Thursday, March 25, 2010

Poetry Council Announces 2010 Contests

Poetry Council Announces 2010 Contests

The Poetry Council of NC (PCNC) will again sponsor a series of poetry contests for NC residents this year. In all, PCNC sponsors contests in 8 categories, including one each for elementary, middle and high school students. Other categories are for a book by a NC poet published in 2009, traditional poetry, light verse, free verse, and poems on the theme of family. The submission period for these contests began February 15 and concludes on May 22. Winners in last year’s contests include such notable poets as Anthony Abbott, Bill Griffin, Sara Claytor, Shelby Stephenson, and Dannye Romine Powell.

All contest categories feature cash prizes ranging from $100 to $15 for first, second, and third place. In most categories, up to three additional poems are awarded honorable mention status. All poems selected for awards are published in PCNC’s annual anthology, Bay Leaves. Additionally, authors of the awarded poems will receive certificates from PCNC and are invited to read their winning poems at PCNC’s annual poetry celebration known as Poetry Day, to be held this year on October 16 at Catawba College in Salisbury.

Poems submitted for PCNC contests must be unpublished and not under consideration for publication elsewhere. Complete details including the method for submitting work are available on PCNC’s website at or by contacting PCNC President, Ed Cockrell, at 2906 Gait Way, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.

The Poetry Council of NC was founded in 1949 with the primary mission of fostering “a deeper appreciation and love of poetry among the people of NC.” Since its founding, the Council has sponsored contests, published anthologies, coordinated Poetry Day, and helped maintain an archive of NC poetry at Catawba College. Starting with last year’s contests and continuing this year, winning poems are also published online (a new poem each week) on the Council’s website.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review of Jessie Carty's "The Wait of Atom"

The Wait of Atom, by Jessie Carty
Folded Word Press, 2009 (ISBN: 9780977816705)

Jessie knows men. She gets that it’s the detail they revel in, whether it’s sports, or cars, or the contours of good wood, or in this case, chemistry. It’s what keeps the brain from focusing on disquietude, displeasure, disappointment, dissatisfaction, disenfranchisement, or any number of other “disses,” all of which are various manifestations of the human inability to know whether we’ve gotten anything right at all. In other words, the details we fill our lives with are distraction from what might otherwise produce the dangers of depression, desperation, dysfunction, and a sense of impotence against the oppression of time, nature, society, and inescapable ignorance.

But don’t think Jessie is just male-bashing. She doesn’t characterize just men as Eliot’s man-brute Sweeney because Jessie knows women too. She gets that they are the same as men . . . only different. She gets that the struggles are the same but the distractions different. Just as her Atom has “learned / to keep his eyes focused on a point / just over her shoulder while he let his brain / scan the periodic table of elements,” her Zoe has learned that “her purse had to match her shoes” (“The Wait of Atom”) and to want “a full church and months of / preparation. Preachers and parties. / Invitations and tradition” (“Bright Beacon”).

And Jessie knows psychology and sociology, and of course chemistry. She knows that the source of these differences is not, ironically given the structure of the book, chemical at all, but rather environmental, as is made clear in “Pink Was the Color of His Weakness,” a poem in which the two main characters fulfill the expectations of various “visitors” all the while harboring contrary truths about their personalities: “They always asked him about his comic books. // . . . as she / would try to discuss the rows of romance novels / that no one knew he wrote.”

And don’t think that her new book of poems The Wait of Atom is even remotely as heavy-handed, dry, or nihilistic as this review might suggest because another thing that Jessie knows is poetry readers. She knows that the darkness of these poems is best kept just under the surface to be experienced by most almost subliminally or to be ferreted out by only the most careful of readers. She knows that the surface will fare much better with humor and the opportunity for light self-reflection, allowing any reader the momentary chuckle when they recognize their own habits, as they will, among those of Atom and Zoe.

Besides, “The Amateur Geologist,” the best of these poems, and meaningfully the last of them, can only be seen as dark and nihilistic if one considers existentialism as inherently nihilistic. We see the subject of this poem “searching” on what he “calls” “a path,” and having found a temporary satisfaction, he returns, “cradling his prize,” “to his abandoned bike, / wheels still spinning / as if they had achieved / perpetual motion.” This wonderful metaphor for human endeavor to find value in life is Sisyphean, and thus existential, suggesting that the endeavor itself, the perpetual spinning, the ceaseless search, remains sufficient and justifies the constant doubt and the necessary diversions we undertake to keep the wheels in motion.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review of Joseph Bathanti's "Land of Amnesia"

Building on Ruin: Song of the South

Land of Amnesia, by Joseph Bathanti
Press 53, 2009 (ISBN: 9780981628073)
83 pages, $12

Those of us who were born and raised in the South and who have paused on occasion to reflect on the trajectory of the South have never doubted the existence of either resurrection or reincarnation. We’ve been quite comfortable with the apparent contradictions of the Phoenix myth and the questionable logic of generations who, if Schliemann got it right at Troy, build again and again atop and from ruin. Joseph Bathanti is not, in fact, a native son, but he has lived here long enough and worked long enough amid those masters of renaissance and redefinition, prisoners, orphans, and community college students, to recognize the persistence of the pattern on personal, political and social levels.

The truth is, nothing ever dies completely here. Historically, the South in its apparent resistance to change has been resistant primarily to governance, but one law the South has perfectly abided is the law of conservation. This is the truth Bathanti explores, exploits, and lays bare in his wonderful new collection of poems Land of Amnesia. Bathanti’s appreciation for the stubborn resilience of Southern ways in the broadest understanding of that concept is apparent in the title poem where the speaker states: “at the end / I’d beg to cross one last time / the Rocky River into Anson County.” It is here that he imagines “The old bay, Star, dead two decades, / canters in the pasture” and that he declares “It is here, my best beloved, / we’ll build on ruin.” It is again apparent in “How to Bury a Dog” where we’re given multiple images of the duplicity of persistence and transformation that has marked the history of the South:

You won’t cuss through three feet
until you spark off a shelf

of sediment rock that’s been making
since the Yadkin lived here.

Resist the temptation
to wrap him in cerements.

Face him east.
Let the earth do its work.

Bathanti is engaged in these poems in the craft of preservation, of saving moments, ideas, impressions, and he is particularly good at it because he clearly loves not only the world he preserves but also the tools of his craft: words. These poems are so carefully and precisely written, each word the exact right word, that the reader feels they could not have been written any other way and gladly returns to them again and again to enjoy yet another connotation and the resultant implication, perhaps the same reasons we dwell so long on the particulars of history. This precision of image and word choice is illustrated in the poem “Running a Group Home,” where the reader is struck by the chilling poignancy of the proximity of a group home with certain other elements of the Southern economy:

We’d stagger naked out of bed
and go to our only window,
look out over Roosevelt Boulevard.
On the other side was a dyeing
and finishing plant; then beyond it--
. . . . . . . . . .
the Union County Prison Camp.

I have seen this same love of words, this same careful, precise phrasing recently in several books from Press 53, specifically those by Linda Annas Ferguson, Joseph Mills, and Terri Kirby Erickson. It is an admirable talent on the part of editors Kevin Watson and Tom Lombardo to recognize and encourage such sublimity among the poets they publish.

The not-so-secret message in this book, and perhaps in all of the recent Press 53 releases, is that in the quest for “the improbability . . . / that legs with hearts to prompt them / may keep lurching, decade upon decade, / chaplet upon chaplet, toward salvation” (“Running”), memory is vital, for as long there is memory, there is the chance to build on the past, and clearly as long as Bathanti is writing, we can defy “the great sorrow of forgetting” (“The Sorrow of Forgetting”) and circumvent the land of amnesia. Bathanti clearly shows in these poems that you don’t have to be from the South to know what to make of a ruined thing, but it helps to spend some time there.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Review of Tim Peeler's "Checking Out"

Checking Out, Poetry by Tim Peeler
Hub City Press, 96 pages

Aging can have certain surprising benefits: less hair to worry about, getting a drink without ID, and having enough knowledge and experience to forge meaningful relationships with those you admired in youth. Last year, I had the great pleasure of reviewing a book of poems by my undergraduate creative writing instructor, Paul Nelson, whom I hadn’t seen or communicated with in nearly 30 years. This year, I find myself reviewing a new book from another of my early “poetry crushes,” Tim Peeler.

I first encountered Peeler’s work about 20 years ago when I was still confused about what to write and how to write about it. His poetry then was about things that were very familiar to me--trailer parks, farms, small town Southern life--and it was written in a way that was approachable, observant, objective, and understatedly real. Those poems served as models to me, in a sense giving me permission to write in a certain way about certain things I had been wanting to write about and have been writing about ever since.

Today, Peeler remains one of my poetry crushes, and he remains as true to his poetic ideals as he does to his friends, family, and hometown of Hickory, NC. So, his new collection of poems, his fifth, entitled Checking Out, is as familiar and important to me as his poems of years ago. In fact, the details of his “Prelude,” which opens the book and mimics the ambition of Wordsworth’s poem by that title, could almost have been my own: “the barefoot child, / shirtless in overalls;” “the congregation of chickens;” “the sun [elevatoring] through / the maples beyond the meadow / where he’s seen angels;” “the forest floor . . . coated with crunch oak leaves, / broken branches, pine cones and needles;” following “the moonlit railroad tracks / out beyond town, skipping a tie, / toeing a rail, imagining animal eyes / in sinister bushes, thinking a poem / without knowing it yet.” This poem also introduces the setting for the rest of the book: “Four AM, the night audit finished, the motel silent / he wrestles the heavy notion of sleep.” One immediately suspects that, as in Frost’s “After Apple Picking,” this will be no ordinary sleep the speaker wrestles with.

Not surprisingly, the title of the next section of poems is “Place.” Over the years, Peeler has more successfully captured a sense of a particular time, place, and people than any other writer I know with the possible exception of Wendell Berry. And in these poems, he does it again, the more particular place this time being the small Southern town hotels he spent years working in. He begins, of course, at the beginning, with inspiration, the inspiration of the man who built the hotel, and the inspiration the hotel-clerk/speaker sought during long nights on duty: “What did he see when he / came out here past the town / after the dust settled on the war?” (II); “You wait for a face / long enough in a place like this; / it will come” (I). From there he begins to explore the memory of this place and time: “Once there was a three story motel building / with balconies that overlooked a drive-in screen” (III); “In the old days, / they’d leave a fourteen year-old boy / in charge of the motel / when they took an afternoon off / to drink some shine” (IV).

He continues, in the section called “Registry,” with the memory of people. He recalls “Stan” who “said he played at Notre Dame / then for the Sox,” but who it is discovered “had been lying / all along, magnificently, / profoundly, beautifully” (VII); and the “Rabb twins,” one of whom “could throw his voice; / the other . . . a mute” who “could / lip synch anything the other said” (X); and “the old men [who] sat for an hour each morning, / hashing and rehashing the past: a retired clerk, // an organ builder, an automobile dealer, a juke joint / entrepreneur, a retired English professor // till they died one by one, / sadly, all” (XIII).

In “Chaos,” Peeler characterizes the experience: “Chaos / when you are not war, / revolution, or murder / you are a Friday night / at a cheap motel” (XV). Then, he continues in this section to provide detailed illustration of the claim: “one woman had another / in a choke hold / pounding her dyed blonde head / against the gravelly parking lot” (XVI); “The night was busy, locals / rolling in off 64-70 / in a haze of marijuana / and George Dickel” (XXI).

Against this backdrop of place and people, a clearer image of the speaker begins to come into focus. In the section named “Swimming,” the reader begins to see that there is much more to the speaker than just his job. In XXV, perhaps my favorite of these poems, the speaker tells us:

I wrote a masters thesis
in a motel room, weekend
manager on duty, typewriter nights;
I answered complaints about myself.

Between check ins
I scribbled pieces of poems,
made up stories about guests,
. . . . . . . . . .

I can't remember how many times
I crawled under a motel building
at 3AM to change a fuse,
put the wheels back on a rollaway,
fixed a commode, walked through
pitch black, blessed by the moon.

I became the poet laureate
for the post office whores,
the random darling
of a small legion of fools,
the familiar of charming drunks,
a blundering father
in the no man's land
of the eighties.

When I dove into the pool
to clean the spot by the drain,
ten feet down, I felt
the dreamy pressure of the
whole world above me,
sensed that the water didn't
want to be there either.

And we continue to get these glimpses into the speaker’s deeper thoughts throughout the section named “Clerks:” “There is no afterlife” (XXVIII); “we thought we’d never grow old (XXXII). And, finally, we get an even rawer perspective on the business through the memorable serial character of “The Old Clerk,” in the section with that title.

At the end, like any good storyteller, Peeler brings it home with a poem that offers closure, in this case a satisfying perspective on the experience. In “I Say It Like a Prayer” (one of only two titled poems in the 52-poem collection,) Peeler tells us:

Some mornings I drive by the motel
where I worked for seven years, and
scenes come back to me in flashes:
. . . . . . . . . .

A man calls me one night
to complain about people talking
in the room next door. The rooms
next to him are unrented. Don’t
you hear all that? he shouts
when I get to his room. I listen
carefully to nothing, to silence.
You’ve got to do something about it;
you’ve got to stop them; it’s your job.
I walk next door, knock, turn the lock
and stare into the dark empty room.
You people shut the hell up I holler
angrily. I mean it damn it
I add for good measure. Thanks,
thanks the man tells me as I walk back by him.

Thanks, thanks I say to the motel
as I drive by to my boring safe job
which is rarely anything to write about.
Thanks I say to the ghosts that rise
with lead pipes and biker boots;
thanks I say to the vices and voices.
I say it like a prayer.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Review of Tony Abbott's "New and Selected Poems"

New & Selected Poems (ISBN: 9780978934279)
by Anthony Abbott
Lorimer Press, 2009, 117 pages

I was crossing the causeway to Wrightsville Beach early in the morning on my way to the North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference when suddenly and inexplicably, I began to cry. I’m a sensitive guy. I’ll admit that I cry pretty easily, but usually not without present and apparent cause. I pulled off to the side of road, looked into the sunrise and began to realize that the source of this uncontrolled outburst of emotion was the intimate resonance of the poems I had been reading over the past couple of days from Anthony Abbott’s New and Selected Poems.

This will not be the usual scholarly review of a new book of poems. I started it that way, but Abbott’s work needs little scholarly commentary. His are poems intended to be understood not just by critics and other poets, but by every reader. They are written in such a way, in fact, that long before the reader achieves a clear cognitive grasp of their meaning, he or she will already be under their emotional influence, will already understand and have been transported by the poems’ emotional center. And so, this will be my first (and perhaps only) poetic review of poetry and an expression of gratitude to Tony Abbott for helping me feel more fully the urgency of now.

Crossing the Causeway to Wrightsville Beach, November 2009

The cormorants line up above the causeway,
their morning posture of feeding as ancient as trees,
older than even the first iambic lines.
We drive beneath them and rarely take notice,
not even of the stickle-backed sky full of clouds
that has lingered beyond them longer than reckoning.
I pull off the road to write down
the line I pull off the road as if
it mattered even more than destinations,
than the timelessness of cormorants perched
above the road that I get these lines down
because – what? They have something vital to say?
They’re all I have in the face of eternity? They,
like young girls running, help fend off the darkness.

After Reading Tony Abbott

I can’t think of the date today,
not just what day it is, but even
what month. I write down October,
cross it out, December,
cross it out, finally come
to November’s season of lost leaves.
I’ve read my friend’s poems in which
he still mourns the loss of his daughter
some forty years in the past, the grief
as fresh in his mind as what he had
for breakfast mere moments ago.
The sun is bright before me, the road
blurred with runners, each one
carefully prepared for what they’ll face.
I think of my own daughter and how
she’ll grow up one day if she survives
the shattered windshield, aggression of microbes,
cruel hand of fate, and I’ll
no longer have to write on roadsides,
plenty of time and peace at home,
and nothing left to write about.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

NCWN Spring Conference

Here is a link to the info and registration page for the North Carolina Writers' Network Spring Conference to be held in the Elliott University Center at UNCG on April 24:

Fred Chappell is the keynote reader, and registration includes eligibility to participate in workshops in the morning and afternoon. Workshop leaders include myself, Keith Flynn, Ed Southern, Sheila Smith McKoy, John McNally, Nathan Ross Freeman, Chris Roerden, Holly Goddard Jones, Cynthia Nearman, and Malcolm Campbell. The link provides bios and workshop summaries as well as a complete schedule and registration information.

Come join us, and bring friends!

Review of Glenda Beall's "Now Might As Well Be Then"

Now Might As Well Be Then (ISBN: 1599245094)
By Glenda Beall
Finishing Line Press, 2009, 28 pages, $12

There are no surprises in Glenda Beall’s new book of poems Now Might As Well Be Then. The title gives it all away. These are poems about timelessness, specifically about the timelessness of human experience. There are no surprises, but there is great joy. Not that every poem tells a joyful story. Quite the contrary, some of the best poems here are the most tragic. But even in these poem, there is great poignancy, and in that poignancy the joy of recollecting, of being reminded of how it feels to be human, of having, in fact, those feelings cathartically intensified through the poems.

Beall begins the collection with a love poem that celebrates the timelessness of a relationship. The speaker in the title poems says, “You brought me spring in winter // youth when I was old, / you found my childhood self.” If not for the dedication of the poem which announces who is intended by the indefinite second person pronoun, one could easily read this as a celebration of many things--god, nature, the mountains of North Carolina—and interestingly, any of these meanings would fit for the poems that follow as these poems celebrate the presence and influence of all of these elements.

One suspects, in fact, that the relationship between speaker and mate in “Now Might As Well Be Then” is inseparable from that between speaker and place. That suspicion is supported by the next poem, “Mountain Seagull,” in which “Lake Chatuge wraps the mountains, / lapping love,” and the speaker says “My spirit soars above the scene / a seagull far from home, / But yearning to embrace / and build a nest.” Four poems later in “In the Dark,” the theme of timelessness in this relationship appears again, as does the title of the collection and the first poem: “Here I am years later, listening to your soft breath / and feeling your warm smooth skin. / In the dark, now might as well be then.”

The timelessness Beall reveals to the reader is not the magical, mysterious, miraculous sort of timelessness that remains inexplicable and unearned. Beall, instead, makes clear in poems like “Woman in the Mirror” that the timelessness she speaks of is fostered through the vital effort of memory: “What happened to those days / I ask the woman in the mirror. / Gone, she says, all gone, unless / you can remember.” The final line break of that poem becomes an impressively empowering device, creating both an imperative and a confirmation for the reader to carry into his or her own life.

To show us how this creation of timelessness is to be done, Beall practices her own imperative throughout the poems in this book. She remembers the sound of rain in “Listening for the Rain” and is reminded of her father:
Too late for the corn, my father says,
across the bridge of time.
Maybe it will save the pasture,
give us one more haying
before summer ends.
She goes on, then, to recall other events from her childhood, the tragic story of “Roosevelt” (perhaps my favorite poem in the book), the story of her “Father’s Horse,” another story of tragic loss in “Clearing New Ground,” and finally, the beautiful and touching concluding poem “Blue Moon Every Twenty Years,” which successfully reminds the reader of all of Beall’s themes by tracing the singing of a particular song every twenty years, the last time when the singer was somewhere around 70 years old and still proclaiming, “I’ll sing your song for you again / in twenty years.” Just so, these poems will sing to the reader again and again, reminding us to embrace life through our relationships with people and places and to make those relationships timeless through the vital habit of memory.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Where's Waldo, Salvador Dali, and Things I Could Never Imagine Doing: A Review of Mike Smith's Multiverse: A Bestiary

Where’s Waldo, Salvador Dali, and Things I Could Never Imagine Doing: A Review of Mike Smith’s Multiverse: A Bestiary

(First Published in Wild Goose Poetry Review)

Multiverse: A Bestiary, by Mike Smith
BlazeVOX, 2010, 91 pages
ISBN: 9781935402718

I’ve read enough poetry, and written enough for that matter, to not easily give over to hyperbole, particularly when it comes to matters of craft, but the structural undertaking of Mike Smith’s new collection of poems, Multiverse: A Bestiary, is astoundingly nonpareil. Prior to reading these poems, I firmly believed the assertion that there is nothing new under the sun, and perhaps in some obscure corner of literary history someone else has written 24 poems that use all the same letters and 16 more that rearrange the letters of well-known, seminal works like William Carlos Williams’ “Spring and All,” Wallace Stevens’ “Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and Ezra Pound’s first “Canto,” but until someone shows me such prior achievement, I’m reconsidering my faith in the proverb.

A word or phrase made by transposing the letters of another word or phrase (“Jim Morrison” transformed to “Mr. Mojo Risin’,” for example) is called an anagram. A poem made in similar fashion is called anagrammatic poetry. Such poetry has existed at least since the third century Greek poet Lycophron, and achieved some popularity in Medieval Europe with poets like Guillaume de Machaut and again in early 20th century surrealistic work and in the poetic play of the Oulipo group in the 60’s and 70’s. Perhaps the best known examples of anagrammatic poetry to date have been Oulipian Georges Perec’s “Ulcerations” or David Shulman’s 1936 “Washington Crossing the Delaware.”

In Multiverse: A Bestiary, however, Smith has plowed new ground, using the idea of anagram as a vehicle for an entire book of related poems. Given the technical craft of these poems, it’s tempting to stand behind the gallery ropes and simply “ooh” and “ahh,” or, in contemporary tabloid fashion, spend one’s time looking for the error of the author’s way, the extra letter or the one left out, or even the simple typo that would throw the whole thing off, but doing so would deprive the reader the opportunity to engage with poetry that even without such unique craft would be intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Take, for example, the theological musings created in the poem “Snake,” in which the iconic serpent remarks:
I slip, sharp spoon in the sand,
trusting your eyes not to follow,
the forgotten first taste
of a forgotten world
. . . . . . . . . .
bent on a return--like God,
but more patient, more mascot
than mastered slave.
Or if emotional intensity is more to your liking, read the exploration of desperate mourning called “Hellbender,” which ends, “I down it all / for the devil dog that exudes / this new truth, my patron saint / of having nothing to lose. I drink / to having nothing to lose. I rise. I drink.” Or if perception and imagery are what you seek in poetry, consider the acute observations of “Two for the Birds,” in which treeless Poplar Island begins “to blossom with birds” thanks to the “suturing [of] last year’s Christmas trees / onto driftwood.” Or if you demand humor, you’ll enjoy “Robops,” a poem about mechanical birds placed on rooftops to scare away pigeons, each bearing the inscription:
To the eventual
inheritors of the planet: We lament
the possibilities for misunderstanding

inherent in many inventions. You must know
that these birds stood not as art
or idols to worship, but as mass products
of the sort of resourcefulness created

out of too great a need, a stop-gap
to keep what we knew we were losing forever
shiny and clean.

Nonetheless, Smith’s selection of anagram as form also creates inherent opportunities for pleasure, as in “Zebra,” for example, a poem that self-consciously (“the beast / I don’t name”) avoids using the name of the animal, since there is no “z” in the tableau of letters established by prior poems. My own favorite moment of simplistic pleasure in the premise of the book came when I noticed two “x’s” in “The Woman Who Became a Turtle,” the 11th poem in the book, and disbelieving that I could have gotten that far without noticing the presence of two “x’s” in each poem, began going back to find them “Where’s Waldo-style” in every other poem, in words like maximum and next, sexiness and perplexed, waxy and toxins, vex and exit, Maximus, Texas, and plexiglass. I imagine somewhere a wonderful spreadsheet of the 900 or so letters used in each poem. I imagine, also, how much Smith must love language and how frighteningly good he must be at Scrabble.

There is also to be found more serious pleasure, more poignancy, related to this idea of form. “Poe,” for example, retells the story of Poe’s death in the letters of his poem, “Alone,” and “Ahem, Requiem,” uses the letters of Berryman’s “Dream Song #1” to express the tragedy of his life, ending with this painfully understated stanza:
All the wracked and wounded world’s
gone bad, a bully waiting
down a blind alley. When the blows
finally whistled near enough,
you sidestepped, and dared
no longer tarry.
On a more positive note, “Live Ink” celebrates the influence and achievement of Langston Hughes using the letters of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” And perhaps the most technically amazing poem in the collection, “Frost,” weaves lines from a bus station notice about dangerous people with an all-too-accurate complaint about the business of poetry in an ironic anagram of Frost’s “Directive.”

Part of the wonder of these poems from the second section of the book, “Anagrams of America,” is the way in which Smith’s poem comments on the poem or poet from which it was drawn, the very poem which the reader knows is still inherently present in Smith’s rearrangement. They are not unlike Salvador Dali’s hidden image paintings, or perhaps more recently those Magic Eye Pictures that used to be a mainstay of newspaper comic pages. They are equally dynamic, multi-dimensional, and fun. But they are described best, perhaps, as Smith himself suggests in “Anemone, Limpet, Mussell, Crab” (a beautiful poem of doubt and faith, loss and recovery), as palimpsests, one text etched over the shadow of another, the way, as this poem suggests, species, experiences, literature, and individual lives are. And that I think is really the point of the whole thing

Friday, March 5, 2010

Victim of His Own Success

I've noticed a couple of writer friends of mine have been looking haggard the last few times I've seen them. I've also noticed these particular friends have been having an enviable level of success, publishing new books annually or better, giving readings or workshops several times a week all over the South, if not all over the country. There is certainly a phenomenon in which a writer can achieve more success than might, in some ways, be good for them.

The latest victim of this phenomenon is Robert Brewer. Well, not Brewer, himself -- that's just me being overly dramatic -- but rather his excellent two-year-old idea of the April PAD (Poem-a-Day)Challenge. In 2008, when Brewer, editor of Writer's Market and author of the very helpful blog "Poetic Asides," launched the idea of inviting poets to respond to daily prompts throughout the month of April, he received an impressive total of 5000 poems. From those he and a cadre of guest judges culled the 50 best and published them as an e-book. The results were impressive. Usually when someone selects the best 1 percent of anything, the results will be pretty impressive.

In 2009, Brewer decided to repeat his previously format. This time, however, instead of 5000 poems, he received 25,000. Needless to say sorting through that quantity of material proved to be a more than daunting task. In fact, the results of the 2009 challenge have only now been announced -- yes, less than a month from the beginning of the 2010 challenge. Recognizing the absurdity of pulling out a mere 50 poems from 25,000 and saying these 50, or (if my once-vaunted math skills still work) this 1/5th of a percent are clearly superior to the next 50 or the next 100 for that matter, Brewer has abandoned the idea of the 50-poem e-book and gone instead with a list of the 5 best poems from each day in the challenge, which triples the odds of any single poem being selected. Of course, tripling 2 out of each 1000 is still only 6 out of each 1000 or roughly 1/2 of 1 percent.

Personally, I'm simply amazed that when Brewer saw the type of response he was getting this year, he didn't just throw up his hands and say, "Uhh, sorry, my mistake," and walk away from the whole thing. Any lesser man, actually pretty much any other man, would have done so. So, great big kudos to you, Robert, and to all those who helped you judge this 30 or 40 lifetime's worth of work. Thanks, also, to you and your judges for selecting 3 of my poems to be among the 5 best for particular days. I feel pretty good about beating those 1 in roughly 167 odds, and I'd probably feel even better about doing it three times in 30 chances if I had any idea how to calculate those odds. Two of my three selected poems, "Second Chances" and "The Passion" were recently published in Waterways, perhaps confirming the quality of the PAD challenge judgments.

For anyone who hasn't yet seen it, the complete list of "winning" poems can be viewed at, where you can also discover weekly writing prompts, read articles on poetic techniques and trends, and of course get "warmed up" for the 2010 PAD Challenge, assuming Brewer still hasn't recovered his sanity and intends to go forward with it again.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Three Poems in Innisfree Poetry Journal

Here is a link to the new Innisfree Poetry Journal: You'll find three of my poems there. Thanks for taking a look.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Meet NC's New Poet Laureate

Meet NC’s New Poet Laureate

A year ago I bemoaned in this column North Carolina’s budgetary decision to eliminate the position of state Poet Laureate. Now I celebrate the wisdom of not only reinstituting that post but also selecting poet and teacher Cathy Smith-Bowers of Tryon, NC, to fill it.
North Carolina is blessed to have a number of outstanding poets and scholars who could more than adequately fill the very big shoes left by previous Poet Laureates Kathryn Stripling Byer and Fred Chappell. Among those I considered nominating were Tony Abbott, Al Maginnes, Jaki Shelton Green, and David Rigsbee, just to name a few. As good as any of those would have been, however, I suspect none would have done a better job than Cathy Smith-Bowers will do.
I have met Smith-Bowers only once, some 15 years ago at a PB Newman and Henry Taylor reading at what was then Queen’s College in Charlotte, where Smith-Bowers taught then and continues to teach today. She was riding the wave of her very successful first book of poems, The Love That Ended Yesterday in Texas, but still took the time to be kind and gracious to a young poet looking for a clue on how to shape experience into successful poetry. Little could she have known that her book would be one of the texts that taught me how to write the poems that became my own first collection, The Persistence of Faith, published a couple of years later.
Since that time, Smith-Bowers has taught thousands of developing poets how to write, some through her books, some through her classes at Queens University and UNC-Asheville, and some through her workshops that are offered seemingly everywhere. I have no doubt that occupying the position of NC Poet Laureate will only further facilitate Smith-Bowers’ ability and passion to help developing poets find not only their voice but their audience as well. One way she intends to do that is by hosting an hour long show once a month on an Asheville radio station. Smith-Bowers’ predecessor is well-known for having expanded the online audience for NC poets. It now appears that Smith-Bowers will continue that expansion on the air.
Smith-Bowers’ own work covers a wide range of topics, themes, voices, and forms, but there is nearly always something distinctively Southern about her work, as is apparent in the following poem from her second collection, Traveling in Time of Danger. I hope this sample will encourage readers to find more of her work and to recognize how fortunate we are to have her serving as NC Poet Laureate.

You Can’t Drive the Same Truck Twice
by Cathy Smith-Bowers

When I heard the sudden
thunder of my husband’s truck
explode into the drive
and saw him, after ramming
the defective gear-stick
into neutral, emerge crazy-eyed
and fevered, fling up
the battered hood, go down
and disappear beneath its open wound
of primer, I knew how the evening
would go. How deep into the moonlight
he would hang like Jonah, half in,
half out, his full weight given
to the wrench, gripped to the stripped
bolts and nuts, capping and uncapping
the ancient battery, his body
lost to that odd carcass of scavenged parts.
I loved him for his love of broken things--
the handleless hoes and axes, the sprung
rumble seat bought years ago
at auction, the legless chairs
retrieved from garbage heaps,
that truck each day he reinvented.
Like the rivers of Heraclitus. Like Van Gogh’s
olive trees and irises that quiver,
still. Bristle. As if caught forever
in the antique instant of their opening.
It’s why we love Jesus, some philosopher
once said, instead of God. Why lovers
love the moon that’s always falling.