wearing motley

Sarah Sloat hits a Nic nerve with this blog post.

Yes. You SO have to watch out for pinched people. And not be influenced by them. Red and orange? Neverr! some conventional voice said to me whenever it was ages ago and from then on I never thought of them together, much less ever put them together. Until who knows why one day I suddenly said !screw that! and I only had to do it once and now it’s just me in the world all over – red and orange, RED AND ORANGE. Some pinched person on a listserv said not so long ago – NATURE?! why are people writing about fields and mountains when people are DYING in URBAN HELLS everywhere?! And I went gulp emotionally and began second-guessing my whole poetry landscape (which is, quite simply, cluttered with trees and mountains and owls and bats and NATURE), but not for long, only till I remembered red-and-orange, RED and ORANGE, and stopped gulping and went on my wicked motley-wearing way, rejoicing. You really have to watch out for pinched people.

‘Temptation by Water’ – Diane Lockward

I thought I’d start this review with readings of two of the poems in it, because Diane Lockward’s collection Temptation by Water is definitely the sort of collection you want to read aloud. So here we go:  

(poem text) “The Temptation of Mirage”
(poem text)

I’m someone who spends a fair amount of time reading poetry aloud and I know very well by now that there is poetry that leaps willingly into your voice, and other poetry that, well – has to be coaxed. And as I noted in this post, writing well for voice has emotional and intellectual imperatives as well as the pure sound/voice imperative – it’s not just a matter of dutifully sounding things out as you write. Diane’s poems are definitely in the ‘leaping to voice’ category, which of course makes me happy that I picked her collection as one of my April review options.

So. These poems are cohesive and convincing, they make sense on all three levels (voice, emotional, intellectual). Also, if you’re a person who prefers ‘accessible’ poems, these are for you – although that does not mean that there is any lack of sophistication or complexity about them. On the contrary. The narrator is wise and empathetic and subtle, and has a wicked sense of humor. And a talent for making odd and unexpected connections that totally work . Potatoes, exotic fruit, a condemned building, an essay, language itself — all appear as reifications of some pretty complex emotional and spiritual geography. The collection is hugely varied in theme and subject matter and approach; it’s dark and funny and wise and heartbreaking, all about people, food, the earth and her plants and animals, and haunted by many ghosts and familiars. As mother of my own two boys, I notice one haunting in particular, by a sweet boy baby who morphs into a troubled son, darkly roiling a steadfast mother’s heart.

This fine collection is definitely worth your time – go read it!

Update: You can hear Diane talking to Dave Bonta and Kristin Berkey-Abott about the collection and poetry in general here. Another reason to go and take a listen is that they say nice things about me in there too (thanks, guys!)

trusting (or not) the text, your voice & the audience

Useful discussion in comments following this Voice Alpha post with readings of the same poem by Henry Reed, Dylan Thomas and Robert Pinsky.  I think I finally worked out what bothers me about Pinsky’s reading style.

Poets, do you promote poetry-not-your-own?

Amy King asked this question on Twitter. She has just finished a marathon tweeting session on behalf of the Academy of American Poets, in which she spent many hours asking questions, promoting poets, poetry, poetry presses and poetry initiatives.

I answered her question with a prompt tweet that said ‘every day!’ Because what with Whale Sound, Voice Alpha, flagging things I like on Facebook and Twitter and writing the occasional review, I do spend a lot of my total poetry time online in promoting other poets. Now I focus, though, am not sure if ‘every day’ was 100% accurate. Do I promote poetry-not-my-own every day?

Whether I have been doing so or not, I’ve decided to articulate and formalize this commitment going forward. I will do at least one thing every day – even if it’s just as small as linking to someone’s poem or collection or website or blog – to promote poetry-not-my-own.

So there you have it.

the Rector on Good Friday

the sky is not pluming charcoal
the air does not quiver
with hot yellow grief

it is April centuries later yet
bending dark occupies
his soul, his eyes
are empty brown rooms

he lives the day tuned
to an old oboe
follows it winding
down hours of ancient pain

in younger days I pulled
on him: Grandfather
remember I am flying
this kite and you
are helping me

now I only sit with him
or touch his cheek or bring him
something to drink


“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.”

Are you a professional or non-professional poet?

Read with interest this blog post by Charles Jensen, in which he wrote:

Over the last few years, I have encountered and had the pleasure to work with some amazingly talented poets who live entirely outside the academy. I’ve come to understand this is more common than many people think, particularly those who spend the majority of their lives and careers within the academy.

These “outsider” poets generally have no idea that poetry is so entrenched in higher education. They perceive poetry as open to everyone, not as a cloistered and privileged pursuit. They have less awareness of the inner machinations of what some folks call “pobiz” and are generally the happier for it. They may or may not have heard of AWP if they’ve attended it. They read many poets, focusing, perhaps, on what their friends in their poetry circles are reading, what has been nominated for national awards, or what their booksellers or librarians recommend. I think this community of poets is growing not more larger, but more visible.

There is this duality in the poetry community, although I tend to think of it as professional / non-professional, rather than academic / non-academic. The professional poets, in my mind, are the ones whose living is somehow tied to poetry — whether writing it, or teaching it, or both. Each hour of teaching, each publication credit, everything they read or write or do as a poet, has a potential or actual dollar value for this group, and all their decisions need to be taken with this fact in mind. (I hasten to add that I am in no way asserting that anyone is ever foolhardy enough to try and make a living actually selling poems. What money there is in poetry definitely does not come from selling poems.)

The non-professionals (people like me) earn their livelihood in some way completed unrelated to poetry and do the poetry thing pretty much as a hobby. (Although labeling poetry ‘hobby’ doesn’t seem right – in fact screechingly un-right – but I guess that’s a separate post.)

Obviously, the common factors that unite the two groups (addiction to writing and reading poetry, desire to be read and understood etc) are much stronger than those that separate them, which is probably why the separating factors don’t tend usually to get much play.

It’s funny – Charles’ sense seems to be that there are more ‘professional’ than ‘non-professional’ poets out there, and I always had it figured in my head the other way around completely. It has always seemed to me – based purely and vaguely on the evidence of anecdote, impression and interactions with other poets over the years – that most of at least the online poetry community is ‘non-professional.’

Am I wrong there? Are we mostly professional poets online, do you think?


A review of Forever Will End On Thursday!

Note that Dave Bonta is reviewing a book a day for April. Those of you who have written thoughtful poetry book reviews know how much intellectual and emotional energy it takes to put together just one review, let alone one a day.

And those of you who have had reviews written about your collections know how much it means to have someone focus on, weigh, and carefully articulate their thoughts on your poems – whether they like them or have doubts about them, whether they are seasoned critics or not.

We’re in a lonely business, us poets, and although we do much general cheering on of each other, much of it is inevitably on principal, in the team spirit, driven by the conviction that putting in to the community is as important as taking from it.

We don’t often stop and stare at each other’s work, really look at it. So it’s wonderful, it feels tender and respectful – and nourishing – when someone pauses in their life to make a moment of stillness and focus centered on your poems, gathers their thoughts on the poems, and writes them down. And it seems to generate a particular kind of affirmative energy in the recipient, an energy that is thoughtful and reproductive, qualitatively different from run-of-the-mill self-promotion energy and from general rah-rah-team energy and more useful, I would argue, to poetry.

So huge kudos to Dave Bonta for his heroic undertaking this month! And while you’re giving those, do us all a favor and write a poetry review!

Those of you who are on Goodreads might enjoy the Poetry Readers Challenge, masterminded by Sarah Sloat, which challenges members to a) Read at least 20 poetry books a year and b) Review the books. Without sarcasm. Re-read, recommend, try a poet you’ve never heard of.