Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Feature On Form

Musings for December 24

Feature on Form

Some of my students whose experience with poetry has been limited to Emily Dickinson, Alexander Pope and other pre-20th century writers sometimes complain that I don’t like form in poetry. But they’re wrong. I love form. In fact, until I was 20 or 21 everything I wrote was formal. In college, I was the sonnet champion, cranking out sonnets in as little as 10 minutes at times. And I still write the occasional formal poem, and I still utilize what I call the shadow of form in all of my work. And I still encourage my students to read formal poetry and write their own formal work as a means of training their ear and learning to appreciate sound play and a sense of the line.

The thing I don’t like is form for the sake of form, which is often an unfortunate side effect of limited exposure to poetry. I like purposeful form. I like form that reflects the meaning or mood of the poem. A poem that sounds like a nursery school rhyme but deals with a tragic experience will only work if it’s clear that the form is intended to create a sense of irony; otherwise, it would just seem inappropriately funny.

I also don’t care a great deal for simplistic form, simple meter, simple rhyme, iambic pentameter with an alternating rhyme scheme and little or no variation, for example, poems that sound like nursery rhymes or greeting cards. On the other hand, I greatly enjoy complex, challenging forms--villanelles, sestinas, terza rima sonnets, pantoums--especially if the form seems to match the subject matter. Villanelles, for example, with the emphasis given to repeated lines seem a perfect match for very serious poems, ones about death, like Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” or the meaning of life, like Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking.”

And I enjoy poems that experiment with form, that play around with it to make something new. The pantoum, for example, traditionally consists of a series of 4-line stanzas in which the 2nd and 4th lines of one stanza are repeated as the 1st and 3rd lines of the next stanza, and then the final stanza not only repeats that pattern but also repeats lines 1 and 3 from the first stanza as lines 2 and 4. Below, on the other hand, is a very interesting and enjoyable variation in the pantoum form by NC Poetry Society President Anthony Abbott, republished here from Bay Leaves 2009, the awards anthology of the Poetry Council of NC. I think the repeated lines wonderfully capture the stream of consciousness of the speaker and the wistful sort of wishful thinking we all engage in when we look back with bittersweet regret on the things we didn’t or couldn’t do.

by Anthony Abbott

If yesterday were tomorrow
and we were driving
on a small country road
with the sun setting

if we were driving
to the west
with the sun setting
a huge transparent orange

more to the northwest
it still being winter
a huge transparent orange
I would have stopped the car

it still being winter
and not yet six o’clock
I would have stopped the car
and taken you in my arms

not yet six o’clock
I would have turned to you
and taken you in my arms
and held you while the sun slowly

I would have turned to you
and together we would have watched
while the sun slowly disappeared
and I would have kissed you

together we would have watched
on the small country road
and I would have kissed you surely
if yesterday were tomorrow

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Art of the Poetry Book Review

“Musings” for December 17
The Art of the Poetry Book Review

Over the past nine months or so, I’ve written somewhere around 50 reviews of new books of poetry for Outlook and for journals like Main Street Rag and Wild Goose Poetry Review. I’d like to think that the reviews are a sort of public service, that they bring a bit more attention to good books of poetry that they help poets and bookstores sell those books, and that they help buyers of poetry know more of what to expect from a book than they would know by simply looking at the cover or reading the blurbs on the back of the book.

Those, of course, are all good things. I enjoy doing community service, and I like feeling like I’m helping others. The truth is, however, I would still write book reviews even if I didn’t believe they served any purpose for others. That might sound self-serving, but it is nonetheless true. Writing book reviews achieves four vital purposes for me as a writer: it keeps me reading; it forces me to engage meaningfully with what I’m reading; it shapes my own writing; and it gives me the opportunity to say something about poetry.

I believe it is vital, if you want to do something well, to immerse yourself in it. Thus, I try to read at least one new book of poems every week. But, as with anything that isn’t in front of my face all the time, it is easy to de-prioritize or put off that commitment in favor of mowing the grass, watching the new episode of The Amazing Race, or any of the other innumerable requests upon my time. Knowing that I’m expected to write reviews and getting requests for reviews from publishers and authors goes a long way towards keeping me reading, which is in essence the equivalent of “practice” for a writer.

Writing reviews not only keeps me reading, but keeps me reading on a deeper level than I might otherwise achieve. To write a decent review, I have to go beyond simply reading the poems. I also have to strive to understand what they say and how they say it. The task of the reviewer, I think, is not just to tell a reader whether a book of poems is good or not, but to help them understand it, or even better, to help them know how to understand it.

To do that, I have to delve into what the poet is doing and possibly even consider what I think they should be doing. I have to examine the effectiveness of the choices they’ve made in language, structure, theme, imagery, purpose, etc., and the impact those choices could have upon the reader and the world at large. In the process of evaluating their practice of poetry, I also unavoidably evaluate my own, which inevitably hones my own aesthetic, my own concepts of craft and function.

Finally, as I reflect upon what other poets do and why they do it, I participate in critical activity, that wonderful habit of asking questions and attempting answers in the light of reason and experience. The reviewer, perhaps every bit as much as the poet, makes meaning, makes, in fact, meaning-ful certain poems, certain poets, certain practices or purposes in poetry. Thus, writing reviews gives me the opportunity to say something about poetry, to exert perhaps a little bit of influence over what readers expect of poetry, to help readers read well, and maybe to even help writers write better, at least according to my own standards of quality. In other words, writing reviews might be seen ultimately as an existential act, bringing into or helping keep in existence those poems, poets, practices, and purposes I think should be pursued and preserved by clarifying, proclaiming and adding to their value.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

How I Became a Regional Rep

How I Became a Regional Rep

"Musings" for December 10, 2009

I was already a poetry activist before being invited to become a NC Writers’ Network regional representative. I had started a monthly reading series at a local coffee shop mostly to give local writers an audience, only to discover that poets from across the state were looking for the opportunity to find an audience, read their work, and hopefully sell a few books. I had begun writing a weekly column on poetry for the local newspaper largely as a way of promoting the reading series and giving the participating writers a bit more exposure. Because the writers were increasingly distant from the newspaper’s range, I created a blog so that those beyond the readership area could read about the writers as well. And as editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review and contributor to Main Street Rag, I was already writing reviews of every new NC collection of poetry I found that I liked.

Accepting the invitation to be a regional rep meant that I now I had a title, perhaps even a job description, for all the things I was already doing. Titles are nice. They make you feel a greater sense of purpose; they help you focus your efforts; and they reinforce that what you’re doing is appreciated enough by someone that they bothered to make up a name for it.

One thing I hadn’t been doing but which numerous people had asked me about was conducting any sort of writers’ group. I had balked on that idea because my past experience with writers’ groups had been that they were only successful when the participants shared similar interests, ambitions, and levels of proficiency in writing. My concept of a writers’ group was essentially that of a critique group. Thinking of myself as NCWN regional rep helped me get outside of that paradigm and see the possibility of a group whose purpose had more to do with networking, sharing opportunities, providing support, and exchanging ideas (all of which I assume to be the underlying objectives of NCWN). With that in mind, I began monthly meetings which we decided to call simply Writers’ Night Out.

I was afraid that in a community the size of Hickory, roughly 36,000 people, we would wind up with no more than 5 or 6 people and we would run out of things to talk about pretty quickly. In fact, however, we’ve consistently had 10 to 12 people at each meeting, and it’s not the same 10 to 12 each time either. There have been 22 different people attend the 6 meetings we’ve had so far, and instead of running out of things to say, we seem to go further and further beyond the slated times. The other surprise in this group was how many people drove from surrounding counties to attend. Two of our most reliable participants come from as far away as Charlotte and Winston-Salem.

Writers, it seems, are very eager to connect not only with readers but with other writers as well, with individuals who can appreciate the efforts they go through to practice their art and with those who might know of “ways in” to what is often a too-insular, almost too-secretive pursuit, whether that be one of vocation or avocation. For decades NCWN has been at the center of efforts to create these vital connections in NC. Establishing regional representatives seems a wise next step in the right direction. I applaud all of those who have taken up this task and hope to see many more Writers’ Night Out groups, or its equivalent, springing up across the state.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Lincoln County Youth Named NC Student Poet Laureate

“Musings” for December 3, 2009

Every semester for the 20 or so years that I’ve taught poetry at the middle school, high school and college levels, I’ve had the experience where a student has written a wonderful poem and then announced that they really didn’t know much about poetry and never thought they would write it. For a poetry lover like myself, it is always one of the most gratifying moments of the semester to see that poetry remains accessible and relevant even to those who initially resist it.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this experience. Recently, Ms. Lydia Dunn, who teaches English at West Lincoln Middle School in nearby Lincolnton, was notified by NC Poet Laureate, Kathryn Stripling Byer, that her student, Christopher J. (CJ) Murphy, had won the 2009 NC Student Poet Laureate Award sponsored by the NC English Teachers’ Association (NCETA). According to an article by Sarah Grano in the Lincoln Times-News, CJ had never really thought much about poetry and despite winning this competition still didn’t see himself as a writer.

While Murphy might not have recognized his own talent or the power of poetry to help one see things more clearly, Byer and fellow judge John York did. In fact, in First Light, the competition’s anthology, Byer writes, “C.J. Murphy’s Where I Come From stood out for all the reasons good poetry sticks in the mind: imagery that opens up the world in which it’s set, a voice that knows how to journey through that place with knowledge and humor.”

I offer my congratulations to Murphy and my thanks for allowing us to reprint his winning poem here. I also offer my gratitude to Byer, Dunn, and NCETA for continuing to help students discover the wealth of possibilities that exist in the practice of poetry. Founded by Byer and NCETA in 2007, the Student Laureate Award features high school and middle school categories with top prize of $250 in each. For more information, please visit the NCETA website at

Where I Come From

I come from the smell of
Fresh cut grass on an old dirt road, off
a two-lane black top.
Old lawn mowers shade the yard.
A squirrel dashes up an oak tree
in a stream of smoke and lead.
Grandma with a basket full of eggs,
Grandpa and Dad working,
Sharing a spit cup, working
In the old tin building,
Uncle Mike tuning his Camaro,
Cousin Hannah, drinking a Nehi,
watching the chickens picking the ground.

My cousin Johnnie and me in the tree stand
in the old pasture by the creek,
watching the field like a hawk
through the scope of an ought-two-seventy.
(But when Mom yells “Supper’s ready!” we
Hop in the pickup with chicken and
blackberry pies on our minds.)
I walk in with mud on mud on my boots
And Mom says, “What? Were you raised in a barn?”
But after lunch, dressed up and armed
With Bibles, we hop in the truck
And head for evening service.)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Give Poetry

Musings for November 26

Give Poetry

Thursday was Thanksgiving, so that means we have officially entered the Christmas season, the season, among other things, of shopping and giving. This year, why not do something a little different? Why not, instead of giving the usual mass-produced, slickly-marketed, everyone-has-to-have-one, pre-wrapped, department store or, soon-to-be-forgotten or consumed gift, give something unique, personal, and long-lasting? Why not give poetry? After all, how many bottles of wine, how many desktop trinkets, how many boxes of gourmet popcorn or Godiva chocolates does one person need (okay there is really no limit on that last one)?

North Carolina is a great place to give poetry. Lately, it seems North Carolina is a hotbed for poets, with more new books and more successful small presses popping up every day. But you won’t find most of these books in Barnes and Noble or on Amazon, and even if you did, buying them there would depersonalize the process a bit. It would be so much better to buy them directly from the author (most of whom have websites of their own) or the small press that has worked so hard to give the poet a chance to be read. So, here is a rundown on some of the best books of poetry published in NC this year and where you can find them.

Main Street Rag has quickly become the busiest publisher of poetry in NC. Visiting the press’s website at will give you access to a host of excellent work by poets you could easily meet by attending a local reading. My favorite recent MSR offerings include Paul Hostovsky’s Bending the Notes, Pat Riviere-Seel’s The Serial Killer’s Daughter, Irene Honeycutt’s Before the Light Changes, and Sara Claytor’s Howling on Red Dirt Roads.

Another rapidly growing local press is Press 53 ( My favorites from this Winston-Salem press include Linda Annas Ferguson’s Dirt Sandwich, Joseph Bathanti’s Land of Amnesia, and Joseph Mills’ Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers.

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for variety, for poetry by multiple authors rather than one, you might order Bay Leaves, the Poetry Council of North Carolina awards anthology, available at, or Pine Song, the North Carolina Poetry Society’s awards anthology, from Or you could purchase a subscription to any of the numerous literary journals produced in NC: Iodine Poetry Journal, Tar River Poetry, Cavewall, or Main Street Rag, just to name a few.

Finally, if you’re buying a gift for someone you know is interested in writing poetry, consider a gift membership in one of the statewide organizations that support writers through networking, conferences, and newsletters highlighting opportunities for development, publication and sharing. Or make a charitable donation in the name of your gift-recipient to one of these organizations. The North Carolina Writers Network and the North Carolina Poetry Society are both well-established, non-profit agencies whose purpose is to help writers and readers in the state connect.

Monday, November 30, 2009



“Musings” for November 19

If you look up the word, “Kakalak,” in the dictionary, you probably won’t find it. If you google it, you’ll find a listing in the Urban Dictionary that says “an endearment of the Carolinas . . . which conveys a willingness to laugh at oneself and one’s origins while still remaining proud and affectionate towards them.” To those of us who grew up in the country of North or South Carolina, that sounds about right albeit it sounds quite a bit more highfalutin’ than we ever thought it was. If you’re a poet, the word has taken on quite another meaning over the last few years. It has become the title of an exciting annual anthology of North and South Carolina poets and visual artists put together by Charlotte-based writers Lisa Zerkle, Richard Allen Taylor, and Beth Cagle Burt.

The 2009 edition of “Kakalak” came out this summer, and the 136 page anthology features works by a wide range of area writers, including such notable authors as Gail Peck, Mark Smith-Soto, Alex Grant, Steven Lautermilch, Bill Griffin, Don Mager, Carolyn Moore, and many others, including, I’m proud to say, myself. The anthology is built out of the annual Kakalak contest which was won this year by SC poet Heather Dearmon.

The anthology is available for purchase for $15 through Kakalak’s website at, but Hickory area residents will be able to purchase it firsthand at December’s Poetry Hickory, to be held at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse at 6:30 on December 8. Poetry Hickory that night will feature an as-yet-to-be-determined number of writers from this year’s anthology. Known participants will include myself, Zerkle, and Burt, Lynn Stanton of Charlotte, Allison Elrod of Davidson, and Sally Miller of Charlotte. Organizers expect about 10 writers in all, so the evening promises to be a sort of sampler platter of some of the best poetry being written in our area.

To whet your appetite, I’m reprinting Elrod’s poem “First Fig,” which received an honorable mention in this year’s competition:

First Fig
by Allison Elrod

The fig tree has spread its generous
canopy across my late summer side yard.
Its branches are heavy with fruit.

Every day now, the figs grow softer
and fuller; they are taking the rain
and the warmth of a hundred summer days
and making them over into pleasure;
taut green skin and soft pink flesh.

Wearing only my nightgown
and my work boots, I have come
outside at dawn like some
post-modern Eve, yearning
for a taste of the fruit of the tree. I reach up
into the branches, reach up for the fruit
that hangs just beyond my reach,
the fig whose skin is just beginning
to bear the flush of readiness.

Maybe I am Eve. After all,
isn’t the light in my garden still
what came of “Let there be light?”
And isn’t everything to come
in human history beginning
on this very day, this very morning,
when this very fig--the one I am holding
in my hand--is finally ripe?

Or maybe, I am
a middle-aged woman outside
in my nightgown at six a.m.--
filled with happiness so pure it feels
like innocence--savoring the sweetness
of summer’s first ripe fig
before the light shifts,
before history resumes,
before I come inside to wake you,
temptation on my mind.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

"So Norman Died Of Course" Recieves Special Mention in Pushcart Prize Anthology

I'm sure my publisher would rather I not do this, but I've had several people ask me where they can see the poem "So Norman Died, Of Course," which received a Special Mention in the new Pushcart Prize Anthology, so I'm going to post it here. Of course I'd prefer that you buy a copy of "The Fractured World" from the Main Street Rag online bookstore at You could also buy a couple of the other fantastic books MSR has published recently. My personal favorites have been Irene Honeycutt's "Before the Light Changes," Paul Hostovsky's "Bending the Notes," Sara Claytor's "Howling on Red Dirt Roads," and Joanna Catherine Scott's "Night Huntress" (maybe that plug will defuse the publisher's anger a bit). The poem first appeared in the now defunct "Charlotte Poetry Review," edited by A.J. and Lisa Jillani (true patrons of poetry), so it's no longer available in any other print form. Anyway, here is the poem.

So Norman Died, Of Course

So Norman died, of course,
like everyone, but being
Norman, of course,
he couldn’t die like everyone.
He couldn’t die no
ordinary death.
He had to die
all over the place at once.
He had to die
all into things.
He had to spread himself out
like a warm day
and lie there like everyone
dying, slowly turning
into something else.

So he left his fingers
on the ground and they
turned into earthworms
and wriggled away.
And he let his ears
fly free, the wings
they’d always wanted
to be. And he let his eyes
roll into the ocean
to become pearls
held tight in oysters’
clamped shut shells.
His hair spun itself
into spider webs
that stretch across your face.
His skull opened itself
for chipmunks and night things
to nest in. His face
became a flower with one eye
that winked open
in the morning, winked
closed at night.
His leg became a persimmon
branch, its unripe fruit
turning your mouth
inside out. His heart
hardened into stone.
His bones picked themselves up
and wandered to the river
and threw themselves in
and flowed downstream
until a beaver gathered them
together for his dam.
His lips turned into blades
of grass that whistle
with every breeze.
His arms transformed
into wild lime trees,
covered with spines
and yellow fruit,
inviting, forbidding,
letting nothing go easy.
His tongue flew into the wind
and was never heard from again.
His skin had grown so thin
it easily changed into birchbark
and started peeling away.
And his hand,
his hard right hand
which never learned to hold
anything gently turned into
a leaf that held wind,
rain, sunlight upon it,
then let everything go.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

You Just Had to Be There

You Just Had to Be There
“Musings” for November 12

On October 10 I attended my very first Poetry Day at Catawba College, sponsored each year by the Poetry Council of North Carolina. And all I can say about it is, “Wow! What an experience.” Don’t get me wrong; this was not my first poetry event, far from it. Over the years, I’ve probably attended 500 readings and 4 dozen conferences, workshops, and other poetry happenings. None, however, have managed to outdo this one for intimacy, sincerity, talent, or pure joy taken in and from poetry.

Not all of what made Poetry Day so special can be easily quantified. Part of it was simply the spirit or soul of the thing. Here were 50 or more poets and poetry lovers ranging in age from 7 to 70 gathered together on a Saturday morning to celebrate the success of this year’s Poetry Council competition winners, but nothing about the day felt competitive. Appreciative, yes, supportive, reflective, and at times, ecstatic, but there were none of the negative trappings of competition. On a rainy day, in a room where 3 of 4 walls were made of 10 foot high glass panels and people talked of poetry, listened to music from a banjo and an upright bass, and ate fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and really good cherry cobbler, it simply felt . . . nice.

Part of it, of course, was the people. Many of the best poets from all across NC were here: Shelby Stephenson of Benson, long-time editor of Pembroke Magazine; Anthony Abbott of Davidson, president of the North Carolina Poetry Society; Katherine Barr of Charlotte, Sara Claytor of Carrboro, poetry activist; Bill Griffin from Elkin; David Manning from Cary; and many more. The student winners were also here, each one displaying talent and confidence far beyond their years and renewing the hopes of the poetry aficionados in attendance.

Part of it was the poetry itself: the quiet longing of Bruce Lader’s “Things in Her Life He Would Love to Be,” the strident intensity of Lenard Moore’s A Temple Looming as the poems reanimated black and white photos, the sometimes-painfully honest reflections of Stephenson’s Family Matters, and the perfectly relevant humor of Jean Rodenbough’s “A Poem Goes Through Airport Security” (reprinted below).

And part of it, perhaps the biggest part of it, were those unique moments we’ll tell others about years from now and follow with the phrase, “You just had to be there.” Moments like Anthony Abbott following readings by 7 middle and high school students, each of whom began by saying, “This is my first reading,” with the line, “This is my 3422nd reading.” Moments like Katherine Barr, despite severe macular degeneration, walking to the podium alone and reading from the page her cathartic poem “Squamous Cell Carcinoma.” And moments like Shelby Stephenson singing with Linda, his wife of 43 years, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.”

I don’t know if I’ll ever have such a day as this again, but I do know I’ll attend next year’s Poetry Day with great expectations, and I know that when I read the poems in Bay Leaves (PCNC’s competition winners’ anthology), what I feel will go well beyond what might be apparent in any single poem.

A Poem Goes Through Airport Security
by Jean Rodenbough

stop there please
we need to scan you again
our screen shows you are carrying
incomplete sentences poor
line breaks dangerous metaphors
and some unlikely similes
as though you were cunning
as an ice cube
just walk back through this detector here
no, don’t ask questions
we ask what we need to know
now place any small syllables
or words that alliterate into this plastic bag
stop! don’t touch anything else! that phrase
and the irregular meter must be removed
take all that is not secured you must bre
ak your lines in order to make them
safe be careful now leave these
stanzas on the table
and walk a
way slow
ly without

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Review of Bruce Lader's "Landscapes of Longing

Review (First published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Landscapes of Longing
by Bruce Lader
Main Street Rag (2009), 90 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482057

One of the epigraphs of Bruce Lader’s new collection of poetry, Landscapes of Longing, suggests that one, “Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes . . . . Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure” (Epictetus). While this imperative might help justify the subject matter explored in these poems, Epictetus’s suggestion that such healthy perspective could be attained as easily as this is perhaps a bit Romantic, as is made abundantly clear by the speakers of the poems in Landscapes of Longing. Nevertheless, the epigraph and the title do make it clear what unites this otherwise apparently diverse collection of work, namely that these poems are all about the daily struggle to attain or maintain perspective. One poem after another proposes answers to the question: what can we learn from each other, from our lives as human beings, from the inevitability of disappointment, despair, longing in all its innumerable varieties.

By writing about longing, failure, persistence, and perspective, Lader writes honestly, unflinchingly, about what it is to be human. Not surprisingly if such verisimilitude is one of his goals, the poems are spoken in a variety of voices, as would be any accurate record of any human life. The first and perhaps most memorable of these voices is that of a teacher at a school for troubled boys, “ninth graders no one would bet on / discarded by split parents” (“Attendance Check”). This narrator recognizes the existential persistence of these boys as they long for such elemental human ambitions as justice and opportunity:

And yet their feisty, undefeated spirits
grapple with prison sentences
of poverty . . . .
they dodge and gamble to exist . . . .
stay afloat in the system chiseling them.

The narrator goes on to teach the reader to see beyond the surface, to see the humanity behind the stereotype and statistic, as in “Promises,’ where the tough from the boys home, longing for decency and love, revealingly promises his girl “I won’t leave you / the way my old man left my mother turning tricks.” And he teaches us, through the image of his hemophiliac friend Robert Goldstein in “A Brief History of Prejudice,” who longed to experience as much as he could while he could, to value life more urgently as we come to understand that it could end sooner than we imagine possible.

Other voices in this first section of the book range from that of a teenage boy surprised to be learning from his father’s competitiveness, from his longing to be extraordinary (“Breaks”); to that of the same boy become father and longing now to make sense of violence for his own son (“Quandary”); to a chorus of voices from war, longing for peace, for reason, and for acceptance of responsibility. This last set of voices illustrates how the individual despair and criminal behavior we might sometimes be tempted to decry in the first poems are mere microcosms of what we do and suffer on a larger scale. These voices also set the stage for the middle section of the book where the longing moves from the first section’s apparently personal concerns to a larger social and political arena.

This middle section of the book announces the context out of which these voices of longing arise in its title: “Interviews Following the Sentencing of Sisyphus.” Lader provocatively and amusingly imagines what a variety of figures would say if questioned about the trial of Sisyphus. The speakers are philosophers, goddesses, priests, and prophets among others, each one weighing in like ancient bloggers, their opinions, as is usually true of opinions, revealing more truth about themselves than about that which they speak of. Not surprisingly, what unites them all is the sense of longing they reveal, whether it be longing for justice or retribution, truth or reform, or just the opportunity to have their perspectives considered. Perhaps the underlying question in this section is if we accept the idea of Sisyphus as a metaphor for human endeavor, then don’t we also have to accept the actions of Sisyphus as indicative of what we are capable of? Certainly the speakers in this group of poems, with their apparent myopia, self-interest, and lack of forgiveness do nothing to refute that implication.

Having begun with poems of longing in a semi-individual context (family, profession, community) and proceeded through a larger social and political context, Lader concludes with a series of poems that illustrate longing on the most personal and intimate level: the longing for love, for the maintenance of the individual in love, and for the seemingly impossible persistence of love. In other words, the final section of the book, like each previous section illustrates that such things as fairness, justice, and even love are not as easy as we would like to think. These poems, after all, feature voices that proclaim, “I reserve the right / not to shed my soul” (“Behold”), “You’re not the only one / who can say No” (“Jig”), and “they felt something /missing grow between them, / inwardly resented the cherished / offspring who siphoned their energy” (“Soulmates”), before finally announcing “They will go there, / and to Moscow, when he partners the dances / she wishes he'd learn, the salsa, rumba, / swing, and tango millionaires tried seducing / her with, until he swept her off her feet” (“Trade-offs”).

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review of Terry Kirby Erickson's "Telling Tales of Dusk"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Telling Tales of Dusk
by Terri Kirby Erickson
Press 53 (2009) 107 pages, $12.00
ISBN: 9780982441633, Poetry

What do a Ferris wheel, a motel sign, a roadside diner, and a bay window have in common? In the poetry of Terri Kirby Erickson, they are all sources of light, literal means and transformative symbols of salvation in the poems “County Fair,” “Star Lite Motel,” “Betty’s Roadside Diner,” and “Saving Grace,” respectively.

And perhaps salvation is what poetry is all about, redeeming the finer details of life by imbuing them with the value of memory, finding meaning in what we might otherwise all too easily deem meaningless. As Williams helped us realize just how much did depend upon a red wheelbarrow, Erickson finds meaning in how “Queen Anne’s lace dandies up a ditch” (“Queen Anne’s Lace”), in how an old woman’s moaning is like the wind “when it whips / around a house, rattling windows, / searching for cracks,” (“Assisted Living”) searching, in other words, for ways in, much the same way this woman searches for her way into another world, one of peace, reunion, and clarity.

The speaker of that poem in her unforgettable search for what is inexplicably missing from her world is only the first of a number of remarkable portraits gathered in this collection. There is also the lonely man in “The Speckled Trout CafĂ©,” the illiterate preacher who builds his sermons on the scripture read to him by his less faithful wife “the words warmed / by her breath and scattered into his / brain like dandelion seeds” in “Papa Never Learned to Read,” and the blues guitarist in “Delta Blues” who, the speaker comments, “should roll a stone / over hurt that deep, but” instead lifts “it up like Lazarus for anybody / lucky enough to listen.”

These portraits and simple symbols of salvation add up to a memorable second collection of work on their own, but the reader should be careful not to be fooled by the apparent simplicity of these poems, for just as still waters run deepest, the greatest revelations are often expressed in the fewest words. I, for one, am a fan of understatement, something often achieved in poetry through the metaphysical, poems which, as Dickinson encouraged, “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” In “Smoke and Mirrors,” for example, Erickson doesn’t spell out her warning of how a teleological obsession with the prize indiscriminately dissolves all else from our focus, good and bad, superfluous and necessary. Instead she shows only how the call of a longed-for boy affects the perception of a young girl: “The boy / I was talking to dissolved, tablet-like, / in the watered down scenery of the things / that were not you.” Similarly, in “Daisy Chain,” she presents the image of four little girls “daisy chained” to their mother to illustrate “belonging so / palpable, it beat like heart / on the pavement.”

Just as these poems are satisfying in their surface-level imagery but tricky in their larger or deeper implications, so too is the book as a whole. There are plenty of poems that seem trivial, merely descriptive, but taken together, they are subtly effective, quietly teaching the reader to reach deeper into the everyday image to recognize and value significance. In other words, they lull you into such comfort that when you finally begin to cry while reading “Blue Hydrangeas,” you realize the poems have taught you the empathy needed to feel this deeply for someone you’ve never known and that you’re not crying just for the speaker of this poem, who reminds us that as long as we are able to love anything our capacity to love ourselves remains, but for all the speakers of all the poems and the wonderfully vital world in which they live, the same world you realize in which you live.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Review of Linda Annas Ferguson's "Dirt Sandwich"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Dirt Sandwich
by Linda Annas Ferguson
Press 53 (2009) 81 pages, $12.00
ISBN: 978-0-9824416-6-4, Poetry

For poets, every word is a first word, still full of the power and freshness of creation as they struggle without the tools of logic or reason to “put it right.” In her poem “Breech Birth,” Linda Annas Ferguson captures that sense of urgent discovery in the lines, “I had a hard time getting the beginning right, / . . . no measure / for what is true . . . / an abrupt breath rushing / into me . . . filling / my body with a sudden urge to cry.” She repeats the sentiment in “The First Word,” a poem about Adam’s love of words:

He strained to fill his tongue with every thought,
unable to identify the pleasure, raw
with newness and power, mouth parting--
their genesis and tone feeling true.

Such is the reverie of Ferguson’s fifth collection of poetry, Dirt Sandwich, newly out from Press 53. In one poem after another in this collection, Ferguson embraces (a frequently repeated word in these poems) the power of words as a means of embracing life. In “Genesis,” we hear again of the vitality of language for Adam:

Words lived in his bones,
touched his tongue, still wild,
a slow burning freedom
inside every sound.

How he longed for more words
to love, thought they could save
him from the wet falling sky,
from red flaming sunsets,
from all that hadn’t come yet.

Whether it is Adam speaking or a woman reflecting on her own audacity in the act of embracing language and all its potential as a child, the theme of language as a tool of exploration and knowledge is the same, as in these lines from “Innocence:”

When I was three, I could write
my name, scrawled it on doors,
walls, furniture, floors.

When Mama took my crayons,
I fingered it in the cold sweat
of windowpanes, paused to dot
the “I,” an eyehole to the moon.


I can hear my mother’s “Don’t--

touch,” as I poked
at splintering fissures of frost
on the other side of the window--

and all that enchanted me
about the broken.

As these last lines suggest, the poet’s love of the world is not limited to all that we normally think of as good. Rather, she has a more even-handed curiosity about and appreciation of all experience, all that life has to offer, all that living uncovers. Seamlessly, the next poem, “Topless Dancer,” begins her stubborn exploration of the forbidden and the tragic:

She embraces her own body,
cups a glitter-laden breast,
a golden moon. Dance
is the way she speaks,
embodies what she can’t say.

Such juxtaposition of the mythic, the individual and the personal from one poem to the next, or even within the same poem, is characteristic of the collection and illustrates the correctness of Jung’s concept of archetypes and the reason Confessionalism still works in poetry. This practice of relating the individual to the mythic, the personal to the universal as a means of deepening one’s experience of life, granting greater meaning to the seemingly insignificant details of our days, and revealing the still-relevant humanity behind the sometimes all-too-distant stories that represent us as a species is again made clear in “Rainbows Are Real:”

Once I saw a rainbow while flying,
looking down from the sky, not an arc,
but a complete circle, the plane’s silhouette
in the center. Pilots call it a “glory.”

I wonder if this was the way one first appeared
to God, His magnified shadow hovering
over muddy land and multitudes of dead bodies.

And so it continues throughout the book, each poem teaching us to reach deeper into the joys, the sorrows, and the mere details of life to find meaning, to understand that pressed between birth and death is the stuff of life “alive with dying” (“The Origin of Entropy”), the stuff of our very own dirt sandwich and to remember, in the words of poet Galway Kinnell ,that there is “still time, / for one who can groan / to sing, / for one who can sing to be healed.” It is a story everyone knows but few pause to contemplate. Thank you, Linda Annas Ferguson, for helping us be aware that we live.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wild Goose Poetry Review Pushcart Nominations

Wild Goose Poetry Review has nominated the following poems for 2010 Pushcart Prizes: Joe Milford, "The Janitor Moonlighting;" Pris Campbell, "Original Sin;" Linda Annas Ferguson, "I Wanted to Hear Her Howl;" Janice Moore Fuller, "Ellipsis;" Joseph Trombatore, "Brown, Blue, Brown on Blue;" William Keener, "Refuge". Congratulations to these wonderful poets.

Read them all at

Review of Felicia Mitchell's "The Cleft of the Rock"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
The Cleft of the Rock, Poems by Felicia Mitchell
Finishing Line Press, 2009, 24 pages
ISBN: 9781599244310

I love the first poem of Felicia Mitchell’s new chapbook of poems The Cleft of the Rock. “Alley” is an existential manifesto that essentially states, “I go; therefore I am.” It is a poem about temptation and embracing experience related from a childlike perspective that cannot help but remind the reader of Eve:

. . . the branch of a fig
grew through a fence,
its fruit gnarled like a gnomish thumb beckoning me:
. . . .
So I went.
. . . . . . . . . .
I went closer to the tree,
close enough to touch its leaves, its fruit,
. . . . . . . . . .
I played until my hands were filthy.

This is not just Eve in the garden, but the Eve inside us all, an Eve needing no serpent but only the fruit, only the tree, whether the tree is knowledge, experience, or life, an Eve who, far from regretting her submission to temptation, relishes it.

This same defiant embrace of life is repeated in other poems and becomes the emotional and intellectual center of the entire collection. We see it again, and once more expressed through a sort of mythic revision, in the title poem, a dramatic monologue in which the Greek goddess Persephone proclaims

When the earth opens her thighs
and guides me like a newborn
through the folds of her great lips,
I almost forget the one who drags me back
three months of every year
to the bowels of the earth.

The sensual imagery of these lines is also characteristic of the entire collection and is part of the experience the poems’ various speakers celebrate, cling to, and find rebirth in, as in the poem “Secret Garden:”

Barefoot, listening to the cat,
worrying about the chipmunk
and the lackluster lack of rain,
I am nothing like a mother or a wife.

I am a girl in a make-believe puddle,
coloring in the shapes of her life
while a cat meows in the background
and the yellow sun grows hotter.

Through these poems, Mitchell reminds us that all life and all experience is valuable and worth saving. Even grief has its place given appropriate time. The poem “How to Dry a Rose” tells us,

Before the life blooms out of it,
hang it upside down. In a dry place,
away from direct sunlight.
. . . .
And forget about it, forget about the rose
among the rafters . . . .
. . . .
When the red has faded
to a more acceptable pallor and the leaves
are brittle to the touch. By then, you will
be ready to remember how your friend looked
when she lay in the casket, the rough on her face
not much paler than the roses at the altar.

And even though one may suffer, as the speaker of “Fall” whose “thin blood” means she is “destined to feel the cold / that is arriving daily” or the speaker of “Dirge” with a tumor in her breast, Mitchell would have us “feel them all,” “the cherry tree in the backyard, / the tulip magnolia that would never bloom, the crabgrass, / the violets in the grass . . . / the impractical, the unnecessary, the excised.”

The more intimate connection with the details of our lives encouraged by The Cleft of the Rock makes us all, like the spirit of “A Hard Rain,” “a virtuous pagan, unwelcome in heaven, not suited for hell,” a line which cannot help but remind us of Wordsworth’s “pagan suckled in a creed outworn,” who through his appreciation of nature is able to “have glimpses” that make him “less forlorn.” These mythic and Romantic reinventions are indeed timely in a world where we too often ignore or are totally unaware of the vital connections that could and should sustain us.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Review of Joanna Catherine Scott's "Night Huntress"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Night Huntress, by Joanna Catherine Scott
Main Street Rag, 2008, 67 pages
ISBN: 9781599481074

There is prose poetry, and then there is poetry that looks like prose. Joanna Catherine Scott’s book Night Huntress is one of the best examples of true poetry in the guise of prose poetry that I’ve ever encountered. A lot of poetry today, prose or otherwise, seems prosy--no sense of rhythm or lyricism, no sense of the line. Despite being arranged on the page more like paragraphs than traditional lined poetry, the poems in Night Huntress are unmistakably poetic. Scott herself questions the classification of these as prose poems. She says most of them were initially delineated but were changed to a denser prose style in a last minute editorial decision, which would explain why, as I read the poems, I kept pausing as if there were line breaks, and why I felt they were the most poetic, most lyrical prose poems I had ever read.

But little of that matters to any but other poets and perhaps the more astute readers of poetry who recognize lyricism when they hear it. What does matter to most readers is the story, in this case, the compelling story of a tragic accident and the lives it affects. Scott possesses the true writer’s gift, the gift of empathy, the ability to see inside another’s pain, loss, hope without being blinded by it. The calm, almost objective clarity with which Scott relates the story in these poems is heart-rending. The final stanza of “At the Grave” illustrates the beautiful and intricate detail that Scott, encompassing, like the skilled painter, background and foreground, uses to make images and events become experiences:

"Crows sit in the trees. They are like professional mourners, with their black robes and their harsh cracked voices and simulated grief. One of the boys goes to stand under a tree, looking about him for a stone, but the graveyard is fastidiously cared for, not a stone in sight that does not bear a name. So he takes off his shoe, with the liturgy behind him, and flings it up into the tree, and the crows rise in a great black clatter, big as dogs, barking and rushing back and forth, as though the casting of the shoe has broken up the tree itself, and it has risen in a rage."

And yet, Scott never tells the reader what to feel, but plunges us headlong into a stream-of-consciousness that creates the experience so vividly, so honestly, on all its levels that certain feelings are inescapable. The reader is drawn into the various perspectives surrounding the accident right from the start. In the first poem, “How They Insist,” the narrator of these poems, whose identity will only become clear much later in the narrative, reflects on the difficult period of transition to adulthood where loss seems so common and so tragic:

". . . how they will, how they insist it seems, generation after generation, before they are full grown, when they are right there on the cusp, right there between the pupa and the full-blown moth, right there, poised in metamorphosis, with no thought of what has come before, who has done it, no thought of all the flower-decked crosses up and down the roads, give in to some compulsion from another world, a world that wants them now, this minute, just the way they are, teetered on the brink of opening."

Scott’s view of the accident is comprehensive. She thinks of every perspective and of every moment before, during, and after the event itself and relates them seemingly from the inside, as if they were hers or those of someone so close to her that maintaining the objectivity that permits the clarity the poems convey should be impossible. Yet it is that seemingly impossible objectivity which make the poems work as in this excerpt from “At the Grave:”

"They have all come, the friends of the dead girl and the ruined boy. Even the bus boy from the nightclub has come, his face ashen with responsibility. They have brought flowers with them. They hold them in their hands. “Ashes to ashes,” says the priest, and , “dust to dust.” The flowers surge into the sunlight. They eddy at the surface of the dug red grave, as though the air inside is too dense for them to fall."

It is difficult to believe the experiences are not her own, that she is not the dead girl, the ruined boy, the mother or father or friend of the dead girl, the father of the ruined boy, and finally, and most completely and perhaps most factually, the mother of a friend of the dead girl who recognizes in the sheer proximity of tragedy our own intimate involvement in life and loss, whose comfort is shaken to the core by this, sending her on an introspective journey into the value and nature of life. It is this vicarious journey which the reader gets to undertake through Scott’s incredibly detailed and comprehensive narrative. Thanks to Scott’s ability for empathy, her talent for writing poetry whose secret message is not just “me, me, me,” but which enables the reader to say “me, too,” that makes even just reading the book a cathartic, life-changing, life-deepening experience not to be forgotten. I am often impressed with the work of poets. For this work, however, it would be more accurate to say that I am grateful.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Review of David Rigsbee's "Two Estates"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Two Estates, Poetry by David Rigsbee
Cherry Grove, 2009
ISBN: 9781934999547

I did a little research before writing this review of David Rigsbee’s new collection of poetry, Two Estates (Cherry Grove, 2009), and what I found is that everyone seems to write about these poems as if they are all one poem, as if what is to be said of one poem is the same as what there is to say of another. Having survived a rough childhood through kneejerk rebelliousness anytime singularity reared its monolithic head, I immediately wanted to leap to the defense of the individual poems and set them free of this perceived intricate web of sameness. As I began to read, however, I discovered not only would that task be more difficult than I imagined but that pursuing it would be entirely contrary to the nature of the book, that I would, in fact, do a lovely book of poems a great disservice not to join the chorus of voices proclaiming that these poems work so seamlessly together as to create what could be considered a single coherent impression, an impression of timelessness, of natural and mortal detail coalescing into what I can only call beauty.

While these poems are, one might say, “of a piece,” they are interestingly often not “of a time.” In fact they seem intentionally, and meaningfully timeless, which only makes sense, because whether we say the theme of Two Estates is beauty or, I think more accurately, the marvelous beauty of the interdependence of contraries, the poems are about concepts that can only be thought of as eternal. The timelessness of Rigsbee’s world is carefully crafted through the spare language and the very deliberate selection of detail and allusion. In these lines from “Basilica,” for example, one would be hard-pressed to ascertain whether this were written of the 20th century or of some time much older:

In the last terrace one can see
a maid holds a water can over
window boxes too dark to make out
clearly. . . .
But invisibility takes care of surmises
and content joins style on the way
to the basilica, where priest
and people raise eyes to the tiny host,
before resuming their places in the realm
and administration of Lord Pluto

And in these lines from “Under Cancer,” my favorite poem in the collection, Rigsbee creates timeless beauty by locating himself simultaneously within the eternal and contemporary and in relation to the not-so-distant past:

I pause, drawing breath,
and walk to the ledge where my father
the evening greets me in the darkening
branches of a pine.

It is, of course, only natural that Rigsbee would choose a setting as rich both in history and contemporary relevance as Italy to embody this theme of timelessness.

Certainly the greatest joy in reading Rigsbee’s new collection is in experiencing the vivid, sensual, even luscious imagery and the meticulously crafted language, but there are other joys as well. While beauty and timelessness and precision are all admirable pursuits in poetry, I wouldn’t want the reader to think that Two Estates is entirely serious-minded. There are quirky, ironic observations throughout and moments of even greater levity, as in the all-too-familiar (for myself, anyway), satirical, almost cartoonish synecdoche of Bar Gianicolo

A skull with a mustache and wig
carries on a conversation with a stopped
motorist. Two coffees gesture
to each other, while the heads beside them
gibber in English

It should come as no surprise that the final poem of this collection is called “Concert” because that it is indeed what one seems to have experienced in reading the text, a concert of perception in which diverse images, details, thoughts, and feelings are brought into unified harmony. Or perhaps it is simply that Rigsbee sees through the distractions of our daily lives to the harmony that lies within perception and experience and somehow manages to locate and perfectly arrange the only words that could communicate that sense to the rest of us. One gets the feeling that Rigsbee has it just right when he writes about the old contraries as if they could only exist as they do . . . together. In “Concert” for example, he portrays both permanence and transience in an image of swallows who

leave sight altogether
where clouds themselves vanish
and reform, correcting the course
and reach of blue’s ferocious empire

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review of John Amen's "At the Threshold of Alchemy"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
At the Threshold of Alchemy
by John Amen
Presa Press (2009) 84 pages, $13.95
ISBN 9870980008159, Poetry

Had John Amen sought my advice before publishing At the Threshold of Alchemy, his third collection of poetry, I would have suggested some reorganizing. In my opinion, the book begins slowly, and that is a big risk to take in a time of short attention spans and instant gratification. Poems like “Purpose” with its flat statement, “I am in love with what pulses / beneath blush and bone” and its rather unsavory conclusion, “every day, without fail, I must lick the divine,” seem too plain, predictable, and off-setting to earn the self-aggrandizement they contain (sorry, John, just being a critic). Fortunately, however, I didn’t stop reading when the first half dozen poems failed to engage my attention, and hopefully, others will also read beyond the first few poems. Those who do not will miss some damn good poetry.

The heart of this book is the middle, where Amen seems to become less self-conscious, somehow less aware of his own presence, letting the “characters” speak for themselves, and creating a tour de force of poetic imagination and archetypal imagery clothed in personal symbolism. The voices in this strongest section of the book range from a disconsolate angel to an ingenuous generic speaker who is less poet than person.

My favorite short poem from the book, and one of my favorite poems so far from 2009, is “Birth of Evil,” a poem of religious questioning which suggests that the Fall might be the fault of God (“Who can fault Lucifer for what’s ensued? Rejection / is hatred’s fodder. Banishment breeds pathology”) and in which the relationship between god and this speaker-angel sounds disturbingly like that between many grown-up sons and their fathers today: “I hardly see Him / anymore. I can’t remember the last time we spoke.” Other noteworthy short poems consist of intimate examinations, perhaps even personalizations, of archetypal figures, such as the untouchable temptress in “the woman in the shower” and the support group in “the women at the breakfast table.”

In many ways, however, the best poem in the book is the longest. “Portraits of Mary” is a series of twenty 13-line cantos that show the speaker’s perception of his lover at various times, from various perspectives, and in the process shows their relationship in this same multi-dimensional manner. The cantos are as quirky and individualistic as any honest portrait would have to be, and it is in these “snapshots” that Amen’s archetypal imagery and surrealistic perceptions blend into a creation that is more accurate, more true, more meaningful, and more memorable than any photo album could ever hope to be. Perhaps canto xvii explains why Amen most successfully finds his poetic stride in the subject matter of this poem as the speaker says, “You’re teaching me, Mary, to fall in love with particulars,” from which point he concludes:

God’s gallery may well be all about us,
but his studio remains hidden: master laboring in bottomless
subspace, drafting, detailing the infinitesimal--life itself

his life’s work, magnum opus he can’t bring himself to finish.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Review of Sara Claytor's "Howling on Red Dirt Roads"

Review (First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Howling on Red Dirt Roads, Poems by Sara Claytor
Main Street Rag, 2009, 89 pages
ISBN: 9781599481487

Sara Claytor and I have a great deal in common. We both grew up in the rural South, amid everything that implies, including a less than ideal childhood. We’re both poets and teachers. And, perhaps most surprisingly and arguably, we both used the same complex structure for our latest collections of poetry. Claytor’s book, Howling on Red Dirt Roads, is divided into three sections. Part I provides a broad perspective on the South preceding and coinciding with the poems’ speaker’s birth and growth. In a sense Part I portrays the larger world with all of its tensions, conventions, and expectations that gave birth to the family dynamics more tightly portrayed in Part II. And Part III presents the world after the speaker’s family, the world the speaker inhabits as she attempts to redeem the worlds of Parts I and II.

In large part, the book consists of a series of portraits. First, there are portraits of Southern women, defined in the poem “Fading Southern Belles” and expanded upon in many of the subsequent poems in the first section. Then, there are the family portraits in Part II, grandmother, mother, father, and most significantly, nanny. And finally, there are the portraits of the speaker at various stages in her adult life in Part III. These portraits are sometimes funny as in the description of “Miz Southern Belle” as “contradictory, confusing / marshmallow on the outside / a Mack truck on the inside,” a description that goes contrary to the usual “tough on the outside, tender on the inside” characterization of people. Other times they are quite dark as in the story of “Miz Lottie Jenkins” who “told Bible stories to the junior girls / about Jezebel torn apart / by the wild street dogs.” At a recent reading, Claytor claimed that most of her poems “end on up,” but I would disagree. While there are certainly “up” moments, poems confronting head-on such issues as racism, poverty, class distinctions, alcoholism, abuse, mental illness, snobbery, and fear are not easily spun to “happy.”

Interestingly, with only two exceptions, my favorite poems from Howling on Red Dirt Roads are the ones that are not portraits. I enjoy the humorous “Second-Hand Redemption” in which the speaker imagines a catalog of people who might have previously worn the shoes she mends in a thrift store, concluding

the broken heels
nail the sides tight
shines the toes
mend the soles whole

blue suede shoes
boots made for walkin’
golden skippers
dancing in the dark
all God’s chil’en got soles.

Similarly, I enjoy the disturbing poem “The Last Taboo,” which explores both literal and figurative conventions of cannibalism beginning

Buried deep in the human mind,
an urge quivers to eat each other.
Lovers nibble lovers’ flesh; babies
so cute we could eat with a spoon;
we eat our hearts out with envy.

and concluding

Facing starvation, we ingest corpse flesh
weep,wail, accept the ultimate
revulsion for its moment; then
somewhere between clouds and shadows
turn again to our daily affairs.

And, finally, I’m moved by “What the Children Know,” which examines the psychic trauma of childhood terror including such things as physical and sexual abuse, concluding with this horrifyingly evocative image:

We can’t tell what the children know
until they smother in the fumes,
shrivel in the flames of acts so heinous,
even Mother Mary wraps a shroud
around her face, turns away,
unable to bear the silent cries.

And the two exceptions? The two “portraits” that I find among the best poems in the book both come from Part II and deal with the relationship of the speaker, a white Southern girl, and her African-American nanny, Julia. In “Julia’s Invisible Fences,” after several glimpses of this special relationship, the speaker tells us

Part of my heart moved down that road to your house
with its blue porch rocking chair and yellow birdhouse nailed
above the tin roof. I was your ‘baby gal,’ even after I graduated
from college, visited you last in a nursing home where you kept
a photo of blonde three-year-old me tacked on the wall above
your bed--right beside the picture of a white Jesus.

The importance of this relationship is made even clearer in “We Played Spin the Bottles,” where the speaker reveals how Julia became protector and comforter against her “white mother’s” alcoholism and physical abuse.

The bottom line? These are compelling poems individually which are strengthened through a context provided by weaving them together in a complex and unified narrative. The only thing better than reading them on the page is hearing them spoken in Claytor’s own transporting Southern drawl, which, is best achieved by attending one of her live readings and experiencing her Southern charm and flair for the dramatic firsthand, but which, thanks to a CD included with the book, is also possible without even leaving the comforts of your favorite chair.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Review of Pris Campbell's "Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes"

Review (first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Sea Trails: Poems and 1977 Passage Notes, by Pris Campbell
Lummox Press (2009)
ISBN: 9781929878024

If you like poetry, you’ll love Pris Campbell’s new book Sea Trails (Lummox, 2009). If you don’t like poetry, even if you don’t understand poetry, even if you resent poetry and poets, you’ll love this book. If you like a story, if you like the sea, if you like memoirs, confessions, and reality shows, you’ll love this book.

It’s easy to be impressed with the creativity on display in Pris Campbell’s decision to juxtapose log notes from a sailing journey down the East Coast with highly personal and evocative poetry written about that journey. The complementation of prose and poetry, art and memoir creates a unique example of mimesis in action, a wonderful opportunity to speculate on the relationship between art and life, and the most enjoyable means of facilitating the comprehension of a poem that I’ve ever encountered. All that’s missing is the movie.

What might be overlooked in all of this is that even were there no log notes, no interesting details about sailing, no overarching narrative, and no innovative design, these would still be fantastic poems, and as much as I enjoy all the things that make this book unique and that make it more readable to a wider audience than every other collection of poetry from the past 10 years, it is still the poetry that makes it a great book. Campbell speaks in these poems with a clarity and vibrancy that create an unmistakably familiar emotional impact on the reader. Each poem contains its own catharsis as they build towards the summative climax of the narrative. “Why I Call Him My Lover,” for example, establishes the central conflict of the book while manifesting the oxymoronic desperate resignation of a lover falling out of love.

He’s not my mate.
Not my husband, either.
I don’t think of him
as my partner.
He’s not sweetie, hon,
darlin’, or luv.
I no longer use his given
name except when calling him.
We create what seems like love
in the V-berth each evening
and, sometimes, for a sail
flutter, it is again.
That and the boat
are our only tether.

Similarly, these lines from “Reversals” embody that same speaker’s stubborn hope that something worthwhile can yet be crafted from what has gone stale: “Unknown harbors wait to embrace us, / to cast roses upon hope that what / has been lost can still find fresh breath.” And, one of my favorite poems in the collection, “Original Sin,” re-envisions the myth of Adam and Eve to carry the conflict forward while beautifully expressing the inevitable disappointment one feels in loss:

When Adam bedded Eve in these dark pines
I wonder if they laughed in their nakedness,
threw kisses at lopsided stars.
I doubt Adam searched for other Eves to ogle,
found fault or ignored her. . . .
Our boat swings with the tide, waking us.
He slides inside. My very own Adam,
already tainted by original sin.

The flow of emotions engulfing this waning relationship is not, however, the only current that runs through these poems. There is also a movement towards independence, self-actualization, and, as first made clear in “Rebirth,” a joie de vivre expressed in the thrill of sailing:

I’ve birthed her hundreds of times
just as she’s birthed me,
but each time is a new time.
Umbilical cut, we move towards the open sea.

Even as the relationship between the speaker and her lover fester, this growth towards self-discovery and happiness continues in poems like “Newport Mayhem,” which concludes

I’m glad to sit on Little Adventure
under the darkening plum colored sky, feeling
every fresh second merge with my heartbeat
until my chest splits wide open to the glory of now.

Eventually the contrary currents of waxing self-discovery and waning co-dependence diverge as the speaker achieves her epiphany in “Daytona Redux:”

Suddenly I know I have what I need without him.
My little boat.
Good friends.
Sea air caressing my face.
This day, so beautiful it could break your heart.

The bottom line is that this is a brilliantly satisfying work of art. From the innovative combination of log notes, maps, charts, photographs, and of course, poetry, to the beautiful cover, the enticing narrative, and the sharp, clear, and engaging poetry, it is one of the best works I’ve read in several years.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Review of Richard Krawiec's "Breakdown"

Review(Originally Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)
Breakdown, Poems by Richard Krawiec
Main Street Rag, 2008, 45 Pages
ISBN: 9781599481142

Richard Krawiec subtitles his new collection of poems, “A Father’s Journey,” but from the beginning it is clear that this is no ordinary father’s journey, although it may be much more common than we would like to admit. In this father’s family

the girl steps willingly
up the gallows tips
her head back . . .
so her mother may
tighten the noose
(“The Family”)

Some readers may wonder at the choice of the word “willingly,” how such an event either literally or metaphorically could transpire with the girl’s consent, but the next poem, the title poem “Breakdown,” explains that, revealing a dynamic the survivor of abuse is all too familiar with:

now they enforce silence
with flowers cards claims of love
the repeated emphasis
on the suffering you cause
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
you believe in your fault
you can never be
sorry enough

And when the core of shame created through such a dynamic remains unhealed, the response can become even more frightful, as in the poem “don’t worry:”

she says she’s afraid
she might kill
her baby
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
she imagines the headline
mom murders sitter
and child
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
she tells you
the jump rope
would make an excellent weapon

Thus is the painful narrative of Breakdown, the story of dealing with a spouse’s breakdown, revelations of past abuse, denial on the part of the abusers, and the endless psychic trauma caused by the abuse and the denial upon the family of the abused. But even in such desperate straits there are still moments of joy, as in “Judging the Worth,” where an infant’s song awakens the narrator and then as he holds him,

it toooowl he says I agree
it is cold but his breath warms
my shoulder his chest protects my own
he burrows his arms between us
one hand pops free his fingers slide
over his thumb as if testing fabric
the weight and weave judging the worth
of this life he throws his head up laughs
his teeth small and bright as stars
the cherubic firmament of his face

Under these circumstances such moments might indeed rare, but here at least the child’s bright, radiant, cherubic face can only be seen as an affirmation that life is worth it after all. And that sentiment is repeated later in “The Insistence on Living,” where father and sons plant a garden, and the father meditates,

so what
if we are only going through the motions
if all our efforts are destined to fail
we are insisting on living
we are insisting
we are

This is a difficult book to read, but well worth the emotional cost it exacts. These are gut-wrenching, hair-raising, nerve-shattering, keep-you-up-at-night poems. They will change you. You’ll want to believe they’re just poems, but in the end you’ll know they’re much more than that.

NC Writers' Network HIts the Beach for 2009 Fall Conference

Musings for October 29

North Carolina Writers’ Network Hits the Beach for 2009 Fall Conference

More than 300 writers, editors, and literary agents will descend upon Wrightsville Beach November 20-22 for the annual North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference, one of the country’s largest conferences dedicated to the art and business of writing. Those in attendance, however, won’t all be professionals in the book business. Sure, bestselling novelist Cassandra King will be there but so will high school and college students interested in writing and so will non-writing fans of Ms. King and the other writers giving workshops, readings, and seminars. In short, the conference is open to anyone.

The conference will be held at the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort in Wrightsville Beach, and registration is now open at the Network’s website, In all, more than 30 writers and editors, including such notables as Anthony Abbott, Ellyn Bache, Philip Gerard, Marianne Gingher, Peter Makuck, and Mark Smith-Soto, will lead workshops, master classes, and panel discussions on topics ranging from finding the form in free verse to how to write how to books. There will also be seminars on screenwriting, food writing, using dialect, and selling one’s work to agents and editors. There will be opportunities for developing writers to work one-on-one with book professionals through the Manuscript Mart and Critique Service features of the conference. Ben George, editor of UNCW’s literary journal Ecotone will share tips on submitting to literary magazines; Emily Smith, director of The Publishing Laboratory at UNCW, will teach a workshop on designing covers for books; and Alice Osborn will show you how to use Facebook, Twitter, Myspace, Linkedin, YouTube and other social media to promote your writing.

Agents and editors at the conference will include representatives from The Steinberg Agency, John F. Blair Publishers, University of North Carolina Press, Novello Festival Press, and Press 53. Additionally, dozens of authors and presses will have their sometimes hard to find books available for purchase and signing by the authors, and a variety of literary and arts organizations will have informative exhibits about the programs they make available for the NC arts community.

And, of course, there will be the beach and the beautiful mix of old and new, tradition and innovation that is Wilmington, NC. Where better to find inspiration and motivation than in a room full of writers soaking up the perfect blend of nature and culture?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

New Wild Goose Online

The new "Wild Goose Poetry Review" is now online at This issue is the first to feature links to the Wild Goose Poetry Review blog where authors have left comments on their poems and readers can do so as well. We're hoping this will stir up more conversation about the poems, poets, and poetry in general. This issue includes poems by Sam Rasnake, Felicia Mitchell, Richard Krawiec, Jessie Carty (featured), Gabriel Shanks, Daniel Casey, Curtis Dunlap, AD Winans, Harry Calhoun, and many others. My reviews of new books by Mitchell, Krawiec, Linda Annas Ferguson, Sara Claytor, Joanna Catherine Scott, Terri Kirby Erickson, David Rigsbee, John Amen, Bruce Lader, and Pris Campbell are also in this issue. The reviews give me a great opportunity to comment not just about individual poems, books, and poets, but to express my ideas about contemporary poetry in general. I hope you'll at least read those about Ferguson's, Scott's, and Campbell's books. I think I venture further towards "making statements" about poetry in those than in some of the others. In any event, over the next couple of weeks, I'll post those reviews one-per-day or so here as well to create a searchable archive of all of my reviews (at least those the initial publisher will allow me to reprint here). Look for them starting tomorrow

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lader Brings Landscapes of Longing to Hickory


In a review of Bruce Lader’s new book of poems, Landscapes of Longing, I explained that “these poems are all about the daily struggle to attain or maintain perspective. One poem after another proposes answers to the question: what can we learn from each other, from our lives as human beings, from the inevitability of disappointment, despair, longing in all its innumerable varieties.”

Lader’s work acknowledges that the world is not an easy place to live in, at least not with dignity and integrity. Confronted on a daily basis with unfairness, disillusionment, confusion, and the apparent perpetuity of longing, how do we maintain any sense of equilibrium, focus, perspective, and ultimately, hope. And yet, Lader’s poems illustrate again and again that we do. Despite frustration, injustice, contradiction, and failure, we continue to struggle on, against all odds, and insistent upon what we know to be good and fair and right.

If this sounds to you like the existential image of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill only to have it roll back down every day, then it won’t come as a surprise that the middle section of Lader’s book is titled “Interviews Following the Sentence of Sisyphus.” Lader, however, doesn’t rely just upon esoteric mythological figures to relay his message about human existence. He presents these ideas in characters we all recognize, perhaps know personally, perhaps even have been at one time or another in our own lives.

The first and perhaps most memorable of the many voices Lader uses to explore this theme of existential persistence is that of a teacher at a school for troubled boys. In several of the book’s best poems, this speaker helps the reader see beyond the surface, to see the humanity behind the stereotype and statistic as these boys struggle not just for survival but for justice and opportunity as well. My favorite of these, “Attendance Check” is reprinted below.

On November 10, Lader will visit Hickory to read as part of the Poetry Hickory series along with fellow NC poet, Alex Grant. The reading will begin at 6:30 PM at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. For more information, contact Scott Owens at 828-234-4266 or

Lader has published poems in many journals and anthologies, including Poetry, the New York Quarterly, the Humanist, International Poetry Review, Harpur Palate, New Millennium Writings, Margie, Poet Lore, and Asheville Poetry Review. His first full-length collection, Discovering Mortality, was a finalist for the Brockman-Campbell Award. He is the founding director of Bridges Tutoring, an organization educating multicultural students. A New York City teacher for many years, he was a Writer-in-Residence at the Helene Wurlitzer Colony, and has received an honorarium from the College of Creative Studies at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His latest book, Landscapes of Longing, will be available for purchase at Poetry Hickory or can be ordered from Main Street Rag at

Attendance Check

Swapping cigarettes, jabs, chips,
they drift like Rockaway waves
from the boys home into the classroom,
ninth graders no one would bet on,
discarded by split parents.

The deck of misfortune they inherited
keeps shoving them to grow up
the hard way, hustles them
to hazardous fringes,
rips off their blooming.
A hot tide of easy dope
has begun to nettle attitudes,
submerge questioning minds.

and yet their feisty, undefeated spirits
grapple with prison sentences
of poverty; shirtless torsos
flaunt scars, coded storylines
of tested identity,
graffiti pledges of belonging.
Their dicey hands are mauled,
notched, and zigzagged from brutal
battles to breach a barbed-wire fate.

Jumpy after all-night scuffles
with gangs prowling Times Square,
they dodge and gamble to exist,
smell like a crowded gym, fists ready
for fast money, to get over
on teachers, settle scores,
stay afloat in the system chiseling them.

First published in The Humanist

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October Poetry Hickory Video

Here is a link to Jessie Carty's video excerpts from October's Poetry Hickory. The featured writers were Debra Kaufman and Helen Losse. Open Mic readers included Faze, Anthony Straight, DW Bentley, and me (reading from Pris Campbell's new book "Sea Trails" from Lummox Press). Pris is virtually homebound due to her health, so she doesn't have the opportunity to read her own work in public. Her poems can be quite "sexy" at times, which might make it a bit strange for me to read, but they're excellent poems and I relish the opportunity to share them no matter how it might seem.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How Does Poetry Work

How Does Poetry Work?

Any attempt at answering that question is doomed to be inadequate for the simple fact that what we call poetry varies greatly and works in an incomprehensible range of ways. Nevertheless, as Robert Frost said, “There are roughly zones,” and there is a great deal to be learned as a poet or a reader from attempting to answer the question, and besides, it can be a lot of fun to joust at windmills from time to time. So why not?

How does poetry work? Perhaps not surprisingly, most poetry tends to work (my composition students will notice the carefully-worded avoidance of absolutes) just like every other art form. Well, mostly anyway. Art tends to be sensuous, that is, it works through and appeals to the senses. We see color and lines and form in a painting. We see or feel texture in a sculpture. We vicariously feel movement in dance. We hear rhythm and tone in music.

In poetry, as well as in other written communication, on the other hand, we literally see only symbols, letters that are combined to represent sounds that we recognize as words with particular meanings (that’s the difference from other arts). On the surface it seems an entirely cognitive process. Those words, however, in most “artistic” writing don’t relay only cognitive concepts. They also call up images that appeal to the reader’s senses. Thus, a reader not only translates words into meanings but also “imagines,” meaning to craft into an image, or sees what the writer describes.

Sensory input is processed in the limbic system of the human brain. This is the same system that regulates heart and respiratory rate, blood pressure, and hormone production and release, all of which are physiologically involved in what we call emotion. It should come as no surprise, then, that the sensory input of art elicits emotional responses from its audience. Piano music can make us melancholy; we cry or laugh at plays and movies; violins increase tension; and Edvard Munch’s The Scream creates a sense of imminent and omnipresent terror.

The limbic system also facilitates long-term memory, and predictably we usually respond most deeply to that art which reminds us of our own experiences, the art which seems most relevant to us. We can respond emotionally, however, even to art that seems at first unrelated to our specific pasts because we may recognize a similar situation, image, or theme to something we have experienced.

In essence, then, a poem works by using words and sounds to cause the reader to imagine sensory input which, in a good poem at least, is associated through the limbic system with particular emotions and memories. And all this happens simultaneously with a conscious consideration of the cognitive meaning of the words being used. Thus, a good poem (re)creates a complex perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and mnemonic experience.

Recently I told one of my students who was attempting to write descriptive poetry that the problem was he was choosing words that only described the object or experience, and that instead he needed images that “dripped” with meaning, feeling, associations, and memories. The ability to find those words that create this sort of resonant imagery in the reader’s limbic system is ultimately what makes one a poet. Perhaps the best short example of the sort of imagery I mean comes from Ezra Pound, an early 20th century poet often considered the Father of Imagism. The poem’s comparison, with no elaboration, of ghostly faces in a station of the Metro to limp, washed-out flower petals suggests the lifeless, spent potential that Pound feared characterized much of the urbanized, industrialized, and heavily impersonalized world he lived in. Here is the poem:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Debra Kaufman: Poetic Virtuoso

Musings for September 24

Debra Kaufman: Poetic Virtuoso

There is only one poem from Debra Kaufman’s new collection of poems, Moon Mirror Whiskey Wind, that I would want to reprint here. Not because the book isn’t full of quality work--it is--but because this particular poem is so strong that it stands out among the best of Kaufman’s poems, just as it would among the best of anyone’s.
The poem is called “A Marriage,” a term which any poet will tell you comes pre-loaded with significance as it is a term often used to describe the way in which poetry works, marrying one thing to another through metaphor, analogy, and other forms of association. In this particular poem, not surprisingly, the term carries not only that figurative weight but the literal meaning of also being simply about a marriage.
There is much to admire in this poem, as there is in the collection as a whole, but my favorite aspect of “A Marriage” is the way in which each of the poem’s three “characters” (man, woman, and that same woman after self-actualization) are fleshed out phonetically. As you’ll see below, the man is characterized by 2-syllabled, short-voweled dentals; the woman, on the other hand, initially by long-voweled words that hum, and eventually by 3-syllabled words full of liquids that move from long to short and back to long again. The poem is a fantastic lesson in just how much meaning and emotion can be carried by the mere sounds of words.
It comes as no surprise to those who know her career that Kaufman is capable of such virtuosity in her poetry. After all, she is the author of four collections of poetry, the recipient of numerous awards for her writing, and a longtime active participant in such organizations as the North Carolina Poetry Society and North Carolina Writers’ Network. Originally from the Midwest, Kaufman has lived for the past twenty years in Mebane, NC. She will visit Hickory on October 13 to read in the Poetry Hickory reading series beginning at 6:30 P.M. at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory.
Here is the poem, “A Marriage,” in its entirety.

A Marriage

In his stories
he was always
the hero; she
the damsel in hers.
this is how families
are born. And endure.

The hard d’s of Dad
with its short a so brassy,
the soft yum of Mom,
her scent of cinnamon.

He said buckshot, slipknot,
topnotch, crackpot.
Steam, gleam, beam, redeem
the words she prayed.

Mow the lawn
floating swan
cut your nails
wedding veil
scrub that makeup off

His crewcut, her creamy hands,
his steely eyes; her mind
drifting away to some airy
kind of heaven where
she glided beside Jesus
and above them sang thrushes,
where she was no one’s wife
or mother, where she was prized
(o rosary, poetry, reverie!)
for her pure soul self.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Happy Anniversary to Us


A little over a year ago, Barbara Burns, the editor of Outlook, and I hatched a plan to create a print venue for bringing more attention to poets in the Hickory area. We thought a column, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, whatever we could manage, featuring a poem by a local writer would do the trick. It was not really a novel idea. In fact, the “poetry corner” was once a staple of locally-owned newspapers across the country. In recent years, however, that tradition seems to have fallen out of favor. That, combined with the fact that Hickory has become home to a surprising number of widely-published poets, made it seem the perfect time and location for just such a column to be reinvented.
We quickly decided on the name “Musings,” and a year ago today, the first installment of this column was published in Outlook. We decided the standard format of the column would be to include a poem and a brief biography of the poet, but we also decided to be flexible and occasionally venture into book reviews, interviews, and commentary on anything related to poetry. In fairly quick order we also expanded our scope to include poets coming to Hickory to read their work at Poetry Hickory or other local venues.
Not surprisingly to anyone who knows anything about poetry in the Hickory area, the first poet we featured in “Musings” was Tim Peeler, a native of Hickory and long-time fixture at CVCC and in the Hickory poetry community. From that beginning we’ve gone on this past year to publish 44 poems by 37 different poets ranging from NC Poet Laureate Kay Byer to local high school student, Jeni Conklin. Taken together, these poems form an impressive array of work (hmm, maybe an anthology should be in the future).
We have also featured information on events like Poetry Hickory, Aroma of Art, the Ekphrastic Poetry Event, Poetry Month, and the Women’s Resource Center Book Release Party for Voices and Vision. We have highlighted area poetry journals like Wild Goose Poetry Review and Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, local presses like Main Street Rag, vital organizations for poets like NC Poetry Society, Poetry Council of North Carolina, and NC Writer’s Network. Then, perhaps my personal favorites were the op-ed style columns on “The Top 10 Reasons for Going to a Poetry Reading,” “Why Poetry,” “Why Poetry Doesn’t Sell,” the loss of NC’s Poet Laureate, “How to Read a Poem” and other topics.
I discovered along the way that we were not as alone in this as I first thought. I found other weekly poetry columns in print, including Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry,” which is published in a large number of newspapers across the country, Bill Diskin’s “Poetryork” in York, Pennsylvania’s York Daily Record, Robert Pinsky’s “Poet’s Choice” in The Washington Post, as well as columns in The Lawrence Journal-World, The Oregonian, and England’s The Guardian. I am grateful that we are not the only ones who think such coverage of poetry is still justified.
I am also grateful to Barbara Burns, to the staff of Newton’s Observer News Enterprise, to the poets who continue to share their work with us, and of course most of all, to the readers of “Musings” and their continued understanding of the vitality of poetry today. I hope this will be the first in a long series of anniversaries to come.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Poetry Day to Have Hickory Flavor


Every year since 1950, the Poetry Council of North Carolina has held a one day celebration of poetry, designated as Poetry Day, at Catawba College in Salisbury. This year Poetry Day will take place on October 10, and it will have a definite Hickory flavor.
This year’s Poetry Day will include the usual speeches and exciting performances by the group, Chambergrass, and Poetry Out Loud (a national high school recitation project) participants, but the highlight of Poetry Day this year, as in every year, is the series of readings by winners in the Council’s annual poetry competitions. The Hickory flavor in this year’s celebration comes in the Sam Ragan Contest for High School Students and Undergraduates, where three of the winners are students from Hickory. Recent St. Stephens High School graduate, Liz (Megan) Monish placed second in that competition, and CVCC students Jacob Gryder and Keegan Blankenship were both recognized as honorable mentions by judge Joseph Milford .
Readings will also be given by the winners of the Council’s six other competitions. These winners include, among others, such NC notables as Shelby Stephenson, long-time editor of Pembroke Magazine; Sara Claytor, author of Howling on Red Dirt Roads and a recent reader at Poetry Hickory; Joseph Mills, author of Angels, Thieves, and Winemakers; Dannye Romine Powell, former Book Page Editor at the Charlotte Observer; Tony Abbott, author of Leaving Maggie Hope; and Bill Griffin, author of Snake Den Ridge and another recent visitor to Poetry Hickory.
Another highlight of the day will be the debut of the Council’s annual awards anthology, Bay Leaves, which will include all the winning poems from this year’s competitions. Copies of Bay Leaves will be available for $9.50. Copies of Bay Leaves, first published in 1952, and all books entered into the Council’s Oscar Arnold Young Book Competition are archived in the Catawba College Library.
Poetry Day activities will begin at 9:20 A.M. in the Peeler-Crystal Lounge on the campus of Catawba College. Admission is free and open to the public. Lunch will be available for $15 per person. Questions about Poetry Day or the Poetry Council of North Carolina can be addressed to Ed Cockrell at 919-967-5834 or by email at Additional information, including registration forms, are also available at the Council’s website:

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Not Your Typical Poet


"Musings" column from September 3, 2009

Helen Losse is not your typical poet. In fact, she’s not your typical anything. She is a scholar and a NASCAR fan. She is a lover of nature and trains. She is devoutly Christian and fervently liberal. Her poetry is often formal and refined and just as often relaxed and conversational. And perhaps most importantly given her current residence in Winston-Salem, NC, she is fan of both the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and the UNC Tarheels.
Losse is the author of three collections of poetry, Gathering the Broken Pieces, Paper Snowflakes, and her newest Better with Friends. Even without her own writing, Losse would be an important figure in the world of Southern poetry. She has been Poetry Editor of the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature since 2005 and has striven to promote the work of area poets and the appreciation of poetry in general in every means imaginable. Any regular reader of this column knows how those efforts would make me a big fan.
Losse writes across a wide range of topics but as a scholar of African-American and civil rights history one of her favorite topics is social injustice and the heroes who arise out of the struggle to correct it. Her poems, however, are also full of gorgeous natural imagery that often serves to reveal a deeply meaningful and thoughtful faith. She is, ultimately, a kind woman and poet, the kind anyone fortunate enough to know her or work with her is grateful for.
On Tuesday, October 13, Losse will be in Hickory to share her poetry as part of the Poetry Hickory reading series. The reading will begin at 6:30 PM at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse. The poem reprinted below is from Losse’s latest collection, Better with Friends, which will be available for purchase at Poetry Hickory.

A Satisfied Cathedral

I considered blueberry bushes
yesterday but didn’t buy any. Today it’s
raining hard. And the gloom of winter remains.

My dishwasher will not start, and my computer
monitor makes a high-pitched shriek. I look out
my window toward evergreens, where damp air

is too warm for snow. But even in February,
hope emerges--from the glow of a candle-
flame--and my heart becomes

a Byzantine cathedral of multi-colored tile.
I am bathed in incense and song, satisfied--
for the moment--with indoor light

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

How to Read a Poem


"Musings" from August 26, 2009

This one comes in direct response to a reader who wrote to me that he doesn’t read much poetry because it never makes any sense to him. This is not the first time I’ve heard this complaint about poetry.
The problem, I think, with understanding poetry is that we don’t encounter it often enough. Language, by its very nature, is tricky. My wife and I misunderstand each other on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. Usually one of us assumes the other has knowledge about something that they don’t, and so we begin talking about it as if the other knows what we’re talking about. I have similar difficulties with my teen-aged sons. The noises they make sound like English, but the words never mean what I think they mean. This is particularly distressing because I was their English teacher from 6th grade on up.
In most areas we overcome the trickiness of language by using it frequently. We encounter spoken language daily, prose also daily, even fiction on a fairly regular basis. With poetry, however, most of us only encounter it in a classroom, where the assumption is that a poem has multiple layers of meaning and our job is to painstakingly pull out all the possibilities. So, we’re immediately set up to feel like any attempt we make at fully understanding the poem is bound to be inadequate. To make matters worse, most of the poetry we’re presented with in classes was created in another century, often in another country such that the language is much less familiar than the language we encounter in other types of communication.
One additional impediment to understanding poetry is the fact that much poetry lacks the grammatical props of prose. To some degree poetry, rather than just telling a story, attempts to recreate the emotional, psychological, perceptual, spiritual, and perhaps even physical experience of an event, thought, or feeling, and since we don’t experience things in complete and grammatically correct sentences, poets sometimes abandon those conventions as well. Finally, it is true that some few poets don’t care if their work is understood; they may think their task is to create a puzzle, to challenge the reader, or simply to express themselves without any consideration of the audience.
All of this adds up to make some people believe they can’t understand a poem. So, here is a very brief guide on how to read a poem:
1. RELAX AND ENJOY. There is no right way, no criteria for successfully reading a poem. There won’t be a test, and your 10th grade English teacher isn’t going to appear and tell you, “That’s not it at all.” If you can’t enjoy the language, imagery, and tensions of the poem, then you’re either trying too hard or you’ve got a poem that on at least one level you’re not meant to enjoy at this time. Move on; there are others.
2. READ AS YOU WOULD READ ANY OTHER TEXT. Follow the cues of punctuation. Most contemporary poetry de-emphasizes traditional poetic features like rhythm and rhyme in favor of realism. Those elements are often still there but more subtly, almost invisibly supporting the meaning, mood, or feeling of the poem. Usually at least one level of meaning arises from a simple, straightforward reading of the poem
3. IF YOU WANT DEEPER MEANING, READ DEEPER. Read it repeatedly, all the way through the first time, then focusing more on individual stanzas, lines, phrases. Analyze individual words and images for connotations and associations. Ask others to read it and discuss your understandings. But none of this is required or expected. Only go this far if you have a desire to do so, you think the poem deserves it, or you owe it to the poet.
That’s it really. Most contemporary poetry is much more accessible than one might
think. Most poets want to be read and want to be understood. At the same time they want their poems to be an enjoyable intellectual experience. Once a reader gets past the blocks against poetry that they’ve brought with them, they discover they can easily enough enjoy the poem and achieve a meaningful level of understanding. So, to paraphrase the once-popular commercial, Just Read It.