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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

New on the bookshelf: “Had Slaves” by Catherine Sasanov

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What if you discovered a family secret, something that shook your whole idea of the family you came from? How would you begin to think about it, make sense of it? If you’re a poet, you might write about it, which is what Catherine Sasanov did when she discovered that members of her family had been slaveowners in 19th century Missouri. The result is her new poetry collection, “Had Slaves.”

I spoke with Catherine for my Boston Globe column back when she had written a chapbook called “Tara” about her family’s slave-holding past. Now this full-length collection is out from Firewheel Editions. In 2009 it was the winner of the Sentence Book Award, which is given annually to a manuscript consisting entirely or substantially of prose poems or other hard-to-define work situated in the grey areas between poetry and other genres. It was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series.

Catherine spent four years researching the lives of the Steele slaves of Southwest Missouri. She is the author of two previous poetry collections, "Traditions of Bread and Violence" (Four Way Books) and "All the Blood Tethers" (Northeastern University Press), and the libretto for "Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours," commissioned by Mabou Mines. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Mexico’s National Fund for Culture and the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her journal publications include Pleiades, Field, Hotel Amerika, Agni, and Poetry. She lives in Boston. Her readings are listed at her website.

In reviewing the book for, Sima Rabinowitz wrote, "Sasanov demonstrates here, as she has in the past, that it is possible to tell a story in verse that takes advantage of what makes poetry so powerful, its magnificent potential for restraint, economy, and a kind of emotional precision that nearly defies comprehension."

I asked Catherine to tell more about “Had Slaves” and this is what she said:

“’Had Slaves’ was written out of my discovery in 2005 of slaveholding among my Missouri ancestors, and my field and archival research into what happened to their slaves. The book consists of lyric poems and prose poetics ending with a notes section. The notes are not there to explain the poems, but to help with greater historical or cultural context if readers want that. Since America’s racial history has been so poorly looked into and discussed, it felt important to make notes available.

“I’ve come to my subject as a first generation northerner on my father’s side. Except for two pieces of paper in my family's possession (an 1857 will where my ggg-grandfather, Richard Steele, leaves nine men, women, and children to his family members, and a note left by an elderly cousin where the words had slaves appear) there were no other written or spoken traces in my home of my bloodline's involvement with slaveholding. For that matter, except for the mention of a handful of events, the lives of my white ancestors were shrouded in silence, too. As if the past couldn't endure the journey from Springfield, Missouri, to Rockford, Illinois, the city my father settled in after WWII and where I was born and raised.

“It still takes my breath away to think that I could have gone to my grave without any idea of my family's slaveholding past, that something so terrible could have been swallowed up in silence. It didn’t help that I also grew up with a very ‘Gone With the Wind’ idea of the landscape it took to nurture slavery. A small Ozarks grain farm with tarantulas mating in the corn wasn’t my idea of Tara. As if slavery couldn’t survive outside of an environment rich in moonlight, magnolias, Spanish moss, oak alleys, Southern belles, mammy, and the big house. These revelations really drove me to work against myth and bad history regarding where slavery took place, and who was involved in it. God-fearing ministers held slaves. Revolutionary War soldiers fighting for freedom owned them. Small landowners and men who supported the Union troops during the Civil War kept them. Examples of all four of these slaveholders exist in my bloodline alone.

“I traveled to Southwest Missouri in 2006 to do field and archive research, trying to find out what happened to the Steele slaves and freedmen. If I hadn’t come to the area already knowing that slavery was a part of its landscape, I would never have guessed it. Evidence that the black Steeles ever existed kept coming back paper, kept coming down archival, since every visual trace of slavery has been passively or actively eradicated from Greene County except in words. The evidence lurks in census, probate, and court documents, in business ledgers, doctor’s notes, bills of sale, tax lists, wills, appraisal sheets, death certificates, land deeds, Civil War pension files, marriage licenses, and plat maps. Paper as a kind of amber preserving the past. Its data are often untrustworthy, sometimes on purpose, sometimes from sloppiness. And while I logically knew that the information I looked at translated into human beings, the language of slavery is often constructed to make it easy for readers to distance themselves from the people being discussed. They can never be clearly envisioned.

“In writing ‘Had Slaves,’ I became something of a forensic anthropologist, fleshing out the bare boned, fragmented information I was uncovering about the individuals my ancestors owned. I wanted to make real that it was lives my family held in bondage, not a bit of cursive on a page, or a group of names that could be lumped into a faceless, unindividuated mass called slaves. At the same time, I wanted to reflect on how difficult it is to resurrect the dead when one works within the straitjacket of a shamed history: the paucity of details, lack of images of the people one is discussing, and nothing in their own words. I reflect on this absence in a number of poems, but the poem that most embodies it is the shortest in the book. It was written out of my knowing only that 19-year-old Steele slave Edmund was bequeathed by Richard Steele to his eldest son, a man who’d come up from Tennessee to collect him. The poem in its entirety reads:

Willed, Bequeathed: Edmund, Walked Towards Tennessee,
Is Never Seen Again: September 1860

The sky, the bloody
meat of it,
sutures itself
with geese

“Life was particularly brutal the further south a slave was sent, and it’s possible that Edmund may have been sold beyond Tennessee by his new owner, a man who may have been more interested in cash than another slave on the eve of the Civil War. It was something I had to consider since Edmund isn’t named among the black Steeles of Tennessee or Missouri after Emancipation.

“Slavery officially ended in the 1860s, but many of the people who survived it lived deep into the twentieth century, nipping at the heels of my birth. It staggers me that John D. Steele, the youngest slave owned by my family when the Civil War ended, died only four years before I was born."

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Where do our words go?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

This Sunday afternoon, March 14, I’m reading in Plymouth in “Poetry: The Art of Words,” the Mike Amado Memorial Series. The series is named for someone I never met, but to whom I am connected in a strange and humbling way.

One thing I know about Mike Amado is that one of the great pleasures of his brief life was writing poetry. Mike was ill for most of his life and died of kidney disease when he was just 34. He lived in Plymouth and was a musician and poet, the author of two collections, “Poems: Unearthed from Ashes” and “Rebuilding the Pyramids.”

Mike was also a member of the Bagel Bards, an informal group of Boston-area poets that meet on Saturday mornings, usually around an Au Bon Pain table in Davis Square. And that’s where he and I have a connection. I’ve sat around that table, too, and, when I wrote a column for The Boston Globe, I once wrote about the group. Mike read the column, found a poetry home at that table. The contacts he made there led to wider publication of his work and to frequent readings. He published his two books, started a reading series in Plymouth, attended a summer writing conference, and became a presence among area poets. Then he died, in early 2009.

His friend Jack Scully told me all this this later. It was Jack who had shown Mike my column and it is Jack who keeps the reading series going, with featured readers and an open mike.

Here is an excerpt from Mike's poem "An Offering of Eagle Feathers," which was published in Wilderness House Literary Review 4/4:

Show me the path through the pines, Let me feel
raindrops from young, green maples drape
my shoulders as I freely walk home again.
Here I will lay eagle feathers before we all become extinct.

So this Sunday when I’m the featured poet, I’ll be feeling the connection I have with this young poet I never met. But I’ll also be thinking about how our words, written and spoken, ripple out from our small circles and end up in places we cannot predict. We can never know their impact, good or bad. We can only know that they take on a life of their own. Sometimes we find out a little about where they go and whom they touch. And we can hope that they go out into the world to do good things.

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The time of our lives

Monday, March 1, 2010

I have the honor of being a guest blogger on the blog of Melusine, an online journal of literature and art. (I am also delighted to have a poem in the current issue.) The blog post is about boredom, something I always dismissed, but am now taking a new look at.

A few years ago someone said that time plays a major role in my poetry. If that’s the case, I’m not surprised. It is a major theme in my life--my use of time, our allotted time, the accumulation of time. What I was thinking about when I wrote the piece on boredom was how we have so many tiny and often inconsequential demands on our time that we don’t even have enough time to get bored, and I think that’s a loss.

I used to have no tolerance for boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” was my watchword. But I’ve begun to think that what used to be boredom may now be more aptly called “unstructured time.” Every minute of our lives seems to have its demands, its--as Keats said in a way-pre-Google age--"irritable reaching after fact." Few of those demands are important and most of them are set up by us.

I thought about this--and wrote about it--recently when I found myself tempted by a shiny new smartphone. I have to confess that I have still not entirely closed the door on that, but I’m hoping I’ll be able to make my decision in a way that still keeps me in charge of my time.

So here’s my new thinking on boredom. If we fill up every available minute, maybe we’ll never experience boredom. But maybe, too, we’ll never have the available time to think the thoughts that would be most creative or would make us most aware or would in some way add to the pleasure and significance of our lives. Maybe the free time, the unconnected time, to be a little bored would be the best gift we could give ourselves.

Here’s a challenge I'm setting for myself and offering to you, too: unplug a little. Not completely, just a little. See what comes into your mind. Maybe think of it as the new and improved boredom.

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Only connect--but how much?

Sunday, January 31, 2010

It started innocently enough. I was in the Verizon store on a quick errand, and, just for fun, I asked if I was at that two-year mark when I should look at a new cell phone. Sure enough, the saleschild looked up from his screen and said, “Oh, yeah.” So I wandered, flirting with the chained-down models, and found myself seduced by a cute little almost iPhone-like Palm.

I played with the stuff on the screen and visualized myself with 24/7 e-mail access. I pictured myself looking as if I belonged in this decade with a colorful phone and a cute little charging stand. And apps. Apps? Apps!

“Would you use it mostly for texting and e-mail or would you want to have a lot of games?” the salesboy asked.

“I’d be using it mostly as a phone.” My answer was disappointing to us both.

“Oh.” But he tried to regroup, showed me lots of cool features. I could picture myself using one or two of them. I left intending to think about it, ask around, learn more.

But when the Verizon spell wore off, I was left with the suspicion that maybe I didn’t want to be followed day and night by all my e-mail. The spam? Those nice chatty ones from friends that serve as mini-visits--I wouldn’t want those to demand my attention just when I’m out doing something else.

One of my favorite things about e-mail is its ability to wait for you. It’s not a ringing phone; you get it when you want it, when you have time to read it. I appreciate that as a sender, knowing that I’m not interrupting someone, and as a receiver, having that control over my time.

Time. That’s the thing. The one definite, finite commodity of our lives. The one thing that’s ours to use, to waste, to make of whatever we choose. Do I really want to add a new level of outside demands on it?

It’s especially too easy for writers to spend their days avoiding the time they have. “Now I’ll sit down to write...but first I’d like a cup of tea...and maybe I’ll do the Times crossword puzzle/ read one more chapter/ throw in a load of laundry...” And that’s even before checking the blogroll (which, unlike the morning newspaper, has no end) or having the stray thought that demands satisfaction from Google. Then maybe just a quick peek at the e-mail--oh, the pooch pottie and I could change my life today with a degree in medical records...And all that is without the phone ringing.

In this morning’s New York Times Sunday Styles section, there’s an article about people bucking the trend toward more apps on their phones. One woman is quoted as saying, “There’s this sense that I’m missing out on something I didn’t even know I needed.” Exactly. Just because they’ve built it, do we have to come?

I’m not sure what my decision will be, but right now I’m leaning away from the adorable little Palm and toward just a basic old phone. I know I’ll have regrets about all that missed coolness and cuteness. (If only there was a phone that looked cute and cool.) But how much of my life do I want to make available to outside demands? It’s my time. I think maybe I want to decide how to use it.

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The end of a week of poetry prompts

Friday, November 20, 2009

Today is the final prompt in my series honoring my teacher, Ricky (Ottone Riccio) and his new book of poetry assignments, “Unlocking the Poem.”

Ricky is known for his poem-provoking assignments and I hope you've tried some of these. In the time I studied with him there was always that moment at the end of the workshop when he would say, “For next week...” And what followed was often something that sounded impossible, involving both form and content, and eliciting groans around the table. But, invariably, we returned the next week energized by our efforts, eager to share our poems, and enriched by the challenge to step outside our comfort zones and try something new. And, strangely, if he gave us a few weeks off to just write whatever we chose, we’d often ask for an assignment.

For today, I’m feeling benevolent, so no villanelles based on complex text, no Shakespearean sonnets on Sumerian goddesses. Just a free verse poem of 25 lines or a prose poem of 100-120 words on the subject of “year’s end.”

Did you have some fun with these prompts? Let me know.

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Thursday poetry prompt

Thursday, November 19, 2009

I continue with my week of poetry prompts in honor of my teacher, Ricky (Ottone Riccio)’s new book, “Unlocking the Poem,” written with Ellen Beth Siegel.

Here’s the one for today: write a poem based on this quote by Albert Einstein, “Imagination is everything. It is the preview of life’s coming attractions.”

Now, imagine the poem...

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Another day, another poem

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I’m blogging more frequently this week to let you know about a new book of poetry prompts, “Unlocking the Poem,” by my teacher, Ottone (Ricky) Riccio and Ellen Beth Siegel.

Today’s prompt comes from Ricky’s web site, where it is the assignment for the month of November: a rondeau about ocean waves crashing against the shore.

Here, from Ricky’s first book, “The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry,” is a little about the rondeau to get you started. “the rondeau evolved gradually from the older rondel and consists of 13 full lines of four beats each, arrange in three stanzas of five, three, and five lines. Only two rhyme sounds are permitted. At the end of the second and third stanzas there is a tail--a half line taken from the first half of the first line. It’s a non-rhyming tail and is frequently turned as a pun. Using R as the symbol for the tail, the rhyme pattern is aabba aabR aabbaR.”

It’s easier if you see an example, like this famous World War I-era poem by John McCrae
In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Now go try one of your own.

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Today's poetry assignment

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Yesterday I blogged about a new book of poetry prompts, “Unlocking the Poem,” by my teacher, Ottone Riccio--aka Ricky--and Ellen Beth Siegel. I offered a sample assignment. Today, as promised, another:

Write a poem, between 12 and 45 lines. It should be about you, but may not include any of the following: your name, birth date, place of birth, physical description, profession, schooling, family, partner.

Also as promised, here’s my poem from the wolves/skate prompt I talked about yesterday. And, yes, my mistake: it was wolves, not wolf. I had seen the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra play an outstanding concert of Peter and the Wolf on Saturday, so I think I was still in “wolf” mode. Though not wolf’s clothing.

So, are you writing a poem?

where the wild things are

the wolves are always waiting
staring into us with pale unblinking eyes

they watch us as we rush to hear Mozart
our red claws brushing past outstretched hands
we smile our crushed glass smiles
and hurry into cars
to restaurants with sparkling chandeliers

and the wolves with licking tongues
watch as we skate the knife edge
between day and night

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The key to unlocking your poems

Monday, November 16, 2009

Poets, here is a brand new book you should know about. “Unlocking the Poem” is by my poetry teacher, Ottone Riccio (“Ricky”), and Ellen Beth Siegel, a student of his and former workshop classmate of mine.

Here’s my Ricky story: I was living in New York, about to move to Boston. I was finding myself drawn to writing poetry, but with no idea how to proceed. I could revise a piece of prose writing, but poetry was a different world, one that felt like a mystery. Where to start?

One day in a bookstore I was lucky enough to come across a book that answered many of my questions. It was “The Intimate Art of Writing Poetry” and it turned out that the author, yes, Ricky, taught at the Boston Center for Adult Education, just a few blocks from where I would be living. He became my teacher.

Ricky has always been known for encouraging students to make their poems as concrete and as tight as possible. One apocryphal story has him saying to the author of a three-page poem, “This would make an excellent haiku.”

But beyond the deep knowledge of poetry and the striking ability to grasp what the poet was trying to do, was always a great respect for the poet. He is most definitely not of the slash-and-burn-the poet’s-ego brand of teachers. He most frequently introduces his comments by saying, “This is your poem. But if it were mine, this is what I would do.”

One of his greatest gifts as a teacher has been the assignments. And that is what “Unlocking the Poem” is all about. The book is a collection of his assignments--provocative, sometimes startling, sometimes groan-inducing prompts all designed to get you writing in new ways. To get you to dig deeper, work harder, write better. (Blatant plug reality check: some of my poems are used as examples in the book.)

One of my first of Ricky's assignments was to write a poem using the words “wolf” and “skate.” It became, strangely, the first of several wolf poems for me and for other workshop members, too. Try it. Tomorrow I’ll post my wolf/skate poem, along with another of Ricky’s assignments for you to try.

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Adele P. Margolis, role model and friend

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The news when it came this morning was not unexpected. My friend Adele Margolis was, after all, 100 years old and had become more frail each time I saw her. I first met her because she was my aunt Alice’s childhood friend. But I was fortunate that she and I had our own friendship, too. And her determination to enrich every aspect of her life with beauty and meaning and creativity was a lesson I was honored to learn from her.

Google and you find pages about her books on sewing and tailoring. They were written in the 1960s and beyond, but they are classics, still being bought and talked about among women who sew. One blog, Diary of a Sewing Fanatic, had a wonderful post, “New Sewing Books have Arrived,” with a photo Adele would have loved--her book, “Make Your own Dress Patterns,” next to “Chanel: A Woman of Her Own.” Perfect. Her newest book, on tailoring to fit an aging body, is currently in the hands of an agent and will, hopefully, soon find a publisher.

Adele wrote poetry, too. Here is one from a recent birthday:
The years surprise me.
The numbers surprise me.
The number of years surprises me.

That I am here surprises me.
That I am here when so many
of my contemporaries are not
surprises me.

Next year another birthday?
Surprise me!

In my last visit with her a few days ago, she told me she had had a good life and that she had no regrets. “Except,” she said, “that it was so short.”

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Where the poem comes from: Beth Gylys

Friday, October 30, 2009

I met Beth Gylys online through an enthusiastic introduction from Dustin Brookshire. Beth is an associate professor at Georgia State University. She is the author of two award-winning poetry collections, “Spot in the Dark” and “Bodies that Hum,” and two chapbooks, “Matchbook” and “Balloon Heart.”

Here is her poem, “The Scene,” and her story behind it.

The Scene

Last April when Travis's band played a set
at the Zonolight, Michael got sloshed. 
Kelly had trimmed his goatee
because his book had been accepted.
Paul arrived in a limo with his girlfriend
who wore sandals with see-through plastic straps.

No one seemed to notice how my bra straps
kept slipping down my shoulders.  The set
had started, and I got talking to Paul's girlfriend
about breast reduction.  Michael was busy getting sloshed,
and Kelly kept bringing up his acceptance
for publication, stroking his well-trimmed goatee

as if it were a bottle with a genie, instead of a goatee
that we all thought he should shave.  The traps
we'd fallen into made us giddy with acceptance.
We loved Kelly anyway, and Travis too, whose set
had inspired two little girls to hula. Almost sloshed,
Paul unabashedly stroked the ass of his girlfriend,

while Michael told me a story about the girlfriend
of a friend of his who only liked men with goatees
and wouldn't have sex with him until he grew one.  Sloshed
on wine, Paul's girlfriend kept pulling at the straps
of her dress.  Travis was jamming, his drum-set
a blur of noise, when the conversation turned to the acceptance

of US world domination as a norm.  "Acceptance
on our part doesn't mean the world…." Paul's girlfriend
trailed off.  "Exactly!" exhorted Michael, who set
his wine glass on a chair excitedly.  Kelly's goatee
looked like a stain on his face.  He thwacked the straps
of his suspenders with his thumbs.  Someone's beer sloshed,

on my foot.   Michael whispered in my ear, "I'm sloshed,"
then burst out:  "We can't be complacent.  Acceptance
of tyranny is as bad as enactment. Patriotism is a cultural strap
used to bind us!"  Looking bored, Paul's girlfriend
left for the bathroom.  Kelly fondled his goatee
as if it were a rabbit's foot, and Travis finished up his set

with a flourish-even his goatee was sweating.  Paul's girlfriend
returned with a set of chopsticks in her hair. She looked sloshed,
one dress strap undone.  The air shimmered with acceptance. 

“This is a sestina that I published in Terminus a couple of years ago.  It's also possibly going to be in a sestina anthology edited by Daniel Nester.  The poem is a real mishmash, which is maybe true of a lot of sestinas. 

“One night several years ago, I went with friend Michael to hear my friend Travis' band.  My housemate Paul also happened to show up that night with his then girlfriend Leslie. Michael and I were all stirred up because Bush was hell-bent on this Iraq war, a war that clearly had more to do with his own need to assert power and impress his/avenge his papa than with any real defensive need. 

“The sestina seemed a good way to blend the political with the personal and social.  There's a party aspect to the poem that highlights the "theoretical" nature of the political conversation that's addressed in the poem.  The characters of the poem don't really have any stake in the political ramifications of the conversation. 

“What the poem is truly about, then, is the American political landscape.  We go to war as a country, yet nothing truly changes for most Americans.  Whether we are pro-war or against, we still live our lives unaffected.  And in a way that's what the poem speaks to.  There's a kind of frivolity to the whole 'scene' that implicates everyone in the poem.  The true horror of political domination in the world is framed against the backdrop of a party so that the characters in the poem all seem impotent and Dionysian.  

“I don't know exactly how I ended up with the end words, but the poem was a lot of fun to write with "goatee"  "sloshed" "traps" and "girlfriend" cycling in again and again.  Though the poem ultimately expresses a serious message, there's plenty of humor in the mix.  At least I'd like to think!” 

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Hearing Jack McCarthy

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Jack McCarthy is back in town and last night I went to hear him. He lives out in Washington State now, so a local reading is a big deal for his friends and fans. This one was what a Jack McCarthy reading always is these days: a full house with the crowd enthusiastic to the point of worshipful and Jack, a little thinner but at the top of his game.

He’s a slam poet, but his poetry often has classical references. The poems often amble around in a deceptively chatty way before taking aim straight for the heart. I often find myself wanting to quote a line or idea of his, but the poems are so rambling that the set-up gets long when I try it. When Jack does it, you hang on every word.

He asked me to give him a word as a starting point--I was honored--and, just as I was about to say something like “street” I heard, in horror, the word “evanescent” coming out of my mouth. Not such a Jack McCarthy word, evanescent. But he went with it graciously and came up with a vaguely related poem that talked about watching television.

Jack’s reading was at the Cantab Lounge in Central Square, Cambridge. I hadn’t been there in a long time, but it’s the place I’ve considered my poetry home. I spent many a Wednesday night there, downstairs where they have poetry on Wednesdays--a two-hour open mic and then a feature and a slam, all while the ceiling is shaking from the music being played upstairs and the floor shivers periodically from the Red Line going by.

It’s the place where I first read my poetry in public and the place where I had my feature. It’s where I learned, by listening, how to read, and it’s the reason I always have a tender spot in my heart for the open mic. I know as well as anyone that an open is always unpredictable I’ve sat through my share of readers I was grateful were only going to be on for three minutes. And I’ve been there when reader after reader came up with such beautifully crafted and effectively delivered poems that I felt lucky to be in the room.

There’s wildly encouraging “first timer” applause at the Cantab, and often wildly encouraging applause and shouts and whistles after the poem, too. The Cantab, since its beginnings as a poetry venue, has been known for the quality of both the poetry and the audience enthusiasm. I was glad to see that those basics haven’t changed. It’s still the place where I learned to love reading. And it’s the place where I met Jack McCarthy.

Have you been there?

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Nan Robertson, thank you

Monday, October 19, 2009

Nan Robertson died last week. Maybe I missed it, but I saw only a hint of the outpouring of tributes I expected, especially from women journalists.

She was one of the trailblazers, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was known as a generous mentor to countless women in journalism. Certainly she was an inspiration for many more.

Nan was 83 when she died and had made her career, mostly at The New York Times. She started there in 1955, in an era when “women’s news” was a beat. She wrote hundreds of articles on fashion, shopping, and decorating before moving, in 1963, to the paper’s Washington bureau. There her assignment, as she described it, was covering, “the first lady, her children, and their dogs.”

She wrote candidly about her own life, her struggles with alcoholism and depression and, most famously, her horrific experience with toxic shock syndrome, which ultimately led to the amputation of eight fingertips.

Her 1992 book, “The Girls in the Balcony” told the story of the federal class-action suit successfully brought against The New York Times by 550 women employees alleging discrimination in pay, assignments, and chance for advancement. The “balcony” in the book’s title was the less-than-second-class area at the National Press Club in Washington where women journalists could look down at the auditorium from which they were barred. Women were not allowed in the auditorium even on business until 1955 and were denied membership in the Press Club until 1971.

It is shocking to realize how relatively recent those days in the balcony were. But in 2009 around the world, in new media and old, women journalists are writing substantive news stories. And their voices are being clearly heard in the public discussion of how information is gathered and shared. Thank you, Nan.

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Where the poem comes from: Robert VanderMolen

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A few months ago Poetry Daily did me the favor of introducing me to the work of Robert VanderMolen. In case you have not seen his work, I am passing this gift along to you.

Bob lives and works in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He published his first collection when he was still an undergraduate at Michigan State University. His most recent collection, “Water,” published by Michigan State University Press, is reviewed in the current issue of Poetry.

The poem here, “A Mist,” appeared last winter in the Laurel Review.

A Mist

But my fever made me long
For New Jersey. I told my husband
I liked it here, but I didn’t want to die
In Michigan. Does that seem so odd?
You lie in bed wishing one of the dominoes
Had fallen in a different direction. You look at your body—
When you need affection life seems so meager

Thank you for meeting me here.
I know I’m not like I once was, but who is.
I favor men with some meat on them.
It’s pleasant to be warm like this.
I’m not accustomed to being carefree

The woods so dark in winter behind the house

There are times I feel like I’m looking in,
My face against the glass of the slider
Like a woodchuck’s, my skin all covered in bristly hair—
I’d prefer alternatives
A smallish career in the arts, let’s say. A plan of some sort.
Even the day the oven caught fire
Everyone seemed to have somewhere else to go…

I kept hacking away at this poem for (perhaps) 3 or 4 years--at one time it was two pages in length. Cutting out the fat, so to speak. Maybe 12 years ago I was having dinner at the house of the president of Grand Valley University, a woman at my table, an editor, was saying she loved Michigan but didn't want to die here. Came from Brooklyn, NY. as a young woman, as I recall. Which was the original germ of the piece--on a piece of paper I found years later in my desk. Then some other snippets--someone telling me about looking in a window rather than out, unhappy. So the poem evolved into a small narrative--though it took a while

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Confessions of a poetry contest judge

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I’ve just picked the winner of a poetry book contest. My first time as a judge. And I am feeling good about my choices (yes, choices--there were also honorable mentions) but sad, to paraphrase Robert Frost, that I could not choose more and be one contest judge.

I felt honored to be asked to make this selection. And I felt the loss for the non-winners (let’s not call them losers). True, there were a few books that went pretty quickly into the “not” pile. But the largest stack was “maybe” and here lay the hopes and dreams I felt most keenly. It was hard work and I had more than a few nights of dreams prompted by anxiety about the task and the responsibility.

There’s the worry about objectivity, first of all. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s primarily in the eye of the beholder and the conscience of the judge. I knew many of the authors of these books, and I’m sure that’s often the case in contests. Since these entries were not anonymous, you could easily make a case for some kind of favoritism. But you’d be wrong. I tried scrupulously to make sure I was not giving unfair advantage to poets I knew. Or unfair disadvantage either, for that matter.

And of course, it’s all apples and oranges. The books were all over the place in terms of theme, style, and intent. But I tried to figure out how well each book succeeded in being itself. I wasn’t trying to equate, say a spiritual descendant of “The Bell Jar” with one more in the X. J. Kennedy mode. I was just trying to see which seemed to be most successfully the book it was meant to be.

What I came away with after I was finished was a sense of huge affection and respect for the poets who entered the contest. All poets are putting so much at risk when they put themselves on the page. I once heard a singer and songwriter say, “All my songs are autobiographical; they’re just not about me.” With a poet, it’s just the other way around. Whether or not they’re autobiographical, the writer always shows through.

One of riskiest maneuvers of all is entering a poetry contest because you have to declare to yourself and the person who will read your work that you care very much about this. And that you are trusting the reader to treat your work with respect. You do that with any reader, but with a contest judge the stakes are higher.

So here, finally, is my confession to you authors of the stack of books now just off to the side of my desk. My feelings for you are tender and grateful, respectful of your efforts, admiring of your resolve. You are the ones who follow your dreams, who honor your words, who notice the world and offer it for us to share. Thank you.

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Where the poem comes from: Esther Schor

Monday, September 21, 2009

I first met Esther Schor when she was in Boston to talk about her biography of Emma Lazarus. The book was fascinating and I enjoyed meeting Esther and being introduced, as well, to her poetry collection, “The Hills of Holland.”

Here is a poem of hers that was published in Southwest Review. It is a poignant tribute to a friend. Interestingly, for me, the poem also has faint echoes of Emma Lazarus’s own most famous poem, “The New Colossus,” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.

La Rambla

In memory of SB

Astride a globe atop a column
precisely where he disembarked
a precious haul of six Caribs

whose dark backs the sisters scrubbed
with boar bristles, whose pale souls
the bishop biscuited and claimed

for Christ, Columbus hails
the funicular, a spider’s belly
dangled over stevedores

glutting a ship’s dark hold
with cava. Whose idea, to string
this filament from Barceloneta

to Montjuic, to tip up to the sky
empty sarcophagi
incised with alephs and acanthus leaves,

reborn as rustic troughs?
Three hundred sixty-four days a year,
when we’re not here, parakeets

in cages held aloft by fishing line
taunt ocellated geckos,
vitreous, appalled,

behind each stacked terrarium
a muraled predator.
You’ve found another way

to be afar, after making the best
of a bad situation and getting on
in years, having kept all options

open, like the errant river
leaving a mudcaked rut of a bed
to Moors who called it ramla,

meaning bed of a seasonal river,
and never returned, bent
on a life undersea, shimmering,

inconsequent. On Catalunya’s flags,
Wilfred the Hairy’s four bloody fingers
tell his sons to avenge him, not telling them

how. You’ve found another way
to stay afloat, like a crescent of lime
in icy claret, laid with your girl

whose death no one thought to avenge,
a way not to hear the cloister geese
hymn the virgin martyr Santa Eulalia,

the white doves hatched from her throat
pecking the ears of men
who tore her flesh with iron hooks,

torched her cornsilk hair, a way to prove
nothing at all, so like these human statues
poised for coins--gilt and kohl-rimmed

Cleopatra, cycling fly, Che in olive drab,
his thrust fist unfatigued – still lives so like
your own, lived hand to mouth,

one flash at a time. Let me
carry you off, in pixels, in a tiny silver box.

I was traveling in Barcelona when I received the sad news that my friend, the poet Saul Bennett, had just died; he had had a heart attack while taking a glass of water from the tap. I had two immediate thoughts. First, leave it to Saul to die standing up. Second, I knew that Saul would be buried with his beloved daughter, Sara, who died just as suddenly--but of an aneurysm and in her early twenties. Until his mid-sixties, Saul had been a Madison Avenue advertising executive; witty, charismatic and generous, he had spent decades living in Great Neck and commuting to New York. Sara's death changed all that. He abruptly retired, moved with his wife, Joan, to Woodstock, N.Y., and started to write poems. His first book,  ”New Fields and Other Stones,” both chronicled his grief and brought him back to life; through it, he was reborn as a poet. As I wandered down La Rambla, the pedestrian thoroughfare full of living statues and petshops, Saul wandered with me, along with his great loss--Sara--and his great choice--poetry. In the Cathedral, I was overwhelmed by a painting of the violent death of the virgin martyr Santa Eulalia; unlike the death of Wilfrid the Hairy, hers was, like Sara's, unavenged, perhaps unavengeable. Or perhaps Saul knew better; as understated and muted as his grieving poems are, they take a swipe at death and leave a mark. The poem is an elegy for both Saul and Sara, and an homage to his Saul's new life in art, "lived hand to mouth/one flash at a time."

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Where the poem comes from: Lloyd Schwartz

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I met Lloyd Schwartz eight years ago. It was two nights after the twin towers fell and we were two of four poets reading at Borders at Downtown Crossing. The reading had been planned long in advance. As it turned out, the room was filled with people in search of the solace poetry might offer and the comfort of being together.

Since then I ‘m always delighted to have a chance to hear him, and the poem he’s given me to share with you here, Proverbs from Purgatory,” is a favorite. It is from his book “Cairo Traffic.” Lloyd is the editor of the Library of America volume of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning classical music editor for “The Phoenix.” and a reviewer for NPR’s Fresh Air.

Just seeing the words on the page lets me hear Lloyd’s quiet, measured reading that brings out the gentle humor and poignancy of the work. Here is what he says about the poem:

“I think one of my most peculiar poems is one in my last book called “Proverbs from Purgatory.” It’s a series of twisted old maxims and hints at but never reveals a narrative. It has several sources. My late friend Michael McDowell (who wrote the screenplays for Beetlejuice and Tales from the Darkside: The Movie) would return to Boston with tales from the dark side of Hollywood, often quoting various Hollywood figures. ‘I know this town like the back of my head’ and ‘I’ll have him eating out of my lap’ were two amazing lines I wanted to do something with.

“They also reminded me of a game I used to play in high school, where we’d mix up a couple of proverbs to see how funny we could make them. Perhaps the greatest version of this impulse is Blake’s ‘Proverbs from Hell,’ from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ (“’he cistern contains, the fountain overflows,’ ‘If a fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise’; ‘Enough!—or too much’; and of course, ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’). I was hoping that through this ‘processing’ some new wisdom might emerge—I once introduced the poem as ‘a pre-Postmodern exploration of the instability of language.’ Then along came W, our un-elected leader, to prove that the inability to make logical sense, however hilarious, was either utterly useless or truly dangerous.

“Around the time I started to work on the proverbs, some friends were involved in an incident that threatened to open large rifts in that particular social fabric. Without ever becoming explicit references, many of the perverted proverbs about friendship in the poem surely emerged from that situation. (My poem ‘A True Poem,’ which begins, ‘I’m working on a poem that’s so true, I can’t show it to anyone,’ was another poem stemming from that experience.) At the same time, a couple of friends (Gail Mazur, Robert Polito) also suggested several additions to the poem that I found irresistible.

“I think it’s both my funniest poem—I love to read it aloud because it gets laughs—and probably also my darkest. And if both aspects of it are true, then maybe it’s a success. It was first published in ‘The Paris Review’ in 1995, and in a 1996 interview in the magazine ‘Civilization,’ George Plimpton, the ‘Paris Review’ editor, talking about humor in literature, mentioned that it was one of his favorite poems in his latest issue. It’s one of the ‘reviews’ of my work I value most.”


It was déjà vu all over again.

I know this town like the back of my head.

People who live in glass houses are worth two in the bush.

One hand scratches the other.

A friend in need is worth two in the bush.

A bird in the hand makes waste.

Life isn't all it's crapped up to be.

It's like finding a needle in the eye of the beholder.

It's like killing one bird with two stones.

My motto in life has always been: Get It Over With.

Two heads are better than none.

A rolling stone deserves another.

All things wait for those who come.

A friend in need deserves another.

I'd trust him as long as I could throw him.

He smokes like a fish.

He's just a chip off the old tooth.

I'll have him eating out of my lap.

A friend in need opens a can of worms.

Too many cooks spoil the child.

An ill wind keeps the doctor away.

The wolf at the door keeps the doctor away.

People who live in glass houses keep the doctor away.

A friend in need shouldn't throw stones.

A friend in need washes the other.

A friend in need keeps the doctor away.

A stitch in time is only skin deep.

A verbal agreement isn't worth the paper it's written on.

A cat may look like a king.

Know which side of the bed your butter is on.

Nothing is cut and dried in stone.

You can eat more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Don't let the cat out of the barn.

Let's burn that bridge when we get to it.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Don't cross your chickens before they hatch.


Throw discretion to the wolves.

After the twig is bent, the barn door is locked.

After the barn door is locked, you can come in out of the rain.

A friend in need locks the barn door.

There's no fool like a friend in need.

We've passed a lot of water since then.

At least we got home in two pieces.

All's well that ends.

It ain't over till it's over.

There's always one step further down you can go.

It's a milestone hanging around my neck.

Include me out.

It was déjà vu all over again.

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Where the poem comes from: Miriam Levine

Thursday, July 30, 2009

For the past few days I’ve been reading “The Dark Opens,” by Miriam Levine. Despite the title, or maybe in perfect accord with it, this is a luminous book filled with wise and tender observations of the world in finely-crafted poems. Oddly, as I prepare this blog post, I see that one of the book’s blurbs was written by Denise Duhamel, whose line provided a take-off point for the poem by Dustin Brookshire which I featured in the last “Where the poem comes from.”

Miriam lives not far from me in Boston area and we finally met face to face just recently after e-mailing back and forth for months. She is the author of three previous poetry collections, a novel, a memoir, and a non-fiction book. And I always enjoy reading her blog, which often includes her photographs.

Here is Miriam’s poem, “Daughter,” from “The Dark Opens,” and her discussion of how it came to be written:


You beg for a tattoo like your friend’s.
A band of stars at your ankle.
There’s no way to escape regret.
Indelible dye makes it worse.

Growth spurts knock you out.
The cold makes you drowsy.
That’s nothing new.

Don’t sleep too long.
Dark night never gets tired of holding you.

Get up and remember the song.

You can sing as you dart and kick:
I have to be careful when I dance.
My dye-job is fading.
And white hair grows at the roots.

What do you want me to do? Lie here with you?

Or break every mirror and never go out?
I’ll wait for the sun to light us both.

You’re on your feet. We’re facing the same way,
the sun does what it’s supposed to do,
the mirror angled to the window,
your face just behind mine.

What was the inspiration for my poem, “Daughter”? At first it might seem the poem was sparked by an actual experience: mother, Miriam Levine, finds her daughter sleeping too much, urges her to get up. In fact, I have no daughter. The event described in the poem did not happen. What, then, inspired the poem? It was my reading Anne Carson’s translation of a newly discovered poem of Sappho’s in which the Greek poet, who was born c. 610 BCE, addresses the young. Here are the first three stanzas of the poem:

You, children, be zealous for the beautiful gifts
of the violetlapped Muses
and for the clear songloving lyre.

But my skin once soft is now
taken by old age,
my hair turns white from black.

And my heart is weight down
and my knees do not lift
that once were light to dance as fawns.

(New York Review of Books, Oct. 20, 2005)

I hadn’t written about aging, but Sappho’s poem helped me get at the subject and to connect both with my long past young slothful self and to the imagined contemporary girl longing for a tattoo. I try to bring age and youth together. “Daughter” is about coming to life, to the dance, to poetry and song, about choosing love and connection and escaping regret. I must have been aware of all of these things, just as I was aware of the tattoos I saw inked into tender young skin, but it took Sappho’s poem to wake me. Does any of this add to the appreciation of “Daughter”? Probably not, but it may help to know that poets find “the violetlapped muses” in the work of other poets.

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Where the poem comes from: Dustin Brookshire

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I first met Dustin Brookshire online when he contacted me a few months ago after hearing one of my poems read on Garrison Keillor’s Writers Almanac. He invited me to add a brief essay to his blog feature, “Why I Write,” and I was delighted to be there among poets I greatly admire like Dorianne Laux and my friend and mentor Patricia Smith. Most recently the featured poet is Alan Shapiro, whose essay is fascinating.

In 2008 Dustin founded LIMP WRIST magazine and Quarrel, a blog focused on poetry revision. He has been featured at poetry readings in Atlanta and Savannah and his work has been published in numerous online magazines as well as in Atlanta's DAVID magazine. Besides writing poetry and thinking up provocative poetry projects, Dustin serves on the Atlanta Queer Literary Festival Committee, and is a political activist who tries to keep elected officials on their toes.

As part of my series on poems' starting places, Dustin talks about his poem, “Stuck,” which originally appeared in O&S:

“I am working on a project with Robert Walker, a poet and graduate student at Virginia Tech.  We share a love and a passion for the work of Denise Duhamel, and we send each other lines from Denise’s poems.  Whatever line is sent must become the first line of our own poem.
“’Stuck’ starts with a line from Denise Duhamel’s 'Mille Et Un Sentiments': “I feel like I may be repeating myself, that I’m totally stuck”  While I obsess on many things in my life, I find myself severely stuck on two topics: my parents' use of the “f” word during my childhood and a sexual assault by an ex-boyfriend.  Both topics can be difficult to write about, whether it is because of reliving the incidents through words or simply for the fear of how my poetic voice sounds through my words.
“Ostensibly, it seems as if ‘Stuck’” comes from Denise’s line, but as Denise once said, “As poets, I think we all write from a deep wound.”  And, for me, that is exactly where “Stuck” comes from—a deep wound.

I feel like I may be repeating myself, that I'm totally stuck
on the words of my mother and father, You're Fat.
Father:  I've never seen a fat person who looked happy.
Mother:  You don't want to be like your grandmother.
Don't tell your father I said that.
   I haven't even told
my new therapist about my calorie counting parents.
We're stuck on the rape. How I'm stuck with anger.
How I'm stuck on not crying about it.
I tell her I tear up when I think about it, sometimes.
She tells me tearing up isn't crying, isn't release.
Then I become stuck on changing the topic.
You see, I have a way with being stuck,
stuck between forgiving and forgetting.

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Where the poem comes from: Sandra Kohler

Monday, June 29, 2009

Here’s another one of my posts that answers my ongoing question,”How did that poem come to be written?” This poem, “Maybe Sibelius,” is by my friend Sandra Kohler.

Sandy, a former member of the English department at Bryn Mawr College, is the author of two books, “The Country of Women,” published by Calyx Press; and “The Ceremonies of Longing,” which was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press and won the 2002 Associated Writing Programs Award Series in Poetry. She has been a recent “featured” poet in Diner, Natural Bridge, and The Missouri Review, and has a poem in the new issue of The New Republic.

“Maybe Sibelius” was published in PMS: poem/ memoir/story #4, 2004.

   Maybe Sibelius

This morning there's a bit of Sibelius lodged
in my brain, a motif, repetitive, longing.
When I put words to it, they're the Beatles'
–"I've got to get you into my life." Last night,
wild thunderstorms, lightning for hours after
the storm passed over. I dream you and I
are making love in a room next door to grief,
that bleak presence aphrodisiac. This after a day
on which you irritate me, I bore you. At cross-
purposes, we gesture concessions, fail to signal
anything more than a vague wave at some mirage
of compromise. I think you're obsessed with
our son, you that I'm obsessed with the garden.
I know what I'm not talking about, I only guess
what you're not. In the dream we are dancing
while making love, to improbable music, maybe
Sibelius. What is it I must get into my life?
Long lapses, rests in the music. My heart turns
over when I catch myself thinking if you died
I'd become a hermit. I already know what that
dream signals: on the other side of the wall from
bliss there is anguish. I can't sleep nights though
I'm not obsessing about anything. The story is a
ronde: A loves B who yearns for C who's mad
about A. A is the question, B the answer, C is
the demurrer. Yes, I'm obsessed with the garden.
I want to spend all day on my hands and knees,
smelling the soil. I want another life to listen to
opera, one to read Dante, one for Proust. One
in which to become a hermit. I'm jealous when
our son answers your emails, not mine. The rain
is a sudden burst, deluge. You are what I have
to get into my life. You are what I have. What
if, hurtling through these storms, we forget to
touch, to make the gesture that will heal us?

Sandy says, “This is one of the poems I've been writing recently (over the past 10 years or so) that I think of as "old married love poems." One of the things I try to get at in them is the complexity and volatility of our emotional lives, the way we feel contradictory impulses and desires, experience rapid changes in the weather of a relationship. Love poems traditionally focus more narrowly on desire and on the ideal nature of the beloved; I want to tell a different kind of truth about love. And I also love being able to allude to my passion for Sibelius in a poem.”

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The words we choose to use

Monday, June 8, 2009

I’ve written frequently about the power of words. It's something I feel strongly about. I’ve talked about how we teach little children to “use your words” to make themselves understood instead of fighting or biting or throwing tantrums. I’ve written about being vigilant not to let our words lose their meaning. The most mundane and silly example of that is when we ask for a “tall” coffee at Starbucks when what we really want is their smallest size. And, of course, more insidious recent examples include legislative naming rights like “Defense of Marriage Act” and “Patriot Act.”

I thought about words and their power again the other day when I read Ellen Goodman’s outstanding op-ed piece, The Myth of the Lone Shooter, about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. She makes the point that, again and again, the person supposedly acting alone to commit a appalling act like Scott Roeder’s has been aided and abetted by a universe of people shooting hateful words from the hip.

The pen, as we’ve all been taught, is mightier than the sword and the two together are an unbeatable combination, for good or ill. In the case of Roeder, the word, written and spoken, sharpened the sword, morphed its use into a righteous act, and whispered self-deception into his ear. The words came from Bill O’Reilly et al. ranting onscreen, from the Operation Rescue people shouting at women entering abortion clinics, from opportunistic public figures glomming onto an issue, and from private citizens who are kind to their dogs and buy Girl Scout cookies and generally think of themselves as good people. And from any one of us who plays fast and loose with the power of what we say.

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A few well-chosen words

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

How would you tell your life story in six words?

I recently saw a book called “Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure.” Ironically, for a book dedicated to brevity, it weighs in at 225 packed pages. But it’s hard to put down.

Those bite-sized stories are like potato chips--you just keep wanting just one more. “Tried not loving you. Didn’t work.”...“Wheelchair, crutches, walker, cane, second grade.”...“Lucky in everything else but love.”...“Birthmother found me through mom’s obituary.”... “Awkward girl takes chances. Fun ensues.”... “42. Just received BA. Now what?”...“Striving for perfection. Will fall short.” How can you stop reading?

And how can you stop wondering, especially if you’re a writer, which six you would use as your defining letter to the world? Writing long is easy. But writing really short and really significant...what would you say?

But here the strange thing. The stories look fascinating in the book, but if you go to the book's web site, you see that people often send in more than one entry. And as soon as you have three or four “six-word memoirs” from someone, it’s, well, a little boring. The first six words that tell your story are compelling but after that it's simply the next six words. It sounds like, “oh, one more thing.” Reading them feels like a good lesson in self-editing. “Good wind. City Island. Sunday sailing.”...”Sunny. Good wind. Sailing is freedom.”.... Okay....

Anyhow, it’s that “boiling down to essence” quality that makes a good short story successful. I just finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest short story collection, “Unaccustomed Earth,” which, like all her work, I enjoyed tremendously. Aside from the deftly drawn and complex characters, I love the peek into the lives of Bengalis who have emigrated to the United States, and all the local details are fun. But the ending of the final story left me stunned and now, several days later, I’m just beginning to be able to pick up another book. Have you read it?

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Where the poem comes from: Susan Donnelly

Monday, May 4, 2009

A couple of weeks ago I started a series on how a poem comes to be written, just because it’s something I always enjoy knowing about. I started with a poem by Afaa M. Weaver. Here’s one by Susan Donnelly.

Susan is a respected and widely-published poet and teacher who I am fortunate to have as a friend and neighbor. Her poem here, “Time,” is from her most recent collection, "Transit." Here is how she describes writing “Time.”

“This poem was one of the fortuitous ones which jumped out whole, surprising its author and taking its own expression as it went along.  I had been musing on how often, after large and horrific events or crimes, one heard of the need for closure, the necessity to move on.  This call seemed to come particularly from leaders or governments responsible for the crimes.  I decided they'd been doing this for a long time, perhaps as far back as Cain's murder of Abel.  As soon as he spoke, Cain "kicked aside a turnip" (produce was the issue, after all) and I saw that things were taking an Irish turn, as evidenced in his parents' diction.  Later, I continued this unexpected cast in choosing as one of my villains Cromwell, so murderous to the indigenous Irish people.

“I was happy to see by its end that the quirky poem had expressed just what I had wanted to say about tyrants' hypocritical verbiage: "healing", reconcile", as well as our tendency to look away, move past or gloss over crimes that must be remembered, confronted and judged.”

"It's time to move forward," said Cain,
kicking aside a turnip.
"time to put the past
behind us."  He frowned at his parents.
Where else would it be then? they wondered,  
who'd had only scraps of it
and a desolate future,
"Yes, time," said Cain again

and walked away.  Attila, too, cried "now
let there be healing!" on a hill
above a smoking village.
He and his soldiers could still
smell roasted flesh,
pick out here and there
a lump twitching.  "Time,"
-- he swung one blood-smeared arm wide

over the quick and dead --
"to come together as one people. . ."
"In short, reconcile!" snapped Cromwell,
who measured ambition
by the tree-dwelling, feckless Celts.
Himmler fanned his face:
"Ja, it is here too scorching.  Let us move on."

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Meanwhile outside the ivy-covered walls...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Most poets seem to have at least one foot in the academic world. They teach, they are graduate students, they have fellowships, grants, endowed chairs. But one of my favorite poets, Linda Pastan is not among them.

She has carved out a place for herself--a highly respected one that includes major awards and recognition--all from outside the literary community of colleges and universities. How did she come to do all that excellent work on her own? She and I recently had an e-mail conversation about that.

ES: I guess if we were sitting down to talk about this I would want to know how you went about constructing your career as a poet without the usual role models and support of colleagues the way you would have had in a university setting. How did you know how to proceed? Did you just start sending your work to journals? Did you have any poet friends to discuss your work with or were you working totally on your own?

LP: From the time I was twelve, I have written poetry, but when I got married after my junior year in college, I stopped. I consider myself a victim of what I call the perfectly polished floor syndrome. It was the fifties: I felt I had to have a homemade dessert on the table every night, even though I was still in school.

Ten years and 3 children later, frustrated and depressed, knowing somehow that I was supposed to be writing poems, my very supportive husband helped me construct a strict schedule for myself. I hired a baby sitter, borrowed my husband’s study, and started working for several hours every day. This kind of artificial discipline was (and is) necessary for me, or I would have waited another ten years, maybe even longer, to become a poet. (Now, at least, I have a study of my own!)

As for the publishing part, I had no mentors and it would be several years before I met other writers in the D.C. area who could advise me. So I just randomly started sending my poems to journals, and they randomly started accepting them.

ES: What about the whole psychological aspect? How did you develop and maintain your confidence in your work without those colleagues? Or maybe that part was easier?

LP: There are many advantages to living outside the mainstream of writing and publishing, here in the middle of six acres of woods. There is really nothing much to do except write poems, and so I write them.

I also think that the competitive atmosphere of a place like New York (where I grew up} would have inhibited me. And the few times I have taught in writing programs, I have not had enough energy left to do my own work-- I am a very low energy person.

Of course, during the 20 summers I taught at The Bread Loaf Writing Conference, I was absolutely intoxicated by being with so many writers-- all I wanted to do was to talk to them about poetry for as many hours as I could keep awake. I certainly do miss that. But now I travel half a dozen times a year to various colleges, giving readings and meeting people, and that takes care of some of the loneliness definitely inherent in my life. And I have finally met wonderful poets here in the Washington area with whom I can occasionally meet and share my work.

ES: I'm wondering, too, where your strength came from to believe in your work while you were "randomly" sending out poems. And if, when you met other writers, you felt a little intimidated or somehow "other" because they might have seemed to know each other or even speak a language that you, working on your own, weren't using.

LP: I have always believed in my work, it's the one thing that keeps me going. It's not that I believe other poets aren't better, but reading those poets only makes me resolve to work harder. They make me happy. It is only mediocre poems that depress me.

ES: I think you're absolutely right to believe in the work. I don't know that you can do it at all if you don't believe in it.

LP: --And I just have to add that there certainly are times that I think my poems are entirely worthless and that I should be doing something more useful with my life!

ES: I’m glad this is what you’re doing with your life! Thank you.

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The human voice--the Little Mermaid, Russalka, and Susan Boyle

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Since it’s almost the end of National Poetry Month, I’ve heard a lot of poetry lately. I’ve been reading it, too, but it’s the hearing I’m thinking about. I’m struck by how delightful it is to listen to someone read poetry aloud. To hear the sound--the voice, the way the words work together, the breath, the rhythm.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about voice in a different context. I saw the opera “Russalka.” It’s based on a folk legend that appears in one incarnation or another across cultures. It may be best known in the version translated into the Disney movie, “The Little Mermaid.” Basic story: mermaid falls in love with human man, trades away part of herself--usually her voice--to be with him. In most versions--except Disney’s of course--things end badly. And even in the Disney version, charming as the music is, it's pretty horrifying if you think about it. Especially if you picture theaters full of little girls getting the idea that it’s reasonable to chose silence when a handsome prince might be involved. The message is just be quiet.

So this month I was glad to listen to the enormous variety of voices raised in poetry. As a poet, I am grateful for each one of those voices and all the ones that came before, for those who laid down a long tradition and for those who add their voices in the hope of creating something of meaning and beauty.

And I was thinking about how we use our voices when someone sent me the now-famous Susan Boyle YouTube link. Amazing, yes, but one of the most amazing aspects was the reaction, from the cynical Simon and his skeptical audience to the thousands of posted comments elicited by this one woman simply standing up and using her voice.

One little note to anyone reading this who’s in Texas. Jim Photoglo, a terrific singer and songwriter whom I met at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, will be on a concert tour to Austin, Chappell Hill, and Fredericksburg. Go hear him if you can.

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Kungfu writing

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Where does a poem come from? I asked Afaa Michael Weaver to talk with me about one of his poems, “The Shaw Brothers.”

Born in Baltimore, Afaa worked in a factory for 15 years while writing poetry and short fiction, a period he refers to as his literary apprenticeship. He is the author of 10 poetry collections and two plays, the editor of two anthologies, and the recipient of numerous awards and honors for his work. He holds an endowed chair at Simmons College in Boston, where he is also the director of the Zora Neale Hurston Literary Center. When I spoke with him for my Boston Globe column in 2004, he told me about his fascination with Chinese literature and culture. He frequently travels to, and teaches in, China and Taiwan. In Boston he directs the Simmons Chinese Poetry Festival.

About “The Shaw Brothers,” Afaa says, “As I composed this, I had in mind a tribute to the Shaw Brothers, the Hong Kong based film company. When the kungfu films they produced hit the market in the 70’s they were popular in the black community, and in places like Baltimore, the audiences interacted with the film and studied the moves so they could try them at home—or in the movie house. So the poem is also a nostalgia piece about an aspect of black urban life. The martial arts were a way of channeling energy and emotions for many black people, so much so that lives were saved as some people were able to set positive directions for themselves. I wanted the poem to move associatively with an inexact syllabic count. I also wanted it to be evocative throughout as opposed to a syllogistic movement that leads to a concluding set of lines. I have been concerned about how loosely people apply the term “narrative” to poetry, which is to say I don’t consider this to be a narrative poem. If anything, I would say the construction is a montage, in the filmic sense of the word. Cultural references include popular myths in the black community, as well as Afro-Centric ideas of the dissemination of African culture throughout Asia, such as the historic renderings by Chancellor Williams in “The Destruction of Black Civilization.”

The Shaw Brothers
                     for the Drunken Boxing Masters

If we had the space in the backyard we could have built
a Shaolin temple of our own, or at least one of the chambers,
the sun sparkling off the edge of those shiny blades,
silk outfits popping with that invisible power, iron palms,
golden shirts, eagle claws, death touches, and most of all,
flying, we would be flying, higher than after two gallons
of battery acid cheap wine, or Sunday’s holiest dance,
the earth trembling when our bodies shake to ancient wisdom
when Hong Kong came to Black America and saved us
from the lack of answers in the box of riddles life came to be,
we cheered, ate popcorn or the contraband chicken taken
from the kitchen keeping place, and all else that made
Saturday kungfu the first level in Paradise, never mind Dante,
never mind the way the world turned flat at the edge
of where we lived, with the drowning river between us
and what lay all around us in a world that was round, we
had the secrets slid to us from the old connections
because Egyptian mystics sent the secrets to India and China
then back to us as we watched quadruple somersaults
ending in spinning triple twirl back kicks, masters who
melt iron and stop waterfalls, snatch dead warriors back
from six feet under, stomp their feet and make an army rise up,
just when somebody ate the Babe Ruth without sharing
and we started practicing in the movie house, reverse
punches and steel fingers, eyeball staring contests to see
who could make the building shake, throwing steel darts
we made at home out of aluminum foil that won’t fly,
letting loose the secrets this time in a world of Kool Aid,
blessed by eyes peeled to stars, touching nirvana with fingers
weaving the tapestry of what holds us together, what makes life.

Published in “American Poetry Now,” edited by Ed Ochester

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About writing... and not writing

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Writing poetry is something I love to do. I just keep not doing it. I put a picture on my computer desktop that was supposed to inspire me. To write, I hoped, wonderful poems, but most of all just to write. It’s a photograph of the view from the window of the studio I worked in last spring on a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I wrote some poems that I was happy with there, looking out at that view, the pasture stretching beyond an old wire fence, the trees beginning to green faintly and cows just out of sight. I thought I would be transported into creativity whenever I looked at that picture.

Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. I always mean to start working the minute I get to my desk. I make resolutions about how I’m going to do that. Instead, I look past the view on my desktop, check my e-mail and what’s on Poetry Daily, peek at a couple of newspaper and blog headlines and follow some interesting links to wherever they lead. When I emerge from Internet quicksand I find--surprise!--it’s an hour later and I’ve accomplished not one thing. Time suck is such a perfect, if inelegant, description. You can just hear that down-the-drain sound. Shlooop. Time gone. It’s not writer’s block--it’s just not writing.

I have a great quote by poet Jane Hirshfield tacked up above my desk: “If I don’t create the time to write, day after day will just slip by. The poems won’t get written and I won’t have lived the life I most want to live.”

The life I most want to live. That’s exactly the point for me. I suspect the world is not holding its breath waiting for my poems. But writing them is how I most want to live my life. So why don’t I get to it? Why don’t I do what I most want to do, what I feel exhilarated having done? What holds me back? And, since I’m guessing I’m not alone here, what holds you back? Besides reading this blog, which I’m glad you’re doing. A question to think about.

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