Friday, December 19, 2014

Today's Draft, Brought to You by Lucie Brock-Broido and Sheldon Cooper

42º ~ slight warming, still a chance of rain, all grey, all quiet

Well, here I am, practicing BIC (butt in chair) and being present. The world was fighting hard against writing time today. I was cluttered up with thoughts of the errands I need to run and the urge to up and do them now, now, now, when, really, there is no rush. So, I fought and stayed in the chair.

I read some more Lucie Brock-Broido. I'm still working on Stay, Illusion. Today, I read "Attitude of Lion," amid others, and in this poem, Brock-Broido draws on the elements of animal heraldry. I learned something new by investigating her use of "sejant" and "couchant" in the poem. While I knew that animals were depicted in family crests, flags, seals, etc. in different "attitudes," different positions, I had never learned the history and meaning of this. So, I read up on them all and then returned to the poem with a new appreciation.

I read a few more poems, but none that held me as much. In the back of mind, I kept thinking of an episode of The Big Bang Theory. Yes, you read that correctly, The Big Bang Theory. I was thinking of the episode where Leonard tells how he came to live with Sheldon and to sign "the roommate agreement." In this episode, we learn that the apartment has a flag: "a gold lion rampant on a field of azure." That phrase "rampant on a field of azure" just kept repeating through my head.

So, I turned to my notebook and wrote "I, Rampant on a Field of Azure" and decided that made a great title. I imagined myself taking the rampant posture of an animal on a flag and sort of wrote a self-portrait, I suppose. It begins:

Fierce fingers splayed,
            ready for the raking
                        slash across my enemy's throat,
I lead with my hands.

So there you go: one poetry lion (Lucie Brock-Broido) mixed with one popular culture reference and voila!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

I Get By...With a Little Help from My Friends

37º ~ the whole day gone gray with overcast, across the alley a troop of roofers punctuate the otherwise quiet air, one bright red sweatshirt catches and distracts the eye as it hovers in high branches

Well, as the lapse in posting on this blog over the past six months can attest, I've been struggling. Struggling to maintain a focus on my own work amidst the work of my paying job and the work of being spouse, family-member, and friend. I know the fallow period that follows completing a big project, such as having two books come out in close proximity (one out and one on the way out, in any case); however, this time has felt a bit bleaker, and things recently reached a breaking point.

If you are on Facebook, you know that a few days ago, I posted a call for help. True to form, my friends turned out in all their glory and offered support and concrete advice. This morning, I returned to the desk with new determination and plucked one such piece of advice from my FB thread and BEGAN.

This bit of advice was offered by more than one person: transcribe a poem by that you love (written by someone else, of course) into your journal.

Duh! (Head slap) This is one of the prompts I offer my students because it has helped me so many times. I happened to have Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters beside me, so I opened to "Rome Beauty." Really, I could have used almost any poem in the book, but this one seemed "do-able" for a new beginning.

*While I've been struggling with poetry, I've also been struggling with some stress-management issues. I recently revisited Thich Nhat Hanh's audiobook The Art of Mindful Living to try and get myself back to living in the now and being present.

As I transcribed the poem, I kept the mindfulness lessons at the surface. I did not rush. I read and absorbed Brock-Broido's words, a phrase at a time, and I copied them into my journal with an attempt to keep my handwriting legible, my lines steady. This was, after all, not the rush of drafting, but the return to finding joy in language and in poetic lines.

After I completed the transcriptions, I felt calm, centered. However, my coffee had grown cold. So, I left the desk and hit the microwave in the kitchen. And here, perhaps I offer too much information. Often as I wait for my coffee to reheat, I stretch, twirl, dance, etc. on the old linoleum floor (yet another instance where the cats look at my like I'm crazy). Today, I pivoted on one foot with the other touching the cardinal points of the compass. I did so unconsciously, but almost immediately, lines sprang into my head.

I, too, am a bit Obsessed
with my own wind-tossed turning

on the compass wheel. ...

Boom. I was at the desk and scribbling madly in my journal, now throwing any semblance of good handwriting out the window.  The draft is unfinished as yet, but 12 lines made it onto the computer, which is a fabulous start. Also, this strange thing happened, the poem is filled, I mean FILLED, with rhymes.  Frost, exhausts, lost; so, no, show, slow; in, limbs; dismissed, wrist. Rhymes, but not in any standardized pattern. Just there, singing beneath the surface.

And so, I say "thank you" to everyone who commented on Facebook, sent me a private message, or has simply listened to me whine and moan for the last bit of life. I owe you all...Big Time!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

What I'm Reading: Floodgate Poetry Series Vol. I: Bazzell, Call, McGrath

57º ~ a murky, heavy-sky day of gathering thunderstorms, late November in the mid-south, most trees have lost their leaves, but the sweet gum holds on, tenacious

The Floodgate Poetry Series features three chapbooks by three poets in a single volume, and the debut volume is just out from Upper Rubber Boot Books. This collection features chapbooks by Jenna Bazzell, Martin Anthony Call, and Campbell McGrath, and the series is edited by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, of fame.

My connection to Volume I is that I blurbed Call's contribution: The Fermi Sea: Book I of Hologhost. Today, I read both Bazzell's and McGrath's chapbooks as well. I'm struck by the distinct differences in each collection, and yet how the volume somehow holds together as a piece in itself. Overarching themes of history (both personal and political) woven through with glimpses of the future run through the collection.

First up is Jenna Bazzell's Homeland. A devastating elegy for a troubled mother figure, the poems are frantic prayers spoken in a haunted, southern landscape. While I was impressed with the entire set of poems, "Nightgown" stuck with me, and I think I'll be returning to it in the days to come. Here is the opening.

Tonight, call back the ghosts you refused--listen to their steps

from the ceiling to the floor--palms flat to the window, a pair
of stumbling bare feet. Nights like this you're spun
                                                       in your mother's skin: fingers
thin as forsythia limbs, slender neck bent over a coffee table.

After these poems of grief, grounded in a lush landscape, we move on to Martin Anthony Call's The Fermi Sea. These poems move us into a dystopian future where the promise of technology has changed the world, but not always for the better.

Here's my blurb:

Martin Anthony Call’s character sketches in The Fermi Sea call to mind a dystopian Spoon River Anthology set somewhere mid-twenty-first century on the West Coast. Filled with nanotechnology, all-digital media, walled cities, holograms, and air cabs, these poems project a gritty disillusionment about the power of both humans and machines. (Think more Blade Runner than Star Trek.) With deft poetic strokes, Call introduces the reader to a host of characters whose trials have only just begun.

Here is a bit of "Wheeler," one of the opening poems.

Simon drops off the sofa at the sound
                     of his buzzer blaring
and the Vid-Mon popping on full volume.

4 AM wake up call could only be
                      Wheeler, leery and
lizard-eyed, woefully paranoid

Wheeler, who might be a city administrator
                     if not for the rabbit-
         hole of prescription pharmaceuticals.

Finally, Campbell McGrath shifts us back in time with Picasso/Mao, a series of persona poems covering much of the 20th century from the point of view of these two influential men. While much has been written about both Picasso and Mao, here we have a re-imagining through a heightened, personal lens as McGrath attempts to remain true to the facts of history while broadening our empathy for these cultural giants.

Here is the opening of "Mao: On Patience (1931)":

Sick with malaria, I withdraw from the clamor
of disputatious cadres
to live in a bamboo pavilion with He Zizhen,
my revolutionary companion,
who has surrendered our newborn daughter
to be raised by peasants. A model comrade, she would not
saddle the Party with an infant's needs.

All together Volume I of the Floodgate Poetry Series does not disappoint. It offers all of the advantages of the chapbook with the added spark of three voices placed side by side, so that the poems of one poet linger and influence the reading of the next.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Upcoming Reading: Drake University & the Des Moines Public Library: The Writer's Harvest

45º ~ a distinct chill in the air, bright/brilliant slanting sun, autumn in Arkansas

As always, the semester presents its marathon challenges, and then, I look up, and notice we're 3/4 of the way through. This year, that means, I'm about to go to Iowa for a reading. Wahooooooza!

What: The Writer's Harvest
The Drake Writers and Critics Series, in partnership with the Des Moines Public Library
When: Thursday, 13 November, 3:30 p.m. - 6:00 p.m.
Where: Des Moines Public Library, downtown branch
Who: ME & Aimee LaBrie, plus a sampling of Drake students whose work appears in their lit mag, Periphery

In true weather fashion, an "arctic blast" plans on blowing through while I'm up home. Highs should be right in that comfort zone of the low 30s, and, oh yes, there's a chance of snow at some point. Uhm, yum? Still, central Arkansas will be only slightly warmer, albeit without the snow chances.

I guess I'll be taking my winter coat along and reading some "cold" poems. If you live in or near Des Moines, I hope to see you there!

Can't wait to visit with all the Drake writers and see my MFA buddies, Amy Letter & Brian Spears!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Sibling Rivalry Press: The Queer South

56º ~ a cold front arrives, sweeping from NW to SE, bright autumn sun slanting sideways, leaves floating down one moment and hurtling down the next as the wind comes up

As the literary scene in central Arkansas has expanded over the last decade, one of the great additions to the party has been Sibling Rivalry Press. I've been fortunate to get to know Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington, and it's probably no secret that I'm a fan of their work. For those unaware, SRP is a champion of LGBTIQ authors, but is an inclusive press. While straight myself, I'm not one to get hung up on labels. I read for the love of poetry, and so do Bryan and Seth, based on the quality of the work they produce.

Awhile back, Bryan reached out and asked if I would blurb a new anthology, The Queer South, edited by Douglas Ray. My policy on blogging is to say "yes" whenever I can, schedule permitting. As it happened, I had the time, so Bryan sent on the proof of the book. As I scrolled to the table of contents, I saw Dorothy Allison, Richard Blanco, Jericho Brown and many more "established" voices. However, right there at the top, alphabetically, was John Andrews, and I started to smile.

John Andrews was my student at the Arkansas Governor's School about a decade ago, when he would have been a rising high school senior. I've had the great pleasure of knowing John as he completed his undergrad degree and then went off to get a graduate degree in creative writing. Now his work shows up in journals and anthologies, and I just smile and smile. I can't claim any huge influence over John's work, as I only taught him for six weeks one summer; however, I still count him as one of mine. To see four of his poems in The Queer South sealed the deal. I read on with delight.

Without further ado, here's my blurb:
In The Queer South words emerge, blazing, from the red clay, the kudzu, the streaming rivers and creeks, and the sun-cracked city streets. Poems and essays wrestle the ghosts of history, ghosts that don't fight fair, hurling religion, race, and gendered expectations, alternating between shouts of bravado and whispers of shame. Yet, these love poems, coming out stories, and, yes, even songs of rejection, win by laying bare the skin of any reader's heart.

At nearly 300 pages, The Queer South is a hefty anthology, and one I strongly support.

Here's John Andrews' "The Heart is a Shotgun House" to get you started.

The Heart is a Shotgun House

no hall

three rooms
rubbing up against
each other

a house without
a backdoor

in the living room
smell every spice

the pots
boiling over

the wind
through the bedroom

we made moonshine
in the bath

put all the bottles
on the front lawn

to bathe them
in moonlight

left the tap


on the porch

I caught him eating
leftover spiced apples
in the midnight kitchen

after sleeping
with a shotgun

you'll pull the trigger

aim for anything
in the dark

Sunday, October 19, 2014

How a Poetry Manuscript Becomes a Book

58º ~ nothing but sweet sunshine for days and days to accompany the cooling days of fall, the trees have just begun to turn as the hours of sun diminish, hummingbirds departed about a week ago, it seems

Oh, dear reader, an entire month has lapsed since last I posted. Such is the life of a poet working at the community college level (with extra teaching at the grad level to boot).

Still, my life has not been without poetry work. Much of the last month's poetry time has been spent working with my incredible editor, Tayve Neese, from Trio House Press. Today, I'm thrilled to share the cover of my new book, due out in April 2015.

Each press I've worked with has had a different approach to cover image and design. In this case, Trio House asked me for three possible images. These images would go before the production committee, and if the committee thought any would work, they would choose one. If the committee wanted to take the cover in another direction, they would then find and use their own image. With these instructions, I immediately contacted Carolyn Guinzio, poet and photographer, and asked for permission to put three of her images forward for consideration. Luckily, she said yes, and then the production committee said yes to the above image.

In terms of which of Carolyn's beautiful photographs I might put forth, I knew the following. Given the tone and subject matter of the book, I wanted a cover with reds, browns, burnt oranges, glowing embers, etc. I also wanted something with either a medical feel or a vintage feel. Blood Almanac and The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths both contain realistic images (that I love) on the covers. This time, I was interested in some abstraction entering the frame.

When Tayve emailed me the finished product this past week, I confess, I cried. I instantly loved the entire vibe of the cover and how the graphic extension of lines across the image reflects the sickly speaker's situation, that of institutionalization. As I saw the cover for the first time, the number of references to the speaker's barred window popped into my head. I cried. I danced. I emailed Tayve back so we could celebrate together.

Many, many thanks to Carolyn for the photo and to Dorinda Wegener, the Managing Editor at Trio House, for helping create such a fantastic cover.

OK, so while the production committee was busy making the outside of the book look fabulous, Tayve and Issa Lewis, an editor at Trio House, were busy with inside edits. They both scrutinized the text, from front matter, to content, to back matter, and then sent me several pages of editorial suggestions. These suggestions were super helpful in making the book consistent, sometimes in terms of how the dash was used, and definitely in terms of how the ampersand was used. (If you've followed the drafting process of these poems in my previous posts, you know the ampersand plays a key role.) Other editorial questions brought out weaknesses in two poems that needed to be improved, for which I was extremely grateful. Sometimes we are too close to the work to see it clearly.

I addressed the edits and came up with some questions of my own. Back and forth we went until we had what we considered the final copy, and by that, I mean, the FINAL copy. This went off to Dorinda for the publication committee to work on. The manuscript needed to be taken from a Word document and put into a publication-ready format. This involved selecting a font, formatting the front and back matter, as well as the table of contents and the acknowledgments. Then, the poems had to be formatted on the page as well and page numbers inserted.

Once all of that work was done, Tayve and I received our first round of galleys, in PDF form. We each spent a week combing through the pages, and lo and behold, I discovered two word changes that needed to be made, again for consistency within the larger narrative of the poems. Luckily, the word changes didn't change much in terms of formatting, and with things being digital these days, they were easy to fix. Tayve and I also talked about such minute details as spacings for indents, consistency of italics, and where we needed to either put in or take out commas. Yes, even after our stamping FINAL on the previous copy, there were still tiny details to address.

At this point, the galleys are back with Dorinda and her team, and Tayve and I should receive another look at the "almost book" form soon. We will go over all the details again, and then, fingers crossed, we will go to press.

As all of this was going on, we were also working to get the blurbs for the back cover together. I send all my thanks to Carol Frost, who selected the sickly speaker as the winner of the Louise Bogan Award, and to Lisa Russ Spaar & Oliver de la Paz for writing such generous words about the book. I'll leave you with a look at the back cover, minus bar code (thus the white rectangle at the bottom). Soon, soon the book will arrive with its own weight to be held in the hands. I can't wait!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

BIC & Poetry vs. Collage

81º ~ feels like 85º, summer's having a final blowout sale this weekend with temps and humidity climbing, a promise of cooling down in the new week & the new season, hummingbirds continue to battle it out, one bird trying to claim all four feeders in our yard

First, a celebration of BIC (butt in chair), as it really does work. This morning, I flailed about for at least an hour, starting two miserable drafts in my journal before stumbling onto what I really wanted to say/write.

I have to thank Brent Goodman this morning.  His poem "The Brother Swimming Beneath Me" bleeds into the line "is not dead yet... ." That sparked a first line for me, "Dad isn't dead yet, but disappearing." Many of you know that my dad has been dealing with Parkinson's for years. Recently, he has shown all of the elements of Alzheimer's setting in as well. As always, it is a struggle for me to be so far away and to know that my mom and my oldest sister bear the brunt of his caregiving. I thought that's what the poem would be about, but no.

Instead, today poetry did that magical thing. The draft went in another direction, focusing on my dad, not me, and helping me see something about him that I'd never been able to articulate before. The draft, titled "Undersong," actually reveals a man "letting go" of the world long before symptoms appeared because the world had advanced beyond his recognition. Yes, it is based on autobiography, but there's a good deal of fictionalizing going on in there as well.

*Note, "undersong" is a real word with a real definition, but all these silly spell checkers keep telling me otherwise. Le sigh.

So, hurray for BIC and for poetry as an act of discovery that helps me make sense of my world. It might not make living in that world any easier, but it helps.


Now, to poetry versus collage. I don't really mean this as a "versus" kind of thing, but the form of "this versus that" is easy shorthand. What I mean to say is this: I am torn. I have a limited number of hours to devote to my creative life, and I'm having conflicted thoughts about where my collages fit in with my poetry. Truth is, some mornings, I'd rather be making a collage than stumbling over the page in this broken way of late. Yet, I have been "a poet" for so long that I feel guilty about wanting to be making a different kind of art.

I worry that if I don't keep my BIC, I'll lose my poetry muscles (from past experiences, I know I will), but if I'm uninspired by writing and inspired by working with visual images, shouldn't I honor that?

Anyone out there who makes art in multiple fields care to offer any advice? This is much weirder than genre-switching on the page. Each practice requires a whole different physical space and movement, a different firing in the brain. Help!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Voice: Lost? Forgotten? Changing?

66º ~ edging toward fall, squirrels racing about with nuts to bury, no hummingbirds this morning...are they migrated and gone? -- oh wait, one just flirted by

Today, I'm consumed with the idea of poetic voice.

In grad school, lo those many years ago now, I remember the moment I was said to have "found my voice." It was when I began writing the poems that would become Blood Almanac. It was when my poems might still have held some imitative quality of the writers I admired, but had finally grown into their own skin, their own obsessions, their own range on the page.

That voice, obsessed with the Midwest, prone to mid-length lines and shortish poems, enthralled by music and sound within the line, held up for almost 10 years, into the poems of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths. Then, with The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, the voice became "skewed" by persona. The sickly speaker had her own pace, her own Victorian-esque and baroque sensibility, and there is very little of the Midwest in her book.

Now, I'm out in the dark again, searching for "my voice." Yes, I wrote some "angry sister" poems, which were persona (and different from the sickly speaker), but by and large, I am not gripped by any obsession at the moment. I have no fire in my belly and no sense of the line on the page.

But, today, with my BIC, a draft came calling. It is plainspoken and direct. The lines are shorter than those with which I'm most comfortable. There's very little magic realism, fairy tale, or high imagination at all. In fact, the subject is about being "unhaunted." I was reading a poem from Anna Journey's If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, a book filled with the speaker being haunted by the departed, and haunted in that lush Southern way, when this draft of mine arrived.

This draft, "The Long Unspoken," comes out and it's all about how being "unhaunted" is a failing on the speaker's part, which seems to me to be directly about my feelings on voice, passion, and "inspiration" at this moment. I am "un" and it is a failing.

No worries. I know this will pass and that the BIC system will work itself out. In the meantime, I continue to read, both poetry and non-fiction. I continue to open myself to the possibilities and whatever new version of my own voice is coming next.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Writing is Hard: Walking the Walk

81º feels like 87º ~ heat index to surpass 100º today, but then, the cold front lingering to our north will dip into the state and we will "plunge" into the high 70s tomorrow, sweet plunge it will be ~ whether heat or shortening days, the hummingbirds have been a bit overzealous of late

Every semester in my Creative Writing I class (a mixed-genre intro class) students come into the class with varying degrees of experience, but all with a desire to wrangle their emotions onto the page through words. And every semester, we hit a wall about now, as the students learn that writing is hard work. This is not a surprise to those of us long at the task, but many of my students have spent years writing in diaries and journals, letting the words fly and feeling great about it, but not having been introduced to the idea of writing for an audience. In my class, they come face to face with a new discipline, an attempt to apply a different kind of craft, and the great balancing act for me is to introduce them to craft without deflating their desire.

I talk a lot about messy drafts, consideration of audience, becoming aware of words as our palette, etc. And I talk a lot about BIC (butt in chair) and revision, revision, revision. Today, I'm living all of these lessons again as I search for new terrain in my poetry. I'm putting my BIC three times a week and I'm scratching and clawing, fighting with words.

Today, four messy pages of half-assed drafts in my journal before, again, I returned to the "am" poem. And then, some smooth sailing as the poem began in the journal:

Am jaw clenched hard
                            by dawn's alarm,

It unwound from there and I got about 3/4 of it in my journal before turning to the computer to try and find the end of the draft. And here I had to persevere; I had to let the poem reveal what I had to say, and that is hard.

Are there poets out there who sit down knowing "I am going to write about the energy of nightmares through the use of a dog with a stick metaphor, and I'll incorporate a savior figure and how the speaker trades the nightmare for an allegiance to a perhaps shady character"? Or simpler "I am going to write a poem about the lady at the pool who swims for 30 minutes and slaps & kicks the water as if trying to beat the life out of it"?

If so, I envy you at this moment. Perhaps I've come to the page like this in the past, but if I have, I've forgotten how it is done. And, this coaxing of the poem up out of the depths is terrifying...every single time.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Labor Day & the Political Poem

83º ~ feels like 89º, dew point 74º, the swelter-weather returns, bubbling up to heat indices nearing the century mark later this week, no real rain, watering for the second weekend in a row, hummingbirds abound

This morning, the first thing I read was a Philip Levine poem, "Coming Close, the daily poem from The Academy of American Poets. I went on to read another Levine poem, "What Work Is," archived by the Poetry Foundation. Both of these poems present the complicated lives of working-class people. Among Levine's other poems there are more direct implications of what happens when one moves from the working class to the middle class, as I have done.

This set me off in writing a really cliched, too overt "political poem," about my relationship to work. I mean, the draft is really terrible.

But, it got me thinking, how do political poets, and I count Levine as such, poets who comment directly on the conditions of the people with whom they are concerned, how do they do it? How do they honor their subject and make art of it? How do they avoid sentimentality? How do they avoid exploiting the very people they seek to honor? How do they move me without driving me away with points too blunt and too sharp?

If anyone has any answers, I'm all ears.


In the meantime, I must engage in that domestic labor that is grocery shopping and laundry and catching up on bill paying on this glorious holiday that not everyone gets to enjoy. Many folks, especially in retail and food service will be hard at labor today. May they prosper.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What I'm Reading: The Book of Scented Things

80º ~ feels like 80º, headed up to 95º, our saving grace...a drop in humidity, no rain and no relief in sight, summer arrives late this year, but it arrives, cicadas and hummingbirds abound

In February 2013, I was invited by Jehanne Dubrow to participate in an anthology project that she was then editing with Lindsay Lusby: The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems about Perfume. Now, the book is done and in the hands of reviewers and contributors. Published by The Literary House Press, it appears the book will become available for sale after its October 7, 2014 debut party at the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College.

You can read about my drafting process here. My perfume was Oranges and Lemons Say the Bells of St. Clement's by Heeley.

And to whet your appetite, dear reader, here is a glimpse between the covers of the book.

Anthologies, for me, are hit or miss. I tend to read them piecemeal, often only really reading a small percentage of the poems or authors. I mostly associate anthologies with classes, but I know that there are many other readers out there who have distinctly different approaches to anthologies. I tell you all of this as background to this fact: I read The Book of Scented Things cover to cover, devouring each and every poem, and not just because I'm a contributor.

Perhaps the organization of the book compelled me to read linearly. Like most anthologies, the book begins with an introduction (by Jehanne Dubrow), and there is a preface (by Alyssa Harad, author of a book and many articles about perfume). Then, we get to the poems. Each poem is numbered, and numbered in a certain typography that echoes perfume lingo, a la Chanel Nº 5. While some poets chose to mention their perfumes in titles or within the poems, in the contributor notes, the editors have included which perfumes was paired with each poet. While I'm not a perfume wearer, I found myself flipping back there out of curiosity time and time again.

Poem Nº 1 is by Amit Majmudar, and is an anti-assignment poem. The title, "On His Reluctance to Contribute to The Book of Scented Things," explains. So, we begin with a poem where the first line, "All attars are unutterable," calls out the challenge for the poets, each assigned a different perfume as inspiration. There were no other "rules" for our writing. We were to write any poem at all, as long as it was in response to the perfume.

I was struck, at first, by the number of poems that directly mentioned the assignment, perhaps by alluding to getting the perfume in the mail or by describing the tiny glass bottle with the black top. It didn't even dawn on me when drafting "Too Simple a Reason," my contribution, to start there. Others worked from the idea of the scent on the body, as I did. And still others wrote poems less directly connected to the literal perfume on the body, but as reaction to the fragrance alone. Fascinating.

Another fascination for me is the range of style in the book: short lyrics, longer narrative, single long stanzas, couplets, a sonnet or two, a prose poem, etc. Along this line came the realization that while I recognized many a poet in the book, I met many new writers as well, and now I have a whole new list of books to explore (one of the greatest benefits of anthology reading).

It is nearly impossible to pick a representative poem to quote here, and certainly impossible to pick a favorite as my picture of the dog-eared pages should attest.

However, I'll list some titles as precursor to your reading the real thing come October, should you choose.

The Lost Bottle (Rachel Hadas)
Sniff (Catherine Wing)
You think language is silly until it happens to you (Dorothea Lasky)
The Perfumier on the Comeback of the Scented Glove (Rebecca Morgan Frank)
Mystery Joins Things Together (Rick Barot)
Gulf City Dialect (Nicky Beer)
This is What Manhattan Smells Like? (Matthew Thorburn)
If Scent is the Trigger of Memory, This is what America Remembers (Nick Lantz)
Too pretty for words (Jessica Piazza)
American Masculinity (Jericho Brown)
Dear Rotten Garden-- (Mark Bibbins)
In Algebra Class, Prince Stuck in My Head (Adrian Matejka)
Unrequited Sublime in Three Notes (Traci Brimhall)
At a Certain Point in Marriage (Idra Novey)

Finally, the last poem, Nº 100, is "Your Scent Does Not Remind Me..." by Elana Bell, and we come back full circle to the ideas introduced in Majmudar's poem. How do we say in words what is evoked by a scent? In between these two poems, there were many references to bodies, relationships, flora and fauna of all kinds, pastorals and urban landscapes, flights of fantasy and crushing confessional poems. It was a wild and wonderful ride.

Many thanks to Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby for the great job editing the book. The crew at The Literary House Press did a fabulous job on the production of the book as well. I'm so happy to have been included, and I look forward to hearing what other readers think of the collection once it is available to them.

Monday, August 25, 2014

So, Yeah, I Wrote a New Draft Today

81º ~ headed up to near 100º today, been swampy for the past four days, hummingbirds zoom the feeders

As many of you know, I believe in the BIC method of writing, where BIC = Butt In Chair. Today marks the beginning of week two for the teaching semester, and my schedule this time around allows me to be at the desk from 7 a.m. - 9 a.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

Last week, I spent my three BIC sessions mostly reading, and I'll post about some of that reading soon. On Friday, I also dabbled in the journal, just playing with word gathering (making lists of nouns, verbs, and adjectives from whatever I was reading at the time), and then making some attempt at a few lines.

Today, I re-read the drafts I created in June and got a few inklings of where I might begin. One of the drafts from June is a simple "I am" poem based on whatever was going through my head on that day. Today, I started there again.

Am mirror to the wilted sky.
Am steam risen after rain
hovering groundward.

I got about a dozen solid lines out of the exercise. And the lines feel like a whole draft rather than a series of jagged fragments that go nowhere specific. While this might not become a fully fledged poem, I have begun, again, to focus on language and the line. I know that by following the BIC rule, I'll eventually figure out what it is I have to say.

What I'm really dying to know is this. What will be my next obsession? Do I need an obsession? Can I just write a bunch of unrelated poems? Has the sickly speaker ruined me by making me dependent on a narrative at work in multiple poems? Should I return to the angry sisters or have I gotten all I can get out of them? Should I write straight-up confessional poems? Should I stick with persona? Do I have the ability to write poems about ideas rather than people and things? Do I have the ability to get pointedly political?

And so, I return to beginner's mind, again and again and again.


In other creative news, I've opened a Square Marketplace to sell both my books and my collages online. You'll see the bright green "Order Online" button to the right. If you click on it, you will find a way to buy my books online, and you'll also find my collages there (yeep!).

Sunday, August 3, 2014

What I'm Reading: Flight of August by Lawrence Eby

84º ~ still dodging the worst heat and humidity of our normal summers, no rain chances for a week, may need to water at some point

Truth be told, I read Flight of August by Lawrence Eby months ago. It was the winner of the 2013 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and I picked up a copy at AWP. I didn't post a reading response of the book when I first read it because The Alchemy of My Mortal Form was still sitting in the submission pile at Trio House for the 2014 Louise Bogan Award. I don't know if it was superstition that prevented me from posting or if I didn't want to seem like I was currying favor, but today, I re-read the book and was just as drawn to it as on my first read.

Like Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins, Eby's book is post-apocalyptic, and features characters trying to make their way in a desolate landscape. It's not a surprise, then, that one of the blurbs for Flight of August comes from Brimhall herself. In Eby's case, the landscape is frozen in "ever-winter," perhaps as a result of global climate change. Certainly, the setting of these poems is one of snow, ice, and a harsh wind. The land itself is inhospitable, the mood one of being on the precipice of a true doomsday.

In Flight of August, the most recurring persona is a young man being shown the way of this harsh reality by his father. Other voices pop up now and then, but these two men remain the focus. Each poem is numbered rather than titled, and the book unfolds as a wandering narrative. I imagine one could read the poems in random order, but I don't think it would be as fulfilling an experience.

There is a sense of panic barely controlled in many of these poems, and their forms bear this out. The poems are short, make use of indents and tabs, repeat brief phrases right on top of each other, and deftly balance enjambed lines with end-stopped to keep the reader's momentum tumbling forward.

For example, here's the opening of "#1."

We scout.

The pelt line is empty
           swaying hard to the ever-winter
           wind. The cold cold
nails jutting from collapsed
shanties, sheets hung
from a rebar post ...

In "#29," the first two stanzas are left-aligned, and then the remaining stanzas are all indented one inch. Here's a brief moment.


             the stag            horned-
             devil                tracks our

             need to live and die.

In "#45," all hope appears to be lost as "The earth is tired // of its rotation. The sun / is sore from long years // of weight." All this is pressed upon "These globed children and their / demands." The plural speaker, eventually declares "We are // beyond a repairman's callused / work, his touch."  However, there are a few poems left after this one, and I'll let you, Dear Reader, discover Eby's concluding pronouncements on your own.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Day in the (Summer) Life of a Teaching Poet

72º ~ Yup, almost noon on the last day of July with Iowa-like temps in Arkansas, a sweet respite of a summer

For those interested, here's a glimpse of the non-writing work that goes into being a teaching poet during the summer.

By chance, tonight I have a reading in downtown Little Rock. It's a joint reading with two other poets, and we've each been assigned about 15 minutes of reading time. As most of you know, the biggest pet peeve of most writers is when someone goes over his/her allotted time at a reading. So, I started out the morning trying to come up with a set list that fit the time. I have the happy "problem" of reading again in Little Rock, after doing a book launch here in February and then participating in the Arkansas Literary Festival in April. So, as I picked my poems, I wanted to try and add in a few that folks wouldn't have heard at those other two venues; however, I still wanted to focus on The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths as it is my most recent publication.

This proved harder than I thought it would be, and I spent over an hour coming up with a 15-minute list. Then, I practiced it...twice. When I practice, I make marks on the copy I will read, noting where I need to take a breath, where I want to pause for a half a beat longer than normal, where I want the enjambed lines to really blur, etc. I also note if there are any definitions or pieces of information the audience might need, and I mark my second-to-the-last poem so I can give the audience a signal that I'm about to wrap up.

I claim a wee bit of stage fright, and I've found that this kind of preparation soothes the nerves, and, more importantly, keeps me going when I flub a line.


I confess, I haven't written as much this summer as I'd have liked to, but I've spent a lot of time adjusting, organizing, and prepping since the news that Trio House picked up The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. The knowledge that this book has a home and will soon have a physical form spurred me to tackle some outstanding stacks on my desk. Namely, stacks of poems that are not included in any books or in any manuscripts for future books.

Even with three books out there, I'm stunned by the number of poems I have that didn't fit. These poems are no less strong than the poems that made the cut for collections, and now I have a good healthy stack of them. I'm toying with the idea of a chapbook, and I've spent some time shuffling those poems around now that I have them all in one place.

Yes, I hope, some day, to be entirely digital (to save the trees), but there's enough 80s left in me to need hard copies to play with when trying to group and order poems.


I've also spent a bit of time going through a ton of articles I've ripped out of Poets & Writers, The Writer's Chronicle, and other writing journals. Mixed in with those are printouts from articles available online. I'm organizing those for my upcoming classes this fall. At the undergrad level, I'll continue to teach the intro to creative writing workshop, which is multi-genre. At the grad level, I'm teaching a course on first books of poetry. Now, I've got the articles and papers that had been cluttering up my desk wrangled into one of the two courses. It's about time to start getting those syllabi together!


Here's hoping that all of this organizing, de-cluttering, and re-thinking sets me on the trail of new poems soon!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Where I'll be Reading: Oxford American Annex, Little Rock, Thursday, July 31

75º ~ windows open at 10 a.m. on July 29th ~ Arkansas doing its best to charm me this summer ~ too much beauty?

Rebecca Gayle Howell, the Oxford American's Poetry Editor will be in town this week, and the magazine is hosting a poetry reading to celebrate. In addition to Howell, Hope Coulter and I will be filling out the line up.

This reading will be Thursday, July 31st at 7:00 p.m. at the OA Annex, which is next door to South on Main in Little Rock. The reading is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30; however, if you'd like to eat or have a drink, I highly recommend South on Main, which has a happy hour from 4-6, just one door down.

The three of us will read, and then there will be a brief Q & A, and we should be wrapped up around 8. I have to say that I got a bit of thrill from seeing the announcement about the reading in the OA's weekly email. Zing.

For those unfamiliar, here's a bit of a teaser (just the beginnings of poems for copyright purposes).

Rebecca Gayle Howell
"My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children" from Rattle #42

She'd say never have a child you don't want.
Then, she'd say, of course, I wanted you

when you were here. She's not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. The care.

Hope Coulter
"Morning Haul" from Rattle #36

Just as, every morning,
my grandfather checked his trotlines,

throwing out gar and snapping turtles,
pulling in bream and catfish

and sometimes a bass
green-wet turning white in the sun...

Sandy Longhorn
"Backdrop for an Archetypal Bloodline" from Anti- #68

Here is a map to the tree
that bears
            the heirloom fruit.
Fragile flesh.
                  Indian blood peach
prized for its tart bite.

Hope to see y'all there!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beach Days

88º (feels like 94º) ~ soggy days return to central Arkansas before the next blessed cold front washes them away again, the whole world is green from where I sit

Dear Readers, if there are any of you left, I've been away, away, away for too long. A big group of friends took a beach vacation together mid-month, and preparing for and then recovering from said vacation ate up most of July!

I'm officially back at the desk, as of yesterday, and here's what's keeping me busy, poetry-wise.

1. I'm working with my wonderful editors at Trio House Press as we get the ball rolling to publish The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Luckily, I spent quite a bit of time making sure the poems were as pristine as I could make them before I submitted, and these poems work in a clear narrative, so there is very little revising or re-ordering to do on my end. Two editors are going over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and I expect their comments/suggestions to come in sometime early August, when I'll go back to work on the poems.

I had my bio current and an author photo that was current enough so I didn't have to scramble on those when I got the news and the press requested them. However, I did have to put in some time looking for possible cover images. I had a photographer in mind and spent several hours pouring over her photos online before making contact with her. My choices have been sent on to the production team, which will make the final decision. This decision could include using one of my choices or the team coming up with its own design. Either way is fine with me, as covers stress me out.

2. I've been blurbing away. Living in Little Rock, I've come to know Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington of Sibling Rivalry Press. Bryan got in touch about an upcoming anthology, The Queer South, edited by Douglas Ray, featuring both poetry and prose. While I was at first a bit nervous because I've never blurbed an anthology before and certainly not one that included prose, it turns out that the book was so wonderful that the blurb put itself together.

Today, I've been re-reading a chapbook by poet Martin Anthony Call and putting together my thoughts on The Fermi Sea. This collection is a fantastic example of speculative poetry of the sci-fi variety, and again, about halfway in I found the blurb writing itself.

It's funny because I'm neither a queer writer nor a sci-fi poet, but the strength of the work in both books made my identity moot. All good literature has the capacity to bridge our differences. I love that!

3. I've been working with my co-editors at Heron Tree as we finished reading all submissions from the spring. Now, we turn our attention to creating the print annual before submissions open up in September again. Working on the editorial side of things continues to be fulfilling and enlightening, and I'm happy to have the opportunity continue.

4. I've been thinking about the upcoming semester and structuring my working life in a way that I will be better at incorporating a focus on poetry during the semester than I was last year. This is a difficult balancing act as I have a non-tenure-track job at a community college where publications don't mean anything really, so my focus there is more heavily on teaching.

Here's hoping I'll be back at the blog and back to writing new poems in the days to come.

Until long does it take to get all of the sand out of one's suitcase after a beach vacation?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Alchemy of My Mortal Form Wins the 2014 Louise Bogan Award

84º ~ do not be deceived, the "feels like" temp is 90º, dew point 72º, humidity 67%, hazy-cloud sky, slight breezes

As most of you know, I recently got the good news that The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (aka the sickly speaker's book) won the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press. Carol Frost was the judge, wow. Carol Frost. I've admired her poems for years and am so proud that these poems of mine (and the sickly speaker) rose to the top for her. I owe her many thanks.

I'd also like to recognize the other finalists.

Simple Machines by Barbara Duffey
Perfect Desk by Arne Weingart
Mytheria by Molly Tenebaum
Sass by Roy Bentley

Watch for these books in the future, as I'm sure they will be finding a home soon.

I want to thank all of my poet-friend-cheerleaders, who keep me going when the doubts creep in, and I'd like to list you all by name, but I'm afraid this old brain will let a few slip and I'll be so sad. In any case, you know who you are. I am in your debt and so happy to have a supportive group of friends around me.

Of course, I'm over the moon about this happy news and thought I'd share a bit of the book's pre-win story.

First, several folks have emailed to mention the fact that The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths came out recently, so "wow" I am "prolific." Appearances can be deceiving. Blood Almanac came out in summer 2006, composed of poems written from about 2000 - 2004. Then, it took seven years for The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths to come together as a manuscript and find a home. I started sending it out under different titles and with different configurations of poems in 2009 or so, meaning it took four years to find a publisher, all the while I was shuffling poems and titles. The Alchemy of My Mortal Form is unlike either of those books because it is all persona poetry, and in fact, all one persona telling her story. The poems were written in about a year this time, from summer 2011 - summer 2012, and the book circulated for about 18 months before this good news. It was rejected 25 times, reaching finalist and semi-finalist along the way. I had to withdraw it from 10 remaining contests when I got the good news.

Also, FYI, at this point, I have maybe 20 poems of good standing (in my mind), many from the angry sisters series and a few new ones. In other words, don't be 'xpectin' any fourth book anytime soon, y'all!

As for Trio House Press, well, they had been on my radar since their inception a few years ago. In particular, I noticed when Matt Mauch's If You're Lucky is a Theory of Mine was the 2012 editor's pick for that year's open reading period at THP. I had recently seen Matt present at AWP (DC maybe?) on running a reading series at a community college, so his name was fresh in my mind. Now, I know his poems, too!

In any case, while I was at AWP in Seattle this year, I was doing my bookfair ramble and I stopped at the THP table. There, I met Dorinda Wegener, Managing Editor, and Tayve Neese, Executive Editor. I had a great talk with them and when I got home, I submitted to the Louise Bogan Award contest. I've since learned that a different editor all together forwarded my manuscript up to the finalist pile that was sent to Carol Frost, which makes me happy, since once again, this acceptance wasn't about who I knew; it was all about the poems. However, if I hadn't stopped by the table and been so impressed with all things THP, I might have let the submission slip in the chaos that is spring semester every year, so that talk was instrumental in the result.

Having now worked briefly with Tayve, Dorinda, and Issa Lewis, one of three other editors at THP, I have to say, this is going to be a great ride. I'll keep you posted on what's happening!

OH! And, THP is currently accepting manuscripts for their open reading period!

Finally, blessings and thanks to everyone who has reached out to celebrate with me, or who was along for the journey to acceptance.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What I'm Reading: Sweet Husk by Corrie Williamson

82º ~ sweet luxury of sitting on the deck at 11:00 on a Sunday in July, for now the humidity remains low, but the forecasters promise it will rise later today and we will return to the summer swelter that drives us all indoors

I've had the great pleasure of hearing Corrie Williamson read twice, once at the Big Rock Reading Series that I direct, and once in Fayetteville, AR, while she was earning her MFA at the U of A. (Sadly for Arkansas, Corrie now resides farther to the west of us, teaching at Helena College in Montana.) With the echo of those two readings still resounding in my head several years after the experiences, I was excited to learn that Corrie had won the 2014 Perugia Press Prize with her book, Sweet Husk. I was even more excited to get my copy last week. Here, I offer my thoughts on the book I've just devoured.

Archaeologist. Anthropologist. Naturalist. Historian. Elegist. These are the roles Corrie takes on in writing a book that takes as its subject "how ghosts are made" (from "George Catlin's Buffalo Hunt, Chase). And while a few of these ghosts are intimate friends and family of Corrie's, for the most part she works with the larger ghosts of human history. Through her exploration into the remains of the past, she attempts to unearth and translate "the unnameable inside us" all (from "The Seed Jar"). She searches for the universal truth of the human condition, and she does not blink in the face of a truth that holds both beauty and ugliness, joy and terror.

The husk of the book's title might refer to any number of natural husks, but it stretches to encompass the human body, the container of brain, soul, life-spark, whatever you may name it.

Here is the opening of the opening poem, "Remains."

Anatomists and archaeologists call them
disarticulated bones, as if the scattering

of our bodies made us voiceless. As if
dead but whole we might still speak.

Thus, we are given the scope of the book, where graves are dug for animals and humans alike and older graves are excavated and studied in an age-old quest to make meaning from what is in the process of turning to dust.

The second section of the book contains a long poem based on Corrie's experiences when she was on an archaeological survey team in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. In part 6 of this long poem, she writes a "Postcard to Edward Abbey in the afterlife," which reads, in part:

...You had the need I have: for sense.
Like any remains, it may be buried, a crease within a fist,
vanishing into the ground or reappearing in flashes of blue,
unwhole, unsearchable as your stubborn heart under dust:
shriveled cob, black husked tongue.

In these brief excerpts, I hope to show Corrie's amazing gift at precise descriptions and her deft skill with the line, making every word and every break count. This skill amplifies her ability to explore the human condition without sliding into the kind of sweet sentimentality that glosses over the truth. The poems that result make Sweet Husk one of the stand-out books I've read in the past few months.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What I'm Reading: Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past by Angie Macri

71º ~ not too shabby for 9:30 a.m., bright sun, nice breeze

Frequent readers will know that Angie Macri is my friend and a colleague of mine at PTC. Also, as Angie asked me to blurb her book, you can assume I'm predisposed to encourage you all to order a copy of Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past from Finishing Line Press.

My blurb:
Archaeology and elegy combine in Angie Macri's poems to create a new mythos for the southern delta. With inspiration from the poems of H.D. and the paintings of Carroll Cloar, Macri weaves a spell of bone and pottery shards, of burial mounds and ancestry, of birth and death. Her song calls and the reader learns to echo, "Sweet home, love me, just a little while."

To extend those thoughts, what Angie does in this book is to weave three strands of inspiration together: H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, information from two scholarly articles on the burial mounds near Helena, AR, and ekphrastic poems based on a group of Carroll Cloar paintings. This sounds like a lot of research-heavy poems, but this is Angie's magic, taking that research, that inspiration, and creating an entirely new music from it.

For example, here's a bit from one of my favorites, "Interred."

The shells circled some bones as jewels,
some laced with the teeth of wolves,
beads pierced and placed at the ankles
with red ocher, red sky at sunrise, jewel,
like fire, like clay, mound on the west
side of the river.

While this poem is listed in the notes of the book as containing a quote from H.D., it also, clearly, uses images from the burial mounds of the delta, and contains the focus on color and shape of a Cloar painting. Throughout the book each poem rises to this level, taking most of my breath away. The precision of description is stunning.

Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past is a book of place and a book of how a history is made, forgotten, and remade. As such, you will find no confessional, contemporary-situation poems here; however, Angie's skill is to make these poems of distance ring with intimacy and confession just the same. She gives voice to stories forgotten, overlooked, or deemed too unimportant to be recorded.

Through these poems, we are reminded that we are all connected to both the future and the past.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Caught in the Act: Revision

86º ~ feels like 93º ~ dew point 73º ~ scuba gear weather, summer in the mid-south

So, I've been drafting poems for several weeks now, and I did draft another new one this morning (wahooooza). This means that I've been stacking up dated, printed copies of new drafts in my "in progress" folder that I keep on my desk, just beneath the printer. On the cover of this folder, by way of inspiration, is a printed list of my most recent acceptances, which are few and far between at this point, since I haven't had much to submit this past year. As the drafts stack up, the folder gains both a physical and mental weight. The folder grows before my eyes and maintains a presence just below the surface of my working brain throughout the day, leading to times like this morning's hour of revisions.

It's important to note that I see two major types of revision at the level of the individual poem.

The first type of revision is done when a poem draft is not "complete." This might happen because you've drafted the first few stanzas and gotten bogged down, or it might happen if writing time is interrupted by family/emergencies. In any case, this first type of revision is global; it involves being willing to tear up the structure of a poem in an attempt to recapture the energy of the draft and expand the draft to "completeness." I put these particular words in quotation marks because people always want to know when a poem is "complete" or "finished," and there is no black & white answer to that. It's gray and mostly based on intuition.

Here are some techniques for this global revision:

1. Save a new version of the draft and delete every second line (or third or whatever). Now write new lines to go in their spaces.

2. Save a new version of the draft and delete all of the line breaks and stanza breaks. Re-form the poem.

3. Re-write the draft in a different tense or different point-of-view.

4. Take two "incomplete" poems and braid the lines together.

There are many more such techniques designed to revise half-fledged poems, but somehow, I've drifted from this practice. I no longer even really save those half-born darlings. Oh, they might be in a file on the computer somewhere, and they are surely in my journal in scratches, but I don't print out what I've done. If I can't sustain my interest in the poem during my initial drafting of it, then I don't go back to it. This has happened over time, and may be a result of my having the luxury of uninterrupted writing time.

So, I am mainly focused on the second type of revision, the local revising that takes place when a poem is "complete" but not "finished."

Here's the procedure for my local revisions. I keep that "in progress" folder on my desk for a reason. Once the drafts gain a bit of heft, I find myself thumbing through them after I've finished drafting for the day. I read the drafts slantwise, barely opening the folder wide enough for me to see the whole page. I read quickly, almost skimming, but still taking in every word. From time to time, I might spy a serious slip of the fingers and stop to mark a grievous typo, but otherwise, I read on. I do this for several days until the poems bubble up after a drafting session and sort of ask to be revised. In other words, they come to mind as needing revision.

At that point, I go into my word processor and open each and every file that is "in progress," filling the screen with windows. I start with whatever window lands on top.

*Note: I used to claim that I could not revise on the screen, that I had to have a printed copy to tinker with. Sometime in the last six months, that has changed and I do all my local revising on the screen.

With whichever poem lands on the top of the screen, I start reading at the title, and I read out loud, with confidence and above a whisper. I am reading cold at this point, and I am listening for the places I stumble. I listen for the gunky lines that go on too long or the awkward line breaks. I listen for missed opportunities for assonance and alliteration, for metaphors and similes. I listen for useless repetition or extra adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles, etc. I always listen for the more precise way to say something, for the need for a more specific noun or for the need to change my syntax. Finally, I listen for the logic of the poem. Is it going to hold together and make sense to a reader outside of my own head?

As I read out loud, I stop and tinker with the lines, and after every change, I go back to the beginning and read the poem out loud from the start. The process is organic, circular, intuitive. I am not beyond cutting a stanza, and I almost always end up cutting some lines or phrases along the way, as I've learned my own tendency to useless repetition and over-explaining. I might add a line or phrase here and there, but usually, I'm cutting or substituting a better word. When I've made it through an out-loud reading from the title to the last line and I haven't stopped to tinker, I print out a new copy and date it. Even then, I don't consider the poem "finished" and ready to send out, as it needs to rest again. Later, when I'm spending time submitting, I'll read through the folder and select any drafts that are ready to be promoted into the "ready to submit" folder.

Every once in a while, this method of local revising exposes a poem that isn't making it, a poem that probably shouldn't have made it to this cycle at all. I just move on and leave it be. Maybe I'll come back to it; maybe I won't.

While it may be frustrating for the beginning writer, and it certainly was for me back in the day, there simply isn't a formula for revision. There are tools and tricks learned along the way, but there is no substitute for doing the work and discovering what works for you and your poems.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

New Poet Laureate (Charles Wright) and Ben Jonson Provides Chastisement

82º ~ after one glorious, beautiful, lawn-cutting day, the dew point riseth & storm clouds gathereth (see Ben Jonson below for the "eths")

This morning, I heard the news that Charles Wright has been named our next Poet Laureate. I think I've written about Wright here before, but if I haven't, I owe him a debt. I've never met the man, but Black Zodiac was one of my breakthrough books in grad school that helped me find my personal voice. My cousin, Marta Ferguson, the poet, writer, and editor gave me this book when I set out for my four years at the U of Arkansas in search of my MFA. I tried to read it that first fall, and I was clueless, adrift. I put it back on my shelf and beat myself up about "not getting it."

Two and a half years later, I returned to Black Zodiac, having read many more poems by then, and the book unfolded before me, making perfect sense and putting me in a state of wonder. Sometimes, this is the way it happens. I went on to read almost all of Wright's previous books, and have read many of his recent publications. I have to say that I favor his early work, particularly the selected poems collected in Country Music.

(I fear I have an odd "thing" for poets' early works: Mary Oliver's American Primitive, Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters, Quan Barry's Asylum, Wright as mentioned above, and so many more.)

In any case, here is one of my favorite Charles Wright poems from Country Music


Year of the Half-Hinged Mouth and the Hollow Bones,
Year of the Thorn,
Year of the Rope and the Dead Coal,
Year of the Hammering Mountain, Year of the Sponge . . .

I open the book of What I Can Never Know
To page 1, and start to read:
"The snow falls from the hills to the sea, from the cloud
To the cloud's body, water to water . . ."

At 40, the apricot
Seems raised to a higher power, the fire ant and the weed.
And I turn in the wind,
Not knowing what sign to make or where I should kneel.

I think a little re-reading of Wright will be in order today, tomorrow, and on and on. It's good to be reminded of these touchstone poets and then return to them.


In the meantime, I also subscribe to many "poem-a-day" email services. Yesterday, The Poetry Foundation delivered "An Ode to Himself" by Ben Jonson. I confess, I don't have much time for the DWGs (the dead white guys of the traditional canon), and this is my failing more than theirs. However, I did skim the opening stanza, and something about it haunted me. Here is the first stanza:

Where dost thou careless lie,
Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps doth die;
And this security,
It is the common moth
That eats on wits and arts, and oft destroys them both.

Ok, this is dangerous territory for a Midwestern woman who has the Puritanical work ethic woven into each and every strand of DNA in each and every cell in her body. For those struggling with Jonson's English, this stanza basically says, "why are you sitting on your ass doing nothing? Feeling comfortable and enjoying lazy-hazy days KILLS the brain and creativity."

The poem goes on from there to remind me that if I take a moment out of time to rest and recover from a hard school year, I am gambling with my faculties, and I had better get myself back to the WORK of writing...and right quick.

Of course, I'm able to be a bit more rational about all of this, and I know that rest is imperative; however, having just gone through the pain of getting back to writing every day, I know there is some truth to what old Ben here has to say.


Well, I have written a poem a day for the last four days, so I think I can safely say I'm back at work. So there, Ben Jonson!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Drafting Days: Cat Scratch Fever

71º ~ glorious, after days & days & days of soggy rain, the sun arrives but not the humidity, wahoo

Yes, I've been writing for the past three days, but I've found that I'm not driven to include my draft notes as I've done in the past. In some ways, the process is always the same: sit in chair, read for inspiration, wool-gather words, become struck by a line, begin.

What I do have to say is that the drafts for Monday and Tuesday were inspired by my recent dental drama (needing a crown replaced, discovering serious decay, having a root canal performed by a jackass, etc.).  However, today, the draft remained medical in nature, and with a human subject, but was inspired by Gracie, our diva-cat who just underwent her second major surgery for breast cancer.

Some of you may remember that the sickly speaker was largely inspired by our cat Lou-Lou's lost battle with myelofibrosis. Now, I seem to be writing about surgeries to remove masses from a human speaker, but based on Gracie.

All of this reminded me that once, when I had been talking about the great emotional toll taken by working with community college students, who have higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, etc, someone asked, "have you written poems about their stories?" My answer then, and now, was and is "no." Those are their stories to tell. While I empathize and sympathize and give all I can to support those students and help them find a way out, I don't feel inspired to write persona poems around those issues.

Instead, I seem to be most comfortable transfiguring the experiences of our cats onto human figures in my poems.    

So be it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Drafting Days: Touchstone Poets

75º ~ working on our sixth straight day of seeping rain, little sun, all is mossy and green

Today, I'm thankful for touchstone poets.

I'm still casting about for my groove, having caught it briefly a few days ago and then lost it. Today, I feared it was gone forever, but then, wahooooza, I found it again.

Last night I remembered that in the past I often told myself, "I'm going to write a poem in the morning," before going to sleep, and that I'd had some success with this. So, I did it last night, and I repeated it through my morning routine. Then, I put my butt in the chair (B-I-C) and picked up the nearest book. I read it with little interest. The poems weren't really my thing, even though the language was interesting and the ideas clever. Still, I gave it the college try and I repeated my goal to myself.

Eventually, I realized I had given the book a solid effort and put it down. An image flashed in my head, the image of my bookshelf and the spines of a couple of books I'd brushed past the day before when putting another book away. Aha! I thought, I'm going to re-read Lisa Russ Spaar, who like Lucie Brock-Broido, is someone whose poetry often charges through me and sends words tumbling out of me and onto the page. Why didn't I just start by reading someone whose work I already knew would do this?

See, I have this type A personality problem. I have this towering stack of poetry books that are unread, and I feel like I have to read the new ones before turning back to the old ones. But, as I was repeating my "I'm going to write a poem this morning" mantra and being frustrated, I realized that these should be two separate activities. The reading to inspire new drafts works best with writers and books I've already read and loved. The reading of unread books is to discover others who might fall into that camp later.

In any case, I opened Blue Venus and got all the way to the second poem, when a line of my own came bursting out ("When all the gods have gone to ground..."). Shazam. After days of forcing lines, stumbling and stuttering through the process, today a draft flew down the page. OK, so it's another short one, only 12 lines, but again, it felt "right."

So thank you to those touchstone poets, for teaching me over and over to trust the process and for the poems, both yours and mine.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Drafting Days: Finding the Groove

76º ~ the air thickened with humidity, a quarter inch of rain yesterday, more on the horizon for today, the six-week-old sod rejoices, we humans struggle for breath

Dear Reader, I have done it. I have written 11 lines that I do not hate.

Blessed be the work of Lucie Brock-Broido who rarely fails me. Instead of listening to the no-voices today...well, after listening to them for two hours...I heaved myself up and said, "screw it...I'm going to write an 'Am' poem even though I know I've done one before ('June' from Blood Almanac), and even though I know I'm imitating the form found in Lucie Brock-Broido's 'Am Moor.'"

Here's the thing. The first time I read "Am Moor" in Davis McCombs' form & theory class at the University of Arkansas, the poem sang to me in that weird, connective voice. I bonded with it more than with any other poem in The Master Letters. Yes, it seems ego-centric to focus on the phrase "I am," but by excising the "I," the poem explodes into the mysterious mix of persona and poet.

So today, I started with all the things that I'm afraid of right this minute. No, I started out thinking I was writing about things that have me stressed today, having suffered a bout of "wild mind" at 2 a.m. and getting little sleep after that. Quickly, I realized that beneath those little stresses was a whole lot of fear. Once I cracked that door open, the poem unfolded.

This draft is teeny, tiny at only 11 lines, but the drafting of those lines felt like singing...stuttering while singing, but singing nonetheless. And if it takes writing several more "Am" poems in this fractured lyric form for me to discover whatever's coming next, then so be it. I'm tired of trying to think of something new.

PS: B-I-C works!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

BIC and Writing Badly

79º ~ a thin cloud cover muting the sun, a week without rain, spent the morning watering

I've written before about BIC (butt-in-chair) and writing badly, and once again I find myself right there at the beginning of the cycle. This cranky brain time is often compared to starting up a physical activity again after a time of inactivity; one must re-train the muscles or the brain's sparkplugs to fire at the right the time, to strengthen, to succeed.

So, for the past week, I've been at my desk every morning for several hours, often reading, sometimes scratching really crappy lines in my journal, and from time to time, doing nothing at all but staring. However, after years of experiencing this cycle, for the first time, I'm not really too anxious about it. Sure, there's the ever present fear and all the negative voices, but I'm holding on to past results, to the knowledge that I've been here before and I've found my way out.

One way out is to exorcise the negativity, so here's a list of what I'm hearing in my head these days.

"All the good topics have been taken."
"There's nothing left to write about."
"You've already written about your grandparents, your parents, your boring to go there again."
"Nobody wants another bird poem so stop writing that!"
"Nature has been done to death in poetry. There's nothing new there."
"No, you can't write another poem about what you see outside your window."
"No, you can't write more poems about the body and illness."
"No. No. No. No. No."

Still, I scratch on. All the while, Gillian Welch is singing in my ear:

"There's gotta be a song left to sing
'Cause everybody can't have thought of everything
One little song that ain't been sung
One little rag that ain't been wrung out completely yet"

I hope so...I know so...I just don't know what's around the corner for me yet. So, here's a toast to letting the process work, to keeping my butt in the chair for however long it takes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Today I Wrote a Poem

74º ~ the sweet warmth returns, praise be, all sun and a breeze that can only be defined as "playful and non-threatening"

Today, I wrote a poem. It is only the third poem I've written in 2014, my slowest period of writing yet.

I have been looking forward to a return to focused writing for several months, but this morning, I had to put my pen where my mouth has lately been. By this I mean that sometime in April, I think at the Arkansas Literary Festival, I was asked about writer's block, and I proudly declared, "I don't believe in writer's block!" If memory serves, I conceded that sometimes I write really shitty drafts, but that I always try to write.

This morning, I began with a method that has rarely failed me: the word bank. For any new readers, this is when I skim a book (usually of poems) from a writer I admire, and I "steal" the nouns & verbs, and sometimes adjectives, that stand out. I let these fall on my journal page in a tumbling mess, my goal being that spark of inspiration/ignition as two words strike each other in just the right way. Today, I filled my page and sure enough a teeny, tiny little spark occurred and I jotted down some quick lines. However, these lines were mostly about sound and I wasn't connected in any emotional way to the meaning, so they fizzled out.


I decided to go back to what I'd been doing the last few days...just reading. I picked up Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook jointly written by Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito (Diode Editions, 2013). While I'm desperately looking forward to reading this book, I didn't even make it past the first page, "Traveler's Guide to the Ruined City." This prose poem takes the form of an information page one might find in a travel guide or almanac with sections for population, location, history, language, etc.

I didn't even read the descriptions following the section headers. I just dropped the book and picked up my journal, knowing that the angry sisters from last year had something else to say via this adopted form. I didn't use all of the same categories as Brimhall & Saito, and I used line breaks because prose poems are hard for me. Interestingly, I didn't need my word bank at all once I began describing the home of the angry sisters, not a town, city, state, country, etc., but their center of operations, the abandoned barn in which they live together. Who knew?

So, thanks to the inspiration of fellow poets, I have a new (probably shitty) draft, "The Angry Sisters: An Almanac," and that is all that matters.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I'm Reading: Ghost Gear by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

59º ~ in the grips of a cold spell not natural for the middle of May, all is gray, yesterday only up to 61º, today they foretell 73º, but I am doubting

Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014) is a book drenched in water, the water of oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, and rain. Within that water a body might be buoyed or swept away, and therein lies the promise and the threat at the heart of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's re-visioning of his own coming of age. A master of the lyric narrative, McFadyen-Ketchum takes us back, back, back, sometimes to the time of his father before the son's birth, sometimes as far back as the origin of the universe, but mostly back to the time of his own youth as he grew into manhood and tested the boundaries of geography and emotion.

In one of the opening poems in the book, "Tonight," the poet murmurs,

If only I could drop into sediment and murk, so much lost
of the heart's heave through amnion and the liquid wake
and sleep, so much forgotten of the ocean's collapse
and the skull cap's crowning.

The rest of the book is an attempt to reclaim the memory of those key moments in childhood and to examine how those moments helped create the current "I" of the poet-speaker. In doing this, McFadyen-Ketchum allows that not all memory is accurate, but through a deep concentration on authentic details (that trait of the best poets among us), he gets as close as possible.

As example, here is the beginning of "Slag":

I remember sweat, three pennies pressed wide
by the twin track of the train
barely a cinder's heat in my pocket, shirt slicked
to my back like the last bit of flesh on a picked-clean bone.

The train in this poem echoes other trains, along with cars and planes, that appear throughout the book. The speaker on the cusp of adulthood seems always intent on speed, on getting out and getting away, as indeed "Slag" ends with just such a longing:

I wished for the galloping forth of the Minotaur,

and instead it was the Tennessee Southern barreling forth
the coal economy as I crouched just inches
from the flashing-past boxcars,
envisioning the day I'd take off at a sprint
and hurl myself into another land.

This need to test the limits, to move out and away (with some great speed!) from childhood weaves in and out of nearly every poem in the book. Ultimately, though, the poet recognizes what many of us recognize about our family and our childhoods: "I never left that place. I never / returned to that place."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What I'm Reading: Trace by Simone Muench

67º ~ light showers, gray skies, multiple birdsongs, the privets all in bloom (ugh...privet blooms make privet berries, privet berries make privet seeds, privet seeds make baby privets which must be pulled)

I have been a fan of Simone Muench's work since I read Lampblack & Ash (Sarabande, 2005). Last week, I had the time to read Muench's latest, a chapbook of centos from Black Lawrence Press, Trace. (It looks like Sarabande has just published a full-length collection of these centos as well: Wolf Centos.)

A cento is typically defined as a collage poem made up of lines from other poems, sometimes by the same author, sometimes not.

In Trace, each poem is titled "Wolf Cento" and is listed in the table of contents by first line. The thread of the repeated title reinforces the theme throughout this book, as we are in the land of the wolf, the land of forests, huntsmen, and animal instinct. The closeness of animal instinct and what we think makes us human (thus above the animal fray) is at the heart of the matter.

In the back of the book, where I normally jot notes to myself about a collection, I have one small phrase: sound explosions. That sums it up for me, and here is an example from the first cento in Trace.

With flowers in their lapels, nine
howling wolves come hungering.
A surge of wet syllables
dangles from their mouths.

As alway, Muench delighted me with her images and I found myself underlining multiple lines on each page. And there, dear reader, is where I hesitated. Just whose words was I underlining? And with that, my mind went all wonky on the idea of authorship. At the end of the book is a two-page list, tightly packed, of "source materials," a list of names in alphabetical order with no titles of individual works and no connections to Muench's individual poems.

Let me pause to say that at the same time I was reading Muench's book, I was grading final essays in Comp I, essays in which students were meant to demonstrate synthesis of source material and proper MLA documentation. In other words, the time was ripe for me to question the cento.

As a composition instructor, of course, I am hell-bent on making sure my students give credit where credit is due, as an artist, this often conflicts with the idea of shared material and the way artists build new pieces of art from the work of those who have gone before. This butts right up against my work in paper collage, where I was so concerned about copyright that last year I consulted a copyright lawyer about the work I was doing.

The letter of the law is that the way I do my paper collages, I am violating the copyright held by every photographer, artist, and graphic designer who produced the image I cut up. The letter of the law is that when we write centos, unless the original work is out of copyright (and that is very rare, as even texts from Homer's time are often still in copyright for the translator, or the work of writers from the first half of the 20th century are often still in copyright for a family member or trustee), we are violating copyright.

Yet, the cento and the visual collage are clearly "new works." The way Muench smashes lines together or deftly weaves them into a new fabric is her art. The way she sees connections and makes for us as readers some wholly new experience is her art. Is that art by its nature something less than a poem in which she brings each word to the page on her own? Is the cento that much different from my own experience with word banks, in which I "steal" words from other writers and smash them together to form lines of my own? Where does the line exist between raw material and theft?

I know that in other cultures, the idea of individual ownership is not so onerous, but in the 21st century American world of "me, me, me" "look at what I did" the cento (and the collage) stands out as a challenge it seems, as a place to acknowledge the makers of the original pieces while at the same time enjoying and celebrating the new creation. And Trace is certainly a collection that I celebrate.