Monday, May 31, 2010

Review of Alex Grant's "Fear of Moving Water"

Review of Fear of Moving Water
by Alex Grant
Wind Publications, 2009, 64 pages
ISBN: 9781936138029

Those, like myself, who have been fans of Alex Grant’s poetry for a while, have reason to be happy. His new book, Fear of Moving Water, takes the best poems from his first two chapbooks, Chains and Mirrors and The White Book and adds to them several new poems to create a more impressive and more cohesive collection. Those who are new fans of his work also have reason to be happy as they will once more have access to the poems from the chapbooks which had become hard to find.

Reading Alex Grant’s poems always reminds me of the only rule of poetry--that it must be interesting, and maybe occasionally fun as well. Imagine, for example, the unfortunate students who try to follow through on the ideas presented in Grant’s “Poetry Midterm” or “Poetry Final:”

Establish a credible connection between
the following: the curve of a woman’s breast,
a 1957 Cadillac Imperial, monotheism. Result
must be enjoyable to the average reader,
and be small enough to hold in one hand.


Explain the attraction of the moon.
In no more than thirty-two lines, suggest
a new name for the number zero.
Combine the responses in a 12-line pantoum.

One suspects, given the seamless pleasure and technical dexterity of these poems, that if anyone can follow these seemingly absurd prompts, it would only be Grant himself. Who else, after all, could manage to transport their reader to the Antarctic tent of Captain Robert Scott not for the thrill of discovering the South Pole but the much more human and enjoyable discovery that

. . . Captain Oates masturbates
constantly -- even during dinner -- he claims
it’s simply a mechanism to keep his body temperature
up -- though we all have our doubts. I no longer feel
comfortable shaking hands with the man, and last night
he told me that he wants me to have his babies.

Like most good poets, Grant reminds us to take note of more of life. He brings to our attention, for example, such things as “the dry doggerel / of mackerel scales” (“Black Moon”), “the clacking / cobblestones wrapped in centuries of ash” (“The Gardens of Pompeii”), and “the heart’s iambic thud” (“The Long, Slow Drop”). And like most good poets, as these lines make apparent, he would also have us take more note of the joy inherent in the abilities of language and sound to not only reflect but also uncover life. Where he differs from most other poets, however, is that Grant might add, in the written equivalent of his unmistakable Scottish accent, “but don’t take any of it too [add expletive of your choice] seriously.” My favorite of his poems, “Giant,” best illustrates his ability (in the tradition of Nazim Hikmet) to examine the seriousness of life with a bit of unforgettable levity, as he ponders the life and times of a midge:

I read once that garden midges only live for around
ten minutes, and as I watched a swarm of them, I picked
one out, kept my eyes fixed on him, lit a cigarette, and tried
to imagine his life. I did the math, and decided that eight
midge seconds equaled one of our years, and as he moved
from the top to the bottom of the cloud, he had two affairs
and a nervous breakdown right there. . . .
. . . By the time my
cigarette had burned less than half-way down, he’d written
a number of wildly successful self-help flying manuals,
as well as his acclaimed study of midge relationships --
. . . He’d had liposuction and wing implants
. . . His therapist advised
him to adopt a lower public profile, but he was insistent that
he alone had secured the swarm’s tenure of the tree, and that
the other midges ought to damn-well recognize his contribution
and reward him accordingly. He died three quarters of the way
into my cigarette, convinced that the rest of the swarm
were plotting to run him down with a golf-cart.

He was truly a giant among midges.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Review of "Waiting" by Ron Moran

(first published in Wild Goose Poetry Review, Spring 2010,

Review of Waiting, by Ron Moran
Clemson University Digital Press, 2009
66 pages, $15
ISBN: 9780984259809

Noodling is the practice of fishing, usually for catfish, with one’s bare hands, typically by letting the fish bite one’s finger, or for larger fish, one’s hand and then wrestling the fish to the surface. I’ve never been noodling and probably never will, but I’ve always thought I should use it in a poem. It’s just the sort of thing the people I grew up with would be likely to do. Now, however, Ron Moran has beaten me to it in his remarkable poem “The Best Deer Tracker in Northern Louisiana.” Many might think it incongruous to have noodling in a poem about a dinner party, but that sort of odd juxtaposition is part of the joy of the poems in Moran’s new book, Waiting, and in organic fashion, the incongruity of imagery is repeated in the very structure of these poems where lines of 5 to 6 beats are often alternated with lines of only 1 to 2 beats.

Another source of pleasure in these poems derives from Moran’s facility with language and with complex sentences, in particular. Moran’s skills in this regard forge a seamless stream-of-consciousness in which entire stories unfold dependent clause after dependent clause forming only 2 or 3 sentences across 30 to 40 lines of poetry, all without any of the herky-jerkiness often associated with that style of narration. This technique creates an impressive sense of the interconnectedness of experience without the breathless rush of Whitman, the Beats or other long-lined poets.

While the poems convey this sense of the vital interwovenness of existence and experience, these are not obtuse, abstract philosophical meanderings. Rather, they explore the proper subjects of poetry, the familiar and commonplace, in such a way that they help us examine our own lives and recognize the deeper significance of the quotidian, of everyday things. Through the syntax of clause and phrase, they also help us appreciate the importance of location as one way we are capable of perceiving the relatedness of things. In “Airing Out the Jacket,” for example, the jacket hangs, “out back / on the bare limb of a maple on a bright December day.” Prepositions are words that relate a noun to another word or phrase in the sentence, and such piling up of prepositions emphasizes the relationships between things, teaching us not only what to value but why, a why that Moran is intimately and tragically familiar with. The subtext of mortality that runs throughout these poems is almost certainly influenced by the prolonged illness of Moran’s wife during the time that they were written. This is nowhere more apparent than in the title poem, “Waiting,” where Moran reflects on one’s inability to anticipate resolutions despite one’s proximity to them:
Pretty good,
I suppose, just to be here, for the moment
at least,
which may change momentarily . . . //
waiting //
for something to happen or not to happen . . . //
Is this how it’s going to be:
a blush in the sky that declares the next day.

English teachers and poets love complex sentences because, unlike their simple or compound counterparts which merely establish that one or more things happen or exist, they acknowledge relationships between things, events, ideas. Not surprisingly, Moran is both a poet and an English teacher. His practice of using dependent clauses to embody the reality of the relatedness of experiences will reach its climax in different poems for different readers. For me it happens in the volume’s most beautiful and poignant poem, “A Blessing,” where the tenderness and carefulness with which the details of the poem are put forth reflect the same qualities that were certainly present in Moran’s relationship with his beloved wife:
If my right hip aches when I first lie down,
I turn to face Jane, who always faces me
since her left side is a corridor of pain . . . //
She holds my left wrist in her thin fingers,
as if to convince me of some belief, that //
this is how it should be, or else she plays
in earnest with the fingers of my right hand,
so I cup her hand leisurely in mine, closing
it slowly, feeling her tremors until my hand //
calms hers, and I whisper, Time to sleep;
and as she does, I count interludes between
breaths, longer than ever before but steady,
then release her, knowing how blessed I am.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review of Malaika King Albrecht's "Lessons in Forgetting"

Review of Lessons in Forgetting
by Malaika King Albrecht
Main Street Rag, 2010, 48 pages, $7
ISBN: 9781599482453

First published in Wild Goose Poetry Review (

Reviewing Malaika King Albrecht’s debut collection of poems, Lessons in Forgetting, feels a bit self-congratulatory. After all, I helped her revise some of these poems; I published three of them in Wild Goose Poetry Review; I helped her determine the arrangement of the poems; and I was the author who recommended the collection for Main Street Rag’s Author’s Choice Chapbook Series. I am certain that somewhere someone will say that it is inappropriate, maybe unprofessional, for me to write this review. The truth is, however, I don’t care, and if you read the book, neither will you.

Considering how strong these poems are and how vital this collection is, it would be a disservice to poetry readers not to recommend it. Poetry, it could be said, is the perfect blending of sound, imagery, meaning, and emotion. And each of the poems in Lessons in Forgetting succeeds on each of these levels. As a teacher of contemporary poetry and creative writing, one of the most difficult questions I face, repeatedly, is what makes a contemporary poem good. It’s a complicated question that can only be answered in sentences containing phrases like “yes, but” or “that, and.” It is easier and probably more useful to simply provide examples, and virtually all of the poems here can used for that purpose.

Take, for example, the poem “Riddle Song:”

Grocery bags in my arms,
I hip the front door open
and hear my father singing
to my mother,
I gave my love a cherry
that had no stone.
He stretches her right leg,
then slowly rotates it in circles.

She hasn’t walked in three years
or gotten out of bed in two.
I gave my love a baby
with no crying.
Her legs resist, the muscles
tight as fists. He massages
her leg nearly straight, moves
to the next one still singing.
A baby when it’s sleeping
it’s not crying.
The story of how I love you
it has no end.

Of course I’m crying
in the kitchen doorway.
I can’t see her from here,
but I’m hoping that she’s awake,
looking directly into his eyes.
He moves to her left arm,
tucked beside her body
like a broken wing,
and gently spreads it out.

The first thing one notices about this poem is the careful, methodical pace of the words, created by a preponderance of stressed syllables (typically 4 in as few as 6 syllables, lines 2 and 15 for example), and the precise attention to detail, which echo the patient gentleness of the father in the poem. One might also note the pointed alliteration in places, such as the beginning of the third stanza where the repetition of the velar “k” creates a sense of broken speech as the speaker struggles with her emotions. And finally, any reader would sense the almost-magical, gentle lyricism of the last line whether or not they could explain that it is created by the use of the word “gently,” the sounds (three alveolars--“g” and “s” twice and a final diphthong--unique as an endsound in this poem), and the fact that this line is the only perfectly iambic line in the poem.

Such subtle technical mastery is common throughout the poems in this book. There is, for example, the subtle separation of an adjective from its noun in “Winging It” (“she struggled to find the bird’s / name.” The extra moment the reader spends returning to the beginning of the next line to complete the thought seems to mimic the hesitancy and uncertainty of Alzheimer’s. There are clever internal rhymes, like “Benadryl pills” in “One Last Time,” and vital assonances that link one stanza to the next, “unsweetened tea / / She reaches . . . retrieves,” from that same poem.

Thus, any of these poems could be used as illustration of good contemporary poetry. What is more, however, confronted with the question, “What makes a good contemporary book of poems,” one need only extend one’s arm with Lessons in Forgetting held in their hand and say, “This,” this cohesiveness, this relevance, this intentional alternation of dark and light, this manipulation of emotion, surprise, and contrast, this chill and chuckle of recognition, this recording of the challenges of being human with such immediacy, such clarity, and such refusal to look away from the difficult moment that it deepens our experience and understanding of what it means to be human.

Malaika King Albrecht’s Lessons in Forgetting is an important collection because of its subject matter, dealing with Alzheimer’s, but it is an impressive collection because of the poetic mastery with which Albrecht records her experiences with and reflections upon that subject.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Catching Up: Dead Mule, Catawba, and Redheaded Stepchild

Catching Up: Dead Mule, Catawba, and RedHeaded Stepchild
(Published in "Outlook," May 13, 2010

For the past two years I’ve frequently been asked how I manage to keep up with all the things I’ve been doing: teaching, writing a column, editing a journal, publishing 3 books of poetry, giving 50 or so readings, parenting, etc. Well, it finally caught up with me, and for the past month I haven’t kept up, and this column is the thing that I’ve allowed to slip by the wayside. I could offer lots of excuses, but I’d prefer to just say I’m sorry and get quickly back on track.

There has been and soon will be a lot of exciting things happening in the poetry world in the foothills area, and I’d like to focus on a few of those happenings in this column. First, hats off to the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and poetry editor, Helen Losse. The nationally-recognized online journal has published the work of three students from CVCC: Bethea Buchanan, Jeremy Deal, and Ethan Sigmon. Their poems appear in the same issue with some of the South’s best poets, Harry Calhoun, Felicia Mitchell, Joe Milford, Jessie Carty, and Hickory’s own Bud Caywood, and can be viewed at

Second, to see even more of the outstanding work from students at CVCC, stop by the campus library and pick up a free copy of the school’s own literary and arts journal, Catawba. This magazine, edited by faculty and students at the school under the leadership of Tim Peeler, includes outstanding photography, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction created by CVCC’s students.

Third, a special edition of Poetry Hickory will take place at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory from 1:00 to 2:30 on Saturday, May 22. Poets from across the state whose work has been included in the journal Redheaded Stepchild will be reading their poems. Featured writers will include the editor of the journal, Malaika King Albrecht of Raleigh, the aforementioned Helen Losse, Asheville’s Michael Beadle, and yours truly, Scott Owens, among others to be announced. The journal can be seen at

Additionally, Poetry Hickory continues at 6:30 on the second Tuesday of each month at Taste Full Beans (June’s readers will be Linda Annas Ferguson and David Rigsbee), and Eliot Lytle, with the help of Ted Pope, has begun a summer poetry and music series at MESH Gallery in downtown Morganton at 3:00 on the second Saturdays of each month.

Finally, May 22 is the deadline for this year’s Poetry Council of NC annual poetry contests. Last year’s 36 winners included 3 area poets, and 9 who have read at Poetry Hickory. Complete guidelines for the contests are available at

Friday, May 14, 2010

New Issue of Wild Goose Online

The new issue of Wild Goose Poetry Review with work by Russell Rowland, Karen Douglass, Jeremy Deal, Paul Hostovsky, Pris Campbell, Harry Calhoun, Erica Goss, Ricky Garni, Margaret Walther, Heather Ross Miller, Barry Spacks, Simon Perchik, Scot Siegel, Helen Losse, Bruce Whealton, Terri Kirby Erickson, and A.D. Winans, and reviews of new books by Jessie Carty, Malaika King Albrecht, Alex Grant, Ron Moran, and Robert Abbate is now online at

Saturday, May 8, 2010

"Flutter" Interviews Scott Owens

I was recently interviewed for the new issue of "Flutter." I'm posting a couple of excerpts from the interview below, and below that is the url to the entire interview.

writing poetry has simply become one way in which I engage with the world.

What advice would you give to a novice poet?
Read, read, read. Buy 50 new books of poetry per year. Write down everything. Look for connections between ideas. Don't forget the narrative. Seek out good criticism. Revise, revise, revise. And start networking.

I would love to publish a dozen books and two thousand poems and win the Pulitzer and be named Poet Laureate, but none of that matters half as much as feeling good about the poem I'm working on right now.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

North Carolina Poetry Society Names Winners of 2010 Contests

The North Carolina Poetry Society has released this list of judges and winners in their 2010 poetry contests. All winners are invited to read their winning poems at the NCPS Awards Day on May 15 at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC. All winning poems will also be published in the annual awards anthology, "Pinesong," which will be available for purchase at Awards Day

For more information about the day's events, please visit the NCPS website at or contact Celisa Steele by email or phone 919-451-0075.

The winners' list includes a number of wonderful NC poets and I hope they'll all be there to read on Awards Day. Congratulations every one!

2010 NCPS Contest Winners:

Poet Laureate Winner: "A Visitor" by Anya Russian

Poet Laureate Finalists - Judge: Linda Gregerson

1) "The Upward Climb" by Maria Rouphail

2) "Piazza Santa Maria, Trasteverre" by Genie Cotner

3) "Brush Strokes" by T.M. Johnson

4) "Early" by Alice Osborn

5) "Views To Die For" by Sharon Sharp

6) "Safari" by Liza Sisk

7) "A Visitor" by Anya Russian

8) "For My Father" by Mary Gray

9) "Letters Home" by Katherine Russell Barnes

10) "In a Day without You" by Sheila Turnage
Thomas H. McDill Award - Judge: Ron Wallace

FIRST PLACE: "Cinnamon" by Andrea Bates

SECOND PLACE: "Intermittent" by Coyla Barry

THIRD PLACE: "I Live Alone Now" by Joanie McLean

Honorable Mentions:

"Ave Maria" by Ed Devany

"Biscayne Boulevard" by Karol Neufeld

"Carp Diem" by Jane Andrews

Caldwell Nixon Jr. Award - JUDGE: Joan Bransfield Graham

FIRST PLACE: "When Two Brothers Must Have Felt Like Birds" by Betsy Sprague

SECOND PLACE: "Flounder" by Jane Andrews

THIRD PLACE: "Navigators" by Josephine Mewborn Baker


"Dog Heaven" by Ruth Moose

"Vincent" by Stuart Burroughs

"Solitary Snowman" by Alice Johansen

Joanna Catherine Scott Award - Judge Michael Blumenthal

First Place: "Amagoge II" by MaXine Carey Harker

Second Place: "TO AN UNBORN DAUGHTER" by Betsy Sprague

Third Place: "Sunday Night Grooming" by Alexis Gines

Honorable mentions:

"Smoothing Out" by Catherine Moran

"Cemetery" by Carole Knowles
"Poetry Society Treasurer's Report" by Bill Griffin

Mary Ruffin Poole American Heritage Award - Judge: Grace Schulman

First Place: "Quik Stop" by Debra Kaufman

Second Place: "Roots Go Wander" by Corrie White

Third Place: "At the Drive-In" by Terri Kirby Erickson

Honorable Mentions:

"When All the World" by Nancy Shires

"To Michael" by Carole Knowles

"Winter Rye" by Andrew Trump

Katherine Kennedy McIntyre Light Verse Award - Judge: Jim Daniels

First Place: "A Thank You Note" by Sheila Turnage

Second Place: "Lifetime" by Stephanie Geo

Third Place: "My Mother Calls Interrupting Sex on Christmas Day" by Maureen Sherbondy

Honorable Mentions:

"The Daughter Who Hated Cats" by Bill Griffin

"So Glad You Don't Have" by Michael Beadle

"Jesus on the O'Reilly Show" by Richard Krawiec
Lyman Haiku Award - Judge Carole MacRury

FIRST PLACE "spring rivulets" by Glenn G. Coats

SECOND PLACE "sunrise. . ."by Alice Frampton

THIRD PLACE "amid ice-sheared limbs" by Sharon Sharp


"autumn evening" by Scott Owens

"Dawn's hues chase the night" by Sheila Turnage

"on the hedges" by Richard Krawiec

Poetry of Courage - Judge: Mark Jarman

First Place: "English 1200 Visits the Library" by Nancy Shires

Second Place: "Shopping for a Daughter Who Is Entering Prison" by Dave Manning

Third Place: "Holiday Stew" by Terri Fizer

Honorable Mentions:

"Learning to Manage Stairs Again" by Katherine Barr

"My Grandmother's Boston Rocker" by Deborah Doolittle

"When my father was dying" by Ruth Moose

Poetry of Love - Judge: Kate Daniels

First: "Gertrude Stein Counts Three Bachelor's Buttons" by Deborah Doolittle

Second: "Goodwill" by Jane Andrews

Third: "Passion Party" by Jim Koger

Honorable Mentions:

"Ode to My Husband on His 80th Birthday" by Katherine Barr

"February Poem" by Libby Campbell
"Winter Love" by Ed Devany

Glenda Beall Interviews Scott Owens

Glenda Beall has interviewed me for the Netwest Mountain Writers and Poets website. I'm including an excerpt below, and a link to the full interview below that.

"In a larger sense, I think I wanted to continue with these poems to finish what I had started in The Fractured World. That book ends with the disintegration of Norman, my alter ego who represents the fear and alienation that result from child abuse. Paternity illustrates what can happen after one gets past one's past. I guess you could say that Paternity balances the scales. . . . I do think reading and writing poetry can make a difference in everyone's lives. Poetry is mostly about seeing connections that aren't otherwise immediately apparent. That's a good skill to develop. It helps us take fewer things for granted and recognize the value of things through their connectedness to other things. A big part of that connectedness, as you've alluded to in your questions, is the connectedness of one human life to another. This is what allows us to achieve catharsis by watching, listening to, or reading about someone else's experience. We recognize our own story in theirs and are able to learn from it."

And here is the link:

New Dead Mule Online

The new issue of Dead Mule is online with poems by my students, Ethan Sigmon, Jeremy Deal, and Bethea Buchanan. There are also poems by some of my favorites: Harry Calhoun, Bud Caywood, Joe Milford, Karla Merrifield, Jessie Carty, and Felicia Mitchell. Here is a link:

Monday, May 3, 2010

Reading Series in Lincolnton

A new reading series and Open Mic is starting up tomorrow night (Tuesday, 5/4) from 7-9 in Lincolnton. Here is the address and phone:
Generation Bean
2653 E. Main Street
Lincolnton, NC 28092

Tomorrow night's featured writers are Devona Wyant and Shane Manier. Check it out.