Poetry Blog Digest 2019: 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 saw poets musing about the effects of winter on their writing, wholeness and healing, the legacies of mothers, the making of books and found poems, and more — essays and poems that invite slow reading, and might help cure a case of the winter blues.

Here’s a highly poetic fact I learned this evening from a scientific paper shared on Twitter: Did you know that there are tiny, harmless bees in Thailand that drink human tears? And that scientists have a word for tear consumption: lachryphagy? But lest that seem a bit twee, be forewarned: the photo illustrations in the paper are the stuff of nightmares. Yin, meet yang.


I have missed blogging for a few weeks. I have been tossing spheres in the air, sandwhiching commitments between commitments strewn with distractions. But I am happy to say that I am overwhelmed with all things poetry. My review of Lynn Melnick’s “Landscape with Sex and Violence” is up at The Rumpus. I have an essay onboard for the series Writing About the Living at the Town Crier, curated by Lauren Davis; a blurb to write; seven books that I’ve agreed to review over the next few months; and preparation for attending AWP for Headmistress Press, which is suddenly right around the corner. I am tossing submissions and devouring rejections. I have a manuscript floating belly up in the roiling sea of poetry.

On the home front, the Olympic peninsula did entertain a magnificent snow show over the past couple of weeks, which was more than a distraction, and my heat and my washing machine are on the blink, piles of laundry are everywhere and I finally got some wood for the wood stove. I’ve scheduled a mammogram. I have announced a retirement date, which is now less than a year away. When I retire, I want to become a poet.

Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Missing Musing

Now, if I were a normal person, all this lack of connection and the ability to leave my house may wear me down. But I am not your normal person, I am a poet, so for me, this snowstorm meant I was just given empty days to work on my poems and manuscript.

To me, this week has felt like a writing retreat. Since Friday I have woken up and read or revised my manuscript. I have lived in lounge pants and thermal shirts. I have napped when I wanted and snacked my way through the day. I took a few walks but mostly, moved around the house thinking about titles for my manuscript, making notes in journals, and sitting down with my printed copy of my manuscript and making notes through it.

Today and yesterday, because we pretty much knew we weren’t going to make it to work, I did Two Sylvias tasks, such as design a book cover and write some prompts for our April NaPoWriMo event. I ate chili and for dessert had dark chocolate chips and peanut butter on a spoon–ah yes, my glamorous life.

But here’s the thing, how often does the world grant us time?

Kelli Russell Agodon, Waiting for the World to Melt: Snowpocalypse in the NW = Impromptu Writing Retreat

Feeling very ready for some sunshine and warmer weather. I want to see daffodils and cherry blossoms, not murdered cherry trees and bulbs buried under snow. The political climate and the weather have together been so depressing, maybe I’ll go sing drowned swan ballads to cheer myself up!

End of February can be a tough time for writers, because it tends to be a season of waiting on submissions, of still-too-long nights and dreary short days, of sad music (Ahem, acoustic version of “Northern Lights” by Death Cab and hey, for the heck of it, a version of “Bonny Swan”) So be kind to yourself, watch something that makes you laugh, read a novel or bring in some tulips. Spring awaits. Write into the cold wind.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Valentines in the Snow, Beautiful Ghosts at Roq La Rue Gallery, and Writing into the Winter Quiet

M.S. and I are teaching our Creativity class again this semester. It’s funny — not in a haha way, but in a how odd way — how much questioning I do every time we return to the course and the material.

Of  course, maybe it’s also cyclical, as we’re in the heart of winter and low temperatures also do something to keep my mood low, my mind disquiet. But I think it might be the tenets we teach in the class, tenets M.S. and I created together, agreed on, tenets we wholeheartedly believe — and the way I have to face them again, and in their light confront my own creative practice, see where it falls short, where I might be phoning it in. 

And once I do that, I hold myself up: I confront my own identity, how much I’ve tied it — with stubbornness, with obstinacy — to art-making and creativity. I hold this image of myself up to the weak winter light coming through the window, and I examine all my inconsistencies and flaws.

It’s necessary,  I suppose. It speaks to a kind of rigor, perhaps, if we assess our creative selves every once in a while and see what we might do differently. But it feels invasive, too, even if I’m the one doing the interrogating.

Sarah Kain Gutowski, Martha Graham Martha Graham Martha Graham

It’s just above freezing, so the cold is more of a caress than a bite. Still winter, though:
there’s no bird song – that’s for spring.
Right now the magpies are in deep conversation in the neighbor’s tree.
This time that could be restful, seems to press an obligation.
It’s difficult not to fill the quiet with rationalizations.
It’s a bit like not trusting the body to breathe.
Is this a lesson in dying?
In being?

Ren Powell, February 17th, 2019

Poetry can be used to increase brain function, helping people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia; decrease or eliminate pain, supporting people with chronic pain issues; and elevate mood, engaging and lifting people with mood disorders.

Noting the impact of poetry, both reading and writing poetry, on pain and suffering, a recent article in The Permanente Journal lays out poems which are the author’s expression of the meaning of living with chronic pain for over 20 years, a kind of philosophical hermeneutic conversation about pain and poetry. The article’s authors explore “the efficacy of writing and reading poetry as a means to help people living with chronic pain to explore and express their narratives in their own unique way.”

Eugene Feig, one of the authors of this article sends out poetry almost weekly to the members of a pain support group as a means of sharing his own experiences of living with pain, as well as to support and to inspire hope in others. “The style of poetry we are presenting is that of a person who is not knowledgeable about poetry in a formal sense but who has an understanding of how it has helped him learn to live.”  [Full Article] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6045501/

Health, Healing and Peace through Narrative Poetry – guest blog post by Kimberly Burnham, PhD (Trish Hopkinson’s blog)

I imagine the health crisis at my house has affected me at least a little like the great snowstorm of 2019 has affected all of us–this snowstorm that Cliff Mass says we’ll be telling our grandchildren about. We believe that we have control of our lives, and then life itself catches us by surprise, knocks us down, and dares us to get up again.

But I remember how I began this series, in Prompt #1–life does happen, terrible things happen. The only actual control we ever have is of our own response.

One response I’ve made, thus far, is to dig out my copy of Parker Palmer’s A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. As much as anything else, this is a book about Palmer’s debilitating depression and how he came back from it. I found it on a shelf with books about teaching; I had forgotten it was about depression–well, entirely apt! […]

[H]ere’s a passage I copied into my journal this morning:
“This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know,” says Mary Oliver, “that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” But we live in a culture that discourages us from paying attention to the soul or the true self–and when we fail to pay attention, we end up living soulless lives.” (34-35)

I once heard the poet Chana Bloch say, in regards to her brush with cancer, “I am going to survive this, and I am going to write about it.”

That’s what I’m going to do, too.

Bethany Reid, Parker Palmer’s A HIDDEN WHOLENESS

When nearby factories
heaved             smoke-grey   
corkscrews
into an ash-spackled sky
 
she saw              
only the young girls
           in a schoolyard
nearby
fidget          twirl
and rustle     skirts
of pearl-pink crinoline
their cheeks
heat-tinged
their palms clasped
one to the next.
 
All darkness     acquiesced.

Gail Goepfert, Heart-ened by One Who Knew How to Hold Space

My mother whipped me with a belt, a serving ladle,
A hairbrush, a spatula, and her fat, heavy hands.

Every blow was like being struck down by God.
Every blow held the taste of terror to me, a boy.

When the whipping was through, Mother held me,
Whispering, “I didn’t want to do it, I didn’t want to.”

Do you see how she loved me with scars? Fearing her
Taught me compassion. I did not whip my own children.

James Lee Jobe, ‘My mother whipped me with a belt, a serving ladle’

Maybe this is part of why I’m a poet: I’m an external processor. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” wrote EM Forster. Me too. I write my way to understanding the flow of my emotional life. I write my way out of the hurricane.

When I had my strokes, I wrote about them here, and about the journey of exploration that followed — the medical journey (we never did figure out what caused them) and the spiritual journey of seeking equanimity in the face of that enormous unknown.

When I had my miscarriage, I wrote a cycle of ten poems — and rewrote, and revised, and polished — as my path toward healing. And then I shared them here, because I hoped they would help someone else who was navigating those same waters.

When the body involved is my own, when the story involved is my own, I can share openly when the spirit moves me. Because living an authentic spiritual life in the open is a core part of my spiritual practice, and because my words may help others.

And I know, from emails and comments over the 15+ years of this blog, that what I write does help others. That many of you have found comfort and strength here. That when I am willing to be real, that can call forth a mirroring authenticity in you.

But sometimes the story isn’t mine to tell. I remember conversations about this when I was getting my MFA at Bennington (20 years ago) — how do we chart a responsible path through telling the stories of our lives when those lives intersect with others?

Rachel Barenblat, A time for silence, a time to speak

quite musical
a previously invisible tree
it turns orange and bleeds red

women in the woods with axes
found by dowsing
where the axe fell

a tree theatre
stitched on bonded silk
haptic is the word of the day

Ama Bolton, ABCD February meeting

I’d like to say a public thank you to Gill Stoker at the Mary Evans Picture Library for inviting me to write a poem inspired by one of the photographs held in their archive. I chose ‘London Pubs at Closing Time’, mainly because I loved the expression on the face of ‘The Duchess’ (left of frame). I created a found poem exploring the idea of voice and blurring the boundary between past and present. Depending on the sources, found texts can really lend themselves to this. I also used lines from my own writing. Somewhere along the way, between moving bits of cut-up text around on the kitchen table, sticking them in my notebook, then typing them up, the poem achieved its form.

You can read the poem below. Better still, click here to read it on the library’s poetry blog, where you can find some amazing contributions by other poets.  Of the more recent ones, I really enjoyed Natan Barreto’s ‘To read a language / Ler uma lingua’.

It’s certainly worth looking at the library’s archive. It’s easy to search through and there’s a wide range of both historical and cinema images. If you feel inspired to write something in response, contact the library as they welcome new contributions.

Julie Mellor, I feel like we can talk about anything

I re-did two Misery poems today. I scrapped them because the collage/visual didn’t sit well, so I started over. It’s a fun thing to do because the text is done, only the visual has to be found.

Such rejigging is one of the reasons why over the past couple years I’ve bought four copies of Misery. It’s sometimes funny when I’m on a page about  protagonist Paul Sheldon’s “number 1 fan,” because if you look for the item I’ve purchased most often on Amazon it’s that book. You’d think I had a fetish.

Sarah J Sloat, Rejigs

I worry that people think they need to spend money in order to get better at writing and I really don’t believe that’s true – although some courses can be extremely helpful and the right workshop can spark many ideas and develop your creative practice.  There are excellent free resources available online, although you might have to spend time finding them, as well as some extremely good ‘how to’ books (available through libraries).   I learned so much by taking ModPo, I can’t recommend it enough.  There are other such courses to look out for, one of which is How to Make a Poem offered free from MMU via FutureLearn.

I wrote this post On not spending money (to learn to write poetry) a few years ago which gives some more suggestions.  As is often the way with blog posts, readers have also left some interesting and helpful comments at the end of the piece.

Having said all that, because I now have some spare cash and because I really like Ann and Peter Sansom who are running the Poetry Business Writing School – and whenever I’ve been in workshops with them, I’ve always produced something in my notebook which sooner or later has become a poem – I decided to apply for a place.

On top of that, I’ve also signed up for an online course taught by Paul Stephenson at The Poetry School – Channel Hopping: A French Exchange – “Writing ‘real’ poems inspired by France’s vibrant and diverse poetry scene.”  I’m  not sure if I’ve mentioned that I used to live in France (not that you need any knowledge of French to participate in this course) and I practise a tiny bit each day using the Duolingo app on my phone and computer.  So, this course really appealed to me – I’m looking forward to learning about contemporary French poets and their work and I imagine that Paul will be a hard-working, imaginative and fun teacher!

Josephine Corcoran, A student again

For I will consider my Kitten Ursula.

For she detests clocks and smashes them so I may no longer be ruled by Time.

For with supernatural quickness she jumps upon my plate and eats my breakfast eggs.

For all ping-pong has become Cat Pong, with Ursula perched upon the table the better to intercept each ball with unholy dexterity.

For I used to consider Poe a handful.

For she is teaching me many lessons by scratching them upon my hands in hieroglyphics.

For first she laps tea from my unattended cup.

For secondly she jumps upon Poe with her legs splayed then bites him on the neck while he meekly submits.

For thirdly however high we store the ping-pong balls she will find them, so don’t place them near vases or computers.

For fourthly I apologize, Christopher Smart, I am too exhausted by Ursula to continue this list you inspired.

Lesley Wheeler, For she is of the tribe of Tiger

[Vivian] Gornick talks about finding the other in the self and using that self-investigation to provide purpose and tension in an essay or memoir. But isn’t that also the case in poetry — is there not a crucial element of investigation, and aren’t we often asking questions of our selves? And must they not be so intimate that you, the reader, are also engaged in that self-same self-investigation, advertently or inadvertently? As Gornick puts it, “…a mind puzzling its way out of its own shadows…[t]he act of clarifying on the page….”

About this idea of “truth” in a piece: “Truth…is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to makeof what happened.” It seems to me this is as true in poetry as in any kind of literature.

Of course, this is not what all poets are about. Some are functioning on the surface of sound, or the whiteness of page and what can be played out there, or are at some other kind of poetic enterprise. So I admit maybe my thinking here is too narrow. I am writing about the kind of poetry I am trying to write, not the kind of poetry that is widely lauded in the contemporary world (poetry which makes me feel like there is some huge club all of whose members are speaking some secret language I have not been initiated in. I consider this a failing in myself.).

She talks about “looking for the inner context that makes a piece of writing larger than its immediate circumstance…” That’s the kind of poem I’m talking about.

Marilyn McCabe, If it’s not too late, make it a cheeeeseburger; or, Presenting the Self

I stole this from some stories you used to tell

something from beyond the memories
of great grandparents & 90s hard drives

a butterfly struggles flaps mad
through the yard

warm morning daguerreotype sunlight
& notes slipped past the censors

James Brush, Pen Pal

With my palms smeared in ash, I went to complete
what the fire began

The message to the gods coiled through the viscosity of air
hung between the two worlds

The universe is an elongated throat covetous of the farthest constellation
Call it home even when the meteors pulse
implode the cells in the brain.

Uma Gowrishankar, How a poem processes a terror attack

Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 5

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. And if you’re a blogger who regularly shares poems or writes about poetry, please consider joining the network (deadline: February 14).

Books, books, and more books! Writing them, reading them, collecting them: That’s what I found in my feed this week, even more so than usual. Maybe it’s the inevitable effect of a long winter. Other themes included listening and therapy, vocabulary and rhythm, getting out and about, and learning from Sylvia Plath. Enjoy.


Alfred Edward Newton, author and book collector (Not to be confused with Alfred E. Newman of Mad magazine fame)  is quoted as saying, “Even when reading is impossible, the presence of books acquired produces such an ecstasy that the buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity … we cherish books even if unread, their mere presence exudes comfort, their ready access reassurance.”  In this context, Tsundoku appears to be a positive thing. Alternatively, I have heard it used to describe book hoarding. The latter is a less flattering description of the pastime.

Let me say that  I am guilty of having more books that I have read. Or at least completed. I have a fairly extensive personal library. I make no bones about it. 

I confess that I love the feel of books. Not so much the feel of e-readers. I love the sight of books. And yes, I love the smell of books. […]

According to statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, unread volumes represent what he calls an “antilibrary,” and he believes our antilibraries aren’t signs of intellectual failings, but the opposite.

Alberto Manguel puts it very lovingly – “I have no feelings of guilt regarding the books I have not read and perhaps will never read; I know that my books have unlimited patience. They will wait for me till the end of my days.”  There may come a day in which I am no longer able to add books to my library. I hope that is not the case, But I keep reading. And yes, buying. For the time being.

Michael Allyn Wells, Confession Tuesday – Tsundoku – Pronounced sun-do-ku / Illness or Healthy?

The man who’d died, Raimond, was a bibliophile. The majority of his books were in German so I skipped the novels and history and went for art and photography, though I did surrender to some particularly beautiful books, whether for the covers or subject or gothic font. I don’t have much shelf space left at home so I tried to be disciplined and discerning. I even turned my back on his ample poetry collection. 

I did give in to one small book, though. I felt like a voyeur leafing through something so personal, but in a flimsy floral notebook, Raimond had pasted poems he chose from newspapers and magazines. Some clippings were still bunched together at the back of the book. In pasting, he grouped a poet’s work together — there’d be two pages of Günter Eich, for example, before moving on to Sarah Kirsch, whom he obviously loved.

The notebook appealed to me because I have one in which I’ve done exactly the same thing. The difference is I pasted only one poem per page, accompanied by an image. I remember the hours spent carefully choosing and arranging, and enjoyed thinking of my kindred out there doing the same.

Sarah J. Sloat, The golden notebooks

Q~You mentioned that you are finishing up your MFA. What are the best/worst parts of this for you?

A~I completed my MFA in January 2019, and it was an amazing experience. I wrote so much over the past two years and finished with a full manuscript. Being in an MFA program forces you to write and to read – both fellow student’s work but also your instructors and everything that gets assigned. I felt fully immersed in poetry for two years. It’s very bittersweet to be over – I already miss the program, but I found my community there, and it has been a wonderful experience.

Q~Who are you reading now? According to your blog, you read A LOT of books. How does this inform your own writing?

A~I do read a lot; in 2018 I read 221 books which was a personal best for me! I read a little of everything – a ton of poetry, literary fiction, genre fiction (fantasy is great for audio books!), CNF, memoir, etc. (Friend me on Goodreads to follow what I read: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6611777.Courtney_LeBlanc) I get recommendations from friends and Twitter (shoutout to DC Public Library for running great book chats – https://twitter.com/dcpl). I just finished Seducing the Asparagus Queen by Amorak Huey, which is a gorgeous collection of poetry and a great way to kick off 2019. Next, I plan on reading some of Mary Oliver’s work since she just passed away, and I’m already missing her words. I recently read The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang and really enjoyed it (fiction). My favorite fantasy is Strange the Dreamer (book #1) and Muse of Nightmares (book #2) by Laini Taylor, which I recommend to everyone, haha.

When reading books of poetry I’m often inspired to write my own poems – either by something I read or just the general feeling I get from a book or a poem. I think the better read you are, the better writer you’ll be. As poet Jane Kenyon said, “Read good books, have good sentences in your ears.”

To My Ex Who Asked If Every Poem Was About Him / an interview with poet Courtney LeBlanc (Bekah Steimel’s blog)

In September, I was notified that my full-length manuscript, Fabulous Beast, was the runner-up for the X.J. Kennedy Prize and that it was selected for publication in the fall of 2019. The contract didn’t arrive until January, but it’s finally signed. (Yay!) And now we’re moving into book cover stuff and that’s making everything feel more real.

Most of the first section of this manuscript was published as a chapbook by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2015, as Fabulous Beast: The Sow. Having that little book out in the world has meant so much to me — Margaret Bashaar, the editor, creates beautiful books and supports her authors with a tireless energy. I’ve been so grateful to be a Hyacinth Girl author, and I’ve been introduced to (both in-person and electronically, over social media) a supportive community of fellow poets through the press.

But now it’s really exciting to think of the second section, a ten-chapter fairy tale written in Spenserian stanzas (hahaha, it sounds AWESOME, doesn’t it?) and the third section, poems employing the imagery of Norse and Greek myths, being out in the world, too. I worked so hard on this manuscript, and put so much time and energy (and yes, money) into submissions to various awards and calls for publication, it’s really gratifying to know the entire book will be a real-life object soon.

Sarah Kain Gutowski, The Full-Length Fabulous Beast is Going to Be A Thing in the World. Which is Pretty Cool.

Last autumn I pulled together a manuscript of poems written since my first collection was published. I know it takes a long time to find a home for a book of poetry. And since I can’t afford to submit it to publishing houses that charge reading fees or contest entry fees, the list of publishing houses I might approach is smaller. But I pulled up my optimism socks and sent it to my first choice, Grayson Books. This is the publishing house that included one of my poems in their beautiful Poetry of Presence anthology last year.

Their submission guidelines warn they only publish a few books each year, so I expected to send the manuscript along to another publisher after I got the inevitable rejection. I didn’t even open their emailed response right away in order to postpone the disappointment.

Instead I got an acceptance! (I’m pretty sure I heard trumpets.)

I am strange about my own good news, suddenly more shy, and have only told a few people since signing the book contract back in October. Each step of the process —- editing, choosing a title, approving art commissioned for the cover — has been a testament to the professionalism and patience of Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors. I still cannot believe my good fortune.

Laura Grace Weldon, My New Book!

So apparently, one of the magical transformations of midlife is that a poet can become a novelist. I have moments of elation about that, and moments of alarm. My turn to novels is a way bigger change than anything that’s happened in my writing life since I won a prize for Heterotopia ten years ago. It’s NOT a turn away from poetry, which is still very much at the center of my daily life, but it will be a turn away from traditional scholarship, I think. My novel, Unbecoming, and my next poetry collection, whose title I’m still fiddling with, will be out in 2020 (there’s a small chance of late 2019 for the novel, but I’m not banking on it). AND I have a book of poetry-based nonfiction, a hybrid of criticism and memoir, scheduled for 2021 (more details on that soon!).

Creative writing across the genres, full speed ahead!–I’ve been drafting a lot of micro-essays and some micro-fiction this winter. Reviewing, too. But I can’t do everything. And I know where my heart lies.

Learning to write a novel has been hard and surprising and wonderful, but now I have to learn about publishing one. PLUS do my best job ever at getting the word out about my new poetry collection, simultaneously, while revising the essay collection. It’s a lot. I anticipate a big pivot next year from the introversion of writing/ revision/ submission work to the extroversion required for traveling, reading, guest-teaching, panel-surfing, and all the other stuff. Some of it at SF conventions! And all this will happen right at my empty nest moment–this is also the winter of helping my son get college applications out and waiting for the verdicts. I mean, really–what’s the appropriate cheerful-but-scared expletive for THAT?

Lesley Wheeler, Change of (literary) life

I finished three fantastic poetry collections this month. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric is a justifiably lauded collection of poetry and essays. The collection offers an unflinching look at the everyday realities of racism in America, with the second person narration drawing the reader directly into the experience. The blend of writing styles and art make for a powerful and necessary read.

My Body Is a Poem I Can’t Stop Writing by Kelly Lorraine Andrews is a beautiful little chapbook published by Pork Belly Press. These poems explore the physicality of existing in a body, with a blend of mortality and eroticism.

Ivy Johnson’s Born Again dives into the ecstatic expression of religious experience. With its confessional style, it gives power to the female voice, rending open that which would be hidden behind closed doors. Check out my interview with Johnson on the New Books in Poetry podcast.

Andrea Blythe, Culture Consumption: January 2019

It’s not a social norm–real listening. Despite the recognition that human beings are social animals that require communication, despite the recognition that “talk therapy” (which at its foundation employs active listening) and writing therapy can heal broken psyches,  even though many studies over decades have demonstrated how relationships rely upon partners’ openness to listening–listening stays a bit unconventional.

So many people think listening is passive. No, it is an active verb. Bombarded with information from numerous sources, the processes of discerning what one should listen to get tattered and confused. Our brains want to chunk information, to ignore, to elide, to suppress and glean and separate the various threads so the mind can prioritize.

Listening is difficult.

~

William Carlos Williams famously claims it’s difficult to get the news from poetry–and, in the same poem, he asks us (by way of Flossie, his wife) to listen:
…Hear me out.
Do not turn away.
I have learned much in my life
from books
and out of them
about love.
Death
is not the end of it.
There is a hierarchy
which can be attained,
I think,
in its service.

the mind
that must be cured
short of death’s
intervention,
and the will becomes again
a garden. The poem
is complex and the place made
in our lives
for the poem.
[I am not html-savvy enough to code the spacing of this poem on my blog, but you can find it here (p. 20) or here; the excerpts are from “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”]

Ann E. Michael, Hear me out

[…]
Birds whirl around your room, and then you die,
even though you’ve swept them from the roof beams
out the window. Birds have taught you to fly
through this world, stitched with invisible seams.
Even though you’ve swept me from your roof beams,
I come to ask you where you’ve gone and why
this world is stitched with invisible seams. […]

One of the last times I met with my therapist, a beautiful elderly woman who became like a mother to me, she was seeing clients in a home office. She had suffered a car accident, and she thought the accident was contributing to her memory loss.

That day in her office a bird flew into an adjoining room, so Joanne (a made up name to protect her privacy), got a broom and swept it through the open springtime window.

And around the same time period, we had a bird’s nest near our bedroom window, probably a wren, hence this poem.

Christine Swint, Nests in the Wall

I wrote a poem this morning that came to me yesterday as I walked across the campus of my parents’ retirement community.  I reflected that it was the feast day of St. Brigid; I wondered if a retirement community was similar to a medieval abbey in significant ways.

The poem I wrote this morning was a bit different than the one I thought I would write, but it made me happy.

I also read a bit of poetry that made me happy.  When I sent my book length manuscript to Copper Canyon, I got to choose 2 books, and I chose Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones by Lucia Perillo, mainly because I loved the title.  It’s a new and selected collection, and wow–what powerful poems.  I had no idea.

It’s been a good writing week.  I could feel my well being filled by my traveling and by my reading.  On the plane ride back, I finished Old in Art School by Nell Painter–what an intriguing book.  It made me want to go home and paint.  I did sketch on the plane, but I felt constrained by the space and the bumpiness, so I made it a quick sketch.

Kristin Berkey-Abbot, Back to Regular Life, Sweetened by Time Away

[…] Her mouth moves in prayer,

her tongue runs along the soft palate, the molars extracted after years
of the root canal: it is a soft mound like the grave at the edge of the village

she saw him dig. Her breasts produced the extra ounce of milk
at every childbirth to be squeezed into the mouth filled with soil.

Uma Gowrishankar, The Feed

In the structure of a poem, each word, as an I-beam or a column, needs to be carrying weight and be balanced with the others, or be deliberately off-balance. Multisyllabic words have to be used carefully because they can visually and sonically outweigh or overshadow other words, rocking the whole enterprise, and not in a good way. They also run the risk of sounding self-conscious. (Why use “utilize” when “use” will do, except that you think it sounds fancier?) (Or maybe you need three beats in that line, I suppose. That might be a justification…but a pretty shaky one.)

Similarly, grand and abstract words can weigh too much: love, for example, soul, universe. Even “moon” has to be handled with care. (I was advised once to not use the moon at all, as it’s been soooooo overdone. But, I mean, geez, I can’t NOT talk about the moon.)

It takes patience (and humility), I think, to not get caught up in my own extensive vocabulary options, to instead wait for, or mine for the often more simple utterance that says more than its parts.

And then to have the courage to surround it with silence, the vital partner of speech.

Marilyn McCabe, Shunning the Frumious Bandersnatch; or, Finding the Right Words

I was reading my Christmas present, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, when I came across a mention of syllabic verse. Plath’s poem “Mussel-Hunter at Rock Harbor” is written in stanzas of seven lines, each line containing seven syllables. In a letter to her brother Warren, dated June 11, 1958, she writes about the poem and the form she used:

“This is written in what’s known as ‘syllabic verse’, measuring lines not by heavy & light stresses, but by the numberof syllables, which here is 7: I find this form satisfactorily strict (a pattern varying the number of syllables in each line can be set up, as M. Moore does it) and yet it has a speaking illusion of freedom (which the measured stress doesn’t have) as stresses vary freely.” (247) 

According to The Handbook of Poetic Terms (every writer should have one on her desk), “Writing in syllables is a terrific way to ‘even out’ a poem, and is useful also to writers who feel stymied when deciding where to break their lines.”

For a poet whose “mind was brilliantly off-kilter, its emphasis falling in surprising places,” to quote Dan Chiasson’s review of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963, which appeared in the November 5, 2018 issue of the New Yorker, this “satisfactorily strict” form worked very well.

I just tried this with a recent poem. It started as a free-verse poem, then morphed into a prose poem, but is now a series of bouncy, mostly seven-syllable lines. I like the odd breaks this form imposes, and I think it gives the poem a kind of energetic forward motion it didn’t have before. 

Give syllabic verse a try. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Erica Goss, Syllabic Verse

A few days with cold rain and a cold have given me time to catch up on my reading, specifically Virginia Woolf’s letters and now I’m dead in the middle of Sylvia Plath’s letters, Volume II. I thought this quote might have about today’s poetry publishing world, instead of 1959’s:

Here’s a quote regarding not getting the Yale Younger Prize in Summer, 1959:
“I am currently quite gloomy about this poetry book of about 46 poems, 37 of them published (and all written since college, which means leaving out lots of published juvenalia.) I just got word from the annual Yale Contest that I “missed by a whisper” and it so happened that a louse of a guy I know I know personally, who writes very glib light verse with no stomach to them, won, and he lives around the corner & is an editor at a good publishing house here, and I have that very annoying feeling which is tempting to write off as sour grapes that my book was deeper, if more grim, and all those other feelings of thwart. I don’t want to try a novel until I feel I am writing good salable short stories for the simple reason that the time, sweat and tears involved in a 300-page book which is rejection all round is too large to cope with while I have the book of Poems kicking about. Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing, which remark I guess shows I still don’t have pure motives (O-it’s-such-fun-I-just-can’t-stop-who-cares-if-it’s-published-or-read) about writing. It is more fun to me, than it was when I used to solely as a love-and-admiration-getting mechanism (bless my psychiatrist.) But I still want to see it ritualized in print.”

(She’s referring to George Starbuck, a neo-formalist who went on to run the Iowa Writers Workshop and may have had CIA connections…please read Finks: How the CIA Tricked the World’s Best Writers to learn more about the CIA’s deep connections to the literary world and all we hold dear…Oh Sylvia, if you had only known how deep the cronyism and favoritism went back then for male writers…you might have been less bitter, but maybe not.)

Jeannine Hall Gailey, The Winter Witch Arrives in Seattle, New Poem up at Gingerbread House Lit, Queen Anne and More Sylvia Plath, and Looking Towards Spring

In terms of poetry, things are going great. A poem I wrote for Malala is part of a multi-art performance in March. I was asked at a candlelight vigil for a murdered police officer. I was asked to read at a city council meeting, a county board of supervisors meeting, and for Martin Luther King day. Original, new poems for everyone. Also, I was part of a poets-on-posters project for downtown. I want to do a broadside project, and I seem to raised the funds for it.

I have been trying to cut down my time on Facebook and Twitter. It isn’t really good for my Buddhist practice; at least it feels that way. I am trying to cut down to just posting my poetry links (to my blog and event notices), but like an addict I get pulled back in. Working on it.

“Hi, I’m James, and I am a social media addict.”

My work with the homeless shelter has been affected by my health, but I am still on the board of directors and doing what I can. I can only be on my feet for so long at a time.

What else? I’ve been focusing on shorter poems with an emphasis on place, using Basho and Li Po as my prototypes. For years I did deeper image, somewhat ecstatic poems, and every so often one comes up, but I enjoy this a lot more. Very satisfying, these little things.

James Lee Jobe, journal update: 31 January 2019

In Miami, I had a brief residency at The Betsy. The Writer’s Room program is amazing (in return for a reading and a meet-the-artist reception, they give you a place to stay and a $50 / day tab at their restaurants). That said, one has to get past the strangeness of the entire staff knowing who you are and why you’re there. SWWIM was kind enough to host our reading, where I finally got to meet Vinegar and Char contributor Elisa Albo. (Have you signed up for SWWIM’s daily poem? You should!) I read four books in two days–Jessica Hopper’s Night Moves, David Menconi’s Ryan Adams: Losering, a Story of Whiskeytown, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, and Porochista Khakpour’s Sick–lounging whenever I could by the Betsy’s rooftop pool. I checked into a cat cafe for an hour. And I walked down to the South Pointe Park, a walk that brought me comfort so many days back when I was living in Miami in February 2011, as part of a now-defunct artist residency. I’m working on my next nonfiction book, and this was the perfect setting. But that’s all I’ll say about that for now.

Sandra Beasley, January Tidings

Bronze Age, Ornithology, and Bloodshot Cartography: recent videopoems

still from "Bronze Age"

Since I’m spending the summer in London, where the wifi is blindingly fast compared to Plummer’s Hollow, it would seem like a waste not to make at least a few videopoems. My latest came out of a road trip this past weekend, in the course of which we visited the Flag Fen Archaeology Park near Peterborough and the John Clare cottage not far away:

The first lines came to me in a dream as I was sleeping in a room at the Bluebird Inn, next door to Clare’s cottage, where he worked as a potboy in the early 19th century. I didn’t get back to sleep for hours, which kind of sucked, but I’m fairly pleased with how the poem turned out. We stopped along the road the next morning to shoot the extra footage with which the video concludes. The first part of the video shows a section of the 3000-year-old preserved causeway at Flag Fen where bronze swords and other items were ritually deposited in the mud in a place which archaeologists believe was favored for its liminality — part land, part water. The John Clare poem quoted at the end is “Autumn,” which ends:

Hill-tops like hot iron glitter bright in the sun,
And the rivers we’re eying burn to gold as they run;
Burning hot is the ground, liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round sees Eternity there.

A week ago, I made a videopoem recycling an old text of mine to accompany some marvelous footage of a birder struggling through quicksand from an old home movie of unknown provenance. The metaphorical possibilities were just too good to pass up:

This followed a video I made for a poem by Sarah J. Sloat, also using old-home-movie footage in a kind of lazy person’s homage to Stan Brakhage, as I wrote when I posted it at Moving Poems.

I included some rather detailed process notes that I hope might be of especial interest to poets who’d like to get into working with videopoetry. Sarah wrote,

This poem began with my wondering whether the word ‘amazon’ had anything to do with ‘amaze,’ and finding out it doesn’t. Mix in a little homesickness, lack of sleep and antipathy for insects, and it’s done. The poem was originally published in Crab Creek Review.

Erasing Shakespeare

The Rain in My Purse:

I don’t buy the oft-touted view that one must find something totally new in erasure poetry, that the found poem should be completely independent of the source text. If that’s the case then why do erasure at all? The source is going to offer possibilities and choices. The source is at the poet’s disposal, and will set limits. The source is not going to predetermine, but it is going to influence.

I love Bervin’s note at the end of the book: “When we write poems, the history of poetry is with us, pre-inscribed in the white of the page.”

September day

The Rain in My Purse:

The day was September, cool oozing from the dying wildflowers.

Cease beeping, we said to just about everyone.

We put up a sign outside the church: Park your car, forget your anger.

The leaves clattered, practically metallic, the café tables round as coins.

Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair, by Sarah J. Sloat

Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hair Excuse me while I wring this long swim out of my hairSarah J. Sloat; dancing girl press 2011WorldCatLibraryThingGoogle BooksBookFinder 
Regular readers of Via Negativa might recognize Sarah J. Sloat as the author of a blog I often link to, The Rain in My Purse, and another chapbook which I blogged about in 2009, In the Voice of a Minor Saint. I didn’t think this chapbook was quite as satisfying as that first one, at least in terms of the percentage of poems that blew me away, but it’s still pretty damn good. Her droll wit and sense of the absurd remain intact, and if this slim collection is any evidence, she seems to be getting more rather than less experimental with age, which is a good sign. She has a third chapbook due out shortly from Hyacinth Girl Press.

Sloat excels at poems in which a critical piece of information is missing, but the rest of it hangs together so well, it seems the better for it, like the Venus de Milo without her arms. Sometimes the execution seems a little too off-hand (heh), as in the title poem for this chapbook. But more typically it makes me chuckle or shiver with recognition, as in “My Money is on Fire,” a wry look at that sense of collective guilt inescapable for sensitive participants in a capitalist economy:

Every time I wear green or live
my secret life, no matter what
innocence I’m up to,
I’m sponsoring a disease
somewhere, making
souvenirs of the populace.

Wait, what secret life? you want to ask, but the poem goes in another direction. Perhaps Sloat refers to the kind of private visions at the heart of the wonderfully bleak “Toy Boat Toy Boat Toy Boat”:

My mug is rimmed with frost, an analgesic.
I peer over its horizon to see a toy boat
wobble on the Biergarten pond.

The mug’s a sun going down in my mouth. It alps
up like a snowglobe, mountainous with lipstick
ridges. Inside my father bows, shoveling snow.

He looks beyond me, turning to the window,
where my mother stands sucking the life
from an ice cube in her martini.

In “Do Tell,” a dream in which “doubts puckered like peas” throws the narrator off-balance the next morning.

Help me here.
How many mailboxes do you count lining the roadside?
And on whose head does the apple totter?

Things are clearly about to go very, very wrong here. A slightly less dire but still bracing take on domesticity, “Sworn to Observance,” reminded me of my own housecleaning. The dust under the radiator is “busy building a silt / equivalent of desert,” leading evidently to thoughts of the desert mystics in early Christianity, and/or John 8:6:

I sit nearby in my saint suit,
no intention of action.

With a finger sometimes
in the dust I draw a circle
to see how God enters into it.

Another poem, “On the Way to Meet My Daughter’s Teacher,” might or might not be about smoking. It begins:

I was about 15 minutes early
so I figured I’d kill myself a little bit.

Something more constructive
was out of the question.
But hell if I could handle
15 minutes of thinking.

About the whales.
About bedraggle.
About meeting my daughter’s teacher.

Or perhaps it is the cynicism that kills. One way or another, Sloat is like the anonymous artists in “Dictionary Illustrations,” who “don’t dawdle / among the obvious.” When she hums in the kitchen, it is to channel bees, and when she visits “Frankfurt Cemetery,” she remarks: “Not the past, but the present makes me sad.” We are all implicated, and our imagined refuges can’t save us:

Lately my house stands so still
at the back of my mind

I’m afraid of myself, here
at the bottom of the sky.
(“From the Back of My Mind”)

If you were ever tempted to think that the welter of literary micropresses on the scene these days exist solely to publish fairly minor talents, think again. Sarah J. Sloat is one example of a widely published poet with a sure voice and mature vision who has yet to get an ISBN of her own. Perhaps she is too busy leading a secret life.

Woodrat Podcast, Episode 1

What I’ve been reading, what I’ve been writing, and what’s up with all the banjos

Topics include: Why a podcast and what I hope to accomplish with it; what a woodrat is; how to keep mandatory titles from messing up haikus; poems by Howie Good, John Haines, Sarah J. Sloat, Esther Jansma, and Vasko Popa; what I look for in poetry and why I write it; how I got started writing banjo poems; Jonah and the gourd vine; and New Year’s resolutions.

Links:

Thanks to T.M. Camp for the podcast inspiration.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

In the Voice of Sarah J. Sloat

In the Voice of a Minor Saint“Everything that appears possible/ can be turned into something impossible,” writes Sarah J. Sloat in “Curtains,” a poem from her chapbook In the Voice of a Minor Saint, published earlier this year by Tilt Press. This is an apt description of Sloat’s usual modus operandi in these poems. For example, here she is on that touchstone of modern identity, the gasoline-powered automobile:

Pity the swoon towards motion,
the yen for speed.

Pity the billow and sinew of fumes,
muscle that makes the crash spectacular.

God have pity on the whole machine
gas has to carry: lead, flesh and metals
that do not travel light.
(“God Have Pity on the Smell of Gasoline”)

The title poem works much mischief simply by taking a familiar phrase — “minor saint” — literally.

I came at a wee hour
into my miniature existence.

I keep my hair close cropped
that my face might fit in lockets.

My heart is small, like a love
of buttons or black pepper.

“Grassland” is another possibility that Sloat’s facility for imagistic and linguistic prestidigitation renders, if not impossible, at least highly mythic. Both the Biblical Sarah and Lot’s wife seem to be waiting in the wings:

I hold a handkerchief
over my mouth to veil the clover
and bees that tickle my throat,
but the angel
who’s due at my tent
won’t catch me laughing.

A kiss would do it.
One sprinkle of milkwhite salt
and I’ll break like bread at your table.

That was, by the way, one of three poems in this 22-page collection in which honeybees get close and personal, a leitmotif like automobiles and the smell of gasoline whose reoccurrence contributes to the book’s overall strong musicality. These poems are deeply pleasurable to read, and as I read and re-read the PDF that Sloat sent me, I often found myself chanting them out-loud. I was interested to see that the first reviewer in the Read Write Poem-sponsored “virtual book tour,” Joseph Harker, also remarked upon this quality. Another blogger, Nic S., drew attention in her review to the poems’ “elegant luminosity” and their capacity to “consistently delight the reader by asserting bold unexpected connections with complete confidence.”

Regular readers of my Smorgasblog should recognize the author’s name: Sarah Jane Sloat blogs at The Rain in My Purse, one of the most consistently rewarding reads in my blogroll. Almost everything she encounters takes on a tongue-in-cheek mythic dimension. In “The Problem With Everything,” she bemoans “Every day a dull assault of sudden loves./ Instant, lachrymose attachments,” while in “Please Remove My Name,” she describes “a man who will write/ my name on a grain of rice for 5 euros.” But wait — did I say “tongue-in-cheek”? The narrator of “Silent Treatment” imagines a far less quotidian destination for her tongue,

No more
wagging in the shallows, it’s plunged
in a tunnel to the underworld where
they stump in a strange dialect.
Eat your heart out, it might say. Eat
your pilaf, your side vegetable
and the pox upon your crops.
It might say anything, were it not
lounging around a lower hemisphere.
Laid back at some southern spa, mudbathing,
overdosing on motionlessness.

The book’s title is not entirely a tease. The voices in these poems generally betray a liturgical interest in the ruts and rhythms of the vernacular and an anchorite’s quality of attention to time and verticality. The narrator seems religious but not spiritual — much less pious — in poems like “High Heeled”:

I always want more:
more Everest, more starshine,
something in the department of vertical.

That’s why I’m up here.
It’s better than smog,
better than settling.

Since coaching myself to one-up
the utmost, my dreams
only know the amazonian.

In “3 Deep,” she talks of receiving a poem from a pen pal named Luke about cunnilingus and the hydrogen bomb, a conjunction that makes “perfect sense:/ sex and death and sleep —/ the three dear deepnesses.”

I lie down knowing Luke is dredging
atomic oceans with his bare hands;
I can sleep knowing the dark
holds its appointments dear.
The whole ruined world can lie down
and wait for it to be revealed
which strain of pillow talk
will come to smother us.

Book reviewers typically try to show their sophistication by finding at least one quibble with the book under consideration, but try as I might, I can’t find anything to criticize in this collection. Then again, I am not the most sophisticated of critics, aside from my penchant for using ten-dollar words like “quotidian” and “anchorite.” I was amused to see that the reviewer for the Rattle blog, Linebreak editor Ash Bowen, managed to take what would otherwise seem to be an unadulterated compliment — that the book was too short — and infuse it with a learned, critical air:

[T]here’s a hint of Harmonium-era Stevens in the language play of Sloat’s poems. If there is a problem with the chapbook, it is that it’s too small. Sloat’s world needs more walking around room, more opportunities to take a look down some alleys, instead of the straight walk down the street that we get. But such are the limitations of chapbooks.

Whatever, dude. I love this book. I wish I had written this book, were it not for the likelihood that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it nearly as much if I had.

I only wish I actually had this book, instead of merely the PDF, which was set up for printing and therefore presents the poems in the wrong order, starting at both ends and proceeding toward the middle. True, I could’ve printed it out, one page at a time on either side of a sheet, then folded and stapled the thing together, but I kept expecting to get a copy imminently. Apparently it’s my fault, though, since when I placed my order with Tilt Press in mid-November I was seduced by the offer at the top of their order page: all five of their 2009-2010 titles for $30. I didn’t read it carefully enough, however, and erroneously assumed that Minor Saint would be among them. When nothing had arrived by December 2, I queried the press, and received this response:

The subscription you purchased is for the 2009-2010 series, not the 2008-2009 series in which Sarah’s chapbook was released (that sale is no longer available). The reason you haven’t received anything is because we are preparing to release the first in the series within a few days.

Oops! The editor went on to offer me a free review copy of the book, however, and I hope to receive that soon. I post this in the magical hope that so doing will make it materialize in the P.O. box tomorrow morning.

UPDATE (12/16): Sure enough, the chapbook was in today’s mail! It’s a beautiful and very sturdy production, designed by Rachel Mallino with cover art by Emmanuel Polanco — well worth the $8.00 retail price.

***

Sloat’s book includes a couple of ghazals, which inspired me to try my hand at one, too. I had some idea that I would write it in the voice of Sarah J. Sloat, but in the end it just sounded like another Dave Bonta poem. Oh, well.

Ghazal of the Unreceived Book

Thirty percent post-consumer recycled bond
& saddle stitching, how I yearn for you.

I have read all your words but in the wrong order,
elegant letters that the typesetter kerned for you.

I finger teabag tags with printed witticisms,
no book’s crisp pages to turn for you.

The feral cat coughing under the floor
& last night’s jumble of dreams might adjourn for you.

The meteor shower invisible above the sleet,
No falling star could I wish upon or even discern for you.

Surely your data deserve the connective thread
of a chordate. You risk dissolution. I’m concerned for you.

The P.O. box grows heavy with seasonal wishes —
well-meant minimal books I can hardly burn for you.

What if you arrived tomorrow, & challenged everything
I thought I knew? Could I unlearn for you?

Like any artwork more than the sum of your parts,
some parts will always elude my long sojourn for you.