Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Flutter, A Flurry

61º ~ ah, spring, what took you so long? (full sun, a moderate southern breeze)

This morning has been a flurry of activity at the Kangaroo desk. So here are some links and a few bits of news.

Congrats to Jehanne Dubrow for the arrival of her new book: Stateside. I still need to pick up From the Fever-World, but I plan to get both at AWP next week.

How a Poem Happens, one of my favorite poetry sites, features Jake Adam York this week, exploring the process of writing one of my favorite poems of his, "Shall be Taught to Speak."

Two bits of good news:

The new issue of is LIVE and includes two of my poems. In Monday's blog I wrote about reading styles. If you click on my poems you'll be able to hear me read. Feel free to let me know what you think.

After submitting for seven years, I *finally* placed two poems at Passages North. As I've said before, persistence has been my tool of choice in the world of publications. This proves the tool is sturdy. For the past several rounds of submissions, I've received the hand-written note to try again. This year, I first received an email stating that the editors liked my work but wanted me to send one more batch before making a final decision. I've never had that happen before, but dutifully, I mailed off five more poems. It turns out that the two selected were from this second group, and I am thankful to the readers and editors at the journal who took the time to reach out and work with me.

One last note: I've been feeling a bit of a geek for studying the AWP schedule and drafting a game plan. I even made my own calendar in excel so I could pencil in panels and readings/signings I do not want to miss. Today, while catching up on reading blogs, I must have read three or four written by people admitting to this very activity, advocating it actually. Writer geeks unite!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Are You Taught to Read Like That?

47º ~ pure blue and the sun making its way into the world

A few weeks ago, I spoke to and read for Lyndsey Daniel's Intro to Poetry class at the University of Arkansas Community College - Morrilton. When sending me my great thank you gift of a journal inscribed with personal notes from the class, Lyndsey also included some questions the students didn't have time to ask, and as time permits, I'm going to tackle them here.

Joanne asks: Are you taught to read like that? (like poetry style)

This question made me smile and think about what can be a very contentious topic for some poets today. To answer Joanne, I'm going to have to "go round by Laura's house" (as my father-in-law says when my mother-in-law tells an anecdote).

I experienced my coming-of-age as a poet in the late 80's and early 90's while I was an undergrad at the College of St. Benedict. We were lucky to have many great writers come and visit our small campus in central Minnesota, but the ones who stick out in my mind today are: Joy Harjo and Li-Young Lee. We were also lucky to have an extensive collection of videotapes of readings (yes, this was back in the day of VHS, dear Reader), and the one that I remember most from these is Quincy Troupe. I mention this because I had not heard a live poetry reading until this time. While my high school English teachers were phenomenal, we read mostly DWG's (dead white guys) with some Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Plath (Dead White Women). All of our reading took place either silently or aloud, but with stumbling and stuttering as high school students often do when uncomfortable with their material. The teachers dramatized their readings to keep our interest.

So, as an undergrad, I heard poets read their poems for the first time, and all three of the ones I've named above, read in a performance style, not slam poetry or spoken word per se, but clearly reveling in the sounds of words and accenting line breaks. In part, this is what made me fall in love with poetry as a form, and I too adopted this style. (Interesting, I just noticed that all three people I mention above are non-white poets...not sure how much that comes into play with the discussion, but it intrigues me. The oral tradition seems to have been kept alive in all three cultures, native American, Asian-American, and African-American, in ways it hasn't for Euro-centric Americans.)

As many of you know, I took six years off between my undergrad days and graduate school. In that time I both lost and found poetry many times; however, I didn't attend many readings, and I continued to read my own work aloud (to myself) in more than just straight reading off the page. I'm not sure there is a word for this, but I separate the way prose is read from poetry. I do not mean it has to be highly dramatic, but I do think there should be a closer attention to the sounds of words and lines...that is after all one of the key demarcations between the forms, no?

In any case, I arrived at the U of Arkansas excited about my first workshop. At the end of the workshop, the instructor castigated both myself and another female poet for reading in this "poetic style." Apparently, the fashion of poetry reading by the late 90's and early 00's had become a flat style, simply reading the lines off the page in prose-like fashion. I must admit, dear Reader, that I left that workshop and cried. This instructor had crushed one of the things I loved about poetry. It took me a long time to have the confidence to read my work out loud again, even though I had to read every line I wrote in workshop on a bi-weekly basis.

After struggling through grad school and trying to find my voice both on the page and during readings, I think I'm finally closer to the answers. I still read in a "poetry style," as Joanne mentions, and I'm proud of it. However, I do try to moderate my leanings toward the completely musical. I hope I've struck a happy medium.

You all can be the judge soon. Watch for my announcement for when the new issue of goes live (this Wednesday or Thursday). I've got two poems there with my most recent recordings of my reading style. Let me know what you think!

Thanks so much for the question, Joanne. Hope the class will watch this space for more answers soon. You all were a truly wonderful audience.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Just for Kicks

52º ~ too many fast-moving clouds

Clearly, I've been playing around with the look of the blog even though there's schoolwork on my desk that needs attention. Not sure what will stick, but having fun just messing with it.

As I mentioned before, I'm in awe of those poets who take up the NaPoWriMo challenge to write a poem a day for the month of April, and with AWP in April this year, I'm even more in awe. For those interested, here's a link to 30 prompts from Kelli Russell Agodon. Good luck!

Also, don't forget to sign up for free books here (for heaven's sake, don't be shy; we're talking about FREE books!) and for a list of all participating poets, check out the sidebar on Kelli's blog.

If you'll be at AWP and want to try and meet for a meal or a drink, reach out by email (sandy dot 40 dot longhorn at gmail dot com) or find me on Facebook.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Painful Return to Drafting

50º ~ cooler today, but plenty of sun, one stubborn tree of unknown type refuses to leaf in the neighboring yard, otherwise, the view is filling up with new growth...pale green

Today being Friday, I decided to try for a draft of a new poem. Two weeks ago, I was unsuccessful; last week, no draft due to window installation. I knew I'd be rusty and weak-muscled after the absence. I started out by reading a few chapbooks (more on that to come in a future post), but alas, no lines swam to the surface. After 45 minutes of reading without inspiration (not the fault of the chapbooks), I decided to fall back on my wordbank & random number generator brainstorming. I gathered words from both chapbooks and then made random pairs of words. The very first pair suggested the content of the poem, although I resisted it at first because it touches a raw emotion still oozing. In the end, I didn't use any of the word pairs I generated for the final version of this first draft. Several made it onto the page but were revised out. However, I did draw on some of the strongest words from the list. I grabbed this picture of lilac blossoms from Google Images because the poem ends on an edible lilac blossom garnish (had to look it up to be sure it wouldn't kill the speaker). The draft is titled "What Devours Us is Worth Devouring," and I have to say this was the toughest draft to title in a long, long time. I must have tried on a dozen ill-fitting phrases before settling on this. Not sure it will last.

Time and time again, I advocate the practice of writing to my students, the willingness to be at the desk no matter what. Of course, I draw the comparison to famous athletes who put in hours of practice to become great. Today, I've proved myself true. Two weeks away from active drafting resulted in a more painful return to the playing field.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Links to Tips for AWP, How to Host a Reading, & Thoughts on O'Connor

60º ~ blustery wind, some sun, the sweetgum tree has begun to leaf, my ruby-crowned kinglet continues to visit the tree/bush outside my window

Having caught up on even more sleep and office work, I spent some time this morning revising recent work and then reading blogs. Here are three fabulous links.

1. Leslie Pietrzyk, who blogs at Work-in-Progress, provides some helpful tips for surviving AWP.

2. Blogalicious, Diane Lockward's blog, contains some great information for anyone who wants to host a reading and some key reminders for the reader and the audience as well.

3. Finally, Kristin Berkey-Abbott celebrates Flannery O'Connor's Birthday with a post that ends on this haunting question: "I'd like to claim a bit of doomedness--not because I want to be gloomy, but because for all of us, our time here is so short, and we will never create all that we could. If we started each day with that knowledge, how would we spend our time differently?"

If any of you are engaging in the NaPoMo poem-a-day hat is off to you. Good luck!

Don't forget to sign up for a chance to win free books below.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


49º ~1 part sun to 2 parts cloud

Today's title does not refer to a literal hangover, but a figurative one. Here's a brief recap of the last week: Thursday: frantic teaching (last classes before Spring Break) & frantic catching up with loose ends at the office, arrive home to begin dismantling house for extreme makeover on Friday. Friday: with my office condensed to a 2' x 4' table in the living room and furniture pushed to the center of all rooms, we had all 19 of our windows replaced with stimulus-credit approved, energy-efficient windows. The guys who performed the installations were great, skilled and polite and intent on cleaning up after themselves. Friday evening into Saturday...putting the house back together and preparing for the arrival of my parents and the simultaneous drive to Memphis for The Pinch release party reading. Saturday evening: passed my parents headed to Little Rock on I-40 at the 168 mile marker while I was headed to Memphis. Bless the husband for entertaining them for me. Then, a glorious night in Memphis with the folks from The Pinch. Great readings all around, although I had to leave early due to the family. Sunday & Monday: visit with parents and perform more household projects. Mom loves projects. We shopped for window shades/blinds and were partially successful. Came home and installed two blinds, then cleaned 5 ceiling fans and hung some curtains. Fixed my desk (more on that later) and finally got some warm sunshine & we were able to sit on the deck some. Tuesday...saw parents off at 5:15 a.m. and then continued to try to catch up with the piles of paper that had accumulated (including one poetry rejection...bleh). Collapsed at 2:00 and slept until 4:00. Today...rested and somewhat put together. Back to poetry.

In the blog world, if you haven't read Susan Rich's post on the art of revision, go here. Thanks to Susan for this great picture of President Obama's revisions. I second and third Susan's thoughts on revision. It is a crucial element to writing, and although we all practice that element in different ways, our work would not stand up, for the most part, without it. I am addicted to finding le mot juste, as the French would say. It sounds more exotic in a foreign tongue. In reality, it's the sweaty part of creating poety.

Also in the blog world, there's a great post over at Red Hen Press on why we ban funky fonts. I'm now in love with Papyrus, but I'll reserve it for my own use and not impose it on any unsuspecting editors out there.

In the meantime, two personal surprises that have happened amid the crush of activity: Kaite Hillenbrand, the poetry editor at Connotation Press who recently accepted four of my poems all together, emailed me with three interview questions. The interview will run alongside the poems themselves, and this is just one of the reasons I'm a fan of online publications. I love print publications as well, but they often don't have the page space to add things like this. What surprised me about Hillenbrand's questions was how insightful they were. These were not single sentence questions but three paragraphs exploring nuances within my work. I was amazed and humbled that she took so much time with my work. Her questions allowed me to explore connections in my work of which sometimes even I am unaware. Many thanks.

On that note, if you ever read something of mine and are curious about it, please email a question and I'll be glad to respond!

My other surprise was a thank you gift from Lyndsey Daniel and her students. I wrote about visiting Lyndsey's class a few posts back. The students sent me a journal, which is cool, but what is super cool is that they each wrote a comment on the inside cover. Sweet and awesome. Also, I have copies of their evaluations, and some of them had questions we didn't have time to cover. Watch for a future post with answers to those questions.

Now, one last home improvement project for the break. I'm taking everything off the shelves in my office and re-organizing. yay!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Hiatus: 3/17/10 - 3/23/10

conditions continue the same

FYI: I'm not going to be able to post for a week due to the pre-Spring Break rush at school, followed by a home improvement project, and a visit from the parents (YAY!).

I will respond to comments and emails, but I won't have time to write for the blog (wah).

See you on the flip side!

NaPoMo Book Giveaway: Y'all Come

43º ~ plenty of sun, clear skies, budding trees

Many thanks to Kelli for organizing the National Poetry Month Book Giveaway. Here's the deal, on May 1, I'll randomly select two winners from the comments left on this post. All you have to do is leave a comment stating you want to be considered in the giveaway. If you're a participating poet, feel free to add a link to your post.

I'll ship anywhere in the world for FREE.

The deadline to leave a comment is April 30th. I do have comment moderation turned on due to a bad spam incident. However, I will post all comments that are legit. If yours doesn't show up within a day of posting, feel free to email me at sandy dot 40 dot longhorn at gmail dot com and query.

On May 1st, I'll choose a winner using a random number generator to select the comments that win. If you don't have a blog profile, be sure to leave your email address or another way to contact you in your comment.

The books I'm giving away are: my own, Blood Almanac, and Mistaken for Song by Tara Bray.

Blood Almanac
(my own)
Anhinga Press, 2006

Mistaken for Song
Tara Bray
Persea Press, 2009

Monday, March 15, 2010

What I'm Reading: My Father's Kites

49º ~ sun, albeit at an apparently regressive angle due to {*!@*%@**} Daylight Savings Time

Frequent readers of this blog are probably aware of my great poet love for Allison Joseph, given all of her support for my work, publishing me in Crab Orchard and inviting me to serve as judge for a past contest. Now, there are a lot of books just coming out that I've got a thirst to read, but I put a moratorium on buying books until 2 things happen: 1) I whittle away the stack I still have waiting to be read and 2) I get back from AWP and see what treasures I find there. However, with Allison's new book, My Father's Kites, I broke my own rules. This is the second book I've read published by Steel Toe Books, and they are quickly gaining my admiration (Prairie Fever being the other.)

My Father's Kites is a beautiful, elegiac collection that seeks to uncover the often difficult relationship between a father and his daughter, the speaker of the poems. This difficult relationship is seen through the lens of the father's death, although the poems touch on the speaker's entire life with and without her father. In the shadows, there waits the figure of the mother who died years earlier, adding to the depth of the speaker's losses. Nearly all of the poems are formal, including villanelles, pantoums, and sonnets. In fact, the entire middle section of the book is a set of 34 sonnets. As someone who rarely practices formal poetry, I'm amazed at how Allison Joseph weaves the delicacy of the sonnet through the heavy subject matter of death. Often the rhymes are subtle and surprising, which is always a delight in formal poetry. Aside from the formal patterns repeated in the book, there is also the repeated image of the kites the speaker's father used to make for her. That levitating yet tied to earth image is such a profound metaphor for the parent-child relationship, yet it works itself gently through the book and avoids overwhelming the reader with bluntness.

In fact, here's the opening of the title poem.

My Father's Kites

were crude assemblages of paper sacks and twine,
amalgams of pilfered string and whittled sticks,
twigs pulled straight from his garden, dry patch

of stony land before our house only he
could tend into beauty, thorny roses goaded
into color.

And, here's the end of one of my favorite sonnets.


.................................. They say
he loved his girls, that he was proud
of all his daughters had become. I don't
reply, just not my head. I'm here to play
the role of grieving child who's not allowed
to speak of memory's truth when others won't.

ort a Poet/Poetry: Buy or Borrow this Book Today
My Father's Kites
Allison Joseph
Steel Toe Books, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010

Drafting in Knots: No Easy Breathing

53º ~ cloudy with a few bits of sun & blue

Bah humbug! No new draft to speak of after two hours worth of work. ARGH!

I thought today would be one of those days where a draft or at least a solid line would appear as easy as breathing...not so. I managed to corral my wild thoughts of grading that needed to be done and other work related tasks. I turned a blind eye to the kitchen and the floors in need to cleaning. I took deep, calming breaths and opened up a book to slither into the world of words. Oh, and I was especially excited because I got a new office chair, which I was sure would make me happy. It's a kneeling chair. I had one years ago and can't remember why I switched to a regular chair. In any case, I've been having trouble with my lower back and since I use a kitchen table for a desk and I'm a bit short, I could never get myself raised high enough for comfortable typing. This chair is the answer. Apparently, it makes my body happy but does nothing for my poetic inspiration.

I drank my coffee and read. I scribbled down a possible line, but it felt off a piece of bad meat. I read some more. I scribbled some more. I forced myself to type some of the "bad meat" lines into the computer in the hopes something, somewhere would save them. Frustration city. I ate some chips and read, and then I wrote some lines about tulips and salt. I thought I was on to something, but then I remembered that salt is not so good for flowers. I ate some candy. Nothing. I pulled out my inspiration cards and forced some lines about one of those. Again the stench of rotten meat. I never got to that moment where a line sang out to me (coalesced is another word I like to use).

Even these sentences I'm typing now are like composing in sludge and mud. The part of my brain responsible for words and syntax feels broken, rusty, pained. However, I do believe that art requires work, which is probably why I labored for so long this morning, all the while knowing today was doomed to disappoint.

This is Week 9 of the semester, and that means I've successfully drafted a poem in seven of those nine weeks. Not bad all things considering, but I can't help feeling bummed about a week without a draft when I'm healthy and have the time to work.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Today, I'm the Windshield

61º ~ cloud cover, forecast calls for storms, welcome spring's unsettled skies

I love Mary Chapin Carpenter, and today's title might only make sense if you know her song "The Bug." The chorus begins, "Sometimes you're the windshield; sometimes you're the bug." Today, I'm definitely feeling like the windshield, which is a nice change after spending several weeks as the bug.

Yesterday afternoon, I had the great pleasure to guest lecture at the University of Arkansas Community College - Morrilton. Friend and fellow U of Arkansas grad, Lyndsey Daniel, invited me to appear in her Intro to Poetry class. These are my favorite types of appearances as a poet: smaller group, time to talk with the audience, less formal, &etc. I had a fabulous time, and I hope the students did as well. They were bright and engaged and asked all kinds of fantastic questions. Many, many thanks to the students who purchased copies of Blood Almanac. I know how precious money can be to students, and I'm honored that you chose to part with yours for a copy of my book. Many thanks to Lyndsey as well for making it all possible.

Other great windshield news: I spent the weekend sending poems out into the world, and I was rewarded by an awesome acceptance from Connotation Press. Kaite Hillenbrand, the poetry editor, emailed to let me know that the editors chose to accept all four poems that I submitted, and again, I'm humbled by such generosity and support. If you haven't checked out this online journal yet, now's the time to do so. I chose to submit to Connotation Press after a Facebook friend posted about her publication there awhile back. What intrigued me about the journal is its focus on bringing together many art forms. Their Mission Statement says it all:
"Connotation Press: An Online Artifact exists to publish and promote the finest art and artists available, and to provide a place for a wide variety of art to flourish. From the printed to the spoken word, from the auditory to the visual arts, from the tactile to the cerebral our primary purpose is to provide the best possible showcase venue for the arts and artists that we publish, and to do everything in our power to attract and keep the largest audience possible to experience them. For too long the arts have been segregated: poetry magazines, fiction magazines, photography magazines, and while we respect these single-focus outlets, we believe there should be a place where all art can coexist. Connotation Press: An Online Artifact is that place."

In the shower this morning, I was thinking about this gift of having all four poems accepted by one journal and I wondered briefly if this was happening more (I had three in a row like this last Spring) because online journals have more "pages" with fewer expenses. So, I looked up my history of having multiple poems accepted. Turns out, it's fifty/fifty. Not sure what any of that means, but I hope the editors know what an extra boost to the confidence it is when more than one poem is accepted at a time.

I'm forever indebted (and hopelessly devoted) to all those who read and publish poetry in a world that often places little outward value on the arts.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What I'm Reading: CPOSBF

57 ~ stormy skies

The above title is not a typo. This morning I had no poetry time due to an appointment with the eye doctor and got to read the eye chart. No major changes, although bifocals aren't that far around the corner. I learned that I have eye strain from overusing the computer. I admit that I've increased my time in front of the screen two- or three-fold this semester for a number of reasons: more online teaching, grading papers online (trying to go paperless), more poetry time, more blog reading, more Facebook, &etc. The doctor was quite helpful and I now have a plan that involves taking breaks and closing my eyes (a prescription for napping!), as well as using over the counter "natural" tears to help my eyes stay healthy.

Until Wednesday...

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Packing Plant Memories

48º ~ full sun, the forecast calls for a high of 64º

Thanks to Facebook, I've reconnected with a good friend of mine from high school, who also went into English and teaches at the college level. Today, I read his amazing post about growing up in Waterloo, and the blue collar implications of that. He describes how the Rath Packing Plant is a personal icon of his, and it is certainly important to me as well, although I was more in touch with the rural side of things, growing up on the edge of a cornfield and having family that still farmed during the horrible 80's.

My favorite quote from this blog post addresses how we Midwesterners with working-class roots sometimes feel in academia:
I also think growing up in Waterloo gave me a certain blue collar mindset that usually serves me well but also creates crankiness since I work in academia, a place where sometimes being straightforward and at times blunt and also prone to being intolerant of bullshit are not prized characteristics.

Exactly! After a reading one time, an audience member commented to me about how much Midwestern straightforwardness there was in the poems, but then how they'd zing through with something amazing amid the bluntness. I loved that.

Oh, and my friend blogs with a pseudonym, so I'm honoring his anonymity.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Contributor's Copy and an Appearance Announced

conditions unchanged

This week I received my contributor's copy of The American Poetry Journal, Number 9, which features three of my poems. Many, many thanks to J.P. Dancing Bear for taking three poems at once and for producing such a fine journal. As a double surprise, APJ is now co-publishing with The National Poetry Review. While all of the editorial work remains separate, the journals are now published together. Hold the book one way, and you have the cover and content of APJ; flip it over & turn it around, and you have the cover and content of NPR. Cool.

Also, if you live near the Memphis area, check out this announcement. I'll be reading on March 20th at the release party of the upcoming issue of The Pinch.

Drafting Anew

49º ~ sun on the path to warming

Today was a bit of new start after last week's disaster. I had to start a new journal, even though I'd barely written in the ruined one, and I had a slew of recently received lit mags on the desk. While I may want to sit down at the desk and immediately begin to write, my process doesn't work that way. I need to read for a good half-hour to an hour to settle my brain and get the ground to soften and allow the new shoots through. Today, I read the recent issue of American Poetry Review. Before I get to the drafting, I wanted to share the end of a poem that leapt off the page for me. Joe-Anne McLaughlin is new to me, but has three books I plan to check out. McLaughlin's poem "Munnsville Sites, Or Why You Should Visit" ends this way: "yellow jackets / harvest apple pulp so sweet, / one bite / could prevent your suicide / for weeks:" Wow!

With that echoing in my head, I felt limber enough to begin staring at the blank page myself. I decided I'd look at my inspiration cards, and it turned out that the first one I looked at (a new one), set me off. I've included it here. Sadly, the fish doesn't make an appearance in the poem. The first line actually arose from a bit of McLaughlin's bio in APR: "Likewise, she runs... . " The bio goes on to talk about a summer program McLaughlin runs, but the sound and the rhythm of "Likewise, she runs" spawned the poem that became "The Nature of Conflict." I took the title and the emotional sense of the poem from the card, and I used the sheep and the bouquet. What I love about these cards is that every time I look at them, I see something new or have a chance to go in a new direction. They startle me out of my poetic ruts, and let's face it, we all have our own poetic ruts.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Post in which the Poet Admits to Being a Fragment

36º ~ sun that bodes well for spring

No matter how much I try to slow down, take deep breaths, and really notice the world around me, I seem to remain fragmented, bits of my mind mulling over the home improvements in the works, other bits making sure nothing has slipped through the teaching cracks this morning, a few more bits of gray matter worrying about some family members whose problems I wish I could solve with a magic wand, a scolding bit that chastises me for not writing a poem last week and for not focusing more intently this morning on my poetry world, and bits and bits and bits...

This is week eight of our 16-week semester, and while I have done a much better job of saying "no" and not over-extending myself this spring, I'm still feeling quite rough around the edges.

I haven't submitted any poems to journals since January. I have a stack of printouts of calls for submissions waiting for me. I even have new poems to send. What is the delay? You can't win if you don't play!


Last night, I attended a presentation on The Oxford Project, which is a photo-journalism piece based on the residents of Oxford, Iowa, a tiny, tiny town just west of Iowa City. In 1974, photographer Peter Feldstein set out to photograph as many of the residents of his own town, Oxford, and the surrounding rural township as he could. At the time, he took one single shot of each resident who volunteered and displayed the results in town. Twenty years later, he returned to the project and ended up re-shooting anyone who was still around and willing to participate. He also brought in journalist Stephen G. Bloom to interview the residents and write about their life stories. This eventually turned into a book.

Let me begin by saying, the photographs are amazing records of the changes people go through in a span of two decades. During the presentation, Feldstein and Bloom showed about a dozen of the paired photos with text and talked not only about their process, but also about the people themselves. And this is where I began to have some trouble. Bloom interviewed each subject and then boiled their lives down to the "killer quotes" from the interview, often focusing on the sensational moments in their lives. There was a sense of amazement on his part that folks from such a small town had experienced such "interesting" lives or had such "rural wisdom" to share.

As the evening wore on I began to worry that the audience was not chuckling and laughing with the people of Oxford, IA, but at them. The people in the photos who told their stories to the world were largely working-class men and women, and there seemed to be a sense of them being "Other" as they were portrayed by the text. These are the people from whom I come, my roots, my heritage, and I felt a bit like we were being studied as some "primitive" group. Now, let me say that some of this reaction could arrive from years of having to defend a rural and agrarian way of life in the face of educated urbanites. Yet, I do believe there was a class issue at play. Here were the learned scholars from the University creating art and commentary from the raw material of the joys and heartbreaks of the manual laborers, the hunters & fishers, the house cleaners and veterans.

All of this brought me to the question of artistic responsibility. I do not believe that the purpose of this project should have been to revere its subjects, and I do believe that Feldstein and Bloom genuinely care about these people, but I also wonder how the text in particular might have been different if written by someone from within the group, someone who had grown up among these people. And yet, I do not believe that an artist must be tied irrevocably to his or her own community only. Once again, I remain fragmented.

Monday, March 1, 2010

What I'm Reading: Prairie Fever

43º ~ sun with high wafting bits of cloud, rain to the south

I've been a fan of Mary Biddinger's blog, The Word Cage, for quite a while now and have enjoyed her poems when I've come across them in the journals. However, none of this previous knowledge prepared me for Prairie Fever, Biddinger's first book, published in 2007 (I know, I know...I'm always late to the party).

While my focus went immediately to the prairie part of the title, it would have been better placed in the fever, for that is what this collection is...feverish. I read the poems in one long torrent of words and was nearly exhausted when I finished. These poems are tightly wound in both language and meaning. One gets the feeling that the speaker of each poem has been waiting a long time to say whatever has been kept still and silent for too long.

Woven of both first- and second-person points of view, I never felt as if I completely knew the speakers or the "you" they addressed. This instability took some getting used to, but the concision of the lines and the surprising twists of language kept me reading long enough to gain my bearings.

Another of Biddinger's strengths is her ability to weave lyric and narrative, drawing on the most powerful elements of each. Over the course of the book a story develops of the often hard life lived at the edges of a down-on-its-luck, Midwestern town. Throughout the story, the image of the train tracks recurs, almost always with the sense of our being on the wrong side of said tracks or under the trestles where dark and dangerous events occur.

A few examples:

In "Man in Blue," the speaker describes her skin as "freckled from weeding, bee / chasing, falling down hills // and off cliffs." Later she speaks of spending the winter "foot-shackled / in a sugar beet farmer's shed, / forgetting the mending, milk, // other things with soft names." The poem ends with a blood image (blood and bleeding play a large part in the entire collection): "Ruby / handprints around my neck." Chilling. Disturbing. Wonderfully wrought.

Here's an excerpt from "The Twins":

...There was
nothing left of the night,

only train cars and breath.
They could dust me for prints
and find just fingertip salt and rust.
You were a halo of consonants

in the dull ebb of my pulse.

In one of the last poems in the book, "Coyote," the speaker states, "I chose you over / all other disturbances." As a reader who tends to run from disturbances in my own life, I admire Biddinger for giving us poems that rush headlong into the vortex of a not always pastoral and beautiful prairie/world.

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Prairie Fever
Mary Biddinger
Steel Toe Books, 2007

The reference librarian who secretly lives in me Googled "prairie fever" and found this on Wikipedia (not the most reputable of sources, but quick): Prairie madness is a term that describes an affliction that was common in the United States among white settlers of the Great Plains during the mid to late 1800s. Another common (though, technically incorrect) name for the affliction is "Prairie fever." The madness was a result of the extreme isolation experienced by former city dwellers and farmers more used to hilly and forested country. The affected individual would fixate on the fact that they were surrounded by hundreds of miles of prairie land, with no neighbors or anyone to talk to. When the perceived isolation became too much to bear, mental breakdown would occur. Breakdowns induced by prairie madness often led to starvation and suicide.