Tuesday, February 28, 2012


He came home to two martinis
and Art Buchwald out loud
in his black bucket chair,
steam creeping out the kitchen door.
By dinner he’d rolled his sleeves,
Indian-brown arms
like snakes under skin,
and we knew to pass the plates
without a sound.
If he was happy, he’d tell us
about the railroad—
emptied the toilets
right onto the tracks
or the slaughterhouse
or the aircraft carrier nose-up
and falling fast.
Fish sticks hung in mid-air
and crashed the conning towers
of our tater tots. Milk bled out
the mouths of glasses.
Later, he’d change
and walk to the garage,
wrestle metal for hours
and shoot the bright rivets
through round, clean holes.

Posted for DVerse Poets
OpenLinkNight, Week 33

(Originally appeared in Alehouse)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Incredible Growing Poem: Tim Green on the Rattle Poetry Prize

Earlier this month, just after I’d chided the editors of Rattle a bit for choosing so many long, narrative poems as finalists for their $5,000 Poetry Prize, I got an e-mail from Rattle’s editor, Tim Green. Tim had read my blog (reminder to bloggers out there—people do read these things), and he wanted to set the record straight.

My complaint had been that, while most of the 15 finalists were good poems, they seemed to show a Rattle bias toward long, stream-of-consciousness poems with complete sentences and proselike structure. Where, I asked, were the tight little sonnets, the scattershot experimental works, and the short, pared-down poems?

Tim, gracious as always, told me exactly where those short poems and concise sonnets were: They were somewhere out there in the world, but not in Rattle’s mailbox. A strange phenomenon’s been happening, he said, ever since Rattle made their prize a hefty $5,000: Fewer and fewer poets have been sending him short poems, even though he’s a big fan of brevity. He also likes unobtrusive formal verse and rhyme—and he hardly ever gets poems like that, either. There’s a misconception out there, he said, that only a long poem has a chance at winning that $5,000 prize. And then the phenomenon feeds on itself: Because Rattle receives so many long, narrative poems these days, the editors tend to pick long ones as finalists for the prize—because that’s what they’ve got to pick from. And then readers see the finalists, notice that they’re long and narrative, and then those readers send their long, narrative poems. The result, Tim said, has been a gigantic snowball effect: “I can probably count on my fingers and toes the number of poems—out of 6,000—that featured regular meter and rhyme. Short lyrics were the same.… People assume that I don’t like anything that isn’t narrative free verse. Not true at all!” Next year, he said, he’d like to see more variety in the competition, and he wants to get the word out. So, dear poets, there’s your cue: If you like to play the prize ponies, send him your best—and don’t worry if your poems don’t look like the winners of the past.

This exchange reminded me of a conversation I had a few years ago with the editor of another journal that sponsored a poetry prize. One year, this editor told me, it came down to two poems: one long-ish elegy and a short, cynical little poem. He was pulling for the short poem, but the rest of the editorial board voted him down and went with the longer one, deeming it—and I quote him here—“more contestlike.” That phrase has stuck in my head ever since, and for years I thought of it every time I entered a contest. But honestly, sending long poems to constests was no better a system than betting on football teams based on the color of their uniforms; it worked once in a while, but most of the time, not so much.

Still, it’s not unusual to see a long poem win a prize—as far as I can see, it happens a lot. And if you can work in death, childrearing and/or Alzheimer’s, your chances are even better. I’m being a little facetious, but sometimes it just feels that way. Still, Tim’s e-mail reminded me of something I often lose track of in this dog-eat-poem world: We poets should ignore the trends and stick to writing what we think is good, and we should send out what we think is best. Trying to match the perceived trends of the day is usually a losing proposition, and our poetry suffers for it. Your work is your own hothouse flower, growing exotic and unique in your own particular corner of the world. Nobody can write what you write, and that uniqueness is what makes it yours, what makes it valuable. That’s what the world needs, not just another echo of Mary Oliver or Billy Collins or Matthew Dickman, much as we love them and are influenced by them. Here’s to breaking the mold, again and again.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Poem: Waking to Snow

It gathered in your sleep,
quietly packed your dreams
for the long glare of day.
It arrived alone,
stamping small feet on the brick stairs,
pulling down the rhododendron.

You did not need to call it
or think ahead
or clean a small room for its stay.
It will settle on the roof,
on your shoulder,
on the soft back of the doe
who will not move when you step out
onto the street’s new-made bed
as birches rake the wind
with long, patient hands.

This morning is your everywhere,
your everything at once. It took
nothing at all to get here—you
came in sleeping, remember?
Even your brightest dream
could not have seen it so new, so cold.

Posted for DVerse
Open Link Night #32
Thank you, DVerse!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

RIP, Nick Barkley

I was sad to read that one of my childhood icons, Peter Breck, died earlier this week at the age of 82. He was best known as the actor who played Nick Barkley, the mercurial middle brother on The Big Valley.

I got hooked on The Big Valley when my sister Bev and I used to stay up to watch it in the late 1960s. She was seven years older than me, and up until then, we hadn’t liked each other—she was the haughty teenager who knew everything, and I was the geeky little sister who’d replaced her as the baby of the family. But, slightly bleary-eyed and watching TV after the rest of the house had gone to bed, for some reason we bonded over shows like The Big Valley and Marcus Welby, M.D. At first, we just sat in silence together. But eventually we started making fun of those shows—laughing at bad dialog and implausible plot twists*. We’ve been laughing ever since.

The Big Valley gets kind of a bad rap these days. Of course, Gunsmoke lasted longer, Maverick was cooler, and Have Gun, Will Travel had that great theme song**. But for me, The Big Valley trumped them all. This was largely due to my raging crush on Lee Majors, who managed to get through four years of playing the sullen brother, Heath, without cracking a smile more than twice. There were other things to love, too: We had Richard Long as the sensible brother, Jarrod, who always followed his moral compass while the rest of the family started bar fights, fell in love with swindlers, and generally made bad decisions. Then there was (Miss) Barbara Stanwyck as the steely matriarch, Victoria, and Linda Evans playing the slightly dim daughter, Audra***. And then of course there was Peter Breck as the brawling Nick, iconic in his neckerchief and black gloves.

For the first couple of seasons, the show placed all its bets on the hunky Majors, who seemed to have been recruited mostly for his tanned torso. Poor Peter Breck was often lost at the wayside as the impulsive, less photogenic Nick, a man who had a five o’clock shadow even at breakfast and rarely took off those gloves. (Now nearing 50, I can’t help wondering: psoriasis?) But without Nick, that show would have been a brooding mess—Jarrod and Heath would have pondered everything to death, and Audra would have been murdered by about eight different psychos. So, while Heath was out chopping wood with his shirt off, Nick was doing the dirty work—smacking the bad guys (and the occasional bystander) and shouting what needed to be said. Nick was the great air-clearer, the icebreaker, the jester who jumps in and stirs everyone up. In a way, he was the true hero of the show, the one who really ran the ranch and broke heads to get it done.

Maybe every family needs a loudmouth like Nick. Or maybe, as I discovered, sitting in the living room with my sister all those late nights, maybe it doesn’t matter who’s the shouter and who’s the thinker. What matters is that they’re family. You rode in with them, and at the end of the day—if you’re lucky—maybe they’ll be there to help you bring the cattle in.

*You just can’t bring up this sort of thing without mentioning Mystery Science Theater 3000. People tend to fall into two camps about MST3K; I’m in the Joel Hodgson camp. I like Mike Nelson too, but Joel would never have let so many sexist jokes into the scripts.

**A couple of years ago, during a Big Valley binge, I came up with words for its theme song:
Nick and Heath…and Jarrod are boys…and Audra’s a girl…
and they all…are…still living with their mom…
Barbara Stanwyck!

***I never identified with Audra; most of her subplots involved her falling for one unscrupulous man or another, and she had a weird, clingy relationship with her mother. I have this vision of her, after all these years, still unmarried and living in that big house. She still puts on a satin dress every morning, and Silas, who’s about 105 now, still offers her pots of tea and tells her when there’s somebody at the door. Her mom is long gone, shot dead one day by bounty hunters when they mistook her for a lady outlaw in her bandolero hat and peg-legged riding pants. Victoria cracked one of those guys good with a bullwhip before she went down, but there was no arguing with that clean bullet hole in the back of her black leather vest.