Sunday, December 30, 2012

Draft Process: Sometimes, a Set of Words Works like a Key

32º ~ some sun battling back the thick cloud layer, hoping to reach 40 today to make a dent in the snow

This morning, while resetting the internet modem yet again (as our cable input fluctuates as the repair crews continue to get folks up and running again), I glanced on the spine of Christina Davis' Forth a Raven (Alice James Books, 2006), which I often cite as one of my favorite books.  Yes, I have approximately 50 books of poetry waiting to be read, but something tugged at me to see if Davis' work holds up.  It appears I last re-read this book in January 2008, and I'm thrilled to say, the magic remains.

I consumed / re-consumed that book.  I had to remind myself to slow down, to savor.  And when I was finished, I felt that old tingle, that desire to write something staggering of my own.  What better way to start than to do a word bank from Davis' book.  I set about collecting nouns and verbs and of course those lovely adjectives to which I'm toooooo addicted.  The first coupling that leapt out at me was "shadow" and "songs" and I drew an arrow across the page to connect the words, trampling over other words in the process.  Then, it was when I hit upon Davis' use of the word "unmothered" that I knew what I wanted to say and that I wanted to use a variation of this un-word, a list of un-words actually.

The draft began, at first, with the lines that ended up in the title, "Sometimes, a set of words / works like a key."  I went on from there, exploring a painful, private, personal history that I've alluded to in the past few draft process notes.  These poems feel raw and I wonder if I'm teetering on the melodramatic at nearly every line.  It's so hard to tell.  Still, this seems to be the subject matter of the moment, and if all the heartache of December teaches me nothing else, it must teach me that this moment is all I have and I better use it wisely.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ice Station Little Rock & News from Heron Tree

29º ~ first bright sun/clear skies since the 25th when LR received a record breaking 10.5" of snow

One of the three privets that will have to be removed.
We watched the storm unfold from the warm safety of my in-laws' house in southeastern Arkansas.  The roads back to Little Rock were fine on the 26th, but within the city was a different matter.  To get to our house, we had to drive around (into oncoming lane) three downed trees and one power line (we watched other cars do this first so no chance of a live wire).  Reports were that 265,000 meters (houses & businesses) were without power in the state of Arkansas and over 100,000 of those were in Little Rock. 

While we are lucky, many are still without power today and may not have it restored until the first.  Again, we contemplate the financial formula that says it's fine to string electric wires in the air rather than pay to bury them once and for all.  Between tornadoes, wind, and ice, it feels like Little Rock is always under siege to its lines. 

In the end, we are safe, warm, and as we are both teachers, off work.  The cleanup will be messy, frustrating, and time-consuming, but we are still counting our blessings!


Even during an ice storm that knocked out both editorial homes for a bit, the process of reading submissions for Heron Tree continues.  We have rounded the halfway point, so please be patient if you haven't heard from us yet.  All three of us are excited about the fact that the first poem will go "live" late on January 6th.  Our plan is to have each new poem posted on Sunday night so it can greet you Monday morning and be enjoyed all week.  Each poem will be presented as a PDF so we can make sure all linebreaks and indents match the poet's intention perfectly.  This will also make our annual print publication go more smoothly.  I've seen the mock-ups of the first poem and can't wait for you all to enjoy!

As Chris, Rebecca, and I have made our way on this journey the last few months we are finding out what each of our strengths are and what in our plans needs adjusting.  While all of us came to the project with a lot of poetry experience, none of us had served on a national lit mag staff (although I think at least two of us worked on our undergrad lit mags, lo these many years ago).  It has been a wonderful collaboration so far.

Speaking for myself, I can say that I am stunned that all of those stories I've heard other editors tell are happening to us.  People submitting after we've closed submissions.  People failing to withdraw poems when accepted elsewhere, so that we've spent time and energy selecting something we can't use.  People clearly not reading our aesthetic statement or browsing our mini-anthology of poems we love and sending us material way outside the zone.  People sending multiple submissions before hearing back on their first.  Seriously, people, READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.

Those are minor annoyances, though.  The reading has been delightful, and here's what I've learned about myself.  I am too easily swayed by a single stunning image in a poem.  Thank goodness I'm not doing this by myself, as I've got two terrific co-editors who are able to point out the weaker areas of some poems, ensuring that what we publish is polished poetry.  And, as I'm reading the work of others, I see some of the same tendencies in their work as in mine: submitting before revision time is over, failing to consider the opening stanza/lines & the closing stanza/lines and asking if those really need to be there.  Often, we have paused on poems that show great promise but still need another round of revision, and yes, we are sad, sad, sad that we don't have time to write notes about that to the poets. 

Expect more news from Heron Tree in the days and weeks to come!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

What I'm Reading: Every Seed of the Pomegranate

59º ~ solid gray skies, no wind to whisper of

Back in October, David Allen Sullivan contacted me and asked if I'd review his book, Every Seed of the Pomegranate (Tebot Bach, 2012).  This kind of request makes me uneasy b/c I do not consider what I do here to be reviewing, so I let him know my approach.  I'd be glad to read the book, but I don't do professional reviews and I don't post about books that don't connect with me.  Today, I connected with Sullivan's book in a serious and heavy way.  It is a testament to the voices of the Iraq War, voices on all sides and surrounding the war.

This is the kind of book where it is imperative that one read the preface before diving in. The poems are set on the page to denote the speakers.  There are several "angel" poems in the voices of the archangels Gabriel, Raphael, Michael, and Azrael, who makes an appearance in the long poem "The Black Camel."  Iblis, the name given to the devil in the Quran, receives the last word of the angels. The voices of the angels are centered and italicized.  Poems in the personae of Americans are justified left; poems in the personae of Iraqis are justified right.  Poems written as Sullivan himself are justified left but indented to be separated from the American personae poems.  That might seem complicated, but once I started reading and grew used to the typography, it flowed quite well.  Also, the poems all take the form of linked haiku.  Given the weight of the subject, I was grateful for this form, as I was able to absorb small bits of the atrocities of war at a time and breathe out in between the stanzas.

Here's the kicker of the preface; Sullivan is not a veteran of the war.  Instead, he teaches at Cabrillo Community College and this book grew out of the fact that so many Iraq War vets had returned to the classroom and as many were telling their stories, Sullivan realized how little he knew of the "U.S. military, Iraqi history and literature, and nearby Arab cultures."  As he set about learning these subjects, the poems rose up.  Also of importance is that Sullivan recognizes his discomfort in writing about a war in which he himself did not participate.  In the preface, he mentions meeting poet Brian Turner, as many know an Iraqi War vet and author of Here, Bullet.  Turner responds to Sullivan's uneasiness with, "This war is being ignored by almost everyone. ... If citizens don't educate themselves and take an interest they do a great disservice to the vets.  Write if you're called to write."  Sullivan is and does.  The end of the book contains an extensive set of notes, detailing Sullivan's research.

These are poems of careful attention to detail, poems filled with nouns and verbs and stripped of any excess.  Again, I find this befitting of the subject matter.  In a way, I find these poems a wonderful echo of Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which pushes the subject matter of war through the excess of details.  In both extremes, the reader is unable to look away and must confront what one human may do to another in the name of war.

Here is an excerpt the voice of "Rana Abdul Mahdi" detailing a helicopter attack on Sadr City.

............................................and I felt the heat
.................................lay a heavy hand on me, if I was drowned head scarves.  Looked down.
...................Skin strips struck to my shredded
.............................................burqa.  My sister

.........................................crumpled in prayer.
......................Her red insides had spilled out.
..............................Nothing but blood moved.

Just a few pages later, we get the voice of "Lieutenant Colby Buzzel, Sniper Stryker Brigade."

When Hondo went down
I saw blood filling boot treads
where he'd been talking

trash a nod earlier.
My fingers plugged the geyser
at his neck, but dead

he served as my shield.
I drew my sight, figured out
where the sniper sat,

then grabbed my Big Mac
and belly-crawled up a drain.

I have given up thinking humans will ever learn enough from war to end our warring ways; however, I know there will always be poets and writers to bear witness, and that comforts me, even if their words fall on blind eyes & deaf ears.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Moving Forward Feels Like a Betrayal

44º ~ much of the upper half of the country is under snow or about to get snow, here we have punishing winds, all remaining leaves stripped from the branches overnight and the dead bits of our older trees are shaking loose

Slowly, I am coming out of the gloom of the past week, and yet, moving forward, finding joy in small things, smiling, laughing, feels like a betrayal.  I know it isn't, and I know it isn't healthy to dwell in mourning, but how long is long enough? 

I confess that I haven't returned to drafting as I hoped I would be able to do all this week.  I have been reading, and yesterday, I gulped down Jean Valentine's Break the Glass (Copper Canyon, 2010).  This is a short book, filled with terse lyrics on the fragility of life, so very fitting right now.  I had a bit of a tough time getting into the book, but mostly because I was reading in a Starbucks for scheduling reasons, and I'm not so good at blocking out the noise.  Still, once Valentine got a grip on me, I read the book straight through, amazed by the crystalline quality of her thoughts, her ability to strike directly to the heart and pare all the extraneous stuff away. 

The first poem that shook me was "Dear Family," an epistolary poem set in 1862, presumably from a Civil War soldier home.  It is only 11 lines long, 11 lines in which the speaker takes up his gun and is then shot, and here is the ending.

don't read this yet,
my thoughts are still packed down
like crumpled letters, and some of us
will not get quite free--

All the faces from Newtown crowded in at that point.  Then, I got to "Traveler" and read this:

When somebody dies, as is the custom,
he burns the place down.

And I thought, yes, that's how I felt when I got the news that Jake had died so unexpectedly as he was blazing with life.  Later there is a poem dedicated to the memory of Reginald Shepherd, who chose Blood Almanac for the Anhinga Prize and to whom I'm forever indebted.  So, there was another memory of an amazing poet lost well before his time.

Finally, the last part of the book is dedicated to "Lucy," the earliest-known hominid.  These are the poems that really stick with me, as Valentine connects the 21st century with that earliest ancestor of ours.  This is from one of the untitled fragments in the section.

from the Old English bletsian.
Its root is blood.

My heart is at your window, Lucy, at your glass.


But you are my skeleton mother,
I bring you 
coffee in your cemetery bed.

So, once again, poetry is where I put my pain & grief, my confusion & wondering about the state of this world, and poetry reminds me there is beauty & there is work to be done.

So be it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

All Paths, for Jake

56º ~ as bright a sun as possible as we near the solstice, not a cloud...

At first, I was angry with the sun this morning, as I woke up still trying to absorb the loss of my friend, the amazing poet Jake Adam York.  I wanted that heavy sky from Saturday, the one that fit my heartbreak over the massacre in Connecticut.  Now, several hours later, I am glad for the sun as it prevents me from hiding out and burrowing down.

Jake signing my copy of Persons Unknown

As the news of Jake's stroke and then the horrible, horrible news of his death hit me, I found myself wanting to do anything rather than confront this loss.  I tried to clean up the kitchen and left the room with the task half finished.  I tried to watch television, but the choices were either shoot-em-up movies full of bravado or too-sweet Christmas stories.  The news, the news was full of Sandy Hook.  I finally settled on cutting out images for my collages, which always calms me down.  Still, every 20 - 30 minutes, a light would cut through my brain and I would realize again that Jake was gone.

Let me confess, I do not pretend to be the closest of friends or loved one of Jake's, and I can't imagine the pain and the sorrow they are experiencing right now.  However, Jake had a special kind of magic to me.  He made me feel instantly connected to him, the first time I met him, which was at AWP in 2008, I think.  Someone introduced me to him at the Copper Nickel table, and Jake hugged me in greeting.  Let me tell you, that man knew how to give a proper friendship hug.  Then, Jake stunned me even more by mentioning Blood Almanac and saying how much he enjoyed reading it.  What?  I was stunned and humbled (and a bit proud, too).

Every year when I got to see Jake in person at AWP, he seemed to glow with an inner energy.  He seemed always in the grip of his love of poets and poetry (even when towards the end each year that mammoth conference was wearing us all thin).  The amazing thing was that Jake always had time to stop and chat, however briefly, and he never made me feel like I didn't belong in his circle.  He took all of my social anxiety of being around such amazing poets and he put those anxieties at ease.  I simply cannot fathom not seeing him in Boston.  It may not become real for me until then.

I've been re-reading Jake's poems, and I'm amazed all over again at his insistence that we look tragedy squarely in the face and that we learn and grow from absorbing that tragedy.  Here was a white man from the South taking on the personal stories of the long list of Civil Rights Martyrs and speaking openly, honestly about racism in a time when so many want to hide from the topic, want to burrow down and say we've moved on.  And still, while tackling this incredibly difficult subject matter, Jake made beautiful poems, poems I'm clinging to today.

Finally, Jake's death is a tragedy, and coming so hard on the heels of the tragedy in Sandy Hook, all those questions of mortality and religion are swirling around me again.  I practice no organized religion, but I believe there is a God out there, a higher power who created all the beauty on this earth, and I believe in all paths to God.  I do not know if there is a life that follows this one; I hope there is, and I hope it is the paradise contained in so many of the world's spiritual teachings.  I hope it is a place where I get to see my friend again, to hug him, and to hear the poems he didn't get a chance to write in this world.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

In Mad Grief & Despair

60º ~ an unbearably gray day befitting of the heavy heart

Yesterday tore a hole in my heart, as it did with most any human being hearing the news.  We all tried to sludge our way through as best we could, knowing that what we were experiencing was nothing compared to those actually touched by the tragedy.

Many folks decry social media as the end of human interaction, but I have to say that I am thankful for text messages and Facebook.  I was able to connect with those I hold dear, even though many of them are far, far away in physical distance.  As the tragedy unfolded, there were many rumors and news accounts that would later prove false, and I know that is a problem on Facebook/Twitter/Etc., but I'm one of those who holds out for the "confirmation from authorities" reports, which is why I tend to listen to NPR rather than turn on the TV.  Also, the TV images are often just too much to bear.

In the end, I was reminded that I am lucky to be a writer and lucky to have so many writer friends.  Very quickly, people began posting poems that spoke to the tragedy of a massacre such as yesterday's, and while no words can fill the void of those sudden deaths, the words can offer solace and a glimpse of light.  The words can also call us to action, as we are all responsible for trying every day to make this world a better place for the children who will inherit it.

Here is the poem that made the rounds yesterday that stays with me the most.  Bless Lucille Clifton for writing it.

for the eyes of the children,
the last to melt,
the last to vaporize,
for the lingering
eyes of the children, staring,
the eyes of the children of
of viet nam and johannesburg,
for the eyes of the children
of nagasaki,
for the eyes of the children
of middle passage,
for cherokee eyes, ethiopian eyes,
russian eyes, american eyes,
for all that remains of the children,
their eyes,
staring at us,   amazed to see
the extraordinary evil in
ordinary men.
Lucille Clifton, "sorrow song" from Next: New Poems. Copyright © 1987 by Lucille Clifton.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lit Mags: Learning the Landscape

38º ~ clouds, wind chills in the 20s, an arctic front sweeping the south into winter, ready or not

So, I'm waiting for more papers to come in and then a set of final exams on Wednesday, and I'm still thinking about my last post.  Learning the landscape of contemporary writing involves a lot of reading, reading of books, yes, but also of literary magazines as well, especially if you are a short story writer, essayist, or poet.

I mentioned using the acknowledgments pages from books you love as a place to start investigating lit mags.  I wanted to elaborate and say that by "books you love" I should have said books by authors whose work feels kindred to your own.  I, for one, love a lot of books, and sometimes, the poets I love write wildly different poetry than I do.  In my first few years of submitting, I often made the mistake of thinking that because I loved their poetry I should submit to the same places they did, even though my work had little in common with theirs.  Doh!  Head slap.  Not effective.  Now, when a book not only sets my hair on fire but aligns with my own style, I send out poems to the same journals as the poet.

Today, I was reminded of another gem in the search for markets:  New Pages, a clearinghouse for lit mags, independent publishers & booksellers, and a ton of other literary links.  This is an amazing resource, which is still free for now.  I subscribe to their blog updates, which feature mini-reviews/announcements about new journals on the scene, both in print and online.  So, yet another place to browse the virtual stacks.

Now, here's another tidbit that took me years to figure out.  There are three types of journals when it comes to editorial control and consistency.  This is another layer that you really only discover after reading many issues of the journal.

1.  Independent journals not associated with any university, college, or collective of student writers.  Here, the editors are set and change very rarely.  There is a clear and consistent aesthetic.  With these journals, the writer has a chance to build a relationship with said editor(s) over time.  A personalized rejection letter with an urge to send more may be more likely to lead to future publication (though not guaranteed, of course).

2.  Journals associated with a university, college, or collective with an editor-in-chief (often a faculty member).  When reading multiple issues over several years (look at the back issues!), check the masthead.  If this person remains the same, check and see if the aesthetic of the journal remains consistent.  If so, while the grad students/collective readers are doing a lot of the beginning reading from the submissions, it is clear that this editor-in-chief trains said readers to look for specific things and retains a lot of control over the content of each issue.  Here, the writer has that chance of building a relationship with the journal over time, although the writer may be communicating with different sub-editors over time.

3.  Journals associated with a university, college, or collective where the editor-in-chief rotates each year or every two years.  I was stunned to learn about this type of journal, although it makes perfect sense.  Here you have, usually, grad students all taking their turns at different levels, working their way up from readers to editorial positions.  While the journal will retain whatever aesthetic is cultivated in that program, it often offers quite different content over time.  In this case, a rejection letter with a note encouraging the writer to submit more work in the future might need to be handled a bit differently.  Resubmit right away if that editor is likely to move on soon.  If resubmitting at a later date, try to be clear about who sent the letter or the time it was sent so that the new editors have a reference.

While all of this might sound like a lot of work, it is work that I love.  First and foremost, I'm reading to find more work that moves me.  True confession: I do not read ever piece in every journal all the way through.  I read opening paragraphs of stories & essays, the first lines of poems; I browse the buffet and when hooked, I lick the plate clean and go back for more (looking up books and other publications by the authors I wish to devour). 

The knowledge of the publishing landscape accrues slowly, over time, and then becomes a comfort & a strength.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Weekly Updates: Duotrope, or How to be a Writer with No Money

64º ~ solid gray mass of a sky hovering low over the bare trees

Not much news to report, aside from two rejections, one of which hurt worse than the other simply because I had gotten an encouraging note and thought I'd finally figured it out with this submission. Guess not.

I did want to take a moment to offer my two cents about Duotrope's decision to require users to pay a fee for their services.

I'm no economist, but it seems to me that it would be nearly impossible to sustain providing free services like Duotrope's without some kind of revenue stream.  Most of the free internet services I know of (gmail, yahoo, facebook, etc.) have gone the route of online ads to generate enough revenue to keep the service free.  Duotrope is a literary service, so you can imagine that there aren't all that many ad dollars waiting in the wings.  So, I think of those folks doing the work of compiling the information for Duotrope and supporting the technical programs necessary to track data & etc.  I wonder why they ever did it for free.  So, if you want to use the service and can afford it, I encourage you to subscribe and pay the fee.

If you don't have the money (and many writers don't), then I encourage you to do what I've done and what most of the writers my age and older (those of us who came of age before the wonders of the internet) have done.  In the end, I think there is a bigger payoff for the writer (I know I sound like your mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, etc...we had to walk in snowstorms like you've never experienced uphill both ways to get to school).

It is possible to do this without spending any money at all, unless you live in an isolated area without access to a public library that offers internet access and interlibrary loan.  If that's the case, you may have to pay for internet access and buy the occasional book and/or lit mag (not such a bad thing, really).

Invest your time in reading, reading, and reading lit mags.  Here's a simple way to begin.  Take a book of poetry or short stories that you absolutely love, open it to the acknowledgments page, and copy down every lit mag that writer published in.  Check and see if the writer has a web page; if so, see if they list publications not in the book and collect more titles of lit mags there. Google all of these lit mags and find out which ones are in print and which ones are online.  Read the online one's for free!  If the print journal offers samples online (and most do) read them; then find out if the print journals are available in your area.  While your local bookstore might not like it, you can brows in the store without buying.  If your library is willing, see if they have the funds to subscribe.  (Did you know that many libraries have grants that specifically offer money for periodicals?)  Is there a university or college library in your area?  Most of the time you can go and browse without having a student ID.

When I was preparing to submit my application to MFA programs, I lived in Columbia, MO, although I was not a student at Mizzou.  Still, I spent countless hours in the periodical stacks of their library reading issue after issue of all of the lit mags they had in their catalog.  Not only did I learn about the lit mags, but also I learned about a bunch of authors I needed to read more of.  I flipped to their bios and copied down the titles of books and more lit mags.  I bought what I could afford and asked the local public library to ILL (interlibrary loan) copies of books I couldn't afford. If I had to check a book out from the library, I photocopied the poems that set me on fire.  It took years for me to build a knowledge base about lit mags and authors, and when the age of online journals exploded, I had quicker access, but I still had to do the reading to figure out the journal's aesthetic and this only led to finding more authors to read.

And there it is: TIME.  While services like Duotrope can speed up the business side of submissions and help keep track of what pieces are under consideration where, they cannot substitute for your own personal knowledge of the publishing landscape.  In fact, without building that landscape, you are wasting your time, firing poems or stories off in the dark because the technology allows you to do so.

As for databases, that too can be done for free.  I have two Excel spreadsheets.  (You can download Open Office for free or keep this record by hand...the horror!... in a ruled journal.)  One details every journal I've ever even thought remotely about submitting to.  This one has the name of the journal, whether they accept simultaneous submissions, their reading periods, and any results I've gotten.  The other is a list of each poem I'm in the process of sending out.  It contains the title of the poem, the journals submitted to with dates of submission, dates of rejection, and in the happy case, dates of acceptance.  I also keep hard copies in a filing cabinet, one poem per manila folder with the submission record recorded on the inside of the folder.  One folder per lit mag with all of my correspondence...oh those old hand mailed rejection letters!  I could heat a small village with the fire they would make.  This is a holdover from the pre-electronic age and I learned how to do it in Poet's Market.   Only recently have I begun to think about giving up the hard copy system, now that I have a reliable back up system on the computer and most editors send their response via email (just not the same).

Finally, if and when you do have some loose change in your pocket, please collect it in a jar and eventually use it to subscribe to your favorite print journal, donate to your favorite online journal, or buy a book of contemporary poetry/short stories.  After all, isn't that what you hope someone will do for you, read your work?

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Draft Process: Three Little Kittens

68º ~ slate gray skies, a mild wind kicking at the remaining leaves, stubborn

A glimpse of the morning's work.

What's this, what's this, you ask, a draft process?  I'm as surprised as you are.  In the last month I've hinted that the lines were returning.  I'm still a bit shy about whether this return will hold, but today I wrote a draft that feels like a whole draft.  The coalescence was three-pronged.

1.  Two families I know have lost loved ones in the past month and I always return to Mary Oliver's "In Blackwater Woods" when I want to send condolences.  I return there for the last part of the poem especially.

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go. 

2.  This past week, I read Camille Dungy's two books, which I wrote about yesterday.   In Suck on the Marrow Dungy has several poems with codes embedded in them.  I had known about codes that led slaves to freedom through the underground railroad and other abolitionist causes, but I hadn't known that slave owners also put codes in advertisements or letters when dealing with illegal slave trade.  Then, in Smith Blue, there is a long poem, "Prayer for P--," that is an acrostic, using Cavafy's poem "Prayer" as the ladder.

I've heard poets talk of acrostics as a prompt before, but I've never attempted one.  As I was reading Dungy's poem, I had a niggle of an idea to take some lines from Oliver's poem (above) and use those letters as my ladder.

3.  In my line drafting from earlier this month, I stumbled across a new topic, a topic deeply private and personal and painful, one I'm not sure I'm brave enough to write about.  Still, it seems to be bubbling there, wanting out.  So, this morning, when the urge to write overtook me as I started reading the latest issue of The Cincinnati Review, I grabbed Oliver's poem and made a ladder of the 6th line from the end.






And without too much wrenching, the words were just there, filling in the lines.  This was an amazing experiment for me b/c the acrostic suggested the stanza breaks, and as I was writing toward the next letter (much like an abecedarian) I had less control over the line lengths than I normally do. 

The title is "Three Little Kittens, They Lost Their Mittens" because my grandmother used to recite that to my sisters and me and it popped up in my head as I finished the poem.  There are no kittens in the poem, but there are children dealing with a loss.  I'm not sure if the title will stay or if it hints at how to title these difficult poems I'm diving into.  Time will tell.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Weekly Updates: Camille Dungy & Heron Tree (Separate Items)

65º ~ a mixed up sky today, moving fast from cloud-cover to sun to cloud-cover but the winds all up in the higher levels, preparing for unseasonable highs, more raking time?

The end of the semester is upon us.  At PTC, we have one full week of classes left and then a week of finals.  Still, I'm clinging to my poetry time as best I can while still teaching, grading, and prepping for end of the semester business as the spring semester hovers in the wings.

For poetry this week, it's been all about the reading.  Camille Dungy came to Little Rock over a year ago.  Ack!  I've had her books Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue on the to-read stack for far too long.  

Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010) puts me in mind of Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, although a book that stands alongside Dove's rather than in its shadow.  In this collection Dungy provides narratives in plain speech that open a glimpse into the slavery of the 19th century in America.  It teaches gently with a preface that the U.S. did in fact withdraw from the international slave trade but did not end slavery within its borders, leaving slaveholders having to find new ways to gain labor: by breeding their current slaves, by smuggling in foreign-captured slaves, and by kidnapping free African Americans from the North and enslaving them in the South.  While I'm sure I learned of this once upon a time in a history class, I was startled awake by the preface and then by the poems, confronting once again a system so brutal far too many of us turn our eyes away.

Suck on the Marrow is divided into four sections.  The first contains the story of Joseph Freeman, a once-free African American kidnapped in Philadelphia and sold into slavery on the Jackson farm in Virginia.  His story is echoed by his wife Melinda's voice in the fourth section as she has to move on with life.  In between we get voices of others, Molly & Shad, and a woman who reinvents herself, escaping slavery only to become a prostitute in an attempt to earn enough money to gain a true freedom.  Finally, there are two "loose" poems at the end of the book, one a found poem, "'Tis of thee, sweet land," and one a prose poem serving as a kind of glossary for the entire book.

Here is a glimpse from "Survival."

The body winnows.  The body tills.  The body knows
sow's feet, sow gut, night harvested kale.  The body knows
to sleep through welted dreams, to wake
before night succumbs to morning.

Wheat, wheat, tobacco, corn: the body knows.

Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011) takes a huge leap away from Dungy's previous book and becomes global in its protest.  The poems in this book form a much looser arc, branching from the devastation of war (and the technology of war) to environmental devastation to our own human mortality and the losses we suffer when we choose to love.  Here, Dungy's skill with the lyric form, still laced with narrative hints, shines.

Without being heavy-handed, these are political poems, and in the end, Dungy is left with one wish, the wish that language might cause change.  Here's an excerpt from "Association Copy," in which the speaker holds a copy of one of Levine's books that another poet has sold in a used bookstore, that other poet's name inscribed in the front cover denoting ownership.

Mostly, I want to believe you held onto the book,
that your fingers brailed those pages' inky veins
even in your final weeks.  I want to believe
words can be that important in the end.

 This may seem a rather basic statement, but when taken in the context of the entire book which refuses to turn away from the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the melting of the global ice caps, these few lines vibrate with importance. 


Finally, one last call for poems to be submitted to Heron Tree (if you read this post today, Saturday, 1 December).  Our submission inbox closes tonight!  Hurry, hurry!  We are notifying on a rolling basis and will begin publication in January!  (Do the exclamation points denote my excitement well enough or should I add more?)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Weekly Updates: Heron Tree, Family, & Sister

50º ~ bright sun, clean skies, trees at about 1/4 leaves remaining, highs around 60º, lows around 40º for the week to come

The biggest news on the block is this:  Heron Tree accepts submissions through December 1 (next Saturday).  If you haven't sent us poems, we really, really, really want to see your work.  Remember, we read blind, so I can't tell if you've submitted yet.  We are sending decisions on a rolling basis but had so many submissions in September, that I think we are still responding to poems from the beginning of the reading period.  Our guidelines are here.

We will start publishing poems the first week of January 2013!  So exciting!

I have to say, serving as a co-editor has been a game changer.  I plan to blog about that exclusively after the reading period (meaning after the semester is over!).  Still, if you have any inclination to help read for a journal and get the opportunity, I highly recommend it.


Most of this week has been filled with family, so not too much poetry going on.  My folks were down from Iowa and Mom & I planted pansies, which she just couldn't get over, since they are a summer flower in Iowa.  She has been such a huge help in the front yard as I did not inherit her gardening skills!  This year we were especially thankful for my dad's surgery, which happened a year ago in December.  He now has a fully operational Deep Brain Stimulation Therapy computer running through his brain and it has improved his quality of life by leaps and bounds.  Parkinson's can be such a frustrating disease, but this has made a world of difference.  (Disclaimer: This is not a miracle cure and does not alleviate all PD symptoms; however, the change in his demeanor and mobility has been wonderful.)


I did manage to finish a book of poems Tuesday morning.  Nickole Brown's Sister has been on my desk since April, when I picked it up at the Arkansas Lit Festival, and it is a stunner.  Nickole moved to Little Rock 18 months ago to teach at UALR, and having her in town has been wonderful.  On her website, Sister is referred to as a novel-in-poems.  It traces a speaker's relationship to her mother and her sister who is 10 years younger.  The speaker is at a loss for who her father is and envies her sister for that knowledge, all the while hating the man who fathers her sister, as he sexually abuses the speaker.  It is an emotionally complicated journey but the poems never succumb to relying on that emotion alone.  They are finely crafted, in fact, so finely crafted that the pain cuts that much deeper.

The most prominent thread woven throughout the collection is the idea of sex, pregnancy, and the fetus in the womb, then birthed.  Here is a bit from "Sticky Fingers."

Unborn we...........listened.

We were covered
with an okra fuzz of hair.........fed cravings
of white bread.........fried chicken..........tomatoes
straight from the can...............all through
a pulsing straw.....a braided beam of light
to our navel.

While the speaker feels a great distance between herself and her sister whom she both loves deeply and envies just as deeply, it is often through imagining these similarities in utero that she manages to cross the distance between them.

And because the speaker's mother plays as important a role in the story as her sister does, here's a bit from "Somniloquy."

Mama sleeps, her jaw knocking all night on the same
..........closed door, her canines worn flat with the pop and grit
..........of chewing a thing impossible swallow.

Sister is a difficult book on the emotional side but a necessary one.  These poems take all the speaker's pain, regret, and longing, and create something startling beautiful in the end.   

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Weekly Updates: Dickinson's Letters, Pigafetta, Collages

56º ~ glorious sunshine, a few pleasing clouds wafting, the leaves that remain moved gently by a small breeze

For those keeping score, I started the week off well, keeping up my 2 hours in the morning.  I've slowly inched the alarm clock back a bit each week, so that I'm able to be at the desk before I'm needed on campus.  C. has been amazing at accommodating this new shift in the schedule.  (Another thankfulness: a spouse who understands the writing life.)  The urge to write new poems is creeping along in my veins nicely.  I may even have stumbled across a new obsession as I drafted a poem Tuesday morning.  I don't want to say anything more about it yet, lest I scare it away.

I will say that what prompted me to the draft was reading Joe Hall's Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean, 2010).  Based on the recommendation of a dear poet-friend, I picked up this book over a year ago, but just got to it.  This poet-friend raved about the book and how much it had changed her writing life.  While I found a lot to admire in the book, I was sad that it didn't have quite the same powerful effect on me.  Hall's book is a loosely crafted braid, part historical poems from the voice of Pigafetta, Magellan's chronicler and one of only 18 sailors who survived the trip, and part contemporary love letter. 

I confess that I loved the historical poems exposing colonization the most and had trouble shifting gears from time to time, although I think this is more my failing than any misstep on the part of Hall.  The poems are filled with images ripe and succulent, images that are strung together in a fragmented syntax that conveys just how difficult it is for the speaker to put into words his struggle.

In one section of the long poem "Knife & Mirror," Hall writes:

On one island, the Captain gave the gift of chains
More often, he preferred the rough equivalent
knives & mirrors

jumping back from their own startled expressions--
artillery shaking the coast

After I'd read the book through, I went back and collected words for a rough word bank in my journal, my poor lonely journal left untended for so long.  Very quickly the words began suggesting lines to me and arrows/circles soon linked groupings all over the page.  It felt great to shift to drafting full lines and eventually to what became something that resembles a full poem.  For that, I am indebted to Hall.

All week, I've also been reading from Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters (Belknap Press, Harvard U P, 1986).  I've had this book for ages but no longer remember if it was once assigned in undergrad or in  a grad school class or if I picked it up on my own.  In the past, I read mostly from the letters to T. W. Higginson and of course, I've combed over the three master letters endlessly.  Now, though, I feel compelled to read from the beginning.

The first few letters come from a young E.D., just 12 years old, and I couldn't quite turn off my composition instructor brain as I read run-on after run-on after run-on.  Already in the poems, I see the woman and poet Dickinson would become, obsessed with nature, struggling with a body prone to ailments, and questioning the strict religious society that surrounded her.  What was more surprising was to read the hints of loneliness, low self-esteem, and social doubt.  In my mind, she is a giant and her poems so self-assured & steady (even when questioning), it is sad to realize that she felt many of the same things I felt at that age and still feel today more than I'd care to admit.


Finally, I did some collage work yesterday and here is one of the results. It might be a little hard to tell, but I've moved into a 3-D phase, raising some images off the page with "risers" made out of old mat board.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Weekly Updates: Election Fever, Big Rock Reading, Submissions, & Acceptance

71º ~ a cold front moving across the northwest section of the state, solid gray skies, gusts, and leaves falling like snow ~ after a solid week of amazing fall weather we will downshift to cold & rain for a few days

one of my collages

This week began with a bit of a frenzy of submissions.  After having a pile of folders on my desk for the past two months, a pile from which I would pick and choose poems and journals, I decided it was time to get ALL of the sickly speaker poems out into the world.  So I matched up the remaining poems with some journals and put the rest of the folders away.  Love a clean slate / clean desk. 

Then, there was the election.  Like many Americans, I sat up as late as I could (and that's not as late as I used to be able to) to watch the results come in.  I am happy with the results nationally, but disappointed in Arkansas, which seems determined to cling to a Republican platform with which I disagree.   While we have a democratic governor for now, our state legislature is now in complete Republican control for the first time since the late 1800s.  While President Obama leads the charge for health care, education, and forward-thinking / equality-based job creation, I'm fearful of what will happen here, especially for those first two categories. 

It turns out that staying up late is not so good for productivity.  Wednesday and Thursday required all of my focus to keep doing what I need to do as an instructor, with no time for writing/poetry.  The reward for this was Friday's installment of the Big Rock Reading Series.  We hosted Kathleen Heil and J. Camp Brown, both MFA candidates at the University of Arkansas.  When I created the series, I marked off November as a time to host a grad student reading, and now with the addition of the program at UCA, it looks like we might expand our pool.  We had the reading at 10:00 a.m., which made me a bit nervous.  It turns out, we had 60+ folks show up, nearly all students.  Three instructors brought their students (including me).  This made me happy because for many of our students getting back to campus in the evening is a hardship due to jobs or family responsibilities. 

As for Kathleen and Josh, well, they rocked the house.  And after the reading, I got to take them to Vino's for pizza and not only talk about Fayetteville but also offer advice as they face the nerve-wracking future that is graduating from a grad program in a dismal job market.  I've got my fingers double crossed for all the writers up on the hill about to head out into the world.

Yesterday, saw me sending out The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths and taking that big leap off the high board with Fevers of Unknown Origin as well.  Once that was done, it meant that every single poem available for submission was out at one journal or another and both books were out there as well.  Ack!  This morning, I was rewarded with an acceptance from a journal waiting in my inbox.  Wahoooooo!  At the moment, I have high hopes for all things poetry and have recovered from the sting of the NEA rejection (finding out that a good poet-friend received one of the fellowships went a long way to soothing my wound).

Later today, we have an editorial meeting for Heron Tree to work through more submissions.  If you haven't sent us anything, remember that we read through Dec. 1. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Weekly Updates: Fairly Random & Disappointing

58º ~ after a weird run of days in the 80s, settling back into our amazing & beautiful fall weather, a gentle line of t-storms brought down a cold front last night, bright, clear sun

So, after my post on Tuesday morning, things pretty much went downhill this week.  It was a combination of misadventure and feeling low. 

C. was home from school all week with the pink eye, contracted from one of his students no doubt.  Teaching, the job that keeps on giving.  While I avoided conjunctivitis, I just ended up feeling achy, grouchy, and exhausted, coming home from teaching and sleeping each afternoon for several hours and then sleeping each night as well.  (Yes, I KNOW I am lucky beyond words to have a job with this kind of makes up for it when I'm grading non-stop.)  Normally, if I even dare take a 20-minute nap, my whole night's sleep is off.  My body may have been fighting something off, but I think my mind was also worn down by the mid-semester blues. 

On Friday, I received that lovely NEA email so many of us received: "sorry, try again in 2 years."  I was more able to keep the rejection in perspective this year, given all the misery left in Hurricane Sandy's wake, but it still hurts.  FB was extremely helpful as I felt less alone in the disappointment.

Speaking of destruction in the northeast.  I tried to get on the Poetry Society of American's website today and no luck.  Their address is Gramercy Park, NYC, so I'm wondering if they sustained damage as well.  Sending positive vibes to everyone in the path and especially those still without power.

Yesterday, I did summon the courage to send out The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths to three more publishers.  Today, I spent an hour sorting through poems from the fever book that are available for submission to journals.  I ended up sending out only one packet, but I'm good with that.  This whole process has been so different from the past.  I've never had the whole collection of poems written while sending out individual poems.  It brings a different light to the revisions I make, and I feel like the manuscript as a whole will be the stronger for it.  I'm hoping to start sending that mss. out in January.

In good news, that extra hour of sleep last night was reviving, and I think having more light in the morning may help me bounce back from the blahs. 

Here's to a better week ahead!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

H. Sandy, Inventing Constellations, and a Sickly Speaker Poem at Thrush

44º ~ a quick snap in the air these past two mornings, bright sun, calm winds, and dry, highs mid-60s

First and foremost, as a weather bug, I'm sending all my sympathies to those who have felt the winds and rains and surge and snows of Sandy.  I heard on The Weather Channel last night that in 1821 another hurricane made landfall over New Jersey/New York and caused much the same destruction, albeit to a much smaller population.  I know that it is easy to feel like the forecasters are over-promoting worst case scenarios in the days leading up to events such as this, but I am so thankful they are there, saving as many lives as they can.  Coming from tornado territory, where there might only be a moment's notice and a small portion of geography assaulted, I'm thankful there is so much lead time on hurricanes, even as I'm saddened by the huge path of destruction.

It's a good time to give to the Red Cross if you've got anything left to give.


On a brighter note, yesterday's mail brought my signed copy of good poet-friend Al Maginnes' new book Inventing Constellations (Cherry Grove, 2012).  I was lucky to this book in manuscript form awhile back and let me tell you, it's wonderful.  Al and I share several similarities.  We are both graduates of the MFA program at the University of Arkansas (although several years apart) and we both write poems that may seem at first to be "quiet" or "muted," but that lend themselves to longer, deeper readings.  In contrast, Al is a fan of the longer poem.  He has the strength to sustain his speaker and the situation of the poem over many lines and often over multiple pages.  This is the type of poetry that invites introspection and reflection; no flash in the pan here. 

At the heart of Inventing Constellations is a speaker, close to Al himself, entering fatherhood in late middle-age and confronting all the issues of parenthood alongside his own mortality.  Amidst those poems of fatherhood are poems of science and music, poems of politics and existentialism.  These are poems that observe the world in minute detail and draw on larger truths through the minutia of daily life. 

I've become fond of listing titles in these mini-responses, and here are few from Al.

The Consolation of Endless Universes
Parenthood as Correspondence Course
A Gravity More Forceful
Parenthood as Bad Theology
The Moon as Absence and Desire
The Mute Amnesia of Birds
Asking the Dead to Leave
Prayer for the Imponderables

The opening poem in the collection, "The Definitions," is a collection of prose segments exploring the nature of family and announcing that the speaker has become a father through adoption, which adds yet another layer to the woven fabric of parenthood presented in the book.  Here is one of my favorite excerpts.

A family is a boomtown, the only nest of light for miles, its laws
evolving with each new development.  Shifts work around the clock
saloons never close and the streets fill with stories that mean
nothing to anyone who doesn't live here.

And here is the beginning of "Parenthood as Bad Theology."

I am becoming the sermon I promised
..........I would never deliver, a sackclothed shadow,

caricature wielding the finger of admonition.
..........Smoky entreaties, curly wisps of logic
no cartographer could unwind...


Finally, all thanks to Helen Vitoria for the good work she is doing over at Thrush.  In the November issue, you'll find one of the earliest sickly speaker poems, "You Taught Me Devastation." For those of you interested in the drafting process, here's a link to the day I set down the first draft. (RIP, Lou-Lou, my little muse-kitty.)  The beginning is quite different from where the poem ended up, but that's the work of drafting.  The whole drafting process is so mysterious.  Here are two scans of my journal from the day this poem began.  (Thank the stars for revision!)

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Weekly Updates: Predicting the Storm, Hosting Padma Viswanathn, Fellowship Applications, and Reading Submissions

59º ~ a near perfect fall weekend, alas marred by another Razorback loss in War Memorial Stadium (the world is surely turning upside down)

Over the last few days, as with most of the nation, we here at the desk of the Kangaroo have been following the path of Hurricane Sandy and anticipating her merger with the two winter storms over the northeast.  All jokes of my name aside, I'm hoping everyone out east is prepared for the worst even as I'm hoping y'all see the least.


My week of poetry was upended a bit by some work related business and the fact that the Big Rock Reading Series hosted Padma Viswanathan on Thursday night.  Because I'm a bit of an energy wimp, I've learned that I need to sleep in on the morning of the readings (on days when I don't teach), so that I can be "on" that evening.  While this means losing poetry time, it makes life much more bearable for the day after a reading. 

I'm thrilled to report that we had another wonderful evening.  Padma read two stories, "Transitory Cities" and "The Barber Lover," which is an excerpt from her novel The Toss of a Lemon.  We had an audience of 75 people, again with about an 80%/20% split of PTC folks and members of the community.  Based on both the verbal comments after the reading and the written comments on the survey, the audience connected with the stories and with Padma and folks were grateful for her appearance.  If you ever get the chance to hear her read, I highly encourage it!


This morning, I caught up on the loose ends cluttering my desk and was reminded of a fellowship deadline that is right around the corner.  When I began working on it, I thought I'd just take care of one or two bits of the whole and then finish the rest this week, but something overtook me and I spent three hours at the computer, eventually hitting "submit" for the whole thing.  Asking for money is always hard for me, as I know it is for others, but I have to remind myself that the work we do as writers is valuable yet undervalued.  Fellowships are a chance to make up that imbalance.  So, I did my best, tried to be as open and clear about my needs and off it went. 

The good thing is that by the time they make the announcement, I'll have forgotten that I sent it in, which always helps deaden the disappointment.  Of course, like most poets in America, I'm waiting to hear from the NEA...that one fellowship I'm never capable of forgetting for long.  (If anyone has already received word, please put me out of my misery!)


Finally, I wanted to say a few words about Heron Tree.  Many thanks to all of you who have sent encouraging notes about this new poetry journal.  I'm thrilled to be co-editing it with two dear friends.  I know many of you have submitted, and we are grateful for that!  *For those of you who have already submitted, we are notifying as we go.  We appreciate everyone's patience!

As we set out on the journey, my co-editors and I talked a lot about how we wanted the process of selecting poems to work and about being open to revising that process if we needed to.  We decided to attempt to read the poems blind, and so far that is working.  I confess, it takes the pressure off if/when I'm reading poems submitted by a poet-friend. 

One of the techniques we have developed along the way is the "pause list." As we read our packets independently of each other, we note down the ID number of any poem that makes us pause, any poem that we might even barely consider publishing.  These numbers get sent in emails that the others don't open until they've sent their pause list.  Then, when we have our editorial meetings, we only talk about those poems with pauses, even if the poem only received one pause note.  This helps because before the editorial meeting, we can each read through the poems noted in the list and really focus on just those poems, preparing our yay or nay or maybe votes.

I have to say that accepting poems is a huge rush.  When we arrive at that YES, I get a bit giddy and let out a little 'wahoo.'

As this has all unfolded, I'm grateful that I'm working with two other people who are sharp readers of poetry and good friends.  They keep me on my toes and ensure that I don't become so carried away with the beautiful language or images of a poem that I fail to check for a solid foundation underneath.  They remind me that in a joint effort we are working on a collaborative aesthetic.  This is not MY journal, and I think I know now that I wouldn't want to be an editor of one...too much pressure.


This next week looks a bit more conducive to poetry making, although the material needing to be graded floats there, ever at the surface, ever renewing itself.  At least this week there will be Halloween candy to carry me through!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Weekly Updates: A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World, Submissions, and a Dry Spell

77º ~ rising humidity, thin cloud cover, little to no wind, yellow leaves drifting groundward

A week without poetry events and no papers to grade meant a lot of rest here at the Kangaroo.  I've changed around my routine a bit to focus on poetry in the mornings.  How many times must I learn this lesson?  The focus and brainpower required for poetry is different than that for teaching and going about my daily responsibilities.  It must be seen to first, as my few weekday posts prove.


I spent the first part of the week sending out the weather/myth/fairy tale manuscript and being more thankful than ever for electronic submissions.  It simply saves so much time and paper.  I do know that those on the receiving end may print out submissions so I'm not really saving trees, but I'm hopeful that as we go along and people read more and more on the screen that they will be comfortable doing first reads electronically, at least.  (When I read the first few packets for Heron Tree, I printed out each poem; however, I quickly realized that I didn't need the paper version.  Instead, I read them on my iPad with an annotation program...PDFpen...for taking notes.  Long live the Ents and their trees!)


I'm starting to feel the effects of my dry spell, in terms of drafting new poems.  For the moment, I am a poet without a subject.  The sickly speaker manuscript feels sealed off and done; however, I'm in a bind.  I really think that the weather book needs to come out first because the sickly speaker is such a different beast, and the weather book is really an extension of the motifs in Blood Almanac.  I suppose I do not have the luxury of thinking along these lines and I should be sending both books out at once.  Dilemmas!

Still, I feel adrift and have begun to notice my absence from the journal.  If history is any indication, I'll soon find myself with lines (bad ones) bubbling up and wanting to be written down.  For the first time, I'm trying to be patient through the silent times and let the poems return of their own free will.


This week, along with Terry Wright's chapbooks, I've been digesting Adam Clay's A Hotel Lobby at the Edge of the World (Milkweed Editions, 2012).  A few weeks back, you might recall, I drove up to Fayetteville to see/hear Adam read.  He and I were at Fayetteville together in the MFA Program, and he's someone whose work I've always admired.  His first book, The Wash, is another one of my favorites.

In Hotel Lobby, Adam weaves a song of longing and uncertainty, but not about love or relationships; instead, these poems are about the ineffable nature of time, language, and memory.  These are ethereal poems weighed down by the objects of the world.

Here are a few titles:

Fragment for an Avoided Disaster
On the Momentum of Memory
For Your Eyelash Anchored to the Sky
As Complete as a Thought Can Be
Thought for a Stalled World
A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season
Myth Left in Memory
Reaching for a Lexicon, an Apple No Longer Shining

As I read this book, I couldn't help but think of my tiny, immature grasp on language theory, on signifier and signified.  I don't really think I know enough to use these terms correctly, but it seems to me these poems cover the same ground, questioning the act and power of naming both the concrete world around us and the abstract thoughts in our heads.  There are trains and bricks and rivers and wind, storms, and weather and none of these "reveal / that you are filled with the need / to document something" ("A Memory, Forgotten at the End of a Season").  In "Maybe Motion Will Save Us All," the speaker opens the newspaper "to see how the symbols add up / and where they lead" only to "find nothing."

There is a battle going on within the speaker of these poems, one that feels familiar to me, the battle of the life of the mind versus the life of the body.  The speaker struggles to capture in language the true nature of the world.  In section 14 of "As Complete as a Thought Can Be," he states, "I am beginning / to think a fragment / is as complete as a thought can be."

However, lest you think there are no things in these poems, I'll leave you with my favorite lines from "For the Driftwood I Once Loved."

.......When I think of voice, it is the South
I think of again and again, how the South shed

its rustic laugh for a noble one, how it shed its laugh for streetcar
.......sounds and Memphis weeds in an Arkansas field.

..............Downward sloaping sidewalk.  Hesitation wounds
in the sky.  A crabapple for each one.  A cherry blossom her teeth.  I am listening to my throat click.  I am hearing
..............a ghost long gone.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What I'm Reading: Two Chapbooks by Terry Wright

58º ~ wind advisory in place for most of the region today but calm for now, storms passed through overnight

I've probably mentioned Terry Wright here before.  He's the Grand Poobah of Poetry over at the University of Central Arkansas, having built the foundation over several decades for what is now the newly launched MFA program there.  After I read at the reception for the program, Terry sent me his two latest chapbooks:  Fractal Cut-Ups (Kattywompus Press, 2012) and Graphs (Kairos Editions, 2011).

In Fractal Cut-Ups Terry creates mash-ups to create a series of prose poems.  In each poem, two texts are fed through a virtual cut-up machine and mashed together multiple times.  The result according to Terry in the Notes section are poems that "are semi-found but consciously collaged."  The book contains 22 poems, followed by an extensive Notes section that first lists the two texts used to produce each poem and then "provide[s] mish-mash annotation: part aboveboard end note academic documentation, part gossip and paranoia and truthiness culled from the Web, part avowedly confessional secrets and sound bites from the author."  Each poem, then, lives again in a new way.

Throughout, the idea of fractal properties (self-similarity, theoretical infinity, and chaos theory) provide the underpinning for the book.

Here's an example from the start of "Invasion of the Action Painters."

Letting the world canvas dry to a Just War results in objectness.  The weapon of de Kooning was martyrdom.  The painter, a perceived threat, necessitates subconscious military action.  Only the artist, a sole superpower, envisages proactivity using tangible manifestations.  Attack creations are soon outspoken in every region, and dialogues with adversaries drip on statelessness horizons.

The Notes tell us that the two texts are a "Wikipedia entry on 'action painting'" and a "Wikipedia entry on 'the Bush Doctrine.'"  Did I mention that Terry is decidedly political in his work as well?  

In Graphs Terry works with another mathematical principle, the use of graphs to "abstractly represent a set of objects," according to the Notes section of this chapbook.  Instead of a mathematical, numerical grid, Terry provides "prose diagrams."  There are eight poems here and the same hefty Notes section as the previous book, this time where Terry lets us in on his thinking behind certain phrases in each poem.

Here's an example from the start of "Garbage Graph."

How apropos.  The chorus returns like another holiday.  The family's coming for festival. They're bringing Dionysus, god of wine -- and theater.  There's a cop out in the wings.  The bell rings announcing locker searches.

The Notes tell us that the "chorus" refers to "the bird girls in the musical Seussical -- if the show had been staged on a landfill" and "festival" is "[m]ore like Landru's fete from Star Trek's 'The Return of the Archons' than like Burning Man."  The note for this poem is easily twice the length of the poem itself and rather than over-explaining the poem, it morphs into something different altogether.

Terry's poems in these two collections eschew the traditional ideas of poetry and take us in a new direction of pop culture and political stances.  They contain the best of both comedy and tragedy, and they never take themselves too seriously.  Every time I read something of Terry's I remember that it's a big ol' poetry world and there is room for all the varied voices.

**If you are interested in the idea of a word mash-up, just Google "virtual cut-up machine" and numerous links will pop up.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Unexpected Post: A VIDA Moment

59º ~ mornings deliciously cool, open-windowed sleep
**This post began on Tuesday morning.  I finished it this morning (Wednesday).  Similar conditions.

This morning (Tuesday) I ran across the blog post "Mommy, Where Do Poems Come From?" on Bark. It is attributed to Casey, who I think must be Casey Patrick from the contributors list.  I like Bark a lot as a blog because it offers quite a few different views on writing and the writing life, often from young and emerging writers.

As I started to read Casey's post, I was only half-skimming, liking the new presentation of an old question.  It's hip; it's funny.  But then, gradually, I realized that all of the quotes chosen for the piece came from men, white men (or at least Western men...was Homer white?... who represent the CANON in all of its old standards). This made me wonder, where are the women?  the people of color? the non-Euro-American writers?  And this brought to mind, the VIDA count, the project that takes a look at the diversity or lack of diversity (specifically as to gender) in publishing today.

It seems to me that this post on where poems come from is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why the VIDA count matters. Presented as it is, it is hard not to see a clear patriarchal line in literature.  But perhaps I think about these things too much.  I went to an undergrad college where the English department was immersed in cultural diversity and worked actively to break the canon wide open (thank you Mara, Madhu, Mike, Ozzie, Janet, and so many more).  My grad school...not so much.

Reader, let me confess, I feel a bit of fear in writing this.  I'm sure I'm opening myself up to some caustic comments.  Important fact: I do not dispute Casey's right to be inspired by whomever inspires her, be it man or woman, Western or Eastern, religious or atheist, etc.  However, I was curious about her choices.  They seem to display a writing life steeped in the traditionally male canon and that worries me, if it is true. 

Here are a few of my own collected quotes on where poems come from.  I offer them up in conversation with the list on Casey's post, rather than in confrontation to it. 

Emily Dickinson:
"I had a terror -- since September -- I could tell none -- and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground -- because I am afraid"
from a letter to T.W. Higginson, 25 April 1862

Lucille Clifton:
"Poetry for me is not an intellectual exercise. I really think that—to understand my poetry—I don’t think approaching it simply intellectually will help. It has to be a balance, I think, between intellect and intuition. For me, there is a kind of intuitive feeling for the language, for what wishes to be said."

Mary Oliver:
Poetry is "the wish to demonstrate a joie."

Quincy Troupe:
"All you’ve got are words and space and silence. You’re pulling these words out of this void."

Virginia Woolf:
"The first--killing the Angel in the House--I think I solved. She died. But the second, telling the truth about my own experiences as a body, I do not think I solved. I doubt that any woman has solved it yet."

I do notice that some of these do not fit easily into the "Poetry is..." framework.  That interests me as well.  Now, I have a need to do more research on this.  I hope the conversation will continue (and I'm thickening my skin for any caustic comments). 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Weekly Update: The Road to Happiness, The Museum of Americana, and a Shout Out

70º ~ a brief return to the 80s for the weekend with a bit of rain here and there, all in all pleasant days, windows are open

Of my mighty list of literary events in the area that I mentioned last weekend, I only made it to one.  The energies spread quite thin at this point in the semester, and by Friday I came down with a fever/cold, meaning I missed the launch of UALR's latest issue of their lit mag, Equinox.  Next time, y'all!


On Thursday night, I did get to attend the reception for two major Arkansas literary awards: The Booker Worthen Literary Prize and the Porter Fund Literary Prize.  For those U of A grads out there, the Porter Fund was established in 1984 to honor Dr. Ben Kimpel; however, he specified that the prize be named for his mother, Gladys Crane Kimpel Porter.  The Porter Prize goes to an Arkansas writer who has accomplished a substantial and impressive body of work.  The Booker Worthen is a prize established in 1999 to honor William Booker Worthen, who was a longtime supporter of the Central Arkansas Library System.  That prize goes to the best book published by an author residing in the CALS service area at the time of publication.  A book is eligible for selection for up to three years after its release.

On Thursday, David Welky received the 14th annual Booker Worthen Prize for his book The Thousand-Year Flood: The Ohio-Mississippi Disaster of 1937 and Margaret Jones Bolsterli received the 28th annual Porter Prize for her body of nonfiction work, including her most recent book During Wind and Rain: The Jones Family Farm in the Arkansas Delta 1848 - 2006


Shout out to Ms. Jobe, who was working at the event Thursday night and representing the first class of grad students in the UCA Arkansas Writers Workshop.  I met Jobe in August at my reading and was delighted to see her again.  She let me know that she and her peers have been reading the blog, so a huge THANK YOU to y'all!  Along with this shout out comes a request.  If you have any questions or curiosities about the writing world that you'd like me to address on the blog, please leave a comment or send me an email!

(Jobe: apologies if this isn't how you spell your name!) 


This week, fellow poet-friend Justin Hamm and his posse of amazing editors launched the museum of Americana, a new online journal of prose, poetry, and art.  According to its mission statement, the editors hope the journal "revives or repurposes the old, the dying, the forgotten, or the almost entirely unknown aspects of Americana. It is published purely out of fascination with the big, weird, wildly contradictory collage that is our nation’s cultural history."

There is some seriously great poetry there, including poems by poet-friends Kathleen Kirk and Karen Weyant, and some awesome art.  I haven't had a chance to dig into the prose yet, but I'm sure it will rise to the same level. 


Finally, we come to the book I read this week: Johnathon Williams' The Road to Happiness, recently published by Antilever Press.  On top of the poems, the reader gets an amazing introduction written by stellar poet and fellow U of A MFAer, Katrina Vendenberg.  Readers from last week will know that I attended a reading in Fayetteville recently and got to hear Johnathon knock a few of these poems out of the park.  I'm thrilled that he will be reading for the Big Rock Reading Series in April!

To understand my reaction to this book, you must know something about me personally.  I am addicted to true country music.  Let me be clear.  I do not mean that fluff that plays on the standard radio stations.  I mean the dark, soul-exposing music written by the great singer/songwriters stretching back to Johnny Cash & June Carter Cash and reaching up to Lucinda William, Gillian Welch, and Marie Gauthier.  Johnathon's book left me feeling wrung out and laid bare in the way of those musicians and their songs.

This is a book that tells the truth about the speaker's life growing up a country boy near Mena, AR, always on the edge of poverty and never far from the reach of religion.  These are poems so firmly rooted in place that there is no question about their authenticity.  We follow the speaker as he reaches adulthood, marries as is expected, and buries his father, all the while questioning his life and yearning for something more, something bigger.

If you like your poems laced through with the dust and grit picked up and hurled by the wind, or brazenly honest about the real work of marriage and parenthood, or packed full of the debris accumulated on a family farm as the speaker tries to educate himself up out of a life on the edge of prosperity, then this is the book for you.  Here are a few titles to tempt you.

"Trespassing in My Childhood Home"
"Soliloquy to the Peephole of Apartment 9"
"White Trash Ghazal"
"Head of Household"
"Pentecostal Girls"
"Notes on the Zombie Apocalypse"
"The Christian Motorcycle Association Arrives for Its Annual Rally Outside Mena, AR"

I'll leave you with a little bit from "Camping in the Ouachita National Forest."

Midnight, and my father's God can't see
in the dark.  Coyotes do unto others
by the tinctures of blood, their panting

like the whispered chansons of saints.
Nightcrawlers know a kind of scripture
driven to air on the ballasting dew.