Sunday, August 3, 2014

What I'm Reading: Flight of August by Lawrence Eby

84º ~ still dodging the worst heat and humidity of our normal summers, no rain chances for a week, may need to water at some point

Truth be told, I read Flight of August by Lawrence Eby months ago. It was the winner of the 2013 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press, and I picked up a copy at AWP. I didn't post a reading response of the book when I first read it because The Alchemy of My Mortal Form was still sitting in the submission pile at Trio House for the 2014 Louise Bogan Award. I don't know if it was superstition that prevented me from posting or if I didn't want to seem like I was currying favor, but today, I re-read the book and was just as drawn to it as on my first read.

Like Traci Brimhall's Our Lady of the Ruins, Eby's book is post-apocalyptic, and features characters trying to make their way in a desolate landscape. It's not a surprise, then, that one of the blurbs for Flight of August comes from Brimhall herself. In Eby's case, the landscape is frozen in "ever-winter," perhaps as a result of global climate change. Certainly, the setting of these poems is one of snow, ice, and a harsh wind. The land itself is inhospitable, the mood one of being on the precipice of a true doomsday.

In Flight of August, the most recurring persona is a young man being shown the way of this harsh reality by his father. Other voices pop up now and then, but these two men remain the focus. Each poem is numbered rather than titled, and the book unfolds as a wandering narrative. I imagine one could read the poems in random order, but I don't think it would be as fulfilling an experience.

There is a sense of panic barely controlled in many of these poems, and their forms bear this out. The poems are short, make use of indents and tabs, repeat brief phrases right on top of each other, and deftly balance enjambed lines with end-stopped to keep the reader's momentum tumbling forward.

For example, here's the opening of "#1."

We scout.

The pelt line is empty
           swaying hard to the ever-winter
           wind. The cold cold
nails jutting from collapsed
shanties, sheets hung
from a rebar post ...

In "#29," the first two stanzas are left-aligned, and then the remaining stanzas are all indented one inch. Here's a brief moment.


             the stag            horned-
             devil                tracks our

             need to live and die.

In "#45," all hope appears to be lost as "The earth is tired // of its rotation. The sun / is sore from long years // of weight." All this is pressed upon "These globed children and their / demands." The plural speaker, eventually declares "We are // beyond a repairman's callused / work, his touch."  However, there are a few poems left after this one, and I'll let you, Dear Reader, discover Eby's concluding pronouncements on your own.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Day in the (Summer) Life of a Teaching Poet

72º ~ Yup, almost noon on the last day of July with Iowa-like temps in Arkansas, a sweet respite of a summer

For those interested, here's a glimpse of the non-writing work that goes into being a teaching poet during the summer.

By chance, tonight I have a reading in downtown Little Rock. It's a joint reading with two other poets, and we've each been assigned about 15 minutes of reading time. As most of you know, the biggest pet peeve of most writers is when someone goes over his/her allotted time at a reading. So, I started out the morning trying to come up with a set list that fit the time. I have the happy "problem" of reading again in Little Rock, after doing a book launch here in February and then participating in the Arkansas Literary Festival in April. So, as I picked my poems, I wanted to try and add in a few that folks wouldn't have heard at those other two venues; however, I still wanted to focus on The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths as it is my most recent publication.

This proved harder than I thought it would be, and I spent over an hour coming up with a 15-minute list. Then, I practiced it...twice. When I practice, I make marks on the copy I will read, noting where I need to take a breath, where I want to pause for a half a beat longer than normal, where I want the enjambed lines to really blur, etc. I also note if there are any definitions or pieces of information the audience might need, and I mark my second-to-the-last poem so I can give the audience a signal that I'm about to wrap up.

I claim a wee bit of stage fright, and I've found that this kind of preparation soothes the nerves, and, more importantly, keeps me going when I flub a line.


I confess, I haven't written as much this summer as I'd have liked to, but I've spent a lot of time adjusting, organizing, and prepping since the news that Trio House picked up The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. The knowledge that this book has a home and will soon have a physical form spurred me to tackle some outstanding stacks on my desk. Namely, stacks of poems that are not included in any books or in any manuscripts for future books.

Even with three books out there, I'm stunned by the number of poems I have that didn't fit. These poems are no less strong than the poems that made the cut for collections, and now I have a good healthy stack of them. I'm toying with the idea of a chapbook, and I've spent some time shuffling those poems around now that I have them all in one place.

Yes, I hope, some day, to be entirely digital (to save the trees), but there's enough 80s left in me to need hard copies to play with when trying to group and order poems.


I've also spent a bit of time going through a ton of articles I've ripped out of Poets & Writers, The Writer's Chronicle, and other writing journals. Mixed in with those are printouts from articles available online. I'm organizing those for my upcoming classes this fall. At the undergrad level, I'll continue to teach the intro to creative writing workshop, which is multi-genre. At the grad level, I'm teaching a course on first books of poetry. Now, I've got the articles and papers that had been cluttering up my desk wrangled into one of the two courses. It's about time to start getting those syllabi together!


Here's hoping that all of this organizing, de-cluttering, and re-thinking sets me on the trail of new poems soon!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Where I'll be Reading: Oxford American Annex, Little Rock, Thursday, July 31

75º ~ windows open at 10 a.m. on July 29th ~ Arkansas doing its best to charm me this summer ~ too much beauty?

Rebecca Gayle Howell, the Oxford American's Poetry Editor will be in town this week, and the magazine is hosting a poetry reading to celebrate. In addition to Howell, Hope Coulter and I will be filling out the line up.

This reading will be Thursday, July 31st at 7:00 p.m. at the OA Annex, which is next door to South on Main in Little Rock. The reading is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:30; however, if you'd like to eat or have a drink, I highly recommend South on Main, which has a happy hour from 4-6, just one door down.

The three of us will read, and then there will be a brief Q & A, and we should be wrapped up around 8. I have to say that I got a bit of thrill from seeing the announcement about the reading in the OA's weekly email. Zing.

For those unfamiliar, here's a bit of a teaser (just the beginnings of poems for copyright purposes).

Rebecca Gayle Howell
"My Mother Told Us Not to Have Children" from Rattle #42

She'd say never have a child you don't want.
Then, she'd say, of course, I wanted you

when you were here. She's not cruel. Just practical.
Like a kitchen knife. Still, the blade. The care.

Hope Coulter
"Morning Haul" from Rattle #36

Just as, every morning,
my grandfather checked his trotlines,

throwing out gar and snapping turtles,
pulling in bream and catfish

and sometimes a bass
green-wet turning white in the sun...

Sandy Longhorn
"Backdrop for an Archetypal Bloodline" from Anti- #68

Here is a map to the tree
that bears
            the heirloom fruit.
Fragile flesh.
                  Indian blood peach
prized for its tart bite.

Hope to see y'all there!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beach Days

88º (feels like 94º) ~ soggy days return to central Arkansas before the next blessed cold front washes them away again, the whole world is green from where I sit

Dear Readers, if there are any of you left, I've been away, away, away for too long. A big group of friends took a beach vacation together mid-month, and preparing for and then recovering from said vacation ate up most of July!

I'm officially back at the desk, as of yesterday, and here's what's keeping me busy, poetry-wise.

1. I'm working with my wonderful editors at Trio House Press as we get the ball rolling to publish The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Luckily, I spent quite a bit of time making sure the poems were as pristine as I could make them before I submitted, and these poems work in a clear narrative, so there is very little revising or re-ordering to do on my end. Two editors are going over the manuscript with a fine-toothed comb and I expect their comments/suggestions to come in sometime early August, when I'll go back to work on the poems.

I had my bio current and an author photo that was current enough so I didn't have to scramble on those when I got the news and the press requested them. However, I did have to put in some time looking for possible cover images. I had a photographer in mind and spent several hours pouring over her photos online before making contact with her. My choices have been sent on to the production team, which will make the final decision. This decision could include using one of my choices or the team coming up with its own design. Either way is fine with me, as covers stress me out.

2. I've been blurbing away. Living in Little Rock, I've come to know Bryan Borland and Seth Pennington of Sibling Rivalry Press. Bryan got in touch about an upcoming anthology, The Queer South, edited by Douglas Ray, featuring both poetry and prose. While I was at first a bit nervous because I've never blurbed an anthology before and certainly not one that included prose, it turns out that the book was so wonderful that the blurb put itself together.

Today, I've been re-reading a chapbook by poet Martin Anthony Call and putting together my thoughts on The Fermi Sea. This collection is a fantastic example of speculative poetry of the sci-fi variety, and again, about halfway in I found the blurb writing itself.

It's funny because I'm neither a queer writer nor a sci-fi poet, but the strength of the work in both books made my identity moot. All good literature has the capacity to bridge our differences. I love that!

3. I've been working with my co-editors at Heron Tree as we finished reading all submissions from the spring. Now, we turn our attention to creating the print annual before submissions open up in September again. Working on the editorial side of things continues to be fulfilling and enlightening, and I'm happy to have the opportunity continue.

4. I've been thinking about the upcoming semester and structuring my working life in a way that I will be better at incorporating a focus on poetry during the semester than I was last year. This is a difficult balancing act as I have a non-tenure-track job at a community college where publications don't mean anything really, so my focus there is more heavily on teaching.

Here's hoping I'll be back at the blog and back to writing new poems in the days to come.

Until long does it take to get all of the sand out of one's suitcase after a beach vacation?

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Alchemy of My Mortal Form Wins the 2014 Louise Bogan Award

84º ~ do not be deceived, the "feels like" temp is 90º, dew point 72º, humidity 67%, hazy-cloud sky, slight breezes

As most of you know, I recently got the good news that The Alchemy of My Mortal Form (aka the sickly speaker's book) won the 2014 Louise Bogan Award from Trio House Press. Carol Frost was the judge, wow. Carol Frost. I've admired her poems for years and am so proud that these poems of mine (and the sickly speaker) rose to the top for her. I owe her many thanks.

I'd also like to recognize the other finalists.

Simple Machines by Barbara Duffey
Perfect Desk by Arne Weingart
Mytheria by Molly Tenebaum
Sass by Roy Bentley

Watch for these books in the future, as I'm sure they will be finding a home soon.

I want to thank all of my poet-friend-cheerleaders, who keep me going when the doubts creep in, and I'd like to list you all by name, but I'm afraid this old brain will let a few slip and I'll be so sad. In any case, you know who you are. I am in your debt and so happy to have a supportive group of friends around me.

Of course, I'm over the moon about this happy news and thought I'd share a bit of the book's pre-win story.

First, several folks have emailed to mention the fact that The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths came out recently, so "wow" I am "prolific." Appearances can be deceiving. Blood Almanac came out in summer 2006, composed of poems written from about 2000 - 2004. Then, it took seven years for The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths to come together as a manuscript and find a home. I started sending it out under different titles and with different configurations of poems in 2009 or so, meaning it took four years to find a publisher, all the while I was shuffling poems and titles. The Alchemy of My Mortal Form is unlike either of those books because it is all persona poetry, and in fact, all one persona telling her story. The poems were written in about a year this time, from summer 2011 - summer 2012, and the book circulated for about 18 months before this good news. It was rejected 25 times, reaching finalist and semi-finalist along the way. I had to withdraw it from 10 remaining contests when I got the good news.

Also, FYI, at this point, I have maybe 20 poems of good standing (in my mind), many from the angry sisters series and a few new ones. In other words, don't be 'xpectin' any fourth book anytime soon, y'all!

As for Trio House Press, well, they had been on my radar since their inception a few years ago. In particular, I noticed when Matt Mauch's If You're Lucky is a Theory of Mine was the 2012 editor's pick for that year's open reading period at THP. I had recently seen Matt present at AWP (DC maybe?) on running a reading series at a community college, so his name was fresh in my mind. Now, I know his poems, too!

In any case, while I was at AWP in Seattle this year, I was doing my bookfair ramble and I stopped at the THP table. There, I met Dorinda Wegener, Managing Editor, and Tayve Neese, Executive Editor. I had a great talk with them and when I got home, I submitted to the Louise Bogan Award contest. I've since learned that a different editor all together forwarded my manuscript up to the finalist pile that was sent to Carol Frost, which makes me happy, since once again, this acceptance wasn't about who I knew; it was all about the poems. However, if I hadn't stopped by the table and been so impressed with all things THP, I might have let the submission slip in the chaos that is spring semester every year, so that talk was instrumental in the result.

Having now worked briefly with Tayve, Dorinda, and Issa Lewis, one of three other editors at THP, I have to say, this is going to be a great ride. I'll keep you posted on what's happening!

OH! And, THP is currently accepting manuscripts for their open reading period!

Finally, blessings and thanks to everyone who has reached out to celebrate with me, or who was along for the journey to acceptance.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

What I'm Reading: Sweet Husk by Corrie Williamson

82º ~ sweet luxury of sitting on the deck at 11:00 on a Sunday in July, for now the humidity remains low, but the forecasters promise it will rise later today and we will return to the summer swelter that drives us all indoors

I've had the great pleasure of hearing Corrie Williamson read twice, once at the Big Rock Reading Series that I direct, and once in Fayetteville, AR, while she was earning her MFA at the U of A. (Sadly for Arkansas, Corrie now resides farther to the west of us, teaching at Helena College in Montana.) With the echo of those two readings still resounding in my head several years after the experiences, I was excited to learn that Corrie had won the 2014 Perugia Press Prize with her book, Sweet Husk. I was even more excited to get my copy last week. Here, I offer my thoughts on the book I've just devoured.

Archaeologist. Anthropologist. Naturalist. Historian. Elegist. These are the roles Corrie takes on in writing a book that takes as its subject "how ghosts are made" (from "George Catlin's Buffalo Hunt, Chase). And while a few of these ghosts are intimate friends and family of Corrie's, for the most part she works with the larger ghosts of human history. Through her exploration into the remains of the past, she attempts to unearth and translate "the unnameable inside us" all (from "The Seed Jar"). She searches for the universal truth of the human condition, and she does not blink in the face of a truth that holds both beauty and ugliness, joy and terror.

The husk of the book's title might refer to any number of natural husks, but it stretches to encompass the human body, the container of brain, soul, life-spark, whatever you may name it.

Here is the opening of the opening poem, "Remains."

Anatomists and archaeologists call them
disarticulated bones, as if the scattering

of our bodies made us voiceless. As if
dead but whole we might still speak.

Thus, we are given the scope of the book, where graves are dug for animals and humans alike and older graves are excavated and studied in an age-old quest to make meaning from what is in the process of turning to dust.

The second section of the book contains a long poem based on Corrie's experiences when she was on an archaeological survey team in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon. In part 6 of this long poem, she writes a "Postcard to Edward Abbey in the afterlife," which reads, in part:

...You had the need I have: for sense.
Like any remains, it may be buried, a crease within a fist,
vanishing into the ground or reappearing in flashes of blue,
unwhole, unsearchable as your stubborn heart under dust:
shriveled cob, black husked tongue.

In these brief excerpts, I hope to show Corrie's amazing gift at precise descriptions and her deft skill with the line, making every word and every break count. This skill amplifies her ability to explore the human condition without sliding into the kind of sweet sentimentality that glosses over the truth. The poems that result make Sweet Husk one of the stand-out books I've read in the past few months.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

What I'm Reading: Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past by Angie Macri

71º ~ not too shabby for 9:30 a.m., bright sun, nice breeze

Frequent readers will know that Angie Macri is my friend and a colleague of mine at PTC. Also, as Angie asked me to blurb her book, you can assume I'm predisposed to encourage you all to order a copy of Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past from Finishing Line Press.

My blurb:
Archaeology and elegy combine in Angie Macri's poems to create a new mythos for the southern delta. With inspiration from the poems of H.D. and the paintings of Carroll Cloar, Macri weaves a spell of bone and pottery shards, of burial mounds and ancestry, of birth and death. Her song calls and the reader learns to echo, "Sweet home, love me, just a little while."

To extend those thoughts, what Angie does in this book is to weave three strands of inspiration together: H.D.'s Helen in Egypt, information from two scholarly articles on the burial mounds near Helena, AR, and ekphrastic poems based on a group of Carroll Cloar paintings. This sounds like a lot of research-heavy poems, but this is Angie's magic, taking that research, that inspiration, and creating an entirely new music from it.

For example, here's a bit from one of my favorites, "Interred."

The shells circled some bones as jewels,
some laced with the teeth of wolves,
beads pierced and placed at the ankles
with red ocher, red sky at sunrise, jewel,
like fire, like clay, mound on the west
side of the river.

While this poem is listed in the notes of the book as containing a quote from H.D., it also, clearly, uses images from the burial mounds of the delta, and contains the focus on color and shape of a Cloar painting. Throughout the book each poem rises to this level, taking most of my breath away. The precision of description is stunning.

Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past is a book of place and a book of how a history is made, forgotten, and remade. As such, you will find no confessional, contemporary-situation poems here; however, Angie's skill is to make these poems of distance ring with intimacy and confession just the same. She gives voice to stories forgotten, overlooked, or deemed too unimportant to be recorded.

Through these poems, we are reminded that we are all connected to both the future and the past.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Caught in the Act: Revision

86º ~ feels like 93º ~ dew point 73º ~ scuba gear weather, summer in the mid-south

So, I've been drafting poems for several weeks now, and I did draft another new one this morning (wahooooza). This means that I've been stacking up dated, printed copies of new drafts in my "in progress" folder that I keep on my desk, just beneath the printer. On the cover of this folder, by way of inspiration, is a printed list of my most recent acceptances, which are few and far between at this point, since I haven't had much to submit this past year. As the drafts stack up, the folder gains both a physical and mental weight. The folder grows before my eyes and maintains a presence just below the surface of my working brain throughout the day, leading to times like this morning's hour of revisions.

It's important to note that I see two major types of revision at the level of the individual poem.

The first type of revision is done when a poem draft is not "complete." This might happen because you've drafted the first few stanzas and gotten bogged down, or it might happen if writing time is interrupted by family/emergencies. In any case, this first type of revision is global; it involves being willing to tear up the structure of a poem in an attempt to recapture the energy of the draft and expand the draft to "completeness." I put these particular words in quotation marks because people always want to know when a poem is "complete" or "finished," and there is no black & white answer to that. It's gray and mostly based on intuition.

Here are some techniques for this global revision:

1. Save a new version of the draft and delete every second line (or third or whatever). Now write new lines to go in their spaces.

2. Save a new version of the draft and delete all of the line breaks and stanza breaks. Re-form the poem.

3. Re-write the draft in a different tense or different point-of-view.

4. Take two "incomplete" poems and braid the lines together.

There are many more such techniques designed to revise half-fledged poems, but somehow, I've drifted from this practice. I no longer even really save those half-born darlings. Oh, they might be in a file on the computer somewhere, and they are surely in my journal in scratches, but I don't print out what I've done. If I can't sustain my interest in the poem during my initial drafting of it, then I don't go back to it. This has happened over time, and may be a result of my having the luxury of uninterrupted writing time.

So, I am mainly focused on the second type of revision, the local revising that takes place when a poem is "complete" but not "finished."

Here's the procedure for my local revisions. I keep that "in progress" folder on my desk for a reason. Once the drafts gain a bit of heft, I find myself thumbing through them after I've finished drafting for the day. I read the drafts slantwise, barely opening the folder wide enough for me to see the whole page. I read quickly, almost skimming, but still taking in every word. From time to time, I might spy a serious slip of the fingers and stop to mark a grievous typo, but otherwise, I read on. I do this for several days until the poems bubble up after a drafting session and sort of ask to be revised. In other words, they come to mind as needing revision.

At that point, I go into my word processor and open each and every file that is "in progress," filling the screen with windows. I start with whatever window lands on top.

*Note: I used to claim that I could not revise on the screen, that I had to have a printed copy to tinker with. Sometime in the last six months, that has changed and I do all my local revising on the screen.

With whichever poem lands on the top of the screen, I start reading at the title, and I read out loud, with confidence and above a whisper. I am reading cold at this point, and I am listening for the places I stumble. I listen for the gunky lines that go on too long or the awkward line breaks. I listen for missed opportunities for assonance and alliteration, for metaphors and similes. I listen for useless repetition or extra adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, articles, etc. I always listen for the more precise way to say something, for the need for a more specific noun or for the need to change my syntax. Finally, I listen for the logic of the poem. Is it going to hold together and make sense to a reader outside of my own head?

As I read out loud, I stop and tinker with the lines, and after every change, I go back to the beginning and read the poem out loud from the start. The process is organic, circular, intuitive. I am not beyond cutting a stanza, and I almost always end up cutting some lines or phrases along the way, as I've learned my own tendency to useless repetition and over-explaining. I might add a line or phrase here and there, but usually, I'm cutting or substituting a better word. When I've made it through an out-loud reading from the title to the last line and I haven't stopped to tinker, I print out a new copy and date it. Even then, I don't consider the poem "finished" and ready to send out, as it needs to rest again. Later, when I'm spending time submitting, I'll read through the folder and select any drafts that are ready to be promoted into the "ready to submit" folder.

Every once in a while, this method of local revising exposes a poem that isn't making it, a poem that probably shouldn't have made it to this cycle at all. I just move on and leave it be. Maybe I'll come back to it; maybe I won't.

While it may be frustrating for the beginning writer, and it certainly was for me back in the day, there simply isn't a formula for revision. There are tools and tricks learned along the way, but there is no substitute for doing the work and discovering what works for you and your poems.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

New Poet Laureate (Charles Wright) and Ben Jonson Provides Chastisement

82º ~ after one glorious, beautiful, lawn-cutting day, the dew point riseth & storm clouds gathereth (see Ben Jonson below for the "eths")

This morning, I heard the news that Charles Wright has been named our next Poet Laureate. I think I've written about Wright here before, but if I haven't, I owe him a debt. I've never met the man, but Black Zodiac was one of my breakthrough books in grad school that helped me find my personal voice. My cousin, Marta Ferguson, the poet, writer, and editor gave me this book when I set out for my four years at the U of Arkansas in search of my MFA. I tried to read it that first fall, and I was clueless, adrift. I put it back on my shelf and beat myself up about "not getting it."

Two and a half years later, I returned to Black Zodiac, having read many more poems by then, and the book unfolded before me, making perfect sense and putting me in a state of wonder. Sometimes, this is the way it happens. I went on to read almost all of Wright's previous books, and have read many of his recent publications. I have to say that I favor his early work, particularly the selected poems collected in Country Music.

(I fear I have an odd "thing" for poets' early works: Mary Oliver's American Primitive, Lucie Brock-Broido's The Master Letters, Quan Barry's Asylum, Wright as mentioned above, and so many more.)

In any case, here is one of my favorite Charles Wright poems from Country Music


Year of the Half-Hinged Mouth and the Hollow Bones,
Year of the Thorn,
Year of the Rope and the Dead Coal,
Year of the Hammering Mountain, Year of the Sponge . . .

I open the book of What I Can Never Know
To page 1, and start to read:
"The snow falls from the hills to the sea, from the cloud
To the cloud's body, water to water . . ."

At 40, the apricot
Seems raised to a higher power, the fire ant and the weed.
And I turn in the wind,
Not knowing what sign to make or where I should kneel.

I think a little re-reading of Wright will be in order today, tomorrow, and on and on. It's good to be reminded of these touchstone poets and then return to them.


In the meantime, I also subscribe to many "poem-a-day" email services. Yesterday, The Poetry Foundation delivered "An Ode to Himself" by Ben Jonson. I confess, I don't have much time for the DWGs (the dead white guys of the traditional canon), and this is my failing more than theirs. However, I did skim the opening stanza, and something about it haunted me. Here is the first stanza:

Where dost thou careless lie,
Buried in ease and sloth?
Knowledge that sleeps doth die;
And this security,
It is the common moth
That eats on wits and arts, and oft destroys them both.

Ok, this is dangerous territory for a Midwestern woman who has the Puritanical work ethic woven into each and every strand of DNA in each and every cell in her body. For those struggling with Jonson's English, this stanza basically says, "why are you sitting on your ass doing nothing? Feeling comfortable and enjoying lazy-hazy days KILLS the brain and creativity."

The poem goes on from there to remind me that if I take a moment out of time to rest and recover from a hard school year, I am gambling with my faculties, and I had better get myself back to the WORK of writing...and right quick.

Of course, I'm able to be a bit more rational about all of this, and I know that rest is imperative; however, having just gone through the pain of getting back to writing every day, I know there is some truth to what old Ben here has to say.


Well, I have written a poem a day for the last four days, so I think I can safely say I'm back at work. So there, Ben Jonson!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Drafting Days: Cat Scratch Fever

71º ~ glorious, after days & days & days of soggy rain, the sun arrives but not the humidity, wahoo

Yes, I've been writing for the past three days, but I've found that I'm not driven to include my draft notes as I've done in the past. In some ways, the process is always the same: sit in chair, read for inspiration, wool-gather words, become struck by a line, begin.

What I do have to say is that the drafts for Monday and Tuesday were inspired by my recent dental drama (needing a crown replaced, discovering serious decay, having a root canal performed by a jackass, etc.).  However, today, the draft remained medical in nature, and with a human subject, but was inspired by Gracie, our diva-cat who just underwent her second major surgery for breast cancer.

Some of you may remember that the sickly speaker was largely inspired by our cat Lou-Lou's lost battle with myelofibrosis. Now, I seem to be writing about surgeries to remove masses from a human speaker, but based on Gracie.

All of this reminded me that once, when I had been talking about the great emotional toll taken by working with community college students, who have higher rates of poverty, domestic violence, homelessness, etc, someone asked, "have you written poems about their stories?" My answer then, and now, was and is "no." Those are their stories to tell. While I empathize and sympathize and give all I can to support those students and help them find a way out, I don't feel inspired to write persona poems around those issues.

Instead, I seem to be most comfortable transfiguring the experiences of our cats onto human figures in my poems.    

So be it.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Drafting Days: Touchstone Poets

75º ~ working on our sixth straight day of seeping rain, little sun, all is mossy and green

Today, I'm thankful for touchstone poets.

I'm still casting about for my groove, having caught it briefly a few days ago and then lost it. Today, I feared it was gone forever, but then, wahooooza, I found it again.

Last night I remembered that in the past I often told myself, "I'm going to write a poem in the morning," before going to sleep, and that I'd had some success with this. So, I did it last night, and I repeated it through my morning routine. Then, I put my butt in the chair (B-I-C) and picked up the nearest book. I read it with little interest. The poems weren't really my thing, even though the language was interesting and the ideas clever. Still, I gave it the college try and I repeated my goal to myself.

Eventually, I realized I had given the book a solid effort and put it down. An image flashed in my head, the image of my bookshelf and the spines of a couple of books I'd brushed past the day before when putting another book away. Aha! I thought, I'm going to re-read Lisa Russ Spaar, who like Lucie Brock-Broido, is someone whose poetry often charges through me and sends words tumbling out of me and onto the page. Why didn't I just start by reading someone whose work I already knew would do this?

See, I have this type A personality problem. I have this towering stack of poetry books that are unread, and I feel like I have to read the new ones before turning back to the old ones. But, as I was repeating my "I'm going to write a poem this morning" mantra and being frustrated, I realized that these should be two separate activities. The reading to inspire new drafts works best with writers and books I've already read and loved. The reading of unread books is to discover others who might fall into that camp later.

In any case, I opened Blue Venus and got all the way to the second poem, when a line of my own came bursting out ("When all the gods have gone to ground..."). Shazam. After days of forcing lines, stumbling and stuttering through the process, today a draft flew down the page. OK, so it's another short one, only 12 lines, but again, it felt "right."

So thank you to those touchstone poets, for teaching me over and over to trust the process and for the poems, both yours and mine.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Drafting Days: Finding the Groove

76º ~ the air thickened with humidity, a quarter inch of rain yesterday, more on the horizon for today, the six-week-old sod rejoices, we humans struggle for breath

Dear Reader, I have done it. I have written 11 lines that I do not hate.

Blessed be the work of Lucie Brock-Broido who rarely fails me. Instead of listening to the no-voices today...well, after listening to them for two hours...I heaved myself up and said, "screw it...I'm going to write an 'Am' poem even though I know I've done one before ('June' from Blood Almanac), and even though I know I'm imitating the form found in Lucie Brock-Broido's 'Am Moor.'"

Here's the thing. The first time I read "Am Moor" in Davis McCombs' form & theory class at the University of Arkansas, the poem sang to me in that weird, connective voice. I bonded with it more than with any other poem in The Master Letters. Yes, it seems ego-centric to focus on the phrase "I am," but by excising the "I," the poem explodes into the mysterious mix of persona and poet.

So today, I started with all the things that I'm afraid of right this minute. No, I started out thinking I was writing about things that have me stressed today, having suffered a bout of "wild mind" at 2 a.m. and getting little sleep after that. Quickly, I realized that beneath those little stresses was a whole lot of fear. Once I cracked that door open, the poem unfolded.

This draft is teeny, tiny at only 11 lines, but the drafting of those lines felt like singing...stuttering while singing, but singing nonetheless. And if it takes writing several more "Am" poems in this fractured lyric form for me to discover whatever's coming next, then so be it. I'm tired of trying to think of something new.

PS: B-I-C works!

Sunday, May 25, 2014

BIC and Writing Badly

79º ~ a thin cloud cover muting the sun, a week without rain, spent the morning watering

I've written before about BIC (butt-in-chair) and writing badly, and once again I find myself right there at the beginning of the cycle. This cranky brain time is often compared to starting up a physical activity again after a time of inactivity; one must re-train the muscles or the brain's sparkplugs to fire at the right the time, to strengthen, to succeed.

So, for the past week, I've been at my desk every morning for several hours, often reading, sometimes scratching really crappy lines in my journal, and from time to time, doing nothing at all but staring. However, after years of experiencing this cycle, for the first time, I'm not really too anxious about it. Sure, there's the ever present fear and all the negative voices, but I'm holding on to past results, to the knowledge that I've been here before and I've found my way out.

One way out is to exorcise the negativity, so here's a list of what I'm hearing in my head these days.

"All the good topics have been taken."
"There's nothing left to write about."
"You've already written about your grandparents, your parents, your boring to go there again."
"Nobody wants another bird poem so stop writing that!"
"Nature has been done to death in poetry. There's nothing new there."
"No, you can't write another poem about what you see outside your window."
"No, you can't write more poems about the body and illness."
"No. No. No. No. No."

Still, I scratch on. All the while, Gillian Welch is singing in my ear:

"There's gotta be a song left to sing
'Cause everybody can't have thought of everything
One little song that ain't been sung
One little rag that ain't been wrung out completely yet"

I hope so...I know so...I just don't know what's around the corner for me yet. So, here's a toast to letting the process work, to keeping my butt in the chair for however long it takes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Today I Wrote a Poem

74º ~ the sweet warmth returns, praise be, all sun and a breeze that can only be defined as "playful and non-threatening"

Today, I wrote a poem. It is only the third poem I've written in 2014, my slowest period of writing yet.

I have been looking forward to a return to focused writing for several months, but this morning, I had to put my pen where my mouth has lately been. By this I mean that sometime in April, I think at the Arkansas Literary Festival, I was asked about writer's block, and I proudly declared, "I don't believe in writer's block!" If memory serves, I conceded that sometimes I write really shitty drafts, but that I always try to write.

This morning, I began with a method that has rarely failed me: the word bank. For any new readers, this is when I skim a book (usually of poems) from a writer I admire, and I "steal" the nouns & verbs, and sometimes adjectives, that stand out. I let these fall on my journal page in a tumbling mess, my goal being that spark of inspiration/ignition as two words strike each other in just the right way. Today, I filled my page and sure enough a teeny, tiny little spark occurred and I jotted down some quick lines. However, these lines were mostly about sound and I wasn't connected in any emotional way to the meaning, so they fizzled out.


I decided to go back to what I'd been doing the last few days...just reading. I picked up Bright Power, Dark Peace, a chapbook jointly written by Traci Brimhall & Brynn Saito (Diode Editions, 2013). While I'm desperately looking forward to reading this book, I didn't even make it past the first page, "Traveler's Guide to the Ruined City." This prose poem takes the form of an information page one might find in a travel guide or almanac with sections for population, location, history, language, etc.

I didn't even read the descriptions following the section headers. I just dropped the book and picked up my journal, knowing that the angry sisters from last year had something else to say via this adopted form. I didn't use all of the same categories as Brimhall & Saito, and I used line breaks because prose poems are hard for me. Interestingly, I didn't need my word bank at all once I began describing the home of the angry sisters, not a town, city, state, country, etc., but their center of operations, the abandoned barn in which they live together. Who knew?

So, thanks to the inspiration of fellow poets, I have a new (probably shitty) draft, "The Angry Sisters: An Almanac," and that is all that matters.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What I'm Reading: Ghost Gear by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

59º ~ in the grips of a cold spell not natural for the middle of May, all is gray, yesterday only up to 61º, today they foretell 73º, but I am doubting

Ghost Gear (University of Arkansas Press, 2014) is a book drenched in water, the water of oceans, lakes, rivers, creeks, and rain. Within that water a body might be buoyed or swept away, and therein lies the promise and the threat at the heart of Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum's re-visioning of his own coming of age. A master of the lyric narrative, McFadyen-Ketchum takes us back, back, back, sometimes to the time of his father before the son's birth, sometimes as far back as the origin of the universe, but mostly back to the time of his own youth as he grew into manhood and tested the boundaries of geography and emotion.

In one of the opening poems in the book, "Tonight," the poet murmurs,

If only I could drop into sediment and murk, so much lost
of the heart's heave through amnion and the liquid wake
and sleep, so much forgotten of the ocean's collapse
and the skull cap's crowning.

The rest of the book is an attempt to reclaim the memory of those key moments in childhood and to examine how those moments helped create the current "I" of the poet-speaker. In doing this, McFadyen-Ketchum allows that not all memory is accurate, but through a deep concentration on authentic details (that trait of the best poets among us), he gets as close as possible.

As example, here is the beginning of "Slag":

I remember sweat, three pennies pressed wide
by the twin track of the train
barely a cinder's heat in my pocket, shirt slicked
to my back like the last bit of flesh on a picked-clean bone.

The train in this poem echoes other trains, along with cars and planes, that appear throughout the book. The speaker on the cusp of adulthood seems always intent on speed, on getting out and getting away, as indeed "Slag" ends with just such a longing:

I wished for the galloping forth of the Minotaur,

and instead it was the Tennessee Southern barreling forth
the coal economy as I crouched just inches
from the flashing-past boxcars,
envisioning the day I'd take off at a sprint
and hurl myself into another land.

This need to test the limits, to move out and away (with some great speed!) from childhood weaves in and out of nearly every poem in the book. Ultimately, though, the poet recognizes what many of us recognize about our family and our childhoods: "I never left that place. I never / returned to that place."