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

         1975

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 landscape...how 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.

Sigh.

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."

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What I'm Reading: Trace by Simone Muench

67º ~ light showers, gray skies, multiple birdsongs, the privets all in bloom (ugh...privet blooms make privet berries, privet berries make privet seeds, privet seeds make baby privets which must be pulled)


I have been a fan of Simone Muench's work since I read Lampblack & Ash (Sarabande, 2005). Last week, I had the time to read Muench's latest, a chapbook of centos from Black Lawrence Press, Trace. (It looks like Sarabande has just published a full-length collection of these centos as well: Wolf Centos.)

A cento is typically defined as a collage poem made up of lines from other poems, sometimes by the same author, sometimes not.

In Trace, each poem is titled "Wolf Cento" and is listed in the table of contents by first line. The thread of the repeated title reinforces the theme throughout this book, as we are in the land of the wolf, the land of forests, huntsmen, and animal instinct. The closeness of animal instinct and what we think makes us human (thus above the animal fray) is at the heart of the matter.

In the back of the book, where I normally jot notes to myself about a collection, I have one small phrase: sound explosions. That sums it up for me, and here is an example from the first cento in Trace.

With flowers in their lapels, nine
howling wolves come hungering.
A surge of wet syllables
dangles from their mouths.

As alway, Muench delighted me with her images and I found myself underlining multiple lines on each page. And there, dear reader, is where I hesitated. Just whose words was I underlining? And with that, my mind went all wonky on the idea of authorship. At the end of the book is a two-page list, tightly packed, of "source materials," a list of names in alphabetical order with no titles of individual works and no connections to Muench's individual poems.

Let me pause to say that at the same time I was reading Muench's book, I was grading final essays in Comp I, essays in which students were meant to demonstrate synthesis of source material and proper MLA documentation. In other words, the time was ripe for me to question the cento.

As a composition instructor, of course, I am hell-bent on making sure my students give credit where credit is due, as an artist, this often conflicts with the idea of shared material and the way artists build new pieces of art from the work of those who have gone before. This butts right up against my work in paper collage, where I was so concerned about copyright that last year I consulted a copyright lawyer about the work I was doing.

The letter of the law is that the way I do my paper collages, I am violating the copyright held by every photographer, artist, and graphic designer who produced the image I cut up. The letter of the law is that when we write centos, unless the original work is out of copyright (and that is very rare, as even texts from Homer's time are often still in copyright for the translator, or the work of writers from the first half of the 20th century are often still in copyright for a family member or trustee), we are violating copyright.

Yet, the cento and the visual collage are clearly "new works." The way Muench smashes lines together or deftly weaves them into a new fabric is her art. The way she sees connections and makes for us as readers some wholly new experience is her art. Is that art by its nature something less than a poem in which she brings each word to the page on her own? Is the cento that much different from my own experience with word banks, in which I "steal" words from other writers and smash them together to form lines of my own? Where does the line exist between raw material and theft?

I know that in other cultures, the idea of individual ownership is not so onerous, but in the 21st century American world of "me, me, me" "look at what I did" the cento (and the collage) stands out as a challenge it seems, as a place to acknowledge the makers of the original pieces while at the same time enjoying and celebrating the new creation. And Trace is certainly a collection that I celebrate.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Full to Bursting

74º ~ humidity declining after 36 hours of sopping wet air and 1.5 inches of rain, a yard newly sodded & now in need of mowing, all the trees in leaf, the world is all pale green


Sometimes life is full to bursting, dear reader. And that has been the definitive case for this semester, for good and for ill. Happily, C. seems well on the mend and nearly back to normal, final grades have been recorded, the large landscape project completed, and my eye now turns back to poetry and home. I won't be attending any conferences or residencies away from home, but I plan to make May 19 - June 20, my own private writing time, minus four days when I'll be working to help host the Arkansas Writers' Conference at PTC.

In the meantime, here are some of the happy poetry things that have happened of late, in no particular order.

One of the poems from The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths, "Choosing Not to Bear" is included in the Mother's Day feature currently up at Escape into Life. Editor, Kathleen Kirk shows her amazing talent of pairing poetry with art, as always, in this feature, and I appreciate so much that she wanted to show another side of the idea of mothering.

My contributor copy of burntdistrict arrived and waits for me. Here are just a few of the folks with whom my poems (two sickly speaker poems) share pages: Maureen Alsop, Simon Perchik, Michael Levan, Emma Lister, Jennifer Martelli, Barbara Duffey, and so many more. All thanks to the editors, Liz Kay & Jen Lambert, for giving the sickly speaker a home.

Also, my contributor copy of bluestem has long been on my desk, featuring "Seized with a Small Fever," another sickly speaker poem. The lineup of writers in the 2014 print edition is lengthy and mind blowing, including but not limited to: Hannah Cook Cross, Darren Jackson, Jane Satterfield, Marilyn Kallet, Al Maginnes, Charlotte Pence, Gary McDowell, and so many more. Thanks to all of the editors and readers at bluestem for the inclusion.

Two more sickly speaker poems found a home, this time online at Tupelo Quarterly. While this journal has only just begun, it is already one of my favorite reads. Again, I'm surrounded by fellow poets whose work I admire deeply: Dan Albergotti, Kwame Dawes, Chera Hammons, Nancy Reddy, Adam Tavel, and so many more (again).

Yes, the sickly speaker's entire manuscript has been circulating with publishers again this year, currently as The Alchemy of My Mortal Form. Just recently, I was stunned when the manuscript was named a semi-finalist for the Kathryn A. Morton Prize with Sarabande. With all my years of experience with books 1 and 2, I know to take this small victory and celebrate. Yes, this is a good indication that the book will find a home, but I also recognize that it probably won't be a quick journey. In the meantime, many congrats to Jordan Zandi's Solarium, which won the prize this year.

With nothing on my radar save poetry to read, the Carolina wren has taken up his post near my window to provide the background music, and the breeze is cool enough for now.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

A Dickensian Kind of April, A Dickensian Kind of Post

70º ~ humidity at 100%, wind hard and steady out of the south, the first severe thunderstorm rolled through at dawn, we await the bulk of the storms due to arrive in the heat of the day


A Dickensian Kind of April...only in the sense of "it was the best of times; it was the worst of times." A Dickensian Kind of Post...in length.

Angie Macri, with whom I read on April 3rd, recently texted me that I needed to update my blog of folks would think she'd abandoned me in a field outside of Searcy, AR after the reading...oh, how I wish that was really what happened!

Instead, there was this.

I had a fabulous time sharing my personal narrative on Paula Martin Morell's Tales from the South, on Tuesday, April 1. This radio program is broadcast internationally, and is well worth a listen to any of the archives. I can't bear to listen to my own voice, but I hope y'all will check me out here. You can hear all about "Gracie's Great Adventure" (yes, I talked about one of our cats!), listen to a mini-interview, and an audience Q & A. All thanks to Paula for this amazing opportunity!

The morning after Tales, C. woke up with some kind of allergic reaction happening. I suspected an insect bite and sent him to the doctor.

From April 1 - April 12, our entire yard was under construction, as Little Rock Lawn Care and Landscaping came in and transformed our surroundings. Just keep that in the back of your mind. For much of this journey, we were parking in a neighbor's empty driveway or across the street; for the beginning part of this journey, there was quite a bit of mud!

On April 3, Angie Macri and I did a joint reading at Harding University, thanks to an invite from Dr. Nick Boone.  We were able to meet with students for an informal workshop and Q & A before our reading. The students were wonderful, quite talented, and asked insightful questions. I had blurbed Angie's forthcoming chapbook, Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past, earlier in the year, but after the reading I'm even more eager for my copy to arrive in the flesh, so to speak. Also, kudos to Harding. The room in which we read was elegant, and the audience engaged.

On arriving home late on the night of the 3rd, C.'s allergic reaction had spread to his hands which swelled to twice their size and began to throb with intense pain. A trip to the doctor the next day could not prevent a scary two weeks where his immune system went haywire and attacked his joints, putting him in an intense pain I hope I never see again and immobilizing him. In the midst of the busiest month of the year, I became a 24/7 caregiver for a few days, with great help from C's parents who came up several times to cover me.

The week of April 7th, saw the planting of a National Poetry Month garden at PTC. My brainstorm that led to the purchase of my lovely laminator! Thankfully, we had done much of the prep work at the end of March and I have access to a student worker who helped make all of this happen.




With the help of steroids and painkillers, C seems fully recovered. We see the allergist soon to discover the source of his misery. Of course, just as C recovered, my vertigo returned! I spent three days of the past week waiting for an appointment with the physical therapist to put my micro-crystals back in place. For the curious, here's all the info on that.

I did get back in fighting form, just in time to welcome Charlotte Pence and Adam Prince to the Big Rock Reading Series and the Arkansas Literary Festival. Charlotte's first full-length poetry collection, Spike, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence, which also published her chapbook, The Branches, The Axe, The Missing, and Adam read from The Beautiful Wishes of Ugly Men, his debut short story collection. Charlotte and Adam are friends, so I might be biased, but I think they gave a knock out reading on Friday at PTC. I was only sad that we had a fairly small turn out. I just wasn't on my A game for promotion and marketing. Luckily, Charlotte and Adam are gracious folks.

Friday night was the Author! Author! party for the festival. All praise to Brad Mooy and the folks who make the festival happen each year. The party is always one of my highlights, with food, drinks, and lots of time to mingle and check out the books of the featured writers.

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to read on a panel with Ash Bowen and John Bensko for the festival. Ash and John are both fine poets, with Ash continuing the U of Arkansas legacy (graduating a few years after me). Both also have new books: The Even Years of Marriage and Visitations, respectively. All thanks to Hope Coulter, my good friend, for moderating our panel. I can't wait until I can return the favor! Finally, all my gratitude to local friends in the audience who might have had to listen to repeats of a few of the poems. Seeing your faces in the crowd put me at ease.

After the reading, I got to have drinks with Charlotte and Adam, and soak up some sweet springtime sunshine. We did talk shop some, but in that sharing of experiences way rather than in any kind of academic pressure way. Yet, we still made time for telling those family stories as well and generally enjoying each other's company. A fine end to a fine festival.

I arrived home around 6:00 p.m., and I collapsed into my recliner, happy for all of the poetry and poets in my life, thrilled that C had spent the day piddling in the back yard, and eager for May 13th (graduation day). I spend my summers writing, and I am ready to go!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Where I'll Be This Week: Tales from the South and Harding University

47º ~ a wee bit late, but spring sprang sprung, all the hardwoods are budding, the flowering trees are flowering, and things are right with the world for the moment


It's going to be a busy week for the Kangaroo.  I've got regular classes, two extra meetings for committee work and professional development. (Somehow, by the grace of the syllabus gods and goddesses, I didn't make anything major due in any of my classes this week.) At home, we are having a wonderful landscaper come in and take our scrubby yard down to nothing and build it back up again. And I have two writer events of my own.  Hold on to your hats!

Writer Event One

Tuesday night (April 1) I'll be reading a piece of non-fiction for Tales from the South. If you are in central Arkansas, I hope you'll consider coming out for a great meal and a chance to hear about "Gracie's Great Adventure." Yes, I wrote the narrative about one of our cats. Chuck is always teasing me about how I need to write some cat poetry, and since he features at the center of Gracie's adventure and will be in the audience, I figure this should suffice.

While I won't be reading poetry, I'll bring a few copies of the books in case anyone is in the mood to support the writer!

Tales from the South is produced and recorded for airing on KUAR and KUAF (Arkansas NPR stations) at Starving Artist Cafe in the Argenta District of North Little Rock. Doors open for dining at 5:00 p.m. with music from The Salty Dogs from 6:00 - 7:00.  I go on at 7:00 and the whole thing will wrap by 8:00.

*This event is ticketed with limited seating.

Writer Event Two

On Thursday (April 3), Angie Macri, poet-colleague-friend, and I will carpool up to Harding University. In the late afternoon Angie and I will conduct a workshop with creative writing students, and then in the evening we will read for faculty, students, staff, and, I believe, the public. If you are in the vicinity of Harding, feel free to message me for details about the reading.

I'm super excited to read with Angie because her first book is coming out soon. Fear Nothing of the Future or the Past is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press. You should pre-order your copy today. I blurbed this book, and I can tell you that you won't be disappointed!


I can already predict that I won't be back to blog writing this week, but it is on my list of priorities starting in May. As always, I'm thankful to all of you for reading!