Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Week Seven: Guest Judge Sandra Beasley

Sandra Beasley is the author of I Was the Jukebox, winner of the 2009 Barnard Women Poets Prize, selected by Joy Harjo and forthcoming from W. W. Norton. Her first collection, Theories of Falling, won the 2007 New Issues Poetry Prize judged by Marie Howe. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she writes for the Washington Post Magazine and is working on Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, forthcoming from Crown. Click here to visit Sandra's blog!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NEW: "Change It" by Dolly Parton

As you may or may not know, Dolly Parton wrote all the music for the Broadway musical 9 to 5. As usual with a Broadway production, a cast album has been released----this is lovely, but I don't have much of an interest in anyone but Dolly singing songs that she's written. (You shouldn't expect anything less from a Dolly fanatic!)

Well, I am happy to say that Dolly recorded one of the songs from the cast album. "Change It" sung by Dolly was released as a single today. Yes, I downloaded it. I'm not completely won over with the song as I was with her single "Better Get to Livin'." Yes, "Change It" has the ole Dolly charm that Dolly fans love and expect, so I am sure I'll come to enjoy and love it more and more as I listen to it. And, I'm sure when something crappy or extremely frustrating happens with me, well, I will feel in tune and possibly madly in love with the message in "Change It."

You may purchse Dolly Parton's "Change It" on iTunes!

William Shatner Reads 'Palin Poetry'

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Double Ds: A ReadWritePoem Column w/ Denise Duhamel

The Double Ds
Want to know more about your favorite poets? In this monthly column, Dustin Brookshire and Denise Duhamel will ask a poet one poetry-related and one non-poetry-related question. Respondents’ answers will surprise and delight you. Look for Marilyn Nelson, Dara Wier, David Trinidad and Patricia Smith as part of this exciting series.

A Statement From The Weekly Project Verse Judges

Project Verse Contestants,

The only rules in print are the rules you agreed to abide by when you applied to participate in Project Verse.

Is the collective work of each contestant important?

One of the prizes of Project Verse is a chapbook deal with two guaranteed book reviews in two fine publications. The poems from the competition will help create and shape the Project Verse winner's chapbook. YES, the collective work of each poet is extremely important. Just like on Project Runway, especially toward the end of the competition, the body of work throughout the competition becomes more important in determining which of the lowest ranked contestants each week will go home. As we move into the last half of Project Verse, overall performance will play a larger factor in which of two lowest ranked competitors that week goes on permanent caesura. This shouldn't surprise you.

Keep up the good work,
The Weekly Project Verse Judges

Project Verse ~ Week 7: Pantoum


This week you must a write a pantoum.

You may write on any topic that you desire, but you must do the following:
(1) Have a minimum of 6 stanzas, but 8 is the maximum.
(2) Work in the name of one movie into a line that will be repeated.
(3) Work in the name of one book into a line that will be repeated.

By the way, you may NOT alter the second and fourth lines of your stanzas
when you transition them to first and third lines.

Good luck poets.

Get to writing

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Week 6: Results

Beth, Dustin, and Dana were joined by guest judge C. Dale Young for Week 6: Epigraph. Click here to revisit the Week 6 poems.


The easy part of Week 6 was selecting the winner. Congrats, EMILY!

KRISTEN and EMARI , you both made the bottom two this week. One of you received four out of four votes; the other contestant received three out of four votes.

I suppose the decision of who should go on permanent caesura seems simple, well, that is if you go strictly by the numbers; however, it is not a simple decision. The decision was so difficult that the weekly judges had a phone conversation in addition to their usual email correspondence.

KRISTEN, you received the four votes; EMARI , you received three votes.

EMARI , you were in the top for Week 2: Firsts, but you haven't won a weekly competition. You were in the bottom for the Curveball, so this marks your second time being in the bottom. KRISTEN, this is your first time in the bottom two. In fact, you have won three challenges: Week 3: Simile Vs. Metaphor, the Curveball assignment, and tied for the top spot for Week 5: The Between.

EMARI , when the judges compared your collected work from the competition with KRISTEN's collected work, well, they didn't feel your collected work was as strong as KRISTEN's. Therefore, you are on permanent caesura.

KRISTEN, you have survived elimination because the judges believe your collected work thus far shows great promise. Next week, give us the same caliber of work we've seen each week up until Week 5.

Sunday Eye Candy ~ Alex Meraz

Links: Jupiter to Mills to Kemp to Hennessy

"Ka-Ching! is a Winner or Why I'm Never Riding an Escalator Again" by Stephen Mills


Subito Press of the University of Colorado invites submissions to its annual book competition. We will publish two books of innovative writing, one each of fiction and poetry. Submissions will be accepted from June 1 to August 15, 2009 (postmark date).


Robin Kemp holds a copy of her first collection, This Pagan Heaven. There will be an interview with Robin published here at I Was Born Doing Reference Work in Sin.


I hope you didn't forget----Christopher Hennessy wrote a book titled Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets.


Praise Dolly: Jupiter is a comet block!

An object, probably a comet that nobody saw coming, plowed into the giant planet’s colorful cloud tops sometime Sunday, splashing up debris and leaving a black eye the size of the Pacific Ocean.


Microsoft Corp., the world’s largest software maker, offered to include rival Web browsers in the Windows operating system to settle a European Union antitrust case.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Week 6: Epigraph (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 6: Epigraph.



             Splendor, and splendor,
             and not a one in any way
             distinguished from the other
                       -Mark Doty, from “A Display of Mackerel”

Spring brings birthdays
and Dad's trip to the pond.
The girls name cows and chickens,
the cats are all Molly.

Dad chooses
a rock from the pile behind the barn,
places it in the burlap with the tiny bodies,
eyes barely opened.

The girls watch as he marches past the field
where corn will grow, along the creek
where crickets go silent. Dad tosses the bag
of Mollys over the edge

and turns before the splash. Sometimes
the youngest cries, to herself,
because she glimpsed a tiny grey Molly,
and gave it her own last name.

Okay. So I’m sitting here reading this poem as the gray feral kitten I rescued from under my house (born there), purrs at my feet. The poem’s pretty brilliant and awful and perfect in its brutality. The flat language accentuates so effectively the flat affect of the father and the event as he wants to convey it. The one thing I would suggest for revision is that the word “Sometimes” has a flattening effect on the experience. I’d like to think this is one specific moment, so it could be “This morning” or “This time” or some other phrase to indicate specificity. The cycle of the occurrence is already inherent in the opening line and need not be emphasized, I don’t think. A powerful poem.

Dustin: This poem reminds me of a poem written by my friend Lisa Allender; in her poem, her grandfather tosses a sack of puppies in a lake while the the mother dog circles the lake---heartbreaking, like your poem. I like the detail of "the girls name cows and chickens, / the cats are all Molly" and "...he marches past the field / where corn will grow, along the creek /where crickets go silent." You need to revisit your last stanza to make it clear. The lack of clarity weakens the punch you're delivering with "gave it her own last name." I love the irony that I find with the epigraph paired to your poem; I like the irong a lot. I think this is my favorite from all the ones you've written for the competition.

Dana: This poem is interesting in that not only are the kittens not distinguished from one another, but the girls are not distinguished, either. They are referred to as “the girls” throughout, yet the narrator refers to the man in the poem as “Dad,” so we assume the narrator is part of this family. But he or she creates a sense of distance from the girls by not calling them by their names or even by their familial relationship to the narrator. In the end, one kitten is distinguished, by being given a last name, and one girl is distinguished, by bestowing a last name on that kitten. I like that shift in the piece, and it’s an interesting take on the epigraph.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Well, this certainly utilizes tension between the epigraph and the poem written. If one told me this poem lived between “splendor” and “death/murder” I would be intrigued. But despite that basic premise of tension, this poem seems too narrative for what it seems to want to do. The power of the lyric poem is its ability to place readers within a situation. This poem mostly tells. At times it reads like the opening of a short story and yet it resists being a narrative poem. And I cannot get over the unfortunate moment in the final stanza where “the youngest,” due to grammar, refers to the youngest Molly. I know Ling means the youngest girl, but that isn’t really what she has written. As a result, the ending is overly maudlin.




The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.
--from “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye

We are right to fear it.

It is only within it
that we die enough to heal.

A clot of soul, coaxed free,
falls mute
into the shaman’s net of light.
Grief swarms
through the soundless breach.

Silence skins us naked,
expresses its veins,
lets flow
the carnage of change.

No wonder the lunatic
seeks it in earnest.

No wonder we've laid down
highways of jabber
in every open airspace,
even knowing
our wards will only hold it off so long.

At the end,
we’ll claim we didn’t know
that the whole, nattering
world was so quiet underneath;

all this time, so still.

At the end, silence
will lumber onto the horizon
for her austere coronation, spread
her thighs over the earth
and hunker in her rightful place at last.

Healers will remember
no sound but the knowing of their hands.

The healed will hear nothing
but the divine
hymn of their brokenness.

Many of the poems of this week are rich and powerful in their own way. This particular poem has a wisdom that is quite winning, and some of the lines are simply nuggets: “It is only within it/that we die enough to heal.” “No wonder we've laid down/highways of jabber/in every open airspace,” “The healed will hear nothing/but the divine/hymn of their brokenness.” The one problem with this poem (or one caution flag the poem raised for me) was that it’s a conceptual poem and thereby it is short on image and specificity. I love the poem for its ambitiousness, but I also worry about it for the same reason.

Dustin: Oh, Kristen. Yes, you complete the assignment, but I didn't really care for this poem. This poem is no where near the caliber of work that you've been delivering. Where you purposely trying to show us yet another side to your work? I find

"At the end, silence
will lumber onto the horizon
for her austere coronation, spread
her thighs over the earth
and hunker in her rightful place at last."

to be disturbing. I guess I can give you creative points, but this stanza doesn't work for me. I think you have a great first line to pull in a reader; however, the rest of the poem doesn't pull through for that line-- I know I've made this comment about first lines and titles, but this is the first time I've made that comment about your work.

Dana: I feel like this poem encounters a problem in trying to talk about the abstraction of silence. The piece is fumbling a bit as it tries to get its hands on making silence concrete. I was thrown by the shift from silence being referred to as “it” at the beginning of the poem, to being referred to as “she” in stanza nine. I could see a shift like that working in a poem, but I don’t think it’s working yet here. I can see the relationship between the epigraph and the poem, and I appreciate that the resulting piece is so different from the original, but I think there’s more work to be done to make the piece sing. (Of course, you’re in a really tough position, coming off last week’s poem in particular and all the strong work you’ve produced so far during the competition.)

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Unfortunately, you could sum up this poem as “Silence is scary but is good (in a mysterious way).” Despite opening with a wonderful first line that hooks a reader almost instantly, the poem continues with a vacuous second stanza that seems intent on making the “silence” more mysterious than it really is. By the time we reach the truly terrible mixed metaphor in the opening of the third stanza, we move from doubt in this poet to a need to catalogue her errors in judgment. And who knew “silence” could straddle the earth in such a sexual way?




My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are…
-Anne Sexton, ‘With Mercy for the Greedy’

Forgive my fat mouth! Topsy-
turvy glutton. It begs speech and out
it wings, a swallow from the flue… Careful,
girl, your tongue might fly out, too…
It happens
I’m a long line’s lonely sum, and rank
confessor, posting sin before I even fell
to earth (the sparkling

cider in her nuptial glass, empire
waisted gown to hide her girth…) I must
catalogue these failings— Irish music
drenched in gin! Its pipes would wallow me
into the bin… toora, loora, looral—
focus, girl, or follow in their sins…

Idolatry, now there’s a pretty word!

Grandma worshipped whiskey in the glass, two cubes
that clinked and cooled— how her head ached
when my Dad would wake for school! Her fists
curled up like smoke if Grandpa asked
her where she’d been the night before— but
in her head, she heard her father hiss
you whore… he used to beat

her face until she bled, her mother
always turned the other cheek. Her sister
Grace, the one who courted trouble?
Girl, it doubled back on her… oh, but
that’s a different tale, another
time. Bless me,
Dad, I have to speak

your crimes— your fury zipped the house
shut like the priest’s confessional slot!
Even the dogs refused their bark.
All mouth, I mapped escape routes
in the dark— lusty girl, with mercy
for her body. My hands skimmed brand new
breasts, then wandered south—

since we’ve happened onto lust, let’s
say it plain. At 23, (and four, and five…)
I numbered men like sleepless children
count fat sheep. More, I cried, and more!
Another needle in the vein— my wounded
need’s a wild, trackless
train. On, it ticks, and on

like tatted lace— these poems
are its wrangled, desperate trace—
they bleed in some back alley
with poor, reckless Grace. Oh, greedy
tongue, don’t fail me.
Heed this seedy call. My God, my
God, I’m sorry, but I have to spin it all.

The poem’s dazzling in its way, but it also has a kind of all over the place unfolding that feels a bit unwieldy. Perhaps the presentation is meant to mimic the wildness of the speaker, but I’d have liked a bit more control.

“Dad, I have to speak

your crimes— your fury zipped the house
shut like the priest’s confessional slot!
Even the dogs refused their bark.
All mouth, I mapped escape routes
in the dark— lusty girl, with mercy
for her body.”

One can hardly fault the inventive language nor the energy, but there is a kind of haphazardness in the poem that worries me. I’m also less wild generally about the poem about writing. The epigraph leads naturally to writing about writing, but lines like “these poems / are its wrangled, desperate trace— / they bleed in some back alley / with poor, reckless Grace,” are not as compelling to me.

Dustin: Emily, if you weren't such a sassy pants, I'd say you picked the Sexton poem to kiss ass since my love of Sexton is obvious. However, a sassy pants wouldn't kiss ass. Okay. I had to tease you!!! I like this poem; it is strong work. Not as strong as "Shame," and I have to say I'd kill to have you turn out another poem that delivers a bitch slap like "Shame." You issues with the poem flowing at time--- I made the same comment on your Curveball poem. I love that you begin the poem with "Forgive my fat mouth!" I really like "At 23, (and four, and five…) / I numbered men like sleepless children / count fat sheep."

Dana: Extra points for using the name of Dustin’s blog in your epigraph. OK, you don’t really get extra points for that, but you do get extra points for creating such an strong, persona-driven piece again. We’re dropped right into an amazing opening with the command: “Forgive my fat mouth!” That entire opening stanza is killer, and the tone reminds me a great deal of your piece for Shore Tags in terms of the strength of the voice. You also mirror much of Sexton’s poem in yours, including the exclamations and rhyme, as well as the lines, “On, it ticks, and on / like tatted lace— these poems / are its wrangled, desperate trace— .” There’s no doubt the poem was influenced by the epigraph, so you’ve definitely completed the assignment. I do think you could look at stanzas three and four. They are great on their own (although perhaps “turned the other cheek” could go), but in context, they feel different from the other stanzas in terms of the diction. You pick that diction up again in stanza five, with “your fury zipped the house / shut like the priest’s confessional slot!” Compared with the other stanzas, the two I mentioned were a little flatter. But overall: bravo.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: Wow. I mean, Wow! The command of diction here is unreal. And not only is the command of diction here incredible, but the tension between the line and the syntax of the sentences only heightens our appreciation of the diction. This poem is amazing considering how little time was given to write it. It is simply amazing. I almost don’t know what to say. My one quibble, tiny as it might be, is the ending. The speaker of this poem doesn’t seem the type to be sorry. And this speaker cannot help but “spin it”; it is what she does! I suspect a better last sentence or line might be: “My God, my God, I am not sorry at all.”



Short Answer

“...would you want to be yourself only, unduplicatable, doomed to be lost?”
–from Mark Doty’s “A Display of Mackerel”

I told God no.
At least I think I did.
There was a storm.
Not an end-of-the-world
joist-ripping, amphibian-flying storm,
but the rain was loud and I could hardly see
past the dash. To tell you the truth
I don’t know if it was before or after
the accident, lights on the bridge, a squad car.
I wasn’t driving that fast. There must’ve been an ambulance.
I didn’t even think You’re gonna kill yourself tonight.
Come on, you know you’ve thought that too,
and if you don’t wanna die, or even if you do
and are just a bit squeamish about it, you ease off
on the turns. You check the brakes, tap ‘em,
make sure they’re there. I was glad really:
no angel song, no harp, no golden stair.
Just guessing it was God, that voice in my head,
maybe the same one that would’ve warned
Slow down, sweetheart.

And the blue books were passed down the rows.
I’d been in my car but now I rummaged for a pen.
I was always a good student, studied, sturdy, shot straight.
Short answer. Directions. I could follow directions.
What would Kierkegaard say? Something about
a leap of faith? It wasn’t a dream but it felt like it.
A woman issued me a temporary id card
and left two quarters on my desk.
They stared up like coin-covered eyes.

I’d never been myself only.
Wore my mother’s eyes my whole life.

Imagine the self dissembled on the factory floor.
Earlobes, elbows, furrowed brows, sighs
the same length, weight, frequency sorted
stacked in the corresponding row.
What sharp instruments to strip
the sense of loss we might share.

Tough work cutting a body from a car,
especially when the car has melded with a bridge.
Traffic stops. The water, the barge beneath the bridge
proceed. Proceed, the officer waves. You go.
Slow, looking, think rubber-necking,
are embarrassed for only an instant. You will forget
the color of the car, what you are wearing,
how many bodies attend the one body trapped
wrapped around the steering column.
The leap of faith less difficult now.
You’ll never really leave that bridge.

I’ve been a fan of Emari’s work, and I like the subject here, the speaker’s encounter with death, but this poem’s end is less satisfying to me, and generally I’m not as compelled by the story as I feel I ought to be. There are great moments in it, (for example the stanza about the disassembled self), but finally, I’m less gripped by this one than by some of the other poems of the week and by some of Emari’s other work.

Dustin: The beginning of this poem made me feel like I was reading a short-short instead of a poem. I didn't start enjoying this poem until the last two poems. Your last two stanzas are damn good stuff. What a striking line: "Imagine the self dissembled on the factory floor." I only wish the rest of the poem was as striking.

Dana: This piece has so much going on in it and so much potential, yet it feels unfocused. I was confused by the setting shift in the second stanza, and I think you know that’s confusing because you give an explanatory note in line two of that stanza: “I’d been in my car but now I rummaged for a pen.” From the second stanza on, I felt the stanzas were pulling the reader this way and that, and not in a good way. The next-to-last stanza is very strong on its own, for instance, but going from that stanza to the last is jarring. I feel like this poem loses its way in the middle, and that the poem really is happening in the first and last stanzas. I would love to see what happened if you combined those stanzas and then focused on making the poem clearer.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: I admire the way the poet threads narrative within a lyric structure here. I like the delaying tactics in the poem, the way it moves the way the mind works, via tangential locations in time. It seems quite fitting for the opening and the ending to be separated by school and the Short Answer test. But Kierkegaard? Where did he come from? He surprises, but he also distracts. I also loved the way the epigraph was used here and the fact the poem is an answer to the question posed. That said, the real focus here is not answering the question. If revising this, I’d say lose the epigraph and tighten up the poem and let it be more meditative instead of narrative. Good poem though.



To the birds

“The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.”
                       -Naomi Shihab Nye, from “Famous”

Perch here, my jewel tone, my parachute,
and study the outline of the beast. At night you’ll hear
his spells crossing the lawn in thick boots,
the everywhere creak of ice under weight. In time
you’ll understand his scraps, his bondage,
his rolling in congress. Under the street’s lamp
some nights there are two tails pointing
the way home, two mouths to track. You’ll catch
his good eye creased to watch
the tiniest detail -- a feather flickering
against the tree’s skin. Rest here,
shake off the weight of the shell,
peek around a twig and learn
the dance of his paws. He is lightning
from a blue sky. You are no longer blind,
you can tell me what the cat looks like. Start
at the whiskers, finish at the scratch.
Eat this worm.

I love the inventiveness of this poem and the clarity and distinctiveness of the voice. I’m not entirely clear on the meaning of a few of the lines “two tails pointing the way home” (two cats—but why would it be home to the birds?) and also not sure why this bird sounds so weirdly villainous “my jewel tone, my parachute” “Rest here/shake off the weight of the shell…” (I mean, it’s a sweet little bird, right?”, but generally, this poem’s a winner, with a fantastic close.

Dustin: I love your opening line; it does a good job pulling a reader into the poem, and you do a good job making sure the reader isn't going to be disappointed once he/she is done with the poem. I do think this poem could use some revision to put more emphasis on the identity of the speaker because it is a little fuzzy. I know that fuzzy can be good at times, but in this case, I think fuzzy is distraction from a lovely poem with lines like: "He is lightning / from a blue sky." And, yes, I love that last line. Good job.

Dana: First, this is a great poem, W.f. Second, I want you to stop beating yourself up. Deal? It pains me to see you say negative things about your work or about your future in the competition. But back to the poem: I love these lines especially, “In time / you’ll understand his scraps, his bondage, / his rolling in congress.” The first line is great, too. And the last. Pretty much everything in between. The only thing I would say is that it took me a minute to orient myself in terms of understanding who the narrator was. What I really love about this piece is how creatively is responds to the epigraph by Nye. This is good squishy, W.f.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: This address to the birds is odd. I cannot figure out the speaker’s psychological stance. Is he warning the birds? Educating them a la St. Francis? The speaker seems far more interested in the cat. And we know the poet is interested in the cat from the epigraph. But here is my issue: if the epigraph says the cat is “famous to the birds,” why does a speaker need to educate the birds, tell them all about the cat(s)? And why does the cat suddenly become two cats? Odd. And the poem is made odder by its decisions to locate images where they are. This would be a very different poem were it to open with these lines used late in the poem:

He is lightning from a blue sky.
You are no longer blind,
you can tell me what the cat looks like.

That is a setup for a perverse yet interesting poem.



Also Famous

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.
-- from “Famous,” Naomi Shihab Nye

Our paper boy’s black Converse sneakers
dangle on the power line just above
Min’s Sushi. I recognize them

because of purple stripes drawn on the margin
of their soles. When I ask, he says
he can’t remember who threw them up there,

but will count the summer thunderstorms
anointing them with lightning.
He’s too poetic. I don’t buy it.

Urban legend says he’s dead (a casualty
of gang violence), or Min is selling crack,
or here’s a boundary we shouldn’t cross,

as if we walked around looking up like that,
seeing trouble and mapping out new routes.
Let the truth be more simple.

A boy and a girl under an awning after hours—
his pitching arm itched, as she unlaced
his favorite shoes to fling at the Peeping-Tom-moon

shining in the window on the plastic
replicas of sashimi plates. I don’t know
how many times it took, back and forth,

until her toss stuck and swung, for the length
of a kiss, in the raw universe
of the young and poor and famous.

The ‘boot’ of the epigraph and the sneakers seems to me to have a different kind of cultural import (the first of course referencing the working class, the second indicating or indicative more of race and a racial identification). I do see the last line as sort of bringing the two together, but the connection may be a bit of a stretch. Putting aside this quibble, I think the poem itself is impressive for the power of its details “unlaced/his favorite shoes to fling…” “stuck and swung for the length/of a kiss, in the raw universe” (such great sounds in this last passage), and for the unity of its message. In fact, perhaps part of the strength of the poem is that it brings racial and class differences together (too true for the U.S., sadly). A strong poem.

Dustin: Last week, Dara Wier told Emari to remove a note about certain lines of her poem coming from another's poet work. Dara wrote, "We either get it or we don't." In the case of your poem, I didn't get it, and my not getting it me. I had to visit my ole friend Google for clarity. Maybe I was bothered by the extra work because I don't feel this poem is your best work. Don't get me wrong---I like what you are trying to accomplish with this poem. I like this poem. But, I think the last half could use some tweaking and possibly a little more added to the store.

Dana: The opening of this poem doesn’t pull me in. I feel like we get information in the first and second stanzas that isn’t needed and doesn’t move the poem forward: “I recognize them / because of purple stripes drawn on the margin.” I had to look up the urban legend that shoes hung on a power line are a signal that a gang has killed someone or that crack is being sold in the location below the shoes. This reference is very interesting but would be lost on many readers, and I wonder about having a second epigraph that explains the legend and orients the reader. I see the connection between the poem and the epigraph, but I don’t think it’s as strong as with some of the other pieces this week.

Guest Judge C. Dale Young: “Let the truth be more simple.” Brilliant move! That small rhetorical gesture deployed just past the mid-point of the poem, is what allows this poem to move from the narrative to the metaphorical, and yet, Morrison-Taylor resists that and gives us more narrative, albeit slightly more charged narrative. This is lovely. The ending is not quite right: “her toss stuck and swing”? But this poem understands how an argument is utilized within a poem. It has an authority because of that. And I love how it mines what readers already suspect about the shoes hanging on the wire only to then discredit those suspicions. “Let the truth be more simple.” Gorgeous.


Friday, July 24, 2009

Poetry Swap!

Poetry Swap

Q: What is Poetry Swap?
A: It is a group of poetry lovers interested in sharing poems they enjoy with fellow poetry lovers via snail mail.

Q: Wasn't this project formerly called the Great Poetry Exchange?
A: Yes. The name of the project was changed from Great Poetry Exchange to Poetry Swap to help eliminate confusion between this project and one created by Rick Lupert.

Q: How does it operate?
A: Each poet involved is paired with another poet. (All efforts will be made to pair poets from different states.) A poet will be selected to initiate the poem swapping by sending his/her Poetry Swap Pal a poem. Then the receiving poet replies with a poem. This pattern continues until the poets request a new PW pal or want to call it quits.

Q: Where are some of the current participants located?
A: Poetry Swap has reached the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia as well as GA, WA, CA, OR, NM, OH, AZ, FL, NC, IL, NJ, VA, AR, MN, KY, and UT.

Q: Can I send poems I've written?
A:: The purpose of Poetry Swap is to share poems written by poets other than yourself.

Q: Do I have to be a poet to participate?
A: Nope. You only need to enjoy poetry and want to promote it.

Q: How many poems do I have to send?
A: Ideally, a poet should send his/her PS pal two poems a month. If the poets want to send more, well, that is their prerogative.

Q: How long will Poetry Swap run?
A: As long as people are willing to swap poems, Poetry Swap will exist. Ideally, it will be great if poets stay paired for at least six months before requesting a new Poetry Swap Pal or quitting Poetry Swap.

Q: What about my mailing address?
A: No information will be sold nor will you be added to any mailing lists. All information remains private!

Q: Where can I direct my questions? How do I get involved?
A: Contact Dustin Brookshire at with any questions, or send your name/mailing address as you want your Poetry Swap pal to see it. Please put "Poetry Swap" in the subject line of your email.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Where The Poem Comes From

I'm the latest writer to participate in Ellen Steinbaum's series titled Where The Poem Comes From. Click here to see what I have to say about "Stuck," which was originally published in Oranges & Sardines.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Why Do I Write ~ Alan Shapiro

WHY DO I WRITE ~ Alan Shapiro

**Essay provided by author; however, originally published in the Cincinnati Re and reprinted in Best American Essays 2007 .**

             Some years ago, I went to a child psychologist—if Henny Youngman had written this opening sentence, he would have added: “The Kid didn’t do a thing for me.” But I digress. The child psychologist I went to had recently tested one of my children for ADD. When the results came back positive, he called me and my not-yet-ex-wife to suggest that we be tested too. There may be a genetic component to ADD, he said, and taking the test would not only reveal the extent to which we ourselves suffered from this condition; it would also enable us to better understand our child.

             So we took the test. Turns out it’s the only test I ever aced. As the doctor put it, in my case the results were salient.

             “So, I’m ADD.” I said. “What does that mean?”

             “Well,” he said, “according to the test, your ADD manifests itself in three ways: you have trouble starting tasks. You have trouble staying on task. And you have trouble finishing tasks.”

             “That pretty much covers it.” I said. “But how do you explain the fact that I’ve written a number of books, and even today I spent several hours puzzling over a single sentence in a translation I’m doing of a Greek tragedy.”

             He said that it’s not that people with ADD can’t concentrate on things they want to do, it’s that they lack any ability to concentrate on anything that bores them. People with ADD have no tolerance for boredom. When I pointed out that I’d been teaching for over twenty five years and seldom read a student paper that didn’t make me want to drive an ice pick through my skull just to relieve the boredom but that I nonetheless returned each and every student paper in a timely fashion (even the ones I bothered to read—just kidding!), my soon to be ex-wife interjected: “But Alan, you can’t remember the name of anyone you meet at a party.”

             “Sweetheart,” I said, “That’s called a greeting disorder.”

              “And,” she continued, “even if I give you a list of groceries you come home with the wrong things, red peppers instead of tomatoes, bananas instead of squash.”

              “That’s called being a guy,” I said.

              “And you don’t hear five per cent of what I tell you.”

              “That’s called marriage.” She wasn’t amused.

              Sensing the tension, the doctor asked, “So what do you think you want to do about this? How do we proceed?”

              “With the ADD or with the marriage?”

              Now it was his turn not to be amused. He went on to describe the kinds of medication I could take but then said he wasn’t suggesting I do anything if I didn’t think I was a problem to myself. “People who grew up before this condition was named or treated have often found ingenious ways to compensate for their disabilities. Writing for me, he said, was a prime example of what he called compensatory behavior.

              “Let me get this straight,” I said. “I write books in order to make up for my inability to remember the names of the people I meet at a party, or because I come home from the grocery store with a red pepper instead of a tomato?”

              “Well not exactly,” he said but before he could explain exactly what he meant, the hour was up.

             I don’t know, maybe I was a tad defensive with the psychologist--you think?-- and even a little miffed by his reduction of the art I love and have devoted my life to for the better part of almost forty years to a side effect of a neurological condition. At the same time, telling the story over I can’t help but ask myself, “Why do I write?” Is writing a compensation for psychological, emotional or even neurological deficits? Do we write, as the old saying goes, because we can’t do? Is art, as Freud believed, a kind of socially acceptable wish fulfillment for asocial infantile desires? A way of finding in imagination what we lost in life? A sublimation of sexual energy? A way of transmuting our hidden wishes or shameful secrets, our failures and losses and humiliations into beautiful objects that win us wealth and admiration and all the sexual fulfillment that we put off in order to do the work in the first place? Why else get into the poetry racket? That I could even ask this question, even in jest, much less attempt to make my way in the world by writing poetry is yet another manifestation of an abiding suspicion I’ve had for many years now that god put me on earth to disprove the stereotype that all Jews make money.

              I once asked a very talented student of mine why she wanted to become a writer. Fame, she said. I want to be famous. And what did fame mean to her? It meant being able to check into the penthouse suite of a five star hotel and totally trash the room and then be loved for it. This quintessentially American celebrity-driven fantasy is just the self-indulgent flip side of an older, time honored messianic fantasy of the writer as unacknowledged cultural legislator. Seamus Heaney has written that poetry or great writing of any kind provides a culture with images adequate to its predicament. Who hasn’t dreamed of providing everyone with images adequate to their predicament and being loved for it, and maybe even given loads of cash? When we’re in our teens and early twenties, maybe we all dream of becoming celebrated shamans of the heart, but that adolescent daydream doesn’t begin to explain why we continue writing after the age of 25 or 30, once we realize that the world isn’t exactly rushing out to take its marching orders from anything we’ve written.

              I think of my dear friend Tim Dekin, a wonderful poet, who died a few years ago at the age of 58 of pulmonary fibrosis. Tim’s first full-length book, Another Day on Earth, was published posthumously in 2002 by TriQuarterly Books. Tim and I met at Stanford in 1975. Eventually, we both ended up teaching in the Chicago area. He was a brilliant talker, a fabulous poet, and a very funny man who lost many years of his writing life to alcoholism. He held down a series of demanding low paying jobs teaching freshmen comp at various universities. After years of struggling unsuccessfully to find a publisher for his poetry, he wrote three very good novels that he likewise couldn’t publish. In his last year of life, he returned to his first love, poetry, and finished his magnificent one book. Tethered to his oxygen machine, he drove from Chicago to Chapel Hill not long before he died so he and I could go over his new poems and put the manuscript together. My brother had just died, and I had broken up with my wife and was living in a basement apartment. Neither Tim nor I were in very good shape at the time, physically or otherwise.

              During that visit, I told Tim a joke that a musician friend of mine told me about the four stages in a musician’s career: The first stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” The second stage is “Get me Richard Luby.” The third stage is “Get me a young Richard Luby!” And the fourth stage is “Who is Richard Luby?” Tim laughed at the joke, then added ruefully, “I seemed to have passed from stage one to stage four without ever having passed through stages two and three.”

              I cherish the memory of those few days with Tim, and I love the image of us in my dreary digs, Tim’s poems spread out on the coffee table, Tim puffing on the oxygen tube the way he puffed on the forbidden cigars he still occasionally smoked, leaning over the poems, reading out passages, discussing them, rewriting them, the two of us beset with troubles, physical and emotional, but working rapturously nonetheless throughout the day and long into the night. What exactly were we doing? What lack were we trying to fill? What were we compensating for? Whatever it was, fame and fortune had absolutely nothing to do with it.

              Which is not to say I don’t desire fame and fortune. I do. I do. I’m not above them. In fact, I’m so far beneath them that I’d even happily forget fame if I could have just a little fortune. When I take a good hard look at the life I’ve chosen, I have to wonder how I’ve stuck it out as long as I have. For there’s a Grand Canyon’s worth of difference between the literary life I dreamed of as an adolescent and the life I found once I began to publish and actually live what passes for a literary life.

              I remember thinking in my teens and early twenties that if I could only publish a poem in a magazine, any magazine, I’d feel fulfilled and validated and wildly happy. And then I got my first publication. And I was happy for a day or so, until the bill arrived for the printing cost, and then I thought if I could only get a poem into a real journal, into a magazine that pays, I’d feel validated and happy, and when that happened, I began to feel the need to publish in the Atlantic Monthly or the New Yorker, magazines that someone other than my fellow writers may have heard of, and eventually when that happened I believed that only publishing a book with a reputable press would make me feel as if I’d earned the right to call myself a poet. And then I published a book, and the resounding silence and inattention of the world (it’s my books that suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder, not me), made me feel that the only measure of my poetic worth would be to get a book reviewed somewhere by someone I didn’t know, someone who wasn’t related to me, and when that occurred, and pleased me and the pleasure passed, I thought that only winning a big book award could quell this anxiety about my literary worth. I didn’t realize how preoccupied I was with literary recognition till one day I overheard my seven year old son negotiating with my five year old daughter over who got to hold the TV’s remote control. He said, Izzy, if you give me the controller I’ll give you a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve been at this long enough to know that even if god himself, the lord almighty, hallowed be his name, came down from heaven and gave me a big fat kiss on the back of the brain, I’d probably shrug it off: “What? That’s it? For years you don’t write, you don’t call, and now all I get is a lousy kiss?”

              Don’t get me wrong. Acclaim of any kind is wonderful, except when it goes to someone else. But even at its best, that sort of “reward” or “recognition” is like cotton candy: it looks ample enough until you put it in your mouth, then it evaporates. All taste, and no nourishment.

              Then there’s the thrill of dealing with editors. By way of illustration, let me tell you a story. In 1976, before I’d published anything, I wrote a long windy poem called Fathers and Sons. I sent it to the journal Quarterly West. The editor sent the poem back with a note suggesting I rewrite the middle two sections and resubmit it. I knew from watching the editors of Sequoia, the Stanford literary journal, that all editors are overworked and underpaid and can’t possibly read everything that crosses their desk with keen attention. So I waited six months and sent the poem back unchanged with a letter thanking the editor for his suggestions, all of which I said I took. I even thanked him for his help and said that even if he didn’t accept the poem I was still in his debt for his suggestions had made the poem new to me again, and more like what I initially envisioned when I started writing it. Within days, I received a letter from the editor accepting the poem and commending me for my professionalism.

              In 1997, in this very auditorium, I participated in an editor’s roundtable. At the time, I was the editor of the University of Chicago’s Phoenix Poets Series, and I told this story in order to make the point that writers need to treat what editors tell them with a healthy dose of skepticism. Don’t presume an editor is smart just because he or she is an editor. Editors should have to earn their authority by reading what you send them with intelligence and imagination, and that in any case they themselves, the writers, ought always to be the ultimate arbiters of what they do. Editors, I said, are mostly obstacles to get around. I returned to Bread Loaf two years later, and one of the students here stopped to thank me for my advice back in 1997. He said he followed it and it worked like a charm. What do you mean, I asked. What advice? “Well, I got a poem back from Boulevard, and the editor suggested I do a major rewrite. So I waited six months like you said and sent it back with a letter thanking him for his time and help, and he accepted the poem.” The moral of this story isn’t that editors are fools, though some are. The moral isn’t that you should all con your way into print, though if you do more power to you. Rather, the moral is you needn’t listen to everything an editor tells you. The moral is you need to be cynical about publishing in order not to be cynical about writing, in order to protect and preserve the deeply private joy of doing the work itself (I’ll say more about that private joy in a moment). I know it’s hard, sometimes impossible, to keep the po biz out of the poetry, to keep the anxieties and injustices of trying to publish from contaminating your own relationship to what you do. It’s hard to find the proper balance between the arrogance we need to keep on writing, the arrogance that assumes that we have something worth saying, and that we’re smart enough to learn what someone’s smart enough to teach us; and the humility we also need in order to grow and develop, the humility that knows that we cannot nurture and refine our gifts without the help of others, that other people including editors can sometimes tell us things we need to hear. Too much arrogance and not enough humility and we close ourselves off from the world, and nothing new comes in and we eventually become imitators of ourselves, turning what at one time were discoveries into mannerisms. And too much humility and not enough arrogance and we lose our center of gravity and find ourselves at the mercy of everyone else’s opinion. Striking the right balance between humility and arrogance is another exhausting and often frustrating aspect of the writing life.

              And then there’s the frustration that surrounds the work itself, the work we’ve already done and the work we want to do. The dissatisfactions we often feel toward older work, not to mention the frustrations we often feel toward what we’re writing now as well as the anxieties we feel toward what we may do next, put me in mind of the old joke about the Jew who’s shipwrecked on a desert island. Twenty years later, he’s discovered, but before he leaves he wants to show his saviors the three synagogues he’s built: “Over there,” he says, “is the synagogue I used to go to. Over there’s the synagogue I go to now. And over there, that synagogue, I wouldn’t step foot in.” I know this is really a joke about class and status, and the need to feel superior to something. But I do think the more we refine our abilities, the more embarrassing our older work becomes. That is, if we’re truly lucky, we’ll despise our early work. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel as if nearly everything but what we’re writing now was written by someone else we’d rather not be seen in public with. And if we’re lucky, what we’re writing now won’t compare with what we’ll write ten years from now. That’s the price we pay for getting better. The problem is the better we get at writing, the better we get at imagining getting even better. So the discrepancy between the writer we are and the writer we want to be only widens as we improve. To flourish as an artist requires a tolerance for frustration, inadequacy and a deepening sense of failure.

              And that’s the good news. Now let’s consider the effect of what we write on those we write about. Over the years, I learned the hard way that no one wants to give up narrative control over his or her life. Yet my theory’s always been that if I try to tell the truth, if I have no ax to grind and write about others in a spirit of forgiveness, curiosity and understanding, then no one should be upset by anything I say. Well, so much for theory. Even the most affectionate portrait of a loved one, the most intimate praise (never mind depictions of estrangement or disaffection) can and will offend. In 1996, I published a book of personal essays. My mother called to congratulate me. “Have you heard from anybody yet about the book?” She asked. “Only my shrink,” I joked. “He’s upset that I’ve gone public with stories I should have only shared with him. He’s threatening to sue me, Ma!” “That’s ridiculous,” she’s said, not joking, deadly serious. “If anyone’s going to sue you over this book it’s me.”

              But even if we never write about our families, there’s still the often-painful fallout on our families from the dedication, time and solitude that the art requires. I don’t want to suggest, even for a moment, that artistic success depends on domestic instability, or that there’s any correlation between art and suffering. One doesn’t have to have a tortured soul to become a writer. Or rather our souls don’t have to be tortured any more than most people’s souls are tortured. Catastrophe or self-destructiveness is no prerequisite for the position. Nor need one be a drunk, a womanizer or a victim of abuse. If bad behavior or bad luck were essential ingredients of a writing life, our de-tox centers, prisons and twelve step programs would be full of writers. All one has to do to be a writer is to write. We’re writers only when we’re writing. Writing, in other words, is an activity, it’s something we do, and not something we are. When we’re not writing, each of us is just another poor slob trying to get through the day without hurting anyone too much. That said, let’s also recognize that many of us live within rather stringent economies of energy, and to do this is not to do that. With jobs, kids, relationships, it’s impossible to balance the competing claims of life and art without slighting one in favor of the other. I should add too that the muse is an especially demanding and jealous mistress, and most of us when we’re not writing wish we were. It may be that even if I were a shepherd or a proctologist, I’d be just as troubled as I’ve often been throughout my life, struggling to satisfy both my need to work and my need to love. Maybe, but I doubt it. The fact is, like most writers, I’ve been and continue to be monomaniacal about putting in my hours at the desk. And that dedication to work has sometimes proven lethal to my loves and friendships.

              So the work itself always entails frustration and failure; it can damage our most intimate relationships; its public rewards are illusory at worst, fleeting at best. And if you write poetry, hardly anyone is listening. So why do it?

              Elizabeth Bishop provides a possible answer in a famous letter to Anne Stevenson. Bishop writes that what we want from great art is the same thing necessary for its creation, and that is, a self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration. We write, Bishop implies, for the same reason we read or look at paintings or listen to music: for the total immersion of the experience, the narrowing and intensification of focus to the right here right now, the deep joy of bringing the entire soul to bear upon a single act of concentration. It is self-forgetful even if you are writing about the self because you yourself have disappeared into the pleasure of making, your identity, the incessant transient noisy New York Stock Exchange of desires and commitments, ambitions, hopes, hates, appetites and interests have been obliterated by the rapture of complete attentiveness. In that extended moment, opposites cohere: the mind feels and the heart thinks, and receptivity’s a form of fierce activity. Quotidian distinctions between mind and body, self and other, space and time, dissolve. Athletes know all about this nearly hallucinatory state. They call it being in the zone. They feel simultaneously out of body and at one with body. I also think that infants inhabit a rudimentary version of this state of being. When my children were babies, I would often awaken in the morning to the sound of my son or daughter babbling happily in the crib. They’d be talking but the meaning of the words were indistinguishable from the sensation of the sound, and the sound was part and parcel of the mouth that made the sound, of the hands and fingers that the mouth was sucking on as it sang. No matter how sophisticated our poems may be, or how deadly serious they are about eradicating or exposing the terrible injustices around us, I still think that we are trying, by means of words, of consciousness, to reawaken that preverbal joy, to repossess, re-inhabit what someone else has called the seriousness of a child at play. Bishop says this concentration’s useless because it is its own reward, the mysterious joy of it. It is singing for the sake of singing. And even if the singing pleases others or consoles them, stirs them to further the cause of justice in the world, or simply brings the parent to the crib with food, warmth and maybe a dry diaper, those effects and ramifications are nonetheless incidental to the primal fundamental urge to sing, to the sheer gaiety (to borrow a word from Yeats’s “Lapis Lazuli”) of projecting our voices out into the ambient air.

              Maybe it’s because I do have ADD and have always been a deeply and often painfully distracted human being, but my best days are the ones in which I sit down at the desk at 9 am, and look up to discover that it’s 3 pm, and that 6 hours have passed in a single moment. It doesn’t matter ultimately whether what I’ve written is any good or not. I always feel renewed and grateful if the material, whatever it is, induces that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration. While I’m working I’m only working, nothing else exists. Inside and outside feel perfectly aligned, and throughout the full range of my faculties and sensibilities I’m entirely alert, entirely present, and this, for me, too rare experience of being there, wholly there, never fails to exhilarate. While it lasts, there’s no joy like it. And it never lasts long enough, or happens often enough to satisfy my yearning for it. Dickinson describes its passing as a “sumptuous destitution.” Wallace Stevens expresses the desperate longing to prolong this blessed state when he says in “Solitude Among Cataracts” that he wants to die in “a permanent realization.” The pleasure of that concentration is addictive, and it’s that addiction, I think, that accounts for the restlessness and melancholy many writers feel when they’re not writing. It’s not, as Berryman believed, that poets need to suffer in order to write; that misery produces art; it’s rather that that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration makes them happy, is itself the happiness that may elude them or never come so purely or reliably in their non-writing lives.

              In February of 2001, a month before Tim died, I flew to Chicago to spend a few last days with him. Tim was bed-ridden by then, his breathing labored, his consciousness a little compromised by lack of oxygen. One afternoon, Reg Gibbons, his good friend and editor at TriQuarterly Books, Reg’s wife Cornelia Spelman, and I were sitting around Tim’s bed, talking about poetry, as we almost always did. The subject of Tim’s forthcoming book came up. He had just seen a mock up of the cover, which consisted of a picture of Tim fly-fishing, one of his great passions and the subject of many of the poems in the book. Tim was happy with the cover, and hopeful that he’d be around when the book came out in the fall. I don’t remember who suggested this, but Reg and I began to take turns reading from the last poem in the book, a poem in four sections called “Woodmanship.” Tim by then was too weak to read out loud. His eyes were closed throughout the reading while his fingers tapped out the rhythm of the poem on the bed’s railing. Though fly-fishing is the occasion of the poem, the subject is really acceptance of mortality, failure and loss, and the value of joy in all its elusiveness. Reg got to read the magnificent final section in which the speaker fishes with a young boy he has befriended:

Early the next morning, I poach
In the Rod and Gun Club, the boy beside me,
In pitch black, making our way by starlight
And the cold flowing river.
We’re being careful of sheriffs with sidearms,
I tell him, though an expensive ticket’s about
The worst for getting caught these days.

In the preserve of the privileged, I whisper,
Honest men take small breaths to avoid
The smell of wasted, rotting game.
But poachers breathe
                                    From the soles of their feet
The blue ribbon trout streams.
Now pine needles, now pungent, spongy sucking
Gives way to commotion: the slapping and thrashing
Of twenty-pound steelhead trout on the shallow gravel—
The bucks are biting each other’s tails,
The hens are heavy with roe.
My heart aches.

Then finally, the long, moon-shimmering slick
Coming down hard into a sucking whirlpool.
In my desire it is already light.

The boy fishes: a crisp, short, roll cast—
And a huge steelie takes the lure deep in the hole.
The trout jerks its massively-jawed head once,
Then twice, as if trying to shake off a nightmare.
The boy strikes sideways, downstream,
To set the hook firmly.

I wait, calm, observant, almost indifferent now,
But still the old feeling comes—
Well being. Delight being. Joy being.
The sun breaking,
Birch branch shiny with spilled light
(Is it black on white
                                    or white on black?)
The only difference now my knowing enough not to think.

Go joy. Fly.
I don’t need you,
Which is why you’ve come,
                                               Welcome back
My childhood’s earliest familiar,
Omnipresent except when desired.
Still, if you will, take bread at my hand
Like any unsuspecting creature of the forest,
Eat the trail of crumbs I left to find my way back.

An explosion goes off in the whirlpool:
Silver with a rosy pink underbelly,
Predatory, unsuspecting, all of creation
Caught in its exquisite contortions,
A steelhead leaps—
The burden of the past and the future lifting—
Two feet out of the water
And throws the hook.

I move up beside the boy to praise his effort;
I try to comfort his unfathomable loss.

             The poem of course is also about writing, the moment of creation, when we forget all else but the task at hand, when preparation and luck coincide, when the burden of the past and the future lifts, and exhilaration comes, what Tim calls delight being, joy being, his childhood’s familiar. The poem, itself, he implies, the writing of it, is both the crumbs that lead us as adults back to that childhood paradise, and the measure of how far we’ve traveled from it. When the moment passes, and the poem’s written, and we rise from the desk to return to the world awaiting us, our tangled loves and commitments, the exhilaration is nearly indistinguishable from “unfathomable loss”.

             Career-wise, Tim’s life was not a happy one. At the same time, in his last six years he remarried, had another child, and despite his worsening physical condition he did his finest writing. His life, in fact, contradicts the cliché that great art springs from misery. Illness and the terrors of dying certainly inform Tim’s rueful, funny, heart wrenching final poems, but so too do the joys of fatherhood, and marriage, and the deep pleasure of domestic peace. The poems, in fact, are inconceivable without them. Ill as he was, in his last years Tim had never been so happy, as a writer or a man.

             Early and late, though, Tim’s only constant was his work, his poetry, the pleasure of sitting down to write each morning, and those marvelous days when hours would pass in what would feel like seconds. Through all the vagaries of love and loss, addiction, illness and recovery, he took delight in the work, and the delight and the surprise that found him as he wrote these final poems is now our delight and surprise as we read them. It was for that pleasure that he wrote. It was for that self-forgetful perfectly useless concentration that he kept on writing even when the world paid no attention. He didn’t write for fame, however much he may have longed for recognition and suffered keenly for the lack of it. He wrote for the sheer joy of the writing, which, as a writer, was his most durable sustenance. It was less than he deserved, but, lucky for us, it was enough to keep him going.

Week Six: Guest Judge C. Dale Young

C. Dale Young is the author of three books of poetry: The Day Underneath the Day (Northwestern 2001); The Second Person (Four Way Books 2007); and TORN (Four Way Books forthcoming 2012). He practices medicine full-time, edits poetry for New England Review, and teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. A recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the National Endowment for the Arts, he lives in San Francisco. Click here to check out his blog.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

"The Replacement" by Tania Rochelle


For months I've imagined brass
and polish, sharp edges--
a food critic, maybe,
or a stripper-someone
agnostic enough to tolerate
an indifferent lover, reluctant
father, petulant payer of bills;
and all that time, she's just
got to get to class.
Ten years younger, she shakes
her long brown hair
from her clueless face,
asks if I want my husband back.
She tells me she wouldn't compete,
as if it were a gift,
more lead crystal
to leach slow poison
into my daily cocktail.
So fresh I could bite her,
this girl, twenty-one, still
smelling of grass and Kool-Aid,
is asking permission.
But I'm not her mother--
to care if she runs
with a pencil in one hand,
a fork in the other.
Let her keep her prize:
his glass-green eyes,
a gold-plated tongue
that ferrets out soft spots
where promises grow
wild as ivy, as fire
through parchment.
Searching her flat baby-blues
for ripples, the slight wave
that might suggest she stands a chance,
I see only a plain beauty,
hands in her pockets.

Tania Rochelle, Karaoke Funeral

Monday, July 20, 2009

Beth Gylys on The Joe Milford Poetry Show

Click here to listen to Beth Gyly's interview/reading on the Joe Milford Poetry Show. Beth and Joe won't disappoint you!

Project Verse ~ Week 6: Epigraph


According to Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Only poetry inspires poetry." Take these words to heart because they are the guidelines for your next assignment. You must pick a poem from the options below to serve as your inspiration:
"With Mercy for the Greedy" by Anne Sexton
"A Display of Mackerel" by Mark Doty
"How I Discovered Poetry" by Marilyn Nelson
"Famous" by Naomi Shihab Nye

From the selected poem, you must select 2 to 3 lines to use as an epigraph in your poem. Keep Emerson's words close because we must see how this epigraph inspired your poem.

Denise Duhamel's "Buying Stock" is the only help I'm offering.

The poem must be written in 75 lines or less. No form constraints. Like Emerson's words, your poem better be a jewel.

Poets-- Your Friday deadline has been moved from 10am to 1pm. Don't be late.

Get to writing!

Week 5: The Between Results

Beth, Dustin, and Dana were joined by guest judge Dara Wier for Week 5: The Between. Click here to revisit the Week 5 poems.


KATHI and KRISTEN, you both received a total of three votes from the judges; therefore, the two of you tie for the winning poem of Week 5: The Between.

MICAH and W.F., you are at the bottom this week. One of you received a vote from each of the weekly judges but not the guest judge. The other received a total of two votes. Which was which? Well, it doesn't matter. I suggest both of you write furiously for Week 6. No one is going permanent caesura due to the early dismissal of Martin Ott.

Friday, July 17, 2009

I Won!

I won C. Dale Young's Caption Contest #41.

Week 5: The Between (The Poems!)

Here are the poems from Project Verse ~ Week 5: The Between.



Runcible Spoon

A piece of toast cracks like slate
when it’s the only sound in the room
and the only room in the world. The toast
is lonely, Jim sighs as he pockets the burnt bread.

When it’s the only sound in the room
Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs
and lonely: he sighs as he pockets the toast
wasting nothing, soaking each crumb.

Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs
when he sits at his table, in his corner
wasting nothing, soaking each crumb
with butter or cream or cold coffee.

When he sits at his table, in his corner
Jim listens to the sounds of the room
rich with butter and cream and coffee
between his teeth.

This is not Micah’s strongest work, I don’t think. There’s something a bit like Bishop about the poem, a matter-of-fact and distanced tone which appeals to me on some level, and in fact there’s a bit of Bishop’s sestina “Miracle for Breakfast” here with the toast and coffee references. But the poem feels “thin.” Jim is a gesture of a character not actualized in the poem, and the situation feels not fully realized. Why is this “the only room in the world”? Finally, I wonder what we are meant to feel by this one.

Dustin: I think you have a great beginning with "A piece of toast cracks like slate / when it’s the only sound in the room." I'm also quite fond of "Jim’s voice is thin as his ribs." I think you complete the assignment by splitting the sentence "A piece of toast cracks like slate between his teeth," but what you have between the split isn't very compelling to me.

Dana: I love pantoums and I’ve written a lot of them, so I was smitten with this piece right away. I didn’t mind the variation with the third-to-last and last lines not repeating lines three and one, but it did make the poem feel a little incomplete, and I wonder if there could be another stanza to tie the piece up. While the poem does exploit the variations that can occur when each line is repeated — one of my favorite aspects of the pantoum form — I don’t feel that overall the variance was leveraged as much as it could have been. Also, there was some confusion in the poem, which can happen in the pantoum as lines are brought back. One instance of this was the bread being pocketed but also being soaked. On re-reading, I understand that the bread is being pocketed and the crumbs from the bread are being soaked, but it’s a little confusing at first.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: Who doesn't like a runcible spoon? And there being but one room in the world, well, that's good to think with, too. I really like the recycling ways with the lines, I love how it makes both sonic and sense insistently inevitable. I like this poem a lot. It is also fun to translate "Jim" into "I" just to see what happens then.




Thus the private asylum is far
thus he cannot
get there but by boat.

Thus he will pay the ferryman
in moon-fat coins.
Thus he will thunder

over cowlicked waves
in a rot-bottomed barge
to grasp the scrawny shore.

How he has festered in his prophecies,
and oh what the Stakes are
in this Seeing!

It’s all in the Semantics--
the wording and the Interpretation:
somewhere lurks a shelter

in which he may learn
dreamspeak. Thus he will shamble
through the hoary copse,

trample the backs of mud-deep moles
with his scabrous feet for passage.
He will breathe the sick-mist,

let their neuro-germs seep in
through his most judicious eye.
But he has exhausted

his amulets too soon; been made to beg
provisions from the enemy.
It is said: a silver-tongued

saint deceives us all. It is
said: there are no angels on this plane.
Always there's another gummy step

on his odyssey to the silent pool,
but nothing will hold
still in all this bruise and teal.

The sky presses its mattress full
of squids upon his mouth
to suffocate his warnings. The chatter

of the assassin bugs is ceaseless. Peace
is always never-jam-today; always
beyond his reach at the present.

I have been a fan or Kristen’s inventive, sonic, surprising language throughout the competition, and this poem’s language is no exception: “ he will pay the ferryman/in moon-fat coins./…will thunder/over cowlicked waves/in a rot-bottomed barge/ to grasp the scrawny shore.” “The sky presses its mattress full/of squids.” The mythological story also works beautifully here to ground the poem and give it resonance and breadth. I’m not as wild about the way the poem ends the “never-jam-today” is a bit awkward and there’s a kind of falling away, but this is a strong poem given the parameters of the assignment.

Dustin: Kristen, I have to give you kudos for selecting "Thus the private asylum is far beyond his reach at the present"-- I think it was the hardest option to work with. My favorite lines: "It is said: a silver-tongued / saint deceives us all." Yes, you have beautiful language. Yes, you have lovely images. Yes, you always do a good job with the assignment. However, I can't help but feel there is a little something missing, for me at least. Maybe you are leaving something out. Are you writing furiously, then stop thinking it might be too much? Either way, I still enjoyed this poem quite a lot.

Dana: Are you kidding me? This poem is amazing. For me, this is one of the best pieces overall in the competition so far. The way the rich, lush language works against the short lines is thrilling. The poem is so tight but so language-dense. I loved reading from line to line to see what goodies the next line would bring, and I was not once disappointed. I especially love the line, “trample the backs of mud-deep moles.” And when I got to, “The sky presses its mattress full / of squids upon his mouth,” I couldn’t even get past the lines because I wanted to read them over and over. I finally managed to read the rest of the poem, though.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: The anachronistic therefore idiomatic "thus" completely seduces me. Immediately feel in the presence of an oracle or at least a fiesty judge, turns out there's but one part of this poem that maybe could be changed.

Even though this is probably true:

It’s all in the Semantics--
the wording and the Interpretation:
somewhere lurks a shelter

in which he may learn

it's not needed in this poem. If you left this part out the poem's not about to appear as any kind of lesson, it's more mysterious and I like that a lot. "The chatter / of the assassin bugs is ceaseless," is just great.
Added to "thus" come other rhetorical insistences most enjoyable (funny how so called transitions can make or break a poem, these make it). This is also great to read translated into first person.



Because As A Youth, My Love Was Sure His Wife Would Want His Name

He already has
her plucked! This is years
before we saunter down the aisle—

I’m sleuthing time’s back
alleys, a wedded Nancy Drew. Suddenly,
I unearth Mrs. Peck! His conjured lady

wife; she’s lounged, facedown upon
a paisley chaise. Perfection: she lifts
her sleepy chin: sphinxy girl—

a bas relief Colette. ‘Sorry,’
she says, ‘have we met?’
Oh, my dear, we have. In dreams,

and in the sun. I’ve decked you out
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping
steam from my mud pies. You peeked

out from my Mother’s sad brown eyes.
I ask, ‘What’s it like to be
a flat, two-sided bride?’ ‘Every woman

is imagined!’ she huffs out— a thunder-
cloud of pride. ‘I’ve seen you
in the shower, how you wish

your body gone— your wet lark’s
an execution song! You grasp and wring
your glutted flesh, you’d hack it off, if

only—!’ Now she pancakes down to size—
smoothes her chignon, rolls her cobalt
eyes; they turn familiar, brown! ‘Sometimes,

I think he still wants you around,’
I whisper, look the other way. ‘It’s not
too late,’ she jeers, ‘Let’s call you

Mrs. Peck.’ She bids her hollow
hand— it glints! Hot diamond in a flame.
She smiles a white mirage.

She Mona Lisa’s me.
I tell her I already have
a name, she sighs reproachfully.

This is a fun and inventive poem exploring sexual dynamics. I like the light deftness of the way the poem moves “I’ve decked you out /
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping / steam from my mud pies." and ‘What’s it like to be / a flat, two-sided bride?’ Another fine job with a tough assignment.

Dustin: Again, you create a long title for your poem. Again, the long title works. I think this title would cause people to go from the table of contents directly to your poem. You also selected a sentence that no one else used: "He already has a name, she sighs reproachfully." I am in love with "I’m sleuthing time’s back / alleys, a wedded Nancy Drew," and I really enjoyed "Now she pancakes down to size." On the other hand, I am not really feeling "She Mona Lisa’s me." In the end, I think you handled the assignment well. Emily, give us an interesting story between.

Dana: Emily, I love the creativity in this piece and so much of what is going on throughout. A couple of things hung me up, though. I had trouble settling into the poem and understanding what exactly was going on at first. The “he” and “her” in lines one and two made the “we” in line three confusing, and even the explanation in the second stanza, along with the title, wasn’t clear enough to orient me immediately. Don’t get me wrong — I am not arguing that poetry has to be “accessible” in that way that everyone talks about poetry being accessible. I just wanted a smoother on-ramp into the piece, if that makes sense. The other thing I noticed was a lot of long “i” sounds in the fifth through seventh stanzas, with “piping, “pies,” “eyes,” “like,” “bride” and “pride.” You have rhyme and assonance in the rest of the piece, but not the same sounds over and over, and that made this section of the poem sound and feel different from the rest of the piece.

Guest Judge Dara Wier:
...I’ve decked you out
in paper aprons; you cooled the piping
steam from my mud pies. You peeked

out from my Mother’s sad brown eyes.
I ask, ‘What’s it like to be
a flat, two-sided bride

is my favorite part of this poem, and I'm also intrigued by the dramatic monologue quality that's immediately territorially in action here. I listen. I listen in to a conversation that's reported. There's a sphinx, Nancy Drew, Mona Lisa, Mrs. Peck, Mother, Colette, a populated poem! I appreciate how these 3 line stanzas create vertical action in the poem's narration/dialog. And I admire the work the poem's title does.



Continually Calling On Persephone

A piece of toast
blackened beyond a clean shave
with the best serrated knife.
Nothing a little butter, a little marmalade
can’t sweeten. Over breakfast
I ask what love isn’t half stale anyway?
Akhmatova answered this: the first helpless and frightening glance.
I remember them all. Boys, really.
The evening of their eyes starless, lit only by my face.
Their longing dangerous. Mine, too.
You, sir, are mistaken: a siren cannot not sing.
And pleasure slackens desire.
We walk along the hard crest of the snowdrift.
The shiver is not from the cold.
Whatever was promised me
cracks like slate between his teeth.

*Poem contains lines from two Anna Akhmatova poems translated by Jane Kenyon.
Though I like many of the lines in this poem “I ask what love isn’t half stale anyway?” “I remember them all. Boys, really. / The evening of their eyes starless, lit only by my face,” the contemporary situation of the poem feels a but insular to me. I think the poem needs to be teased out more. The lines: “You, sir, are mistaken: a siren cannot not sing. / And pleasure slackens desire.” don’t let me in enough. I do like the ending lines, and the situation of the poem is intriguing.

Dustin: The title of this poem really piqued my interest; however, I don't feel the poem lives up to its title. I don't feel like there is enough between "A piece of toast" and "cracks like slate between his teeth." I also feel with more time that you could turn this into a much better poem.

Dana: It’s interesting to see three different takes on the “piece of toast” line. All three poems are so different, and I like your approach very much, especially the quiet intimacy of it, the narrator’s meditation and revelations. Lines such as “The evening of their eyes starless” and “And pleasure slackens desire” are standout moments in the poem. I stumbled over the double negative of “a siren cannot not sing,” but that’s a small detail. The turn created with the line you chose is remarkable, the way you move from “A piece of toast” to “Whatever was promised me / cracks like slate between his teeth.” Look at all the territory this poem covers in just a few lines.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: I think you can leave off the note that tells from where the lifted lines come. Either we know it or we don't, and if we do, fine, if we don't fine. The note's a great big interruption in a poem such as this (notes can be incorporated into a poem's very being, or appear elsewhere). I love
"The shiver is not from the cold."



Breakfast with Walt

A piece of toast cracks
into a broken line. His face is the wing of a flightless bird.
The crumbs of gathered eggs are caught in his beard.
My orange juice is half full, it casts a glaze
over his manuscript, stretched epigraph to postscript,
laid out between the knives and the pepper mill.
A bit of shell was lost in the egg batter, an island
bound to the dreams of mapmakers, a flea
on a wedding dress. Walt is still drunk
from the night before -- we sipped HD
until our lips were salty as the sea’s edge
where blooms take root.
Behind my breakfast nook
there is a window framing trees, still
as iambs in a sturdy breeze. I tell Walt
that leaves of parsley seem to me to be
the uncut hair of omelettes. The great poet frowns
around a mouthful of food -- he's found the shell. It sings
like slate between his teeth.

I like the imagined scenario here, and some of the lines/metaphors are quite nice “His face is the wing of a flightless bird.” “A bit of shell was lost in the egg batter, an island/ bound to the dreams of mapmakers, a flea/ on a wedding dress.” I have to say though that finally, I’m not all that excited by this poem. I think my main question for it is that it doesn’t move much beyond itself in the telling. It has a kind of flatness and the arc of the poem doesn’t for me have enough metaphoric reach.

Dustin: I am actually disappointed that you selected "A piece of toast cracks like slate between his teeth." I thought you would have went with another option. This poem is not lacking in images. We even have writers popping up. I do love a poem full of images, but I am not sure if this poem is about to be on image overload. I do not like "still / as iambs in a sturdy breeze." I would say something, but I've already said it two or three times in my comments to you. This is not your best work in the competition.

Dana: Another piece of toast! This poem has a kind of playfulness that I really enjoy. I especially love the second stanza, the way you start out in lines one and two with iambs, then describe the trees as iambs. That’s a wonderful interplay between content and rhythm. And the rest of the stanza is outstanding, including the parsley as omelets hair and Walt frowning around his food. The only part that tripped me up was “to me to be.” The first stanza has a lot of great imagery, but it felt less polished than the second. I felt myself wanting to pull a few words out and tighten a bit as I read it.

Guest Judge Dara Wier: "a flea on a wedding dress," is worthy of a latter day Emily Dickinson! I wonder what HD thinks about being in here, probably that HD (the very proud HD likes it a lot). I'm not crazy about "still as iambs" but maybe it's growing on me.........esp. when I see how close, for the first time! iambs is to lambs. And the poem turns toward a tonal joke in its 3rd to last line in a way that's pretty fetching. "...the uncut hair of omlettes," that's funny. And since you're obeying the assignment's orders, I find that all the more funny. I wonder if you were going to disobey, if you'd end the poem very differently.



My Grandma’s Breast

As soon as he saw her
crying in the bath, hand cupped
over something on her chest—
an engorged tick, head buried
in skin an inch from her nipple—
her father thought of fire,
             my grandma said.

Only 13, she knelt in a tub,
screened off in the kitchen corner.
Stomping in from the porch
with all his “take charge”
Kentucky charm, her father
returned with an open flame.

His head half-turned, he held that burn
to the sucking creature at her breast,
until it let go in its inferno. Fear
and fire puckered her skin.
It hurt like Hell. Her eyes swelled
closed with tears from pain,
             for her lost modesty.

At 90, she repeats her story to me,
while my father dismisses this tall tale.
She admonishes him: his own cheek
rested on the scar in infancy;
his own lips worked in and out
beside that dime-sized injury.

She raises her voice to tell me
how hard it was to be a woman,
someone’s rag doll or nurse maid,
fighting all the time with big boys
who thought they knew better.
She shakes her head and clucks her tongue
             at her son, my father,

when he says that even back then,
folks knew basic medicine: tweezers,
rubbing alcohol, or perhaps, rum,
and if a deer tick latched on
to a daughter a good man loved,
he knew that this wouldn’t happen.

I am a sucker for the compelling narrative, and Kathi’s poem certainly ropes me in from the get-go. That opening stanza (that title even!) is hard to beat. She is a natural story-teller, and we see this in the following section, which I’ll paste in en toto:

Stomping in from the porch
with all his “take charge”
Kentucky charm, her father
returned with an open flame.

His head half-turned, he held that burn
to the sucking creature at her breast,
until it let go in its inferno. Fear
and fire puckered her skin.

I’m not sure fear can pucker the skin, but the sounds, the timing, the power of the scenario all work well. The penultimate stanza is less sonically rich and gets a little flat, and for me the last line doesn’t quite fit, but this is definitely a strong draft and a top pick for me this week.

Dustin: You were the only person who selected "As soon as he saw her, he knew that this wouldn't happen," and you did a great job. This assignment was about what's betweent he split line, and you give us one heck of a story. I thoroughly enjoyed this poem, and it is my favorite for this week. Granted, I think you can be a little tighter in places. One place for me is:
She raises her voice to tell me

how hard it was to be a woman,
someone’s rag doll or nurse maid,
fighting all the time with big boys
who thought they knew better.
She shakes her head and clucks her tongue

This is minor, but I really wanted a simile with the engorged tick-- something to make us see it more. I like your title; it will make readers do a double take. Good job, Kathi.

Dana: This is a strong piece, and I love the storytelling aspect of it, specifically the way this poem gets at the oral tradition in families and the disputes that can arise about what’s real and what’s made up and what’s been amplified over the years of telling and retelling. I also like the reference to Hell and the inferno, with the story playing out on this teensy scale. I did feel that the piece could be tightened in places, including the first stanza. I don’t know if “over something” needs to be there, and I would love to see what would happen if the poem went straight to the engorged tick, as opposed to hovering for a line on the nonspecificity of “something.”

Guest Judge Dara Wier: Well, I'm feeling shy and almost embarrassed, wondering if I should be privy to the narrated events of this poem. Even the poem says so, after all, it's about a story, a family story, that's disputed and/or differently recalled, and at the very least differently interpreted. Of course that's what we do with stories, and if a story, as it seems to be in this case, is presented as a memory, yes, we are going to not only remember it in our different ways, we're going to assign it more or less importance. ("only 13" and "at 90" wind up being two of the most significant moments of the poem's character, maybe more of this (in a rhetorical way.....a formal way) would make the two instances of this seem less perfunctory and more intrinsic....I think it's close to being shaped into something more imagination about what I'm supposed to be thinking would help transform an anecdotal piece into metaphorical territory.