Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Tribute to Lincoln

Chuck and Lisa

This past Sunday I participated in a tribute to Abraham Lincoln in honor of his bicentennial. The event was held at my local library with the support of a grant from the NJ Council for the Humanities. It was a surprisingly wonderful program. It began with a brief lecture about Lincoln's life and presidency. This was delivered by Dr. Larry Greene, history professor at Seton Hall University. Then various dignitaries—a congressman, assemblymen, local mayor, school superintendent—read Lincoln's speeches. Other people read poems about Lincoln. I was asked to read Edwin Markham's "Lincoln, The Man of the People" and an excerpt from Bayard Taylor's "The Gettysburg Ode."

Also included were two musicians, Chuck Winch and Lisa Godino, known as Plum Run. They were dressed in authentic clothing from the period and sang a number of Civil War songs. My favorite song was "The Vacant Chair," about a boy killed in the war. His family anticipates the first Thanksgiving dinner without him: "We will meet, / but we shall miss him. / There will be one vacant chair." I found a wonderful video of the song:

After a local councilman read the poem, "Three Hundred Thousand More," Lisa addressed him and told him how touched she'd been by the poem. Boys and young men going off to war is a topic she often writes about. As she spoke, she began to cry. I think she did not know that the man to whom she was speaking had lost his son this year, in the war against cancer. For those of us who did know, her tears were all the more poignant.

Lisa got herself together and was able to sing her song, "Chaplain," about a boy going to war and wondering what will happen to him and what he will have to do to others and where will he go if he dies. I could not stop thinking about how relevant the speeches, the poems, and the songs are to our lives today as young men continue to go off to battle. Here's Lisa singing the song which she wrote:

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Poetry at Cayuga Community College

This past week I had the pleasure of spending three days at Cayuga Community College in Auburn, NY. The invitation came about as a result of Garrison Keillor's reading of my poem, "Linguini," back in February. The professor who brings in the poets heard the poem, looked me up online, and contacted me. We then agreed on dates. The picture you see above is the banner that was displayed at the college's website.

I drove up last Sunday and checked into my hotel. My host then invited me to his house for dinner that night. We were joined by another couple and their son. All great company. Prior to dinner, my hostess said that she'd prepared linguini with clam sauce. Unfortunately and much to my chagrin, I had to tell her that I can't eat clams. She looked a bit crestfallen and said, "But the poem . . . ," meaning that in the poem I specifically mention clams as something delectable. Well, they are delectable—to other people, but not to me! (I plan to use that story from now on whenever someone asks to what extent my poems are autobiographical.) So I had peppers and mushrooms on my linguini and was very happy. An excellent salad and homemade apple pie for dessert.

The next morning my host picked me up and we drove five minutes to the campus where I gave a reading to approximately 30 people. Then another English professor took me to lunch. Later that afternoon my host took me to Seneca Falls where we visited the Women's Hall of Fame. I read the "Declaration of Sentiments" and walked through the museum. I was filled with admiration for our foremothers who so courageously cleared a path for the rest of us.

That night my host and his department took me out for dinner. These people really know how to treat a visiting poet! Every detail was attended to, every courtesy extended.

The next morning I visited a creative writing class. The professor had asked each student to write a poem based on one of mine. It was a really cool assignment and yielded wonderful results. Students read their poems to me and we talked a bit about the next level of revision. They asked lots of good questions. Later I met with the Poetry Club. Oddly, only one student showed up, but we had a good time. He read me several of his poems and I gave him some tips on getting them published which he said was his current goal. On the way back to the hotel, my host and I paid a brief visit to the grave of Harriet Tubman, located in one of the prettiest cemeteries I've ever visited.

Dinner again that night, this time with the professor who would be leading me up to the extension campus the next morning. That drive was along pretty country roads, about 45 minutes. At the Fulton campus I gave a second reading, this time to around 40 people. Then I headed home, happy to have had such a wonderful time and wishing for more college visits.

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Starring As Sonnet 71

Shakepeare is watching you. Be careful.

On Wednesday of this week I read Shakespeare's Sonnet 71 as part of the Our Daily Sonnet project. I saw this project highlighted a few months ago at Line Break. I checked it out and thought it would fit right in with my current project of becoming more audio/video savvy. I contacted Adam Tessier, the creator of the project, and offered to record Sonnet 29. Of all 154 sonnets, that was the only one that had been spoken for. Not to be discouraged, I then proposed sonnet 30. I got the green light on that one and proceeded to make my movie.

On the day of my debut, I discovered that someone named Bob had also sent in a video of the same sonnet. And he'd sent not one but two versions of the sonnet. When I pouted a bit—already a prima donna—Adam invited me to do another movie. I proposed yet another sonnet, but it turned out that someone else had already spoken for that one and planned to swallow a sword during his reading. I then proposed Sonnet 71.

Adam's project is to get a video of all 154 sonnets and to post them at the website. Three cheers for Adam for making Shakespeare cool and fun. Some of the videos have been recorded in coffee shops, some on street corners, some in beds, some in office chairs. One gets the feeling that some of the readers were simply accosted with a book of sonnets and told to read! These are casual efforts minus costumes, at least for the most part. People have been caught during cigarette breaks, while awakening, while walking down the street.

I love the idea of Shakespeare popping up in all these random places. And as a former high school English teacher, I thought immediately of the possibilities for incorporating a similar project into a course of study.

I made my video with my new computer. As you can see, I was assisted by the Bard himself. How about some of you offering to make a video of another sonnet? There are plenty left. The contact information is at the site on the About page.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Good News

I'm happy to report that Garrison Keillor is featuring my poem, The First Artichoke, today, Tuesday, October 20, at The Writer's Almanac. The poem is from my book, What Feeds Us.

The timing of this feature doubles the pleasure. Right now I'm at the campus of Cayuga Community College for a three-day visit. The invitation for this visit came about as a result of Mr. Keillor reading my poem, "Linguini," back in February. So this feels like one of those nice circles with everything in its proper, comfortable spot.

If you like stuffed artichokes, check out my poem. Or even if you don't like them. Here's a photo of the blooms mentioned in the poem. Did you know that artichokes flower if they're not picked?

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

New Valparaiso Poetry Review

Happy 10th Anniversary to Valparaiso Poetry Review! And kudos to its founder and editor, Ed Byrne. VPR has long been one of my favorite online journals; in fact, it was one of the first online ones I ever submitted to. And back then submissions were sent by snail mail. This special issue is absolutely fabulous. I'm so pleased to be part of it.

The issue begins with an essay by Byrne in which he thanks his readers and contributors and also explores the evolution of online journals. Speaking of his original intention, he says, "I felt a responsibility to produce an online literary journal that would attain a certain amount of respect and would contribute to the overall stature of electronic magazines . . ." That's exactly what he's done. Mission accomplished.

Byrne also says, "Moreover, when I glance at the 'acknowledgments' pages of new books of poetry or volumes of literary commentary, I find myself noting how many titles of online journals, including Valparaiso Poetry Review, are represented side by side with those titles of traditional print periodicals, all of which seem to have adopted at least some degree of online presence as well in recent years." I recall that until recently such Acknowledgments pages often distinguished between which journals were print and which were online. I no longer see that. And I'll add that my next book will contain 5 poems that first appeared in VPR.

Charles Wright is the featured poet in this issue. Here's the entire lineup of poets: Sherman Alexie, Mary Biddinger, Jared Carter, Katharine Coles, Alfred Corn, Kwame Dawes, Susan Donnelly, Cornelius Eady, Claudia Emerson, Patricia Fargnoli, Annie Finch, Daisy Fried, Reginald Gibbons, H. Palmer Hall, T.R. Hummer, Allison Joseph, David Kirby, Dorianne Laux, Frannie Lindsay, Diane Lockward, Sebastian Matthews, Eric Nelson, Joel Peckham, Greg Rappleye, Margot Schilpp, Jeffrey Skinner, Floyd Skloot, Martha Silano, Dave Smith, Alison Stine, Virgil Suarez, Elizabeth Swados, Daniel Tobin, Catherine Tufariello, Brian Turner. There are also five book reviews.

I have two poems in this issue, Hunger in the Garden and The Temptation of Mirage. The first one is a kind of form poem. (I challenge you to figure out the form). Check out the entire issue. You will find much to enjoy and admire there.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Good News

I'm happy to report that my publisher has accepted my third full-length poetry collection, Temptation by Water. The book is scheduled for release next summer, 2010. Needless to say, I'm delighted. These are the poems that I've been working on for the past three years.

The process for this collection was a bit different from that for the first two books. With those two, I just wrote poems. Then when I had 50-60 that I thought were book-worthy, I gathered them together and read and reread them, looking for common threads, looking for a single unifying concept. Once I had the backbone for the collection, I selected the poems that I thought fit and moved on to finding a structural plan.

With this new collection, I had my main idea fairly early on. I wonder if that signals some kind of development? It did, I think, result in fewer false starts and fewer poems that, while I might have liked them, just wouldn't fit into the collection thematically. The negative to this approach is that I'm now confronted with a pretty barren folder.

I'll be using the same cover artist. I love his work. I just sent him a handful of representative poems and a few thoughts about what I have in mind. But I trust his creativity. I've done my job; now I'll let him do his.

Details will follow as they develop.

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Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Poemeleon

No, I'm not switching to porn or a discussion of anatomy. The above image is the cover of the latest issue of Poemeleon, one of my favorite online journals. Edited by Cati Porter, the journal appears twice a year. Why do I like it? Let me count the ways: 1) it's easy to navigate, 2) it's visually attractive, 3) it contains only poetry and poetry-related features, 4) each issue runs a handful of reviews and interviews, 5) there's an ample number of poems but not an overwhelming number, 6) it considers previously published poems, and 7) it has found its own niche by devoting each issue to a theme or type of poem.

The latest issue is the "gender issue." As soon as I saw the call for submissions several months ago, I immediately thought of my poem entitled Gender Issue. Seemed like that might be a good fit. The editor agreed. One more feature I like about this journal: each poem is accompanied by a brief author statement in which the author says something about his or her connection to the theme.

This issue contains work by a number of poets whose work I already admire, e.g., Michelle Bitting (I'm in the middle of her collection, Good Friday Kiss), Deborah Bogen, Kathryn Stripling Byer, Robin Chapman, Patricia Fargnoli (just finished her new book, Then, Something), Ann Fisher-Wirth (recently read her Carta Marina), Alex Grant (see my last blog post for a review of his book, Fear of Moving Water), Paul Hostovsky, Wendy Vardaman, and Charles Harper Webb. There are others whose work I'm looking forward to getting acquainted with.

So check out this issue. You'll find much to make you happy there.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Poet du Jour: Alex Grant

I'm sure I would praise this collection even if it hadn't been published by my own publisher, Wind Publications. But I'm glad that it was published by my publisher as I'm enormously proud to share shelf space with this poet. This is a sophisticated collection, all the more impressively so when we consider that this is Grant's first full-length collection. Perhaps, though, the level of sophistication and the beauty of Fear of Moving Water should come as no surprise as Grant is well-published and has had two award-winning chapbooks as well as numerous other awards.

The collection consists of 39 poems divided into four sections, each preceded by a prose poem which serves as a prologue. There's not an ounce of fat in the collection, not one poem that I wish had been removed, not one space where something seems to be missing. This quality of tightness is also found in the poems.

There is much to admire here. First, there's an appealing range of subject matter. Clearly, Grant is attracted to the animal world. We find the poems populated with turtles, beavers, a mouse, an old dog, a cuckoo. Even the small ugly things of this earth merit his attention—the cockroach, the garden midge, the spider. Grant is also drawn to other forms of art. There are poems based on photos and paintings as well as poems about artists such as Van Gogh, actress Lillian Gish, haiku master Issa. The collection is subtly sprinkled with literary allusions to such people as Neruda, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. Several poems reveal a fondness for the culinary arts, for example, "Hamish Samey's Turnip Soup."

Then there's the pure poetry of these poems. Here's a poet who luxuriates in language, who has a talent for the odd word, the just-right word, and an ear for the music of the words. Listen to the lovely ell-sounds in "Black Moon": ". . . the dry doggerel / of mackerel scales and filament // of a season ended, to the water. / The sand flays the last flakes / of paint from the boat's hull . . ." Note, too, the a-sounds. Here's another example of Grant's diction and musicality, this one from "Fuel": "We spend the morning burning / oleander brush. Shards of sunlight / slash the canopy, cleave pathways // through pungent smoke-shrouds, // fuel clumps of emerald sphagnum."

Grant's mastery of craft is also seen in his use of imagery and figurative language. Note the sensory appeal in this triple simile from "Neruda's Suicide Note": ". . . you cover / your face with your hand, / and it sticks to your skin / like confetti, like phosphorus / launched from a Greek warship, / like the skin of a plum / peeled by a broken nail." While most of the poems are, like this one, written in free verse, there is a formal elegance to them. And Grant makes a nod to formalism in the collection's five sonnets, a villanelle, and a solo renga.

Here are two poems from the collection which represent it nicely and which should whet your appetite for the entire collection.


'Behind every jewel stand three hundred sweating horses'
—Zen Buddhist aphorism

Believers in invisibility, we describe the sound
that nothing makes. At night, we hear the stars
move across the sky, listen to the moon-vine

grow, wait for the engines of the sun to crack
the morning. The clacking wheels of desire
lead us to this - this endless fascination, this

capturing of fog in a bottle. We need to inhale
it, to learn its given name, to feel it compress
under the skin and emerge through the pores,

an invisible diamond inside a painted nutshell,
held tight in the breath of our hands. We pry
the shell apart, clamp the empty geodes to our

ears, like seashore children straining to hear
the wedding of the oceans in a paper cup,
and listen to the sound that nothing makes.

And here's one that's as frightening as it is lovely.


In the beginning, they were insignificant—like black
spider mites, or immature fruit flies. We were blind
to their subtle swelling, their shifting shapes

and colors, suddenly lurid green, slick and shiny
as obscene bottles. The years turned like a mill wheel,
and we retreated deeper into the belly of the house,

and few could recall a time when the steady hum
of their wings didn't thicken the air. One of us will
sometimes foray into their part of the house—always,

the reports are worse than the time before—they have
become cannibals: they devise new methods of torture:
their young subsist on the bodies of spiders.

And they grow—always—stronger, more ruthless,
We have lived so long in this part of the house,
where no light penetrates, that our young have begun

to be born blind—sightless, parchment skin stretched
over useless orbs, like unfinished paintings. Some
who remember when we lived outside of the house,

in the trees, in the fields and hedgerows, say that
our time will come again. They say that one day,
we will look up at the moon again, from high

in the wet branches of Sycamore trees,
and see the earth, so far below, and swing,
once again, on lengths of radiant silk.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Dodge Poetry Festival Heading to Newark

The Star-Ledger, New Jersey's largest newspaper, announced this week that the Dodge Foundation has selected Newark as the location for the 2010 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. It had been previously announced that the 2010 festival would not take place due to serious funding issues with the Foundation. Also, Waterloo Village, the site of past festivals, was no longer available. Of course, the loss of the festival was met with great dismay. People wanted it back. People began to think of alternatives, other ways of funding, other locations.

Montclair suggested forming a partnership with Dodge. They offered funding and their town with its close proximity to NY and transportation and hotels, with its cultural history, its museum, its university campus. The idea appealed and Dodge began to consider the possibility. Then they invited other towns and cities to offer themselves as possible locations. Several did.

Recently the contenders were narrowed down to Montclair, Newark, and Trenton. Now Montclair has been thanked for providing the original idea, but the prize goes to Newark. Mayor Cory Booker is happy. The Star-Ledger quotes him as saying, "Newark is the state’s center of arts and culture and entertainment and having the festival in Newark is a testament to its spirit."

Newark once was a great city. I used to go there all the time when I was a kid. All the big department stores were there. I loved Newark and felt safe there. But in recent years Newark has been known as the car theft capital of NJ. And don't I know it. A few years ago, when I was poet-in-residence at a charter school, my car was stolen in broad daylight right off a main street. It was located later that day, abaondoned and left still running in Irvington. It had extensive damage, thanks to the thief having driven from Newark to Irvington in first gear. I was without that car for six weeks and out many dollars for the repair and car rental.

But I like Cory Booker and I hope he can restore Newark to what it once was. And why not? There's a fabulous library system, several museums, remarkable architecture. Just clean up the crime. I know the Mayor is trying to do that. Let's hope that poetry can help. I believe it has the power to work miracles.

This past week Newark has also received some attention from late-night talk show host, Conan O'Brien, who mocked the city! Booker immediately took to the airways and posted a video to YouTube. It only made me like him more. Take a look:

Just too bad he didn't add something about Newark also now having the Dodge Poetry Festival.

Here's Conan's subsequent response:

At the end of his video, Conan mentions that part of Newark Airport, from which Booker bans him, is actually in Elizabeth. Oh dear. I once had a car stolen in Elizabeth.

But I remain undaunted and will definitely be in Newark for the 2010 Dodge Poetry Festival. I will miss Waterloo with its bucolic setting, but it will be interesting to see how the festival works in a city setting.

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