Sunday, December 28, 2008

What I'm Reading: Indiana Review 30.2

The new Indiana Review arrived a few days ago. Here are the standouts for me.

Four poems by Amaud Jamaul Johnson dealing with the complicated issue of race in the south. Of particular note is "Miss Thelma."

The short story "Pamela" by Dave Madden. The main character is a 17-year-old girl. The premise of the story is clever, the author announcing in the first paragraph that the narrator's father has bought her a new car but will only give it to her when she learns to type sixty words per minute. (The story is set in the time of the Apple IIe, and the father wants his daughter to be prepared for the computerized future.) At first I was suspicious of what almost seemed like a plot trick...keeping us reading as the narrator takes the self-tests and falls short of the goal, but the story involves several layers of conflict that cohere, in the end, into a truly enjoyable coming-of-age read.

Kim Philley's poem "Quantum" is a wonder of sounds, including these lines: "I am deep in a bantam / grief, narrow shoulders full tilt / in the stereophonic --"

And, J. W. Richardson's poem "Abdelazer," which takes the first line of the first stanza and repeats it in jazz-like variations for each subsequent stanza. The poem includes many allusions to well-known pieces of literature, including the title itself and a reference to Their Eyes Were Watching of my top 10 novels of all time.


Finally, a request for the New Year. Please consider doing the following:

1. Buy a book of poetry or a collection of short stories (read and share with others).
2. Shop at an independent bookstore.
3. Subscribe to a literary magazine.
4. If you read something that moves you, consider letting the author know (if possible).
5. Use your local library (most can use interlibrary loan to get books not on their shelves).

Saturday, December 27, 2008


One of the greatest rewards I received from attending an MFA program was the community of writers I met and in some cases with whom I still work. Over the holiday break I've had the privilege of reading a young adult novel-in-progress, written by a good friend from my Fayetteville days. I say novel-in-progress, but really it's very near the final revision stages.

As a poet, I still feel a bit unsure of the usefulness of my comments, especially because I'm not really in touch with the young adult market. However, I became completely wrapped up in the main character and her conflicts, and from time to time, I forgot that I was reading from pages printed from a Word document and not from the actual, eventual, book. I am in awe of my friend for stringing so many words together and creating such a complex, real character. And so, my friend, I'm wishing you all the best success in 2009 with this amazing book!

Monday, December 22, 2008

What I'm Reading: Quarry

Carolyn Guinzio's second collection, Quarry, has been patiently waiting on my desk for the last several months, and I wish I'd gotten to it sooner. Still, poetry books have no expiration date...thank the stars. I've spent the last few hours transported by Guinzio's poems, her fine eye for the details of the world, and her ability to remain restrained where others tend to overwrite, overwork and become overwraught.

The book opens with a series titled The Weekend Book. Here's a bit from one of its poems "Of Ancient Lights":

"Light in the eyes of the law is ancient
after twenty years. The sun must reach
the church arch and transom,
the windows of timber-
built homes. We fixed the divisions

of the calendar: Nothing
should have to be born
more than once."

Nearly all the poems are effortless to read, and yet they tug and pull after the last line. For me that's a sure sign of success, and there are too many fine examples to list them all here. (An added bonus is the cover art, a gorgeous photograph of Anita Huffington's sculpture "Luna.") I'm guessing this book will be one I return to over and over and find something new within each time.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Have You Ever

struck upon a word and become enamored, and then because you said the word too many times, felt it slip into something foreign and ungainly? For me, today, the word is "cloister." There's so much great weight behind the word, and I am using it in a poem, but at this point, every time I try to say it out loud it feels a bit ugly.

The best news of all is that I am writing again. Three new drafts this week, which is sort of a lot for me. I guess all the pent up words from the past four months are pouring forth. Thanks to all of you who offered words of support when I complained about not writing!

Friday, December 19, 2008


Just got the new Poets & Writers and can't quite believe I have the time to read it upon receipt. I looked for a link to Gabriel Cohen's article "On Not Writing" (in the Literary Life section), but couldn't find it online. It's a short article on all the things we do while building up to writing, with moments devoted to writer's block as well.

Here are three passages that jumped out at me:
"The world doesn't need us to be writers, and it doesn't fall apart if we stop."

This is an echo of a Virginia Woolf quote that I've blogged about before. In light of Hall's article from my last post, ambition is cast in a different light when I realize that nobody is begging me to write.

"It's a craft, a job, a daily small achievement. ... And it's better to actually build one modest, serviceable little cabin than to never complete the glorious mansion in your head."

Again, this rang an echo from Hall's article on ambition.

"In real life, getting to the computer is a matter of delayed momentum: I finally hit the keyboard not because I've been struck with a cinematic bolt of inspiration, but because the self-disgust of not writing finally gains enough mass to roll over my anxiety about what to write."

All I can say about this is...holy, yes!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ambition and Ego

Thanks to Ashley McHugh over at the Linebreak blog for linking to this old article by Donald Hall on Poetry and Ambition. Many of you may already have read it, but it was new to me. It covers many topics that occupy me in the late dark nights. The article was written in the early 80's, yet the points Hall makes seem as prescient today.

Here is one blurb:
Poems have become as instant as coffee or onion soup mix. One of our eminent critics compared Lowell's last book to the work of Horace, although some of its poems were dated the year of publication. Anyone editing a magazine receives poems dated the day of the postmark. When a poet types and submits a poem just composed (or even shows it to spouse or friend) the poet cuts off from the poem the possibility of growth and change; I suspect that the poet wishes to forestall the possibilities of growth and change, though of course without acknowledging the wish.

Hall goes on to chastize the MFA movement and workshops specifically. I tend to disagree with those who categorically blame MFA programs for some perceived deterioration of the quality of contemporary poetry. However, the point Hall makes about the weekly workshop and the students' desire for affirmation and praise rings true. I certainly remember the sting time and time again of having a poem fall flat in front of my peers. Yet that sting spurred me to revise and revise and revise. It was crucial for my development as a writer that I be told I wasn't a bright shining star.

Hall's point is that a poet's ambition should be to achieve the greatness of Dante, Keats, Yeats, etc. and that the publish or perish climate of today tends to work against that goal. One thing that stands out is when Hall mentions that if any of us achieve true, lasting greatness as poets, we will never know it since only time (past our lifetimes) will tell.

It's a long article, and I'll continue to chew on it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Sneak Peak

Friendship has privileges, and for me that means getting a copy of my friend Tara Bray's new book Mistaken For Song before the availability date (a few more months). Tara won the 2008 Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize for this amazing book. (Okay, I'm a bit biased, and yes, I'm using her first name where I'd normally use the last name of whichever poet being discussed. I just can't get that kind of distance from a friend.)

I've read the complete work through twice now and am awash in images. One of Tara's greatest strengths as a writer is her use of the unexpected in her densely-packed images. For example, in the poem "On Starlings," she describes the title birds as "tree tempests, dazzlers, knuckle-headed saints." I love that use of "knuckle-headed," which in the context of the poem seems to arrive out of nowhere and yet be perfectly placed at the same time.

Speaking of birds, the book is chock full of them. A few years ago, there was a panel at AWP on bird imagery in poems. The danger, I suppose, being in the overuse of feathers and beaks in contemporary poems. However, the birds in this book rise well above (sorry!) any glimpse of cliche. Knowing her as I do, I know that Tara's fascination with birds is not used as a means to an end; instead, she has fully immersed herself in a first-hand knowledge of birds, well beyond the chance encounter. Here's a glimpse from the book's opening poem "Carolina Chickadees":

They whip and dip, sled quick slopes
of air, and I plead to feel them beat
upon my ear, chatter, tease me,
meek cheek-fires I want to swallow whole.

It is a new experience for me to read a book composed of poems I've watched evolve over the past several years. Tara is not just a friend, but a writing partner, someone with whom I exchange early drafts of a great majority of my poems. It is such an honor to see the poems now in their new home, living side by side, even though composed sometimes years apart. The arc of the manuscript is graceful, the stitching together of the poems almost unseen as each unfolds seamlessly into the next.

One of my favorites is "Rain," a poem celebrating marriage and motherhood. Here are a few lines that have remained with me since I first read them some time ago:

I am loved twice, two orchids, two glimpses
of the afterlife, two clearwing butterflies,
two fox sightings--twice scraped, twice owned.

And, later:

There's only night and rain, husband, babe, sleep,
this black string of small good things.

The lens of this book is definitely the natural world, but at its heart, Mistaken for Song is a book about the incredible paradox of human life: that joy and grief exist in such close proximity, so intrinsically linked, as to be inseperable.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Fever Continues

One more poem recommendation for today. I just fell in love with Anna Journey's poem "Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know" over at 42opus. It begins:

Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know

The sycamore mark on her inner thigh is a continent

about to divide itself into the angel

that sat in the votive light

of a fourteen year-old's cigarette, and the angel

that was never there

but for the inked tattoo of wings under each blade

of a bartender's shoulder.

The poem develops in a lovely, complex way from there.

What I'm Reading: Poetry December 08

As it slowly dawns on both body and brain that I am gloriously without official work for some small space of time, a sense of mania towards reading through stacks of books and journals rushes in. This morning, the latest issue of Poetry.

I know this journal does not need little old me to help spread its readership, but this month, I've found two poems in particular that resonate: Nicky Beer's "Prairie Octopus, Awake" and Michael Rutherglen's "Lives of the Watchmakers." The following line drew me to Beer's poem: "Owls swallow vowels in stilled trees." ~Such luscious sounds that melt on the tongue. And for Rutherglen, aside from the eternal subject matter of time and mortality, I admire his use of rhyme without seeming heavy-handed. Poetry is now publishing the majority of each issue online, so please check out the links for the entire poems.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


My poem "Nothing is haunted" just came out in the new edition of West Branch, and I'm thrilled to have it chosen for today's poem on Verse Daily.

Also, today is the official beginning of my Holiday Break! Woo Hoo! Thanking the calendar gods, we have almost a full month off this year. I'm happy for so many reasons about this. For one thing, this means lots and lots of time for reading and hopefully even some writing. Since July, I've been fairly diligent about working out 4 times a week. Now, I plan to create a writing routine in the same way. No matter what is going on...there will be writing time when I must tune out everything else.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

This Feels Like a Thanksgiving Poem to Me

A Blessing
by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

James Wright, “A Blessing” from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Such Long Silence

First to the happy news. Grist, a new annual journal from the U of Tennessee Knoxville, accepted the poem "For the One Pulled North." My thanks to the editors.

Now, I have to admit that November got the better of me. I can already feel the New Year's Resolutions beginning to form regarding posting to this blog. I am grateful to those of you who still frequent the link, and I hope you'll hang in there.

I've been going through the mood swings that accompany completing a manuscript; however, I wasn't aware this was happening until a good friend pointed it out a few weeks ago. Working with Blood Almanac was a long and drawn out affair, perhaps because there was only a loosely defined core to the book. I wrote whatever poems arrived in whatever space I created for them. Three-quarters of the book was written in the super-charged/condensed air of graduate school. Glacial Elegies is a different animal all together. It took about six months of flopping about after BA came out, but eventually, I discovered that I did have a central idea controlling the most successful poems I was writing. Then, I began to write to that theme more purposefully. In the end, the manuscript feels more whole than the first. And, as most of you know, I've begun sending the manuscript out, but I don't have a good feel for whether this different approach will lead to success.

Over the last month, I've been feeling distant from writing, not even wanting to pick up my pen/journal even when I did have an hour or two to do so. I began to think I might have lost it...whatever that elusive "it" is. Finally, after an email confession on my part, aforementioned good friend pointed out that I was probably just feeling drained from "finishing" this second book. Most likely, that's exactly what is happening. As frequent readers will know, the individual poems are making their way into journals, and that's the first step for the book itself, but it is also reaffirming to me that the poems I make mean something to someone somewhere.

To end on a positive note, there is a certain clarity in the sunlight today, slanting through the remaining leaves, falling crisp across my desk, my papers, my fingers.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Did You?


My poem "Honor Thy" is up on One of the coolest things about this online journal is that the editors solicit others to read the poems. So, go the the site and hear Maureen Alsop read my poem. It's so interesting to hear another person's interpretation of the words on the page. If you like what you read/hear, submit your work or volunteer to read!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Happy Mail

A little more good news on the publishing front. The editors of Meridian have accepted two poems for the next issue. This will be my second appearance in Meridian, and they also published a review of Blood Almanac. If you've never checked them out, this is one of my favorite journals...a good balance of work and beautifully produced.

As I've said before, it's hard to stay motivated about writing during the height of the semester, but moments like these prove that all of the work from the summer matters in the end.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Congratulations Are In Order

Good news for a fellow Arkansas MFA and good friend.

Crab Orchard Review and Southern Illinois University Press are pleased to announce the selection of last year's competition. Our final judge, Ricardo Pau-Llosa, selected William Notter's HOLDING EVERYTHING DOWN as the winner of the 2008 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. HOLDING EVERYTHING DOWN will be published by Southern Illinois University Press in October 2009.

Congratulations Bill!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

What I'm Reading: Poets & Writers Nov/Dec 2008

Just got the new edition of Poets & Writers and am regretting a schedule that precludes reading it from cover to cover as usual. I did read two of the shorter articles tonight. One is an overview of the Cider Press/Stacey Lynn Brown events. The article presents more information from the point of view of the press, along with Brown's points. Also, I read the profile of Paul Guest, a poet whose work I admire and whose blog I read fairly regularly. If you aren't familiar with his work, check it out. I can't wait to read the profile of Toni Morrison. Also of interest to me is Mike Chasar's piece on being asked to write poems for the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Lots to look forward too.

Also in the mail: a copy of Carolyn Guinzio's new book Quarry.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


I have been prioritizing my time lately, and when I sit down to poetry, I've been reading a lot rather than posting here. I've also devoted time to continue sending out poems to magazines and the book to publishers. Some good news: I'll have poems appearing in the new issues of Hunger Mountain and New South, as well as one set to appear in Linebreak.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

What I'm Reading: Poetry October 08

Yesterday, during my office hours, I turned around twice and realized that, aside from some minor homework grading, I had no major school work to do this weekend. Woo Hoo. A return to poetry. So I'm catching up with the stack of journals on my desk.

In the October 2008 issue of Poetry, I found quite a few poems that touched a chord with me. Poets Sarah Lindsay, Laura Kasischke, Jill Osier, and Maurice Manning have been favorites of mine for awhile now, and I was glad to read their new poems. However, it was Eric Ekstrand's work that stood out the most.

This issue contains five poems by Ekstrand, all titled "Appleblossom," with the fifth poem adding "(Leaving Edo)" to the title. The footnote on the first poem says, "Each 'Appleblossom' is a verse translation from the Japanese of a short selection from the notebooks of Chiri, Basho's traveling companion during the years between Withered Chestnuts and Travelogue of Weatherbeaten Bones." Intriguing.

These poems express a fragile strength. There is beauty in the images and humor and grief and desire. While Ekstrand uses long lines, the poems themselves are rather short. Still, after reading each one, I find myself pausing in the best way and rereading, only to discover that the poem continues to unfold.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Recharging the Batteries

Friday was a good day in my creative writing class. Earlier in the week it had become apparent that everybody was feeling the stress and time crunch I referenced in a recent post. The bounce had gone out of our collective step. So we went to the library. We went to the library but not to look at books. Our campus has recently sprouted gallery space for the visual arts within our new library. It's a small area, a set of cases on the first floor, and some wall space on the second floor, but for many of our students, it will be their first opportunity to look at art up close and personal, in the flesh, so to speak. For example, we are currently hosting an exhibit owned by the Arkansas Arts Council.

So, I did what my undergraduate teacher did (albeit in a much larger gallery space). I invited the students to mill about and absorb the art. Then, I asked them to pick a piece that they felt strongly about. Only after they picked a piece of art did I give them the prompt: write a poem or story inspired by this piece of art. I emphasized the inspiration part rather that a summary of what the piece looked like.

For 25 minutes hardly anyone's pen stopped moving. There was an aura of concentrated energy in the space. Once I noticed people running out of gas, I asked for any brave volunteers to read from these very rough drafts. We gathered around each "featured" piece of art. Then, five students read out loud in a public place, and for first drafts, several knocked me back a step or two. Most of the students left with a smile, and one even stopped me outside later that day to tell me she wanted to go back and write about some of the other pieces.

Sometimes it's the little victories that help the most.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

An Evening of Arkansas Authors

For anyone who lives in Central Arkansas, I'll be moderating the following reading and discussion with Kevin Brockeier, Hope Coulter, and Trenton Lee Stewart next Tuesday, 9/30/08. Hope to see you there!

Pulaski Technical College Presents

An Evening of Arkansas Authors

Author Readings and Discussion

Tuesday, September 30th 6:30pm – 8:00pm

R.J. Wills Lecture Hall, Campus Center Building

Trenton Lee Stewart, author of The Mysterious Benedict Society

Kevin Brockmeier, author of The View from the Seventh Layer

Hope Coulter, author of Dry Bones

Friday, September 19, 2008

Grasping at Minutes

The student papers are piling up, the news of the world is more stressful by the day, and poetry is not making it to the top of my priority list lately. I read in fits and starts. I try to keep up with my favorite blogs. And, I recently realized that I hadn't sent out any poems for September, so tonight I made a start. The start feels rejuvenating, but the student papers are leering at me from my bookbag.

I am just about reconciled to being a summer writer, at least for generating new work. I know other academics who work this way, but I had hoped I'd be able to "settle into" my teaching career enough to free up some time during the school year to do some serious drafting. It doesn't look to be happening anytime soon. I make small revisions. I work on the manuscript as new deadlines for book submissions approach. I am carving out time tonight to focus on submissions--the stack of folders teeters to my left. In other words, like so many others out there, I make do.

We've just completed Week 5 of a 16 week semester.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Reginald Shepherd 1963-2008

Reginald Shepherd died earlier this week. Reginald chose Blood Almanac for the Anhinga Prize and changed my life. I never had the chance to meet him and thank him in person, and we only exchanged a handful of emails; however, I will be forever grateful to him for plucking my manuscript from a long history of semi-finalist and finalist status.

More importantly, having read his work and admired it deeply, his voice will be missed.

You, Therefore
For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name

Reprinted from Fata Morgana by Reginald Shepherd, published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. Copyright © 2007 by Reginald Shepherd.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Job Benefits

I've talked about teaching at the community college level before, but today a new benefit made itself known to me. Each semester, as I begin teaching literature (either in a Comp class or in a Lit class), it is inevitable that a student challenges all my long-held beliefs about the worth of my subject matter. As I explain once again why I see literature as valuable to a student who may never read another poem, story, or play outside of my class, and who may be more concerned with how to pay this month's electricity bill than how to write a literary analysis, I am forced to stop and think and put myself in that student's shoes.

I ask my students simply to give the literature a chance. I ask them to be open-minded and curious. Today, I was reminded that I need to be the same with my students. My hope is that we all learn something from each other by the end of the semester.

Today, I am grateful to be teaching such diverse students, who may yet teach me more about the literature that I love.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

A New Field of Dreams...For Writers

I have been under the weather lately, but this post on Poetry's Harriet blog did indeed make me smile. Check out Travis Nichols' Iowa You Make Me Smile. It appears that Iowa City is trying to recover from the horrible pork barrel fiasco of the Rainforest Project with a plan for a museum of literature and other goodies on the site.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Birth Day

Yesterday, two of my closest friends welcomed their baby boy to the world.

Hello, Harper! Welcome to the World!
In a few hours, I'll be meeting you in person.
Can't wait.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First Two Weeks

Well, we've been back at school now for two weeks, and, as suspected, my writing/reading time has dwindled. Unfortunately, time for blogging is suffering the most.

One tough moment in teaching lit. is when I've assigned a story or poem or play that I love, usually a piece that was instrumental in my formation as a writer, and I walk into the classroom completely pumped up and discover that the class or a particularly vocal student finds the piece less than thrilling. Such a thing happened earlier this week. I know not everyone has the same taste and not all of my students are interested in literature to begin with. That being said, it still takes the wind out of my sails a bit when it happens.

In the meantime, I did find time to read the new issue of Poets & Writers and now have several new scraps of paper with authors & titles listed. I thought the article on David Rhodes, an author with whom I was unfamiliar, was especially interesting. I hope to be able to read Rhodes when my schedule eases up a bit. Also, the article on the Dickman twins, Michael and Matthew, especially the sample poems, made me want to check out their work.

When will the cloning machine be ready, or the time-stretching machine?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What I'm Reading: Unaccustomed Earth

Jhumpa Lahiri is one of my all-time favorite fiction writers. I first fell in love with her work when reading her story collection Interpreter of Maladies. Then, her novel The Namesake came out, and it was just as wonderful. This week, while getting back into my teaching schedule, I've been trying to read a story a night from her new collection, Unaccustomed Earth.

Lahiri writes out of the emigrant/immigrant experience, mostly Indians who move to Great Britain or America or the next generation of Indians born in the west. She is a subtle writer, and I am perhaps drawn to her for the quietness of her prose.

One story in particular took my breath away. "Hell-Heaven" tells the story of a woman unraveling her mother's life. Her mother and father were married in India in a traditional arranged wedding. The narrator has grown up in America and struggles to understand her parents. We are all alien to and from our parents at some stage of adulthood; however, the culture clash of being raised in India, as the narrator's mother was, and being raised in America, as the narrator was, brings that alienation into even sharper focus. The story ends, and I won't spoil it for you, in a jaw-dropping revelation about one moment in the mother's life which might have changed everything, but didn't. It's a story, intricately woven, of love, duty, and loss, three eternal components of the human condition.

Lahiri has a way of gently drawing me into her characters and their lives, exposing their cares and concerns in such an empathetic way that I can't help forming a deep bond with them. As is true of all great books, I am slightly saddened each time a story ends.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Glacial Elegies ~ 5 Hrs; 8 Ft

I can't remember if I've blogged about the eight foot conference table my brilliant husband bought several years ago or not. (Today was the first day of classes and my brain is a bit muzzy.) In any case, this past weekend, I spent five hours shuffling poems around on said eight foot table. Said table is cumbersome. Most days it lurks, propped up behind the door to the laundry room, something for the dust bunnies to hide behind. However, when needed, it is the perfect location for laying out the individual poems in a 50-60 page manuscript.

[This weekend of revision was based on the careful comments from two close poet-friends, to whom I am indebted.]

I'm not sure why or how, but it looks like I'll end up with three sections in this book, the same as the last. The table is perfect for making three rows of poems (of about 20 poems each) and still being able to read each poem. I discovered with Blood Almanac that I need to see the entire book at once during its construction. I need to be able to let my eye float over the pages and to let my brain see the connections between the poems (or not). As I weighed the comments and made my decisions, I plucked poems from here & there and placed them in a new location or tossed them on the floor. What I found most interesting was the domino effect that began almost immediately. Yes, I agreed that the first poem in the first section wasn't doing its job and needed to be moved. But, wait, now the next poem isn't working to launch the section, either .... Drat .... chaos and shuffling begin.

In the end, after five hours and three separate printouts, I felt a sense of wholeness about the book that hadn't been there before. I've added a few newer poems that have been in the pipeline and I've taken out a few of the weaklings from the first draft. I'm also happier with the arc of the book now. Who knows how long the satisfaction will last, but it's a good feeling for now.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

What I'm Reading: Weather Eye Open

With a new school year approaching, and a new computer needing a home on the desk, I've spent the last few days reorganizing my home office. In the process, I found a slip of paper with the title Weather Eye Open and author Sarah Gridley. (I'm in the habit of jotting titles/authors down on scraps of paper as I stumble across them. I suppose it is up to fate as to when and if I ever continue the journey of reading them.)

Having read only the first handful of poem in Gridley's book, I am already falling in love with her work. Her use of language is gymnastic; verbs, nouns, and adjectives sparking against each other in huge leaps of imagination.

Here's the opening of "Genealogy"

To ear, the shell recounts the ocean's holdings. To eye,
the book refigures pulse, spun-black signatures outlasting
guests of body.
      She locks it in
the top-most drawer. In sleep a bullfight
brights its gore inside her.

Here's the opening of "Wanting the Ten-Fingered Grasp of Things"

At this portion of the curve
where quartz is ground, the ocean brokers
broken wares. Energy is cursive, cold, and beautiful.

Basically, at this point, I want to type the full extent of each poem I have read. In some ways, I am surprised at how strongly I am receiving these poems. While I'm not a narrative poet, my poems usually show some tie to a sense of place, with a clear speakers, usually an I or a she moving through time and space. At lease in the first couple of sections of poems that I've read in Gridley's book, this doesn't seem to be the case. These poems are pure lyric, and I feel like I'm swimming through the language, awash in images and actions, making my own sense of the work.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Quotes and more

"Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top."
Virginia Woolf
A Room of One's Own

"There is no reason to write a book unless the process of imagining it changes one's life forever."
Richard Manning

"I was an earth thing all along
my feet are catching in the brush"
A. R. Ammons
"Breaking Out"
A Coast of Trees


Books on the side table waiting to be read:

Unaccustomed Earth Jhumpa Lahiri
Cocktails D. A. Powell
the true keeps calm biding its story Rusty Morrison

Sunday, August 10, 2008


Tomorrow, I go back to work. A week of meetings and professional development. Students on the 18th. My goal will be to blog once a week. My teaching schedule is still in flux. One of the realities of teaching at the community college level is that there is no consistency in student enrollment. Classes that make easily one semester might struggle the next, even for full-time faculty. I'd rather start the semester off with a bit more surety, but there you go. I should know by Tuesday what I'll be teaching for sure and when. The situation is even more tenuous for adjunct instructors, and they have my sympathy.

I am pleased with my accomplishments for the summer. The book is shaping up and facing its first readers. Thanks to those who've taken the time to give me feedback. I'll send it off for the first time by Sept. 15th. I only hope that I'll be able to keep my writing balance when back to teaching. As always, it is helpful to have a supportive husband along the way.

I've just discovered (or rediscovered, maybe?) the idea of the palinode, a poem that retracts what a poet might have said in an earlier poem. I'm fascinated by the idea, as I've been struggling with several poems I've written in which I know I've captured a "truth," yet the poems seem so harsh and filled with blame/regret/anger. This palinode reminds me that I might have captured a momentary truth, but I can always retract and change my focus. I've always known that poetry (art) could do this, but it's nice to see it in action.

I've been reading the current issue of Hayden's Ferry Review and highly recommend the poetry gathered there. Of particular note is the international section, which features poems in the poet's orginal language on the facing page opposite the translation. This should be mandatory when publishing translations. Having never seen Bengali in print before, I was stunned by the beauty of its characters. I couldn't read the original, of course, but some readers will be able to, as I am of some remnants of French, and seeing the original against the translation only widens the dialogue. Aside from the translations, the journal is simply beautifully produced and worth the read.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Elegy for the Library Checkout Card

So, I've been using InterLibrary Loan from my school's library and using the public library a good deal. As I thumbed through a book last night, it struck me once again how much I miss the old checkout cards. I loved being able to see who had read a book before me. All the different handwritings and names made me feel connected in some way.

Granted, I also like the due date slips that are pasted into the book with the due date stamped. This way I can see how many other readers have checked out the book. I feel sorry for books with no other stamps than mine. Granted, the library might have just changed the slip, but still, that one date looks so forlorn. If I'm browsing the shelves and see that no one has checked the book out, I just might take it home so it will earn a stamp!

However, our public library uses recyclable due date cards. Each card has four dates, month and day, printed so that depending on how the card is flipped in the slot, a different due date shows up. The "save the planet" part of me loves this idea, but it doesn't let me know the history of the book, which saddens me.

I do know the reasons for pulling checkout cards, and I'm a huge fan of privacy laws, so I'm not seeking a return to the old. I'm just mourning the passing of a tradition that made me feel a part of a larger circle, I guess.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008


Thanks, Monda, for posting about I have been mesmerized all afternoon. Here is a Wordle of my poem "Berries Frozen in Fog." Watching the program create the image, I "see" the poem in a new way. Fun. Loads of fun.

(Sean, if you read this, you will be soooooooo proud of me. I learned how to do a screen shot and convert from a TIFF to a JPEG. Holy Cow!)

Here's the poem as it appears in MARGIE vol. 5:

Berries Frozen in Fog

Small orange bursts burden the branch. The weight
makes bend and curve, shows all there is to know

about belief. The fruit’s skin glows like blown
glass that breath itself might break in half.

This is winter in the west, my refugium
(from the French fugere, which means to flee),

my high ground under siege. This fleeting
wind has dragged the arctic down to me.

The day proceeds, decidedly outmatched.
Slow thaw. The sprig springs back. The tipping point

is met. The ice melts off the leaves the way
that grief lets loose, gently undoing the latch,

when no one else is watching, slipping past.

Now, back to the new submissions!

Saturday, August 2, 2008


August has arrived. For those unfamiliar with the world of poetry publishing, most of the journals and publishers work on an academic calendar. Things move slowly, slowly during the summer months, if they move at all. Many lit mags and book contests are closed to submissions during June and July.

Yesterday, a handful of lit mags opened their reading periods. Come September, the floodgates will be loosed. It's time to warm up the printer and buy the paper.

However, soon, the paper and printer will go the way of all things 20th century. A good portion of the journals are now accepting submissions via electronic means (either email or an online submission manager). A poet-friend and I had lunch this week and exchanged recent experiences with online submissions. There are many pros and a few cons, it seems. The pros have to do with saving money on postage not to mention paper and ink, receiving confirmation on receipt, ease of withdrawing a piece if necessary, and saving time in general. Our one beef with the electronic submission format has to do with the responses we receive. Both of us have received snail mail rejections with notes of encouragement from mags that are now using electronic systems. We've both gotten vague replies via email from the same mags that encouraged us in the past. It is near impossible to tell if the rejection is the standard one or if there is a personal message within.

Case in point. I recently received this email from a journal I absolutely love and admire and have been submitting to for years. In the past two years, I've felt like I was gaining ground because in snail mail rejections, I've gotten personal notes of encouragement. Here's the email:

"Thank you for giving us the chance to consider your work for publication in The anonymous Review. Though it does not fit our current needs, we appreciate your interest in our magazine and your commitment to quality writing. I really enjoyed reading your poems. Keep up the great work."

Those first two lines seem to be the standard rejection, but the next sentence brings in the "I." Is that the personal message? It seems unlikely that editors have the power to edit within the system, but I'm still curious. Does the electronic system prevent editors from sending personal notes?

Let me be clear. I'm not criticizing this journal, or any of the others using electronic submissions. By and large, I prefer to submit electronically. I'm just throwing the uncertainties out there. Anyone who tries to get their work out there knows that the process, aside from the very clear guidelines provided by most journals, is muzzy indeed.

I've got my list of 20 mags with open reading periods, I've got my batch of poems all polished and shiny, and tomorrow I'll begin the process of sending my poems out there, if I find the courage to begin.

Thursday, July 31, 2008


The internet is an amazing, sprawling thing. In the past 24 hours, I've added 2 new blogs to my list that I check daily: Hayden's Ferry Review and Kenyon Review. I like the trend of journals turning to blogging. There is often such a long lag-time between issues, and there is so much potential for posting extras. I just can't keep up with who is out there. These two blogs have been in existence for quite awhile without my discovery.

In a post yesterday on the Kenyon Review blog, Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky brings up the ever present debate about talent, craft, and hard work. Are writers/artists born or made? Can we teach an art to someone born without instant talent? In his introduction, he says, "Good writing can come from talent or craft or plain hard work, but great writing requires all three." Then, later, as he proposes the long view of building on talent/will/desire to create/etc. through careful practice, he imagines a student disappointed by a tough critique in workshop. This is Lobanov-Rostovsky's response to the student:

"It’s not that 'we just don’t get it.' You just didn’t get it right! But no worries, mate, because you don’t have to prove yourself a genius by writing a perfect first draft. Geniuses revise. (I’m having that printed on a t-shirt as we speak.) And your first book won’t be your best book. You’ll mature; you’ll ripen. You’re not a morning glory, but a slow-growing vine. Only your author photo will remain unchanged as the years pass."

I love it! "Geniuses revise." My new motto.

Lit Crit

I've been reading D.A. Powell's latest post on the Harriet Blog over at Poetry's website. I'm so thankful Powell took the time to write this post, as it reflects many of my own feelings about literary criticism. I admire scholars of literary criticism, but I have always shied away from delving too deeply into criticism, mostly from the fear that any one school of thought might influence my poems. I prefer to rely on instinct and imagination.

Here's the quote I love the most from Powell's post:
I think it’s okay for poets to step away from the academy for a while and just read, write, see a movie, eat a plate of chicken and waffles, write a little more, go to sleep, dream about catching tigers in red weather.

As far as criticism and reading other writers, I'm encouraged by Powell's defense of reading by instinct, accepting what resonates and passing on what doesn't. It works for me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What I'm Reading: The Usable Field

About ten years ago, I was in the habit of noting when and where I acquired my books. I'd jot down the month/year and the city on the inside of the back cover. Somewhere along the way, I dropped the habit, and now I wish I hadn't. I'm no longer sure when I started reading Jane Mead's poetry, but I have her first two collections well-earmarked: The Lord and the General Din of the World (Winner of the 1995 Kathryn A Morton Prize) and House of Poured-Out Waters. This week, I bought and read, devoured really, her third book, The Usable Field.

Mead comes closest to being the poet I wish I were today. As one of her blurb writers, Alan Williamson, describes it, "Confessional detail and philosophical argument are reduced to traces, but their resonance from underneath leaves no doubt that this work is serious." As I've been sifting through the poems in my new manuscript, I am haunted by the question: Is this too personal, too confessional? Mead builds beautiful poems that are clearly based on her real-world experiences and the truths she has discovered; however, the poems rarely reveal anything personal. How does she do it? Vexing.

Here is the opening of "Sister Harvest Brother Blues"

Because there is no earth-light,

because there is none other, we remain

wayward and hampered. No one

will be going this day with us.

The main force is the usable field

or sun on the useless bunchgrass,--

Here is the opening of "With No Praise from the Far Dark Reaches"

I believe in the horse and the marshes--I believe

in the crow,--talisman of apple tree and pear.

I believe in the wall. This wall and the other.

Did I say the willow? I believe the willow

knows what the dead know, passing over.

Many of the poems have the feel of the elegiac, and several of the poems reference "the dead." Those of you who have read my recent poems might have seen me do the same. In fact, as I began reading Mead's book, my little inner critic-demon was chirping away that Mead was doing what I'd set out to do and much better.

Most of Mead's poems in The Usable Field are short, intense, contained. They are largely one page or less, with a few exceptions. I have to admit that I favor the short poem. I've never had the attention span necessary for lengthier works. Mead manages that great trick of poetry, compression, with masterful force.

I'm grateful for another distant mentor.

Thursday, July 24, 2008


Today, I'm actually following my own advice. Each semester, I remind students about the importance of backing up their work, and each semester several students (and often myself) lose whole papers, stories and poems to computer glitches. So, today, I'm actually going to use the external hard drive that I purchased six months ago to back up all my files.

Another practical application on tap for today is the actual construction of the computer file for Glacial Elegies. So far, I've just been shuffling hard copies of poems around; however, I finally feel ready to create that lengthy document. Much tinkering to follow....

Monday, July 21, 2008


As promised, here are 5 ways of overcoming the doubts and obstacles.

1. Celebrate the victories, big and small.
Each acceptance, each public reading, each note from a reader means the work is paying off. I still get a thrill when an editor takes the time to compliment one of the poems he or she has accepted. Sometimes, when the doubts are there, I look back at my collection of contributor copies to remind myself that others have found my poetry worthy of a public space. Sometimes, I look back at my emails from the folks at Anhinga to recapture that energy.

2. Cultivate supportive friends and family members.
Writing is hard, isolated work. Largely, we writers spend a lot of time inside our own heads. When the doubts arrive, reach out to a good friend, colleague or family member. Let their words remind you that the process of discovery necessary for each new poem, story, essay, or other art piece is worth your time and energy. My dad admits that he doesn't really "get" poetry, but he tells me that he is proud of what I've done, regardless. It might sound sappy, but it helps.

3. Try not to wallow in self-pity or self-recrimination.
This is a take on Megan's comment from the previous post. I do have a habit of wallowing in self-blame. A lot of valuable time can be lost this way.
3 1/2. If you must wallow, set yourself a time limit.
Give yourself one evening with Ben & Jerry or a bottle of wine. Vent. Then get over it.

4. Create a hands-on tool kit for jump-starting new work. The best way I've found to break the cycle of the doubtings is to get back to the page. I'll often ask a fellow poet to give me an assignment and a time limit. It might be a bit contrived, but it gets me back to the work and away from the couch. I also use submissions for this purpose. Sometimes focusing on the business side of things gets my mind off the doubts and back to the work. After all, in order to send something out there, I have to believe it is ready for public consumption. This often leads to revisions, which leads to ideas for new poems.

5. Pobody's Nerfect.
My mother, in all her wisdom, knew from the time I was very young that I have a tendency to beat myself up over mistakes. She once gave me a bookmark with "Pobody's Nerfect" on it. Lately, the phrase has come back to comfort me. Be kind to yourself. Each day offers a new chance to overcome the doubts and jump back into the writing. If you feel like you've let the doubts stifle you, just remember that there's always another chance to get back to the page.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


My friend Megan Chapman has a great, brave post on her blog this week that contains a journal entry in which she questions her art and herself as an artist. (Megan gives away a piece of art to a random commenter once a month...check it out!) Many folks have chimed in through the comments, but I find myself lingering on the questions and thinking about my own questioning/doubting/ second-guessing.

If you read this blog back in June, you know that I sent out about 20 submissions containing new poems. I've now gotten back a few rejections; at the same time, I've been combing through the new manuscript with the most critical eye yet, and I'm finding some weaker points. As the summer is now about 2/3 over, and school/work is looming on the horizon, I've also taken a moment to reflect on what I've accomplished. All of this reflection, leaves me thinking I could be doing more. I have not written every day, as I intended. I have not read all of the books on my "unread" shelf, as I intended. I have spent some days on the couch watching baseball and Netflix films. I have spent some days reading political thrillers instead of poetry/literature. I have spent some days reading other people's blogs rather than writing. Does this mean I am not serious enough about my work? When given the entire summer, with no obligations and therefore no excuses for not working, I feel a bit like I've let myself down.

Megan talks about having to be a sales person to get her work out there on the market and wonders about how that might influence her. I know that for me, perseverance in submitting work, in marketing myself as a "serious" writer, has been the only way for me to get published. Most of my individual poems go out to dozens of magazines before being accepted. Blood Almanac was accepted after over 50 rejections. When hearing of other writers and how their work is accepted almost instantly and from the press/publication of their choice, I begin to wonder if my work holds up.

All of this questioning must seem a bit self-indulgent, but I think it is important to acknowledge the doubts that run like a minor current through my mind on a pretty constant basis. For me, it is important to acknowledge the doubts and then find ways to overcome them.

Next time...methods to overcome the doubts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

AWP Registration

Registration for AWP in Chicago opened yesterday - here. Last year, AWP in New York sold out of registrations well before the conference.

Monday, July 14, 2008


"This is Iowa...and not only are the people nice, they have a hard time believing anyone else is not nice." -- Joseph Geha in the essay "Where I'm From - Originally."

I'm reading a collection of essays written by Midwestern authors called Townships, edited by Michael Martone and published in 1992. I've had this book for about 9 months, and I no longer remember what reference led me to it; I'm simply grateful that Martone solicited these essays and published them.

When I entered the MFA program at the U of A, I had only a vague sense of my subject matter; however, the creative writing program at Arkansas is, if nothing else, a program built on the strong literary tradition of Southern writers. Two particular classes got me thinking about regionalism and where I fit as a writer. One was Dr. Brinkmeyer's class on the Southern Novel and the other was one of Skip Hays' form & theory classes, the one on the novel. Reading Faulkner, O'Connor, and a host of others, it became clear that there was a definite sense of what it means to be Southern and to write. Reading broadly, I could also identify this definitive regionalism in authors of New England and the West. Even authors who exist outside the mainstream in these areas echo, reflect, and refract that sense of region. What's left? The Midwest. What are the basic tenets of a Midwestern regionalism/aesthetic? I have struggled with that question ever since.

Martone makes a point in his introduction that the Midwest has defied definition from the beginning. For all intents and purposes, it stretches from the Ohio Valley to the Rocky Mountains. It covers eastern forests, sweeping prairies, all the great northern rivers that feed the Mississippi, and the short grasses of the plains. This is a massive amount of land peopled by a great diversity. While many of us are connected to the land through a family history with farming, there are just as many of us connected to the urban blue collar of factories & city jobs.

So, does a sense of Midwestern regionalism exist in literature? Does it begin with Willa Cather and Sinclair Lewis? I think the net surrounding and defining what it means to be a Midwestern author is there; however, it must be larger, looser and more accommodating than the rest. The essays in Townships are helping me grapple with my own sense of regionalism.

I laughed at the quote from Geha because I am constantly frustrated when faced with people who are just mean-spirited and small-minded. None of this is to suggest that Midwesterners (or myself) are constantly good and moral; we are all flawed individuals.

Perhaps place no longer matters quite so much in literature, given our global age. Perhaps these questions of regionalism drift to the antique. Perhaps my own personal struggle between rootedness and mobility lacks the power of political, economic, and social struggles. All I can do is write what comes out of me and try to say something true about my experiences in this lifetime.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Glacial Progress, 2nd Installment

It's been about a month since I posted news of Glacial Elegies. When working on Blood Almanac, I kept all the poems in a simple file folder, which presented problems when I tried to look at the sequence and shuffled the poems unknowingly or when I knocked the folder off my desk every other day. Wednesday, I did the same with my folder for GE. Suddenly, it struck me...get a three-ringed binder. Not sure why I was so slow to think about using some kind of binder, but there you go. For me, going to any office supply store can be a dangerous outing. I've never been a fashion horse, but just set me loose in a room of paper, post-its, pens, binders, & etc., and I can quickly lose all sense of my budget.

In any case, I found a three-ringed binder with a colorful pattern of blues, purples, and greens. I'm usually quite practical about these things and just get the black or white binder; however, there's something earthy about this design, and it caught my eye. I spent yesterday printing up all of the poems I'd previously organized in my GE folder. (Last month, I laid out all the poems on the wonderful 8 ft. conference table my husband had the good sense to buy. I got down the basic order for the poems and some sense of the section breaks.) After printing the poems, I punched the holes and loaded them into the binder. It's much more organized than the folder; I can flip through the poems more easily, and I get a better "feel" for the book. It might seem new-agey/touchy-feely, but loose pages are harder for me to imagine as a book.

What surprised me is that I have more than met the minimum number of pages (usually 48) that most presses require. When I was working on the first book, it felt like pulling teeth to get to the minimum, and even then, Anhinga asked for more poems before publishing the book. In this go around, I guess I held back from envisioning the entire manuscript. Perhaps having the first book out there gave me some breathing room to just let the poems happen.

Now, I have the luxury of removing a few of the poems that might not fit and spending the next 6 weeks thinking about and crafting a few poems that I think need to be in the book. There are a couple of angles regarding death & mourning that I haven't covered yet that I'd like to explore. At the moment, I'm feeling really good about meeting my first deadlines for submission, which begin at the end of September. I'm sure the book will continue to evolve, but the basic structure is there, and that is satisfying enough for now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: Elegy

Without doubt, Larry Levis died far too young at the age of 49 in 1996. Elegy is the collection he had very nearly completed in the months before his death. Philip Levine edited the collection at the request of Levis' family.

I have read individual poems from this collection in the past, but the cumulative effect of reading poem after poem is that of an almost unbearable sadness. The last nine poems are titled in this vein -- "Elegy with a Bridle in Its Hand," "Elegy with a Thimbleful of Water in the Cage," "Elegy Ending in the Sound of a Skipping Rope," etc. While all the poems in the book explore the fragility of human connections, how easy it is for those connection to become lost and broken, the elegies capture the human condition perfectly. These poems explore the need for relationships juxtaposed against the need for solitude. They illustrate the sad fact that we often destroy what we love, and this is frequently shown through the age-old conflict of humanity versus the natural world.

This is a book that weighs on the reader. What astonishes me now, looking back over the poems, is that Levis confronts his (and our) mortality so straightforwardly. For instance, in "Elegy for Whatever Had a Pattern in It" he writes, "We go without a trace, I am thinking," followed by "What are we but what we offer up?" Then, in another tone altogether, in "Boy in Video Arcade" he writes, "So Death blows his little fucking trumpet, Big Deal, says the boy." The defiance of youth in the face of death just sucks the air from my lungs.

I'm sure Levis' death so soon after writing these poems and at such a relatively young age for our times contributes to the weight of these poems; however, the poems are haunting and powerful of their own accord, whether the reader knows the backstory or not.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Worth of Work

Next door, construction workers are adding an addition to our neighbor's house. It's been a summer of concrete, two-by-fours, and nail guns. Most recently, the roofing crew arrived. In the heat of July, they appeared last night at 5 p.m. and worked until 9. This morning, they were already on the roof at 7 a.m. My husband and I are fortunate to have a tiny, mother-in-law cottage behind our house, which serves as my husband's office and man-cave. We make frequent trips across the small backyard during the day, visiting each other with questions or observations or to take care of the mundane minutia of bills to be paid and household chores. Just now, as I crossed back, the 3 men on the roof next door were in a huddle discussing some aspect of the job apparently. They are all Latino and converse entirely in Spanish. As I looked up at them (for how could I not?), their conversation ceased and they simply stared at me as I made my way back into the house.

This little interaction made me wonder: what must they think of us? After all, we are too young to be retired, yet we don't go to work like most of our neighbors. Do they think me spoiled to be able to leisurely wander about the backyard? Both my husband and I are teachers, and both of us use our summer days to first recuperate from the school year and then to pursue our intellectual interests. When, I watch these men, who are clearly experts at what they do, sweating in the heat radiating up off the tar paper and shingles, a momentary guilt wafts through me.

My brother-in-law is a master automotive electrician. He also rebuilds cars that have been totaled and resells them. His work is dirty and physically taxing, involving long hours crawling underneath and around and inside cars. He give me no end of grief for my teaching schedule. Likewise, when people find out both my husband and I teach, their first comment invariably falls in the realm of "oh wow, you get summers off!" Forgive us if we get a bit defensive, but we aren't sitting around eating bon-bons and watching soap operas. Yet, how to convince especially those people working blue collar jobs that there is worth in philosophy and poetry?

A poem seems a bit paltry in the face of working 12 hour days trying to feed and house a family. As I contemplate the lives of the men next door, I feel a certain pressure to make these long days of summer count, to not waste my time, and to be grateful for those leisure moments.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Stars & Stripes

Two poems for Independence Day:

Walt Whitman - I Hear America Singing
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe
and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day--at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Langston Hughes - Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

What I'm Reading: A Murmuration of Starlings

A Murmuration of Starlings is Jake Adam York's second book of poems and winner of the 2007 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry--Open Competition. While I've admired York's poems in journals over the past couple of years, I missed his first book Murder Ballads and plan to go back to that as soon as possible.

The opening poem of A Murmuration of Starlings, "Shall Be Taught to Speak," begins with the familiar territory of how European Starlings were introduced to America in 1890 in an attempt to populate North America with all of the birds mentioned in Shakespeare. However, the poem then makes a dramatic shift to a photograph of a lynching in Arkansas from the same time period. This twining of the images of starlings and racial discord sets the theme for the rest of the book, which is mostly concerned with the Civil Rights era. At first, I thought the poem a bit heavy-handed in the connection; however, on reading the complete book, I have come to appreciate its place.

The rest of the book is wave on wave of poems that circle one of the most painful episodes in our history, poems of Emmet Till, riots, and the Birmingham church bombings. While the poems serve as historical markers, they are transformed by the careful weaving of one extended metaphor that is ever-changing: the starlings as darkness, threat, voice in the face of silence, all the buried secrets that refuse to remain unheard.

With subject matter so laced through with emotion, it is sometimes easy for a poet to let the themes carry the poem, to let technique slip; not York. He is a master of sound and line. He does not rely on hard end-rhymes but nests sounds within lines and then lets them echo throughout the poems, something subtle and haunting.

This is a book heavy with history. Living now in the south, I'm left with the question: How do we rise, phoenix-like, from so much hate?

York's website offers this about the book:
A Murmuration of Starlings is the second in a projected series of volumes that elegize the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

I inadvertently began this series in the course of composing Murder Ballads when poems about industrial accidents in Alabama's steel industry lead me into the veins of the state's racial history, through which I found my way to (or, more properly, back to) the stories of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the gruesome murders of those whose names are inscribed on the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. After Murder Ballads was complete, I dedicated myself to extending into a series the poems for the Civil Rights Martyrs, and within about 18 months, I had a series of poems revolving around an exploration of the Emmitt Till murder trial and an exploration of the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson.

Saturday, June 28, 2008


Drafts for two new poems. One I feel pretty confident about; the other could go either way. It feels a bit forced. Time always tells.

Also, in the mail, contributor copies from Zone 3, a journal out of Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. Issue 47 contains two of my poems: "Choosing Not to Bear" and "Two Points in Need of an Argument." I read through the poetry yesterday, and it's a solid issue with quite a range of talent.

Today, a beautiful rain, light but consistent. No deck-sitting, but a general bluish tint to the world that suggests reading under a good lamp.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This morning I am going to refrain from naming the poet I've been reading because I've been disappointed in what I've read. Several weeks ago, I came across a poem on Poetry Daily or Verse Daily (not sure which) and fell in love with it. I was surprised to find that the author had published 4 books, but I'd never heard of her. I immediately requested all 4 books from my school's interlibrary loan program. (Thank the stars for libraries and librarians! I could have made the mistake of buying these books on the basis of that one poem.)

Now that I've sifted through the 4 volumes, I'm left feeling empty and disappointed. That one poem, which I found in the latest volume, really is a stand-out. The rest seem too easy, too much on the surface of things. I found myself identifying many of the techniques I caution my students against...abstractions, being glib for no reason, being clever with nothing substantial beneath the cleverness. Every once in a while a line or an image would leap from the page, but these occurrences were too few and far between to keep me hooked.

Still, the morning is beautiful and the joy of the laptop is to be writing this post from my deck, watching the sun make its steady progress across the fresh-mown lawn. There is wind in the trees and the wash of snippets of songs from car stereos passing out front. All the windows must be down.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What I'm Reading: Crab Orchard Review 13.1

The weather here in Arkansas has been surprisingly beautiful for the middle of June. A run of days with low humidity means mornings spent on the deck listening to the cardinals establish their territories and reading. Today, I read through all the poems in Crab Orchard 13.1. My very favorite poet-friend Tara Bray has 2 outstanding poems there. Along the way, I discovered some names well-known to me with poems that lived up to the reputation (Michelle Boisseau, Andrea England, Paul Gibbons, & Susan Ludvigson), as well as finding some names unfamiliar to me with poems that drowned out the sounds around me (Amorak Huey, Lynne Potts, Lauren Rooker, Angela Rydell, & Maya Jewell Zeller).

Monday, June 23, 2008

Manual Labor

I have been absent from the blogging world for the past week while completing a home improvement project. This project left my body tired and aching, but more importantly, it left my mind rinsed clean. At this point, I need about 10 new poems to complete my manuscript, and I feel poised to launch myself into the particular writing mood of generating new work. This is sometimes a scary place to be...facing the white page. It's not always easy to remember to take up my journal (with slightly beige pages rather than scary, pristine white) and just scribble lines and words and doodles until something coalesces. For me, there is a thin line between letting topics, ideas, images develop on their own and plotting a purposeful theme. The first option is often seen as waiting for the muse/inspiration, while the second can seem forced. If I wait for the muse to inspire a poem, I could be waiting a LONG time; however, if I set out to write a specific poem about X, Y, or Z event, the poem often feels stiff and unnatural. There's something in between that involves a regular writing schedule and a willingness to be open to whatever's coming next. And that can be a very exciting place to be.

Friday, June 13, 2008


The number of submissions to lit mags that I've sent out in the last 2 days.

The process is quite involved for me. I get out the stack of poems that I consider ready for submission and my stack of lit mags that are currently accepting work. Then, I go through each poem to make sure I'm happy with it and can't see any more revisions (usually, I find a line or two to tweak along the way). Once the poems are ready, the process of matching the right batch of poems to the right lit mag begins. As I go, I pull up the website of each lit mag and check out previous contributors and double check submission guidelines. Yesterday, I found four that had stopped accepting submissions during the summer. It's always good to check and re-check, in my opinion. I was pleased to find a growing number of mags accepting electronic submissions. It is such a savings on postage! Having completed all the preparation, I set up a mini-assembly line of folders, envelopes, computer, and printer and then set to work.

I fell behind in making submissions during the spring, so for now, I'm just happy to have gotten the work out there...even though the reality of rejection lurks on the horizon. Until then, I'll hope for the good news.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

In the Mail

Yesterday, a good day for mail.

1. A copy of the new Indiana Review with my poem "Having Been Begotten." This is one of my favorite newish poems, and I've been submitting to IR for over 5 years, so it really is amazing to see my poem in there with Arielle Greenberg, Denise Duhamel, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Gary Soto, and others. The issue also contains a special feature of poems, fiction, and art with a funk aesthetic. I'd recommend it just for that, let alone my work...which, sadly, lacks the funk, being doused in a rural Midwestern sensibility. As always, the production of the journal is top notch.

2. A used copy of Larry Levis' Elegy. I have often remarked that there are some books/authors that come to us before we are ready for them. This happened to me first with Tolstoy and Anna Karenina. I tried to read this novel in high school and failed to get past page 50. In undergrad, I made it to page 100, but it wasn't until grad school that I actually finished the book and could see the mastery and mystery of it. Then, there was Charles Wright's Black Zodiac. My cousin gave it to me when I started grad school, and I couldn't get into it at all. Luckily, I kept it on my shelf, because two years later I plucked it up and fell head-long into Wright's meditative lines, which were a window to my own voice. All of that is a long way of saying, I've had the same experience with Levis. Only recently did I decide to try again with his work b/c I was looking at titles of poetry books with "elegy" in them. This time, the library copy wasn't enough. When I read the first few poems, I felt whatever barrier had existed before loosening and suddenly the poems blossomed on the page. Now I have a copy I can write in.

Happy Days!

Monday, June 9, 2008

What I'm Reading: Salvation Blues

Rodney Jones' Salvation Blues collects 100 of his poems from 1985 - 2005. I've spent the last couple of days reading the collection straight through, and I'm awash in the arc and scope of two decades of poems. The book leaves me with a clear sense of the progression of the poet, a progression that establishes a clarity of voice and a wisdom gained over years of being fully engaged in the world.

Here is a list of favorites:
A History of Speech
Two Girls at the Hartselle, Alabama, Municipal Swimming Pool
Pastoral for Derrida
The Work of Poets
The Bridge
The End of Communism
A Ride with the Commander
A Whisper Fight at the Peck Funeral Home
A Defense of Poetry
The Attitude
The Language of Love
Rain on Tin

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Book Contests

Gearing up for submitting Glacial Elegies, I've spent the last couple of days researching book contests. Yes, I'll send queries to a few of the presses that don't use contests, but the majority of my attempts to place the manuscript will be through open competitions. Winnowing out all of the first book contests cuts the list down quite a bit.

It was interesting to be gathering this information again, as I haven't even really thought about the process in three years. During the time I was submitting Blood Almanac, was at its height, exposing shady dealings in certain contests and railing against a perceived lack of ethics in how contests were judged. While I admit that some of the specific cases seemed to be unethical, the overriding sense that nearly all contests must be corrupt and fixed never sat well with me.

Now, as I've been reading the small print of contest guidelines again, I've been surprised to see so many presses printing promises of ethical judging or providing detailed explanations of their judging process. I like the openness of being able to see exactly how my manuscript will be handled, but I'm sad that it even has to be stated. The best statement that I read is over at Crab Orchard Review (such great people!). Jon Tribble, series editor for The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry says this, among other things:

The Crab Orchard Series in Poetry competitions DO NOT claim to be screened or judged blind since the manuscripts entered may include some or all previously published poems. We want the persons screening and judging our competitions to be avid readers of contemporary poetry and expect their experience as readers to be an integral part of their knowledge of poetry.

In the interest of fairness, I should say that I'm predisposed to Jon and Allison Joseph for their support over the years. However, I do think this statement gets it right. Of course, I would hope that screeners and judges would be well-read enough to recognize some of the work before them. After all, it was drilled into our heads during grad school that the way to get a book published was to first publish the poems in lit mags, thus garnering a readership and reputation. Most contests require the poet to strip his/her name from the manuscript, and some contests do not allow acknowledgments pages. The latter sometimes irks me because I feel that my journal publications should count for something; however, I do understand that the poems must stand on their own and the judge must pick the manuscript he/she believes is the strongest, whether he/she recognizes the poet or not. Finally, I do think a poet's close relationship with a judge should warrant a manuscript being eliminated from consideration, and I would happily withdraw mine if such a conflict occurred.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Megan Chapman: Evidence of the Disappearance

Today I'm off to Hot Springs to attend the opening of Evidence of the Disappearance: New Paintings by Megan Chapman, one of my most loyal commenters on this blog. If you live anywhere near one of the many galleries that show Megan's work, you should really check it out.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


A few weeks back, someone I consider a good friend, although we see each other too rarely, asked me about my "blog voice." She mentioned a personal struggle with blogging because of the issue of voice. I do not think I had an adequate answer at the time, and the conversation has lingered behind the scenes ever since.

Voice is a troubling construct for me. While I do think I made great strides in establishing a poetic voice over the last seven years or so (wow, that took a really long time!!), I also believe the voice within my poetry is still at the adolescent stage. There are still remnants of the voices of my mentors, echoes of those poets whose work I read obsessively. I wonder if they will ever truly be silent?

When teaching "voice" in my creative writing class, I'm sometimes at a loss, especially because many of the students are so new to writing that they haven't even learned the building blocks yet. I try to point out examples of particular authors and their choice of diction, syntax, formal elements, recurring themes/images, etc. and show how they build a voice, but it's murky waters at best.

As for a blog voice, I hadn't really thought about it much until this conversation occurred. As I told my friend that night, my only conscious decision was that the blog would be about my writing life, rather than about my personal life. Whatever voice I am now developing is a result of that choice for sure. The blog also reflects that voice I hear in my head when I'm thinking about the writing world, a version of my physical voice but muted, ghostly.

I was nervous about entering the blogging world, mostly because it's hard to erase something from the internet. I do not want to embarrass myself or others; however, to combat this, I approach this blog as a place of exploration and connection, rather than as a place to pronounce anything of import. I hope it is received as such.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

In the Mail

Contributor copies of the New Delta Review, which contains my poem "Why the Wind." The website is a bit behind on the current issue, citing last year's summer issue; however, it's worth a look, especially the samples of poetry from previous issues.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dictionary Delights

Working on a poem the other day, I needed to check the finer nuances of a word, so I grabbed the appropriate volume from my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. I also have access to the complete OED through my school's library databases; however, I still love the feel of the page and the chance encounters that occur. Here is one:

While looking for the word "moulder," I happened to flip a few pages past and found the word "muggle" staring up at me. Being a fan of Harry Potter, I was intrigued. Imagine my surprise to discover that in the early 20th century "muggle" meant "marijuana," in particular it meant "a marijuana cigarette." What? What???

When I looked in the complete OED online, I found 4 definitions for the word, with the 4th being the capitalized "Muggle," the usage of Harry Potter fame, interesting that they capitalized it. Other definitions included the obsolete "a tail resembling that of a fish" and the obsolete "a young girl, sweetheart."

The online version includes many more quotes than my shorter edition, and I was surprised to see that the marijuana "muggle" was used into the 80's. How did J.K. Rowling miss this? Or...conspiracy theorists unite...did she?

This little foray into linguistics kept me quietly amused for much of the day. I keep telling my students that they need to get a really good dictionary, but they never believe me.