Sunday, December 30, 2007

7 Things You Should Know about Being a Poet

Okay, I'm responding to Deborah Ager's challenge to make my own list.

1. Black velvet is elegant and lovely, but not mandatory. Oftentimes, the best poets don't look like poets (you know, the berets, the beards, the capes).

2. There's no money in it. None. That's why poets are more generous than other artists. Usually.

3. You must love words, must collect them the way some people collect coins or shells. And you must always be on the lookout for new ones.

4. Any day when a new poem is underway is intensely exciting. The poem goes everywhere you go. There's something obsessive about this.

5. Real poets read poetry. Voraciously. It's how we go to school each day.

6. You would write poetry even if no one published you. But you might not revise so carefully.

7. Poets must sit on their poems the way hens sit on eggs. There's no way to rush this.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Submissions by Email

Each time I go to the post office to mail out submissions, I come home with an enhanced appreciation for those journals which accept submissions via email. With the cost of postage, mailing envelope, SASE, paper, and printer ink, sending out can get costly. Fortunately, a number of good journals now accept via email, some only that way. Here's a short list of journals that accept by email. All of these accept simultaneous submissions unless indicated otherwise.

Print Journals That Accept Email Submissions

Barn Owl Review—new journal

Bateau—new journal


Kenyon Review—no simultaneous submissions

Many Mountains Moving ($2 fee)

Meridian ($2 fee)

The Normal School—new journal

Pebble Lake Review
no multiple subs (which in my book means don’t submit more than one packet at a time—if the editor means no simultaneous submissions, that needs to be changed)




Third Coast Review

There's a much lengthier list maintained online by Louie Crew. There are a few drawbacks to this list: 1) it does not indicate which are print and which are online journals 2) there is a huge variation in quality of the journals. So do be sure to check guidelines and past issues carefully.

Poetry Publishers Who Accept Electronic Submissions

Let me know if you have any print journals to add to my list.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Happy Holidays

Here's this year's Christmas tree. If you look real close, you might be able to see the beaded ornaments—angels, candy canes, snowflakes. I made them with my own two hands years ago when I was in my domestic phase. Tiny beads have to be strung on thin wires. Then comes the twisting and shaping. It was pain-staking work and wreaked havoc on fingernails, but now they're part of our Christmas tradition.

Something else I like to revisit each Christmas is this essay from the New York Sun. My grandmother read it to me many years ago. I've always remembered it. If you don't already know it, I hope you'll enjoy it:

Eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon wrote a letter to the editor of New York's Sun, and the quick response was printed as an unsigned editorial Sept. 21, 1897. The work of veteran newsman Francis Pharcellus Church has since become history's most reprinted newspaper editorial, appearing in part or whole in dozens of languages in books, movies, and other editorials, and on posters and stamps.

"DEAR EDITOR: I am 8 years old.
"Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus.
"Papa says, 'If you see it in THE SUN it's so.'
"Please tell me the truth; is there a Santa Claus?


VIRGINIA, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except [what] they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men's or children's, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, VIRGINIA, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no VIRGINIAS. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that's no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the baby's rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart. Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, VIRGINIA, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Making of a Poet

I just finished reading a wonderful essay in the January / February issue of Poets & Writers. It's titled "To Make Me Who I Am: Poetry As a Way Out" and is by Reginald Shepherd. I feel like I've made a new friend, though I've never met Reginald. The content of his essay is fascinating and took me into a world very different from my own. Although the poet writes about the hardships he endured, he does so without self-pity, though he's entitled to a good dose of that. Instead, there's encouragement for those who have to struggle in this life. Raised in the ghetto only by his mother, he was sent to private schools where he received the advantage of a good education but where he never felt like he belonged. When he was just shy of 15, his mother died and he was sent off to be raised by relatives who made him feel like an outsider.

Throughout his difficult growing up—and he never pretends it was anything other than difficult—what saved Shepherd was poetry. He writes about discovering T. S. Eliot: "Eliot wrote that poetry is not the expression of personality and emotion but the escape from them. He also wrote that only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to wish to escape from these things, a marvelously bitchy comment that also contains a profound truth about the burden of identity, the suffocating weight of selfhood." He writes about imitating Eliot while struggling to become a poet himself, to move beyond his "personal needs and desires, beyond the poem as personal expression and toward the poem as an independent object in the world."

Poetry, Shepherd writes, was what kept him sane. That and books and the library. After high school he went off to Bennington College. He speaks of two teachers who had a profound influence on him. For example, from Ben Belitt he learned that "art is the lie that tells the truth, and that the truth art tells need not be about oneself." That's an education right there. Yet Shepherd dropped out of college at the end of his junior year, worked for a time, then returned and completed his degree, then went on to earn two MFAs. He writes of the never-ending search to find the place that is right for him, a place that seems elusive but which he is optimistic enough to believe exists.

This essay is full of wisdom, full of the rough fabric of real life, and it's beautifully written. I was delighted when I reached the end of it to learn that it's one essay in a collection of essays by Shepherd: Orpheus in the Bronx: Essays on Identity, Politics, and the Freedom of Poetry. So I immediately pre-ordered it.

While I was at it, I also ordered Fata Morgana, Shepherd's most recent poetry collection. And while I was treating myself, I also ordered Paul Guest's Notes for My Body Double and Greg Rappleye's Figured Dark. My bookshelf runneth over.

I've also added Reginald Shepherd to my blogroll. Pay him a visit. His blog is like graduate school without the burden of tuition. But I was sorry to read that he is beginning a round of chemotherapy. So let's all send good thoughts his way. Some humanotherapy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Performance Poetry Reading

I confess to having mixed emotions about performance poetry. I have on several occasions attended a performance poetry reading and been captivated by the singing and the physical presence of the poet or poets. But then when I took the poetry home and sat down to read it, I've been disappointed to discover that the poetry on the page didn't measure up to the poetry on the stage. So it seems to me that the music and performance can sometimes cover up a lack of craft. I've also sat through performance readings where it seemed that the poetry consisted largely of screaming, pacing the stage, and hurling obscenities.

But I've also several times been really taken with a performance reading. For example, I'll never forget hearing Patricia Smith read in Paterson, NJ, several years ago. Take a look at her amazing delivery:

And then when I later sat down with Patricia's book, with her words on the page, I was just as riveted as I'd been when she'd stood before me.

So I never know what to expect when I attend a performance poetry reading. I went to one on Saturday, December 1, again in Paterson. The poets were Charlie Rossiter and Al DeGenova, a duo, and Kurt Lamkin. I've known Kurt for several years. I first met him when I brought him in as a guest poet at the high school festival I ran for seven years when I was teaching. Then I had him back again. Later, I ran into him yet again when he first was featured at a Dodge festival. I'd never met Charlie or Al but knew their names.

I had just returned from the poetry retreat so really had to drag myself out, but I was very glad I did as the reading was just wonderful. Here's Charlie posing for my camera:

Charlie and Al went first. Their reading was full of music and instruments, singing, and wonderful poetry. Two gentle souls.

Click here to hear some of Charlie's work:

Then Kurt performed and as always was wonderful. He played a kora, a 21-string West African instrument which, by tradition, must be made by the performer.

I went home with Back Beat, Charlie and Al's co-authored collection; AvantRetro, their CD; and two CDs by Kurt, Magic Yams and String Massage. I look forward to the reading and the listening.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Good News Department

I'm delighted to be the Featured Poet at Poetry Southeast. The feature includes three sample poems from each of my two books. What Feeds Us is represented by "Pyromania," "Invective Against the Bumblebee," and "Linguini." Eve's Red Dress is represented by "The Missing Wife," "Last Dance," and "My Husband Discovers Poetry." So click the link and check it out! A review of What Feeds Us will appear in the fall issue which should be available in a few weeks.

I also have poems in two recently released anthologies. "Pastiche for a Daughter's Absence" appears in Family Pictures: Poems & Photographs Celebrating Our Loved Ones. Edited by Kwame Alexander, the collection is exactly what its title says it is. Poets include Barbara Crooker, Tony Medina, Karla Huston, Shin Yu Pai, Nikki Giovanni, Susan Rich, and Lucille Clifton.

Two of my poems, "First Cold" and "Her Daughter's Feet," appear in White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood, edited by Rishma Dunlop. Here I'm in the good company of such poets as Adrienne Rich, Jean Valentine, Martha Silano, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Molly Peacock, Joy Harjo, and Alicia Ostriker.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Handmade Poetry Retreat—Part 2

I have a few more things to add about the poetry retreat. In my last post I told you about the retreat itself. Now I'd like to tell you a bit more about Ocean Grove as the town added to the pleasure of the retreat. Ocean Grove has a long history and is best known for its religious revivals that still take place each summer. Hundreds of Methodists gather to vacation and receive spiritual renewal. The central gathering place is the Great Auditorium. This large building is at the end of a square. Directly ahead of this building is the grassy square where birds gather and people walk and bike. Our inn is to one side of the square. Across from us is another row of houses and inns. At the opposite end of the square is the boardwalk and just beyond that the beach and ocean.

To the immediate left of the Auditorium is Tent City. In summer the small structures in the front row are covered with tent fabric and people live in them for the time of their stay. The tents have no plumbing and neither do the cottages behind them. Residents use the public facilities found on the other side of the Auditorium. As the Methodists are present only in summer, these buildings were empty during our stay.

But Ocean Grove, while quiet, has lots of activity going on. The town has become home to many artists and writers. One aspect of the town that I find fascinating is its condition of revival. Not too long ago, Ocean Grove was pretty much tired and old with the houses and buildings in a state of disrepair. Now many of these places are under reconstruction. So as you walk around you get a feeling of Before and After. Here are two buildings that are awaiting reconstruction:

Here's one that recently underwent reconstruction:

One element of the old: Ocean Grove remains a dry town. No liquor licenses in any of the restaurants, though patrons can bring wine (a concession to modernity) and no liquor stores. Not too long ago residents and vacationers alike had to remove their cars by midnight Saturday night and could not bring them back into town until midnight on Sunday. People moved on foot only.

Our innkeeper told us that just several weeks ago a film was made in Ocean Grove. Its title is Greta and it stars Ellen Burstyn, Hillary Duff, and Diana Ross' son. Apparently, the entire cast lived in Ocean Grove during the time of the filming. Ellen Burstyn plays the role of a grandmother whose granddaughter comes to visit. The house where the film takes place is right across the square from our inn:

It's the one to the left.

Finally, I'm going to offer you one of the prompts we did during the retreat. This one comes from Susan Jackson: "If you didn't have to do it perfectly, what would you try?" Susan offered the following list:
Stand-up comedy
Modern dance
Water ballet
Red lipstick
or anything else

I chose anything else and wrote my poem about being a rock star.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Handmade Poetry Retreat

While conferences and workshops were very important to me for a number of years, I eventually began to feel that I'd outgrown the model but still wanted some kind of group activity. For the past three years I have run a Women's Poetry Retreat. The first year it was held in Spring Lake, NJ, and the last two years it has been held in Ocean Grove, NJ. The retreat takes place the week after Thanksgiving. It includes women poets only, all of whom have been writing and publishing for a number of years. I invite the poets and line up an inn. Each poet then makes her own room reservation, and I pretty much fade into the background. Although I organize the event, I do not lead workshops during the retreat. Instead, I ask each participant to bring two poetry prompts. Then over our three and a half days, we take turns giving each other prompts. I step in with my little whip only if we get off focus, but we are all there on the same mission: to write a whole bunch of new poems.

This year's retreat was held in The Ocean Plaza Inn, a lovely Victorian inn, newly renovated. The finishing touches for the holiday decorations were being added as we arrived on Monday afternoon. Our first evening we ordered pizza and antipasta, which we enjoyed in the dining area of the inn. Incidentally, the only costs incurred are for a room reservation and food, so this retreat is significantly less expensive than an official conference.

After the pizza we gathered in the living room. (One nice perk that comes with this inn is that we have access to its living room as well as to the living room in the inn next door.) I took the group through the first prompt. We typically allow 20 minutes for each prompt, then read the drafts with only minimal commentary. Here we are the first night.

Pictured above: Susan Jackson whose first collection, Through a Gate of Trees, was recently published by CavanKerry Press, and Barbara Crooker whose first collection, Radiance, won the Word Press First Book Prize and whose second collection, Line Dance, is right now rolling off the presses.

Pictured here are Jessica deKoninck whose chapbook, Repairs, was recently published by Finishing Line Press; Wanda Praisner, author of A Fine and Bitter Snow (Palanquin Press, 2003) and On the Bittersweet Avenues of Pomona, which won Spire Press' 2005 poetry chapbook contest; and Betty Lies, author of the textbook, The Poet's Pen: Writing Poetry with Middle and High School Students, as well as two poetry manuscripts in circulation.

We met again on Tuesday morning, after the continental breakfast which is included in the room fee. Each year I ask the women to bring a poem on a specified topic. This year we each read a poem we admired for its music. Then we wrote to two more prompts.

One of the lovely benefits of Ocean Grove is the main street right around the corner. Lots of little shops and everything beautifully decorated for the season. That first day we had lunch in The Daily Grind, a cozy little spot that makes its own bread and baked goods.

Then we returned to the inn for our afternoon session, two more prompts. So by three o'clock Tuesday, we had each already written five new poems. Of course, not all of the poems will survive, but the level of writing was quite astonishing. There's something about this kind of gathering that creates a very fertile field.

After a few hours of private time for reading, napping, or walking along the beach, we all went to Bistro Ole, an extraordinary Portuguese restaurant. The food is wonderful and the hospitality is warm. We then finished up with a read-around back at the inn. Each of us read a favorite poem by someone else and then a poem of our own.

Wednesday was a repeat of Tuesday, minus the specified morning poem. For lunch we had leftovers from the night before—except for me who walked around the corner and bought some yummy soup and hit the Ocean Grove Bakery for an apricot danish and chocolate chip mint cookies and what the poets said were the world's best ginger cookies.

That night we took our amiable innkeeper's suggestion to dine at the Draughting Table in Asbury Park. It's a charming Irish pub, very reasonable prices, and excellent food. Then we had one final read-around back at the inn.

Thursday morning was our last writing session. All of our morning sessions took place in the space you see below. I took this shot standing on the balcony, beyond which is a view of the ocean. We sat on the sofa and surrounding chairs. This is the upstairs of the suite the innkeeper gave me because I organized the retreat. It's two floors with a spiral staircase in between. You can see the kitchen area in the background. Then there's a full bathroom around the corner and a bedroom.

Here's a closer view of the kitchen.

And here's a view of the ocean from the living room. We were only half a block from the ocean.

And the view from my lovely downstairs bedroom:

We finished up around noon, then headed for home, tired but enriched by the poetry and the friendship, our bags loaded with drafts of 11 new poems each.

Here's the view at 6:00 AM on the last day. You can understand why it was hard to leave.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good News Department

Friday night I received the good news that my poem, "Temptation by Water," has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The poem first appeared in the spring issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review. Editor Ed Byrne nominated six poems:

John Balaban: “Finishing Up the Novel After Some Delay”

Barbara Crooker: “Lemons”

W.D. Ehrhart: “Coaching Winter Track in Time of War”

Anne Haines: “Swallowed”

H. Palmer Hall: “Vietnam Roulette”

Diane Lockward: “Temptation by Water”

My poem is an ekphrastic one, based on "The Open Window" by Henri Matisse:

I wrote the poem while on a three-day women's poetry retreat in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Tomorrow I will return for the third year to this retreat, though it's now held in Ocean Grove. There will be six women poets. We will spend our mornings and afternoons giving each other writing prompts. We will have a few hours of free time in the late afternoon and then will go out to dinner together. I hope to return well nourished with at least a dozen new poems in draft form.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jane Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils

I just finished reading Kenyon's posthumous book, A Hundred White Daffodils. It's wonderful. I loved everything about it. There's so much here. It was like devouring my way through a box of Godiva chocolates. First come the twenty translations of Akhmatova's poems. This section is followed by three sections of Kenyon's essays, none of which I'd read before. One essay section contains pieces about gardens, hiking, and her childhood. The next section contains the columns Kenyon wrote for a newspaper, the Concord Monitor. The remaining prose section contains pieces about literature, especially poetry. Section V consists of three interviews, and the book concludes with a poem. The introduction to the collection is by Donald Hall, while the introduction to the translations is by Kenyon. I'm going to include some snippets of my favorite parts.

In Kenyon's introduction she writes about Akhmatova's relationship with her son. I was interested to learn how difficult the Russian poet found motherhood, referring to it as a "bright torture. I was not worthy of it. . ." Akhmatova described the work of translation as "eating one's own brain." Having previously read Stanley Kunitz's translations of Akhmatova and his comments about the art of translation, I was interested to read what Kenyon had to say on the subject. She, too, talks about what must be sacrificed. Her choice was to sacrifice formal elements in order to retain "the integrity of the image. . ."

In her essay "Every Year the Light," Kenyon speaks of her friend Edna Powers who each year wrote a Christmas play for the church children to perform and who left behind these beautiful words: ". . .the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Good words to return to during grim times.

In "A Proposal for New Hampshire Writers," Kenyon exhorts her fellow artists to do what they can to preserve public funding for the arts: ". . .we must have art always before us. We must make our visions and gifts accessible to all. Everyone needs art, but not everyone knows it. Not everyone knows when they need to consume more calcium—they just know that they are sick, and can't figure out how they got that way. So with art. People must have it or they sicken. It is soul food."

In the interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon speaks of those times when the writing doesn't want to arrive. She says, "But I think that also happens to me when I'm getting ready to make some kind of leap, either in the subjects I undertake to talk about in my poems or some technical change, maybe longer lines or something else—I don't know. These silences often come over me before something new breaks in, but they're hard to wait out."

Speaking with David Bradt in a later interview, Kenyon explains why she thinks poetry matters: "It matters because it's beautiful. It matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life. . . It tells the entire truth about what it is to be alive, about the way of the world, about life and death. Art embodies that complexity and makes it more understandable, less frightening, less bewildering. It matters because it is consolation in times of trouble. Even when a poem addresses a painful subject, it still manages to be consoling, somehow, if it's a good poem. Poetry has an unearthly ability to turn suffering into beauty."

The book then finishes with an extensive bibliography. This collection, like Kenyon's poetry, is soul food.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poet du Jour: Sally Bliumis-Dunn

It makes me very happy when my own publisher, Wind Publications, puts out a collection I really like. It makes me proud to be keeping company with the likes of Ann Fisher-Wirth, JC Todd, and Tom Chandler. So I was delighted to read Sally Bliumis-Dunn's just-released Talking Underwater, which I am now pleased to recommend to you. These are poems that offer rewards on a first reading, then invite you back to plumb for hidden treasures. I was immediately drawn to the combination of plain language and elegance. I also admire the poet's knack for metaphors, something I noticed in "Injury," the collection's very first poem. I like how the metaphors here loop from one to the next: "When leaves die, / the tiny cups // at the ends of their stems / loosen from the branch, // and they are no longer / leaves: they are hands // slipping from their lives; / no, they are coins and flipping // slowly through the air; / or maybe rafts // bobbing on an ocean. . ."

Another quality I like in this collection is the fusion of opposites, a quality that adds richness and complexity to poetry. In "Angie, Leaving" the speaker asks, "Isn't it always like this— / joy and sorrow calling / to each other / across an open field?" Throughout the poems we find images of light and shadow playing off each other. Bliumis-Dunn also has a gift for nature poems, something not so easy to pull off. For me the secret of her success in such poems is the placement of people into the landscapes. How perfect and poignant the ending of "Angie, Leaving": "How strange the heart's / equivalents — / she is leaving: / it is snowing."

Many of these poems previously found good homes in such journals as Spoon River Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Prairie Schooner. Vijay Seshadri aptly describes their coming together in this poet's first collection: ". . . the drama of human consciousness stunned by its self-discovery in the physical world yet ever alert to the beauties and terrors of that world is everywhere present in this astonishing, abrupt, tender, precise, and crystalline collection. To call Talking Underwater a magnificent first book is to do gravely insufficient justice to the scope and rigor of Bliumis-Dunn's voice, which is not just mature but triumphant."

I'll end with two poems that I think nicely suggest the sensuous pleasures that await the reader.

Tulip Magnolias

I would be a tree
of tulip magnolias:
closed blossoms
like the tips of paintbrushes,
wet, just dipped.

Then I would open
my blossoms
enough to show
the outline of each petal:
deep mauve
thinning into veins
that fade into a misty
arc of white:
each petal

like the underside of a tongue,
lifted around
the center of a blossom
the way the tongue lifts
to the upper lips,
lowers as the blossom

fully opens, the way
the tongue lowers
and rests in the mouth —

as though each of my petals
could have spoken
one word
could have spoken it, stretched
over so much time

it was out of the range
of human hearing.
I would know

what it is like
to speak beyond
the range of hearing.

Spring Light

I shine through clouds
of pink and white blossom,
but that's not all that makes
the air seem brighter:

I am the transparent blue,
the reflections in the air
between cherry tree
and plum, reflections you sense

more than see;
even the dead azalea bush
wears me like a skin.
I'm all around you.

I diffuse, if only a little,
the singularity of existence —
rock, squirrel, worm —
which is why you mostly ignore

the thick green of June,
when my bare intensity is gone,
and I'm heavy in the heat,
and blend in mottled shadow.

Why is it you so love
to look up at new spring leaves —
pale windows
so beautifully not yet

still part light, part air?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Hand That Copies the Poem

From time to time I like to copy someone else's poem in longhand. Other times I like to type one out on my computer. There are times when time is of the essence, so for the sake of speed and convenience, I will copy and paste instead. But I think there is instructive value in this old practice of copying by hand. When I do this, I seem to pay more attention not only to the words but also to small matters like punctuation and capitalization. I process the poem in a way that I don't when I merely read. I slow down for the poem and respond more thoughtfully. Why this word? What an unusual word, I think as I write. I notice double entendres that result from strategic line breaks. The effect of repetition in a poem becomes more apparent when I copy and recopy the repeated words. And even though this is an eye/hand/brain operation, my ear seems to perk up a bit, too.

I started thinking about this topic the other day when Julie Enszer typed out "The Return," by Carolyn Forche, and posted it on the Wompo listserv. I asked Julie for her thoughts on the value of copying out an entire poem. Here's what she had to say:

"One of the things I was thinking about while typing the poem was the ways that Forche sustains the poem and expands it as a lyrical narrative. One of the things that I admire about all of the poems in this collection [The Country Between Us] are the concluding lines of stanzas and of the poems in general. In typing it out, though, I could see how she arrived at those lines. For instance, in this section she is concluding an anaphoric series of 'Tell them,'

Tell them how his friend found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground
like a man. As for the cars, of course
they watch you and for this don't flatter

The transition of 'As for the cars,' I find to be a very deft move taking us to the conclusion of a stanza but opening the poem further for the next section.

In general, I feel like a time pressured person so doing things like typing out long poems - or writing them in long-hand forces my racing mind, when it is done with being frustrated by how long it is taking, to really focus on the project at hand and what can be learned from it. I was reading recently - was it here? - about people writing poems and imagining that they had written the lines themselves in the process of transcribing them. So lovely."

Ann Lederer had this to say in reply to Julie's thoughts:

"In addition to being a learning tool, performing this beautiful ritual in longhand feels like a spiritual exercise akin to scribes painstakingly copying out sacred texts in calligraphy, or artists with easels set up in front of masterpieces. Each stroke, each letter is laden with import. In deep concentration, there is almost a sense of possession, a thrill of comprehension when a line break or comma placement counteracts one's own hunch. Not being a musician, I wonder what the similarities of this practice might be to playing music written by another."

And finally, Julie sent this response to Ann's thoughts:

"This is a fascinating observation. In Jewish law, one of the commandments is that each (man) shall write (copy) the Torah."

Now I have a challenge for you. Every day for the next week copy out a poem in longhand. Do it slowly and deliberately. Choose one poem that is fairly long. Choose another that you don't especially like.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Special Place: The Frost Place

Today I received the fall newsletter from The Frost Place. This is a place that has been important to me as a poet and continues to hold a special place in my heart. This is where I went when I first started writing poetry. It was just the right place at the right time. I went back, I think, for seven one-week summer conferences. Then I went three times to the more rigorous seminar. A few years I audited the conference and then went to the seminar. Two weeks of time to do little other than attend to my poetry. A gift I gave myself.

In my last post I wrote about James Hoch. How nice to see that he has been selected as the resident poet at The Frost Place for the summer of 2008. As such he will live for the summer in Frost's house, work on his own poetry, and lend his expertise to the various conferences held over the summer. Funny, I'd been thinking that Jim would be perfect for this spot. Of course, by the time I was thinking that, the decision must already have been made. But I'd like to think I have amazing powers.

Two summers ago I was invited back to The Frost Place, this time as one of the four featured poets at the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Later I was asked to write about the experience for the newsletter. Here's what I wrote:

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

It was my pleasure and privilege to be one of four guest poets at this summer’s Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. As a former high school English teacher with 25 years experience, I know firsthand how little attention poetry all too often receives in the classroom. I also know how poetry can energize a classroom and work a kind of magic there. So I believe deeply in the conference’s mission of helping teachers become more effective teachers of poetry and was delighted when Baron Wormser, the conference director, invited me to be part of this year’s program.

My day as poet du jour was Thursday. I arrived on Wednesday evening in time to attend Major Jackson’s excellent reading and to be introduced to the group of teachers who cheered my arrival as if I were a rock star and made me feel immediately welcomed. Although the teachers had been together only three days, it was clear that strong bonds had already formed. Everyone was talking poetry, talking writing, talking teaching.

As a poet-in-the-schools, I often give workshops for teachers, but I’ve never presented to such a responsive and enthusiastic group—perhaps because they were there by election, not by mandate. And perhaps, too, because the program has been so carefully designed by Baron and Don Sheehan. During my morning talk on teaching strategies (“Beginning with Mystery”), everyone joined right in. These teachers were the ideal class! Before I knew it, it was time for lunch on the porch overlooking the gorgeous White Mountains. The afternoon close readings of some of my favorite poems by other poets was also gratifying because I had such an energetic group of participants. Together, we devoured those poems. As Mark Strand might say, There was no happiness like ours.

Thursday turned out to be a lucky day for several reasons. First, the heat and humidity gave us a bit of a break. Then there was an evening cookout and dinner on cloth-covered tables in the barn. I ate my first veggie burger. Then the tables were cleared away and the chairs set up. After Baron’s beautiful introduction, I read my own poems. If there’s a better place to read on this earth, I don’t know where it is. To stand there in Frost’s barn and to feel so surrounded by so much poetic history was just exhilarating. And I’m sure a more supportive, appreciative audience would be hard to find. The reading was additionally exciting for me as many of the poems I read had been written or worked on at The Frost Place.

I’m sure every guest poet feels honored to be invited to The Frost Place, but for me it was extra special because this is the place that truly nurtured me as a poet. This is the place I went to shortly after I started writing poetry. In 1995 I nervously found my way there—and was made by Don and everyone else to feel that I belonged there. I went back again and again, then graduated to Baron’s seminar. So to go back as one of the guest poets felt like the completion of a circle. Then to sit in the audience for the teachers’ open reading, to hear them read their own poems, many of them written during Jim Provencher’s afternoon workshops, to cheer them on—well, it was just lovely.

On my way up to The Frost Place this time, somewhere along US 91, I saw a billboard with a picture of Kermit the Frog. Next to him were the words: “Eats flies. Dates a pig. Hollywood star.” And below Kermit, the words: “Live the dream.” And I thought, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m living the dream.”

Monday, November 5, 2007

Poet du Jour: James Hoch

If you read my blog back in September, you may recall that I mentioned meeting James Hoch at the Burlington Book Festival in Vermont. We were both among the featured poets and met at the Saturday night dinner. While sitting at the bar before dinner, I heard Jim ask Major Jackson a question that began with "Did your publicist . . . ?" Forgive me for not remembering what came after publicist. Poets with Publicists? Who invented that? So I was immediately impressed, but even more so with Jim's charm and wit. Unfortunately, I did not get to hear his reading the next day as he was assigned to a different venue. I did, however, buy his new book, Miscreants. I finished reading it last night and it blew my slippers off.

As the title suggests, the collection is filled with dubious characters, tough, street-wise people. But there is also an elegance to these poems, a lovely combination of tough and tender. Laced throughout the collection are poems that allude to the paintings of Caravaggio and to several mythological characters. The result is a sense of timelessness as well as immediacy. What is happening now is what has always happened.

The poems are divided into three unidentified sections, i.e., there are no section numbers or titles. The center section is a long, multi-part poem, "Bobby Almand," about the abduction, rape, and murder of a young boy. It's a mesmerizing, disturbing poem, but oddly full of beauty. The poet finds many ways to examine his subject. And the poems show a deftness that filled me with admiration. It is as if the narrator is trying to find the right form, the right words for what he needs to say. This is a poem that needs to be read, that cannot adequately be described or summarized.

The poems that lead into and follow the center poem prepare for and echo similar themes. For me, the collection has the feel of a kaleidoscope. I'm going to include two of my favorites. First, the first poem in the collection.

Acts of Disappearance

It was a world where a moose
could pull a squirrel out of his hat,

children disappeared down holes,
and the lake outside your window

could suddenly go missing.
You sip your coffee and ponder:

abduction, subduction . . .


Freud said, when we look at the sea,
something like the sea opens in us—

which might explain Scully
drowning in himself or the night

Bobby didn't make it home, and why
I feel like a slick of mud.

Freud was talking about God,
not wax-winged punks shooting up

in a three-story walk-up, not a boy
building a fort—the hammer, the needle,

the report driven hellward.


It was a trick no one showed you—
how one could turn a lung into a lake,

a boy into air, carp on their sides,
the prevalence of sinkholes.

They keep asking for more;

the sea, of course, is not endless,
it only feels that way.

And now one from the last section.


Even the sound seems clumsy,
as if the word clogs the little space
between tongue and pallet, an accident:
shattering consonant, guttural vowel.
Looks funny, too, like a jogger with
a strange gait, or an animal that might
benefit from being run over which is
about how he feels as she turns away,
retreats to her side of the bed and he lies
there, considering the error, the name
that just stumbled out of his mouth,
dumbly as the first time he asked out
a girl with blue-spiked hair, a fragrance
of old pillows, and subsequent tongue
like an iguana. So he tries adjusting
the way he once tried puzzling together
a dish, a Japanese import from Hoboken,
shard and fingertip and Krazy Glue.
Bad idea, bad as wearing a white
pair of underwear on his head to school,
bad as taking that job as a pig inseminator.
Bad as climbing Normanwood Bridge,
bad a Scott Koch backing right off,
bad as reaching, bad as touching his shoe.
O heart, O George, O jungle. O God
fumbling for the light switch, here
is your awful toy, all sense tumbling
away from him as it does from you.
What else can he do but reach for her,
as if touch could fix a wrong, and coax her
hand and mouth back to bed, a skill,
the only one he ever had.

Jim teaches at Ramapo College, not far from where I live, so I hope that he'll soon have a reading in the area and I'll have the opportunity to hear him read.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

From the Bookshelf

I've been accumulating a pile of books as I finish them. Time to put them away somewhere. But first some quick reviews. Here's what I've been reading lately.

Cage of Stars, by Jacquelyn Mitchard.
I really enjoyed this author's first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, a book that catapulted the author into fame. But this book was a total disappointment. It's about a murder committed by a schizophrenic in a Mormon community. The narrator is the sister of the victims. She witnessed the murders. Sounds like it ought to be compelling? It's not. It matters little that the family is Mormon. I suspect that the author thought a novel about Mormons might be a hot ticket. The voice of the young narrator is unconvincing, stilted, and not at all the voice of a twelve-year-old child. When her parents decide to forgive the murderer who, by the way, recovers from his single moment of schizophrenia and is released from the facility for the criminally insane and reunites with his faithful wife, I was left unconvinced. Nothing about this book rings true.

Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton, and Me, by Pattie Boyd with Penny Junor.
Surprisingly readable memoir in spite of the occasional strangely constructed sentence. Takes you behind the whole Beatles' era scene. An incredible amount of alcohol and drugs and infidelity. Music, fashion, mansions. Pattie Boyd was married to George Harrison but was wooed away by Eric Clapton. Not bad, Pattie! She was the inspiration for three great songs from the era: Harrison's "Something" and Clapton's "Layla" and "You Look Wonderful Tonight."

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, by Jonathan Harr.
I give it an okay+. I thought this hunt for a lost painting by the famous painter would have more intrigue than it did. But it was readable and I learned a bit about the art world and restoration and fraud.

Digging to America, by Anne Tyler.
I find Tyler's novels quiet but lovely and written with nice touches of subtle humor. This novel was no exception. It's about two couples, one American, one Iranian, who adopt babies from Korea. So lots of culture mixing. Raises the question of what does it mean to be American? What is that exactly? Good mixture of happy and sad. I liked it a lot.

The Best American Poetry 2007, edited by Heather McHugh.
I felt let down by this year's collection. Didn't find too much that knocked me out. Of course, there were some knock-outs. My four favorites were Elaine Equi's "Etudes," Julie Larios' "What Bee Did," Natasha Saje's "F," and Charles Harper Webb's "Big." I'll end with Larios' poem, originally published in The Cortland Review:

What Bee Did

Bee not only buzzed.
When swatted at, Bee deviled,
Bee smirched. And when fuddled,
like many of us, Bee labored, Bee reaved.
He behaved as well as any Bee can have.

Bee never lied. Bee never lated.
And despite the fact Bee took, Bee also stowed.
In love, Bee seiged. Bee seeched.
Bee moaned, Bee sighed himself,
Bee gat with his Beloved.

And because Bee tokened summer
(the one season we all, like Bee, must lieve)
Bee also dazzled.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What the Fall Hath Brought

Who says there's no foliage in New Jersey this year? It's true that our usual profusion of colors is somewhat diminished due to our dry summer which caused many trees to shed their leaves early—Goldengrove unleaving. But then we also have the occasional spot of beauty as pictured here.

I received a lovely surprise yesterday—a video of Alex Grant reading at the 2007 Oscar Arnold Young Award program. Alex won first prize for the best book by a North Carolina poet for his chapbook, Chains & Mirrors. This same collection also received the 2006 Randal Jarrell Poetry Prize. The collection is beautifully reviewed in the current issue of The Pedestal Magazine.

Chains & Mirrors is available online at Main Street Rag Bookstore.

Here's one of several ekphrastic poems from the collection:

The Steps of Montmartre

after Brassai's 1936 photograph

On the steps of Sacre Coeur
Cathedral, in that same winter
when junge leute filled Bavarian

beer-gardens, ten years before
Adorno proclaimed that there
could be no art after Auschwitz,

Brassai captured his flawless
image. Through the tunnel
formed by the parting trees,

battalions of lamp-posts advance
and retreat in the morning mizzle,
clamp chain-link handrails hard

into sunwashed cobbles. In less
than a year, the corpseless heads
on Nanking's walls will coalesce

with Guernica's ruined heart, mal
du siècle will become Weltschmerz,
and the irresistible symmetry

of a million clacking bootheels
will deafen half a continent.
The red brush never dries --

adagio leads finally to fugue,
haiku to satori, and the image
fixed in silver to remembering.

This poem also appeared in the ekphrastic issue of Poemeleon. In addition, because of editor Cati Porter's nomination, it also appears in Meridian's Best New Poets Anthology.

And now the video:

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Teaching Days

I've had two really nifty professional experiences in the last two weeks. If you've read my profile, you know that I'm a former high school English teacher and that I now work part-time (which is so much nicer than full-time!) as a poet-in-the-schools. I do short-term residencies, mostly with elementary school kids. I also do professional development with teachers. Last spring I was invited into Ridge High School in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, to give an after-school reading for the combined middle and high school English departments. That was absolutely delightful. I matched each poem up with a teaching tip, and the teachers seemed to enjoy the whole thing. Plus, their excellent supervisor bought one copy of my new book for all 40 teachers. How nice was that!

As a result of that experience, I was invited to give a six-hour workshop for English teachers at the high school, so I spent three hours with them last week and three more hours yesterday. I was so impressed that these teachers, six of them, would sign up for three hours of anything after a long day in the classroom. But I could not have asked for a nicer, more energetic, enthusiastic group. Nor could I have asked for a more ideal group. They were so smart, so interested in learning more about how to teach poetry, and so willing to try all twelve of the activities I offered them. Yesterday one of the teachers told me that she'd already used one of the previous week's activities and that it was a big success. Can't ask for better than that! Another one of the teachers is doing an independent project on how to teach poetry for a degree she is working on, so of course she was hungry for whatever I offered. Apparently the workshop is going to get an entire chapter in her project. So I'm feeling very good about that entire experience.

The other experience was also the result of last spring's department reading. The supervisor passed my name onto someone who was planning a conference for the NJ Language Arts Leadership Association, aka Lala. I was invited to give the afternoon presentation. My topic was "Poetry: A Natural Bridge to Writing K-6." My argument was that when kids read, listen to, and write poetry they become better writers, not just better poets, but better writers. I talked about the various skills poetry imparts and how those transfer to prose and what can be done to enhance the likelihood of transfer. Then I took everyone through three different poetry prompts. I was worried there might be some resistance, but there wasn't any at all. They just came alive when we started the writing. Initially, there was some reluctance to read drafts aloud, but once we got to the second prompt, the hands were flying in the air. That was an audience of fifty people who can now have some role in bringing more poetry into the classroom. Poetry is magic.

And then this morning I received a surprise email from two former students of mine. Both were in the same AP class, both fabulous kids. The girl is now married, lives in Boston, and works for the NY Times. The boy is making his living as an actor. Apparently, they got to thinking about me and decided to google me which led them to my website. It was great to have them come back into my life, albeit from many miles away. It was great to be reminded that teachers do make a difference.

I ended yesterday's session with a poem by Matthew Thorburn. I'd like to end this post with that same poem.


But it was coming down that hill,
back to the city’s prime-time sprawl
of neon, pink as her garters’ frill
peeking out from her skirt (still all
rucked up in back), and the chill
and shiver of summer giving in to fall
that I found my second, darker thrill.

Isn't that a beauty? I love its music, its brevity, its playfulness, and then that enigmatic last line. Makes me want to get out Fats Domino and dance.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Upcoming Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Even though it's almost a year away, plans for the 12th biennial Dodge Poetry Festival are well underway. Mark your calendars: Thursday, September 25 through Sunday, September 28, 2008.

The festival will again be held at the historic Waterloo Village in Stanhope, New Jersey. Those of you who have attended previous Dodge Festivals know that it's in a beautiful setting running along a river. You'll find lots of green grass, gravel pathways, and charming buildings. For as long as you are able to attend, you will feel yourself transported into another world.

The best part, of course, is the poets. The line-up so far includes Chris Abani, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Martín Espada, Ted Kooser, Maxine Kumin, Naomi Shihab Nye, Charles Simic, and Franz Wright. Many other poets will be added in the coming months. (By the way, if you've applied to read at the festival and haven't heard yet, don't panic; invitations go out as late as the spring.) Keep up to date with developments by visiting the website: Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival

Lucille Clifton is always a favorite at the festival and has been the festival's most often featured poet. Here's a poem of hers I admire.

Miss Rosie

when I watch you
wrapped up like garbage
sitting, surrounded by the smell
of too old potato peels
when I watch you
in your old man's shoes
with the little toe cut out
sitting, waiting for your mind
like next week's grocery
I say
when I watch you
you wet brown bag of a woman
who used to be the best looking gal in Georgia
used to be called the Georgia Rose
I stand up
through your destruction
I stand up

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

New Valparaiso Poetry Review

The new issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review is now online. This is one of my favorite online journals. The poetry is excellent, the book reviews abundant, interviews comprehensive, and essays thought-provoking. My only regret about the new issue is that its appearance means I'm no longer the featured poet. But the good news is that I enjoyed a lovely six months in the spotlight and the feature, including 3 poems, a book review, and an interview, will remain in the archives for all eternity. If you missed visiting, look for me at Valparaiso Poetry Review Archives.

Also on the good news side: I have a book review in this new issue. It was a pleasure to review Kathleen Flenniken's Famous, her first full-length poetry collection. This book won the 2005 Prairie Schooner Book Prize.

My review concentrates on the reasons why this collection might have been selected by the judges. Check it out: Review of Famous

To whet your appetite for the book, here's one of my favorite poems, first published in Cider Press Review:


This is solace: a bowl of shredded wheat
softened perfectly in milk and today's paper

turned to the Lifestyle section.
The Russian sub is pinned front-page down

on the bottom of the Barents Sea. I'm dipping
into "The Dos and Don'ts of Shampoo,"

the distinction between lathering and cleansing,
a drown of suds in my imagined fingers

and just like that I'm lost in the silver
of my mother's hair, back in the hospital

where she sank into infirmity, her heart foundering
and all of us helpless, standing by.

I hadn't brushed her hair since I was a girl,
or ever fed her pared fruit with my hand.

A man with an ultrasound machine
pointed to the soundless blips

and in the shadows of that small screen
we saw her trapped inside her aging body.

The divers still hear taps. If I stop to think
I'll hear them too. One hundred eighteen men

in a vessel I imagine falling
like a pearl in a bottle of green shampoo.

Here's another one I very much admire, a wonderful persona poem. This one first appeared in The Iowa Review and then was featured on Poetry Daily.

To Ease My Mind

If I woke as Mary Todd Lincoln

and if Abraham Lincoln slept next to me
like an uprooted tree, his knobby fingers

unearthed, his face a burl,
grey as a Mathew Brady photograph,

and if my country were at war,

my own cousins killing my cousins,
and I'd been told to tear the country's

damask down, shred its opulence
to bandage the wounded but

I knew it was hopeless, hopeless,
there'd be no stopping the blood

of filthy, putrid common men until
every human left had lost a child, a leg, an arm

and if I'd already given everything,

if I'd given over my grieving husband —
not without kicking and screaming —

and the birds were silent
to mark the never-ending end,

then God forgive me, perhaps I too
would turn my mind to the pleasures

of kidskin gloves adorned with pearls,
embroidered daisies and chrysanthemum

stars, white on white filigree so fine
one might believe a fairy tatted them.

I might need box upon box upon box of them
to tell me who I am.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Akhmatova and the Art of Translation

First a confession: I avoid reading poems in translation. Usually when the issue of Poetry comes that's all translations, I toss it aside. I don't think I'm a xenophobe, but I can't help feeling that there's so much poetry to read in English that I'll never get to it all. Then if I start adding translations to the pile, that pile really will become insurmountable. Plus, there's the suspicion that when I read a poem in translation I'm not getting the real poem. I feel like I'm reading it through a veil, through someone else's eyes. And yet several years ago when I was part of a group of poets and we were each handed a packets of poems without poets' names and told to select one for oral reading, I selected one in translation. That was the one I liked best. So I have this little conflict going on.

Before reading Akhmatova's poems, I read Stanley Kunitz's "Notes on the Translations." He says, "The poet as translator lives with a paradox. His work must not read like a translation; conversely, it is not an exercise of the free imagination." So the translator also faces a conflict: he must "respect the text" and at the same time "make it new." I mentioned in my last post that the collection, Poems of Akhmatova, contains only 40 poems, yet Kunitz reveals that it took five years to complete the translations! He goes on to say that "Translation is a sum of approximations, but not all approximations are equal." He points out the difficulty involved in dealing with Russian word order, of maintaining the sense and still achieving clarity. He says that the challenge is to "produce an analogous poem in English out of available signs and sounds, a new poem sprung from the matrix of the old, drenched in memories of its former existence . . ." He refers to another Russian poet, Nikolai Zabolotski, who said that translating poetry was "like rebuilding a city out of the evidence of its ruins."

Kunitz talks also about the difficulty involved in translating Akhmatova's formal poems and acknowledges that one of the sacrifices is in rendering metrical and rhyming patterns. These simply do not transfer from one language to another. So instead "of rhyme, our ear is often better pleased by an instrumentation of off-rhyme, assonance, consonance, and other linkages."

With Kunitz's wise words in my mind, I then turned to the poems. Here's another one I like.

July 1914

All month a smell of burning, of dry peat
smoldering in the bogs.
Even the birds have stopped singing,
the aspen does not tremble.

The god of wrath glares in the sky,
the fields have been parched since Easter.
A one-legged pilgrim stood in the yard
with his mouth full of prophecies:

"Beware of terrible times . . . the earth
opening for a crowd of corpses.
Expect famine, earthquakes, plagues,
and heavens darkened by eclipses.

"But our land will not be divided
by the enemy at his pleasure:
the Mother-of-God will spread
a white shroud over these great sorrows."

From the burning woods drifts
the sweet smell of juniper.
Widows grieve over their brood,
the village rings with their lamentation.

If the land thirsted, it was not in vain,
nor were the prayers wasted;
for a warm red rain soaks
the trampled fields.

Low, low hangs the empty sky,
tender is the voice of the supplicant:
"They wound Thy most holy body,
They are casting lots for Thy garments."

We can see the poet's growth here. The poem is more fully developed, more intense, more impassioned. Akhmatova now uses a good deal of dialogue. I noticed this as characteristic of her work. And obviously, this poem is political.

One more:

"Why Is This Age Worse . . . ?"

Why is this age worse than earlier ages?
In a stupor of grief and dread
have we not fingered the foulest wounds
and left them unhealed by our hands?

In the west the falling light still glows,
and the clustered housetops glitter in the sun,
but here Death is already chalking the doors with crosses,
and calling the ravens, and the ravens are flying in.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Akhmotova Mentorship

Today I finished reading Poems of Akhmatova. In my last post I said that I was afraid I might have selected the wrong text, but having read the book I now think I picked just the right one for someone with minimal familiarity with the poet's life and work. The Russian poems on the left pages that I feared would be like flies buzzing didn't distract me at all. I quickly adjusted to just reading the right-hand pages. The Introduction by Max Hayward is very readable and informative. I learned that Akhmatova was reticent in her personal life, a quality reflected in the economy of her poetry. She hated the term "poetess." So do I! Petersburg, where she spent the first sixteen years of her life, had a lasting influence on her work. The importance of place is seen throughout her poetry. She married Nikolai Gumilev, another poet, but it was not a happy marriage and ended in divorce. She was influenced by another Russian poet, Innokenti Annenski, who did for her what she would later do for Jane Kenyon. Reading his work changed hers and helped her find her own voice.

Like other poets of her day, Akhmatova was very interested in architecture. She followed the advice of Mikhail Kuzmin, who wrote the introduction to her first collection. He advised, ". . . be logical in the design and structure of your work, in syntax . . . be a skillful builder, both in small things and in the whole . . . love words, as Flaubert did, exercise economy in your means, thrift in the use of words, precision and authenticity—then you will discover the secret of a wonderful thing: beautiful clarity." That still sounds like good advice.

My collection contains only 40 poems, a good number to begin with. I also liked that they are arranged in chronological order so I could trace Akhmatova's evolution as a poet. As time went on, her poems became longer, more personal, and more political as she witnessed the upheaval in Stalinist Russia and was profoundly affected by it. She was a popular poet, on one occasion reading for an audience of three thousand people. But she was silenced and prohibited from publishing her work. Her son Lev was imprisoned, later released, then imprisoned again, and released and imprisoned a third time. After the third arrest, she burned all her papers. For a brief period she was compelled to write poems in praise of Stalin. One can hardly fault her for this with her son in prison. Later, she was permitted to travel and to again have a public life as a poet. Hayward concludes that at the end of her life she believed that she had fulfilled her destiny.

I want to include some of my favorite poems. Instead of trying to locate them on the internet, I'm going to type them in here. I want the poems to go through my eyes, into my brain, down into my heart, and out through my fingers. A total infusion.

"Heart's Memory of Sun . . ."

Heart's memory of sun grows fainter,
sallow is the grass;
a few flakes toss in the wind
scarcely, scarcely.

The narrow canals no longer flow,
they are frozen over.
Nothing will ever happen here,
oh, never!

In the bleak sky the willow spreads
its bare-boned fan.
Maybe I'm better off as I am,
not as your wife.

Heart's memory of sun grows fainter.
What now? Darkness?
Perhaps! This very night unfolds
the winter.

"Three Things Enchanted Him . . ."

Three things enchanted him:
white peacocks, evensong,
and faded maps of America.
He couldn't stand bawling brats,
or raspberry jam with his tea,
or womanish hysteria.
. . . And he was tied to me.

These two early poems were written during the years of Akhmatova's marriage to Gumilev.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Beautiful Clarity: The Poetic Mentorship

I've been thinking a lot about an article I read in the September issue of The Writer's Chronicle: "Beautiful Clarity: Jane Kenyon, Anna Akhmatova, and the Luminous Particular," by David Harbilas. Harbilas attributes Kenyon's achievement of mastery to a "never-ending apprenticeship." I was immediately drawn to this article as I have long subscribed to its premise. I think our best teachers are the ones who appear on the page before us. I read poetry for pleasure but also for information about craft. When I read a poem that stays with me, that keeps noodling my brain, I begin to ask myself how I might use that poem as a jumping-off point into a new poem of my own. What has that poet done that intrigues me? What new moves are there? I sometimes try to uncover the pattern beneath a poem, extract it, and then build my own poem on top of the pattern or skeleton. The result is never anything like the original so imitation doesn't worry me. I think it's a good thing, a way to learn and move beyond what you are already doing.

But I was also interested in the article because Kenyon went beyond using single poems to influence her. According to Harbilas, Robert Bly once paid a visit to Kenyon and Donald Hall after they moved to New Hampshire. Bly suggested that Kenyon select a single poet as a master. When she responded that she could not have a man as her master, he recommended Anna Akhmatova. Harbilas believes that in studying her new mentor's poetry, Kenyon found "an equivalent in terms of emotion, allegiance to place, and expression of the self." More importantly, she was attracted to Akhmatova's "obsession with clear and evocative language," or a "beautiful clarity." He offers this poem as an example:

Along the Hard Crest of the Snowdrift

Along the hard crest of the snowdrift
to my white, mysterious house,
both of us quiet now,
keeping silent as we walk.
And sweeter than any song
this dream we now complete--
the trembling of branches we brush against,
the soft ringing of your spurs.

I don't know why Harbilas uses a translation by someone other than Kenyon, but I've included Kenyon's translation above. He points out the rural setting, the description of that setting, the address to a loved one--all characteristics that would be found in Kenyon's work. Harbilas is most interested in the power of the images—especially in the last two lines—in how Akhmatova lets them do the work of the poem in conveying "physical joy or sexuality." Yes, I thought, how often do we not trust the image to do its work and instead jump in and tell way too much. Habilas then goes on to discuss three of Kenyon's poems which show her increasing mastery of the image, the last of which is "Let Evening Come," a poem I love.

Harbilas ends by pointing out some differences between the two poets, primarily that Kenyon never became the political poet that Akhmatova was, that her work remained more private and personal in subject matter and that she gave more attention to daily routines and weather.

So I went to the bookstore and bought a collection of Akhmatova's poetry, the one translated by Stanley Kunitz with Max Hayward. I'm not sure I'll be happy with this collection as the original poems appear in Russian on the left page and I'm afraid I will find that distracting. But I need to get to know this poet better. Since I very much like Kenyon's work, I'm hoping that I too will learn from Akhmatova.

I'm also looking ahead to another mentor. Not someone wildly experimental but someone who will stretch me in directions I haven't yet gone. Today I ordered Nin Andrews' Sleeping with Houdini, Stuart Dybek's Streets in Their Own Ink, and James Hoch's Miscreants. That should keep me busy. I hope these poets and their poems will set off a flurry of poetic activity. I also bought Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils, a collection of prose and poetry.

Who are your mentors?

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Word Slinging

Here's a poem I keep tucked in a folder I call "Poems I Like." It's by Rod Jellema.

Because I Never Learned the Names of Flowers

It is moonlight and white where
I slink away from my cat-quiet blue rubber truck
and motion myself to back it up to your ear.
I peel back the doors of the van and begin
to hushload into your sleep
the whole damn botanical cargo of Spring.

Sleeper, I whisk you
Trivia and Illium, Sweet Peristalsis, Flowering Delirium.

Sprigs of Purple Persiflage and Lovers' Leap, slips
of Hysteria stick in my hair. I gather clumps of Timex,
handfuls of Buttertongues, Belly buttons and Bluelets.

I come with Trailing Nebula, I come with Late-Blooming
Paradox, with Creeping Pyromania, Pink Apoplex,
and Climbing Solar Plexus,

whispering: Needlenose,
Juice Cup, Godstem, Nexus, Sex-us, Condominium.

I admire the wordplay in this poem, the sexiness of it. It feels romantic and fanciful. Mostly I love the musicality of it. This is a poem to first just enjoy and then study and learn from. I like the made-up words like cat-quiet and hushload. The beauty of the flower names in line 7. I'm not much of a gardener so am not sure if those are real names or made-up ones, but they are fun to say, to roll around in the mouth. What nice alliteration in Buttertongues, Belly buttons and Bluelets. And the rhyming of Paradox, Apoplex, Plexus, Nexus, Sex-us (surely this is invention!). And the playfulness of that final Condominium which makes no sense but nevertheless enchants and seduces. Wouldn't it be lovely to be that Sleeper and have someone whispering all this in your ear as you nod off?

Prompt idea: Focus on an outdoor scene, something full of nature rather than man-made objects. Brainstorm a quick column list of all you see. To the right of your list, after each word, add some related words, a made-up word, a rhyming word (or alliterative or near rhyming). Imagine an auditor. Then drawing from your word hoard, write a poem delivered very privately to that person. No one else is listening.
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