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.