Monday, January 28, 2008

Poets on Blogging

A fellow blogger, Peter Gloviczki, has started a series of brief interviews called Poets on Blogging. His plan is to each week interview a poet who is also a blogger. Peter found me via someone else's blogroll (see, they really are useful). He then contacted me and invited me to participate. I was happy to do so as I'm interested in how blogging assists or interferes with the writing of poetry. And I'm interested in how blogging might widen the audience for poetry, something beyond just the community of poets. I think Peter did a wonderful job with the feature. He's added all kinds of links, a cover image linked to Amazon, and some very sweet comments in his introduction. So please check out Peter's What My Fingers Remember. And be sure to also read last week's interview with C. Dale Young. I'm following in some very nice footsteps.

As evidence of the growing interest in blogging, there's a panel session at this year's AWP Conference which begins this Thursday. I'll be going for the first time ever. I'm not sure how I'll manage among 7500 people (!), but since it's within driving distance of where I live, I thought this should be the year to give it a try. My publisher, Wind Publications, is sharing a table with Steel Toe Books, table #436. Stop by and say hello. I'm taking my camera, so brace yourselves. There will be photos.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Poet's Voice: Sarah Hannah

Sarah Hannah’s Inflorescence is a gorgeous poetry collection. For the cover art, Tupelo Press, known for its exquisite book designs, wisely used “Garden,” a painting by the poet’s mother, Renee Rothbein. Set against a background of rich shades of gold is a cluster of multi-colored flowers. These flowers begin at the left side of the cover and wrap around onto the back cover. A series of thumbnail family photos runs down the right side of the front cover. This fusion of painting and photos prepares the reader for the book’s interweaving of poems about strange herbs and wildflowers with those about a mother’s mental and physical decline.

While the braiding of the double strands always yields delightful surprises, there’s logic and symmetry at work in this perfectly structured collection. The groundwork is laid in the first two poems, “The Garden As She Left It” and “Common Creeping Thyme (Serpillum à serpendo).” The first poem shows a garden missing its gardener. The second has that gardener, a mother, in the hospital. Rather than receive the grim news the interns would impart, the mother shouts the names of all the herbs she can recall.

Each flower and herb is given two names—its common one and its botanical one. Hannah’s fascination with doubleness and language is reflected in the mixture of elegant formal diction with homespun phrasings. Quotations from Shakespeare blend happily with colloquialisms. “The Hutch” borrows lines from Hamlet while “Threepence, Great Britain, 1943” describes the lesson of thrift as one “that I must learn and learn darn quick.” “Common Creeping Thyme” begins with “If only it were just a lousy herb . . .” and several stanzas later mixes traditional and contemporary in “If love’s / Time’s fool, I’m full-on shmuck, lured rushing back / Two state lines on a crappy bus . . .” Similarly, “Haruspicy” likens the old world reading of entrails—the “scatter of bird bones and guts on a beach”—to the modern practice of searching for signs in “CAT scan, X ray, MRI.” And when those signs are found, “It doesn’t look good, quoth the white-coated seer.”

Duality is reiterated in Hannah’s facility with both traditional and contemporary forms. She gives us the old formal world of sapphics in “Sky Pencil (Ilex crenata)” and also offers hip contemporary rule breakers such as the double-columned “Yes, Fiddlehead Ferns Are Even Older Than the Anglo Saxon Form” and the line-numbered “First Singing Lesson Ever, at Forty.”

With her wonderful ear for the music of language, Hannah gives us the loveliness of “graceful vase of milky green,” “questions . . whorled in new leaf,” and “turquoise beads among the curling spaces, / Deepening to wine.” She performs pyrotechnics with rhyming devices, as in “Tread-softly (Cnidoscolus stimulosus)”: “The hooks go in, the rash is swift, and / There’s no poultice, only spur and spurned. / Even the milk sap burns. I’ve the urge to turn // And quit, but there’s simply no one else to do it; / No one could or would—tread softly, that is—" Again and again, the poet’s words strike the ear as well as the brain and the heart.

Sarah Hannah’s voice is distinctive and compelling. We do not doubt her when she promises in the penultimate poem “to remain, / To hide and cackle in the great dark, / Fiercely inextricable.”

Sample Poems from Inflorescence:

Blessed Thistle (Cnicus benedictus)

Let’s go ahead and bless these double crosses,
These leaves about to stick us in a hundred places;

It’s purported to protect from evil, plague, and harm,
And, according to the Bard, “it is the only thing for a qualm.”

“Get you some of this and lay it to your heart,” while
I run around and say some kind of benediction, try to smile.

Or maybe I’ll grind it, make an herbal tea called Mother’s Milk
For sale in California, or simply tear apart a thorny stalk,

Run it through my hand, draw it cross my wrist,
And make some sign, above the bed, to hold you fast—

Some auspicious symbol made of thorny English dross and blood
(To you, a dram of anything from England must be good)—

To scare away what makes you cry for help,
What makes you call out Mum! and keep

You a bit longer, breathing here with me.

An Elegy for Bells

Do you remember the sound of the old phone ringing?
A real bell in it—the rotary phone
On the upright table
Between your mother’s room and yours.
It had weight, it had recurrence–

Molecules shifting, sound propagating
Through the house, off the yellowed walls
And the iron railing. Do you remember
The ring and its aftermath, a quartertone
Higher? There are two sides to everything:

The ring and its ghost, the one
Calling and the one called.
With a strange gray receiver
At your chin you have called the house
And heard that ring—smaller,

But no less palpable; you have heard it ring
Some forty times and wondered
If she were dead or merely sleeping;
You have pictured her lying there
Letting it ring, now and then

Shouting back at it; you have pictured her there
On the edge of unconsciousness,
Gently stirred by the sound, chasing after it:
A trail of pale blue circles
In her thickening dream. You have stood

In your room, your one bag packed
(She has asked that you leave and not return)
And waited silently for it: from the next town,
The unlikely deliverance—
Your father, the police, or at least

The psychiatrist. You have ventured out
In the bald hall light only to find
A certain deadness, sometimes,
In the earpiece: the cord cut,
A crop of multicolored wires blooming

On the rug. You have taken tea in other houses,
Heard the ring, and declared it an annoyance;
After a few years of this it rang less often,
And today, in different rooms, in a lightweight
Flip-top shell, it barely rings at all;

Gone, the resonance,
The tick of modern digital tones
Completely formless, forgettable.
You miss the thunder.
There are two sides to everything:

The pain in it ringing,
And in it ringing no longer.

See also John Deming's review at Coldfront Magazine.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Poetry Residency—Part 2

Today was the last day of my two-week residency at the Lyncrest Elementary School in Fair Lawn, New Jersey. This week was just as wonderful as last week. Students learned about similes, metaphors, imagery, personification, diction, and stanzas. They learned some revision strategies and some techniques for effective oral reading of poetry. They wrote autobiographical poems in metaphors, nature poems using personification, and riddle poems. As a follow-up activity, they will have a poetry slam to which parents and other students will be invited. Students are also working with the art teacher to make visual displays of their poetry.

A student's poetry folder. Every student had one with his or her own design.

The reception in this school was astonishing and heart-warming. I had interest from the ESL teacher, from aides and resource room teachers, from the office secretary, and from teachers whose classes I did not visit. The principal sat in two classes. The district superintendent visited a class. The local newspaper sent a reporter and a photographer. The students were very enthusiastic and wrote amazing poems. The teachers whose students I worked with were welcoming and warmly appreciative. Today they invited me to be their guest at lunch. The principal gave a lovely talk and then so did my wonderful contact teacher, Deborah Kempin, who beautifully made all the arrangements for the residency. She presented me with a magnificent bouquet. Lovely from start to finish.

Poetry lines the halls of the school. The above is in the front hallway. Walls outside of classrooms are filled with poems.

My beautiful bouquet

My bouquet on my fireplace at home

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Poetry Residency

This week and next I have a poetry residency at the Lyncrest Elementary School in Fair Lawn, NJ. I knew it was going to go well when I entered the building and saw the above sign. It's nice to be welcomed that way. This is a challenging residency because I'm working with three different grade levels—third, fourth, and fifth. So there's a good deal of juggling of lesson plans, plus the usual moving from room to room. So far I've only shown up at the wrong room twice. But it's all going really well. The teachers in this school are very friendly and enthusiastic. They all pay attention to what I'm doing and some of them also join in on the writing. I wish all teachers would do this as it's wonderful for the kids to see their teachers participating.

The kids are so excited about poetry. One boy today came up to me after class and said, "Wherever did you learn all those words?" He was quite impressed with my vocabulary in the poem I read. When I first started working as a poet-in-the-schools, I didn't feel comfortable reading my own poems to the kids. But now I try to read at least one of mine as it seems to get the kids very interested in me, my work, and poetry. It generates a lot of energy. So far all classes have written two poems. We've got poems about roses in a multitude of colors, outdoor image poems, and poems about fruits and vegetables. And more to come next week. Then I will lay low for a week and take lots of naps.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Metube and a Poetry Festival

In my last post I suggested that we could all pitch in and help in a variety of ways to build the audience for poetry. One of my suggestions was that you hold a poetry festival for literary journals. And I mentioned that I've done this for the past four years. That festival includes twelve journals, most from New Jersey but some also from New York and Pennsylvania. I invite the editors and then ask each of them to invite two poets who have appeared in the journal. So we end up with twenty-four poets. The editors set up their tables in the reference area. They provide subscription and submission information and their journals are available for purchase.

In a separate area, the Community Room, readings are held throughout the four-hour event. Each poet reads two poems. Poets who have books put them in the book sale area which is manned by library volunteers. There is also a freebie table where people can place bookmarks, fliers, workshop information, and so on. We get around 250 visitors each year and a goodly number of journals and books are sold. There's no budget for this, so everybody does their thing without an honorarium. For the editors it's an opportunity to get their journals some attention. For the poets it's an opportunity to give back to the journals that have supported their work. Everybody seems to have a good time.

I've been learning how to make movies with iMovie. I don't have a video camera, so I've been making slideshows with photos. Below is one of my early efforts, photos from last year's festival. It's perhaps not the best movie ever made, but it will give you a sense of the festival.

I've noticed some loss of quality results when uploading to Google Video and then downloading into blogger. Any tips? Like don't use pink for titles. I used Google rather than YouTube because the latter only accepts 100MB while Google provides you with a link that allows you to upload larger videos.

So get some popcorn, pull up a chair, and enjoy (just two minutes).

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Widening the Audience for Poetry

If you're a poet and you're thinking about New Year's resolutions and if you've ever complained about the minimal audience for poetry, why not determine to do a few things to increase the audience. Sometime ago, with the assistance of several of the poets on the Wompo list, I compiled a list of easy activities that poets can do to spread the good word. I've done #1 for the past four years and have recently organized a #12 called Girl Talk: A Women's Poetry Reading, to be held on March 15.

Widening the Audience for Poetry

1. Hold a Poetry Fair or Festival at your local library or on the campus where you teach.

2. When teaching a poetry class at a college, university, or conference, use books from living and recently published poets.

3. If you are associated with a press, reach out to professors and teachers. Move beyond English teachers.

4. Make use of local book groups. Check your local bookstores and libraries for a list of book groups and what they are reading. Contact such groups and offer to give a poetry reading and discussion. Consider dispensing with a fee but instead ask that each member purchase and read your book ahead of time.

5. Create a Poetry Gift List. See Kelli’s holiday list as an example (Find November 25, 2006.) Give books of poems as birthday, holiday, or hostess gifts. It’s another avenue to share the work of favorite poets with others. Post on your blog.

6. Host an at-home salon to promote the work of a poet you know, perhaps for a new book. Invite guests outside the usual circle of poets. Mingle the arts.

7. Grab whoever is around you and take them to poetry readings/events. You might be surprised by the result.

8. Get poetry on the media whenever you can—tv reading, radio reading and/or interview.

9. Try to get your local newspaper to run some poetry and some poetry articles. It’s possible that if you send something, the editor will be interested. If you’re feeling ambitious, ask the editor if he/she would be willing to let you run a weekly or monthly poem feature. You could add commentary, but not required. Think Ted Kooser.

10. Try the above with magazines that typically don’t run poetry. Let’s let the editors know that poetry is relevant in contemporary American society.

11. If you have a blog, post poems and see if you can get some non-poetry blogs to link to your poetry entries.

12. Plan and host a themed reading at your local library, eg, for Women’s History Month. Ask each poet to bring as many followers as possible, plus at least one person who has never been to a reading.

13. Create an email list of your friends and acquaintances who are not poets and occasionally send them all a poem.

14. Take your excess journals to your doctor’s or dentist’s office. Leave them on the table.

15. Print poems on small squares of paper and tape onto mirrors in public bathrooms. Leave a stack on the desks at your library. Think of other places.

16. Those who teach—invite your colleagues from different departments to join you at a reading. Send them poems related to their field of study.

17. Place "Poetry in Public Places"—bumper stickers, postcards, buses, bookmarks, t-shirts.

18. Put poems on posters and place them in stores. Put them in your local library. Put them wherever you find bulletin space available.

19. If you live in an apartment building or condo complex, stalk the manager or president until she agrees to hold an annual poetry reading in the lobby or community room. Make it a poetry party.

20. Organize a poetry run. See Kelli’s blog for photos and details. (Go to June 13, 2007)
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