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.