in weeks.
  • Every mistaken month needs a sudden exit
  • Thou, in whose fields I dangle origami birds.
  • Who holds a lover like a can of Crisco.
  • What grows three heads then decides which will live.
  • They brought an exit wound. They brought an evolving gill slit. They brought the early morning raid.
  • Infiltrated by tiny legs of printed letters.

Can you see why I was flattered to have some words of my own added to this highly quotable mix? It’s amazing that Dana and Nathan managed to write this entire collection in just two months. I worry that they may have set the bar too high for those who will follow, but the next two authors, Emily Van Duyne and W.F. Roby, should be up to the challenge. Their theme is Ante/Anti, and they start tomorrow. I’ll be reading.


A distillation and clarification of last night’s response to the RWP prompt. Now I think I’m getting somewhere.

Oh rare & wild ear, translate these nuggets of noise until they gleam. I am too restless with desire’s ever-shifting surfaces to coalesce around a single planet or communion cup. I hear the ticking in a slab of meat, the crackling of an old 78 record pitted with meteorites of dust. A bird lisps its satisfaction in a minor key & I hear a spare sorrow, a sparrow’s grief. Ear like the ornate lip of a jar, part human, part gyroscope: no matter how I turn, you keep me from falling. Bare twigs of synapses light up until the whole gray cage is aglow, some autumn morning.

Ear cage

Oh rare & wild ear, translate until bright
my rival making, my restlessness.
The river bears thousands of planets
& the church lifts an elliptical wine,
reminding us of lust on old records.
Up, bird! Bring pieces of ticking meat,
traumatic presents to fill with our losses.
Carry an uncanny whisk-broom,
utter sparse desires, jump.
Time extends beyond the ornate
lip & jar. One turns, wants, composes,
part human, part gyroscope,
raw twigs exposed together.
The ear spans ignored masters
& incorporates sheer guises of a cage.


For a Read Write Poem prompt, using the cut-up technique. I dug out a Copper Canyon Press catalog (Spring/Summer 2009) and took a few words from each of the book blurbs, none from the poems themselves. I used the list randomizer at Random.org to shuffle them into a new order, arranged them into lines of 4-6 words for easy viewing, and then did the bare minimum of rearranging, addition and subtraction necessary to make some kind of coherent sense out of the whole. What does the poem mean? Hell if I know. But there are a couple of phrases I might be able to use in more coherent contexts, I think.

To have and to hold

You can have everything as long as you keep your eyes shut. I’ve been practicing this with horses, with hats, with consumer electronics, with money, with vacations, with specialty cheeses, with weapons of mass destruction. I hear them gather, humming & purposeful, like sex toys or the avatars of deities in which I don’t fully believe.

I start the way an oyster does, mulling over a mustard seed of lust. But it isn’t a seed, is it? It’s a worry bead, a tumor: its growth is by simple addition, & contains no taint of metamorphosis. I conjure, I cadger, I cajole these prodigies of the pituitary gland into being my body doubles & starring in the movie of my life while I sleep.


For Read Write Poem (an ambiguous image prompt)

New theory questions why we sleep

This same screech owl
was trilling at 4:00 p.m.
from across the field.

Water from the tap —
it’s still moving when I drink it.

I trembled like that once, too,
after days without sleep.
I felt invincible.

Gray fur spreads
through the coffee grounds.
I’m bleary-eyed again.


For Read Write Prompt #89: it came from the news.
(Update) Other responses are here.

Family Restaurant

Underneath the spoon’s
small lake of chowder
she fears her face
is still staring back,
upside-down, like
some girl in China,
& depending on the angle,
either outlandishly skinny
or outlandishly fat.
She shuts her eyes
& quickly shoves it in.
“Delicious, isn’t it?”
her mother smiles
from the other side of
their round, round table.

In response to a word prompt at Read Write Poem (from which I used only the first word, “spoon”). Read the other responses here.


green lacewing

This lacewing may be experiencing a teachable moment. I know I was: up late dreading poetry, I suddenly realized I was dreading over someone else’s shoulder. It must’ve come in through a hole in the screen door, and perhaps thought — erroneously, of course — that the computer screen was another way out.

Green lacewings are as sensitive as they look. Their hearing is so acute that some species can even pick up bats’ sonar, whereupon they fold their wings and plummet to the ground to avoid capture. They communicate through subtle vibrations of the body, especially during courtship — inaudible “songs” unique to each species.

This was not always such a sensitive being, though. In its wild youth as an aphid-lion it ate any soft-bodied invertebrate in its path, and was even capable of resorting to cannibalism if no other food was handy. It had large sucking jaws with which to grasp its prey and inject stomach acid, turning the other’s insides into a Slurpee.

If you too are up late tonight, you might still have time to confess your poetic sins before “100% Honest Day” is over at Read Write Poem. Here’s what I wrote:

I have a deep-seated fear of unconscious plagiarism, to the point where I even suspect all my best lines and images to be stolen from someone else. One of the main reasons for my lack of enthusism for publishing my work anywhere other than my own blog is the fear that someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of modern poetry will discover my unwitting thefts. And even if I could know for sure that all my works are original, I would probably continue to feel at some level that I am an utter fraud as a poet. (I wonder if this is why so many of my fellow poets get MFAs?)

If I want to overcome this fear, I think I simply need to retrain my ears. Surely it can’t be too difficult to learn to distinguish one’s own unique vibrations from anybody else’s. My aphid-lion days are, after all, well behind me now.


From the first fist into
the risen mass, the dough
is a-hiss. To live is
to master a liturgy
of winds — even yeast
knows this. Gas
whispers out through
a thousand pinholes as
I fold & press, fold
& press that limit-
less quilt.


Written for the RWP vowel prompt. Other responses may be found here.