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Poetry Blog Digest 2023, Week 20
A selection of posts from around the Anglophone web.
A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. You can also browse the blog digest archive, subscribe to its RSS feed in your favorite feed reader, or, if you’d like it in your inbox, subscribe on Substack. This week: writing and landscape, poems haunted by death, poetry as prayer, and more… a bit more. This is a shorter than usual edition, due I suppose to the start of summer vacations and/or immersion in that too-long-postponed writing project. Regardless, enjoy!
To bite down on the very thing itself
that gives shape to our sounds, voice
to our breath? Holding the idiom close
one would think what we’d say was so
powerful, it required warding off in a
deliberate act of self-harm—and yet
the bite is most often accidental. O
Friend, my wish: please let it shape
every syllable, every blessing and chant […]
Lori Witzel, Biting one’s tongue / Che le sa
This is a time of writing. I wonder how I will look back on this time of early mornings at my desk, moving through the book at pace, pouring myself into it as if I was trying to fill a well with myself. This is how it was with my last poetry collection too: an unstoppering of myself, a release of all the animal thoughts in my head that have been sitting caged for years, waiting for their freedom. It is both exhilarating and exhausting. So much of memoir writing, and this is a memoir of sorts, is about excavation of self and I find myself in a strange position of actively grieving my dad whilst capturing that grief on the page and linking it in and in and in to a sense of belonging, or a lack of a sense of belonging. I once visited Wharram Percy, an abandoned medieval village near Malton. The place had a magical feel about it, and by that I don’t mean Disney magic, I mean something earthy and unseen, as if the lives of the people who had lived there flickered under the ground, a turf fire never quite going out. It was beautiful: the little lake with ducks bobbing, the roofless church, the little graveyard and the footprints of houses, the paths you could walk where the last inhabitants had walked. Seen from above, on google earth, it’s easy to see the village laid out. But up close it is raised mounds, fields with those typical medieval plough lines still embedded in the ground, trees, water. It doesn’t really look like a village. You have to bring it back with your imagination, you have to rise above the ground to see the impressions. This is what it feels like to write this book. This is how it feels right now to walk through the chapters, placing a house here, a field here, a lake here, a bog, a fen, a marsh here. I place wolves at on end and the sea at the other. If the landscape is an archive of ourselves and itself, then these are the scars we leave on it and in it.
Wendy Pratt, The Shells of Ourselves Left Behind
Last night, I considered how solo walking, especially at night (again I’m aware of my positional privilege in this) is not like being in a bell jar but a diving bell, carrying your own environment with you yet having a connection to the outside—the air tube. It’s ultimately about the self and our connection and individuation from the world. Is it “I am because my little world knows me?” or “I know the world and so I know myself?” Mark Strand: “In a field/I am the absence/of field./…/ We all have reasons/for moving./I move/to keep things whole.” We send out feelers, signals. We echolocate. It’s psy(e)chogeography. We sense the shape of our inner landscape by travelling through the one surrounding us.
Walking with my dog expands this landscape. I think about how he echolocates, what sense of the world and himself he might experience, how we experience each other—a kind of conceptual leash between us, a dog-human umbilical cord. At night, I walk Happy without a leash so our connection, like Philip Pullman’s daemons in The Golden Compass, is entirely relational, an invisible attractive force between us. We walk in parallel yet always with one eye on the other.
I quoted Mary Ruefle’s line about the creation of the lyric poem, “the moon was witness to the event and…the event was witness to the moon.” That’s like my dog and me. The world and me. And, walking while wearing headphones, the beginning and end of a Möbius strip made of music, story and imagination. A strange loupe.
Gary Barwin, The Selected Walks
I was flicking once again through the Down At The Santa Fe Depot anthology of more than fifty years ago when I settled to read the calm, confident poems provided by DeWayne Rail, who was then a young teacher in his mid-twenties. […]
He creates/ recreates the sense of place, or more accurately, of an isolated farming family battling to scrape some kind of living against the odds. It made me think of how much our upbringing roots our poetry, of how far we really travel. Although I have lived all my life in the English Midlands, as have most of my ancestors these last three or four hundred years, my working life was carried out on the move, which offered another perspective, of what it is like for those whose life consists of leaving, of going, of shifting landscapes, of life among strangers with their own histories.
For many years it was this life on the move that seemed to dominate my work but as I get older I find the sense of a home, of the ghosts of childhood and of a more distant past before I was here, comes to the surface more often, if only to provide a balance. Perhaps this is why renewing my acquaintance with the poems I have by DeWayne Rail has been so fulfilling – and has led me to find out more about him.
He remained in Fresno, teaching at the city college for thirty years, writing stories, poems, non-fiction, enjoying his family, with interesting in birding, gardening, chess, and playing the guitar. It sounds like a life quietly, honestly, fulfilled.
Bob Mee, OF DeWAYNE RAIL (1944-2021)
Taking care of myself is taking care of the writer in me. And as I talk to friends, walk, run, even watch TV, I’m thinking and experiencing. I’m making connections. I’m not at my computer and I may not even write anything down (in my notebook or my phone), but thinking is part of the writing process. Yes, thinking counts. Inspiration can strike at the unlikeliest of times.
Earlier this year I moderated a book event for Lee Martin in support of his beautiful new novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife. He said something about research tricking you into thinking that you’re actually writing, when really all of that work is “pre-writing.” But I’m all about the pre-writing. It’s an essential part of the writing process. It counts. We’re all filling the tank with gas, then revving the engine a little, before we speed off.
Maggie Smith, Pep Talk
I’ve had some publications out over the past months. One I’d like to mention is Bluestem, which published some of my little box poems this month. I make these with small pharma, cosmetic, cough drop and light bulb boxes. And whatever else is at hand. With these, I like working with the idea of the interior landscape. A kind of revelation. It remains hard for me to give up language and do pure wordless collage. Have I done it? I don’t think so.
I was lucky to have someone ask to buy the one pictured, as well as another one with the same short text:
the window was open
and the poem left slightly ajar
This text is one of my favorites because I like the idea of the poem being left slightly ajar for something beyond words to come in, i.e. visual poetry. At the same time, a poem left ajar also makes me think of the reader entering with her own memories, associations and point of view. I will make more of these.
Sarah J. Sloat, Interior Landscapes
In retrospect, what felt best: thoughtful reviews such as those quoted here, and private notes that affirmed the book’s success at reaching people. Riding the small press bestsellers list for months was awesome. Holding the book in my hands and knowing I did well by its ambitions. I didn’t achieve everything I fantasized about–no top venue reviews, and many of my applications for events and post-publication prizes struck out–but so it goes for everyone. There will be a next time. I’m very slowly building toward a book in a similar hybrid mode with the working title Haunted Modernism (that’s the concept, anyway–the title is probably too common). I’m revising a second novel. And my sixth poetry collection, Mycocosmic, is already contracted for publication with Tupelo in winter 2025. Meanwhile, it feels good to be heading into a summer of writing and revision–challenging activities but quiet ones.
Yet I’m aware that I still owe plenty to Poetry’s Possible Worlds. Publishing industry energy is all about the three months after a book appears, but the whole point of a book, I think, is that it lasts, and with some luck holds up over time. A slow burn is exciting in its own way. I will keep stoking its little fire, because what I want more than anything is for the book to appear on the radar of people who might enjoy it.
Lesley Wheeler, Voyaging to and through Poetry’s Possible Worlds
The Taste of Steel / The Smell of Snow, containing poems by Pia Tafdrup originally published in 2014 and 2016 and translated by David McDuff, was published by Bloodaxe Books last year. The Tafdrup/McDuff/Bloodaxe collaboration goes back more than 10 years now. The Danish poet’s work inclines to themed series of collections – The Salamander Quartet appeared between 2002 and 2012. The current volume presents in English the first two collections of another planned quartet of books, this time focusing on the human senses. In fact, the ‘taste’ book here feels much less conscious of its own thematic focus than the ‘smell’ one, not necessarily to the latter’s advantage. There is often something willed, rather laboured, about some of the work included here, which is most disappointing given Tafdrup’s earlier books. But her curiosity about the world remains engaging, her poems are observant of others, often self-deprecating, her concerns are admirable (environmental, the world’s violence), plus there are several fine pieces on desire and female sexuality. […]
In both collections, Tafdrup gathers poems into brief, titled sections of about half a dozen poems each and the ‘War’ section extrapolates the sense of personal conflict and loss to more global/political concerns. ‘The darkness machine’ opens plainly, if irrefutably, with the sentiment that a child “should be playing, not / struck in the back by a bullet”. The point is made more powerfully (because less directly) in ‘Spring’s grave’ with its repeated pleas to “send small coffins”. ‘View from space’ adopts the even more remote perspective of the Cassini space probe’s view of the planet, but also ends with plainspoken directness: “that’s where we ceaselessly produce / more weapons, practise battle tactics, / turn our everyday lives into a night of hell”. The concluding genitive phrase makes me wonder about the quality of the translation; I have neither Danish, nor the original in front of me, but does Tafdrup really use such a cliché?
Martyn Crucefix, Pia Tafdrup: recent poems from Bloodaxe Books
I was going to write about metaphors. And the language of cancer. About cancer that is an inside job. Radical little cells just wanting to live.
When I touch my breast, I know this knot of cells isn’t the fault of something I ate, or inhaled, or thought. It’s not a manifestation of unresolved anger. It’s a slip-up in cell division. This, too, is nature. And nature is not our romantic notions of symmetry and dividing lines between the good and the evil. Trees are uprooted in gale winds. Bacteria hitch a ride in a flea, on a rodent, on a boat to land on a pier and ultimately all-but wipe out a human culture. Life happens. Sometimes it is not to our advantage. That isn’t the same thing as evil. That – this – is nature.
B. told me last Christmas that she didn’t believe in silver linings. I understood that to mean she didn’t believe we’re handed something nice in a kind of yin-yang balancing of good and bad as comfort or recompense. She did believe in the “this, too” and in choosing to hold everything – and not in spite.
My junior high art teacher told me that there are no true lines in nature. We impose those in our imaginations.
And I see now that painting is just another form of storytelling.
I am not sure how I want to talk about cancer. But I am not going to offended by anyone using language and imagery that differs from mine. Understanding other people’s perspectives is everyone’s responsibility. Discussions should be everyone’s little sandbox for joyful exploring. Build a castle. Knock it down. Start again.
Life is not a book that comes with an answer key in the back.
Ren Powell, How to Metaphor
The beautiful thing about keeping a searchable blog or journal, either online or offline, is that I not only rediscover my past poems, but I also see how cyclical my despair is. I came across a post from 2013 with this nugget: “I can’t remember when I last wrote a poem, although I could easily look it up. It’s probably not as long as I think.
But more importantly, I can’t remember when I last felt like a poet. When did I last make interesting connections of unusual links that would make a good poem?”
It is good to remember that my brain has been making those links, even when I am not conscious of the process. It is good to remember that I’ve felt like a failed poet before, often just before the times when I would go on to have creative bursts.
I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t written many poems lately. I want to remember the writing that I have been doing: blogging almost every day and doing a variety of writing tasks for the 6 graduate classes I’ve been taking–not 6 hours of graduate classes, but 6 classes.
I have a bit of a break this summer, so let me do some strategizing to reclaim my poet self, to let the poems in my brain make the ascension from my brain onto the page.
Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Letting Our Poems Ascend from Our Brains
I have two poems from my new chapbook Love and Stones on New Writing, an online project showcasing new writing from alumni, staff and students from the University of East Anglia (where I completed my MA in Creative Writing in 1997). I’d recommend that you read the poems on a laptop or similar, if possible, rather than a mobile phone in order to see my intended line breaks, particularly of my sunflower poem.
My first poem ‘In Lockdown, Solitude Becomes a Flying Lover’ was inspired by a postcard of the painting ‘Over the Town’ by Marc Chagall, and refers to the first lockdown in 2020 when my solitary writing life was interrupted by my family returning home.
The second poem ‘sunflowers exist, sunflowers exist’ was written during the early days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when I saw a widely shared clip of a Ukrainian woman telling Russian soldiers to leave her country and offering them sunflower seeds “so that sunflowers will grow when you all lie down here.” This poem is after the book-length poem Alphabet by Inger Christensen, translated by Susanna Nied.
Josephine Corcoran, Two poems from ‘Love and Stones’ at New Writing (UEA)
The class begins Friday, May 26 — two classes, sort of — one on-ground, 3:30-5:00 (at my house; there are a couple seats left), and one on-line, 11:30-1:00 (plenty of room).
The title is “Your Memorable Poem.” My theme is inspired by a friend who, looking at a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye, said, “I could never write a poem like that.” Of course it’s not easy (if it were, then we wouldn’t need NSN), but I think you could. The way to begin is to look very closely at how the poem is made, not to “slice and dice it,” or “master it,” but to sit with the poem, as if interviewing it, or sharing a meal. What did this poet do, in order to create this poem’s effect on us? We’ll have a little time to write, and time to offer feedback to each other.
Bethany Reid, Upcoming Poetry Class
The cover image of Harry Clifton’s Gone Self Storm is Mark Tracey’s beautiful black and white photograph of Howe Strand, which shows a ruined building silhouetted between the running sea and the sky. The poems themselves are haunted by death. Parts One and Three are dedicated to the memory of dead women, the first being the speaker’s mother or stepmother. Part Two begins with a short sequence set in the Glasnevin cemetery, and most of its poems are elegies or addresses to the dead. What’s really distinctive, though, is not this elegiac subject matter but the way ideas of change and disintegration have been absorbed into its style and expressive procedures. Many of the poems slide like dreams between poles of fragmentary but extremely sharply focused distinctness on the one hand and uncertainty on the other. This is clearly deliberate, suggesting how ungraspable things become as they slip into the past. Moreover, the speaker’s uncertainty about things surrounding him extends to uncertainty about himself.
Edmund Prestwich, Harry Clifton, Gone Self Storm – review
the trumpet player
leans in and whispers
into my ear
a poem about death
Jason Crane, poem: (untitled)
My debut essay collection is coming out in November, and when I began writing it, it was to be a memoir about my relationship to the loss of my father through the lens of food. It has morphed and changed many times in the intervening years (and I will write about that process, too), and now it also includes my life as a mother to my children, as well as my relationship to my mother and her death. I didn’t expect that when I started, just like I didn’t, for a long time, expect that I would miss my mother when she died. That sounds horrible, I know. But she’d want me to tell you that, too. She was big on honesty and acceptance and done hiding behind alcohol or shame. We had a rough time for a long time. I understand now, in a way that I couldn’t when I was younger, that she had a much rougher time inside her addiction–a place where you are ultimately very much alone.
Sheila Squillante, Our Lady of the Artichoke
The book is marked by a “mollusk dawn” of self-awareness, a tectonic paradigm shift, a reevaluating and resetting the axis of meaning or towards gelling into meaning. And (spoiler alert) a finding of core truths in the value of family and of love.
We are witness to [Diana Hope] Tegenkamp as she realizes the other side of the binaries as on p. 14—
Her mother mouthing the words in a choir as instructed is recast wider, “mouth moving,/making its own silence” with “Song, and cries/held in”, meditating on the implications of not being heard, at an individual level or the level of Highway of Tears. A mandated silence numbs. If you are closed to your grief, you are also closed to your joy and your history.
Pearl Pirie, Girl Running review
In the old days, the dead were not
immediately escorted to a final
resting place in the earth, nor lifted
onto a funeral pyre. Their hair
was oiled and dipped in the fragrance
of orange groves, their faces
turned toward the high-shelved
mountains where they would perch
in rows like figured birds— No longer on
the ground terraced by the farmer’s
plow but not yet in the canopy of the gods,
wreathed with smoke they presided
at the house-front wrapped in blankets.
Coming and going, you’d feel
it was you they held vigil for; you
they couldn’t yet bear to leave.
Luisa A. Igloria, Vigil
It just happened that this week I have been editing and laying out three chapbooks that are appropriative in nature. One is Catharine Bramkamp’s Unconscious Words, poems plucked and molded from bestselling novels from the past decade or so like Game of Thrones and Gone Girl. The other is Colleen Alles’ collection of poems found in Jane Eyre, Reader to Tell You All. The third is Erika Lutzner’s chapbook of centos Think of a Have Made of Glass, All the Bees, Theoretically At Least, amazing centos created from the lines of older and newer contemporary poets like Plath and Sexton and, blushing, even me. I am a fan of these kinds of poems–centos and blackouts and related forms. Appropriated and re-worked texts. I have written my own (from Plath) and published quite a lot of chapbooks through the dgp series that include them. Obviously, as a collage artist, most art feels like appropriation in some way (though you should always credit your sources and be honest about your process, especially in writing.)
And of course, AI springs to mind, especially as I embark on training for the project I’ve recently signed on to that is supposedly supposed to help AI be a better poet. Exciting and slightly horrifying. Because AI is all appropriation (the bad kind with no credit, which complicates things.) The very worst a bot could do would be to go off and start penning centos, stealing lines of poetry, but I am not sure even this is something a bot could do well without dissolving into chaos.
Kristy Bowen, plunder and reveal
What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
It’s very weird to care deeply about scribbling in notebooks and blackening pages and reading all the time and buying too many books and hosting a podcast about writing and being interested in what your friends are reading and writing and sending actual letters and postcards to people and agreeing with Morrissey when he sings “There’s more to life than books, you know, but not much more” and then finding yourself talking to some guy in an airport bar and the guy says, “Why read books? I haven’t read a book since high school” and he’s proud of it. I’m all for whatever gets you through the night—and for me it’s books, it’s always been books—but for most people, and more and more, it seems to be other stuff. If people want to spend their time playing Shiny Bubblegum Princess games on their phone that’s up to them, but it doesn’t give me any pleasure. The writer’s role is clearly much diminished. But all that really means is that if you still feel compelled to write, knowing nobody gives a shit, it means you’re really a writer. It also means you’re free to write whatever the hell you want. Not having a role, or having a role so small it amounts to the same thing, means spirit is free to play where it will. And maybe that then becomes the role. The more people who are free, on whatever level, to do what they love, creatively, the more energy must be injected into the larger culture. In any case it’s very pretty to think so.
12 or 20 (second series) questions with Jason Emde (rob mclennan)
To say that poems are prayers is now so common as to be somewhat hackneyed. (A poet I know Tweeted an attempt to update this with the pithy but somewhat unconvincing edit that poems aren’t prayers, but rather why we pray.) If poets can bend religious imagery toward secular texts in this way, then I think it’s not too bold to think of literary criticism as a type of sacrament, a ceremony or ritual one does in order to connect more fully with the divine.
In the Quaker tradition, they do not speak so much of sacraments as of disciplines, such as fasting, meditation, prayer, and quiet. I think of writing criticism in this way. With a discipline, it isn’t necessary for us to be in a completely perfect mindset before we start. The point of a discipline is to do it, and in the process, the right mindset will sometimes come. Do the disciplines enough, and eventually you’ll be in the right mindset more often. Wrestle with sloth and envy through criticism, and maybe, one day, you’ll have just a little bit more control over these things all the time.
Jacob R. Weber, Literary Criticism as a Secular Spiritual Discipline
May I recognize my hilly landscape
and not expect to live in the plain.
Know that I am the hills and ravines,
the sun-drenched fields and deep shadows,
gulleys, mustard fields, yellows,
veils of light that drape like silk slips […]
Jill Pearlman, Confused Spring Prayer
It was a day of record-breaking heat (and no air conditioning), so I doubly appreciated the people that came out, and the store putting out several fans. I also packed a cooler with water bottles (and sparkling rose) and boxes of macarons—because people need sustenance during a book signing.
The reading itself went okay—you can see the whole thing here on my YouTube channel—did you know I had one? Minus Martha Silano’s excellent introduction. (Hey, you have to be there in person for some parts!) […]
Any reading where I can walk out with new books and a borrowed recording of Sylvia Plath readings is a good reading in my book, and it was a really good venue, especially the “Parlor” for afterwards visiting.
When I reached the Cliffs of Moher, a
thick fog covered everything. Cold, damp, not
a glimpse of rock or sea or sky, as if something
had bitten off one edge of the world. Isn’t a
lot of life just like that? Opaque? Ill-timed? A
function of disconsolate variables? Like us.
Ordinary. Incomplete. There are no reasons to
wake up. There are no reasons to continue.
There are no prizes for winning. You find a
level that is just enough. That works as long
as the tea is warm. That is good for a couple of
verses. That is as short as a long sigh. Enough.
Rajani Radhakrishnan, Part 47
that garden moment
when the only thing moving
is the music
Jim Young [no title]