Sunday, October 24, 2010

Scott Douglass a Saint?

Dedication of Poetry Council's 2010 Anthology, "Bay Leaves", to Poet, Editor, and Publisher, M. Scott Douglass

Anyone who has ever worked with Scott Douglass knows that he is no saint if sainthood necessitates the qualities of eternal patience, total abstinence, gentility of speech and manner, and holiness, whatever that means. If, on the other hand, one’s definition of sainthood focuses more on such things as “wonder worker, source of benevolent power, intercessor (in this case, between poets and their potential audiences), and selfless behavior” (all part of theologian, John Coleman’s definition), then no one is more deserving of the title Patron Saint of Poets, than Scott Douglass.

In Muriel Rukeyser’s poem “Waiting for Icarus,” the character of the mother says: “poets [are] a trashy lot” and then “[those] who love such are the worst of all.” It was just such a love of poetry and poets that nearly 15 years ago led Scott Douglass to the painfully difficult decision to give up a rewarding and personally satisfying career as a dental technician to begin publishing poetry. He thought that editing a journal and operating a small press would both help other poets find audiences and stimulate his own creativity. He has written and found publication for hundreds of his own poems, including 5 books, but e quickly discovered that most of the creativity being stimulated was spent on the editing, production, marketing, and distribution of other poets’ work. Fortunately, for all of us, he usually found the selfless work of helping others perfect their poetry, achieve publication, and connect with their audience personally satisfying.

Since the first Main Street Rag chapbook and the first issue of Main Street Rag, the magazine, in 1996, Scott has edited 59 issues of the Main Street Rag and published somewhere in the neighborhood of 800 individual books, many of those as part of MSR’s annual chapbook competition begun in 1999 and annual book competition started in 2001, both of which provide substantial monetary awards to the winners. That record of publication comes out to more than 50 titles per year, roughly 1 every week. Is anyone else anywhere publishing that much poetry? Most of the poets I know don’t even read that much poetry.

A very rough analysis of MSR’s titles reveals that Scott has published books by authors from at least 30 different states and 4 different countries. True to his roots, however, Scott’s largest source of authors, by far, has been North Carolina. He has published books by more than 60 authors from this state, including both the well-known and the brand new, and they have all been of the highest quality from both a literary and production perspective. MSR books have received awards from virtually every competition out there, including the Oscar Arnold Young Award in 3 of the past 6 years.

And Scott hasn’t stopped in his quest to have a meaningful and lasting effect on the world of writers in North Carolina. He has also undertaken the production work for many other journals, publishers, and organizations, including the production of Bay Leaves since 2004. And to further help poets connect with their audience, he has helped organize and sponsor 6 reading series in Hickory, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, Fuquay-Varina, and Kansas City, MO, and coordinates writing workshops at a variety of venues across the state.

Poet, Editor, Publisher, Publicist, Activist, Dental Technician, and friend, Scott Douglass has borne many titles well. The Poetry Council of NC is honored to recognize the invaluable contributions he has made and continues to make to this organization, to poets across the state and the country, and to the world of poetry in general. For all of these contributions, we dedicate the 2010 issue of Bay Leaves to M. Scott Douglass, who perhaps after all, should hereafter be known as Saint Scott.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking

The Well-Balanced Plate: Poetry and Multi-Tasking
by Scott Owens

Reprinted from NC Writers’ Network News
Fall 2010 Issue, September 2010

Most days that title is a lie. When I teach young writers I encourage them to maintain balance in their lives, to not obsess on writing to the detriment of relationships or finances. I even offer them advice on how to do it, how to set up schedules that permit appropriate levels of attention for all of one’s needs as a person and a poet. In truth, however, schedules rarely work the way their drawn up, and the impetus for writing, just as the need for the relationships and money, is not easily contained. So the usual truth is that most poets lead lives that are recklessly unbalanced.

Today, however, I had a moment of acute self-recognition as I drove in to school with a backpack full of 75 freshman composition essays in the seat beside me, a box full of copies of my new book of poems, and 3 toddler carseats spread across the middle row of my minivan. And I have to admit I felt a sense of pride in who I have become.

I have plenty of friends with young children. Some of them don’t work, and none of them write poetry. I often envy their ability to concentrate on raising those children. It’s not so much the time they have with them. In fact, I’ve been able to manipulate my schedule such that I probably have as much time with Sawyer as they have with their children. It’s more the ability to focus on what is properly their number one priority, to not feel distracted by vocation or avocation, to always know what duty deserves their unmitigated attention, to be able to readily set aside any distraction and divert to the whim of the 4-year-old.

I also have plenty of friends who are teachers but do not have children and do not write poetry, although some have children or write poetry. I often envy them as well. I often fear they are probably better teachers than I. I feel certain they don’t carry around essays for days on end looking for moments between obligations to review and score one or two at a time. And I’m even more certain that they have the opportunity to read more current scholarship than one is likely to find in the new issues of Cricket or Stone Soup.

And then there is the admittedly much smaller group that I probably sometimes envy more than any other, those friends who have managed somehow to construct lives that allow them to be simply poets, no children, no professional obligations outside of what they do in the world of poetry. I imagine they spend hours every day reading Poetry, Paris Review, Georgia Review, scouring the pages of Poets & Writers for exotic residencies and publication opportunities, and reading widely from a variety of new collections of poetry which they receive at no cost because they have the time to write reviews of the ones they like. And, of course, I imagine they have the freedom from other responsibilities necessary to stop whenever a line, image, or idea occurs to them and start the process of writing that new poem, or to hunker down with two fingers of scotch and hammer out the revision they know a poem has been needing, or to vanish for half a day in the real or virtual daydream world that sometimes seems necessary to allow a poem to go from vague intimation to concrete, clear, and thoroughly-explored experience.

I am certain these descriptions of the lives I imagine my friends enjoy are horribly, unfairly, and almost comically exaggerated, but feelings of envy and frustration are perhaps inevitable when one realizes he had a new poem floating around in his head that has been unfortunately lost to the banter of three toddlers in a weekly afternoon playdate, or that he could get through this pile of essays if only he didn’t have to stop every five minutes to answer yet another question about the source of rain, or that the fear he has that he’s not giving his children what they need and that his parenting is horribly inadequate would go away if he could just make the desire to write poetry and the need to plan the next day’s classes disappear.

That is the mental and emotional state of conflictedness and distraction that I exist in most of the time. I’ve learned to accept the low-level discomfort that being there creates. But on this particular morning, surrounded by the concrete evidence, by the imagery the poet within me would say, of who I am, I felt instead a satisfied sense of self-knowledge, even perhaps of clear purpose. There have been periods in my life when I was poet and teacher, but not parent. There have also been times when I was parent and teacher but not poet. And there were a couple of years when Sawyer was an infant that I was parent and poet but not teacher. During all of those periods, I knew that something was missing. I could not have told anyone why, but I knew that I felt incomplete.

Please don’t think that I’m putting forth any sort of sanctimonious argument that this is what everyone needs or should be doing. And please don’t think that I’m patting myself on the back for being the great male multi-tasker or anything like that. All I’m saying is that for me, parenting and teaching feed my poet; teaching and writing help me know how to parent; and writing and parenting make me a better teacher. And I do suspect that such complementarity does or would help others feel greater satisfaction as well. Most of the time I’m not exactly cognizant of the way these three areas of obligation work to create one whole person, but on this particular morning I felt a sort of epiphany that this triple existence, while frequently exhausting, is always a source of some level of pride, an endless source of motivation, and a means of feeling complete. Ultimately, I understood in that moment that this is the life I’ve wanted and despite other moments of doubt, guilt, and simple exhaustion, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

Bathanti Proves Poetry Can Make a Difference

One of the charges occasionally leveled at contemporary poetry is that it has become irrelevant. Whenever I hear that claim I can’t help but wonder what contemporary poetry the speaker is reading. I read about 100 new poetry books each year and perhaps thousands in various poetry journals, and I will admit that a percentage of those seem pointlessly self-involved: poems about writing poetry; poems written such that only other poets could appreciate them; poems that are mere self-expression. I will admit that even I occasionally write such poems, since other poets and myself are also among my audience. That percentage, however, seems to be a very small one. Most of the poetry that I read is about experiences, ideas, and perceptions that have a broad base of interest and appeal: politics, religion, philosophy, living in the 21st century, joy, loss, regret, all the various faces of human endeavor, success, and failure, and, of course, like all art, beauty and truth.

I can think of no better example of the vital relevance of contemporary poetry than the work of Joseph Bathanti. For decades Bathanti has been deeply involved in the “real” world both in and through his poetry. As a poet and educator (currently at Appalachian State University), Bathanti is the author of 12 creative and scholarly books and has won virtually every award available, but it is the subject of his poetry and the ways in which he uses poetry to change people’s lives that are most deserving of acclaim and that illustrate his vital relevance.

Bathanti’s various involvements in criminal justice began when for fourteen months as a VISTA volunteer, 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, culminating in the publication of an anthology of inmate writing and art work. He followed that up by teaching a Learning Lab at Huntersville Prison and living as a house-parent for abused and neglected children. During this time, he also became involved in death penalty work 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 served as a Humanities scholar through the Georgia Humanities Council on a writing/performance project with AIDS patients at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. For ten years, from 1991-2001, he taught an annual week-long creative writing workshop at a North Carolina prison road camp in Stateville. And 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.

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.

Bathanti will facilitate a poetry workshop sponsored by the North Carolina Poetry Society, from 5:00 to 6:30 on Tuesday, October 12, at Taste Full Beans Coffeehouse in downtown Hickory. The workshop will be followed by October’s Poetry Hickory, where Bathanti and Robert Abbate, author of The Courage of Straw and instructor at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, will be the featured writers. Poetry Hickory will begin at 6:30 with shorter readings by Bill Griffin, Julian Phelps, and Bethea Buchanan.
Cost of the workshop is $15 for NCPS members and $25 for non-members. Membership information is available at Registration can be reserved by contacting Scott Owens at or 828-234-4266. Space is limited, so early registration is encouraged. Poetry Hickory is free and open to the public. The poem below, which deals with issues faith, beauty, and everyday ways of coping, can serve as a sample of what those in attendance will hear.

The Last Time I Drank with Phil
by Joseph Bathanti

I’m drinking
in the Rose Garden
at Mellon Park with Philip.
Out all night, we find ourselves
burnished in the high
dawn of Easter, Sunday
sun dripping yellow plates
from the Sycamore’s wet green shade.
Spider webs catacomb
the primrose. Angels
spray from silver fountains.
Goldfinches float above
the sequined lawn.
So much light
we shield our eyes,
like the first mendicants,
two old friends, stumbling
upon the risen Christ,
uplifted emerald
bottles of warm Rolling Rock

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Review of Richard Allen Taylor's "Punching through the Egg of Space"

Review of Punching through the Egg of Space, by Richard Allen Taylor
Main Street Rag, 2010, 75 pages, $14
ISBN: 9781599482385

Sometimes it’s easy to make singular statements about a book of poems. Perhaps the poems in the book cohere around a single narrative, theme, or style. Such singular statements, however, while convenient, usually accurate, and sometimes even helpful, often belie a vital variety and richness in the poems that make them much less artificial than the critical singular statement suggests.

The poems in Richard Allen Taylor’s new collection, Punching through the Egg of Space, vigorously resist any such singular classification, which is not to say that the volume lacks cohesion. There are several currents that run throughout the poems. There are, for example, a significant number of poems about food, writing, and aging. But it would be grossly misleading to say that the book is about any one or even all three of these topics. There are also a number of poems about being Richard Allen Taylor, which within the literary historical context of Confessionalism the reader understands as being about being human. In fact, one of the many strengths of this text is the seamlessness with which Taylor makes us recognize ourselves in poems that seem to be about him. Nevertheless, to say that Punching through the Egg of Space is Confessionalist would also be unfairly and unnecessarily reductionist.

Tony Abbott says this “is a book of joyous affirmation.” Ann Campanella says it is “a song of joy.” And Anne Hicks says “these poems contemplate the role and responsibility of the individual in this world.” They are all right, of course, but neither life nor these poems are simple enough to be described in such singular statements, and recognizing this, Campanella adds that the book is about “the paradox of the human heart” and presents “a constellation of humor, gravity, and exuberance.” It is exactly this combination of qualities that makes Punching through the Egg of Space such an enjoyable read. These are poems written about what it feels like to be alive in the 21st century, a topic immediately relevant to any reader today. As such there is often humor, sadness, irony, philosophical musing, conviction, the loss of conviction, complete uncertainty, surprise, sentimentality, and throughout it all an unmistakable humanity.

Speaking of one friend to another recently I said of the former that he is “a real guy.” I couldn’t possibly explain what I meant by the phrase, but from these poems I suspect Richard Allen Taylor embodies exactly that quality, a real guy who happens to be very good at finding the perfect word and the perfect image to help the rest of us understand what he means.

I thought I would quote a number of poems to make my points in this review, existential lines about the value of effort in “Landing” and “Outbound,” about the irony of success in “After the Moonwalk,” lines illustrating Taylor’s remarkable imagery in “Moonrise -- North Buncombe County, NC” or “Fancying I Know More about Soil Erosion Than the Artist,” lines revealing Taylor’s perspective on writing in “Obscurity,” “White,” or “Token Rebellion,” but lacking the space to give all the deserving poems, lines, and images their due, I will instead conclude with an excerpt of “Playing Catch,” my own favorite poem from the collection and allow it to serve as a teaser to encourage you to read more:

Watch this kid. He throws the ball
across the plate, chases it to the backstop,
hurries back to the pitcher’s mound,
throws the ball again and again, shouting
gentle encouragements.

A munchkin in a Yankees cap, she just stands there,
never swings the bat, shows no interest in hitting.
. . . . . . . . . . //

I try to remember what it was like
to be learning the fundamentals--
love, heartbreak, sacrifice.

This kid makes all his errors
on the giving side, and I root for him.