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?)