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Nin Andrews
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In the fall of 2019, I was at a The Lit Youngstown Literary Conference in Youngstown, Ohio (amazing how long ago that seems now) when I heard Philip Metres read his poem, “One Tree” from his wonderful new book, Shrapnel Maps. And like many poems that are also parables, the poem stuck with me. And stuck with me. And stuck with me. When I first heard it, I thought I knew exactly what it meant. I could see it unfolding in my mind. After all, it seems like a simple story, and a true one. I know the neighborhood where the poet lives, and his wife, Amy Breau, a fabulous poet in her own right. I smiled, picturing her, rushing outside with her hair on fire, screaming, “NO!” as the man began chainsawing a limb from her sacred tree, while Philip, the consummate peacemaker, stayed inside, wishing he could hide. But in the end, when the chainsaw was lowered into the tree, I thought, Phil! You let them cut her tree? Because “someone must give”? I was particularly irked by his apologies to the neighbor, his repeated claim, “it’s not me,” when it was, too, him. After all, “we” said no in the third sentence, not she. What a coward! I thought. The poem triggered memories of my own family where my mother fought and lost many local, environmental battles. This was back in the 60’s when sexism was even more alive and well than it is today, and my father was so horrified by her activism, he asked that the local newspaper use her maiden name when they wrote about her. He didn’t want the businessmen in town to know that she was his wife. I sometimes wondered—if he had stood by her side, would she have been more successful? After all, people listened to men back then. Not to women. As I was driving home to Virginia after the conference, a line kept repeating in my head: “Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love.” I began contemplating the poem as a parable of the one tree—or the sacred tree of life. What will or won’t we do to defend it? I loved how he compared the tree to the baby brought to Solomon. It makes a lovely environmental parable. Or so I thought. But then, this winter Philip Metres sent me a video of another tree poem, "Olive Tree" for a project called Lit by the Imaginationthat I am working on for LitYoungstown (we are asking poets to read a poem and offer a prompt based on the poem. These short videos will be posted in April on the LitYoungstown Facebook page). I thought of the olive tree, and the term—offering an olive branch. And of the closing words in the poem, “first brambles, then olives.” Written at his brother-in-law’s home in Palestine, the poem reminded me of Metres’ faith, hope for, and interest in peace and conflict resolution, especially... Continue reading
Posted Jan 13, 2021 at The Best American Poetry
A few weeks ago, I was part of a Hamilton-Kirkland College alumnae poetry reading, and after the reading a woman asked a simple question: “How do you write a poem?” I didn’t have an answer so I suggested a few books by poets like John Hollander, Mary Oliver, and Billy Collins. The woman said she had read books like that, but they didn’t help. She wanted something else, like a genuine operating manual—a step by step explanation. I, too, love instruction manuals, especially those manuals on how to perform magic: write a poem or know God or make love, if only love were something that could be made. Manuals offer such promise. Yes, you, too, can enter the bee-loud glade and the Promised Land and have an orgasm. I love the idea that my mind could be programmed like a computer to spit out poems on demand—poems with just the right number of lines, syllables, metaphors, meanings, similes, images . . . And with no clichés, no matter how much I love those Tom, Dick and Harry’s with their lovely wives, as fresh as daisies. I can set them in any novel or town in America, and they will have sex twice a week, always before ten at night, never at the eleventh hour, and it will not take long,time being of the essence. I love sex manuals, too: those books that suggest our bodies are like cars. If only we could learn to drive them properly, bliss would be a simple matter of inserting a key, mastering the steering wheel, signaling our next moves, knowing the difference between the brakes and the gas pedal, and of course, following the speed limit. A depressive person by nature, I am also a fan of how-to books on God, faith, happiness, the soul, books that suggest a divine presence is always here. I just need to find it, or wake up to it, or turn off my doubting brain. That even now, my soul is like a bird in a cage. If I could sit still long enough and listen closely, it might rest on my open palm and sing me a song. God, poetry, sex, they offer brief moments of bliss, glimpses of the ineffable, and occasional insights into that which does not translate easily into daily experience, or loses its magic when explained. In college, I took classes in religion, philosophy and poetry, and I studied sex in my spare time—my first roommate and I staying up late, pondering the pages of The Joy of Sex. As a freshman, I auditioned my way into an advanced poetry writing class by composing the single decent poem I wrote in my college years. The poem, an ode to cottage cheese, came to me in a flash as a vision nestled on a crisp bed of iceberg lettuce. Does cottage cheese nestle? I don’t know, but the professor kept admiring that poem. He said all my other poems paled by comparison. This was... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
I’ve been daydreaming about the magic wand I kept under my bed as a child. If my sister or I were sick, I waved it in the air. “Go away sickness. Now!” I would lie back in bed, imagining the gods were listening. I can hear my father’s voice advising me, “Don’t worry. This too shall pass.” He’d hand me a pill—aspirin or penicillin and sometimes Sominex so he could get some rest. For himself he kept a cabinet full of Demerol. My son has been seriously ill this summer. And a friend has become mentally ill, so ill she believes she can never leave her apartment again. When I talk to her, I think of that Henri Michaux poem, “Teaching a Statue to Walk.” It’s as impossible to get her to open her door as it is to teach a statue to dance. But people tell me my friend makes sense in this time of Covid. A lot of crazy things seem to make sense now. After reading the news, I sometimes wonder if the entire nation has become mentally and physically ill. Before this year I didn’t realize the fragility of our minds and bodies. And our democracy. How quickly health can decline! I keep waving my imaginary wand, wishing we could all attain some level of normalcy. But what does that mean? I don’t want to ask for grandiose or political answers here, though they might be merited. As a writer, I define normalcy simply as the ability to write in a coffee shop, meet friends for a drink, go to a non-virtual reading where I can peruse books at my leisure, have them signed, and hear the audience laugh and applaud. I wouldn’t mind attending a writers’ conference again, just to feel some sense of literary excitement and camaraderie. It’s lonely—this life of writing at home, far from my poet and writer friends, and it’s scary and heartbreaking to think about all that has happened this year, not to mention what might lie ahead. But then I reason: at least we have our virtual community. Our virtual readings and perhaps our virtual conferences. I was hesitant to fill out the AWP form and to answer that question: Should the conference be virtual in 2021? The obvious answer is yes. Why risk our health? The obvious question is how? And what would that look like? Will people attend? Books sell? What about all those panels, readings, tables of the latest poetry collections, and random conversations with other writers? What about the dinners and long walks in distant cities? Is there a virtual replacement? What does a virtual conference look like? I don’t know the answers, but I thought I might try one out. I’ve been eyeing a few virtual conferences including Lit Youngstown’s small and intimate Fall Literary Conference, Poets on the Coast, led by the fabulous poets, Kelly Russell Agadon, Susan Rich, and Laura Da’, The San Miguel Writer’s Conference, and The Brooklyn Book Festival. Maybe... Continue reading
Posted Sep 4, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
It’s another day and soon it will be another month in this miserable COVID summer. The sunlight is streaming through my window, and outside, the goldfinches are swooping through the meadow that is so thick with black-eyed susans, it looks like an Impressionist painting. In the distance, I can see the cows in the pasture, calves running behind them, a newborn trying to stand up on wobbly legs. Most years I’d feel a sense of joy at all this pastoral beauty. But this year, I wake each day to a strange ache in my heart, almost as if I have lost a loved one. I try to write but usually find myself just staring at the page. Maybe poetry is the loved one I have lost, I think. A friend tells me I am suffering from the COVID blues. She says lots of folks are, including herself. She’s been riding her motorcycle after dark to escape the loneliness. “You need something powerful between your legs,” she jokes. Like me, she says writing poetry usually gives her a thrill, a sense of romance and escape from the humdrum of daily life. I am reminded of the Bruce Bond’s first paragraph of the preface for the most recent PLUME anthology, Plume 8: “All good poems are love poems. They have something to lose. No less so in the aftermath of loss, or the thick of peril, in the crisis of the here and now that summons language as public and private, all at once. Relational, historical, psychological, poems recover, in light and in spite of human difficulty, a sense of their vocation. They ask us, as they ask themselves, why now. Why a poem. And more challenging still, why beauty.” Bond goes on to talk about the many beautiful poems in the anthology, and he’s right. Plume Poetry 8 is a stunning collection, featuring many of my favorite poets including Lynn Emanuel, Major Jackson, Albert Rios, Lisa Russ Spaar, Jeffrey Friedman, and Elizabeth A.I. Powell. Reading it does alleviate some of the misery of this peculiar time. While it would be impossible to pick just one poem to admire, there is a poem by Cynthia Cruz that synchronizes with my current mood: The Music Constellations of evening, Sweet, the smell of fire and filth of pines. Racing through the woods on silver shining motorcycle. What is the sound of driving back through black magnetic fields of night. Play the record back. Unpack the accident down to its haunting. Its smaller rooms, its trash and crackle. This morning the good voice spoke to me. A ghost entering the body. Then the sound of a violin playing. What I was is gone. Now just the din of smaller sounds of wayward and crawl. And then, there is this oddly timely poem by Stephanie Burt, with an epigraph in ancient Greek (which I can’t type out on my ancient IBM Thinkpad, alas). Reading the poem I am reminded of the Molly Arden, whose work and... Continue reading
Posted Jun 30, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
1 April, Domodossola First to go were the gatherings. With the gatherings, gone was the sound of the gatherings—the voices, the music, the cars, the vespas, mostly the voices. Once in a while, a sudden band of teenagers rounding a corner or tucked between buildings, laughing, breaking the law by gathering. Then spring came in out of the stopped-dead Carnival—birds, flowers, trees in bloom, everything budding, and then even the teenagers vanished. In came the changing of the guard of sounds. Bells got louder. Birds got louder. The electric saw across town of a man cutting wood got louder. Shutters going up in the morning, down in the evening, deafening. Silence got louder, so much louder that it covered the streets and windows and faces behind the masks of the few people allowed to go out and got into the skin and blood and started to take hope away because here, now, silence is synonymous with death. It isn’t beautiful or zen or musical. It is the song of the virus, of the Carnival it took over, of the virtues and vices of the human race it is eating as it slides across towns and regions and borders and oceans, hunting down people of all ages and shapes, growing stronger and longer as it gathers into itself not our bodies or money or talents or dreams, just our breath. Larissa Szporluk's sixth book of poetry, VIRGINALS, will be published by Burnside Review Press in fall 2020. She teaches at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Continue reading
Posted Apr 2, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Last week I started a series called A Virtual AWP, featuring poets that I would have loved to have met or heard read or lecture, whose books I'd have bought and had signed, had I attended. I felt then as I guess many feel now, that a dark wave was rising up above the planet. But I don't want to talk about that . . . Instead I want to talk about poets like Elizabeth A. I. Powell whose book, Willy Loman's Reckless Daughter, was a New Yorker "Books We Love 2016" pick and whose new book, Atomizer, is forthcoming from Louisiana State University in the fall of 2020. I have already been reading poems from her new collection including this lyrical essay from Plume, and this poem from The Los Angeles Review: STALKING ME ONOMATOPOETICALLY “He closed my legs like a book,” Angela Carter I sought a restraining order against the sociopathic poem that kept pounding on the door of my mind at four a.m., rousing me with a slap on the face with its metaphysics of sick lust and panic. The order was dated March 1, 2016. A Thursday. Rainy. The sociopoem smelled of Paco Rabanne— A Cologne for Men— and was devilishly handsome, so elegant, so English-lyrically, well-anthologized, and attractive, seemed to have a form that suggested well-bred content, an understanding of stanzaic architecture, and deep image. Yet, this poem I loved had once tried to stab Dorothy Parker at a dinner party. He had claimed to have French kissed Helen Vender and Allen Ginsberg. How could I rationalize or reconcile my love for the poem? The poem tried to kill me, too, with the same red child’s scissors once, then another time it was tar and feather, because, the poem said, “I love you so much.” On therapeutic advice I sought the restraining order against the poem because it couldn’t contain itself, pushed me down with a conceit stronger than my fragile couplets, how it leaked anaphora like anti-freeze, bluish over the page and into my life uninvited, thinking it knew me better than I knew myself. The poem’s arguments were convincing, but it was all fanciful diversion. A lie. All through the day and all through the night: That poem. The poem telling me I looked fat in my Lord & Taylor dress. So, I bit the poem’s ear, again and again, until it bled a scary personification of ears. Stalking me onomatopoetically down the sidewalk to where I kept my secret sonnet turns inside. I just wanted to take a nap in Brooklyn, sleep inside my source material, that pale of settlement, the origin and end of everything in my family. So that the end of my suffering might bring an insight, but the poem turned my nap in Brooklyn into a series of disturbing and surreal faces that made me awaken into the possibility that I was the one who was so wrong, so ruined, damaged, unable to sing. Yet, sometimes, honestly, I... Continue reading
Posted Mar 17, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Thank you Sabra! Yes, these are such great poet/poems.
AWP has come and gone, and as you know, many poets and writers and books sellers and editors missed it, believing it best that they not travel or socialize or present their books or new poems during this time of the coronavirus. I wanted to do a post or two featuring a few of the poets and writers I would have liked to have seen, had I been there, had they been been there, had things been different. The first is the poet, Amy Woolard, whose much-awaited first book won the Alice James Award. Her poems are smart, sexy, dark, witty, and surprising. I think that if I had bought just one book at AWP, it would have been her collection, Neck of the Woods. Here's a poem by Woolard, first published in April 2018 by The New Yorker. Spoiler Was born a shamble. Was raised, as many, by a marrow & a follow. Made first fortune before first word. Had it made. Follow left The house each morning. Marrow worked to the bone. One Sinister, one borrow I loved more than my own stalled self; Early knew for certain one tomorrow I’d make a great ain’t. I Lived from we to we. Tried to save my crumpled singles. Put on A bold lip, pulled firm on my love like hinging down A set of attic stairs. What a racket. What a small cord Attaches us. My heart, still the spelling bee I throw each time On purpose: we had words, then slept like ice in the slit Of a tucked top sheet. After a spell, sure I slow-ached, sulked My way awake. Once upon a table: coffee with chicory & make- Shift bliss. My eyes, bigger than blue-plates—truth, it was almost Too much to swallow. Took it to go. Clocked myself out. A time Or two had my lights knocked out, my knee socks knocked off, But soft. But still—a ceiling fan, a sill, & a souse who hung On my every world. No two ways about it; I fell for us, hot & Mussed as all get out. Took my Eastern time across to the Pacific, Doubled down & doubled back. Put my face in the path Of another’s full-palmed slap—struck by how dumb I was Struck. Inked myself clear until I was sure as sure was Numb. Got my house in order but never quite could give up The drink, the way it confects me, the way I stay spoked With what wrecks me. Curled myself all the way inside The inside of our last joke, the punched line we lured The most, as thicket as our thievery, our ashed plot Unfallowing me like a neck’s own woods toward a choice Choke of light: I can’t imagine, I reckon I can only imagine. Next, I would not have missed Denise Duhamel's reading in which she was to read poems from her next book, forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press, including this one, originally published in The... Continue reading
Posted Mar 12, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
A few summers ago I was in Maine, looking out from our house at a meadow full of bittersweet when I asked a poet-friend and gardener extraordinaire, “How do you get rid of bittersweet?” The bittersweet was everywhere, strangling ferns and bushes and covering parts of the meadow where blueberries once grew. “It’s best to ignore it,” she said. “Look past it at the sailboats gliding across the bay because you can’t get rid of bittersweet. It’s like a hydra. You cut off one head, and two grow back in its place.” She was right. The more I pulled out the bittersweet, the faster it grew back. Finally, in a moment of frustration, I hired a man with an excavator to dig up the patch of the meadow where the bittersweet had taken over. Gradually, the meadow grew back in to its natural and beautiful self. Now, when I look out at the meadow where the bittersweet once grew, I think of Maureen Seaton’s title poem, “Sweet World,” from her latest book published by CavanKerry Press, which I have retitled in my mind as “Bittersweet World.” Instead of invasive plants, Seaton writers about cancer with her characteristic wit and honesty and eloquence. When I read her work, I pray, “May the bittersweet leave her with only the sweetness that she is.” I am such a fan of her poetry. Sweet World I never had a nemesis before. I kinda like it. ~Felicity Smoak, The Flash Wonder what I'd be today if I was still married to my Wall Street husband besides married to a Wall Street husband and puking gin in a silk sheath at Delmonico's. I might be a blond size 4. I might be a secret Democrat or a weekend lesbian. This morning five planes flew over the yard in a V as I was about to dig into a pile of lavender pancakes al fresco. The V flew low and slow. It flew loud and ominous. It alarmed me, sounding a lot like the war movies of my fifties' childhood. My cranky Chihuahua was proverbially biting at flies and I was sitting there not thinking about hate. Recently, I experienced life with cancer. An intoxicating time, richly infused with the liquor of death, but good too because no one expected much of me and I was left to my own mind, which is what I'm missing most these days. Unless that's it over there, screeching on two wheels around the racetrack. Today I typed gnos instead of song and I wondered if it was some new app designed to mess with me. I've never thought to call the world sweet before. A nemesis can do that for you, make things taste different. Suddenly you're a hero/ine. All this devastation—and you're still standing in the middle of it. Seaton’s book, Sweet World, and my friend’s advice to look past the bittersweet and out at the ocean, and to focus on sailboats gliding by instead of invasive plants, reminds... Continue reading
Posted Mar 2, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
How can I resist? It's a day for love, so I feel compelled to post just a few love poems here. First off, from one of my favorite poets, Shivani Mehta: The Butterflies You unzip my dress, a curve from the side of my left breast to the top of my hip. My body is a column of butterflies. One by one, roused by the light and cool air, they wake from sleep. One by one they open their wings, answering the instinct to be free. They scatter in all directions; I learn what it means to be in many places at once. -- from Shivani Mehta’s Useful Information for the Soon-to-be Beheaded, published by Press 53 Next, from Dante di Stefano. As a Parton fan, I love this poem. While Listening to Dolly Parton Sing “Lover’s Return,” I Imagine the Girl in You Talking to the Boy in Me The old gods gather in my chest and throb the miracles of flame and rusted fender, composing a ballad for blue flowers and grandmas toting shotguns up the hill. I arm my grievances with handwritten recollections of twirling skirts, moonlight, hot mouths coming together in the dark, the burning rafters of adolescence. Call my kiss a romp through threshing machine and clawhammer me up a sweet cudgel of melody as plain as a mattress filled with straw tick, where we can trundle on the big feelings of us joining as one against the hogtied malice of the world. --from Ill Angels by Dante di Stefano, published by Etruscan Press I am so looking forward to Nicole Santalucia's next book, due out this month. Here's a poem from that collection: Keystone Ode to My Wife after Reading Anne Bradstreet at a One Hundred and Three Year Old Farm House Between two clouds and two seedless grapes and two dandelions, there are days that fall. Between two horses or two farm dogs or two blackbirds, there is breath. Between two mice or two lightning bugs?or two blades of grass or two fallen crab apples, there is a silent place to love. Between two yellow wildflowers or two fox kits or two red oak leaves, there is energy that crashes. Between two frogs and two trees, there are two rain drops and two gusts of wind that blow through darkness, where two stars and two far away planets light up the sky. --from The Book of Dirt by Nicole Santalucia, published by NYQ Books Then I think A. R. Ammons, who makes me laugh. Their Sex Life One failure on Top of another Tryst I’m going to see you tonight: birds that know where to fly are loose under by ribs: your eyes fly here to my mind’s eye: I dwell on them; what if I’m frozen when I see you; what if I burn completely up: the birds may break out and go too soon; too bad if my self flies to you early, and I can’t follow. --from A. R. Ammons,... Continue reading
Posted Feb 14, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Last week, I interviewed Peter Johnson about his new anthology of prose poetry, A Cast-Iron Aeroplane That Can Really Fly, the title of which comes from Edson’s explanation of a prose poem: “A prose that is a cast-iron aeroplane that can actually fly, mainly because the pilot doesn't seem to care if it does or not." I began to think about the second half of the quote—the idea that the poem works because the writer lets go of it. I have such difficulty trusting in my prose poems as he suggests one should. I asked Peter if he had any other insights or quotes or ideas from or about the enigmatic godfather of prose poetry. Peter informed me that he was not only a good friend of Edson’s, he also has hundreds of letters from Edson. So I asked if he would be willing to talk about Edson and his letters here. Peter Johnson: I came to Edson’s work later than most prose poets. As I’ve said in numerous interviews, early on I was influenced more by Kafka, Novalis, and Theophrastus. But then some numbskull editor told me that one of my early prose poems was a “cheap imitation of Russell Edson.” Thinking I should at least know who influenced me, I checked out one of his books, and then we became friends after I started my journal. We are very different personalities but we ended up having a long correspondence over the years, and our wives even got along. We did a few events together, one being a week-long conference with you and Robert Bly, which was organized by Chard deNiord, and then Chard invited Edson and me to read at New England College’s MFA program, where we met a few prose-poem haters. He ended up writing me over 350 letters, some detailing everyday life but most being flat-out brilliant. When I asked him to do an interview, he balked, so I went through his early letters, created questions that fit his ideas, and then we went back and forth, creating a kind of long collaborative prose-poem interview, which you can find at Robert Bly once told me it was the best interview ever done with a contemporary poet. If that’s true, the brilliance comes all from Edson and certainly not from my questions. After Russell died, I met his brother-in-law at Russell’s house to discuss what to do with his estate. Frances, his wife, was there but was experiencing early signs of Alzheimer’s, so it was a bit trying and sad because she’s such a sweetheart. His study contained a wealth of knowledge about him: composition books from grammar school, early drawings, letters to famous poets, even a manuscript of verse poetry. It’s been astonishing to me that no poetry special collections have shown interest in purchasing this archive or my letters, and one guy who heads one of the most important contemporary poetry archives in the country didn’t even know who he was. Just unbelievable, though... Continue reading
Posted Feb 12, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
Thanks for your comments. Interesting about Forche. I have been to El Salvador several times--no memory of what kind of shopping bags were there, but it was such a heart-breakingly beautiful country--the people especially.
It’s February, and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I know the perfect gift for someone you love, especially someone you love to kiss: A Constellation of Kisses, edited by Diane Lockward and published by Terrapin Books. It’s a beautiful collection from start to finish. As Lee Upton writes in the foreword: <<< A kiss is never just a kiss—heat-seeking, information bearing, coded. In this inspired collection, poet and editor Diane Lockward has assembled over 100 poems about kisses written by many of our best contemporary poets. You'll find kisses longed for, kisses auditioned, kisses rehearsed. Ritualistic kissing. Delicious kissing. Kissing that comforts the grieving. Kissing that blesses a union . . . May there be no end to the most genuine kisses, the right kisses, the ones that are good and meant for us to savor. And while we're at it, let's wish for no end to poems about kissing. >>> I thought I’d ask Diane Lockward to say a few words about the anthology. What inspired you to put together an anthology of kisses? I don’t remember when the idea first hit me, but it churned in my brain for quite a while. Then I saw that the poet Brian Turner had just put out an anthology about kissing and my great idea hit the floor. I figured he’d just beat me to it, but ordered his book from the library. To my great delight, it turned out that his book is all prose. So my idea was resuscitated. I then put my plan together and put out the call for submissions. How long did it take to collect 100 great kiss poems? The call was open for six weeks. From the day it opened, I was bombarded with submissions. The idea seemed to be very appealing to lots of poets. After all, who isn’t interested in kissing? And there are so many different ways to approach the topic. I’ve done three anthologies; this one received by far the most submissions. Making selections was very difficult. I had to consider not only the quality of the poems but also the variety of approaches, tone, form, length. I had to say no to many worthy poems. And I am haunted by the fear that I said no to some poems I should have said yes to. But I did not want an enormous collection. So about 100 poems seemed a good limit. I’d love to have you post a few kiss poems below, and say a few words about them. Last Kiss First, in your seventies and alone, you read that those who count such things say an average person kisses for a total of two weeks in a lifetime. And you realize your two weeks was up some time ago. Suddenly there is kissing everywhere you look. And you learn that cows kiss and squirrels. Puffins, snails and meerkats! And you are overcome with sorrow and an overwhelming desire to kiss—to be kissed. And you learn that’s... Continue reading
Posted Feb 7, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
How did this anthology come about? I’m very proud of A Cast-iron Aeroplane That Can Actually Fly: Commentaries from 80 Contemporary American Poets on Their Prose Poetry. There are many excellent anthologies out there, but I think A Cast-iron Airplane is unique, and I was extremely happy that Marc Vincenz at MadHat Press had the vision to publish it. How did it come about? The seed was planted forty-three years ago, when I came across Alberta T. Turner’s Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. At the time it was published people were speaking seriously about the writing process, even in freshmen composition courses. What made Turner’s anthology significant was that poets no longer feared that they might diminish their genius by describing how they wrote. Some of the poets in Turner’s anthology even reproduced various drafts of their poems with original cross-outs and annotations, so we could see how ideas and strategies for poems came about. Their commentaries affirmed my suspicion that there was no one way to write a poem. Turner’s questionnaire was very specific, so much so that some poets refused to participate. They thought her questions were uninspiring or too rigid. One poet, whom she did not name, in a fit of hysteria, likened the questionnaire to something out of 1984, which suggested how distasteful it was for some poets to discuss their process. After all, one way to crown yourself a genius is to suggest that your poems are tiny gifts delivered by the gods in the wee hours of the morning, bestowed upon only special people, of whom you are one. Alberta Turner was a friend of mine, and I think she would have been very happy to hear you talk about her book, especially about her questionnaire. She loved questionnaires. So it was her anthology that inspired you? I remember you talking about her when you were editing the journal. I was thinking about Turner’s book when in the last two volumes of The Prose Poem: An International Journal (digitized at, I asked a few selected poets to choose one of their prose poems and to write a commentary on it. Unlike Turner, I didn’t give much guidance. It would be nice, I said, to comment on it as a prose poem, but I didn’t want to restrict anyone. As it turned out, many of the poets chose to discuss the prose poem as a genre, anyway. A Cast-iron Airplane is an expansion of that project. I think it’s a useful book. For one thing, it’s a solid collection of prose poems written by some of the best American practitioners of the genre. It also provides a good way of looking at the prose poem as a legitimate genre by focusing on what the poets themselves have to say. Certainly, if poets call their poems prose poems and confess that they were self-consciously writing them as prose poems, thinking about a tradition that preceded them, then we should pay attention to that. If... Continue reading
Posted Feb 6, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
When I think of prose poets from this country, the two names that come to mind are Russell Edson and Peter Johnson. Neither you nor Edson ever write (or wrote) in verse, and both of you have (or had) a lot to say about the prose poem. I’d love to hear you talk about your own work today, and about the new anthology, A Cast-Iron Airplane That Can Actually Fly, tomorrow. How did you become a prose poet? I’m the least likely candidate to be a prose poet. I had four years of French, nine of Latin, and five of Classical Greek. My Masters thesis was an introduction to and translation of the Psychomachia, a thousand-line Latin poem written by Marcus Aurelius Prudentius. With that background, I probably should be writing sonnets. So why the prose poem? For one thing, I was a terrible verse poet, mostly because I couldn’t have cared less about line breaks. But, of course, my situation was more complicated than that. Perhaps the best, and most concise, way to explain why I became a prose poet is to look at one of my early poems, called “The Millennium.” The Millennium In the basement, in the playroom, Ken’s throwing darts at another Ken while the flies of fairy tales nod off on a concrete wall, on a red plunger by the sink, on a lonesome cue ball. Upstairs, a pair of twins dancing on a hardwood floor, pushing tiny Santas in miniature baby strollers. I need help to sit down. “Next you’ll be wanting a back rub,” my brother says, then leaps from a coffee table, toppling our Christmas tree. Not enough bulbs to poke holes through this night’s black logic. No one strong enough to turn The Great Telescope, still partially unwrapped. Four hours to midnight, my niece embracing her Sleepy-Time Barbie, eyelids set to close at the turn of the century. “The Millennium” is the last poem in Pretty Happy!, my first volume of prose poetry. It changed everything for me. I’m very fond of Pretty Happy!, but, looking back, I see how haunted some of the poems were by other texts, such as, Kafka’s parables; Novalis’s short prose; the character sketches of the ancient Greek writer Theophrastus (whom I had translated in graduate school); and even things as silly as the “Fractured Fairy Tales” episodes from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and sketches from my beloved old copies of Mad magazine. Those influences were present long before I came to the oneiric landscapes of Charles Simic, Russell Edson, and Max Jacob. That’s not to say I didn’t have a voice or subject matter. I’m a mix of high and low cultures. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood near the steel plants in Buffalo, New York, but I went to a Jesuit high school where, as I said, I studied classical languages and was immersed in the Western Canon. It’s not surprising that in one of my later prose poems I have Socrates... Continue reading
Posted Feb 5, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
NA: In this era of Trump and the Republican stranglehold on truth, I have been having a hard time writing, or even thinking about writing. I feel helpless when I read the news or talk to people who are so politically different from me. Yesterday, I was at the doctor’s office, listening to two elderly white men talk about how great Sean Hannity is, and how our country is, at last, in good hands. I could feel my blood pressure sky-rocketing. Afterwards, I sat at my desk, and instead of typing, I stared out the window, thinking of Roethke's lines, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see,/ I meet my shadow in the deepening shade . . .” I began to wonder, how are others coping? I thought I’d ask a few other poets, starting with Tim Seibles. NA: How are you coping in the Trump era? Are you writing? TS: During these times of Trump—times of idiocy, corruption and the resultant despair—I have found writing to be a place of energizing solace. Though it is an illusion (at least in part), when I’m working on a poem, I feel like I’m talking back to the horror and cultivating some form of resistance to the infection that this administration represents. Poetry, whether it be raging, broken-hearted, or ecstatic, is life affirming. It reminds those who are interested that others also suffer and yearn and see the trouble. In some ways—both obvious and not—poetry itself means that being alert emotionally and intellectually is worthwhile. In my darkest moments, I still believe that such engagement will help decide what kind of future will follow this insane period. NA: Please share a couple of poems on the topic. TS: KNOCK-KNOCK It’s quiet— like a fly in a frog’s mouth. Say something loud but secret like starlight banging on a bug’s back, something so true that just the suggestion un-hands the clocks— why pretend that I’m not what I am: a hard-on held by the head nun, that rogue fart in the flower shop, freak branch on the family tree, that mad song in a mum city—I am that misfit music, that two-headed Ken, that Whoopsupsidethehead, antsinyourpants whatcanIsay: I bum-rush the world, find another world inside: that last chance, the lost choir, that Ghost Dance come again— who says we can’t be free? NOT NEARLY ENOUGH #2 for Cesar Vallejo Yesterday, maybe—tomorrow perhaps, but today, no one is reading my poems, no one at all! It’s as if my whole life has been covered like a parrot’s cage, so everybody can get some sleep. I didn’t mean to shout, to blaspheme, to interrupt, curse, use slang, obsess? over women’s thighs. I did not mean to cause trouble did I? Maybe I did. Of course, I did— but for the best possible reasons: There’s no pretty way to fight ugliness. There’s not nearly enough love going around, nowhere near an adequate array of sexual collaborations: in fact, a wild lack of empathy and... Continue reading
Posted Jan 23, 2020 at The Best American Poetry
When I pulled a slim volume of poetry off the shelf and read the following description on the back, I knew I had to read it. “In Kim Dower’s fourth collection, Sunbathing on Tyrone Power’s Grave, death has never felt so alive!” How could I resist a death that feels alive? The first poem in the book that I flipped to was this: Completion We like to cross things off our lists. The wedding gift has been shipped. Groceries in the fridge. Book written. Dying is the last item to be checked off the list. I wish I could cross it off myself as I was in the act. I’d insert a pink ink cartridge in my special Pilot, draw a withering line through the word die (maybe a smiley face?) as my last breath left my lungs. Be there for me if and when, as I might need you to hand me my pen. Hand me my pen. The poem surprised me, in part because I, too, have been putting death on a checklist, along with eggs, toilet paper, coffee, gardening, and calling Nicole. (I need to call Nicole!) But I don’t mean death exactly, not as Dower does, but rather, thinking about death. Because I’m trying to be a better Buddhist, and thinking about death is an important part of Buddhist practice. There’s even an app for this called WeCroak, which I downloaded two days ago. Now WeCroak dings me 5 times a day and reminds me that I will die. And each time it dings, I think about Claire Bateman’s poem, “LXI,” from her miraculously beautiful book, The Locals, that begins: LXI In this realm, most of the citizens have become aficionados of their own death scenes, traveling repeatedly into the future to snap photographs from various angles, host parties, or engage in religious ceremonies, whether or not the dying version of any particular self is still a believer. But sometimes when I practice with WeCroak, I worry that I’m not doing it right. For Buddhists death is supposed to be an opportunity to transform from the proverbial caterpillar into a butterfly. So thinking about death should be a way of thinking about this transformation, just as Dower does in her lovely poem, “Confessions of a Butterfly.” Confessions of a Butterfly I stuffed myself with milkweed in my adorable larva stage making my wings large bright orange. I’m desperate for people to admire my delicate beauty and believe I bring them good luck. With my life span as short as a rose’s, I don’t waste my time fluttering through the fields mingling with the flowers. I plan to follow the heat, echo in its warmth, power straight into the sun, feel each ray slash my wings, burn them to powder, light up the world. After reading this poem, I tried and failed to imagine myself as a lowly being changing into a winged one, and then lighting up the world. I think I am lacking what Claire... Continue reading
Posted Sep 18, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
NA: On Monday, I posted an interview on this blog in which I talked about the anthology, Here, Poems for the Planet, edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman. I want to follow it with this interview with Sydney Lea, whose latest poetry collection is also called Here. I thought I’d start by posting the stunning opening poem from the book. Here at Summer’s End –for Jerry Dennis That birds have largely quieted may distress us, and like neglected mail, the garden’s lettuce went yellow weeks back, then simply dissolved. But we ought to pause before we focus on loss in a season still teeming with vegetation. No matter the month, our sense of wonder remains– unless we will it to leave. Even now the mercury flirts with 85, so it’s wondrous, say, how starlings decide to convene for migration. We can watch their flocks in the roadbeds. It’s a marvel as well, whatever the force is that already starts to blanch the legs of the snowshoe hares. Our longing is always for now to endure, though since the dawn of thinking, many a thinker has found death an engine of beauty. Truth is, however, our world will never go dead: those heads of lettuce have fused with humus below, and after those starlings wing off, the juncos and titmice will show, and the ghostly hares of winter won’t be ghosts at all but creatures with dark flesh packed onto bone under ivory hides. Coyotes will hunt them to keep alive through the ineluctable –I almost said awful– chill, and even then, the ice-beads on softwood boughs may look, if we want, like permitted fruit. As a season nears, or lingers, or ends, an amplitude can tell us we still are subject to spells. We’re here after all. Let’s chant it throughout the year, like so much birdsong: we’re here we’re here we’re here NA: When I first read this poem, I read it as an exhortation to remain optimistic in the face of inevitable loss, and to keep our sense of wonder alive. It’s an appeal that I find hard to follow these days, thanks to climate change. Were you thinking of that when you wrote the poem? SL: Well, in all candor, though I am as full of anxiety about climate change and fury at its deniers as I can possibly be, I don’t think confronting its apocalyptic threats is what I was thinking about. For me, a poem tends to begin not with some « idea » but with a little inkling. I rarely have a sense of what it bodes until I have finished the poem…at which point that poem will reveal its about-ness to me– and even then only partly, perhaps. As I recall, I was reading in Jerry Dennis’s terrific book, The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas, and I came on a passage suggesting that the sense of wonder will never leave us unless we allow it to do so.... Continue reading
Posted Sep 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
Oh, I still have my Ram Dass--it came out in 71, a year the draft was still in place, the year my college aged brother grew marijuana plants out past the cow pasture--they grew fast, five feet tall and a little more, and he used to smoke pot and read that book aloud and laugh till the tears came.
Thanks Mark!!
Lately, I have been having trouble with optimism. And I have been having trouble with my trouble with optimism. I am, quite simply, depressed. I'm not even sure of the role of poetry anymore—both in the world as it is, politically and environmentally speaking, and in the world of po-biz as it is, with all its emphasis on social media and self-promotion. Poetry, which I like to think of as a contemplative art, is becoming anything but. For that reason, I have written what I believe to be my last book of poems, The Last Orgasm, in which the orgasm, like the poem, bids us farewell. I sometimes think I’ve become like the madwoman in Shara McCallum’s poem, "Why Madwoman Shouldn't Read the News." Why Madwoman Shouldn’t Read the News I know you’ll say I’m overreacting, but my mother’s prophesying has come to pass: Armageddon is upon us. Just look at the evidence: the carriers of our species at every second being raped and killed and the rare ones who survive offing their lovers and children (or worse, if it can be believed, wearing bangs), molesters and gun-toters skulking in every lunchbox, the environment churning into an apocalypse. Oh, kids, please save us the heartache and leave in advance: calmly but quickly abandon your seesaws and swings. Friends, do you remember when we were young? Life plump with promise and dreams? Me neither. Anyway, who’d be naive enough now to believe in anything so impossible- to-attain as happiness or justice? Sure we had a run of it. Even some laughs. But the day’s arrived, as deep down we knew it would, and spectacles streaming from across the globe should convince even the most skeptical of our soon-extinction. Not that we listen to true madmen anymore, but the older I get the more certain I become: my father would have been heralded a prophet had he lived, would have joined his brethren and sistren on every street corner, trumpeting this end from the beginning. The poem, from her book Madwoman, is also included in the anthology, Here, edited by Elizabeth J. Coleman. You can see her reading the poem here: Of course, there are many Cassandras out there, and who wants to listen to them? We humans are naturally designed to avoid pain and suffering—to shut our ears to any suggestion of it. Certain religions tell us we won’t even die. Not forever anyhow, not if we're good people, however that is defined. As the popular Stanford Biology professor Robert Sapolosky points out in his book, The Science of Intelligent Achievement, one person’s negativity has a profound impact upon others' outlook on life. And worse, listening to negative speech for thirty minutes or more can cause neurons in the hippocampus to die. That’s right, those brain cells just give up the ghost when you tell them bad things are happening. After listening to negative speeches, a person’s problem-solving abilities are measurably compromised. I translate this to mean that after two years... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
I need a handbook on how to market myself as a poet. And a cheat sheet for all those god-awful questions a poet has to answer about his or her work before a book goes to press—questions like, Who are you writing your poems for? Or to? Who is your ideal audience? Answer: I have no idea. I’ve never understood the lure of either writing or reading poetry, that seductive pull from some other world. A few weeks ago, I gave a miserable reading—you know the kind, set in some the dank basement of a bookshop, church or bowling alley, given to a handful of disgruntled souls in folding chairs. Afterwards, an elderly man in a ball cap informed me that I am nothing like my poems. So what are my poems like? I wanted to ask. Instead, I told him that another woman actually writes my poetry. I just try to impersonate her for public events. (He laughed, but I wasn’t really joking.) Since then, I have been thinking about poets who are like their poems, poets like Denise Duhamel, David Lehman, and Maureen Seaton, poets I read and then feel as if I have just had a conversation with them. I think I would feel that way, even if I didn't know them. I remember a picnic years ago in Cleveland when Denise Duhamel was teaching at the Imagination Conference, and a student by the nickname of The Beef (I think that’s what his friends called him) sat down next to her and confessed that, after hearing her read, he was certain she was his soul mate. As if to prove his point, The Beef began to perform his poetry for her, reciting poems about his life as an alcoholic. Denise, ever polite, sat smiling and nodding until the director of the program intervened. I was both stunned and a little embarrassed to realize that I, too, have often felt that Denise is my kindred spirit. And I, too, might want to show her the poems I have written in response to her brilliant work. Does that mean that The Beef and I are Denise’s ideal audience? Or the opposite? Perhaps this is the poem by Denise Duhamel that inspired The Beef’s performance that day. David Lehman, like Denise, has a gift of making readers feel as if he's talking directly to them. Or, in my case, as if I am still his student, back in his tiny office at Hamilton College, and he’s trying to teach me how to write a poem. I say this today, in particular, because I've been sorting through old journals, throwing away most of them (they are so embarrassing), and I've discovered a few entries that mention David Lehman and remind me of his recent book, Playlist. Like this one from January 1980: I had a conference with DL today and, once again, my poem was unspeakably awful. How come I never see a poem’s stinkiness until the professor is looking at... Continue reading
Posted Jun 11, 2019 at The Best American Poetry
NA: Dante, I love your new book! I especially love the poem, "Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen" from last year’s Best American Poetry. Reading it, I imagined that you already were, at seventeen, in essence, a poet. Did you set out to be a poet? Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen In those days, my dreams always changed titles before they were finished, and I wanted only to love in that insane, tortured way of poor dear Dmitri Karamazov. Suddenly, I was speaking the language of lapdog and samovar. This is the ballroom, the barracks, the firing squad. This is the old monk with the beard of bees. This is the orange lullaby the moon of the moon will sing you when it’s grieving. This is the province you escape by train, fleeing heavy snow and eternal elk. This is the part where I take your hand in my hand and I tell you we are burning. DDS: Thanks for your kind words, Nin. No, I didn’t set out to be a poet at all, of any kind. I’ve always loved reading and writing, but in high school I read mostly novels, and I kept a daily journal that mostly consisted of reactions to the books I was reading, quotes from those books, lists of new words I’d discovered, and philosophical statements (that I’m sure would make me cringe if I read them today). “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” begins with an autobiographical detail; it’s true that I read Dostoyevsky’s four big novels when I was seventeen. The poem attempts to recreate the frenetically pitched set of emotions that one only experiences either in the pages of a Russian novel or in the throes of adolescence. None of the images and phrases are drawn directly from Dostoyevsky. Rather, I try to evoke what Milan Kundera called “the magical charm of atmospheres”: recalling what it felt like to lie alone in my twin bed at night pondering the fate of Dmitri Karamazov, dreaming of a girl I liked in my homeroom. “Reading Dostoyevsky at Seventeen” is an attempt to capture those lost atmospheres from a novelistic or cinematic vantage point. NA: I admire your poems about your father’s illness and death. One of these poems is called, “A Defense of Confessional Poetry.” Are you a defender of confessional poetry? Do you consider these poems to be confessional? DDS: The poems about the illness and death of my father are deeply autobiographical. Most, if not all, of the details in these poems are true to the events as I recall them. Whenever I write about someone I know I tend not to embellish. Of course, remembering is an inherently slippery proposition, but I try to remain moored to the truth of my recollection. Sometimes, I feel like this fidelity to “truth” is a failure of imagination on my part. However, it would feel like a betrayal if I invented additional details about the day my father died, if I changed a second of my daughter’s birth,... Continue reading
Posted Jun 7, 2019 at The Best American Poetry