Sunday, November 25, 2007

Good News Department

Friday night I received the good news that my poem, "Temptation by Water," has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The poem first appeared in the spring issue of Valparaiso Poetry Review. Editor Ed Byrne nominated six poems:

John Balaban: “Finishing Up the Novel After Some Delay”

Barbara Crooker: “Lemons”

W.D. Ehrhart: “Coaching Winter Track in Time of War”

Anne Haines: “Swallowed”

H. Palmer Hall: “Vietnam Roulette”

Diane Lockward: “Temptation by Water”

My poem is an ekphrastic one, based on "The Open Window" by Henri Matisse:

I wrote the poem while on a three-day women's poetry retreat in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Tomorrow I will return for the third year to this retreat, though it's now held in Ocean Grove. There will be six women poets. We will spend our mornings and afternoons giving each other writing prompts. We will have a few hours of free time in the late afternoon and then will go out to dinner together. I hope to return well nourished with at least a dozen new poems in draft form.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Jane Kenyon's A Hundred White Daffodils

I just finished reading Kenyon's posthumous book, A Hundred White Daffodils. It's wonderful. I loved everything about it. There's so much here. It was like devouring my way through a box of Godiva chocolates. First come the twenty translations of Akhmatova's poems. This section is followed by three sections of Kenyon's essays, none of which I'd read before. One essay section contains pieces about gardens, hiking, and her childhood. The next section contains the columns Kenyon wrote for a newspaper, the Concord Monitor. The remaining prose section contains pieces about literature, especially poetry. Section V consists of three interviews, and the book concludes with a poem. The introduction to the collection is by Donald Hall, while the introduction to the translations is by Kenyon. I'm going to include some snippets of my favorite parts.

In Kenyon's introduction she writes about Akhmatova's relationship with her son. I was interested to learn how difficult the Russian poet found motherhood, referring to it as a "bright torture. I was not worthy of it. . ." Akhmatova described the work of translation as "eating one's own brain." Having previously read Stanley Kunitz's translations of Akhmatova and his comments about the art of translation, I was interested to read what Kenyon had to say on the subject. She, too, talks about what must be sacrificed. Her choice was to sacrifice formal elements in order to retain "the integrity of the image. . ."

In her essay "Every Year the Light," Kenyon speaks of her friend Edna Powers who each year wrote a Christmas play for the church children to perform and who left behind these beautiful words: ". . .the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." Good words to return to during grim times.

In "A Proposal for New Hampshire Writers," Kenyon exhorts her fellow artists to do what they can to preserve public funding for the arts: ". . .we must have art always before us. We must make our visions and gifts accessible to all. Everyone needs art, but not everyone knows it. Not everyone knows when they need to consume more calcium—they just know that they are sick, and can't figure out how they got that way. So with art. People must have it or they sicken. It is soul food."

In the interview with Bill Moyers, Kenyon speaks of those times when the writing doesn't want to arrive. She says, "But I think that also happens to me when I'm getting ready to make some kind of leap, either in the subjects I undertake to talk about in my poems or some technical change, maybe longer lines or something else—I don't know. These silences often come over me before something new breaks in, but they're hard to wait out."

Speaking with David Bradt in a later interview, Kenyon explains why she thinks poetry matters: "It matters because it's beautiful. It matters because it tells the truth, the human truth about the complexity of life. . . It tells the entire truth about what it is to be alive, about the way of the world, about life and death. Art embodies that complexity and makes it more understandable, less frightening, less bewildering. It matters because it is consolation in times of trouble. Even when a poem addresses a painful subject, it still manages to be consoling, somehow, if it's a good poem. Poetry has an unearthly ability to turn suffering into beauty."

The book then finishes with an extensive bibliography. This collection, like Kenyon's poetry, is soul food.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Poet du Jour: Sally Bliumis-Dunn

It makes me very happy when my own publisher, Wind Publications, puts out a collection I really like. It makes me proud to be keeping company with the likes of Ann Fisher-Wirth, JC Todd, and Tom Chandler. So I was delighted to read Sally Bliumis-Dunn's just-released Talking Underwater, which I am now pleased to recommend to you. These are poems that offer rewards on a first reading, then invite you back to plumb for hidden treasures. I was immediately drawn to the combination of plain language and elegance. I also admire the poet's knack for metaphors, something I noticed in "Injury," the collection's very first poem. I like how the metaphors here loop from one to the next: "When leaves die, / the tiny cups // at the ends of their stems / loosen from the branch, // and they are no longer / leaves: they are hands // slipping from their lives; / no, they are coins and flipping // slowly through the air; / or maybe rafts // bobbing on an ocean. . ."

Another quality I like in this collection is the fusion of opposites, a quality that adds richness and complexity to poetry. In "Angie, Leaving" the speaker asks, "Isn't it always like this— / joy and sorrow calling / to each other / across an open field?" Throughout the poems we find images of light and shadow playing off each other. Bliumis-Dunn also has a gift for nature poems, something not so easy to pull off. For me the secret of her success in such poems is the placement of people into the landscapes. How perfect and poignant the ending of "Angie, Leaving": "How strange the heart's / equivalents — / she is leaving: / it is snowing."

Many of these poems previously found good homes in such journals as Spoon River Poetry Review, Paris Review, and Prairie Schooner. Vijay Seshadri aptly describes their coming together in this poet's first collection: ". . . the drama of human consciousness stunned by its self-discovery in the physical world yet ever alert to the beauties and terrors of that world is everywhere present in this astonishing, abrupt, tender, precise, and crystalline collection. To call Talking Underwater a magnificent first book is to do gravely insufficient justice to the scope and rigor of Bliumis-Dunn's voice, which is not just mature but triumphant."

I'll end with two poems that I think nicely suggest the sensuous pleasures that await the reader.

Tulip Magnolias

I would be a tree
of tulip magnolias:
closed blossoms
like the tips of paintbrushes,
wet, just dipped.

Then I would open
my blossoms
enough to show
the outline of each petal:
deep mauve
thinning into veins
that fade into a misty
arc of white:
each petal

like the underside of a tongue,
lifted around
the center of a blossom
the way the tongue lifts
to the upper lips,
lowers as the blossom

fully opens, the way
the tongue lowers
and rests in the mouth —

as though each of my petals
could have spoken
one word
could have spoken it, stretched
over so much time

it was out of the range
of human hearing.
I would know

what it is like
to speak beyond
the range of hearing.

Spring Light

I shine through clouds
of pink and white blossom,
but that's not all that makes
the air seem brighter:

I am the transparent blue,
the reflections in the air
between cherry tree
and plum, reflections you sense

more than see;
even the dead azalea bush
wears me like a skin.
I'm all around you.

I diffuse, if only a little,
the singularity of existence —
rock, squirrel, worm —
which is why you mostly ignore

the thick green of June,
when my bare intensity is gone,
and I'm heavy in the heat,
and blend in mottled shadow.

Why is it you so love
to look up at new spring leaves —
pale windows
so beautifully not yet

still part light, part air?

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Hand That Copies the Poem

From time to time I like to copy someone else's poem in longhand. Other times I like to type one out on my computer. There are times when time is of the essence, so for the sake of speed and convenience, I will copy and paste instead. But I think there is instructive value in this old practice of copying by hand. When I do this, I seem to pay more attention not only to the words but also to small matters like punctuation and capitalization. I process the poem in a way that I don't when I merely read. I slow down for the poem and respond more thoughtfully. Why this word? What an unusual word, I think as I write. I notice double entendres that result from strategic line breaks. The effect of repetition in a poem becomes more apparent when I copy and recopy the repeated words. And even though this is an eye/hand/brain operation, my ear seems to perk up a bit, too.

I started thinking about this topic the other day when Julie Enszer typed out "The Return," by Carolyn Forche, and posted it on the Wompo listserv. I asked Julie for her thoughts on the value of copying out an entire poem. Here's what she had to say:

"One of the things I was thinking about while typing the poem was the ways that Forche sustains the poem and expands it as a lyrical narrative. One of the things that I admire about all of the poems in this collection [The Country Between Us] are the concluding lines of stanzas and of the poems in general. In typing it out, though, I could see how she arrived at those lines. For instance, in this section she is concluding an anaphoric series of 'Tell them,'

Tell them how his friend found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground
like a man. As for the cars, of course
they watch you and for this don't flatter

The transition of 'As for the cars,' I find to be a very deft move taking us to the conclusion of a stanza but opening the poem further for the next section.

In general, I feel like a time pressured person so doing things like typing out long poems - or writing them in long-hand forces my racing mind, when it is done with being frustrated by how long it is taking, to really focus on the project at hand and what can be learned from it. I was reading recently - was it here? - about people writing poems and imagining that they had written the lines themselves in the process of transcribing them. So lovely."

Ann Lederer had this to say in reply to Julie's thoughts:

"In addition to being a learning tool, performing this beautiful ritual in longhand feels like a spiritual exercise akin to scribes painstakingly copying out sacred texts in calligraphy, or artists with easels set up in front of masterpieces. Each stroke, each letter is laden with import. In deep concentration, there is almost a sense of possession, a thrill of comprehension when a line break or comma placement counteracts one's own hunch. Not being a musician, I wonder what the similarities of this practice might be to playing music written by another."

And finally, Julie sent this response to Ann's thoughts:

"This is a fascinating observation. In Jewish law, one of the commandments is that each (man) shall write (copy) the Torah."

Now I have a challenge for you. Every day for the next week copy out a poem in longhand. Do it slowly and deliberately. Choose one poem that is fairly long. Choose another that you don't especially like.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Special Place: The Frost Place

Today I received the fall newsletter from The Frost Place. This is a place that has been important to me as a poet and continues to hold a special place in my heart. This is where I went when I first started writing poetry. It was just the right place at the right time. I went back, I think, for seven one-week summer conferences. Then I went three times to the more rigorous seminar. A few years I audited the conference and then went to the seminar. Two weeks of time to do little other than attend to my poetry. A gift I gave myself.

In my last post I wrote about James Hoch. How nice to see that he has been selected as the resident poet at The Frost Place for the summer of 2008. As such he will live for the summer in Frost's house, work on his own poetry, and lend his expertise to the various conferences held over the summer. Funny, I'd been thinking that Jim would be perfect for this spot. Of course, by the time I was thinking that, the decision must already have been made. But I'd like to think I have amazing powers.

Two summers ago I was invited back to The Frost Place, this time as one of the four featured poets at the Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Later I was asked to write about the experience for the newsletter. Here's what I wrote:

The Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching

It was my pleasure and privilege to be one of four guest poets at this summer’s Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching. As a former high school English teacher with 25 years experience, I know firsthand how little attention poetry all too often receives in the classroom. I also know how poetry can energize a classroom and work a kind of magic there. So I believe deeply in the conference’s mission of helping teachers become more effective teachers of poetry and was delighted when Baron Wormser, the conference director, invited me to be part of this year’s program.

My day as poet du jour was Thursday. I arrived on Wednesday evening in time to attend Major Jackson’s excellent reading and to be introduced to the group of teachers who cheered my arrival as if I were a rock star and made me feel immediately welcomed. Although the teachers had been together only three days, it was clear that strong bonds had already formed. Everyone was talking poetry, talking writing, talking teaching.

As a poet-in-the-schools, I often give workshops for teachers, but I’ve never presented to such a responsive and enthusiastic group—perhaps because they were there by election, not by mandate. And perhaps, too, because the program has been so carefully designed by Baron and Don Sheehan. During my morning talk on teaching strategies (“Beginning with Mystery”), everyone joined right in. These teachers were the ideal class! Before I knew it, it was time for lunch on the porch overlooking the gorgeous White Mountains. The afternoon close readings of some of my favorite poems by other poets was also gratifying because I had such an energetic group of participants. Together, we devoured those poems. As Mark Strand might say, There was no happiness like ours.

Thursday turned out to be a lucky day for several reasons. First, the heat and humidity gave us a bit of a break. Then there was an evening cookout and dinner on cloth-covered tables in the barn. I ate my first veggie burger. Then the tables were cleared away and the chairs set up. After Baron’s beautiful introduction, I read my own poems. If there’s a better place to read on this earth, I don’t know where it is. To stand there in Frost’s barn and to feel so surrounded by so much poetic history was just exhilarating. And I’m sure a more supportive, appreciative audience would be hard to find. The reading was additionally exciting for me as many of the poems I read had been written or worked on at The Frost Place.

I’m sure every guest poet feels honored to be invited to The Frost Place, but for me it was extra special because this is the place that truly nurtured me as a poet. This is the place I went to shortly after I started writing poetry. In 1995 I nervously found my way there—and was made by Don and everyone else to feel that I belonged there. I went back again and again, then graduated to Baron’s seminar. So to go back as one of the guest poets felt like the completion of a circle. Then to sit in the audience for the teachers’ open reading, to hear them read their own poems, many of them written during Jim Provencher’s afternoon workshops, to cheer them on—well, it was just lovely.

On my way up to The Frost Place this time, somewhere along US 91, I saw a billboard with a picture of Kermit the Frog. Next to him were the words: “Eats flies. Dates a pig. Hollywood star.” And below Kermit, the words: “Live the dream.” And I thought, “That’s what I’m doing. I’m living the dream.”

Monday, November 5, 2007

Poet du Jour: James Hoch

If you read my blog back in September, you may recall that I mentioned meeting James Hoch at the Burlington Book Festival in Vermont. We were both among the featured poets and met at the Saturday night dinner. While sitting at the bar before dinner, I heard Jim ask Major Jackson a question that began with "Did your publicist . . . ?" Forgive me for not remembering what came after publicist. Poets with Publicists? Who invented that? So I was immediately impressed, but even more so with Jim's charm and wit. Unfortunately, I did not get to hear his reading the next day as he was assigned to a different venue. I did, however, buy his new book, Miscreants. I finished reading it last night and it blew my slippers off.

As the title suggests, the collection is filled with dubious characters, tough, street-wise people. But there is also an elegance to these poems, a lovely combination of tough and tender. Laced throughout the collection are poems that allude to the paintings of Caravaggio and to several mythological characters. The result is a sense of timelessness as well as immediacy. What is happening now is what has always happened.

The poems are divided into three unidentified sections, i.e., there are no section numbers or titles. The center section is a long, multi-part poem, "Bobby Almand," about the abduction, rape, and murder of a young boy. It's a mesmerizing, disturbing poem, but oddly full of beauty. The poet finds many ways to examine his subject. And the poems show a deftness that filled me with admiration. It is as if the narrator is trying to find the right form, the right words for what he needs to say. This is a poem that needs to be read, that cannot adequately be described or summarized.

The poems that lead into and follow the center poem prepare for and echo similar themes. For me, the collection has the feel of a kaleidoscope. I'm going to include two of my favorites. First, the first poem in the collection.

Acts of Disappearance

It was a world where a moose
could pull a squirrel out of his hat,

children disappeared down holes,
and the lake outside your window

could suddenly go missing.
You sip your coffee and ponder:

abduction, subduction . . .


Freud said, when we look at the sea,
something like the sea opens in us—

which might explain Scully
drowning in himself or the night

Bobby didn't make it home, and why
I feel like a slick of mud.

Freud was talking about God,
not wax-winged punks shooting up

in a three-story walk-up, not a boy
building a fort—the hammer, the needle,

the report driven hellward.


It was a trick no one showed you—
how one could turn a lung into a lake,

a boy into air, carp on their sides,
the prevalence of sinkholes.

They keep asking for more;

the sea, of course, is not endless,
it only feels that way.

And now one from the last section.


Even the sound seems clumsy,
as if the word clogs the little space
between tongue and pallet, an accident:
shattering consonant, guttural vowel.
Looks funny, too, like a jogger with
a strange gait, or an animal that might
benefit from being run over which is
about how he feels as she turns away,
retreats to her side of the bed and he lies
there, considering the error, the name
that just stumbled out of his mouth,
dumbly as the first time he asked out
a girl with blue-spiked hair, a fragrance
of old pillows, and subsequent tongue
like an iguana. So he tries adjusting
the way he once tried puzzling together
a dish, a Japanese import from Hoboken,
shard and fingertip and Krazy Glue.
Bad idea, bad as wearing a white
pair of underwear on his head to school,
bad as taking that job as a pig inseminator.
Bad as climbing Normanwood Bridge,
bad a Scott Koch backing right off,
bad as reaching, bad as touching his shoe.
O heart, O George, O jungle. O God
fumbling for the light switch, here
is your awful toy, all sense tumbling
away from him as it does from you.
What else can he do but reach for her,
as if touch could fix a wrong, and coax her
hand and mouth back to bed, a skill,
the only one he ever had.

Jim teaches at Ramapo College, not far from where I live, so I hope that he'll soon have a reading in the area and I'll have the opportunity to hear him read.

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