Sunday, February 28, 2010

Counting Down

43º and solid, but sheer cloud cover

36 days, 4 hours, and 20 minutes until Opening Day 2010.

Go Cubs Go!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bear: 1, Sandy: 0

43º and sun with hazy clouds

I'm giving this week to the Bear, may she enjoy the feast before her. (My bear is an angry, hungry, mama bear.) What can I say...between the grading, the sinus infection that led to a doctor's visit and horrible antibiotics, and this morning a cat that knocked over my 3/4-full cup of coffee just when I had finally woken up enough to even consider drafting a poem, ruining a library book, a journal, and a sheaf of poems in progress...I'm out. I'm done. So, many apologies to the poetry world, but this week belongs to the she-bear in all her glory.

Sadly, I still must grade more papers today, but I'll try to keep the bear out of that business, in the students' best interest.

In the midst of a trying week, I was reminded, however, that my bear is nothing compared to some that other people face. There are plenty of writers out there who don't have the luxury of three mornings a week to give to poetry due to jobs and families and other obligations, and yet they draft hat is off to them. Then, there is a student of mine, and I won't reveal particulars in honor of privacy, who is experiencing a tragedy of a violent nature that will prevent the student from completing the semester, when all the student is trying to do is graduate in order to find some hope of overcoming a bad hand already dealt.

Suddenly, I'm thinking of that old camp song & children's book: "Going on a Bear Hunt." Gotta go trough it, climb over it, swim across it, etc.

That'll be next week. As for this week: it's ate-up.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thoughts on Bravery and Courage

29º a good deal of sun, little hope for much warmth despite it

I've been thinking lately about bravery and courage when it comes to being a poet. More specifically, I've been wondering if I am brave enough, have courage enough, to really be the best poet I can be. Does becoming the best poet involve taking risks beyond those taken on the page?

Dear Reader, I have a darn good life: a loving partner who supports my work, great friends & family who cheer me on and lift me up, a stable job with a stable income, and a room of my own in which to work. As I've mentioned here before, I have come to terms with my teaching life and found a schedule that allows me to also focus on poetry. It turns out, I write most of my best poems (those that reach a reading audience in some form of print) in the midst of this stability. This has not always been the case.

I fought for what I have now, taking risks and making huge leaps of faith to get here. Is it okay to settle in and simply do the work? As long as I'm aware of the danger of stagnation, will I be able to ward it off?

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Break in the Clouds

44º overcast with grayish layers of clouds

While it may be cloudy outside my window today, I did receive a little sunshine yesterday afternoon in the form of an acceptance email from the Georgetown Review. Many thanks to Lauren Martin and Steven Carter for sharing the good news with me. It couldn't have come at a better time, given the string of rejections I've had lately. Also, this is one of the newer poems from last fall, so it's good to know I'm still doing something someone likes and wants to read/publish. Another awesome thing about this acceptance is that I had submitted again to GR based on a handwritten note from Emma Bolden, the poetry editor, on my first submission. She encouraged me to send again, and I did. Usually, this doesn't turn into a publication, but this time it did (happy dance).

Of course, ye olde rejection machine just couldn't rest. About two hours after the acceptance, I received a rejection email from a journal for which I had such a strong feeling and good hope. Thanks to my friend Anne for reminding what that great movie The Big Lebowski has to say on the subject: “Sometimes you eat the bear and sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.”

Now, my composition students beckon me to finish grading their papers already!

"The dude abides."

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Afterword

conditions the same

At the beginning of January, I answered one of Kristin's questions about how blogging had changed my journal habits. Now, I've noticed that since I've reached a routine on this blog, my paper journal only comes out on Fridays when I begin a new draft, and I don't even finish the draft in the paper journal. I write in the journal until the lines coalesce to a tipping point and then I move to the computer to draft it out. My handwriting has devolved and my typing is much quicker. I find I can keep up more easily with the lines forming in my head if I type rather than hand write. Still, I wonder about losing that connection between the body and the mind that Wendell Berry talked about back in the late 80's in an article I read about his writing practice. He defends the slowness of his process (using a pencil he sharpens with is own pocket knife, only writing by sun light, etc.) as a way to access the muscle memory of his hand, all the way up his arm, through his shoulder and neck to his mind. In Berry's argument, this type of writing is more organic, more true. I used to believe this wholeheartedly and only went to the computer once I had a complete handwritten draft. My process has obviously evolved and I just wonder what impact that has made on my poems. I suppose this is something I'll never fully know.

Finally, many thanks to those of you reading this blog! While I know you all aren't demanding a draft a week, knowing you are out there, Dear Reader, motivates me to be able to write a draft so I can write my weekly drafting post. It's almost like the expectation of having a new piece to take to workshop even though I don't share the drafts with you. Oh, and I forgot to say that this week's draft is titled "Midwest Nursery Tales."

Drafting Relieves Grouchiness

41º ~ good sun ~ a gentle breeze at work in the low branches ~ perhaps the last of the snow will melt today

Ah, Dear Readers, thanks for all your well wishes from Wednesday's post. The headache lingers and if the medicine does not do its work by Monday, I'm probably in for a visit to the doctor. Between the headache, the round of rejections, a long day at school yesterday, and a pile of grading the must be done by Monday, I began the day in one of the worst bouts of grouchiness I've had this far this semester. I was sure, sure, sure that there would be no new draft today. I tried to be okay with that, telling myself that I'd always known I wouldn't get 16 drafts from a 16-week semester, and that I'd have to accept this sooner rather than later.

Still, I took care of the piddling little things on my desk, clicked on my iTunes classical mix, and cleared the space. (I cannot draft while listening to music with lyrics.) I gave myself until 10:00 to try reading and to see if any draft emerged. (Luckily, with the second dose of meds, my headache has been subdued to a dull thudding). I opened up a book I've been eager to read: Mary Biddinger's Prairie Fever. (If I find some time to read it this weekend, expect a post on this fabulous book next week!) I wasn't fully able to concentrate at first; however, by the third or fourth poem, the music of the words and images started seeping in. I glanced up and saw a photo a great friend had sent of some not-yet-ripe persimmons, and I had a phrase. I jotted it down and returned to Biddinger's work. I probably read a half dozen or so more poems. Then, out of nowhere, I had an opening line: "In your stories, someone's always lost amid the cornstalks..." I went back to the book but could not continue reading because more of my own lines started crowding my head. Alas, my persimmon line did not fit, but I'll save it for another day.

Swiftly, swiftly, the draft poured out. And here, I must pause to thank that editor whose rejection gave me so much trouble last week. I kept his comments in mind, could see that I might have fallen into a pattern of repeated syntax and worked with this new draft to break free from it, just as an experiment. I do not know if this poem has reached its full form. There may be more to add. It needs to sit and simmer a bit. Yet, given the mood I was in when I sat down at the desk this morning, I am celebrating this small moment.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Not Right Now, Dear Reader, I Have a Headache

26º and clear skies, the sun already up

The title for today's blog is not a euphemism. At the moment, there is a blinding ache above, between, and behind my eyes. I know its source; I've taken the medicine. So far it has not abated. To make matters worse, it has been nothing but rejection city around here for the last two weeks. I think I'm up to seven or eight journals saying "no thanks" (most of them kindly or in form letter), since my last acceptance. So, I'm having a little pity party for myself right now and then getting over it.

I had already planned a shortened poetry time today given the grading that needs to get done in the next few days. When I realized I'd be writing a short blog today, I thought of the last three lines from Whitman's "Song of Myself."

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

Until Friday...

Monday, February 15, 2010

What I'm Reading: Ruin

28º bright sun, light breeze in the upper branches

Ruin by Cynthia Cruz is a book I first requested through ILL last fall. After I'd read just the first few poems, I knew it was a book I needed to own. This second read through proved that buying the book was the right choice. After I'd read the book once, I turned to the back cover to learn more about Cruz and also happened to read the blurbs. Blurbs don't usually influence me to read a book, but these two really do capture the book well. "This is not a book about peacocks in twilight nor should it be read in the parlor," begins Thomas Lux. And Reginald Shepherd writes of the "landscape of fates and fatal hungers, nightmares and dangerous desires, in which enchantment and terror are so intimate that they become one." These blurbs are nearly poems themselves and apt descriptors of a book with a main theme of ruin and destruction.

Nearly all of the poems in Cruz' collection contain a first-person speaker, and that speaker emerges out of the reality of a working-class family with an alcoholic mother and a brother who ends up dead due to some kind of gun violence. In fact, as I read the poems, I was reminded thematically of Beth Bachmann's Temper. Cruz' book threads through the destruction of a nuclear family, although there is even more mystery in the narrative than there was in Bachmann's book.

Common images throughout the book include: horses, death, destruction, falcons, guns, a boat, the speaker hiding, and weeds, to name a few. Given that the poems are all compact bursts of language, I appreciated the weaving of key images throughout. In this interview for Poems Out Loud, Cruz states that when she writes she is "trying to make musical-language machines out of beauty and pain." I have to say, she succeeds in doing so!

Here are two examples. I'll copy the complete poems as they are short.

Twelve in Yellow-Weed at the Edge

Then, the police arrive--they don't find me.
I'm disguised as a boy in a champagne wig
And hid inside the gold rattle of a warm Appalachia wind.
Beneath the trash of willow, I am. The sorrow
Of trailer parks and carnie uncles. The poor
Girl's underworld, a weedy thing. The night,
With its kingdom of lanterns and awful blue lark.
How we waited, how we hid
Like wolves, in the revolving question of a field.

Sparks, Nevada

In the middle of the night, father
Brought me a falcon.

By morning, it ripped the wire and flew the hill
Into the highway.

When they found me in that car
My sleeve stemmed in blood,

I didn't know what it was
I was trying to kill.

I saw a craft of orphans steaming down the river.
They were dressed in white and silent as a seance.

It was then I spoke to the bird.

Already God is shaking his black seed
Back into me.

Support a Poet/Poetry: Buy or Borrow a Copy of this Book Today
Cynthia Cruz
Alice James Books, 2006

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sad Day: RIP Lucille Clifton

45º melting and mud, a sun I'd rather do without

Lucille Clifton did not drive, and that was a gift to me. In 1994, Clifton spent a week at my undergrad alma mater, the College of St. Benedict, as poet-in-residence. I had graduated the previous year, but my mentor, S. Mara Faulkner, arranged for me to return for the special workshop with Clifton and to attend all of the various readings and talks she gave. While I was there, I drove Clifton between the two campuses of CSB and St. John's University, our brother school. Sixteen years later, I've never forgotten that week.

What I remember most is Clifton's huge laugh and the smiles that extended clean up to her shining eyes. I was a very young poet, even for my already young age, not having experienced much of life yet. I'm a talker and a question-pesterer. Here was this older, wiser, amazing poet who never once lost patience with me. In fact, during one particular conversation exchanged at the bathroom sinks, I had my first encounter with a much more accomplished poet who spoke to me as an equal, regardless of my inexperience. I would go on to meet many other poets, especially in grad school, and far too many of them spoke down to me as a "lowly student." Not this woman of generous spirit.

This is the inscription she made for me in The Book of Light:
For Sandy ~ Thanks for being here -- Sister, Woman, Poet -- Joy! Lucille Clifton 3/94"

I love Clifton's poetry for its rawness, its compressed images, and its willingness to be vulnerable. Even with her passing, through her poems she will continue to inspire me and teach me about life at large because she exposed her one, unique life to the world.

One of my favorite poems:

here yet be dragons

so many languages have fallen
off of the edge of the world
into the dragon's mouth. some

where there be monsters whose teeth
are sharp and sparkle with lost

people. lost poems. who
among us can imagine ourselves
unimagined? who

among us can speak with so fragile
tongue and remain proud?

Support a Poet/Poetry: Buy/Borrow a Copy of this Book Today
The Book of Light
Lucille Clifton
Copper Canyon Press, 1993

Friday, February 12, 2010

Ice Inspired Drafting

33º and a weak sun struggling to break through the solid white sky

Yet another Friday has arrived and with it the need this morning to draft a poem ASAP to meet my goal of a poem a week. I did draft what feels like a poem, but with less confidence than last week's draft. Today's poem arose from this photo that a friend sent to me of her japonica covered in ice. I have been watching a tangle of icicles outside my own window all week and went out to take a few pics of those (after I drafted).

I must admit that while I had jokingly emailed my friend that I was going to write a poem about her picture, when I cleared my desk this morning, I had no idea what I would write. I cast about and felt forlorn. Let me here admit that I received a rejection this week that cast me off track a bit. This rejection note included a specific reason the editor wasn't accepting the poems, and usually that is encouraging to me, knowing how busy and over-worked editors are and knowing that someone took the time to try to help me make my poems better. However, this comment had to do with syntax and style and included a phrase that I live in fear of hearing about my own work. I freaked out. Luckily, I have two great poet friends who received my hysterical emails with gracious attention. It turns out that the group of poems I'd submitted happened to repeat a certain syntax that didn't gel with this editor. My poet friends assured me that they would let me know if I ever really was doing the thing I feared, and I trust them.

Back to today. There I was, clean desk, classical music barely audible, fresh page, and nothing to say. I looked at my friend's icy japonica. Nothing. So, I grabbed the top book on my to-read stack: Ruin by Cynthia Cruz. (I'll be posting on this book soon!) I started reading. As I read, that editor's voice echoed in my head and I was pulling apart Cruz' syntax to try and unravel myself from the knot of misery I'd gotten into. I read and read. Finally, a few lines emerged and I put pen to paper, hesitantly. After a few minutes I had to set down the book and focus on the poem that was growing in my brain. It did not grow easily. There was a lot of reading aloud of the few lines I had and then sitting staring out at my now-familiar icicles.

Eventually, I found my way through the poem, letting it show me where it wanted to go. I did fall back on my comfort zone of couplets with longish lines, but I'm okay with that. They really force me to focus on each phrase and image. I need the white space for breathing. The entire time I was drafting, I was writing against the voice of the editor from that rejection slip. I think that's a good thing. I don't want to fall into a tired pattern of syntax, but I also don't want to adjust my style because of one particular editor's words. Don't get me wrong; I do prefer to draft without those voices in my head, only allowing them in once the poem has gone to the revision stage, but this is the week I've had and these are the images and voices I have at hand today.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Snow Days, Slow Days: Links

28º and the solid, snow-white sky mirrors the solid, snow-covered ground; no melting

On Monday, we received 5 inches of snow followed by 2 inches of freezing rain followed by another inch and a half of snow. The rain did melt down the snow blanket some, but the snow following built it back. There was no wind at all. So, we had a perfectly even coating, save where the trees caught some of the snow on the way down. Yesterday, there was sun, but the temp only reached 35º for a few hours late in the day, so little melting occurred. I can't remember snow lingering like this during the 5 years I've lived in Little Rock. I find that school closings and the weather condition has slowed me to a sluggish pace.

But on to the links.

Rarely do I fall in love with poems on both Verse Daily and Poetry Daily on the same day, but today I did. Check out Lucia Perillo's wonderful poem "The Wolves of Illinois" on Poetry Daily today for a foray into the power of certain namings. Also, check out Peter Richardson's "A Mid-Wife's Late Sabbatical" on Verse Daily. The formatting of the poem struck me first. How did he achieve that wonderful inward bowing of the line breaks? Of course, formatting doesn't make a poem, and I was glad to find I enjoyed the content of the poem just as much. Some great images and sounds in there.


Martha Silano blogs at Blue Positive and has a great post up about the value of editors and rejections.


Stephen Mills, blogging over at Joe's Jacket, has a fine post about the non-ending debate over the worth of an MFA/PhD. I concur with almost all Mills says and think I'll stop reading any more articles/blogs about the whole subject.


On a non-poetry note, thanks to The Rumpus for this link to a great set of pictures of some baby pandas. Sometimes you just need some baby panda love. What I love about the group shot (16 baby pandas held by 16 men) is the wide variety of expressions and postures. I could look at this for hours.


Yesterday, I spent part of my snow day working on this year's NEA grant application. This will be my third submission for an NEA. The application comes around every two years, and every two years, I go through the same set of emotions. I begin with cautious optimism. Then I open the application forms and my heart rate increases alongside my blood pressure. I feel stressed. Why? Partially, I believe, because of the forms that are so governmental; my body goes through the same physical changes when I open TurboTax each February/March (why must the NEA be at the same time?). In any case, the NEA forms and directions are filled with warnings about following the directions precisely. I get so caught up in filling in the blanks exactly that when it comes time to pick the poems, my mind is a mess. (This is definitely a multi-day process in order to get some clarity.)

From another point of view, the stress lessens after I remember all the things I learned two years ago. Yesterday, it took me an hour (an hour!) to remember that I had saved all the documents on my computer from 2008. Of course I needed a new manuscript this year, but I could at least use the '08 docs as a guide. That helped immensely. I felt like I was having to relearn a foreign language every few years. Perhaps I'll remember sooner in 2012.

As for the stress of picking the poems, here is where I hesitate. How do you, Dear Reader, select 10 pages of your own poetry? Obviously, we want those 10 pages to be our best, but how to decide on "best"? Do you only select poems that have been published in lit mags or in your book if you have one? Do you only select poems written most recently (as indicative of your current project)? In 2006, I included 10 poems from Blood Almanac. In 2008, I included 3 of those poems and 7 new ones from my new manuscript. This year, I have 1 poem that overlaps with 2008, but the rest are new. All 10 have been published, and this year I also paid attention to the arc of the manuscript, a mini-chapbook, if you will. Is that a good strategy?

What I do know is that I will send the application off this weekend, having returned to cautious optimism. Then, because the announcement of results does not arrive until November/December, I will forget about the fellowship on most days. On days when I do think of it, I will remember that the odds of winning are like the lottery. There are hundreds of applications and a relative handful of winners. Judging poetry is subjective. There's always 2012.

Monday, February 8, 2010

What I'm Reading: Folded into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm

Conditions holding true: snow, slush, ice, temps hovering at the freezing mark

At the end of January, I wrote about receiving Kristen Orser's chapbook Folded into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm from Greying Ghost Press. I ordered it impulsively, based on the title and this description on the press' website:
"The midwest can
be a lonely space to crawl. Heaps of junctions and front roads bordering corn but nobody else is on the road this afternoon. Folded Into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm is a thunder-slap meant for your cheek. There is a ferocity and a bite to these poems as ripe as the 'Bells, bells, bells / resembling / the ferocity of print ribbon. Double / if you are the responder / my words gut.' Kristen Orser shall reckon!"
The rest of the entry from January details the delightful production that Greying Ghost puts into its books.

I've just re-read the 15 poems in the collection after letting is sit for several days since the first read. To tell the truth, I struggled to match the book up to the first two sentences in the description above. These are poems of surrealism and language collage, and while there is a sense of desolati
on and silence between the speaker (first-person "I") and the you addressed in almost every poem that felt very Midwestern to me, I did not find much in the way of landscape or other Midwestern icons. This troubled me on the first read.

I am happy to say that after accepting the fact of the poet's vision being different from what I expected, I was able to see the craft in the poems and admire it. These are poems of ideas, but holding true to William Carlos Williams' famous maxim, "no ideas but in things." They also remind m
e of the leaps made in the poems of Wallace Stevens. And the things in these poems are lovely: ferns, canaries, cakes, bells, bones, tongues, and more than I can list here.

Orser has a true gift for titles, which become tiny poems in themselves. For example, here are a few morsels: "a disguise and cake, the thing we birthed and kept under wood," "fever is the affirmative," and "the whisper dictionary is in the antique cabinet."

I also admire Orser's use of white space. Perhaps the gaps and indentations do remind me of the Midwestern sense of space where the eye can gaze on and on before being interrupted by an image on the horizon. Also, kudos to Greying Ghost for being willing to print a poem with long lines perpendicular to the normal printing. However, due to this play with lines and white space, it is difficult to reproduce the poems properly here.

Here are some lines that resonated with my Midwestern side:

From "recently, the fence"

......................Decidedly unsayable --
...................................................The mouth opens,
...................................................has limitation.

From "grab the ear"

In the wild region we don't visit,
memories are shoestring
words like ping. Our desire a flat

All in all, I'm still completely happy to own this book and to have read Orser's work. While our aesthetics might not thoroughly gel, the poems do contain wonderful language and just may push me to risk more in my own work.

Support a Poet / Poetry: Buy or Borrow a Copy of this Book
Folded Into Your Midwestern Thunderstorm
Greying Ghost Press, 2009

Random Reflections

33º No change since last report

Two Random Reflections:
1. Here's a thought about this blog that's been bouncing around for quite some time. I do not have a site meter; I do not know how to track the comings and goings of those who visit this site. I admit that when others discuss hits or display a list of search terms that led visitors to their sites, I'm intrigued. I did investigate enough to find the gadgets necessary to add a site counter to this space. However, I also know myself well enough to know that therein would lie many dangers of the judgmental and jealous kind. Blogger provides an estimated number of views for the profile section and that in itself has almost driven me over the edge. I look at other bloggers and see their profile counts in the thousands while mine struggles. I have always had a terrible time with self-judgment and jealousy. I do not want those issues anywhere near this space. So, for self protection, I have chosen not to add a site counter or to find any other apps that would allow me to see who is visiting. If you, Dear Reader, ever feel moved to leave a comment, that tells me more than the site meter. If you, Dear Reader, choose to read in anonymity, that too is perfectly wonderful and your right.

2. Being a writer can be a strain for the environmentally concerned. Here is one thing I do to beg forgiveness from the trees that sacrifice their pulp to my paper. I collect all the paper I use in my school office that is only printed on one side (extra handouts, drafts of assignments, flyers, etc.). This pile builds up quickly. I bring home my bundles and use them to print out all my drafts of poems, letters, applications, etc. I only use my store bought paper (30% recycled) for sending out submissions or official applications and the like. Even then, I often end up with drafts on used paper that I don't need. These I re-collect in a bag near my desk and take back up to school where we have large Shred-It containers that get recycled every month. I recently learned that a piece of paper can only be recycled a few times before the fibers refuse to hold. In the interest of preserving trees, consider reusing or at the very least, see if your office or community accepts white paper for recycling. Here ends this PSA.

Yay Josh Robbins

33º and 2 inches of snow on the ground with freezing rain laying ice on top of it (schools closed)

Big shout out to Josh Robbins, whose poem "Praise Nothing" is up at Verse Daily today. Josh is a great blogger (Little Epic Against Oblivion), a PhD candidate at U of Tennessee, and the poetry editor of Grist, which has published me in the past. Keep your eye on him...the sky isn't even the limit for this guy.

Favorite lines of the poem: "glistens / a white valediction... ."

Sunday, February 7, 2010

What I'm Reading: Whistling Past the Graveyard

35º and a milky sky disguises the sun

This post is long, long overdue, and I send big apologies to blogger friend Kristin Berkey-Abbott, who graciously offered to swap her book, Whistling Past the Graveyard, for mine last fall. As the towering stack of to-read books grew, I lost track of things. In any case, I spent this morning rectifying the situation.

Kristin's poems are startling for their matter-of-fact approach to the subject matter, how to maintain a spiritual/religious life in the 21st century rush and hustle. While the poems rise up out of serious meditation, they do not rely on overly philosophical language or images. For someone who does not practice an organized religion yet spends a lot of time thinking about the spiritual, like myself, this was refreshing. For example, the poem "Frog Flingings" ends this way:

Still, a prophet would come in handy in times like ours,
someone with a direct pipe to the divine,
someone who would deliver dictums, someone we could kill
when we didn't like the message.

Wow. Talk about a killer last line!

In "Reformation Day" the modern mixes with the religious particularly well in the second stanza:

We pay alms as we must: electric bills,
pool chemicals, cool treats. We pay indulgences
when we can't avoid it: the air conditioning repair
man, the pool expert who keeps the water pure,
men versed in mysteries we cannot hope to understand.

Not all of the poems have such religious tones. Several deal with the darkness of melancholia an depression. In "Running from the Plantation of Despair" the speaker takes on the voice of the slave to describe depression. The speaker states:

I'm an ocean away from my home, my happy
self, in a land where I can't speak the language,
digest the food, or interpret the constellations.

I inhale the dust
of a million dashed dreams. I sink into a songless
sleep and wake to a day drained of color.
Gradually I forget my real name...

All in all, I appreciate the succinct nature of these poems and their willingness to ask difficult questions with clarity and grace.

rt a Poet/Poetry: Buy or Borrow a Copy of this Book Today!
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Kristin Berkey-Abbott
Pudding House, 2004


34º and a blue-ish kind of dawn

Today, I have envy of poet Penelope Scambly Schott, whose poem "Sacrament of the Moths" appears on Verse Daily. For the past three years I have been trying to use the word "crepuscular" in a poem and have failed. Schott does it beautifully, not to mention writing a poem full of whimsy.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Two Gems from Mary Biddinger

40º and a pause in the rain, still no sun of which to speak

Double post Friday! I couldn't resist linking to these two gems from Mary Biddinger:

First, How a Poem Happens features Biddinger's poem "Shipwreck" and an interview on the life of the poem.

Second, ReadWritePoem's prompt this week is from Biddinger: the therapeutic cleanse. I plan on doing this one tomorrow!

Another Week, Another Draft

39º and an intermittent drizzle, no sun to speak of

Last night before bed, I took account of the fact that it was Thursday and I had yet to draft a poem for this week. I had a little talking to with myself, saying, "self, tomorrow you will draft a poem before you do anything else." Voila!

Today's drafting notes:
One of my current obsessions is saints and their relics; however, rather than studying the existing ones, I've been creating my own in poems. So far I have "The Winter Saint," "The Stone Saint," and "The Once-Winged Saint." I also have lots of poems that mention relics or reliquaries. For example, "The Mortician's Wife" in Copper Nickel 12. A few weeks ago, I used our library's ILL department to order some books as inspiration, completely going by titles alone. Wednesday, I received Relics & Reliquaries by Jeffrey Vallance. I flipped through and it is filled with wonderful color photographs. Strangely wonderful, it is about contemporary relics as much as ancient religious ones. Here's a sample from the table of contents: Childhood Relics, Pop Culture Relics, Richard M. Nixon Relics, Vatican Relics, Favulous Vegas Relics, Lutheran Relics, ... you get the idea.

This morning, I cleared my desk of distractions, set my iTunes to random on my classical music collection, cleared the screen, pushed the keyboard aside, and took up my journal & pen. I opened Vallance's book to the TofC, and on the opposite page is an etching of a saint. My eye was drawn to the bare feet, beautifully rendered. Only after I'd taken in these feet did I glance at the caption. Turns out it's an etching of the author in traditional saint-like pose, dressed in vaguely biblical robes, flowing locks of hair, light emanating in a halo of lines around the head, hands offering up two reliquaries, feet bare. Awesome. And then the first line struck...the feet of the fallen saint crack and splinter...

Somehow as I began to write about what I thought would become "The Fallen Saint" I was also thinking about the yew tree. I think I saw something on another blog recently about yew trees in poetry. I didn't read the blog but thought of Sylvia Plath's poem, "The Moon and the Yew Tree." While the Plath poem is nowhere in my draft (or so I think), I did steal the yew tree.

Here is where research intersected with today's draft. I hit the internet to find out more about yew trees. I had to make my saint European, and I included the poisonous berries and the typical birds that eat these seeds, thrushes and waxwings. Then I had to find out about the call of thrushes and waxwings. Note to self: if you play a recording of birdsong while trying to draft, both cats will leap onto the desk and stare raptly at the computer looking for their prey.

All of this wove together and became "The Starving Saint" (no longer fallen through several revisions).

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Shout Out

29º and a bit past sunrise, clouds out the south window, blue sky out the west

A giant shout out to the poets I met at Hendrix College yesterday afternoon/evening. Many thanks to Hope Coulter and the Murphy Foundation for making my visit possible. (The Murphy house is stunning!) More than thanks to Taylor, Michael, Matt, Julia, Lily, Becca, Joseph, & Tim for sharing your drafts with a stranger and listening with so much attention to my comments. I will be looking for your names alongside mine in the journals very soon! The whole event was a complete delight from arrival to departure.

To celebrate, I've created a cento from the pieces we workshopped last night.

Wrapping Boys Inside Birds: A Cento

My capabilities lie flat across my chest,
truncated, only an S-Curve hinting at a heroic pose.
I wanted to find my own uncertain fingers in your fragments.
Your essence in the air,
golden brilliance shimmering
down the middle,
producing only smoke and sorrow songs.
....................................You could say
I died like the rain.

Monday, February 1, 2010

What I'm Reading: Sensational Spectacular

25º and thick strips of clouds, sun sifting through

As some of you may remember, I won a copy of Nate Pritts' first book, Sensational Spectacular, in a Goodreads giveaway. I was unfamiliar with Pritts' work, but with the chance of a free copy, I was willing to throw my name in the hat. I must also admit that I was curious after seeing the promotions for his new book from Cooper Dillon on Facebook. So that's how marketing works! Little did I know there would be 500 or so other names in that hat and only a handful of copies to give away. Woo Hoo.

I've spent the last week or so reading this densely packed adventure. The book occurs in three parts: 1) Secret Origins, 2) Big Crisis, and 3) The Brave & The Bold. Parts 1 and 3 are composed of two short poems per page concerning the speaker and a group of friends, largely identified by a certain color (Red, Blue, Green) unique to each. Each of these small poems is titled with a colon before the first word of the title and after the last word in the title, providing a frame. In the table of contents, the individual small poems are not listed, so these titles are really intended as section breaks in a long poem called "Secret Origins" and another called "The Brave & The Bold." The poems in the middle section are titled normally and are almost entirely about the speaker, minus his friends.

I mentioned that Pritts' poems are slightly outside my comfort zone. They feel very youthful to me, and I do not mean that as a slight in any way. There is humor here, alongside longing and angst, and a definite sense of the conversational, everyday language spoken in plainspeak, but arranged with a whimsy. There is a fascination for hammers & tools, rockets & robots, and all things outer space. As I read, I felt like I was being allowed to overhear the intimate daily thoughts of a man not entirely grounded in the sludge & trudge of this workaday life. It grew on me.

Perhaps the sign of a poet's success is this struggle I feel to write about the poems. They stand for themselves. So, here is the ending of one of the short poems from "Secret Origins," ":Bowled Over:," in which the speaker explains how he and his friends "enjoy competitive games" like bowling and bird watching.

.........................................................My friend

in blue tries to see only blue birds, turning a blind eye

on birds of any other color. His bird watching totals

are staggeringly low. My friend in red counts
anything he sees in the sky as a bird: airplanes,

dandelion pollen, clouds.

And here's one of my favorites in its entirety from the middle section "Big Crisis." Notice the subtle use of sounds, although often askew from traditional placements. You have to read it out loud. (The lines are double spaced in the original.)

Requiem for the End of Time!

Assume there's someone else

pulling my strings, my mouth

opening to say the one thing

that will bring you back to me

but uttering nonsense instead.

Covered with cloud, I'm shaking

as my stupidity grows to silly

proportions. Yesterday morning

I saw the hooded man with the axe, yes,

I was led onto the stage & told to sing

my last. I inhaled & what I inhaled

turned me into a robot, my limbs

clunky & hollow, my chest filled

with gears & pistons where

breathing & love us
ed to be.

I have a glowing faith

that eventually I will leave this all in the past.

I love the way that last line extends longer than the rest, bludgeoning us with that feeling of wanting to move past what has hurt us. I remember studying last lines in a Form & Theory class with Miller Williams and this change in length being one of the closures presented. Pritts uses it quite effectively here.

Support Poetry and Poets: Buy or Borrow this Book Today!
Sensational Spectacular
Nate Pritts
Blaze VOX, 2007