Thursday, March 27, 2014

Poem-a-Thon: Are You Up for a Challenge?

Could this be the year you take on the 30-day challenge for April? Take a look at this one from the journal, Tiferet. Your participation will help raise funds for the journal. If you see the project through to the end, publisher Donna Baier Stein will send you the gift of a free copy of The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop. Read the information here. Then send your response to:

Similar to other fund-raising marathons, you get other people to commit to a dollar amount per poem. If you complete thirty poems during April, you send the pledged amount to the journal and receive your free copy of The Crafty Poet. Then you can use that to keep on writing in the months ahead. Your poems do not need to be finished, polished poems. According to Stein, drafts are fine. And if you can't complete the challenge, so what? At least you will have tried and helped support a worthy cause.

Good luck!

Monday, March 24, 2014

A New Incarnation for "Orchids"

If you're not familiar with Nic Sebastian's The Poetry Storehouse, you must get familiar. It's a wonderful resource of poems, audios, and videos. Poets are invited to submit poems. If selected, the poems are posted at the site. The poets may then send in an audio for each poem. Nic and her team of readers may also choose to make an audio of a poem. The poem and audio are then made available for a "remix." Someone who has skill in making videos may select one of the poems and transform it into a video. The videos sometimes incorporate video clips from other sources and sometimes are made from still images. A music track is added. The result is a new version of the poem. I've viewed a number of these remixes and they are of incredible beauty.

Nic, who is a wonderful reader of poetry—she has a great voice and really captures the pulse of a poem—made an audio of my poem, "Orchids," from my book, What Feeds Us. I was delighted with that and then some days later completely thrilled with the video she made of the poem. Here's the poem:


    They are hot and moist in operation, under the
    dominion of Venus, and provoke lust exceedingly.

        —The British Herbal Guide, 1653

Such flowers must be used with discretion.
Love of them becomes obsession.

A man pursues an orchid as he once
pursued a green-eyed woman. He hunts

in Florida swamps, Thailand, and Brazil,
delirious with lust, blissed on the smell

of dust and mulch, steamy veil of moisture,
breathing pores on leaves, tessellated lure

of waxy sepals, pouched lips, and tubers,
stamen and pistil twisted together,

inflorescence of Phalaenopsis,
Vanda Sanderiana, Cryptanthus.

Dream-haunted nights—ghost, slipper, and spider,
the deep plunge to the nectar inside her.

Now take a look at what Nic did with the poem:

As if that weren't enough bountiful gift for me, another filmmaker, Paul Broderick, also chose the same poem and audio for a new video and produced a very different version, also fantastic. I'm glad I don't have to choose only one. I love them both.

Check out Paul's version:

If I were still teaching, I think it would be fun to do a lesson with the poem and videos. Ask students to read and respond to the poem. Show the two videos and ask students to compare and contrast. Then perhaps ask them to find a poem they like and make a video.

All of the videos produced by The Poetry Storehouse are available at their Vimeo page.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century
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I’ve written two sestinas in my entire life. After the first one, I thought that that would probably suffice for a lifetime. But some years later I found myself once again tackling a form I found difficult, elusive, and enticing—and more than slightly obsessive. I’d just read yet one more true crime book and wondered, as I often had, just why I found that genre so compelling. Just how depraved was my mind? Then I had a lightbulb moment: Because it always happens in someone else’s house. And thus began my second sestina, “Why I Read True Crime Books.”

I began with that first line and moved on to the next, then the next. I moved to the second stanza, putting the ending words down the right margin in the prescribed pattern. I labored hard. I stopped after a few stanzas. I put away the draft. I kept it nearby and often thought of it. Every few weeks or months I returned to it. Two years later that sestina was done. I’m not sure I have another one in me.

But I have dozens of them now before me, in the just-released anthology, Obsession: Sestinas in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Carolyn Beard Whitlow and Marilyn Krysl and published by UPNE. This is a beautifully designed book, with an elegant and eye-catching cover. I very much appreciate that the book is slightly over-sized so that each sestina fits on one page. The book includes 103 poems by 103 poets. I am happy to have my sestina included among poems by such poets as Maxine Kumin, Marilyn Nelson, Sherman Alexie, Alicia Ostriker, Kelly Cherry, Denise Duhamel, Patricia Smith, Dana Gioia, Donald Hall, and Evie Shockley. Space does not allow me to include all the names here, but trust me when I say that the list of poets is impressive.

The book is organized into eight sections: 1) Americana, 2) Art, 3) Love and Sex, 4) Memory, Contemplation, Retrospection, and Death, 5) The Natural World, 6) Sestinas about Sestinas: Metasestinas, 7) Sestinas with Irregular Teleutons, and 8) Unconventional Sestinas. The book begins with an excellent Introduction by Marilyn Krysl, includes a brief introduction before each section, and ends with an Afterword by Lewis Turco. Teachers and students of the sestina will be grateful to find an Index of First Lines, an Index of (Loosely) Metrical and Syllabic Sestinas, and an Index of Teleutons (each poem’s six repeating ending words).   

Although all of the poems are in the same form, you’ll find plenty of variety here. The poems cover a wide range of topics. Some take liberties with the form and offer surprises. Some use short lines, some use long lines, some alternate line lengths, some use indented lines. Some of the poems include rhyme and some are metrical or syllabic. Some are serious while others are playful. 
I'm enjoying this anthology so much that I'm beginning to think maybe I will try yet another sestina after all.
Here’s one of my favorites from the book. It’s by Kathryn Stripling Byer, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina. 


It’s been years since I’ve kept a garden,
the soil needing too much work. One breath
of spring, and my old dread of late freeze
comes back again. Sometimes it’s moonlight
that keeps me awake. Sometimes night sweats.
Then I feel a clamor like wings

in my throat. The most frightening sound? Wings
in the chimney or trapped in the house. Such a garden
of fears I’ve grown all my life, sweaty
stalks rising out of the muck! When I couldn’t breathe
my mother would turn on the light
and sit rubbing my back. She spooned frozen

milk into my mouth, as if she’d freeze
the dark in my throat where those wings
trembled. The trouble with light?
There’s never enough at the end. I imagine a garden
the dying walk into as they take their last breath
before the gates slam shut. These sweaty

deathbed imaginings! What good does it do me to sweat
if I’ve nothing to show for it? If I could freeze
time, I’d never forget how each next breath’s
a mystery. What keeps it going, this wing-
beat of rise and fall, first thing that out of the garden
gate Adam and Eve saw, the cold light

of their own mortality dawning? God’s light
seemed thrilling at first. They were glad to sweat
under it, tilling the soil of that first garden,
expecting good weather to last, not a hard freeze
in store for eternity. The angels dozed, wings
furled all afternoon. So silent. Scarcely a breath.

Some days the wind makes me catch my breath.
Then I’m amazed by the simplest things—light,
for example, or air, the way it’s made for wings.
I remember my father at night washing sweaty
hands, dirt spinning round in the drain. He could freeze
me with one look, God turning me out of the garden.

That garden has always been breathing its myth
down my throat, its freezing light making my palms
sweat, my arms heavy with wanting to be wings.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Poet on the Poem: Susan Rich

I am pleased to have Susan Rich as the featured poet in The Poet on the Poem.

Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Cloud Pharmacy. Her earlier books are The Alchemist’s Kitchen, named a finalist for the Foreword Prize and the Washington State Book Award, Cures Include Travel, and The Cartographer’s Tongue, winner of the PEN USA Award for Poetry and the Peace Corps Writers Award. Susan has received awards and fellowships from Artist Trust, CityArtists, 4Culture, The Times Literary Supplement of London, Peace Corps Writers and the Fulbright Foundation. Her poems have appeared in the Harvard Review, New England Review, and The Southern Review. She lives in Seattle and teaches at Highline Community College.

Today's poem comes from Susan's new book, Cloud Pharmacy.
Click Cover for Amazon
Blue Grapes

There are days made entirely of dust
months of counter-winds

            and years unbalanced on the windowsill.

The soup poured  in the same yellowed cup.

Newspapers appeared like oracles on your doorstep—
glamorous fragments of anonymous love.

            You stayed in bed, read novels, drank too much.

God visited, delivered ice cream; returned your delinquent library books.

Is it simpler after you’re dead 
to watch the living like characters on an old-fashioned TV set?

            The dying are such acrobats—

You see them ringing doorbells with their clipboards
remarking on the globes of lilacs.

            They try to lure you out; request a drink of water,
some blue grapes. This does not work.

            Then the dying leave you to yourself—

to the girl dressed in black, suffused with commas,
and question marks—

            How to write your one blue life?

DL: I’m intrigued by the form of your poem. You alternate 2-line and 1-line stanzas. Then you also alternate lines that are flush to the left margin with lines that are indented several spaces. How did you arrive at this form?

SR: I believe this poem needs the freedom to move across the page; it needs to wander.

My reason for the indentations and alterations is that for me, and perhaps for my readers, the oddness of the subject—God delivering ice cream, for example—is best represented with a physical shape that quietly signals a slightly different type of poem, different let’s say, than straight narrative. Or perhaps my reason for this choice is as simple as this: when I open a journal, my eye is immediately attracted to the poems that frame white space in startling ways.

In my collection, Cloud Pharmacy, I try out different forms for different types of poems. With “Blue Grapes,” which introduces the book, I wanted to explore an interior, surreal, landscape of loss. This unreliable, yet definite pattern emerged. At first, I was afraid that this wasn’t a poem. It arrived in fragments and I was unclear about how the parts would fit together.

I write the first few drafts of a poem in red notebooks with graph paper. My process is often very messy—this form was my way of trying to honor the messiness of thought.

DL: Punctuation seems important in this poem. You violate Richard Hugo’s prohibition against the semi-colon, you pepper the poem with em dashes, in the penultimate stanza you make reference to “commas, / and question marks,” and you include two questions. Tell us your thoughts about the role of punctuation in the poem.

SR: When I was in elementary school in Brookline, Massachusetts, in the late 1960’s, there was little emphasis placed on correct punctuation; instead, the teachers encouraged full expression. Students chose which books we wanted to read for our curriculum and created our own poetry anthologies. Fortunately or unfortunately, this means that since I did not learn the hard and fast rules of punctuation when I was young, I sometimes get into trouble when I am writing. It also means my ideas on punctuation remain fluid.

And yes, I do have a great fondness for the em dash. I’m amazed that it isn’t used more in poetry. Punctuation, like poetry, remains a bit like magic to me. So often poets seem to let go of punctuation in their poems. I prefer to use different punctuation marks for my own strange purposes. I recall Denise Levertov’s strict guidelines for how long to pause after a comma and how long to stop at the end of a line. Many of Levertov's poems were set to music, yet she was never satisfied with the scores; they didn't equate with the music she heard in her head. I offer this by way of explanation. I want to use punctuation to score the poems, to make them equate with the music inside my head.

DL: There’s a surreal element in the poem. You give us “years unbalanced on the windowsill,” newspapers that appeared “like oracles on your doorstep,” and a God who “visited, delivered ice cream; returned your delinquent library books.” How do you achieve these dream-like moments? How hard is it to trust them, to allow them into the poem?

SR: Wow, I love this question, but I want to first turn it around. The dreamlike moments are the core of the poem; they are the force of the vision I’m trying to express. I think of Elizabeth Bishop saying that what she wants while reading a poem is “to see the mind in motion.” My mind goes to the odd and the unlikely. I’ve always been interested in the juxtaposition of the quiet of morning coffee with the news of the world.  As a child the unfolding of the newspaper from itself taught me that the world was out there waiting for me to try to understand it.

Now to answer your question more directly: these “dream-like” moments come easily to me; they are the way my mind works, the way I understand the world. I find no tonal separation between the line “you stayed in bed, read novels, drank too much” and the next line “God visited, delivered ice cream; returned your delinquent library books.” In fact, I do not drink alcohol, so that first line seems more preposterous to me. Poetry works as an avenue of presences, a way to live in the world that exists beyond what we can actually know.

DL: The poem includes a line borrowed from poet Deborah Digges: “The dying are such acrobats.” The line appears just beyond the mid-point, but was it the impetus for the poem? Did it ever appear earlier in the poem? Talk about its influence on the poem.

SR:  Sometimes when I write, I find myself losing interest in a poem long before it’s done—and certainly I do abandon poems. I’m pretty ruthless when it comes to tossing out work. Other times, there’s something that I’m caught on—I’m not ready to call it quits, but I don’t know where the next handhold is hiding.

In “Blue Grapes” I used Deborah Digges’ line to catapult myself back into the work. I was reading and re-reading her book Trapeze at the time. The line arrived in the middle of the process. I think of it as the hinge pin to the poem. I worry a little that my favorite line in my poem is not mine at all. And then I remember that most useful quote by T.S. Elliott, “Immature poets imitate, mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

I love the sense that I’m able, through my poems, to have a conversation with the poets I admire, especially those who are now deceased. Shortly before I wrote “Blue Grapes,” a friend introduced me to the work of Deborah Digges and I became immediately transfixed. Her work gave me permission to try many different approaches to a poem all at once. I hear her voice as strongly lyrical interspersed with the vulnerability of grief. In a sense, I needed a bit of bravery to continue on with this poem and her line helped me find it.

DL: Beginning with the title, “Blue Grapes,” colors play a role in the poem. There’s also a “yellowed cup,” “lilacs,” a “girl dressed in black,” and finally, the “one blue life.” The poem has the feel of a still life painting. Tell us how and why you painted in the colors.

SR: I was deep into studying ekphrastic poetry when I wrote this. An emphasis on composition found its way into this piece from the work I was doing on 19th-century women photographers. Another major influence on my poetry is that I teach film studies. I’m constantly asking my students to think in images and symbols, to focus on what is seen.

The irony is that I don’t see this poem as colorful or even very cinematic. And yet I can’t disagree with you. You’ve certainly provided solid evidence to prove me wrong! I think my blindness to the poem's colors has more to do with my own understanding of the poem as coming from a supremely interior world. This particular poem felt hard-won. I’m not writing about an event or an easily identifiable feeling here. Instead, I’m trying to pry open my own sense of consciousness. What does it mean to live as a “self”?

I’m not one to write about my own life and this speaker is not me. However, I am very fond of ice cream.

Readers, please listen to Susan reading her poem, "Blue Grapes," from Cloud Pharmacy.

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