Saturday, September 14, 2019

August Poetry Postcard Fest 2019 Wrap-up: Fresh Horses

All the postcards I received for the
2019 Postcard Fest. Fist bump, Group 5!
OK—the dust has settled, the postcards are mailed. The total: 36 poems written in 31 days. That’s a lot for me, a new record.
        That’s my final tally for this year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest, a month-long writing marathon that I’ve been doing each August for the past seven years. This is the one where about 300 people from around the U.S. (and a few overseas) write a poem each day on a postcard and mail it to some other participant. This is one of two month-long writing marathons I do each year (the other being NaPoWriMo), and I’ve become dependent on these mini-writing retreats to generate new material and focus on cycles of poems, projects that sometimes only come together in the white-hot forge of a daily writing discipline. I lack that discipline the rest of the year, for all the usual excuses (full-time job, too tired, life…), so I really try to make the most of these 30-day pushes.

Just fill in the box
Okay, so—in this, the seventh year of doing this postcard-poem marathon, did I beat my previous record because this writing-marathon thing is getting easier? Well, maybe. Even though I find most poem-a-day marathons daunting (at some point I'm always staring at a blank page, thinking Why why WHY do I sign up for these things?), this year’s Fest seemed surprisingly breezy. Pretty much every time I sat down to write a poem, I wrote one. Or two, or three. I wrote in batches again (which works well for me when writing short poems), and once again I often found that the second and third poem of the night were better than the first one, like the pump had to be primed before the clearer water could come out.
The notebook with the boxes drawn into it.
I'm assuming this will not count as publishing
these poems because there's no way in hell
you can read my handwriting.
        This time I always wrote at night, taking the hour or so when I would normally read before bedtime, and I wrote all but three of the poems by hand in a notebook that I’d sketched boxes into, approximately postcard-size. The notebook thing was unusual; recently I’ve been writing much more on a Bluetooth keyboard than by hand. But for some reason, this year I kept reaching for that notebook; there was something soothing about its quietness in the evening with the crickets* singing outside, and the pre-drawn boxes made the writing seem less intimidating—surely I could fill that little space. I did, however, break my lucky 1980s PaperMate pen, and I think it’s a goner. But then I wrote some decent poems with a cheap hotel pen. (I steal those when I do out-of-town readings; they seem to be lucky too.) After all that analog writing, my hand hurt and my handwriting was barely legible, but old-school was working so I stuck with it.

Release the horses
Hackney pony (Breyer mold #496). 
One of the keys, I think, to how smoothly this year’s Fest went was the fact that I settled onto a theme early: the horses I see every day on my way to work. This was a bit of an indulgence; although horses creep into my writing a lot (I grew up around them), horses are a tricky subject because the poems can often go too soft and sticky, or too hackneyed (horse pun!). In their way, they’re as dangerous as cat poems. But I’d been thinking about those horses by the road a lot—I have the world’s most beautiful commute—so I decided to give myself a challenge: write horse poems that did something I wasn’t expecting, whatever that would turn out to be. I ended up working a lot of mythology and religion into the poems, and found horses often standing in for other aspects of nature vanishing from our world. In the end, about half of the month’s poems were about horses, so that may make a chapbook or something down the road.

Lake effect
The other half of the poems were a bit more random, although a kayak outing on a mile-high alpine lake provided almost a week’s worth of poems. That lake really got under my skin; the clear water, harsh landscape, and volcanic mountain looming over it permeated my writing for several days, much like a trip down the Rogue River three years ago formed the basis for my chapbook I Am on a River and Cannot Answer.
        Some themes, though, pop up every year in my August postcard poems. As usual, there was a poem about crickets. And the obligatory August skunks. And many of them were about place, perhaps because I associate postcards with traveling. Postcards make me think of big places and long distances, and that gets reflected in the poems.

Oh, right—the postcards
I like art. I was an art major for a year in college. But I’m not an artist like some of the participants in the PoPo Fest; a quick browse through the Fest’s Facebook page shows dozens of beautiful original collages, watercolors, drawings, and photos that participants used for the picture side of their postcards. For me, although I love seeing other people’s postcard art, the Fest is mostly about generating new poems. So this year I just scoured the house for leftover postcards from past Fests—about 20 from last year with a photo of one of my own linocuts (I had the cards made online at VistaPrint, which I highly recommend), along with a few giveaways from local restaurants (thank you, Caldera and Standing Stone!) and some tourist-y ones (Rogue River, Crater Lake) that I had stashed away. I didn’t spend a cent on cards this year, nor did I think about them very much. And that was fine.

Bottom line
So, as a generative writing exercise, was this a success? I think I always say, oh sure, it was worthwhile—justifying the time and energy I put in on these writing marathons that some other writers, frankly, look down upon. But this year I ended up with about 15 poems that I think I can get something out of. Normally I might get 5 (which I consider a good return on a month’s work), so this is a much higher number than normal. Of course I may look at them differently a month from now (“What was I thinking?”), but I felt like the horse theme turned out to be very fertile ground; I had a lot of unresolved issues to work through in those poems, and of course for poets, that’s literary gold. I was also trying hard to surprise myself with each poem; I was really working on that discipline all month.

Sign-ups for next year’s August Poetry Postcard Fest are already happening; click here to see what it’s all about. Also check out the fascinating essay that Fest founder Paul Nelson recently wrote for Rattle; the journal will have a special feature next year devoted to postcard poetry.

And here are my own reports from past Postcard Fests:

Smokin’ August Poetry Postcard Fest Wrap-Up (2018—oh lordy, the one with all the fires and smoke)

August Postcard Poetry Fest 2016 wrap-up (the first year I made my own cards)

The Long and Short of Postcard Poems (2015)

I guess I was a slacker in 2017 and didn’t write a wrap-up.

* And skunks, who do not sing but chatter.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 30: “After Apple-Picking” by Robert Frost

This one’s in the public domain, so I’ll put it right here.

After Apple-Picking
by Robert Frost

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

When pondering what to post today, the last day of April and therefore the last post in this series of Great Poems for April—no pressure!—I realized a strange thing. Even though I’d been concentrating on going through my own trove of favorite poems through the month, I hadn’t really thought about which one poem is my very favorite. You know, that one that accompanies you through life, whose lines remain with you like bits of a song that you find yourself humming while doing dishes or driving to work. As soon as I thought that, I immediately knew which one was my favorite: “After Apple-Picking.”

What I love most about this poem is its unusual rhyme scheme. This being Frost, of course there’s a pattern. But it’s so erratic, so—dare I say—rebellious that I wonder if Frost was thinking, screw the establishment; I’m gonna go all Picasso on the old end rhyme. And he was a master of the old end rhyme. And yet he was young when he wrote this. And probably somebody out there knows what that was all about, but I’m kind of glad I don’t know, in the same way I’m glad I don’t know for sure what the different kinds of sleep are that he talks about. Or whether this is about the fruit of the tree of knowledge and the banishment from Eden. Or about the burdens of fame (that’s my go-to—“I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired”—but again, he was young, so I’m not so sure). And if you want to see what other people think about all those things, spend an amusing hour or so surfing the internet, looking at the different theories. Those people are all so sure they know what this poem means.

What I do know about this poem is that it’s beautiful. Phrases of this poem are, I think, among the best in American poetry (“ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,” “load on load of apples coming in,” and that low-geared, four-word musical breakdown of a line, “As of no worth”). I love the way he changes up the rhythm and sentence length, and of course those erratic line lengths that sneak the rhymes in there among all the truncation where you can barely hear it. The phrasing is so memorable that I literally can’t pick up a stepladder without whispering “My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree / Toward heaven still,” or cut open an apple without thinking “Stem end and blossom end.” And this line—“Essence of winter sleep is on the night, / The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.” I can go back and read that for a lifetime and never get tired of it.

Every year that I reread this poem, it means something different to me; I find some small part I hadn’t thought much about before. (Right now it’s the "pane of glass / I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough”—can’t you see it? Don’t you sometimes go a whole day, unable to rub that strangeness from your sight?) Loving a good poem is like a friendship. You go through time together, and even though you never know everything about that poem, you keep discovering things that it didn’t tell you before. And your relationship with it changes too. If it’s really a great poem, the poem weathers the changes. And so do you.

Readers, it’s been great fun this month to write about these 30 poems I love. Thank you for all the likes and comments on social media; I hope you’ve had as good a time as I have.

Monday, April 29, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 29: “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness” by Ellen Bass

Read “Poem Written in the Sixth Month of My Wife’s Illness” in the literary journal Rattle here.

This poem, to me, feels like a master class in how to write moving moments. How to stay with each moment just long enough to sink it into the reader’s skin, not unlike that indelible image that has stuck in my mind ever since I first read this poem in 2016: “setting the straps in the grooves on her shoulders, / reins for the journey.” And then the image of the “crumpled bills, steeped in the smells / of the lives who’d handled them.” And then the smells themselves, this egalitarian sense that everyone goes into a liquor store at some point in their lives, just as everyone at some time or another will sit in a diner, and everyone grieves, and everyone dies.

Ellen Bass has a way of telling stories, of adding just the right detail to let you in on a bit of backstory without overburdening the poem with it. For instance, look at the line about the father in the hospital: “this time / they didn’t know if he’d pull through.” This time—so this has been a long process. They didn’t know—implying an impersonal system of doctors, and also the maddening uncertainty of medicine. So much information packed into a simple phrase. And then of course the image at the end, this waitress who seems to understand, if only that this other working woman needs some time to herself.

In this poem, there are four women—the mother, the waitress, the speaker, and her wife, who is only mentioned in the title. And with that title, again, Bass is building you a window onto the larger story that you can look through briefly; there is an ill wife in this story, and a worried speaker, and an echo back to the father in the hospital, and to the diner and crying over the cup of coffee. Such deft connections, so carefully built, between these scenes that aren’t exactly parallel, but that deeply speak to each other across time.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

Sunday, April 28, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 28: “A Blessing” by James Wright

Read “A Blessing” on the Academy of American Poets site here.

People, I warned you about the horses.

Sometimes you need pure happiness. And, you know, that’s rare in poetry. At least, in good poetry. It’s hard to say, Okay, I’m going to lift you up and keep you there in ecstasy, and then deliver on it. Really. Freakin’. Hard. If I knew how to do that, I’d write a happy poem every day.

I first encountered this poem, as I think a lot of people did, in high school in the 1970s. And what a great way to introduce a small-town kid to poetry. I knew these Indian ponies; I had seen that ripple and felt that “long ear / That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.” I didn’t realize it at the time (or perhaps the teacher, probably Mr. Flynn, explained this and I promptly forgot), but the sounds all through this poem are doing quiet work, lulling you into peace. All the “s” sounds, all the trochees—the two-syllable words with a stress on the first—darken, kindness, welcome, nuzzled. And the triplets, again with first syllables stressed—happiness, loneliness, slenderer, delicate. All such graceful words, strung together like a narcotic necklace. And good lord, he gets away with “happiness” and “loneliness” in the same damned poem! Nobody does that!

And I know it may be just because I learned this poem as a teenager, so I’ve had it in my head for 40-ish years, but there it is, right in the front of my mind, whenever I pass a horse pasture, which is pretty much every day here in southern Oregon. “They love each other. / There is no loneliness like theirs.”

And then of course the last three lines. Does anyone who reads those lines when young ever forget them?

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

Saturday, April 27, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 27: “Fences” by Austin Smith

Read “Fences” on Poetry Daily here.

Just look at these muscular words: scolded, driven, lean, forced, march, swallow, taut. Austin Smith packs all of these into this very lean poem. All through it, there’s a sense of almost futile work, hard labor under brutal circumstances, and then these acceptances of what’s given but not wanted, things that actually harm over time: swallowing the wire, taking it in, bit by bit. By the end of this poem, you know it’s about a kind of living, not about fences at all.

Sometimes I love poems because they’re not at all like something I’d write. Others, like this one, I love because they’re poems I wish I’d written. This spare, and yet this expansive. And he piles on the sentence fragments, which makes each short line cut to the chase even faster. Startling, insidious, this poem drives its message into you gradually, the way barbed wire violates a tree.

Down at the bottom of the Poetry Daily page is an intriguing description of Smith’s book Flyover Country, from which this poem comes. Looks like great reading.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

Friday, April 26, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 26: “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” by Donald Justice

Read “On the Death of Friends in Childhood” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

I developed a crush on Donald Justice in my 30s, when I had stopped writing. I hadn’t really stopped writing on purpose; I just hadn’t yet realized that having my work rejected so much in my 20s had taken its toll, and I had gradually quit the whole business, unbeknownst even to myself, just to avoid the pain of sending my work out. Instead, during that decade I immersed myself in reading poetry*—which, in retrospect, was a really good thing. One poet I read a lot back then was Donald Justice.

OK, let’s just look at one thing about this poem: It’s short. Really short. And really good. Every time I read this poem (and I do often, because how can you not? “... joining hands / In games whose very names we have forgotten...”), it reminds me that it is possible to just ring that bell even with a very short poem. Every year, I participate in a couple of month-long writing marathons, and I have to read this poem periodically to remind myself that I don’t have to write a whole page to get a good poem. And of course that’s just so much whistling in the dark, because writing short is easy—but writing short and good is one of the hardest things to do with poetry. Ask any haiku expert about that.

I lost only one friend in childhood, a kid in my class in 5th grade who had an asthma attack while playing little league baseball. And yes, there’s no other way for me to picture Ross; it’s strange to think that he’ll never be old in anyone’s mind, that he’ll always be 10 years old, a little on the short side and black-haired. Justice has that exactly right.

* One great advantage I had during that non-writing decade was a musician boyfriend who played regular gigs at a Borders bookstore, where he got paid in store credit. So we’d drive up to San Rafael, he’d play a jazz set or two, and then we’d go shopping for CDs (him) and poetry books (me). His generosity stocked my poetry bookshelves. Thank you, Ernie.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]

Thursday, April 25, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 25: “Artifact” by Claudia Emerson

Read “Artifact” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

Claudia Emerson may be my favorite modern poet, and this poem is a prime example of why. The form is a sonnet, of course, but it’s a soft one; at times the lines rhyme exactly, while others almost don’t at all. The meter, similarly, is sometimes iambic, but mostly there are rolls and lilts that bend the rhythm into more of a meander than a march.

And then of course there’s the story, the outline of which you get in the first line and half. But with each graceful detail, Emerson layers the paint until the fuller picture comes into view, covered at last by that quilt at the end—which turns out to be much more than just a quilt. But in this house, everything that belonged to the former wife is more than what it appears. I love the way this poem imbues objects with spirit just because of what the speaker knows of their past, and because of her place in their world. This poem is from Emerson’s book Late Wife, which won the Putlizer Prize in 2006.

Emerson’s poems always had a weightiness, a gravity that seemed wise beyond her years, or really, anyone’s years. And since her death in 2014 at the too-young age of 57 (I say that completely without irony because I’m 57 now), her poems, to me, have taken on a different kind of prescience. Many of them have always choked me up, but they seem all the more brilliant, all the more hard-won now.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]