Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 1

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.

Speaking of the Poetry Blogging Network, just as in previous years (including 2018’s Poetry Blog Revival Tour), the new year brings with it a renewed opportunity to join the blog roll, hosted this year again by Kelli Russell Agodon. Kelli is currently off traveling, but told me that she’d be happy to add new people after she gets home on January 15. Leave a comment below her post with your blog URL.

This digest is my own labor of love and has no official connection with the network, which itself is obviously an informal grouping with no guiding committee or anything like that; it’s up to Kelli whether your blog qualifies or not. (And I don’t think frequency of posting is a condition for being listed, so even if you’re a once-in-a-blue-moon blogger, don’t be shy.) I do want to stress that I am not competitive about this, and would be frankly delighted if someone else decided to follow my lead and start their own weekly or monthly digest! I worry about my own biases, especially my preference for personal over informational blogging, exerting an influence over how people decide to blog. Regardless, please remember that the web is a community built and strengthened by links, so if you read a post by someone else in the Poetry Blogging Network that really resonates with you, consider linking to it from your own blog and not simply sharing the link on social media (though that’s important, too).


The freeze comes. We are buried in ice. An inescapable hardening takes
each one before we are ready: the fire of want our only remedy.

Dream: I worried about you on the roads, generously. Dream: you received it
with want, and gave it back. You knew what it meant. Why it mattered.

JJS, Travel Advisory

Something kind of magical is underway in my dining room. My husband, Michael Czyzniejewski, is putting the finishing touches on the first installment in the 2020 incarnation of Story366, the leap year blog where he reviews a different book of short stories every single day.

It was a big commitment when I witnessed it in 2016. Sometimes our family travel was interrupted by the need to stop at McDonald’s, with its reliable, password-free WiFi, and sit around eating ice cream while he finished a day’s installment. It was a whole-family commitment, and we are all proud of the fact that he never missed a day.

This year I thought I might try joining him with “Poem366”—not a blog of its own, but a feature within my existing blog. I don’t know if I’ll make it every day, and honestly, I don’t have quite as many recent poetry collections to choose from (feel free to send me an ARC for a recent poetry title—within 18 months—if you’d like to be considered, to karen.craigo@gmail.com). But as a sign of solidarity for Mike’s truly wonderful project, I’m going to give it a whirl.

One thing: I’m not aiming to do reviews. My plan is to offer appreciations—acknowledgements of what poets are doing well. I’d be dishonest if I didn’t own up to my sideways goal of finding some inspiration for my own work in the concerns and formal choices and imagery offered by other writers, so I’m looking for aspects of their work to love, rather than focusing on problems.

With all of that being said, here I go, but from the family room. You can hear a lot of tap-tap-tapping in my house right now, and since the younger kid is now able to amuse himself for an hour with a videogame, there’s a good bit of pew-pew-pewing as well.

Karen Craigo, Poem366: Bulletproof by Matthew Murrey

Happy New Year’s Day 2020! I decided to make a list of things I’d like to accomplish in my writing life this year. I’ll revisit the list in December and see how I did.

Erica’s 2020 New Year’s Resolutions:
[…]

4. Improve my vocabulary. I recently reviewed Michael Kriesel’s wonderful book of abecedarian poems, Zen Amen. This book introduced me to many strange and intriguing words, i.e., “Xenogenesis,” “apperception,” “tetragrammaton,” and “zygomancy.” I’m not sure any of these will work themselves into a poem of mine, but just reading them stimulated my brain. I’m glad I encountered them.
5. Explore poetic forms. I’ve written a few ghazals, one or two sestinas, many pantoums, a villanelle or two, even an abecedarian. I’m always gratified with how the limitation of forms increases creativity. Forms I’d like to try: the golden shovel, gnomic verse, and contrapuntal poems.
6. Explore essay forms. I greatly enjoyed Vivian Wagner’s article about the “hermit crab essay,” which, to quote from the article, “takes the form of something un-essay-like—such as a recipe, how-to manual, or marriage license—and use this form to tell a story or explore a topic.” […]

Erica Goss, New Year’s Resolutions

I am about to say farewell – for six months at least, and probably twelve if I have the courage – to my Facebook account. It’s been a blast, and I’ve enjoyed the playtime with y’all and at its best, it’s provided the much-enjoyed warmth and wit of human contact, but I’ve noticed that the habit of reading I’ve developed in the past couple of years is, well, excessively casual. I want to get back to it: to get further in to sustained reading.

Something about Facebook appeases my preference for the quick fix rather than the long haul. It’s like (how can I put it?) going for a milkshake rather than taking time out to cook the perfect risotto.

I want to get back into some sustained writing too, and I received the perfect gifts for this purpose at Christmas:

A. A long, warm cardigan
B. A book writing kit: [image]

Liz Lefroy, I Deactivate My Facebook Account

It’s 2020, and time for a New Year’s post, a post from Vienna where the sun has been shining and the air has been crisp and cold. As I wait here in the Vienna airport, I’m reflecting on the year ahead, specifically on my writing, which has faltered for the past few years while I’ve been living and working in Shanghai, China. I could say that the demands of the job at my highly selective private school keep me from writing, and there may be some small truth in that, but the reality is that to write so is an excuse.

And making excuses about not writing reminds of Elizabeth Cooper, a wonderful former Johns Hopkins instructor of mine who gave all of her students a parting gift — mine was a book — Sonnets edited by William Baer — and she inscribed it with “Just do it!” making it clear to me that she was sick of my excuses about how busy I was teaching, rearing children, etc. I think of that gift now while waiting here, having just learned that several days ago, our family drove right by the summer home of Auden without even knowing it.

Time. Not enough of it. Never enough of it.

Scot Slaby, A New Year’s 2020 Post from Vienna

The really beautiful things in life might be discovered only when we allow our focus to drift  – from what we thought we were here for.

Improvisation is saying yes. And then looking for the openings, escapes, alternatives out of the corners of our eyes. There is so much to be said for deviating from one’s own “yes” with a “this, too”. Doing it with ease – without an awkward pinch of panic –  takes practice.

In 2020 I wish to be immersed in my own life. And have the wisdom to recognize its potential as more than a curriculum vitae: My life’s work is not my life’s art. And, well, if work is for others, it would follow it would be for others to define from their own perspectives.

I ran an art gallery for a while and found that the work I liked immediately, was the work I quickly grew bored with. It was the work that sparked ambivalence in me that would fascinate me. Unresolved experiences provide a unique kind of satisfaction. It requires participation and a kind of dialogue with the bigger world.

So today, the beginning of an arbitrarily-defined new year, a new decade, I am fine.

Ren Powell, The Overview of Burning Hearts 2020

2019 was a good year for books but a weird year for reading. For pleasure, work, and mood-medicine, I read constantly, but it’s been different lately: my poetry rate is typical, but fiction and I have had some problems. I couldn’t finish things, or I read multiple books in alternating fragments, concentration flickering. I received less solace from them.

What worked best for me were predictable genres: mysteries, fantasy, historical fiction. I’ve heard others say that they’re overworking and sad about politics, so the more escapist a book turned out to be, the better. That’s true for me, too, but personal stresses have diluted my attention even further. On the happy side, reading Shenandoah subs takes time and energy I used to devote to reviewing. I’m also launching my fifth poetry collection and my debut novel next year, and an essay collection in 2021. Good LORD did I reread and revise those mss, over and over, and when you’re reading your own pages you have less time for others’.

I still read and admired lots of poetry collections–many of those listed in “best of 2019” articles, and also small-press volumes by Erin Hoover, January O’Neil, Kyle Dargan, Martha Silano, Amy Lemmon, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Ned Balbo, Jeanne Larsen, Niall Campbell, Hai-Dang Phan, Paisley Rekdal, and Oliver de la Paz. I reviewed Franny Choi’s Soft Sciencefor Strange Horizons.

Lesley Wheeler, Reading by the glow of a year on fire

As ever, I wish I had more to say for myself. I didn’t publish much in 2019, and submitting is time consuming so rather neglected. I read fewer books and few deeply impressed me. It could be the quality of my attention. More about that in a day or two (since I still have about 28 hours to add a book to my tally). Mostly I was working, or traveling or cleaning birdshit off my balcony.

Creatively, the biggest accomplishment of the year was finishing my book, Hotel Almighty, which is due next summer. I had a July deadline to have all the pieces finished so I had some intense months making or redoing poems. Nothing left but to be nervous about publication. […]

Now that I don’t have an overarching project in front of me, I want to be free to experiment with poetry, collage and embroidery and not feel like it all has to end up as some kind of Meisterwerk. My resolution is to get on with it and not be precious about things. Sometimes I won’t use an image in a collage because I’m ‘saving’ it for something stupendous! But when the stupendous thing is going to happen. . .

Sarah J Sloat, Where I was

The trick is
to let slip
the ladder

that brought you
climbing to this
point. Unknot it,

let it fall away.
Then reach up
through the half-

dark and flick
the latch and let
the shutter fall.

Dick Jones, The Trick

So, I did it. I retired at the end of November. I will turn 70 in February and would have waited until then, but I had a higher calling; I traveled to New York to spend a month with my niece who delivered a sweet baby boy on 12/5/19. I returned and worked 4 days last week, so retirement is somewhat of a misnomer. I have let go of my panel of patients but will still be working in the clinic from time to time as a per diem staff. If you’ve ever had a provider (I’m a nurse practitioner) leave you, think about it in reverse. It was hard, people. Hard, but it was time. Also, I got a haircut.

My writing life was active throughout 2019. I continued working as an editor of Headmistress Press; published poetry book reviews at The Rumpus and other venues; started a website for publishing reviews of poetry chapbooks; had a few poems published, and the usual amount of rejections. In January I took a workshop with Aracelis Girmay at the West Palm Beach Poetry Festival; took a workshop with Carl Phillips in July at the Port Townsend Writers Conference; and spent a weekend with friends at Poets on the Coast. I have a manuscript that I am shopping around.

Upon retirement, I immediately thought about publishing an anthology of work by retired women. Poetry and short prose. Will need a snappy name for that, if you have any suggestions. Tentatively, I’ve got: Tired and Retired: An anthology of writings by women over 65. I’m looking for a publisher.

Risa Denenberg, Sunday Morning Muse Checking In

I guess this was a success, since I’m already planning how to get more rejections in 2020. But as always, I was surprised during this year of rejections by the way some of them broke my heart and others rolled right off me. In general, the 100-rejections practice helped take the sting out of them; when collecting them was a goal, it changed my feelings about them a little. (“Rejection? Great! Put it on the list!”) That said, it didn’t mean I enjoyed getting rejecting any more than usual. This system is not a magic antidote; it’s more like desensitization. But, as I always tell young writers when I do presentations for them, this kind of desensitization is your friend. If you’re the kind who wants to rip up every rejection letter and mail it back to the editor in a Sharpie-scrawled envelope, you’re going to get very tired of doing that when they’re coming in at this rate. You log them in and move on and send out more, and that’s what takes up a lot of time in a writer’s daily life.

Which brings up the question: When do you have time to write when you’re beating your brains out sending out all those submissions? I didn’t actually find that to be a problem; I continued my usual practice of doing two month-long writing marathons in April and August, and I sent out fewer submissions during those months because I was concentrating on a lot of writing. Through the rest of the year, I wrote about the same number of poems as usual, as well as some essays. So I guess the answer is that the writing still takes first priority; the submitting time, for me, ended up pushing something else out of the way, like Netflix or yard work. Which reminds me, please steer clear of my yard. While I was sending out submissions, I think skunks moved in there.

Amy Miller, 100 Rejections: Pain or Gain?

I think it’s incumbent on all of us in any sort of leadership position to confront, understand, and manage our own anxiety, or we cannot be effective leaders for positive change, so that is one place to start. We need to form groups, both informal and formal, for discussion and action toward positive change in our institutions and communities — the places where we can make a difference. When we are actually doing something, instead feeling helpless, isolated, and afraid, life begins again, creativity begins again, renewal happens, hope is created, and people are attracted to join us.

And surely, there is a lot that urgently needs to be done and can be done by ordinary people, without the aid or interference of governments.

When I was traveling in Greece, I kept overhearing people at ancient sites saying things like, “Well, my friend likes this, but to me, it’s just a pile of rocks,” while others were avidly exploring and trying to understand what they were seeing. Life is always like that, I think. We can look out at the ancient agora — real or metaphoric — and see ruins built by dead people that are a mere backdrop for yet another selfie, or we can use our imaginations and see beauty, lessons from the past, and potential for the future, which is — I am quite certain — the desired legacy of the thinkers and creative people of previous, equally fraught times, who were human beings very much like ourselves.

What inspires you? What fills you with awe? What do you want to see preserved for the future? Where can you give hope, or lend a hand? Where do you need hope and encouragement yourself? How can we help each other in the coming year?

Beth Adams, Thoughts for the New Year

Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world. It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers workshop who had asked if they could have a coffee break. “What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.  […]

After I met him, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) they’re sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.

You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year

John Foggin, Last post…..for a bit

yesterday the beginning of 2020 the power flickered on and off (54 mph winds most of the day) and I listened to the racket (and my house being pummeled and thumped by pine cones and tree branches)  (at one point an actual crack! signaling a large limb had broken off somewhere in my woods) and I wrote (a. poem.) and read (Dana Levin’s brutal and gorgeous Sky Burial) and showered (quickly) and ran the washing machine (also quickly) and ate (red beans dirty rice cornbread) and watched a series that came out in 2014 that I had downloaded onto my computer (The Leftovers and holy shit) I did not go outside (flying debris) and the wind continued into nightfall (bringing a thunderstorm to round things out) but I slept through until morning (with weirdo dreams) and today I made it to the beach to consider the destruction (and raw power and beauty) and now I am going out into the actual known world (mockingbird wish me luck)

Rebecca Loudon, The new

People say that Jesus is coming back,
But they don’t know when.
An owl lives in the stand of pines
Across the street from my house;
I hear her, but I never see her.
She blends in nicely.
If Jesus doesn’t tell anyone,
How will they know he is back?

James Lee Jobe, People say that Jesus is coming back

By 2019, I began to figure out that I just needed to pull back and to do so purposefully (i.e. let myself off the hook for all the things I wasn’t doing). And so I did. I managed, for almost a full year, to have nearly zero expectations for my creative life.

But as anyone who goes through these cycles knows, eventually some shiny object grabs your attention and warms you back up to the idea of jumping back in. For me, it was the 100-book poetry reading project I kicked off in late August. I told myself if I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) write, I could at least read. I wrote a little bit about how that began to open me back up here. I can also say it inspired me to return to blogging, which has always been part of my creative process.

Carolee Bennett, poetry goals for 2020

I think I always include that I want to blog more, but this past year, I actually hit this one out of the park.  I had upward of 250 posts–a high not seen since 2007 (and given, in those years, I used the blog much like I do social media now, this year’s crop are definitely more full-bodied content). I’d like to aim for blogging daily.  It’s probably not that tenable given general life things.  But it’s a noble endeavor.  It might be as simple as being a little more intentional in my content-planning and having a ready list of things to write about so that when I have time, it’s just a go.

Kristy Bowen, hello 2020 | writing goals

He [James Schuyler] had me at ‘Empathy’. That is my wish for 2020.

I went on a course about it, once. All I can remember is what they said at the beginning. Empathy costs a lot of time, but will save you so much more.

So that is my wish for myself, for 2020, that I can learn better to show it to others; for the managerial and political class of this country, that they might learn to listen better to the concerns of people’s lives and desist from othering those who are already vulnerable and marginalised; and to the barista where I buy my coffee I want to say thank you -because you are a living model to us all of what empathy is, daily, hidden in plain sight beneath your wonderful smile. I know it costs you. But I have noticed it.

Anthony Wilson, Empathy and New Year

On New Year Day, I always pick my favorite things to do, as a guarantee that I will do them all year long.  I was busy: revising, sending out manuscripts, eating healthy food choices; drinking 6-9 glasses of water per day;  received my first rejection; but, also 4  of my new 100 word stories were accepted; reading; watching a new TV shows, which will fall to the wayside as soon as the semester begins.  But Flirty Dancing was fun to watch.  Although, I did feel badly for the dance partners that didn’t get picked for a second date; and happened upon another show called Almost Family.  It’s complicated, nearly finished the scarf I have been knitting, using all leftover yarns from previous made scarves.  It’s fun and very warm, and I may keep it for myself. I did dishes and put things away, and took a warm shower. Tried to go see Little Women but the theater was sold out. I really want to see this film.  Maybe today, or tomorrow.

M. J. Iuppa, In the year 2020 . . .

new year
the wren as busy as ever
gone in an instant

Jim Young [no title]

There is a phrase I toyed with in French many years ago: “le ciel, c’est assis sur mes sourcils.” The sky is sitting on my brows. That famous gray Paris sky was hovering close to my head during winters when we lived there. I bemoaned the lack of sun which only appeared at the sunset in a slant flash at horizon’s edge.

The phrase sounds fine in English too, with a gentle tweak: “the sky is sitting on my eyelids.” The disillusion, the dark atmosphere of the US last year felt by far more oppressive than it did under the zinc roofs in Paris. The toxicity of news and social media made me want to retreat; the isolation made me wonder how to go out. The trapped feeling, the negative voice seeps into the bones.

Early 2020 extended its hand, asking to put me on its dance card. Mais oui! I danced like a fool, dipping, spinning and getting breathless with fancy footwork. Instead of gravity, more light! So here’s to releasing Dionysian energies. To staying in touch with the body, clearing the mind and welcoming whatever passes, bright, dark and otherwise. Here’s to sanity, my friends, and here’s to equal doses of delirium, to love, to dwelling in the crazy ether of being together.

Jill Pearlman, Dionysian 2020

Don’t be mislead by the cover – Swimming Home isn’t the ‘holiday read’ those yellow umbrellas might seem to imply. It’s a beautifully episodic book, placing a great deal of emphasis on imagery to build up an unsettling drama where so much of what’s going on is glimpsed below the surface. In the afterword, Tom McCarthy says: ‘her fiction seemed less concerned about the stories it narrated than about the interzone (to borrow Burroughs’s term) it set up in which desire and speculation, fantasy and symbols circulated’.

I think it’s fair to say the interzone is where a lot of poetry dwells too, which is perhaps why I was so taken with this novel. And that other interzone, of being abroad, in a half-familiar city, in a different frame of mind to the one I usually have when I’m in the 9-5 routine of work, that surely impacted on my reading of it as well. So, here’s to the interzone, and the hope that I can visit again soon.

Julie Mellor, Books and Bagels

Constructing stories of our days and lives is something we humans seem to do innately. It seems to be how we make sense of life and the passage of time, and how we connect to each other, each of us tumbling around in the tempests of our own teacups.

But we can also be stuck in a story. It’s fashionable nowadays to talk about a “narrative” and “changing the narrative,” and in many ways, it’s a wise realization — that what we believe transcribes what is possible. If our story of our own situation is limiting, it seems entirely possible that we are limiting our situation and story, that if we edited our story, we might shift our understanding, we might open up possibilities.

Marilyn McCabe, Sing it sing it; or, Telling the Daily Story

I tend to start off each year with high hopes for what I’ll be able to achieve — and 2019 was no different. But looking back, the first half of the year was a struggle for me. Having set myself a single goal for the year, I was pushing and punishing myself to finish a novel that wasn’t connecting for me. That frustration overshadowed a lot of my work and my perception of my value as a writer.

When people asked me what I was up to, I often answered that I was hermiting — which sounds like a purposeful withdrawal from word in order to delve into self reflection. However, in reality, I was hiding, too timid to come out of my shell.

But recent months have been more positive. Letting go of the need to finish the novel was the wisest decision I made, providing a huge sense of relief. Subsequently participating in National Novel Writing Month and allowing myself space to dive into a new story and just enjoy the process of writing was a giant boon for me. The work was no less difficult, but the joy of writing was more present.

Andrea Blythe, Reflecting on My Work in 2019

The session was a 90 minute combination of yoga, guided meditation and journaling exercises designed to lead each of us to what would become a personal guiding word for 2020. The logic was that we can easily shed a resolution by screwing up and then feeling we have failed move on leaving it behind.

Out of my session, there were a series of words that flowed out of my journaling and meditation and the more meaningful ones came down to fulfillment, focus, vision, and authentic.  I have not as of this moment centered in on one word. Kristin, our instructor said some people actually use a couple or three words to carry with them throughout the year. I would like to minimize this as much as possible. 

Michael Allyn Wells, 2020 BLUEPRINT

When I started the butterfly garden, I fully expected the plants to be dead by August.  I think of myself as not being good at keeping plants or any living things flourishing.  I need to change that inner narrative.  When I arrived at work yesterday, all the milkweed plants were in full bloom.  Some of the other plants are scraggly, but they may make a comeback.  Yesterday, a monarch butterfly flitted across the plants.

The butterfly garden has given me joy every day.  Setting out bread and treats for students has given me joy most days.  I love creating events and book displays for the library and bulletin boards.  The days when the writing goes well–sheer joy.  Sketching–also joy.  Having bread in the oven and coffee brewing makes me happy–as does a cup of tea at work when the work coast is calm.  Let me keep remembering these delights.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, 2019:  A Look Back

My Twitter feed usually has very little politics, a range of writing news and announcements, nature pictures, and definitely no hellscapes, but this week has been different. I must have a lot of friends in New Zealand and Australia, because pictures of Hell-colored red air and smoke have been prominent on my timeline, along with fights about Iran and war. I’ve been writing about apocalypses for a while (see: Field Guide to the End of the World) but it’s always surprising to see how fast the apocalypses might be approaching on the horizon.

So what do you write when WWIII is trending? It’s not wise to get your news solely from social media, so I’ve been avoiding social media for things like reading and I’ve been checking in with my mom and dad back in Ohio to. I’m tackling my reading stack from the books I got for the holidays. I’ve been writing poems that try to make sense of the chaos.  Which is impossible, of course.

I went back to some older books, books by older authors like Stella Gibbons and Karen Blixen, which helped me remember that in the 1920s, there was irrational exuberance in the stock market, decadence and flappers and a wonderful proliferation in the art and writing world, and they were about to face World War II and the Great Depression. I went back to some of the books that helped me become the writer I am today, fairy tale and mythology writings that talk about how we tell stories, and why they’re important. 

As writers, we can do one thing: we can document the world, our world, the specifics – the moods, the visuals, the attitudes. We can try to capture the moment, whatever that moment entails. That doesn’t mean we contain or control it – but at least we can offer perspective, a point-of-view, an account from the ground, so to speak.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Wishing for a Better 2020: a Death in the Family, What to Write When WWIII is Trending, and Speculative Poetry Reading This Saturday

For Oppen, as he continues in this poem, poetry begins “neither in word / nor meaning but the small / selves haunting // us in the stones…”  It is nothing more than that, but “is less / always than that…”  This “less” seems to deliberately undercut the mystique of the poetic process – it is not the grandiose, hieratic conception of the “Poet” put forth by the Romantics.  Poetry is something enacted within human society.  At the same time, there is certainly a relationship between man and the natural world, which we get in the ensuing words: “help me I am / of that people the grass // blades touch…”  Here there is a sense of the fragility of human life in the face of uncivilized nature, but also of a connection in that touching of the grass blades.  For Oppen, there is a dynamism in this relationship, a vitality important not only for life itself but which can also be a catalyst for poetry.  The conclusion of this piece – “and touch in their small // distances the poem / begins” – again implies this connection however “distant.”

Michael S. Begnal, George Oppen’s “if it all went up in smoke”

In these last few minutes of the first day of 2020, I took Ken’s suggestion to try magnetic poetry. It’s quite interesting what emerged. [image]

Here Together

I am luscious
like pink soaring seas
light as honey
drunk from raw language
frantic in sweet milk

Charlotte Hamrick, Magnetic Poem

May we raise parade floats of truth above the white noise.

Construct monuments to being and belief, reason and relief.

Build phone booths with a direct connection to introspection.

Press all the buttons on the elevator of presence, stop at every floor of enlightenment.

Elevation before degradation, solutions before contusions.

Joyously pulse the blood of song through our beings. And just like that: 1-2-3-4.

Make breath a beat, make breath a beat.

Happy New Year, everyone. 

Rich Ferguson, When Ringing in 2020

Evening. The moon
hovers. The blinds

are drawn. Still
the fallen petals,

their lingering
scent, this moment

to be kept.

Tom Montag, AFTER THE CHINESE MASTERS

Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 3

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.

This week, many of the poetry bloggers I follow have been reflecting on the life and poetry of Mary Oliver — more even than I’ve included below. Not too many snobs in this corner of the poetry world, it seems. (But really, how can you not admire poetry of such subtlety and power?) Others wrote about such perennial topics as what they’ve been reading, how they’ve been teaching, the practice of writing, and the business of being a poet.


Mary Oliver’s poetry shows us how to pay attention, how to enter into a more deliberate state of attentiveness regarding what is unfolding in nature’s time. Her work is loved by so many because of this quality of intimate stillness simultaneously infused with life’s passionate urgency; her poems explore the path toward a balance of both, a fusion which delights and heals and transcends. Some have argued that poetry such as hers is too divorced from the daily realities we struggle with as a culture and a body politic, but I believe that there is an opportunity in every encounter with people, animals, and nature to deeply connect. Trying to articulate what that desire for connection, and the experience of it when it happens, feels like, looks like, is an important poetic pursuit. Her poems teach us how to bear witness to what really matters: the connection we are all trying to get back to, in one way or another.

Sarah Stockton, Mary Oliver and the Poems We Need

[Andrea] Wulf’s book [The Invention of Nature] begins as a biography of [Alexander] Humboldt but closes with several chapters on others who were inspired by his work; she makes the claim that Humboldt’s ideas about the deep connectedness of everything on earth laid groundwork for environmentalists and the discipline of ecology. Indeed, Darwin, Thoreau, Marsh, Muir, and many others found his texts revelatory and transformative. His writing is supposedly poetic and emotional–he did not think the earth and its denizens deserved less than awe and appreciation. Even though his books are packed with measurements, comparisons, careful botanical descriptions, and minute observations of practically everything he encountered, he allows space for admiring the view. Or, so Wulf’s book says. Now, I suppose I shall have to do a bit of reading Humboldt!
~
Along these lines, the lines of the natural world’s connectedness and relationships–ourselves among these, despite our frequent destruction of them–I find myself thinking of the recent death of poet Mary Oliver. I so admire the work and the woman, or what little I knew of her from a few appearances and through friends who studied with her. My social media feed has been alive with tributes, postings of her poems, and some critique about her standing as an American poet, as if that would matter to her (I doubt it would).

I can just make note that her poems have encouraged me to continue to write about nature, even when I’ve been told nature poets are unfashionable, uninteresting, or unnecessary. Her work taught me how to observe closely, like Aristotle at the tidal pools or Haeckel peering at radiolaria. First notice, listen; then describe, then try to obtain more information, and all the while percolate what experience has created within the observer herself. Maybe nothing earth-shattering comes of the process, but sometimes  there’s a poem…

Ann E. Michael, Observations

I heard her speak at Seattle University about five years ago. She was as generous a speaker as I have ever heard. She told us how she trains herself to write and how she’s kept going over the long haul.
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Write about it.

These lines are imprinted on my course syllabus and I hope, give my students the sense that poetry is for all of us. They worry so much that they are not creative enough, that their vocabulary isn’t as big as the universe. I try to tell them that they just have to enjoy; just have to have a conversation with themselves. I need to share more Mary Oliver with them.

Here’s a recent interview with Oliver that I read today. It’s time to go out for a walk.

Susan Rich, Poems, Poets, and Posterity

I don’t think I had ever read [Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”] before 2018; those first three lines made me woozy with a variety of emotions.  And yet it’s not a poem that encourages us to hedonism–no, it calls us to be more attentive, to be present.

Before our Lenten journaling group, I hadn’t realized the spiritual nature of so many of her poems.  During Lent, we read “The Poet Thinks about the Donkey,” a poem that considers the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, an event Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday.  As with many of her poems, I thought I understood it on the first read, and then it stuck with me much longer than other poems that are more complex.

During one of our sessions at church, my parents were with me, and later  my Dad called to get the name of the poet we’d been reading.  One of the things I admire about Oliver’s work is its wide appeal to so many people.  The poems are profoundly moving–and yet so quiet, so easy to grasp.

 I love that the poems are short–easy to read in a single sitting. I love that the natural elements draw us in to hear the central message.

I love the theology of these poems. It’s a theology of love and respect. It’s a theology that tells us that we are worthy. It’s a theology that tells us we don’t have forever, so quit wasting our precious days. It’s a theology rooted in nature, but in the every day kind of nature, not the travelling to a distant mountain slope with sherpas to assist us kind of nature. It’s a theology so understated that many readers likely don’t even recognize it as a theology.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Farewell, Mary Oliver

Many of the people who I saw mourning Oliver’s passing yesterday were not members of capital P Po-Biz. They were just folks who ran across a handful of Mary’s poems when they needed a lifeline, when they needed a poem that said you are part of this world, your life is precious. These people felt seen by Mary Oliver. They carried her poems on folded-soft paper in their wallets, taped them to their computer monitors, and probably never bought a copy of one of her books.

Mary Oliver had little to do with Po-Biz. I always appreciated that about her. She wanted to be outside in the wild wind more than she wanted to stand in front of adoring crowds. A goodly number of the Po-Biz world looked down their noses at Mary Oliver’s work. Some of that had to do with the fact that she was a woman, a lesbian, a person who didn’t often go to glitzy parties. They said she was soft, sappy, a (god-forbid) nature poet.

Yesterday, I looked at the world a little differently because of Mary Oliver’s passing. Yes, the world felt less observed, as if a spark of love for it had guttered. But also, I thought of all the times I was warned off writing about the natural world. Poems I’ve written about trees have been held up in workshop to ridicule. Even folks in the “eco-poetry” world have suggested that my poems need more of a call to action about the environmental crisis. These are the same folks who dismissed Oliver.

I’m not arguing that everything Mary Oliver wrote was genius. But, I am beginning to connect the dots in the denigration of women (soft, gentle, spiritual, accessible, adjectives used to signify not serious), the destruction and desacralization of the natural world, and some of the poetry that is lauded in our current Po-Biz culture. And I am thinking deeply about the (at this moment) 601 people who shared the graphic I made of Oliver’s “Instructions for Living a Life” on social media. How deeply we need to be reminded of astonishment, of our duty (dare I say sacred?) to share with each other what will buoy.

Erin Coughlin Hollowell, One wild and precious life

Last night I finished Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter, from Small Beer Press. My favorite bits from the writing of her last decade were an essay called “Disappearing Grandmothers,” a diary of her time at our local Writer’s Retreat Hedgebook on Whidbey Island, “Learning to Write Science Fiction from Virginia Woolf” (whose letters I have been reading,) and some of her reviews, including Philip K. Dick. Quick quote from “Disappearing Grandmothers:”

“We really can’t go on letting good writers be disappeared and buried because they weren’t men, while writers who should be left to rot in peace are endlessly resurrected, the zombies of criticism and curriculum, because they weren’t women.”

I get the feeling I would really have gotten along with Ursula. And her commentary on Virginia Woolf made me realize why I’d been picking up her writings again – she really did have a way of approaching old subject matter in a singular way. I’m learning a lot from reading non-living writers, and coincidentally, a friend just sent me a collection by Mary Oliver, who recently passed away. Of course, we should appreciate and cheer our living writers, both friends and heroes, too! But it does feel fascinating to be reading letters from Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, and essays by Ursula Le Guin – like the most terrific conversation with women writers across time.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, New Poem in Star*Line, Supermoon Eclipses, A Little Seattle Color, and Surviving January by Reading Writers’ Words on Writing

THE LETTERS OF SYLVIA PLATH, Volume 2:

First, you should know, I actually love reading other poets letters. Many many years ago, I read Elizabeth Bishop & Robert Lowell’s and Zelda & F. Scott Fitzgerald’s letters (note: there is are many more Zelda letters than F. Scott given that Zelda didn’t bother to keep many of his letters–a fact I find rather funny and it worked for me because I have always been a little more interested in Zelda anyway). 

What I love? How Sylvia sometimes signs her letters “Sivvy,” and how as I read her letters I get a better since of her voice.  I love her boring details such as “I’d love vitamins! I’m convinced everything the British sell is without nourishment whatsoever” and “The Rice’s sent us the strangest Christmas card!…an ominous rhyme with all sorts of mixed metaphors. Well, no doubt they have good intentions.”

For me, this is my favorite parts of reading letters–the details of all of it. Plath’s words bring me into her world–which was SO Ted focus–(note: this is a LONG book, so I’m still just dabbling through it), but Ted this is and Ted got a poem here and … it’s a reminder how so much of Plath’s life was catering to Ted. Even one letter her has her telling her inlaws she made Ted eggs before sending him off.

I see the struggle as well as the joy in her writing and I can get lost in this different time very easily.

Kelli Russell Agodon, What I’m Reading… @MichelleObama @JenniferWeiner & Sylvia Plath Letters

A new episode of New Books in Poetry is up, in which I speak with poet and performance artist Ivy Johnson about her book, Born Again.

The poetry and prose in Ivy Johnson’s Born Again (The Operating System, 2018) beautifully dives into the ecstatic expression of religious experience. With its confessional style, this collection gives power to the female voice, rending open that which would be hidden behind closed doors. The work blends sensuality and spirituality, merging the grounded reality of existing a physical body in the world with a sense of worship, prayer, and spell casting.

“I submerge my hands in ink and smear them across the wall
I cover my body in rich purple paint and rub against white paper
I place a sticker of the Virgin Mary on my bedroom window next to the fire escape
She hurts with the glow of blue frost
I race down the stairs to make snow angels in the dog-piss
Fill the silhouette of my body with marigolds”
— from “Take a Moment to Gather Yourself”

You can listen to the episode here.

I’m still in the process of figuring out how to be a good interview podcast host, how to shuck off my own nervousness and dig up confidence enough to feel strong in these interviews. But whatever limitations I believe I have at this moment, they are more than surpassed by the intelligence and insight of my guests so far.

Andrea Blythe, New Books in Poetry: Born Again by Ivy Johnson

The blurb is a frequent anxiety-laden topic of discussion on Facebook. Some people have made alternative suggestions, e.g., putting a poem on the back cover. That’s a cool idea, but for now most publishers want you to obtain blurbs. So just go about it sensibly and trust that it will work out. Then later when some other poet with a new book coming out asks you to write a blurb, remember the poets who said yes to you and say yes to the poet who now asks you to do a blurb. 

Diane Lockward, The Blurbification of Poetry Books

So much drama in the Twitter writing community lately. I’ve been thinking about it a lot. We claim to be supportive, understanding, solid. We say we support emotional and mental illness or distress. We exclaim our inclusiveness and support for diversity. We’re open-minded……until someone’s opinion isn’t in line with ours. Or someone’s emotional state leads them to do/say something unacceptable or questionable. There’s no understanding or forgiveness then. Apologies are ignored and a lifetime of goodness rejected. And Twitter stays on the soap box for days and days and days, gaining momentum as it goes. I try hard to stay out of the drama and I try hard not to condemn the condemners. I don’t want to be that person. But, obviously, the whole situation bothers me. The hive mind can be a judgmental thing.

Charlotte Hamrick, Poem: Support is Conditional

Mimic claws cutting,
but imaginary
and shivering. Touch

the wound and it isn’t
there. No scar, no scab,
no knife. Shadows that mute

and marble light like waves
under water. Shadows
that blunt and block, black.

Shadows that stab the light
like spines of a cactus.
The thin blade of dusk

that separates sand from
dark. Bright at my back,
eyes that glitter and close.

PF Anderson, Anamnesis

The one class I teach on Fridays, Protest Poetry, was also hard. On Wednesday I’d taught poems about the death of Malcolm X and while most of our discussion was productive, there had been a couple of bad moments–nothing ill-meaning, but students making insensitive comments as they thought aloud about deliberately disturbing poems. I had anticipated the need to discuss a homophobic slur in Amiri Baraka’s “Poem for Black Hearts,” and that went fine, but I hadn’t anticipated pushback, for instance, against anger itself. (We’d been reading about Emmett Till, the Baptist church bombed in Birmingham, a mounting death toll and litany of abuses–in what world is anger not inevitable and utterly just?–but as present politics continue to teach us, we don’t all live in the same world, and many of the students in my classroom are like Ursula, full of verve but not yet alert to the reality of other perspectives.) I responded in the moment, but in retrospect I realized I hadn’t responded strongly enough. So I began with an apology, asked the students to freewrite about a recent time they felt angry and what they did about it, then handed out “The Uses of Anger” by Audre Lorde. The discussion that followed was raw, messy, respectful, persistently oblivious, emotional, and awe-filled by turns, and I ended up having a couple of intense follow-ups with students afterwards. It didn’t do all the necessary work but it was a start.

Lesley Wheeler, Information and energy

While I want to do more with this poem, to lead them through it, I know that if I do, I’ll kill whatever has occurred organically. Some students will feel less competent if we reduce this experience to “look to the teacher.” I want them to feel competent in their abilities, that they (or anyone) can notice what is present in poems. To know what’s present in poems, one must be present with the language of poems. This is what they’re learning how to do.

They are beginning their journey as readers of poetry; they are noticing language and are beginning to make connections that are interesting and surprising. And they are all rooted in the language itself to do so.

The majority leave happy. I leave happy. A successful day one.
I walk out of my room into the hallway, energized by the learning that’s taken place, by their recent immersion in a small, beautiful poem on their own terms. I know this is setting them up for more of this good stuff of poetry that is to come. I know they’ll advance to larger and more complex poems. I know that we’ll have to get to analysis and all the ways one must learn to write about literature. However, today they slowed down and noticed what was there. Today they felt what it was like to really be present with poetry.

Scot Slaby, Day 1: Being Present with a Poem

I’ve stopped waiting for the magical ‘writing time’ to manifest itself. It rarely does. I work full time. Weekends are often busy. I walk the dog. I enjoy swimming. I hate housework but like things to be clean and tidy all the same. Somewhere in all this is my writing: a sentence written in my notebook is writing, a headline cut from the newspaper is writing, half an hour typing and editing a poem is writing, attending a day’s workshop is writing (luxury), watching a documentary about Blixa Bargeld’s work with German experimental music group Einstürzende Neubauten and transcribing some of that interview is also, for me, writing. It all goes into the mix. I  often write things I’m not happy with, but I’ve come to accept that as part of the process. It bothers me less and less. What’s important to me is that I’m doing the work and that occasionally I produce something good. I’ve gained more faith in myself and my work through this approach. As [Eric] Maisel says [in Fearless Creating]: ‘Working means starting’ (p.93) so I try to cut through any blocks and just do it, allowing myself lots of very small opportunities to ‘start’. That way, even a single word gleaned from a book or an article, or overheard in the pub, has some value. Making a note of it means I’ve said ‘yes’ to the work.

Julie Mellor, fearless creating

In November, after reading memorials to Lucie Brock-Broido, I took out her book Stay, Illusion and started a practice of pulling one image or line from a poem and writing from or in response to it. Will any of this turn into “real” poems? Maybe. The point is less about the results and more about showing up to give her poems time and attention and to experiment, play, and try writing in a way that doesn’t feel familiar to me.

I confess that I have not followed this practice strictly. Some days, other poems insist on being written. Some days, I fail to carve out the time. Most days I have a momentary panic that nothing will come. But it’s a practice, so I take a breath and start with something, anything, because I do believe in showing up, in reading as much as possible, in writing as close to daily as possible, in helping poetry to get into my body so that when the magic happens, I’m there for it with my whole self.

Joannie Stangeland, Pick your practice

I haven’t felt like doing much but now I’m coming back to life and revisiting old notebooks.  I’m beginning to assemble new poems.  I finished my commission for Ginkgo Projects/Bloor Homes and I think that some of the poems I wrote for this project will sit well in my next book.  My poem ‘To Bring Me Luck’ about older women and ageing might also belong there.  At this stage, I’m gathering poems and being open-minded about a possible theme.  I would dearly love my next book to feel coherent and thematic and my aim is to be able to articulate this.  I recognise that I really struggle with explaining to anyone what my work is about.

One thing is sure: I feel more determined about shaping my next book but that isn’t to say that I’m trying to force a theme upon it.  That would be a dreadful mistake.

Josephine Corcoran, Slow January continues

Have you ever wondered what it costs to be a poet? This year, I am tracking my readings: earnings (or lack thereof), expenses, book sales, etc. in an Excel spreadsheet.

Now, I’ve always done a bit of that for tax purposes. But what does it really cost to travel to a reading, not receive any payment, and sell one or two books? I’m keeping the numbers and making comments about each activity. I really want to know how much the effort is worth in the life cycle of a poetry collection. Here are some questions I want to know in the first year of a book’s publication:

1. Of the books I bring to readings, how many do I sell?
2. Will I peak in sales in my region, but decline towards year’s end? How can I counteract that?
3. How many readings do I participate in annually? How many free readings? 
4. If I cover travel and expenses, does that cancel out the stipend?

Put aside that poetry is an art, and it is a privilege to participate in this community. I’m looking at the numbers.

Will update you in a few months. April seems appropriate. 

January Gill O’Neil, By the Book

I think I’m going to create a new folder called Hold It! (I’m a great creator of folders…) and put in it every new poem I’m excited about, and I’m not allowed to look at them until at least a month after I’ve put it in the folder. AT LEAST a month. Six months is probably better.

In six months I’m a different person than I was six months before — new skin, blood, colon, fingernails, as cells replace themselves throughout the body at varying rates. So surely the new me will have some fresh insight.

But I’ll have the same eyeballs, though, and mostly the same brain, but new neuronal networks. So in order to shove myself along developmentally, as the pink-faced new poems cool their heels in the Hold It! folder, I should work on my eyesight and my memories. Which means to me that I should read more and widely in poetry especially, and when I find a poem that makes me say “wow, that is good work,” spend some time taking a look at how it works at working. But also other kinds of written work, because all kinds of literature can feed perspective. And I should also look at art, listen to music. And probably dance a little, even if it’s just in my kitchen.

All these kinds of inputs have the possibility of opening my brain to new ways of seeing, new ways of communicating, new ways to imagine. So when I open that folder again, I can see with altered vision and new light.

Marilyn McCabe, How Do I Know?; or, Learning to Assess Our Own Work