Thursday, September 30, 2010

Review of Ami Kaye's "What Hands Can Hold"

Review of What Hands Can Hold by Ami Kaye (Illustrations by Tracy McQueen)
Xlibris, 2010, 132 pages
ISBN: 9781450031080

I don’t believe in fate, providence, or predestination, but I’m willing to admit that on more than one occasion in my life things have happened with a certain sense of synchronicity. Recently, for no reason I could fathom, I went through a renewed interest in short imagistic poetry -- haiku, certainly, but other similar poems as well. And then, unannounced, I received a copy of Ami Kaye’s new book of poems, What Hands Can Hold, which consists almost entirely of poems that are frequently short, and nearly always successfully imagistic.

Only two of the 63 poems in What Hands Can Hold, are consciously derived from haiku and its related forms (both are titled “Senryu”), but the influence of an aesthetic commonly thought of as Eastern, is manifest. Certain poems, like “Shadow Hands” bear a great deal in common with haiku -- brevity, focus on two seemingly disparate images that resonate when placed, without commentary, together:
against the bright light
hands dance to make a shadow
a black swan rises in
graceful silhouette.
Other poems contain one or more stanzas that come even closer to the traditions of haiku, as in this stanza from “Hands:”
cupping water
the flowing urgency of
silt-green rivers.
And some poems are built entirely upon short, imagistic stanzas, as in “Tea House:”
That last
left interrupted

when the call

the rush
to leave,

the scrape of wood


the silence
The form, nearly always effective in these poems, is particularly so in this one, where the brief, perception-heavy phrasing mirrors the fragmented, methodical processing of a speaker confronted with a tragic parting.

While, as suggested in the volume’s title, Kaye employs the motif of hands and the many uses of hands -- creation, communication, support, prayer, praise, service, revelation, control, love -- to bind these poems and mark them as part of a unified manuscript, the poems really cover a wide range of topics and themes, from love and parenting to politics and loss. And while Kaye is lyrical and adept no matter what topic she explores, she is perhaps at her best, in the love poems. Take, for example, “Curvature,” a beautifully sensuous love poem that transitions seamlessly from one image of curvature to the next, beginning with that of a smile and proceeding as follows:
I am captured entirely

slave to your mirth
no need for words, silence builds

restless and charged, it
changes the quality of touch

air crackles between us, extravagant,
quickening, lightning fast

like the curve of light
when a rainbow is made

or the curve of your arms
when I’m in them.

“November Rose” is another sumptuous love poem with a number of those haiku-influenced stanzas, but it is also one of the most complex poems in the collection. Ostensibly about a very late-blooming rose, “born from frost . . . / deep in whose petals / burns a hot heart,” it is not only about the speaker’s love for the person who brings her the rose, or his love for the speaker, or even the speaker’s love for things that resist decay, that manage to create or be created out of destruction, it is about a love of so many things -- simple things like roses, poetry, music, language, and complex things like the very human existential resistance to death, decay and inevitability that paradoxically deepens and is deepened by the willingness to love despite the great risk such willingness necessitates. This paradox of love born from the awareness of loss’s inevitability becomes the central theme of the text; perhaps it is the central theme of all human texts. This theme is most clearly stated in “Intimations of Mortality,” where the speaker proclaims, “The hint of impermanence brings with it / the agony, the passion to live.”

Even when the stories presented by the poems are most full of pain, the love still remains, as in the heartbreaking political narrative (two uncommon traits in this book), “Snow Globe,” in these lines from “Sins of Omission,” “She wished, she wished she had / inked on vellum to bear witness, / to tell him what she never said before: ‘You matter’”, and in “Senescence:”
She helps him change
and it hurts, even though
she’s used to his empty eyes
by now.

She feeds him
oatmeal, an orange,
a meal that drags
into a couple of hours

and when she
washes the dishes
. . . //

She remembers
the times his fingers
laced with hers,
how he always knew
when she needed his touch.

It is just this fresh, deep, and wide treatment of a theme so vital to contemporary human existence that makes Ami Kaye’s What Hands Can Hold both significant and timely. It is also what makes me glad that I had begun to look at short poems with short lines in a new appreciation, and that for whatever reason Ami Kaye decided to send me a copy of this book. So, while I still spurn the notion of destiny, I do find great joy in the presence of and from the consequence of what I might prefer to call serendipity.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


The Poetry Council of North Carolina, an organization that for 58 years has worked to foster a greater appreciation for and appreciation of poetry in NC by sponsoring contests and events for adults and children, has concluded its work on this year’s competitions and is preparing now to highlight the winners of those competitions at its annual Poetry Day, to be held October 16 at Catawba College in Salisbury.

This year’s big winners include Greensboro’s Rhett Iseman Trull, recipient of the Oscar Arnold Young Award for the best book of poems published by a North Carolinian, for her book, The Real Warnings. Trull will be spending a great deal of time in Hickory this year, appearing at Lenoir Rhyne as part of their “In Their Own Words” visiting writer series on September 16 with NC Poet Laureate Cathy Smith-Bowers, returning in the spring as Lenoir-Rhyne’s writer-in-residence, and reading at Poetry Hickory on March 8.

A recent visitor at Poetry Hickory, Tony Abbott, who read here on September 14, received second place in the book competition for his New & Selected Poems. Other finalists in the book competition who have read at Poetry Hickory in the past year include Linda Annas Ferguson and Alex Grant. Award recipients in other categories also include recent and upcoming Poetry Hickory readers: Sara Claytor and Bill Griffin, both of whom read last year; Richard Allen Taylor, who is part of November’s event; and Malaika King Albrecht, who will read with Trull on March 8.

Poetry Day events begin on October 16 with registration at 9:20, followed by the dedication of this years’ awards anthology, Bay Leaves, honoring Main Street Rag Publisher and Editor, M. Scott Douglass, for his unparalleled contributions to the NC poetry community. The highlight of the event will be the recognition of category winners and readings from those winners. Following lunch, entertainer Bob Whyte will perform. Poetry Day is open to the public. Lunch can be reserved for $8 at A complete list of this year’s winners and sample poems from Trull and Abbott can also be seen there.

The Catawba County area is well-represented on the Poetry Council by locals Scott Owens (Vice President), Bud Caywood (Free Verse Contest Manager), Nancy Posey (High School Contest Manager), and regular Poetry Hickory attendee, Jessie Carty of Charlotte (Humorous Verse Contest Manager). The Poetry Council is a 501c3 non-profit organization. Further information on Poetry Day, or the Council’s annual contests, or details on how to support the Council is available on the website or by contacting President Ed Cockrell at or Scott Owens at

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Reports of Poetry's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

The Reports of Poetry’s Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Over the past 20 years I have heard and read more times than I can count that nobody reads poetry anymore, nobody buys poetry anymore, and nobody cares about poetry anymore, that in effect, poetry is dead. But everywhere I turn I see evidence quite to the contrary. The most recent of that evidence came to me from a town where one might expect there would be little poetry and little interest in it, a town with a population under 10,000 and only a small branch of a community college, the town of Lincolnton, NC, where a group has started a series of Open Mic readings called Poetry Lincolnton that takes place at 7:00 on the first Tuesday of each month at Generation Bean Coffeehouse.

I read as part of that series recently and was blown away by the size of the audience and the enthusiasm the participants had towards poetry. Organizers of the series, Lincolnton poets, Devona Wyant and Shane Manier, and Generation Bean owner, Kym Miller have sparked a great deal of energy about poetry in a place where one might not expect to find any interest at all.

One of the things that I enjoyed most about this reading was the “performance vibe” of the local readers. For those not familiar with the notion of performance poetry, it is a diverse blend of poetry, song, recitation, music, theater, and sometimes movement that will vary greatly from place to place and person to person. Different manifestations of this oral art might be called slam poetry or spoken word. The particular style of performance poetry displayed during my visit to Lincolnton was clearly influenced by rap music, and characterized by confrontational themes, frequent rhyming in short lines, and a fast pace, all of which make for an enjoyable and often surprising event.

I so thoroughly enjoyed the readings that I invited the group to share their work at Poetry Hickory, and on September 14, at 6:30, Wyant, Manier, and Morgan Depue will do just that as their performances will constitute the Open Mic segment of Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The featured writers that night will be NC Poetry Society President and retired Davidson Professor Anthony Abbott, and recent UNC Wilmington MFA graduate Jason Mott. To whet your appetite for the evening’s poetry, here is a poem from Shane Manier.

We are poets

We will raise the sun with hands like Gladiolas in bloom.
We will learn to walk like the elephants,
and our arms will extend like an art form
becoming triumphant trumpets.
We will push the laughing eyes back
with palms as steady as a Buddhist monk.
And we shall burn in the fires of ambition
while marching to our birth of revision.
Because this is our day.
This sky is ours to sizzle with our fingers,
we will drip the sound of inspiration
and it will flow sweeter than perspiration.
We will turn adjectives into nouns
because our thoughts are profound.
We are the carving on the stone,
after the monument has fallen down.
We are more than historians spoon feeding textbook givens,
more than story tellers or musicians,
more than friends, lovers and "fam".
We are the voice inside you
when you need the strength to rise again.
We are the wet rag that soothes your head,
the noble words that honor our dead.
We are the reminders, truth finders,
the seekers of wisdom,
and the power to break free from what imprisons.
We are individuals, defenders, dream welders.
We are poets.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Joseph Bathanti to Lead Poetry Workshop at October Poetry Hickory

World-renowned poet, educator, and activist, Joseph Bathanti will facilitate a poetry workshop prior to October’s Poetry Hickory at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The workshop, sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society, will begin at 5:00 and extend to 6:30 on Tuesday, October 12, and will be followed by Poetry Hickory, which will feature readings by Bathanti, and Robert Abbate, and a 30-minute Open Mic.

Cost of the workshop is $15 for NCPS members and $25 for non-members. Membership information is available at Deadline for registration is September 28 and can be reserved by contacting Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266. Registrants will be asked to send a poem of 30 lines or less to Owens for possible discussion during the workshop. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged.

Here is a profile of Bathanti’s work:

Professor of Creative Writing at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC, Joseph Bathanti is the author of six books of poetry: Communion Partners; Anson County; The Feast of All Saints; This Metal, which was nominated for The National Book Award, and won the 1997 Oscar Arnold Young Award from The North Carolina Poetry Council for best book of poems by a North Carolina writer; Land of Amnesia; and his new collection, Restoring Scared Art.

His first novel, East Liberty, winner of the Carolina Novel Award, was published in 2001. His latest novel, Coventry, won the 2006 Novello Literary Award. He is also the author of They Changed the State: The Legacy of North Carolina’s Visiting Artists, 1971-1995, and a collection of short stories, The High Heart, winner of the 2006 Spokane Prize.

He is the recipient of two Literature Fellowships (in 1994 for poetry and 2009 for fiction) from the North Carolina Arts Council; The Samuel Talmadge Ragan Award, presented annually for outstanding contributions to the Fine Arts of North Carolina over an extended period; the Bruno Arcudi Literature Prize; the Ernest A Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach; the Aniello Lauri Award for Creative Writing (2001 and 2007); the Linda Flowers Prize; the Sherwood Anderson Award and others.

Bathanti’s various involvements in criminal justice began in 1976 when he left his hometown in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to come to North Carolina as a VISTA Volunteer assigned to the North Carolina Department of Correction. For fourteen months as a VISTA, he taught and coached inmates, started Alcoholic Anonymous chapters at two prison camps, coordinated work and study release programs, developed job and parole plans for inmates on the verge of release, and conducted a weekly creative writing workshop. Out of this workshop came an anthology of inmate writing and art work, edited by Bathanti, called Bewteen Ourselves. As a VISTA, Bathanti also worked with a Charlotte agency, ECO (Ex-Convicts Organization) where he edited The ECO Journal and served on ECO’s Board of Directors.

After leaving VISTA, he began his teaching career at Central Piedmont Community College where he taught not only English, his major area of study, but also taught in the Criminal Justice Department, and taught as well a Learning Lab at Huntersville Prison, just north of Charlotte. During this time, Bathanti and his wife Joan (also a former VISTA) were house-parents for abused and neglected children, many of whom were adjudicated youth and status offenders. Also, during this time, he became involved in death penalty work, was a member of Charlotte Citizens Against the Death Penalty, and appeared on radio and TV as a staunch abolitionist.

Over the past 33 years, Bathanti has lectured, read his work and conducted workshops in a variety of prisons, training schools, battered women’s shelters, homeless shelters, daycare centers, nursing homes, soup kitchens, barns, gyms, train depots, and fish camps. He is the past Chair of the North Carolina Writers’ Network Prison Project, and served as a Humanities scholar through the Georgia Humanities Council on a writing/performance project with AIDS patients at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. He is the winner of the 1995 Ruth Ann Blankenship Prize, given annually by Statesville, NC Fifth Street Ministries for work in its battered women’s shelter, My Sister’s House, where he taught a weekly creative writing workshop. In 1998, he was awarded the Viola Kimbrough Parker Diversity Award by Mitchell Community College for his work to promote diversity and multiculturalism. He is the recipient of 1999 Ernest A. Lynton Faculty Award for Professional Service and Academic Outreach (specifically in the area of prison outreach and advocacy), presented annually by The New England Resource Center for Higher Education, with support from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. He has been awarded grants by the Witter Bynner Foundation and the Puffin Foundation for his work among marginalized populations. For ten years, from 1991-2001, he taught an annual week-long creative writing workshop at a North Carolina prison road camp in Stateville, NC with legendary prison writing teacher and Black Mountain College graduate, Fielding Dawson.

During the academic year 2005-06, he weekly took a group of creative writing students into Boone’s homeless shelter, Hospitality House, and facilitated a writing workshop among the residents there. This initiative resulted in an anthology, featuring the work of the residents and Appalachian State University students, called Voices from the Hospitality House. He has taught courses on prison literature (one of his academic specialties) at colleges, universities churches, and writers’ conferences

Bathanti’s prison writing has appeared in some of the nation’s premier literary journals, including Shenandoah, Poetry International, The Greenfield Review, Pembroke Magazine,The Davidson Miscellany, Florida Humanities, The Phoenix, Witness, The Journal of Public Service and Outreach, Our Era, The Birmingham Poetry Review, Blue Mesa Review, Cafe Solo, Lost Horse Press Anthology of Human Rights Poetry, The Sound of Poets Cooking, Aethlon, Cotton Boll, The Sun, Harpoon and others.

His poem “Cletis Pratt,” about a Vietnam Veteran sent to prison, is the winner of the 2007 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize, awarded annually by the Nuclear Age Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. His prison writing has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won a Blumenthal Readers and Writers Series Award.

Most recently, in March of 2009, he guest-edited the Michigan Review of Prisoner Creative Writing, an anthology of prisoner writing published through University of Michigan’s Prisoner Creative Arts Project (PCAP); and also conducted creative writing workshops in Detroit and Ann Arbor prisons While in Michigan he spoke on matters of criminal justice at the University of Michigan, Shaman Drum Book store, and was interviewed about his prison work and writing on WDET, Wayne State University public radio station. Under the sponsorship of Michigan Prisoner Reentry Initiative (MPRI), he also spoke at Eastern Michigan University, and Artist Village in Detroit.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Profile of Tony Abbott

Poet, Scholar, Teacher, and Novelist to Appear at Poetry Hickory

Over the course of a lengthy career in the arts and letters, Anthony Abbott has distinguished himself well beyond what most could hope for in not one area but several. As an instructor, he spent more than 30 years as a distinguished member of the English faculty at prestigious Davidson College, serving as Chair of the department for the final 7 years of his career. As a scholar he authored the noteworthy studies Shaw and Christianity and The Vital Lie: Reality and Illusion in Modern Drama.

As a novelist, his first foray into the field, Leaving Maggie Hope, was awarded the Novello Award. And as a poet, his first collection, The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Most writers and scholars labor in obscurity hoping to achieve just one distinction equal to any of these.

Unlike others, Abbott also has not rested on his laurels but has followed up these successes with the publication of a second novel and four subsequent collections of poetry, the most recent, New and Selected Poems, having come out earlier this year from Lorimer Press. He has also continued to give back to the NC literary and academic community, teaching classes at Catawba College, serving as this year’s President of the NC Poetry Society, serving as past President of the NC Writers’ Network and the Charlotte Writers’ Club, and providing assistance on a local level as one of last year’s Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poets and on Lenoir Rhyne’s Visiting Writers Series Advisory Committee.

On September 14, Abbott will join Bolton, NC, poet, Jason Mott, as featured writers at Poetry Hickory. The reading will be held at 6:30 at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory and will be preceded by a meeting of the NC Writers’ Network’s Foothills Region’s Writers’ Night Out at 5:00. All events are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266, or visit the website at To give readers a sense of what to expect, here is a poem from Abbott’s New & Selected Poems.

Blood Red of Late October

Blood red of late October in the South,
and from the cemetery to the college campus
on the hill, the leaves bathe my eyes. I
turn each corner into dazzling surprise.

In my mine’s eye, she walks toward me.
I show her my favorite tree. I pluck three
leaves for her and watch as she carries
them away. This is new found grace,

and in the space where sadness once lay
the small white flower of hope grows.
In the South, October lingers, the gold
sun glances off the trees. November will

come with its cold rain soon enough,
I know. I turn the dazzle inward
and down. It courses through the veins
and lofts me toward the breathless light.