Friday, October 18, 2019

Writers & One-Nighters

Poetry night at the Barkin’ Dog Grill, Modesto. A warm
room with fellow featured poet Paul Neumann and
gracious series host Stella Beratlis at the mike.
Earlier this week I took a quick road trip to central California to read at the Modesto-Stanislaus Poetry Center’s Second Tuesday poetry series. I was reading with Paul Neumann, a former professor at Modesto Junior College, at the Barkin’ Dog Grill in downtown Modesto in this long-running series that was founded by poet Gillian Wegener and is now hosted by Modesto’s city poet laureate, Stella Beratlis. 

That is one healthy reading series; when I got to the Barkin’ Dog Grill, the place was packed, and as soon as Stella and Gillian arrived, I realized that they were waving at or hugging almost everyone in the restaurant—all these folks were there to see the reading (empty-house nightmare averted!). The audience was lively and engaged, with the kind of rapt faces that I always enjoy reading to.

And I would just like to say: This was the first reading I’ve ever done where the audience was eating dinner. And I loved that, and now I’ll always want people to be eating. There was something wonderfully assuring about the clink of forks and the light glinting off wineglasses while I read my work; some little existential cell inside me was happy that these people were getting sustenance. I have a longstanding blood-sugar issue—an aftereffect from a scary health crisis about 12 years ago—and I tend to get glucose crashes at inconvenient moments, like right in the middle of a reading*. So I’m obsessive about eating a solid meal before doing a reading. At the Barkin’ Dog I was able to order a full sit-down meal (and a giant glass of iced tea), and then ate half of it while the first reader performed. This was pretty much a perfect scenario; by the time I got to read, I was warm and tanked up, and there was still food left to polish off after my show was over. All the eating and waitstaff did make for a little extra noise during the reading, but it was nothing a seasoned open mike veteran can’t handle. (What poet hasn’t had to shout over a growling cappuccino machine or a phone ringing or a fight breaking out in the bar?)

Did you know Lodi is full of wineries and has miles
and miles of vineyards? I didn’t.
When I was planning this little road trip, it seemed like an awfully long drive (about six hours) to do in a day, only to return home the next day; I generally turn into a pumpkin after three hours in the car. But my 17-year-old cat had a tough summer healthwise, and I didn’t want to leave him alone too long. So I decided to just see how this whirlwind, long-drive one-nighter went. And it went fine. Great, in fact. To my surprise, I enjoyed the driving and even took a longer route the second day, adding about a half-hour to the trip home**. 

The Best Western in Lodi is right by the truck stop, but
actually really nice. Tiniest lap pool I have ever seen.
Over the last two years I’ve done more than 10 road trips to support my new book, The Trouble with New England Girls. This has made me ponder a lot about the economics and logistics of out-of-town readings, since I live in southern Oregon, a long way from everywhere. Pretty much every out-of-town reading requires an overnight stay, so I experimented with one-nighters and two-nighters, and even a three-nighter, to see what felt best for me. To my surprise, I prefer one-nighters and long drives over two-nighters and shorter, broken-up drives. It may be because I’ve had two high-maintenance cats the past few years (one with diabetes), but staying away a single night is much easier on me psychologically than arranging to be away for two or three nights. And I’m always amazed at how much I pack in during a one-night, two-day trip; when I get back home, I always feel like I’ve been away much longer. And the longer drives are (counterintuitively) bothering me less as I get older.

And did you know the Deshmesh Darbar Sikh Temple
is also in Lodi?
And then there’s the money side of it; of course one night in a hotel is half the price of two nights. We writers have to think about this stuff. Out-of-town readings sometimes don’t pay for themselves. But sometimes they do; sometimes you even turn a profit. In the long run it feels like a wash, and that’s fine. And there are many intangible benefits to doing these readings: meeting interesting people, seeing fascinating places I never expected to run across, and making connections with other writers that often lead to readings and opportunities later on. (For instance, I met Stella Beratlis last year when I read with her at another series in California.)

So here’s to the one-nighters, and pistachios fresh from the orchard, and the Sikh Temple in Lodi, and chickens in the road, and the modern Gold Rush feel of Marysville, and Mt. Shasta with its lenticular clouds. And poets traveling through it all.

We don’t have a Cost Plus in southern Oregon,
so I got a German food fix in Stockton. 

And here I thought Red Bluff's claim to fame
was consecutive days over 100 degrees.
Not so! They have some fantastic orchards
and roadside fruit stands.

The massive burn scar from the Delta fire north
of Shasta Lake is still horrifying a year later. 

I still maintain that the Weed airport, just north
of Mt. Shasta, has the best rest stop on I-5.

* If anyone was at my reading with John Sibley Williams a couple of months ago in Medford, that was why I rudely left the podium for a moment during the Q&A, went to my seat, and brought back a Tootsie Roll and a protein shake I’d stowed in my purse. In the past I would have just suffered, but I could see you were all friends. So I just ate the damn Tootsie Roll and felt much better in a few minutes.

** Southern Oregonians, take note: To bypass that 2-1/2-hour stretch of I-5 from Sacramento to Red Bluff that I always find a bit depressing, take highway 99 north out of Sacramento, bear east onto highway 70 through Marysville, and hook up with 99 past Chico and into Red Bluff. Miles of orchards, rolling hills, and roadside fruit stands. An unsettling view of Oroville Dam high on a plateau. Great vistas that will answer the question of how Butte County got its name. Way fewer semis.

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?]

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 24: “Gloves” by José Angel Araguz

Read “Gloves” on Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry series here.

I first encountered José Angel Araguz and his work at a writers’ conference where he presented a fascinating workshop on erasure poetry. José was soft-spoken, down to earth, direct, and funny; he’s taught for the past few years at Linfield College in Oregon, and I can only imagine how many students think of him as their favorite professor. That was the first time I’d seen an instructor incorporate Instagram poets into a conference workshop, and it was enlightening; I have to admit that most of my opinions about Instagram poetry came from crotchety comments from older writers, whose experience with it pretty much began and ended with Rupi Kaur.

José’s poem “Gloves” isn’t an erasure poem, but like an erasure poem, it’s pared down to only what it wants to impart, small packets of information that leave the rest for the reader to fill in. It starts like a fable or myth, a made-up story, which gives it a childlike feel, almost a nursery rhyme with its short length and short lines. But this no nursery rhyme; we quickly learn there’s a father, and a prison, and these mythical gloves that become symbols of what’s missing in these two lives—letters, conversations, comminication, the father seeing the son grow up. And then those last two stanzas—again, could they be any more distilled?—where we see the father’s hand in the child’s glove, which still bears the imprint of the child, just a trace. What an amazing image.

José’s recent book Until We Are Level Again was a finalist for this year’s Oregon Book Award for Poetry. Recently he announced that he’s moving to Boston to teach at Suffolk University—where, I’m sure, a whole new crop of students will call him their favorite professor. Lucky 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?]

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 23: “There Are Birds Here” by Jamaal May

Read “There Are Birds Here” on the Poetry Foundation site here.

A couple of years ago, I was in a workshop group that had a great holiday tradition: For our December meeting, rather than workshop each other’s poems as usual, we each brought a stack of poems by other people that we’d read during the past year, poems that had made a great impression on us*. One of the poems I brought was this one by Jamaal May.

Reading it out loud to that roomful of people, I realized that one of the great strengths of this poem is that each line ends at a spot where you’d pause or
take a breath. This poem talks, like the poet is sitting next to you in a café and relating this story. And the way he tells it, it’s one remembered assertion after another, just as you’d say it to someone: “No, / I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton, / I said confetti, and no / not like the confetti / a tank can make of a building.”

Every time I read this poem, I think about how many conversations we have like this on a national scale, in our jobs, and in our personal lives. How many white people are going around saying they know how things are and how to fix them, when they don’t know the reality at all? And how often are misinformed people trying, and succeeding, to control the narrative when they don’t know what they’re talking about? Whitesplaining (as in this poem), mansplaining, a whole lot of other splaining. When really, what they should be internalizing is “Shut up and let someone else do the talking while you listen.” This poem says that, beautifully. What a gift.

[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?]

* I think every workshop group should do this**. And honestly, I get tired of workshopping, and sometimes I’d rather be in a poetry group that did only this, this celebration of other poets and other poems. What a great way to be introduced to poets you may not have read before.

** I also think all workshop groups should serve wine. None of mine ever do. Maybe that’s why I’m tired of workshopping.

Monday, April 22, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 22: “Thanksgiving” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Read “Thanksgiving” in the online journal Literary Hub here.

This is a recent poem; it came out this past November in Literary Hub, and it became yet another Aimee Nezhukumatathil poem that I love. I especially like the feel of an incantation or chant early on, a bit like a prayer with all the “blessed”s. All those details, with perhaps my favorite being one of the most intimate: “I’ve committed the soap / and clean blade of his neck to memory”—the very kind of detail you remember about someone who catches your interest. And there’s a feeling of laughter, loud talk, even of awkwardness in this circle of friends or acquaintances (we’re never really told which). And the whole poem has the feeling of a chance encounter; I mean, don’t you read this poem and think that love can happen, even at a dinner party you maybe didn’t want to go to? There’s a feeling that life opens out this way, unexpectedly.

But my favorite thing about the poem is how unresolved it is at the end, how it stops in mid-story, which we realize is the most important moment, the true revelation. The man just “grew quiet. Concerned.” And then we know why, and we also know that the speaker probably didn’t know at the time why he grew quiet. But she knows now, and she lets us know; we’re in on the beautiful secret. But he doesn’t take action; there’s no fight; we don’t see them leaving the party and exchanging phone numbers on the driveway. The rest, as they say, is history. “Married” is all we know or need to know.

All the details here are just right: the holiday, food, decor, the newness of these people, the intimations of the future. The tightly focused lens of memory and what it remembers and what it leaves out. This poem is probably too new to be in a book yet, but I’ll be buying that book when it comes out.

[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 21, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 21: “A Brief History of Mine” by Nancy Carol Moody

Read “A Brief History of Mine” in Cider Press Review here.

Nancy Carol Moody is an Oregon poet whose work often leaps between everyday language and surreal imagery, and this poem is a prime example. The first three lines are firmly rooted in the real world, but by the time we get to that fourth line—“a 70-mile-per-hour egg, and I am its yolk,” we feel this truck is no longer on the road we thought it was on. Or perhaps we ourselves are veering out of the truck.

And then the startling images of the “spinning tires carving ruts in my hair” and “skin peeling back” signal that the driver/speaker is fusing with the truck; now we have to wonder where the metaphor begins and ends. Suddenly there’s a sense of hallucinogenic expansion, a sharing of space and spirit. And then another image, this one a fascinating declaration: “I was the tire jack wrapped in cloth...” More fusing, more lines of identity crossing.

Eventually truck and everything in it are the speaker, hurtling through the night, and the night itself has also become something else. And by the end, Moody has even tossed in a word I could have sworn was made up (transpicuous: transparent; easily understood, lucid)—but, like the rest of the poem, it only seems unreal, walking a line between what we expect to see and what we don’t. Packed with Moody’s signature mix of playfulness and acerbic wit, this poem makes me want to take a whole workshop on “Self-portrait as a ______________.”

[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?]