Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I'm Reading: Seam by Tarfia Faizullah

67º ~ overcast, slight breezes ~ two massive wind storms blew through in the past 48 hours ~ lost one robin chick, put the remaining two back in the nest (scraggly, down-covered) and they are both thriving

A few posts back, I asked some questions about poetry of witness. On Saturday, I took Seam by Tarfia Faizullah out of my AWP box and started to read. From the first poem, I realized that this book would provide not only beautiful poetry, but some answers to my questions as well.

Seam was the 2013 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry - First Book Award winner and came out last year. I'm glad I held off buying it online and waited for AWP, as I happened to bump into Tarfia Faizullah at the Crab Orchard table and was able to have her sign my copy.

I had read a few of these poem in journals prior to the book coming out, but I didn't know that the entire book was an exploration of the 1971 civil war that resulted in East Pakistan becoming the independent nation of Bangladesh. In the book, Faizullah, born in the US to Bangladeshi parents who had immigrated in 1978, takes on as her main subject the lives of the "Birangona," the over 200,000 Bangladeshi women raped by Pakistani soldiers (often kidnapped and held captive to be repeatedly raped and otherwise abused over the course of the war). In the book, Faizullah sets herself up as the "interviewer" and talks about traveling to Bangladesh as an adult to research the war through which her parents and grandparents had lived.

In thinking about my questions of poetry as witness, here is what I noticed, in no particular order:

~ Faizullah has a direct connection to the horrors she explores (is this direct connection necessary?)
~These do not appear to be persona poems, but autobiographical journeys. The "I" here seems to "be" Faizullah, at least in relation to the information provided in her author's note.
~ Faizullah does not preach or provide answers; instead, she questions and makes herself vulnerable to the answers.

In terms of the book, there are layers of tension here. The tension of a first-generation American returning to the homeland of her parents. The tension of the war and its atrocities, particularly against women. The tension between generations as Faizullah references herself, her mother, and her grandmother. The tension between genders, as the women who suffered through the war were then celebrated by the Bangladeshi government but ostracized by their own family, friends, and communities. All of these tensions are expressed through a wonderful repetition of key images throughout the book:

seams (as in what holds us together, as in a vein of something precious and hidden, as in what has the potential to be ripped open and exposed)
twining (a way of binding hair, the wrapping of a sari around the body, a sense of connection to family or to the land)
green (lushness, tropical, fecund, humid, omnipresent)

Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of Faizullah's amazing gift of imagery and the line.

from "Reading Willa Cather in Bangladesh":

Each map I have seen
of this country obscures:
each blue line, each emerald

inch of land cannot claim
such cloudy veins, these
long porous seams between

us still irrepressible--

(I hope you stopped and read that passage out loud. Not only are the images revelatory, but also the sounds.)

from "Interviewer's Note" part i:

You walk past white high-rises 
... .                             Past smoke
helixing from an untended fire.
Past another clothesline heavy
with saris: for hours they 
will lift into the wind, hollow
of any bruised or broken body.

And, finally, here is the beginning of "Interviewer's Note" part v:

But wasn't it the neat narrative
you wanted? 

This question smacked me right between the eyes in terms of a poetry of witness. We want to create a "neat narrative" out of pain and suffering. We want to create art out of something hellish and terrifying, but that "neatness" is always suspect, always pulled against and apart by the seam underneath, the seam that makes us ask time and time again: how could one human being do that to another?

And so, I'm thankful once again, that I've come across the right book at the right time, and I'm thankful to have these poems, these beautiful, gut-punching poems.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

What I'm Reading: Dear Mark by Martin Rock

58º ~ a bizarre cold front spreads quite a chill for late May ~ windows open, seated with blankets

One of the best things about attending AWP each year (the annual conference for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) is the "chance encounter," when a writer who knows a writer you know and are talking to joins the conversation and your circle of friends widens.

Just such an encounter took place at the Hilton bar in Minneapolis this past April as I was having drinks with my poet-friend Traci Brimhall. Her friend, Martin Rock showed up and introductions were made. Later, in the book fair, I ran into Martin at the Gulf Coast table, as he is currently pursuing at PhD at the University of Houston, home of Gulf Coast. In our conversation, I learned about Martin's chapbook, Dear Mark, published in 2013 by Brooklyn Arts Press. Happily, I made my way to the BAP table and purchased a copy.

This chapbook finds its inspiration in the paintings of Mark Rothko, and each poem is titled after one painting. In addition to the title, each poem is preceded by a line drawing of the "blocks" included in said painting. Everything is black and white, so these outlines simply serve as reference points.

I have to say that I have little experience with ekphrastic poetry, finding it quite difficult to use a piece of art (created by someone else) as inspiration. When I've tried, I've mostly ended up with poems that "report" the elements of the piece of art. Not so with Martin Rock's poems in this book. I read the first 3/4 of the book away from the computer, and thus away from looking at the original Rothko images. The poems all held up. As an experiment, I read the last 1/4 of the book with each painting up on my screen as I read the poems. This was interesting, as I could often see the gate into the poem provided by the painting, but once I was into the poem, I only glanced back at the image on the screen now and again.

What impressed me most about these poems is the incredible attention to line breaks. The poems are all free verse and employ many different strategies in stanza breaks and justification. The form of each poem is organic and one can sense how each form mirrors the content of the individual poem. And then there are the line breaks. Here are just a few examples of line breaks that took the top of my head off.

First, from the opening poem and opening lines of "No. 5 / No. 22, 1949":

In the mustard sky
                    clouds have gathered
       inside a box

of Plexiglas.

OK, look at that again. We read the first two lines and think "a description of the sky, weird color, but a sky." Then, as we move into line 3, with no end-stop to prevent us falling into the phrase "inside a box," we get the surprise that the sky is not the actual sky, but an artificial one. The enjambment between lines 2 and 3 is crucial to the artifice that will permeate the rest of the book.

This happens again in "No. 61, Rust & Blue, 1953," only this time, Martin uses run-ons to enhance the enjambed lines and heighten the sense of ideas merging.

Down the path, a barn has left its lights on.
       We're lying on the red clay & it is cold
against my cheeks & eyes the barn
        atomic in the distance. Families are huddled
in partitions underground I fear
        we're one of them.

Now, usually when I see "wonky" syntax like this, I get easily frustrated by a poet taking unnecessary shortcuts. But, in Martin's case, these run-ons are integral to the meaning evoked by the poem (there is a sense of dangerous science & technology, a sense of a dangerous future waiting throughout the book). Look at the opening line. It is a straight-forward sentence. There is order in the world (even as we understand this is a moment of dis-order, because of the note about the lights). Then, we read through lines 2 & 3, getting that the cold clay is touching the speaker's face, but then this is blurred with the barn, seen at a distance and appearing "atomic" as it is illuminated in the dark. The barn is dangerous. This is reinforced by the underground bunker idea and the run-on in line 5. There are slightly different meanings, depending on where one reads the run-on.

Families are huddled in partitions underground, I fear.
We're one of them.

Families are huddled in partitions underground. I fear
we're one of them.

This muddled syntax heightens the reader's sense of fear and danger, even though it only takes us a moment to understand the meaning of the lines.

And I'll leave you with the opening of "No. 43, Mauve, 1960."

Forbearance is no longer a word
                     than is ascoliasm, in which medieval
      children beat each other to tatters.

This kind of break causes me to stop and write "wow" in the margin. If we read only the first line, we get the idea that "forbearance" is no more. Then, as we continue to read, we realize "no longer" has a different meaning all together. So cool. Of course, as you read the rest of the poem you realize that the whole poem is about patience & restraint versus wildness. And all of this suggested by an abstract painting built of blocks of color. So cool.

And I would probably not have learned of this book, without that "chance encounter" at AWP in April. So very cool.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Readings, Appearances, and Loose Ends

68º ~ overcast skies, spring thunderstorm season is hear, dew points edging into unbearable territories, the robin parents are busy feeding the young in the nest outside my window

With final grades turned in over a week ago, I'm wondering why I have a week's gap in blog postings. Taking a look at my calendar reminds me why.

Every year I see the turning in of grades in May as the end of the semester and the beginning of SUMMER. I also see this day as the moment I should launch myself 100% into the writing life. Every year, it seems, I forget that May is full of loose ends, and this year those loose threads are compounded by my job transition.

Other teachers and professors will recognize that my calendar, post-graduation day, is filled with nothing but doctor appointments and household maintenance tasks. These are all the things pushed back in the hectic days of the spring semester.

However, mixed in with these for the past week have been two poetry events. Yay.

On Friday, the 15th, I had the pleasure of reading for and talking with a creative writing class at the Arkansas School of Mathematics, Sciences, and the Arts in Hot Springs, AR. James Katowich, an old friend and stellar teacher, invited me down for the last day of classes there. I have to say that the students were incredibly attentive, given that I stood between them and lunch, as well as between them and declaring the last day of classes over. While I read from all three of my books, I have to say that the sickly speaker (aka The Alchemy of My Mortal Form) resonated well with these students. As this book is so new for me, I'm always happy when it finds a welcome audience.

That welcome audience was repeated on Saturday, the 16th, when I did a book signing at WordsWorth Books in the Heights. WordsWorth is a great independent bookstore in Little Rock that happens to also be only a few blocks from my house. I love all the folks who run the place, so it made me happy to sell a nice number of copies of Alchemy there. Signings are a different beast than readings. In this case, I had about an hour an half at the bookstore, and somehow, my friends managed to arrive in a perfectly spaced distribution. I never felt rushed to get through signing and talking with one friend, but I never had long stretches of empty time either (although that wouldn't have been so bad since I was stationed in the arts section).

My next event with the sickly speaker will be in Fayetteville at Nightbird Books (another great independent) on June 4th at 7:00!

Now, about those loose ends. When I haven't been at health appointments or waiting for the bug man to come and spray, I've been working on extricating myself from PTC and entangling myself at the University of Central Arkansas, where I'll be joining the faculty of the Arkansas Writers MFA Program and the Department of Writing this coming fall. Having been at PTC for a decade, I had no idea how time consuming this process would be. However, I'm thrilled to be taking my teaching to the next level, so I'm not too bothered by forms, meetings, and the physical removing of objects from one office as I look forward to moving into a new one.

And that, dear reader, is where I'll be for the rest of this morning. Soon, though, the summer will begin in earnest and with it, glorious, uninterrupted days of writing.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Poetry of Witness: What is My Responsibility?

68º ~ soggy, all is soggy ~ 3 inches of rain in 2 hours overnight, lightning & thunder, true torrents

In the aftermath of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form, my poem drafts have taken quite a journey. I started with the angry sisters and from there I've branched into writing prose poems in a series I'm calling "Chain of Evidence." All of these poems have to do with missing, exploited, or murdered children, some very young, some nearing adulthood.

In part, these poems arose because last fall was the 25th remembrance of the abduction of Jacob Wetterling from St. Joseph, MN, where I was then just beginning my undergraduate years at the College of St. Benedict. This terrible anniversary coincided with the reports of a missing toddler from Searcy, Arkansas; Malik Drummond has not been found, and every time I stop for gas, his picture stares back at me from the pump's video display. And of course, this is Arkansas so news of the West Memphis Three is always in the air, and along with it the murders of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers, and Michael Moore.

There are so many of these stories it is almost too much to bear.

So, I found myself writing about all of the people whose lives are touched when a child is taken, never to be heard from again or discovered dead. Some of the poems are about those closest to the child, and some are from the point of view of bystanders or children who live several towns away who have heard the stories.

I'm tackling a new form with these poem, the prose poem, and that brings doubt enough; however, these are also poems of witness and with them comes a question of responsibility, a question of rights, really.

Do I have the right to write these poems? How do I avoid sensationalizing the events, something that I would consider a true horror were my reader to feel it? How do I treat the victims with respect? And, ultimately, what is my purpose? Why am I driven to this material? Is there something in it for me, attention or a feeding off the voyeurism of our society in such cases, that I should reject?

Why do I feel hesitant to write these poems? Is it because I do not have first-hand experiences with such atrocity? Should these poems only be written by people who have suffered this kind of catastrophic and on-going loss?

These are all the questions I'm wrestling, even as I hear new lines in my head and open my journal to draft.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

MOOC Experience: How Writers Write Poetry 2015

68º ~ high clouds leftover from last night's storms ~ trees and eaves dripping, shedding the last of the rain ~ birdsong ~ swish of tires on wet roads

This morning I've been luxuriating in the freedom that arrives after final grades are posted. This freedom allows me to do the things I've pushed to the bottom of my priorities for the last month, and today, that means actually starting the University of Iowa MOOC: How Writers Write Poetry 2015.

For those unaware, MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. These are free courses hosted at major universities or by private groups. They offer online content, usually in the form of videos supported by discussion boards and sometimes quizzes and assignments. A person may sign up and participate to receive a certificate of completion or the like, and that means doing all of the assignments. Or, a person may sign up to absorb the content but not participate in assessments or assignments (therefore not "earning" official completion). I'm the latter.

How Writers Write Poetry 2015 is a repeat, with new content, as the same course was offered in 2014 with a huge following. While the course began on April 13th, this is the first I've been able to devote any time to it. I'm so glad that I threw caution to the wind and signed up. I say "threw caution to the wind" because I'm well aware of how hairy the spring semester gets toward the end, and I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to give the course much time in April-early May. Still, by signing up, I now have access to the material and have gone back to the beginning.

This morning I watched the videos for Week 1: Notebooking, Sketching, Drafting and Week 2: Form and Content. I already knew I wasn't going to participate in the quizzes or discussion boards, so I could simply watch the videos and take notes for my own enjoyment.

In Week 1, we heard from Lia Purpua, Kate Greenstreet, and Robert Hass about how writers generate material. Of the three, I'm probably closest to Purpua's approach, having my handwritten journal ever at the ready and collecting scraps throughout the day to stuff between the pages.

I was a bit surprised by Greenstreet's process of using a single Word doc to collect all of her scraps. Each morning, she transcribes whatever she's scrawled on notecards and receipts and such from the day before, "stirring the new fragments" into the document. Then, she reads over the document until something coalesces into lines for a poem. There's a lot of cutting and pasting in a new document.

I confess, I've always championed the idea of writing generative material by hand (Purpura's message as well), but I'm now intrigued by the digital form of journalling that Greenstreet accomplishes.

Hass had more to say on simply generating lines and getting to drafting. He began with Mallarme's saying about poetry not being made of ideas but of words, which was a great reminder for me as I'm back to square one in terms of writing. I'm in search of my next obsession, and I need to go back to the words.

This dovetailed beautifully into Week 2, in which we heard from Mary Jo Bang, Carol Light, and Carl Phillips. Bang reminded me that "all sound carries weight," and that the best poets have an intimate knowledge of the weight of individual sounds within words, within lines, within stanzas, and within the whole. She also reminded me about the vital element in poetry: repetition. Of course I know all of this, but it's good to re-touch that base.

Then, Carol Light, a poet with whom I'm not familiar but will now be investigating, got me back to the words. She talked about "sonic association" and how she drafts from a "word cloud," very similar to my own word banks. However, instead of mining other writing for words, she builds her clouds on sonic associations. So, she takes the line that strikes her (that inspiration) and then she riffs on building word chains that are only sonically related. She resists the temptation to create a narrative at the beginning and instead focuses on linguistics. She PLAYS. She creates words associated by consonant pairs and rhyme reversals and by drawing out the unaccented syllables. An example she gave was this list: shipreck to recreate to creation to ration. When she's built a long list of words in her "cloud," then she reads out loud again and again letting her mind make connections and associations. Here, she finally lets narrative and meaning enter the picture. Again, this is very similar to my own methods, but it gives me a new twist to try out.

Finally, Phillips explicated two poems to show how their form on the page reflected their content. I was most struck by what he had to say at the beginning of his segment, that there has to be a reason a poem looks the way it does on the page. It isn't finished until it has found its final form. He mentioned the idea of liking couplets and "neat" tercets because they made a poem look "finished" on the page; they made a poem look "well dressed." But, now he is suspicious of gravitating to these two forms too quickly because they might hide a poem's flaws. Wow!

As I watched and took notes, I was also thinking about my role as instructor. I do not know that the videos will be available once the course closes on June 1, but I hope they will be. There are some gems here that I'd love to share with future students.

For now, there's a lot to process here, and Monday, the administrators will post Week 5, so I've got some more catching up to do.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

What I'm Reading: Encantado by Donna Vorreyer with art by Matt Kish

78º ~ a full week of sun and now chances rise again for thunderstorms in the heat of the afternoons, spring is holding on this year ~ the robins have returned to build a nest in the same notch in the tree outside my window that they've used in previous years, must be their second clutch, don't want to think of the fate of their first nest

I turned in my last section of grades last night at 10:00 p.m., and then I slept the sleep of the righteous and the just. This morning I woke to a few nagging emails from students, but even that couldn't detract from my excitement about SUMMER. For me, summer is not "time off." Instead, it's "game on" time for reading and writing, and I'm starting with my AWP box pictured above. Yes, I had and have acquired books before and after AWP. Yes, they are scattered all over the mess that is my home office. Perhaps because the AWP books are tidy and contained, I gravitated there first.

This morning, I spent a good long while with that bright pink & aquamarine gem at the top of the box: Encantado by Donna Vorreyer with art by Matt Kish, published this year by Red Bird Chapbooks. Donna and I are friends via Facebook, blogging, and AWP. Matt and I became virtual friends when he was working on doing a drawing for every page in Moby Dick, a project that later became a book with Tin House Press.

Encantado is a chapbook, which was a great choice this morning as I get back into reading collections of poetry. The word "encantado" comes from Brazilian folklore and means a mythical, often shape-shifting creature, most often that of the freshwater dolphins that live in the Amazon River. These dolphins, botos, are pink. Yes, pink, and they caught Donna's attention when she was visiting Peru in 2002 (according to her note at the back of the book). Donna took the idea of the shape-shifting dolphin from folklore, most often a male dolphin taking the shape of a man to either seduce or kidnap young women, to create the narrative arc of this chapbook. Woven within her poems are amazing images drawn especially for the collection by Matt.

All of the poems in the collection feed the story of a girl/young woman, who is rebellious but also abused and threatened by her father. She develops a relationship with a boto/encantado. However, the poems are not all told from her point of view. Instead, there are omniscient, third-person poems alongside first-person poems from the point of view of the young woman, the encantado, the father, and the mother. This mix provides a multi-layered story, given the short amount of space given in a chapbook, 17 poems in all. The art both illustrates and adds to the story with 11 pages of graphics.

Encantado opens with a prose poem, "Rebellion," in which the girl came of age and "the women of the village warned about the boto, how it took the form of a man at night, how looking straight into its eyes would bring nightmares without end. This was enough to convince her she must try." [Notice that refusing to mind characteristic, key to most fairy tales and folklore.] Then, the book unfolds with free verse poems that provide the story. The book closes with another prose poem titled, "The Real Story." I love this bookending of the story and how even with "The Real Story," we are still unraveling more of the life of this character.

I recommend this book for both the poetry and the art. It's a delight, cover to hand-stitched cover.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

And the winner is...

65º ~ glorious spring weather, all the trees in some state of leafing

And the winner of the free copy of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form is...

Lindsey Martin-Bowen!!!

Here's a screenshot of the random number generator selecting comment #8

Thanks to all who commented. 

If you commented and didn't win, remember that I have a launch sale on the book going on through April 9th. Hover over this image and click on "buy online" for details. All are welcome to partake, whether you entered the drawing or not.

If you are in the Little Rock area, I'm doing a signing at WordsWorth on Saturday, May 16 from 1:30 - 3:00 and would love to see you there. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Launching The Alchemy of My Mortal Form with a Free Copy

65º ~ Arkansas has turned blustery for spring~here's hoping the warmer temps return in a hurry

Life has been about as crazy as it gets for April at the desk of the Kangaroo: National Poetry Month, AWP, the end of the spring semester grading, and the launch of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. 

So much has happened, I can't begin to summarize it all. Suffice it to say that Trio House Press did a fine job of launching the book at AWP. I have to give super props to Tayve Neese, Dorinda Wegener, Issa Lewis, Sara Lefsyk, and Terry Lucas for knowing how to make a poet feel special. The book turned out to be as beautiful an object as I ever hoped it could be, and it received a warm welcome in Minneapolis. Wahoooooza.


Leave your name in the comments between now and Saturday night (April 25, 2015) for a chance to win. Be sure to include a way for me to get in touch with you if you aren't on Blogger. On Sunday, April 26, 2015, I'll use a random number generator to select the winner. Comments will be numbered in the time order they are made. **Note: I have spam blocker on. Just leave one comment. It won't show up until I've cleared it as being "not spam." Only one post per person will be posted for this giveaway. Check back on Saturday night to be sure your comment is there.

For those interested in ordering already, just hover over the image below and click on "buy online" when it appears in the middle of the image. There's a special launch price of $13.00. That price will evaporate on May 9, 2015. Hurry, Hurry, Hurry!

*If you'd rather pay by check, simply email me at sandy(dot)40(dot)longhorn(at)gmail(dot)com.


Sunday, March 29, 2015

Whirlwind Spring Break

67º ~ sunny end to a thrilling (if tiring) Spring Break 2015

With the advent of Spring Break one week ago, I found myself face to face with teetering towers of business papers, books, pamphlets, journals, etc. This happens every spring. I tend to get so caught up in teaching and writing that I just keep tossing whatever arrives onto my desk, trying to keep the most pressing matters toward the top, trying to keep pressing on with the grading, the reading, the writing, etc. This year, my piles of paper were even more exciting with the arrival of The Alchemy of My Mortal Form.

My wonderful editor, Tayve Neese, at Trio House knew I had several events over the break, and even though the book was not supposed to debut until AWP, Tayve made arrangements for me to receive a box early. THP has been nothing short of stellar in the process of bringing this book into the world.

**Note, I will not have my stock of copies to sell here on this site until around April 15th. If you aren't going to AWP, where the book will be available at the THP table (#240), watch this space for a big announcement for when you'll be able to buy directly from me.

On Tuesday of the break, I made the short drive to Searcy, Arkansas, to visit with Dr. Nick Boone's poetry writing students at Harding University. Talking with students about poetry and the writing life is one of my favorite things to do. These type of events often involve a kind of organic "reading" and "Q&A" smushed together, which highlights the best of teaching and public reading for me. Dr. Boone has invited me to Harding several times in the past, for which I'm grateful, and this time, he particularly wanted me to talk about persona poems via the new book. While others have heard the poems read in public in the past; this was the first official cracking of the spine. Delightful.

On Thursday, I flew to Raleigh, NC. First, I had the pleasure of appearing in Al Maginnes' American Lit class at Wake Technical Community College. Again, this became a loose reading with commentary on the writing life and with questions from the students. Even though it was Friday and the students had a paper due, there was a full house of bright faces. Al managed to snap this picture where I prove once again that jazz hands (or hand in this case) are essential to teaching.

Al and I are both alums of the MFA at the U of Arkansas and via poetry and mutual contacts have become poetry siblings. Al and his wife Jamie graciously open their home to me when I'm in the area and I have the added pleasure of spending time with their dynamo of a daughter.

Thanks to Jamie for grabbing this picture of Al & me at brunch on Saturday before I went on to my next event.

Richard Krawiec (aka Jacar Press aka the publisher of book #2, The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths) has begun hosting a series of workshops in the Raleigh, NC, area in which two writers appear, each presenting a 90-minute workshop to a group of around 25 awesome and engaged writers. I did an exercise on how to use fairy tales as inspiration for new poems and fodder for creating original, personal mythologies. Betty Adcock then schooled us all in revision. (I'm pretty sure that Betty has more poetic knowledge in her left pinky finger than I have in all ten fingers together.) After the workshops (which are given for a very reasonable fee), there is an open reading. I was thrilled to be paired with Betty and to have a chance to meet this rock star poet in person.

Betty Adcock and me (hyped up on my first authentic Turkish coffee)

Thanks to those who helped make the workshop possible, to those who took pictures, and to those who attended. It was a fantastic day.

And biggest thanks to Chuck West who holds down the household while I'm away and tries to reassure the cats that, no, I haven't been eaten by a bear. It's always great to come home to you!

I am safehome now with my feet kicked up, thankful for this amazing life I live and all of the opportunities that have come my way recently (opportunities I worked quite hard to create and of which I'm proud, thank you very much). I'm just realizing that this whirlwind Spring Break has been a great pre-cursor to AWP, which is coming up in just 10 days.

In the meantime, there will be grading and prepping to accomplish and I'm certain even more paper will enter my life one way or another. Amidst it all, there will be poetry. Always, poetry.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Draft Notes: A Prose Poem?

47º ~ yesterday's bright sun obscured by heavy clouds bearing rain from the gulf, 30% of the snowcover remains, all manner of yard birds congregate and feed

Shhhhhhh, dear reader, I may have written the barest draft of a poem today, a prose poem no less. Shhhhhh, let's not startle it out of existence.

Here's some photographic evidence of the journey.

To elaborate: I have been obsessed with a topic of late, unsure how to proceed. Poetry didn't seem to be working, so I thought maybe it was time for a short story or a novel. I've spent quite a few hours lately making false starts, which may explain my silence here.

This morning seemed like a new beginning in a lot of ways. I'm finally feeling a little bit healthy (but I've said that before, so knock wood), and I got to collage a new journal yesterday, since my most recent one has been filled. With the new "green&brown" journal at hand, I started with the idea of doing an erasure, without thinking of any subject matter at all. I recently finished reading the latest issue of Orion, so I flipped to the first page and started circling phrases and words at random, but in an order that would create meaning, thinking of a linear erasure poem. That failed. Utterly. Next, I flipped to "It's Natural" by Julia Alvarez, the lead essay in the Lay of the Land section. This time, I just skimmed the article, circling away at any and all words & phrases that seemed concrete and interesting. After I finished with the article, I picked a phrase as a starting point and drew arrows to connecting words. (If you are familiar with how I use word banks in my journal, you will see the similarity.) And thus began the poem, a prose poem nonetheless, and on the subject of my current obsession. Who knew?

In the house of charm swept into a vase, yet another old aunt is taking notes...

The only words I added to this are "In the" and "is." The segments would be ... house of | charm  | swept into a vase | yet another old aunt | taking notes.

I've written the occasional prose poem in the past, but I was a bit surprised when the draft came out this way, so I got out my Allison Benis White and an Oliver de la Paz to refresh myself on prose poems. I also posted a question on prose poems to a group on Facebook for more feedback. I do confess that after the first full sentence formed from Alvarez' essay, I then began drafting on my own adding some of my circled words here and there, generating most of the remaining text myself. Sometimes, a poet just needs a push-start.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Readings & Signings & Events...Oh My!

52º ~ constant percussion of roof melt accompanies a bright sun, we rebound

Well, friends, while I was sleeping these past two and a half months due to ill health, a gazillion events have been planned. I sat down this morning to organize my calendar and almost fell off my chair. Yes, The Alchemy of My Mortal Form is now listed on Amazon and is available for purchase there; however, it will be about a month before I have my author copies to sell, since the official launch of the book will be at AWP (April 9 - 11). If you want to order from me, wait for an announcement on this page after AWP, around April 13th. If you want to attend a reading or signing, here are some places I'll be.

March 28th, I'll be in Raleigh to do a workshop for Jacar Press. I'll have copies of Blood Almanac and The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths there. No Alchemy though. The workshop is sold out, but there will be a reading afterward with Betty Adcock and me. Details here.

Thursday, April 9 2:30 - 3:30 - signing copies of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths at the Gazing Grain Press table at the George Mason University Booth.

Thursday, April 9  7 - 9 p.m. - Trio House off site, details to come

Saturday, April 11  Noon - 2 p.m. Signing at Trio House Press table 240.

Saturday, April 18, 7 p.m.  Impossible Language reading at Story Booth in Memphis, TN, with Angie Macri, and John Reed 

Saturday, April 25, Arkansas Literary Festival poetry panel / reading, time and place to be announced

Saturday, May 2, possible reading in Fayetteville AR, watch for details

And somewhere in there, I need to have my official Little Rock launch. Whew! It's a good thing I'm starting to feel a bit better health-wise.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

What I'm Reading: The River Won't Hold You by Karin Gottshall

37º ~ warming to 40º under white skies, the cloud cover solid but not gray ~ we await the snow predicted to fall this evening

While Karin Gottshall's book, The River Won't Hold You, is not necessarily a "project" book, the poems within it do follow something of a chronological trajectory. In the early poems, the speaker recalls moments of girlhood and adolescence, coming of age, the onset of menstruation, the first sexual encounters. Later, the poems transition to those of a young adult, a woman making her way into later, older poems, all the while with key moments from her formative years peeking through. If there are "project" themes in the book, they are the speaker's parents, the desire for companionship at the deepest levels, and the presence of water, sometimes as a river, sometimes as rain or snow, in a few poems, the ocean. Overall, the book emits the weightiness of longing and loss, momentarily alleviated with joy. In other words: life.

The thing I most admire about Gottshall's work is her ability to be straightforward, plainspoken, but to still make poetry that is alive with sound and image. For example, when introducing the father figure that will show up periodically through the book, Gottshall writes that he "was a kind of Noah--all resolve and solitude, / cabinetry and salt" (from "Forecast," the first poem in the book). Listen to those ohs. First, the "oh" made soft by the "ah" in Noah; then, the mournful, repeated "ol" in resolve and solitude; and finally, the snapping consonants in cabinetry and salt. So the nature of the speaker's relationship to her father is subtly conveyed to the attentive reader through sound. In image, the father is akin to Noah, a patriarchal savior associated with water; however, that image becomes much more nuanced later in the book.

The River Won't Hold You is a book filled with the speaker's longing, a longing caused in part by the false constructions of fairy tales and female myths. In "Eve," Gottshall begins, "All I had was the doe's rib bone-- / ... // but I talked to her like she was whole, / could hear. I was seventeen. It was a way I had / of praying, I think." Following right on the heels of "Eve" is "Once." It begins:

I won't start with once
upon a time. Because that's the whole

story isn't it, lovely as she was
with her hair like honey? She bled

alone on the bed when he'd left
and the queen set her to work threading

needles in the dark.

Shakespeare's female characters also make an appearance. In the poem "Pretty Stories," Gottshall reimagines it this way: "Ophelia, in her flip-flops, writes her paramour's name / against the dusk with the spitting tip of a sparkler wand." As these images add up throughout the book, the reader understands the speaker as searching for a way to move through the world as a woman. That searching is deepened by explorations of grief. As the speaker struggles to understand what it is she wants out of the world, she must also deal with the facts of death, as we all must.

Yet, with these themes woven through every poem, The River Won't Hold You is not a book that left me heavy with sadness. Rather, the poems take a matter of fact stance, often including brief snips of wry humor to offset the weight of opening oneself to the full human experience of love and loss. Even now, the poems are calling to me to revisit them for the hard-earned wisdom they contain.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

I Have Made Excuses

59º ~ sweet sun, tiny breezes, a lull before an oncoming winter blast, everyone giddy with the chance of an ice day on Monday

Reader, I continue to try and practice my new mantra: "We schedule what we value." In that vein, I've tried to make better use of my time, especially when I get home "after school" as we say around here, both of us being teachers. In the past, I've generally spent my later afternoons and early evenings grading, working on piddly emails, and sitting in my recliner with re-runs of Law & Order as background noise. For the most part, I'd get a few small things accomplished and convince myself my day was over. I'd make excuses for not heading back to the desk of the Kangaroo.

This week, in an attempt to break this pattern, and because my writing time on Tuesday and Thursday morning didn't seem all that productive, I've refused the lure of my recliner and headed instead to my writing space. While I didn't write, I am proud of what I did accomplish.

This week, I applied to two writing residencies for this summer. I think I've only ever applied to a residency one other time. Mostly, I've made excuses. They sound like this.

1. I don't have time to do the applications since they are mostly due during hectic times of the academic year, and I have a 5/5 load with half of that as composition.  [Can't you just hear the pity-party violins?!]

2. I don't have kids so I can't justify the expense of doing a residency when I have oodles and oodles of quiet time at home in the summer.

3. You have to "know someone" to get into a residency, and I don't, so why bother.

4. My job doesn't require this kind of "career building," so why bother.

It may seem silly, but I had to convince myself that I still deserved the chance to steep myself in writing for a few weeks and shut out all my home responsibilities.

So, I took a deep breath and applied to two residencies, using my time in the late afternoons. I have to say that being able to apply electronically might be what finally tipped the scale. I was able to "finish" each application in an afternoon, although I didn't submit in the first sitting. I went back to proof and polish before hitting "submit."

And hitting "submit" was nerve-wracking. Teaching outside the "ivory tower" of MFA/PhD programs, or even at a 4-year with a strong BA/BFA in creative writing, I'm not "in the know" of what I'm supposed to say on these applications. I also don't have connections with those "top-tier" poets whose name as a recommender might ensure my entrance (and here are my excuses, raising their ugly heads again). Without knowing the "hip" thing to say, I went with the truth, in plain Midwestern language, and that feels a bit unsettling.

Yes, I've fallen prey to the "it's not what you do, it's who you know" gremlin, along with its sibling, "there's a secret handshake / code / clique and you don't know it or belong to it." I'm trying to shake those suckers loose and remind myself that each of my books was published without any "connection" setting it up for me (as is true for most poets), that my poems have mostly appeared in journals where I have no "connection" to the editors until after they've met my poems (as is true for most poets as well), and that I've accomplished quite a lot in my slow, plodding, perseverance.

Still, the uneasiness lingered through this morning's drafting session, so I've got about 5 pages of lines/words that never congealed in my journal. Oh well, that will be fodder for the next session.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Draft Notes: All Hail Molly Spencer

46º ~ gusting, sharp winds promising to bring a high in the mid-60s, the sun just now beating out the gray overcast and spilling in/over the desk

Dear reader, today, I drafted a poem. It may be a "shitty first draft" as Anne Lamott encourages us to allow in her book, Bird by Bird, but it's a draft. I am finely feeling well enough to sit at the desk and do more than read and scratch at lines. For that I am thankful. I am also thankful for my poet-friend, Molly Spencer. Without her, I wouldn't have the draft I have today.  (Here's a link to Molly's fine poem, "Aubade with Transverse Orientation," which appeared in Heron Tree.)

To explain: Even in this time of non-writing, I've been gathering inspiration. One place I gather such is from Molly's blog, The Stanza. On 16 January 2015, Molly wrote about her friend Deborah Keenan's book, From Tiger to Prayer, a collection of writing prompts, and I followed the little lightning zap in my gut that said "get that book, now!" I'm so happy to have it, not only for the prompts but also for the discovery of Keenan as a collage artist as well.

Then, on 23 January 2015, Molly wrote about the use (and strength of) images to convey meaning. She used a poem from Catherine Barnett's Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced (Alice James, 2004) to illustrate. Again, I followed the zap in my gut and immediately requested a copy of Barnett's book via the Interlibrary Loan program at my local public library. (Huzzah for public libraries and librarians!)

This morning, I read Barnett's book and was blown away by the power of the images, just as Molly promised. After I finished, I did a quick word bank, flipping through the book haphazardly. Then, I started thumbing through From Tiger to Prayer, definitely skeptical that I would be able to get a poem drafted today. Skeptical, that is, until I came upon this prompt: "Write seven poems in a week. Each poem begins with the word 'today.'"

And there I went, to the daunting blank page of my journal, the blank page following the word bank. From the corner of my eye I caught the word "clock" from the word bank, and truth be told, that's the only word I needed to spark the draft. It begins:

Today, there is a clock
carving time into the branches
of the dead tree that threatens
to fall. By this I mean


We actually did have a huge dead tree threatening our house until last week when the tree cutters came to cut it down and feed it to the wood chipper. The tree (and the clock...yes, it's a real, functioning clock in the poem) come to stand for the work of home ownership. Oh, and my recent, nagging, bronchial illness manages to assert itself in the poem as well.

So, there's the messy, sausage- / law- / poem-making process for the day...and that's not even the half of it. Later, if the poem survives its infancy, there will be heaps of revision. Wahoooza.

Friday, February 6, 2015

North American Review's J.D. Schraffenberger's review of The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths

48º ~ bright sun, crisp winds, high/thin clouds

Today, I received the Winter 2015 issue of the North American Review, in which J.D. Schraffenberger reviewed The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths (Jacar Press). The rush of the book's release has been over for quite a while, so it was an awesome surprise to read Schraffenberger's generous words. I was even more delighted by the fact that poet-friend Martha Silano's book Reckless Lovely (Saturnalia Books) was reviewed alongside mine. I did not copy the entire page of reviews, as I hope you will grab a copy of the issue for it's fine poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. It's well worth the cover charge, regardless of the kind review.

*Personal Tidbit: NAR is housed at the University of Northern Iowa, the local university in the town where I grew up. The landscape of the poems in the book is the landscape surrounding UNI, so there's another layer to my joy at seeing the book reviewed in NAR's pages.

Thank you, NAR and J.D. Schraffenberger, in particular, for "getting it" and sharing what the book has to offer with your readership. I'm indebted.