Monday, April 30, 2012

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing Poetry


I'm teaching a 3-hour workshop at Glenda Beall's Writer's Circle in Hayesville, NC, on Saturday, May 12. Last year we had 10 people for a workshop on invention strategies; this year we hope to have a similar sized group for a workshop intended to focus on revision, publication, and marketing, but left open-ended enough to allow me to focus on the specific needs and interests of those attending.

The workshop will run from 10:00 to 1:00 in Glenda's studio at 581 Chatuge Lane. The cost is just $30. If you'd like to attend, you can let Glenda know by email at, by phone at 828-389-4441, or by sending a check to 581 Chatuge Lane, Hayesville, NC 28904.

If you're reading this, you probably already know who I am, but just in case, here is a brief bio. You can find more information at

Scott Owens is the award-winning author of 10 collections of poetry, editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review and 234, Vice President of the Poetry Council of NC, Regional Representative for the NC Writers' Network, and an officer for the NC Poetry Society. His more than 1100 published poems have been in journals such as Georgia Review, North American Review, Southern Poetry Review, Poetry East, Beloit Poetry Journal, and many more. He has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, the Pushcart Prize Anthology, and the Poetry Society of SC, among others. Two of his poems have been featured on Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. He has taught creative writing for 20 years including workshops at Coastal Carolina University, NCWN, the Writers' Workshop, Mitchell Community College, and Wayne Community College. His students have published hundreds of poems after taking his classes as well as numerous books. Born in Greenwood, SC, he received his MFA from UNC Greensboro and now lives in Hickory, NC, where he teaches at Catawba Valley Community College and coordinates Poetry Hickory.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Review of Joanna Catherine Scott's "An Innocent in the House of the Dead"

by Scott Owens

Joanna Catherine Scott with John Lee Conaway
Main Street Rag, 2011
ISBN: 9781599483184

Joanna Catherine Scott possesses a certainty that few of us can readily share. She knows that John Lee Conaway, a NC man who spent 16 years on Death Row following a double murder conviction before recently being granted a new trial which he still awaits, is innocent. She knows this and she knows Conaway with such conviction that she has legally adopted Conaway as her own son. As with all knowledge, hers is a knowledge born of belief, a belief the NC criminal justice system does not currently share.

In Scott’s amazing new collection of poems, An Innocent in the House of the Dead, she invites the reader into the experience of her coming to belief and peripherally into the experience of John Lee Conaway’s development into accused, prisoner, condemned, and loved one. No one else could have written this book, and regardless of one’s belief, no one should forgo the opportunity this book offers to share in the depth of emotion conjured by the very real and very human circumstances recorded here.

One of the charges often leveled at poetry today is that it is irrelevant, that it is written only for academes and other poets, that it is neither concerned with nor can play any role in the real world of the vast majority of people. Surely, An Innocent in the House of the Dead clearly and strongly refutes that claim. What could be more relevant to all of us than an examination of our criminal justice system through which our communal expectations are enforced and our own standards of behavior and ethics are tested? When not reminding us of the humanity of those involved in the incidents of Conaway’s life and her own progress towards belief, Scott’s poetry takes on a more activist stance, presenting a strong indictment of the cruelty, unfairness, and unreliability of a racist justice system, the institution of capital punishment, and a corrections industry centered on the issue of profit.

More than relevant, these poems are also accessible, but they go beyond mere accessibility as well. Due to their relevance, immediacy, and reality, as well as to the skill with which Scott has crafted these poems, they practically leap from the page into one’s heart and mind. They resonate with our appreciation of life and fairness and freedom and love, and with our discomfort with the standards of justice. They are as real as our realest moments. They will not leave us alone; they are both relevant and impactful.

I offer no excerpts from Joanna Catherine Scott’s An Innocent in the House of the Dead because the vitality of the book, the realness of the story it tells, would make any excerpting a form of mutilation. This is a book that needs to be read whole, in its entirety. Relevant, accessible, important and powerful — Joanna Catherine Scott’s An Innocent in the House of the Dead is poetry that will make a difference, but only if it is read.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring Into Arts at Catawba Valley Community College

Yesterday, five of my students read their original works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction at Spring Into Arts at Catawba Valley Community College. I am very proud of these students: Dennis Lovelace, Courtney Lewallen, Kim Teague, Victoria Burkhardt, and Tony Rankine. Each of them have now taken at least 3 creative writing classes and had at least 3 pieces published. Dennis, Kim, and Tony regularly attend Writers' Night Out and Poetry Hickory; and Kim has created a writers' group which Courtney and Dennis regularly attend. The readings, the classes, the groups -- that is the sort of commitment and risk-taking necessary to develop as a writer.

Thanks to Tim Peeler, Ann Williams, and Linda Lutz for putting this reading together.

Here are photos of Courtney and Dennis at the reading.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Open Letter from Poet Daniel Nathan Terry

Dear Friends and Fellow North Carolina Residents,

On May 7th, my partner and I will be married in Washington, DC. After sixteen years together, of facing many of the difficulties most couples endure, we are overjoyed that this day is finally on our doorstep.

Well, not on our doorstep, but on the doorstep of an office in a courthouse in DC.

We are not wealthy, although we work most of our waking lives. We both teach six classes a semester at NC colleges, and we work year-round. As an adjunct for two colleges, I have no health insurance, and (although we have been together for over a decade and a half) NC does not recognize us as domestic partners; therefore, I am not eligible to gain insurance under my partner's policy. As many of you know, I suffered a spinal injury 9 years ago. My current medical expenses add up to about $1000.00 a month. It is, to say the least, a strain on our family.

Also, as we are unable to marry in our home state, we will spend thousands on airfare, hotels, and so on--something we would not do. If we had a choice, we would spend what money we can muster on a party for our friends. We do not want new suits, flowers, a DJ, or any of the other trappings. But we will still spend the money others might spend on such things just to have the right to be legally married elsewhere--in DC, where we are given the "right" to marry.

Among the other 50-plus rights that married couples have which are denied to Ben and me, is the right of hospital visitation. The last time I was taken to an emergency room, Ben had to claim he was my brother. And, should one of us leave this life before the other (the saddest thing two in love may endure), the one left behind would have no legal claim to all that we have built together--this includes the poetry and art we have produced since we met (something we prize beyond most things).

Beyond these legal and practical matters, there is also the emotional and psychological damage that is done by knowing that in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of some of your neighbors, you are considered inferior--even as you struggle to do good work for your community, your students, and your country.

I know that many of you are already with us. I know that you love and support us. But I am asking you to consider reposting and widely circulating this open letter--this plea--for equality.

Early voting begins on the 19th. Please vote AGAINST Amendment One.

As always, my best wishes and love to you,

Daniel Nathan Terry

Thursday, April 12, 2012

NC Poet Profile: Katherine Soniat, Traveler Through Space and Time


Originally from New Orleans, poet extraordinaire Katherine Soniat has taught at the University of New Orleans, Hollins University, and for twenty years was on the faculty at Virginia Tech University. Recently, she moved to Asheville and began teaching in the Great Smokies Writers’ Program through the University of NC at Asheville. In addition to these professional journeys, Soniat has been a world traveler as well, visiting such places as Crete, the Andes, and the Bavarian Alps.

Such peripatetic history plays a vital role in Soniat’s poetic work, as settings often seem central to her poems. Soniat, however, cannot have been the typical casual traveler one might call a tourist. Rather it seems she must successfully immerse herself in the culture and history of the places she goes, for her poems often uniquely express the personal through the complex intricacies of setting and vice versa. It is almost as if her own identity becomes interwoven with that of her surroundings such that in writing about one, she inevitably reveals the other.

Soniat’s fifth collection of poems, The Swing Girl, was recently named winner of this year’s Oscar Arnold Young Award for the best book of poetry from NC in the previous year. She will receive her award and give a reading from her book at Poetry Day to be held in the Catawba Valley Community College Student Center on Saturday, April 14. The event, including awards and readings in 9 poetic categories and a live-judged Poetry Slam, will begin at 9:30 and extend to 3:00. It is free and open to the public.

Soniat’s previous books have won the Iowa Prize, the Virginia Prize for Poetry, and the Camden Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of two Virginia Commission for the Arts Grants, a William Faulkner Award, a Jane Kenyon Award, the Anne Stanford Award, and Fellowships to Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her sixth collection A Raft, A Boat, A Bridge will be published by Dream Horse Press this fall.

This excerpt from the title poem of Swing Child is based on an image from a Greek burial relic and suggests both the relic’s ability and the author’s desire to move between cultures of the present and past as well as between the temporality of experience and the permanence of symbol. It also suggests that such movement, such broadening and deepening of experience is exactly what poetry and art make possible for the reader.

(O, to fly abroad again on her board roped to the limb.)

The territory that girl could cover, her eyes peering birdlike
across the grove. The air, a vector.

Return to the days of her swing, not this relic. To warriors
crossing the sea, ready to cross out generations with spears
then settle their weight down on this island.

Far past that sack of the sacred, I hear a donkey bray,
tied to the thorn tree. Empty snail shells bleach on boulders
near the tomb entrance.

(Old inching of the soul thirsty for a last sip of nightshade.)

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

From Inspiration to Publication: Workshop with Scott Owens

The Writers’ Workshop is offering writing classes in Charlotte, which meet at Providence Presbyterian Church. Registration is in advance only, by mail or at the website ( Financial aid in exchange for volunteering is available. For more information, please contact, or call 828-254-8111.

April 21: From Inspiration to Publication: Poetry and the Writing Process with Scott Owens

Beginning and experienced poets will learn new methods of writing, revising and publishing poetry. Class discussion will focus on the writing process, from generative strategies to the revision process and beyond. Participants may bring up to 3 poems to the class for review. Owens is the author of 10 collections of poetry, and editor of Wild Goose Poetry Review. Saturday, 12-5 pm. $75/$70 members.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Review of Paul Hostovsky's "A Little In Love A Lot"

by Scott Owens

Paul Hostovsky
Main Street Rag, 2011
ISBN: 9781599483030

I think anyone who doesn’t love Paul Hostovsky must not know Paul Hostovsky. I said once that “he always finds a way to make me happy.” Having just read his third book of poems, A Little in Love a Lot, that statement remains every bit as true as it was when I first said it. What makes me happy in this book is the way his poems remind me of all the loves I’ve had -- brief ones, long ones, foolish ones, serious ones, deep ones, simple lusty ones -- and how in the end all of these loves, even the failed ones, are part of the same love, the human love for life, for human life, an appreciation of the familiar, of sharing, of recognizing the possibilities of joy and the never-ending quest to attain it.

One of the qualities that makes reading Hostovsky’s poems so enjoyable is the lack of pretension. Mostly what we find here is just honest, entertaining poetry about things we’ve all thought but never had the wisdom, passion, chutzpah, or facility with language to put into words. One of my favorites, “The Debate at Duffy’s,” illustrates this point well:
She said that sex was a yearning of the soul.
He said it was a very compelling argument
of the body, a compulsion. She said it was
a spiritual compulsion. He said it was nothing
if not carnal, carni, meat. This conversation
took place in a bar. The background music was
so loud it was in the foreground. The bodies
on the dance floor were moving in ways that
would interest even the dead if they could only
remember how to live. There was a baseball game
playing on television. On the table were two
empty glasses, and the bottle’s green phallus
which she took in her hand and pulled toward her,
pulling him toward her as she poured them both
another drink. he drank deeply, felt the spirit
filling his cup. Then he looked into her eyes and saw
that she was beautiful, sexy, and at the bottom
of the 9th, suddenly, surprisingly, irrevocably, right.

Not only is the language and imagery of these poems smooth and approachable, but there is a decided absence of unnecessarily complex academic language and obtuse imagery. Nor is there excessive allusiveness. It is almost as if (Gasp!) Hostovsky wants to be understood. What allusiveness there is exists on a level where it doesn’t bring distracting attention (Hey! Look how clever I am!) to itself. Rather, it is like a subtle sauce added to an already delectable dessert, not entirely necessary to enjoy the experience, but a deepening and enriching element for those with a more discriminating palette. Such is the case in “The Affair in the Office,” where the reader need not recognize the echo of Roethke’s “Dolor” in the line, “full of the inexorable sadness / of cubicles” to enjoy both the communal gloom of office life and the shared guilty pleasures of gossip and forbidden love “among the ruins.”

Perhaps the quality that most endears Hostovsky’s work to the reader is that he more than any other poet I’ve read in the past decade truly “gets” the necessary duality of human existence. He is neither glib nor morose. He takes life seriously but simultaneously recognizes the near absurdity of it all. He wants things his way but readily laughs at himself and moves ahead when he doesn’t get it. The self-mocking tone in the opening lines of “Battling the Wind and Everything Else” show his ability to exist within this duality of gravity and levity:
My neighbor -- the one with the flagpole
and the flag, and the pickup truck
and the patriotic bumper sticker and the perfect
lawn, and the leaf-blower with the power pack . . . .
As this poem about contentious neighbors continues to unfold, one can’t help but recall the neighbors in Frost’s “Mending Wall” as well as Frost’s similar ability to poke fun at himself while criticizing others. Even the title of this collection tells us the speaker of these poems is a man who not only reads Hikmet (“you must live with great seriousness / like a squirrel, for example”) but knows how, and can help us learn how, to live those lines.

Usually, when I read a writer as remarkable as Paul Hostovsky, I can’t help but dislike them a little. Jealousy, envy, fear of my own inadequacy combine to create an irrepressible sliver of animosity towards them. However, something about Hostovsky’s grace with language, willing self-effacement, charitable spirit, and clear grasp of the paradox of human life and the negative capability necessary for the daily survival of it make even the most illogical ill-feelings towards him almost impossible. “Almost,” because any writer reading A Little in Love a Lot will experience some jealousy, will wish at least a little that they had managed to write these poems first.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Review of Tony Abbott's "If Words Could Save Us"

by Scott Owens

Anthony Abbott
Lorimer Press
ISBN: 9780982617199

The poetry of Tony Abbott has always resonated with me. That may not be a surprise. He and I are both contemporary white male Southern poets after all. Besides, the simplest criteria for good poetry is that it resonates with the reader, that it has an effect -- else, why would we choose to read it?

Because Abbott’s work, like the man himself, is always sincere, approachable, and carefully and intentionally crafted, I suspect I am not alone in having been moved by his previous collections, especially The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat and The Man Who. Abbott, thankfully, after all, is no solipsist of poetry, no self-infatuated post-avant, no obscurist drawing pleasure from his own cleverness. No, Abbott is about finer, more significant things, poetry with purpose, art as a mirror that helps us examine our own lives, passions, thoughts, and reactions, and deepens our experience of the world we occupy.

As such, Abbott wants to be read and understood. Fortunately for all of us, he possesses the drive and the skill with language, imagery, and observation necessary to insure that he will produce, we will read, and everyone will be richer for the experience. And in his most recent collection, if words could save us, there is another quality that rewards the reader, something I first glimpsed in his 2009 collection, New & Selected Poems, and see has come to full fruition in his new work: a quiet calm, patient maturity, reassuring balance, perspective, and tolerance that could only be called wisdom.

Abbott has long been a mentor of mine as well as numerous other younger poets who have worked with him at Davidson College, Catawba College or through the NC Writers’ Network or NC Poetry Society. The poems in if words could save us suggest that he has accepted the mantle of a further-expanded sphere of influence, that he has deservedly become what might best be called Sage to all who are fortunate enough to read, meet, or work with him.

These poems range in subject from the innocence of youth to the reflections of age, from striving to acceptance, and at the center of it all there are the oxymoronic truths that while we know we will make mistakes, we must try anyway; that while we accept the ravages of aging as a part of the process, we must never give into them; and that while we understand the limitations of language, we continue to use it as the best tool we have for reaching into and out to the world and life and all there is and might be.

Such wisdom is conveyed throughout the length of this collection, appearing in the first poem, “The Hat,” as a light-hearted lament of the opportunities lost in the innocence of youth:

I wish I had known, known how to make
a game of the stealing, the reaching,
the recovery. Had I known, I might

have kissed you in the barn, deep
in the bales of hay, where we played
our innocent games of hide-and-seek.

Similar wisdom is apparent in “At the Window” which finds in the insomnia of a twelve-year-old the quintessential human quest for answers:

He is looking
always looking

for something he
cannot name.

Later, in “The Man Who Didn’t Believe In Luck,” we discover a statement of purpose reminiscent of my favorite line ever from a movie: Tom Hanks’ “Earn this” from “Saving Private Ryan.” Abbott’s version of that sentiment is “We deserve nothing. We / earn nothing, but we are loved just the same. / Nothing to be done except to give it back.”

Abbott as sage is at his best in the remarkable “Knife Blade of the New Moon,” where he reminds us to recognize the daily miracles of life:

He wakes one day astonished
to the burgeoning spring.
The white azaleas
in full profusion
on the front lawn
Even the light green

of the coming leaves.
For a long time he had forgotten
such things. He had walked
with his head down, eyes askance.

Now he stands in the rain,
mouth open
tasting the wetness.

He kneels on the willing earth
places his face
in the long spring grass

and smells earthsmell,
greensmell, Godsmell.
He looks up.

He remembers.

Of course, none of the aforementioned appreciation of Abbott’s poetry is uncommon. He is widely read and frequently awarded for his work. What is, perhaps, somewhat less common in my relationship to Abbott’s work is just how often his poems inspire poems of my own. It happened with The Girl in the Yellow Raincoat; it happened with The Man Who; it happened with New & Selected Poems; and it has happened again with if words could save us; in fact, it has happened five times so far with this book. Could there be any greater statement of appreciation for a poem than to say it lead me to write a poem of my own? Such is the inspiration to be found in Tony Abbott’s if words could save us.