Thursday, November 29, 2007

Poetry pick: A Sweetness Rising

Please allow me to introduce you to Roberta Spear. It's possible that you have already met her work in the pages of Poetry and other publications or in the three volumes that she previously published. If you haven't encountered Ms. Spear's poetry before, A Sweetness Rising: New and Selected Poems offers an introduction, an invitation to her work.

In his introduction, Philip Levine mentions that "she never pushed her own work…If this meant she would publish less and sell fewer copies of those books she published, so be it." Reading her books, including this new volume, I'm left wanting more.

In addition to the new work, A Sweetness Rising includes a few poems from Silks, Taking to Water, and A Pilgrim Among Us. The book begins with the new poems, and then the sections are arranged chronologically, so it's possible to follow her work, conceivably, in the timeline that it was written. As a "new and selected" collection, it's very selected, and the previous books contain many more poems.

Roberta Spear's poems extend an invitation into a place and in the people who live in that place. They offer you a moment in a life, whether it's the end of a day for a young girl and her father, as in "Paleta" or the mother and her son in "Dust," on their way through the wind and dust to pick out a birthday cake.

Take these passages from "A Nest for Everyone"

the shoulders of workers crouched
between vines. They lower
their knives, the bronzed
leaves fall to the mud...

Or in "Quincea├▒era":

two maracas stir up the wine,
the wafer, the sacred words
like spoons in an old metal pot.

Then she goes a step further, into the magical, as when she describes the aunts who have traveled

in gray shawls tatted by spiders,

And although the poems are grounded in the daily experience of her home, Spear reaches out—to Akhmatova in "In the Moon," or to Stradivari in "The Fiddler's Wife," which continues

…at sunrise
he returned to his bed
remembering the delicate slits,
the dark veneer of a mouth
that never closes…

It's luscious and restrained—the best kind of poetry to read with all of one's senses. But, in addition to its open nature—its invitation—Ms. Spear's work impresses with its generosity, its sense of humor grounded in empathy, as in "In Just One Day":

Smack! The woman laughs for God
and all the others as she slaps
the wake with her fat, brown palm…

…She laughs here, but she'll be the first
to kneel down on the cold slate steps…

Or in "Contraband," a poem about her son purchasing cigars in Rome:

…He wants to press
his shoulders into the warmth of a stucco wall,
waiting in baseball cap and shades for
that moment when the girls on their lunchbreak
gather at the fountain…

I especially enjoy the poems about Italy, and in the introduction, Mr. Levine notes, "If she couldn't live in the Italy she loved she was determined to find a way of bringing the country of her devotion to the Valley, and she did exactly that with her poetry." In "Contraband," in "Escaping Savonarola" or "Chestnuts for Verdi" she brings Italy into her poems—but it's her love of place and empathy for the people who live there that bring all of her poems closer to the country where you want to stay.

That is the secret and the power of poetry—the possibility to transform, the invitation to experience the world you haven't been to, a world that's a pleasure to discover. I invite you to visit A Sweetness Rising.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

You can see it with your own eyes!

It's vintage video.

Finally, the sofa has poetry (and dance) that you can watch. It was originally shot in 1986, so it's practically an antique.

You can also read the poem, which I wrote in 1983 after seeing "Ghandi" and a British made-for-TV movie called "The Day After."

It's all at

Monday, November 26, 2007

Anybody out there?

This morning, I was reading Dana Gioia's essay "The Poet in an Age of Prose."

In this essay, Mr. Gioia asserted that good poetry seeks its readers' "imaginative and intellectual collaboration by assuming and exploiting a common frame of reference." He goes on to say that judging "what constitutes that common framework at any given moment is part of the poet's task" and that the poet must start by assuming what the reader knows in order to form a foundation of shared knowledge on which to build a poem.

Read the essay. It's much more articulate than I am.

Gioia continues the discussion of an audience and the way that "the author's idea of his audience helps shape the poems he creates." He notes that, in earlier times, cultures were smaller and shared more experiences and perspectives, so a poet—or any artist—could know the audience, could be confident they would pick up on the references. His idea is that modern culture has fragmented the audiences so that there is no shared frame of reference.

Right now: apologies if I'm boring you.

But here's where it got interesting to me. Do you have to appeal to everyone? If today's culture is so huge, even a part of it could make a pretty big audience.

The Gioia says, "The situation is further aggravated by the culture's shift away from the printed word as its primary source of information and entertainment…How does an intertextual art like poetry sustain its force in a culture that no longer studies and esteems the written text?"

Whoa! The questions start: What about the great oral traditions of poetry? What about the cultures that sustain those oral traditions? I'm thinking Irish and Arabic cultures. What are some others?

And as far as audience and relevance go, what about slam? What about hip hop?

I'm not convinced that poetry must be written and must rely on a text reference base. I love references, but I'm not sure they are required for everyone. I like poems that work on a basic level, a first-reading level, and can also reveal references in layers. (Twenty years later, I learn something new, and I say, "Hey—that's what that meant!")

Getting back to that essay, where is the prose in "an Age of Prose"?

It turns out that the essay, originally printed in 1992 (or earlier), is about New Formalism, and the movement's melding of traditional forms—including narrative poetry—with popular culture. The prose does not refer to prose at all but to people who read prose. Who are these people? Apparently, they also listen to jazz and go to the theatre. I'm taking notes (as though relatively educated people who read prose do not watch TV or listen to NPR).

I like the idea of knowing your audience—even writing to an audience, with generosity, keeping the reader in mind. But I want to write for the person watching "Studio 60" reruns (even if I include not even one Matthew Perry reference) and the person reading Austen and the person reading Chabon and the person reading Dickinson or Sexton.

That's just me. What about you? Who's your audience?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Word power

This weekend, we traveled up north and took the ferry to Lummi Island. The cottage we rented was well stocked with books and magazines, and in an issue of Smithsonian, I found a book excerpt that was adapted from Ronald C. White, Jr.'s book about Lincoln's speech at his second inauguration. The introduction to that excerpt included the following:

"He was the average American, with only one year of education, a man who was really quite ugly in a certain sense—could he ever have campaigned today?—tall, awkward, gawky, clothes ill-fitting, with a tenor voice, almost a falsetto, and yet he was a huge man for his day, 6 feet 4 inches tall.Everything about him was against his being a powerful speaker. But once he began to speak, what people sensed was his integrity. He was not playing a role. And the audience of that day picked it up… He had the knack of asking these simple but very profound questions. In every crisis, whether it's September 11 or World War II, it is amazing how people return to Lincoln."

and then:

"…America had been flayed by four years of a war that had lasted longer than anyone thought it would."

Four years. I did the math, and then I flipped back to look at the date on the cover: April 2002, nearly a year before troops invaded Iraq.

I don't know whether these words of Lincoln can stir us now to listen, speak, and act.

What words inspire you? What words offer you solace?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

That next step

As poets, as writers, we can spend a lot of time thinking about publication, spend a lot of work (plus stamps) trying to get published. There are the magazines and journals, and then there are books.

After you get that book published, the next step is to sell it. Sure, this sounds mercenary. (Sorry.) But I'm wondering: How do you sell the book that you've waited so long to see published?

While I'd love to think that the work will sell itself (in a perfect world), chances are that the book won't just grow legs and walk out the door in its own fancy shoes.

Readings are one way. But can you read too much (in less literary terms, can you saturate your market)?

What about other ideas? How about ads? How about fliers? Do you think reviews help?

Partly, I think we want to get our work out there. Partly, I know that I want it to have been a good experience for those who published the work.

I'm just wondering whether you have any different ideas, any special tricks up your metaphorical sleeves.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Reduce, reuse, recycle … lines?

Do you ever read something that sparks a riff, starts a raft of writing? A poem that makes you yearn to write your own poem? Or maybe it's just a line.

A few weeks ago,
in a poem on Poetry Daily, I read

heralding news from within the capital

and it started me off down a new path. That line took me to the idea of "news from the capital" (pretty pedestrian, yes) and "outside the capital."

Sometimes, I wonder whether I need to credit the original poem. In this case, I think the work is different enough that I'm okay--but I am grateful for the inspiration.

In other RRR news, I started a new little weblog,
Diary of a polluter, 2.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Happy Reviser?

Kathleen Flenniken asked this question at one of her LitFuse sessions. At the time, I said, "Yes."

I'm having second thoughts.

As an editor, I like tightening text and playing with words. It's the line-editing aspect. I'm not so good at being a developmental editor, recasting and rethinking and shifting around and trying things from a totally new perspective. I chalk it up to laziness.

In my current project, I realized that the minute I started editing, I stopped writing. I no longer created new work. I didn't have ideas for new work. I didn't receive that rush and pull to put something down. Euphoria gone.

I needed to start the revisions so that I would have samples to send in with a proposal (the deadline is Friday), but now I'm trying to figure out how to flip the switch again and get back into writing mode.

How about you? Are you a happy reviser?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


who feed people.

And people who love words.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Poetry pick: One Hundred Steps from Shore

Jenifer Browne Lawrence knows how to tell a story. In One Hundred Steps from Shore (Blue Begonia Press), she writes searing emotional poems with a depth of precision. It's a difficult balance, but here the craft doesn't call attention to itself, doesn't distract from the language or the story. It's just there.

Through her narrative poems, Ms. Lawrence speaks of family history—death and grief, innocence and the reflection that follows its loss. Her voice encompasses childhood and the depth that memory—years later—brings, without the two experiences fighting each other. She plumbs death, terror, guilt, and regret in the everyday way that people do, the way that they cope:

My sister dumps a puzzle on the table.
We don't follow the usual rule
of not looking at the picture on the box.
Wheat bends toward the red siding of a farmhouse.

We work the puzzle, find the edges first.
We form the frame before we begin the middle.
Mom and Dad go in and out of the waiting room.
They bring paper bowls of chocolate pudding
and little wooden paddles.

Through childhood and living, Ms. Lawrence reminds us that grief is like the tide and returns, as in "Porcupine Child":

how did I come to be
the ferryman burying over
and over the same stick in the water

taking babies across
the black river rubbing
their stains into my belly

While inviting the reader into worlds in Santa Cruz, California or Valdez, Alaska, the poems explore relationships between fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers, the conversations they start, the secrets they keep from each other.

Opening Day. Only he and my brother go,
and it is thirty years before
I learn what happened there—

In other poems, Ms. Lawrence speaks in a slower, more meditative tone, as in
"Keeping Our Heads Underwater":

we are motionless
as the river we swim
under the glacier to see
what blue means the ice keeps
its secret we could burn

In all, One Hundred Steps from Shore offers readers a window into the pain of survival and the undeniable pleasure of good work.

Martinis with a twist

Last night, we went to Deborah and Jerry's martini party. In addition to cocktails and conversation, the evening feature gruyere and pepper biscuits, grapes rolled in goat cheese and toasted almonds, a silky cream cheese flan, and limericks.

Yes, limericks!

Optional: Haiku or riddles.

My contribution:

There once was a beauty named Mae
Who charmed every gent in her day.
"Is that a cucumber?
Banana—or lumber?
Or are you just happy?" Touch├ę.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Poetry in the city

A new crop of poetry is on the Seattle buses. It's enough to make me store my bike and ride more. I want to see new poems!

I especially liked the story about The Learning Tree preschoolers. Karen Campbell, their teacher who sent in their poem, used to coach my daughter's soccer team.

Here is the poem that I sent in, a poem that I wrote as a follow-up to This Hard April.

The Half Awake

Late blossoms fly in a gust, a swirl
of days we dreamed,

our snow without winter.
One year. Still a shock

when half the bed is bare.
Again the wind blows cherry blooms

into the street, ornamental branches left
with only leaves that grow large

and green without mercy.

And now, it's time to ride. After all, we have places to go and poems to read!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Neighborhood news, in 17 syllables

The Capitol Hill Seattle weblog introduced me to Hillku.

It isn't for haiku purists, but it provides fun notes on the neighborhood in 5-7-5 form.

And it has pictures!

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Older ... but not wiser

Gilbert the kitten, in a rare moment of calm.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The political, the personal

At the LitFuse workshop in Tieton this past weekend, during a panel on the poet's role in the American Empire, the subject of political poetry became the focus. This makes sense.

The conversation included discussions of good versus bad political poetry, protest versus subversion, whether poets and other artists have an obligation to speak politically, preaching to the choir, and the use of language as a club (this came up in the context of the government and the strangely collusive mainstream media; however, political poetry can also use language as a club).

I didn't ask any questions then. I wanted to hear what other people asked. Since then, I've come up with some questions.

  1. Why no mention of Naomi Shihab Nye?

  2. Can poetry expand beyond its "choir" by avoiding guilt?

  3. Could the role of poetry, even political poetry, be to bring someone to think of a situation in a new way? Could that expand its audience beyond the choir?

  4. Can political poetry work even when cloaked in metaphor? I wanted to provide this wonderful example from the special translations edition of POETRY in 2006, but I was unable to find the poem online. In it, the poet uses the metaphor of a woman to describe his city (possibly "Twilight in Delhi," but I couldn't confirm it). If you know of it or remember it, please let me know.

This is just a start. I'm sure there are many more questions. If you have some—or if you have some thoughts or answers—please add them.

In the meantime, I have a couple of political poems in Limbs of the Pine, Peaks of the Range. But they are very subtle. If I didn't mention it, you might want to know.

When do you speak up—strongly enough to be heard? How can you speak up in a positive and inclusive way?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Mighty Tieton: The LitFuse report

This past weekend, I traveled to Tieton, Washington with the intrepid Kathleen Flenniken (who drove) and Susan Rich. There, in a small town amid orchards growing gold in late autumn, we met up with poets from all over the state and even Pennsylvania.

I was staying at my aunt and uncle's house, and my uncle pointed out that I really needed a vehicle instead of walking into town.

On Saturday, I drove my borrowed silver pickup truck toward town, turned on Sharp Road (wasn't the route on the map, but I love Sharp Road), and got lost. Or, shall we say, took a very circuitous route. It was sunny and gold and Mount Clemens rose over the valley and I made it to the workshop in time for coffee. Goodness.

After the opening group meditation, I took a morning class with Kathleen on "Taking the Dross Out"—how to figure out what really needs to be in your poem.

At lunch, we dragged chairs out into the parking area and soaked up the sun. It was warm and the sky stayed blue both days.

In the afternoon, I had my first taste of typesetting in the letterpress section. I was instantly enthralled. Something tactile that even I could do.

Then we attended a panel on (and I paraphrase) the role of the poet in the American Empire.

At dinner's end, Susan spoke of her experiences and read poems. That sounds very light. It wasn't light. It was moving.

We strolled back to the warehouse under a sky of many stars and watched the movie "Voices in Wartime," which discusses the role that poetry holds in conflict.

By then, it was late—and dark. So dark. So dark that I took another circuitous route home. Clearly, I am not a cartographer and certainly not a navigator.

On Sunday morning (after another long road into town), we printed our set type. We stepped on the pedal, placed the paper, and then rolled it over the printer bed. Awesome! I dubbed myself "the printer pig," mostly because everyone else was busy chatting.

Later, I sat in on Cody Walker's session on synesthesia in poetry. We dragged our chairs out to the deck to bask in the sun and discussed Dickinson and Baudelaire and some very astute middle school students.

The weekend wrapped up with an open mike and a closing meditation. After that, we watched the sun drift down as we drove west toward Seattle.

A fine weekend, indeed. If LitFuse is lit next year, be sure to be there.

Poetry reps

It's time for November's exercise.

Did you try writing new poems from a first line? I had fun with it—although, true to form, I kept writing mostly the same poem, just with different line lengths and some small changes. I still need to bust out.

Over the weekend, I took a workshop session on poetry and synesthesia—a joined perception of the senses in which someone might hear in colors or read in tastes. Then we experimented writing poems using the idea of synesthesia—finding ways to describe how the sun tastes or the color of boredom.

For November, I'd like to try writing a poem about thanksgiving or gratitude using synesthesia. What does gratitude sound like or taste like or look like?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

A poem for November

I always try to read this Richard Hugo poem on the first of November. It seemed like a good poem to memorize this month.

Skykomish River Running

Aware that summer baked the water clear,
today I came to see a fleet of trout.
But as I wade the salmon limp away,
their dorsal fins like gravestones in the air,
on their sides the red that kills the leaves.
Only sun can beat a stream this thin.
The river Sky is humming in my ear.

Where this river empties in the sea,
trout are waiting for September rain
to sting their thirst alive. If they speed
upstream behind the kings and eat the eggs
the silvers lay, I’ll pound the drum for rain.
But sunlight drums, the river is the same,
running like old water in my ear.

I will cultivate the trout, teach their fins
to wave in water like the legs of girls
tormented black in pools. I will swim a
week to be a witness to the spawning,
be a trout, eat the eggs of salmon—
anything to live until the trout and rain
are running in the river in my ear.

The river Sky is running in my hair.
I am floating past the troutless pools
learning water is the easy way to go.
I will reach the sea before December
when the Sky is turning gray and wild
and rolling heavy from the east to say
late autumn was an Oriental child.

—Richard Hugo