Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jacob Gryder

“Musings” for June 18, 2009

One of my greatest joys in doing this column is having the opportunity to offer encouragement and bring attention to young writers. Previously, I’ve featured the work of CVCC student Trisha Hart and former St. Stephens High School student, Liz Monish. Today I’m featuring three poems by CVCC student and Taylorsville native, Jacob Gryder.

Despite his relative youth, Jacob has already found success as a poet. His poems have been published in Dead Mule and are due out in Wild Goose Poetry Review and Bay Leaves. His poem, “No Less Dear a Price Might Purchase My Felicity,” was recently named an Honorable Mention in the Sam Ragan Poetry Contest sponsored by the Poetry Council of North Carolina. Gryder will transfer to Appalachian State University this fall to major in Comparative Literature.

Wine of My Gluttonous Ways

you are the wine of my gluttonous ways,
the mirror of my vanity.
you are the Venus of my lustful days,
the vengeance of my wrath.
you are the trophy of my prideful gaze,
the perfection of my envy.
yet you defy my greed.

The Blues

I’ve got a devil with an angel’s voice.
She can pray like Peter,
preach like Paul,
and sup with the Devil all night long.


is a bird
that sings in winter,
or a rose
that grows through concrete.
Love is the only recourse
for the lonely-hearted
and the last best hope
for man.
I no longer wonder
at its nature.
I can only remark
at “how much more it is than nothing.”

North Carolina Writers Network Begins Local Writers Night Out

Musings for May 22

If you are or want to be a poet in North Carolina, there are at least three organizations you need to be familiar with. I’ve discussed two of those, the Poetry Council of NC and the NC Poetry Society, in prior columns. The third is actually the largest. The North Carolina Writers Network, whose services are suitable not just for poets but for all writers, claims more than 1800 members. Ironically, NCWN is also the newest of the three organizations, having come into existence less than a quarter of a century ago in 1985.
The mission of NCWN is quite straightforward. NCWN “connects, promotes, and serves the writers of this state.” They “provide education in the craft and business of writing, opportunities for recognition and critique of literary work, resources for writers at all stages of development, support for and advocacy of the literary heritage of North Carolina, and a community for those who write.” Of perhaps greater interest is NCWN’s statement of belief: “We believe that writing is necessary both for self-expression and community spirit, that well-written words can connect people across time and distance, and that the deeply satisfying experiences of writing and reading should be available to everyone.” If you read last week’s “Musings,” you already know how much in concert I am with these beliefs.
So, what does all this mean that NCWN actually does? NCWN is probably best known for its two annual Conferences which feature two days’ worth of workshops, readings, and presentations by some of the country’s best-known writers designed to provide the kind of education needed by developing writers in every genre and in every stage of development. They are also known for their newsletter, which used to be printed monthly but now exists primarily in a weekly email format and continues to provide writers with vital lists of literary activities around the state and publication opportunities around the country.
This same sort of information is available on the Network’s impressive website, The website includes a “Submit It” section that lists publication opportunities, a “Hats Off” section that acknowledges recent achievements of NCWN members, a calendar of literary events in NC, links to other sites providing services to writers, articles on writing and writers, classified ads for jobs, books, residencies, etc., and an opportunity for online publication in the new feature “Writing the New South.”
The Network also sponsors a Summer Writing Residency for 50 writers at Warren Wilson College. This 2-day residency provides intensive workshops with some of the area’s best writers in fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. Finally, the Network sponsors more than $30,000 in annual awards for writers including the Doris Betts Fiction Prize, the Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize, the Randall Jarrell Poetry Competition, and the Rose Post Creative Nonfiction Award.
The one complaint levied against the Network over the past few years is that it has become too big, causing it to lose touch with the majority of those it serves. Current Network Director, Ed Southern, has responded to that criticism by creating a network (no pun intended) of regional representatives to help disseminate information, facilitate publication opportunities, and serve as a liaison between the network and its local members. About a month ago I agreed to be the regional representative for Catawba, Caldwell, Alexander, Burke, and Lincoln Counties. Since then I have begun holding Writers’ Night Out meetings before Poetry Hickory readings on the second Tuesday of each month. We meet at 5:00 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. We’ve had only one meeting so far, where we networked with each other, shared opportunities, news, etc. and agreed that we might also occasionally critique each others’ work. We are open to new participants and remain flexible regarding the nature and purpose of the group. For more information, you can contact me at or 828-234-4266.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Katherine Soniat Writes Good Poetry

Musings for June 4
Katherine Soniat Writes Good Poetry

Most poets “specialize,” which is to say they find a particular type of poetry they’re comfortable with and they write most of their work in that genre. They may be classified as narrative poets, or symbolist poets, or language poets. They may favor nature imagery, or political themes, or write heavily-allusive academic verse. They may use traditional forms, or imitate Whitman’s breathy lines, or prefer the minimalism of much Eastern poetry. It’s not an uncommon practice; nor is it one necessarily to be criticized. We don’t ask Shaquille O’Neal to hit 3-point shots, James Patterson to write lusty romances, or Bobby Flay to prepare haute cuisine. Specialization is the way of the world these days, and it results in high quality if admittedly sometimes predictable work.
One poet, however, who, either consciously or unconsciously, has avoided the temptations of specialization is Katherine Soniat. I have to admit that before Soniat agreed to come to Hickory to read as part of Poetry Hickory on June 9 (6:30 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse), I was unfamiliar with her work. This is surprising because her 6 books of poetry have won practically every poetry award that exists: the Iowa Poetry Prize, the Jane Kenyon Award, the William Faulkner Award, the Anne Stanford Award, the Virginia Prize for Poetry, etc. And she has taught creative writing at Virginia Tech and Hollins. And she has been to Bread Loaf, Yaddo, and the McDowell Colony. And her poems have been in Kakalak, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Southern Review, The New Republic, and dozens of other journals that I subscribe to and read pretty religiously.
Whatever the cause for that omission in my poetic education, I have since corrected it and been very pleased to discover a poet whose comfort zone extends across a wide variety of forms, themes, aesthetics, approaches, tendencies, and simple urges in writing without sacrificing quality. Typically in these columns as I’m previewing a poet coming to Hickory, I try to give the reader a sense of what to expect. I find, despite having now read dozens of Soniat’s poems, that the only thing I can say with any certainty one attending Poetry Hickory on June 9 will receive is good poetry.
Not that I’m entirely at a loss to characterize Soniat’s work. I can say, for example, that it features evocative detail, that it frequently juxtaposes natural imagery with human needs, conflicts, and motivations, which are often revealed in understated suggestions of loss, regret, and persistence, all of which might suggest that there is an existentialist at work there somewhere. But these are things that I would expect to be able to say about all good 21st century poetry. So, I’ll leave at that. Katherine Soniat writes good poetry. Here is an example:


That evening she painted her nails metallic rose,
placed the opal on her finger, and walked

down the block to a party in the moss garden.
A friend held her hand, getting involved

with the milky luminescence of the ring. Before
long he was telling her how his uncle loved

to float down the river with a favorite cow. And
indeed that bovine figure was a fabled swimmer.

The river had a bluish tint and swirled slowly
beneath the trees. The cow with a hoop in its nose

swam on a rope near his uncle. This uncle, who had
lived alone his whole life, always spoke of the cow.

By some accounts, both could be seen as flying.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Something to Learn in Ruin

Musings for May 28
Something to Learn in Ruin

We all know the world is not perfect. The question is what do we do with that knowledge. In the case of poet Al Maginnes, the answer is we make art; we make life; we make poetry. Maginnes tells us in the final line of his new collection of poetry, Ghost Alphabet, that “there is something to learn in ruin.”
Maginnes has been learning from ruin and sharing his learnings by making poetry for the better part of two decades, culminating in six collections of poetry. In the title poem of his new collection, Maginnes uses the image of a theater marquee missing letters as a metaphor for ruin and the creative acts engendered by ruin: “The white space shining between / the remaining letters is pages unwritten, / titles and plots of films never made.” Maginnes reminds us that in all creating, there is negative space, what the artist uses by exclusion to make the created stand out or to invite the viewer’s or reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks with personally relevant material, with memory or reflection.
Maginnes’ poetry is quite simply a joy to read but a joy that carries with it seemingly surprising revelations. His lines combine close observation and intricate knowledge with an uncommonly comfortable and complete syntax to create seamless moments of reflection that always conclude with illumination. The logic and tone of his lines and the clarity of his details are so straightforward that the reader first expects nothing new to happen. Then when the poem ends with an ironic insight, the reader feels they have experienced an epiphany. Finally, upon further reflection, one begins to believe they knew this all along but Maginnes has reminded them of what they have not attended to and brought greater clarity along with it.
You’d think explaining how Maginnes achieves such clarity would be easy. Clarity, one would imagine, by definition would be clear. And if Maginnes’ poetry merely made a clear statement, it would be easy to explain. But good poetry doesn’t believe people are changed by being told what to think, how to feel, what is really going on. Instead, good poetry attempts to recreate the thought/emotion/event complex such that the reader experiences as if it were their own. That’s not easy to explain. The best way to get an understanding of it is to read Maginnes’ work oneself, or better yet to attend his reading at Poetry Hickory on June 9.
As a primer, I’m including one of his new poems below.

Firefly Gospel

Because we have made them the intermediaries
of the stars and, by extension, the planets,

we endow them with an existence larger
than the glimmer of one night

or one season, their summer bloom and flicker
one constant of our time-fogged span.

We know or believe we know how brief
a firefly’s span, since they die

so easily once captured, but the fire hovering
green-gold and planetary

in the emptiness between trees might be
the same glow that cast its lamps

over a back yard in Alabama forty years ago,
glow I ran through the dark to capture.

Each morning the bodies were shriveled and smelled
of dead copper, but the hot, burning dimes

of stars always surfaced and were echoed by
the weaving ballet of fireflies, more light

than anyone could capture. Now I have learned
those lights, like human voices, are signals,

go-betweens for bodies tired of being told
they will die, a beckoning

to the oldest orbit bodies know, but I see them
exactly as I have always wished to see them,

small, stark missionaries descended
to deliver night’s gospel of fire.