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.