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Martha Silano
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I was lucky enough to recently stumble upon Kevin Young's Raymond Danowski Poetry Library Reading Series (Young is the curator), and specifically CK Williams’ 2008 reading for this series. If you don't know about this series, available on iTunesU, you should. During the past five or so years, Young has brought to the library some of America's most accomplished poets—Lucille Clifton, Paul Muldoon, Rita Dove, Galway Kinnell, Sharon Olds, and the list goes on—to Emory University to perform, and the best thing is that they are archived and available online via laptop or smart phone. A few days ago, during an afternoon that felt more like July than late April, I headed out for a run along a lake with the CK Williams' voice blasting in my ears. I haven’t read much Williams, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Listening to the first couple I enjoyed what I heard, but I wasn’t quite sold. The readings run about an hour or so each, however, so I kept listening. A few more poems in, he began reciting a poem titled “Wood.” I didn’t listen that closely the first time through, but then I had one of those whoa moments, as in what did he just DO? The poem literally stopped me in the middle of the jogging trail. The poem begins innocently enough: “That girl I didn’t love … that Sunday when I stopped by and she was in bed in her nightgown…”. Okay, so he’s referring to a woman as a girl. I’m not exactly endorsing that, but then again the poem is written in remembrance a time far in the past—a time he had not yet been taught that referring to a full-grown woman as a girl is sexist. Anyway, about a third of the way in, the poem takes a turn: …when my hand touched her belly, under the plush mesh nightgown, began turning her belly to wood—I hadn’t known this could be done, that girls, that humans, could do this—then, when all her belly was wood I hit the back button and listened again, and then another time: began turning her belly into wood. What had just happened? She began turning the rest of herself to perhaps something harder, steel, / or harder; perhaps she was turning herself, her entire, once so soft self, / to some unknown mineral substance found only on other, very far planets, // planets with chemical storms and vast, cold ammonia, oceans of ice … My delight and exuberance were similar to the way I had felt the day before, reading Lydia Davis’s story “The Brother in Law,” wherein the protagonist’s actions move from the plausible to the fantastical in the space of a page. This got me thinking about the line between reality and whatever you choose to call it—the fantasical, the magical, the surreal—and when, how, and where it gets crossed. James Hoch alluded to it when he came to visit my poetry class at Bellevue College just after... Continue reading
Posted May 2, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Some of us will wake on the first day of May with a giant sense of relief. Why? Because we know we can attend to the laundry, bills, dishes in the sink, and our paying jobs without also trying to squeeze in fifteen or twenty minutes a day for drafting a new poem. But wait right there! Who said anything about calling a halt to a regular writing practice simply because the calendar reads MAY? Confession: Last year I had a busy April, so I did my poem-a-day in May. What a fabulous idea it turned out to be. A little lonely, but still very worthwhile. Then I sort of fell off the po-wagon until the following April. However, wayward ways tendencies, my goal for the remainder of 2014 is to write most days. Unless I am wrung out completely or called away on urgent business, I am poeming (did I really just say that) quasi-daily until further notice. How? The answer is easy! The first is to go and check out CA Conrad's rad, rad (Soma)tics poetry exercises and "happenings," including an upcoming visit to Denise Levertov's gravesite (Seattle, WA), which I swear I learned about on his FB page but can't track down anywhere on the web - please post a comment if you can provide the date and time, and I will promise to be there! Another way to get stoked is by, well, doing what I do: read lots of great poems and turn them into writing prompts. I was doing this so much with fellow poet Kelli Russell Agodon, that we decided we'd make an entire book of them, one for every day of the year. It's called The Daily Poet: Day-By-Day Prompts For Your Writing Practice, and this Huffington Post guy really liked it. A LOT. This is what our Ad-libbing Poetry Exercise Factory looks like: We spend most of the day in a cafe, on Kelli's deck, or sitting on a driftwood log at the beach (alas, she lives on a peninsula), reading poems aloud from books we love, like Mark Bibbins' Sky Lounge and Natalie Diaz's When My Brother Was An Aztec), and riffing/ripping off their energy, moxie, and chutzpah. On our best writing days I may challenge Kelli to write an abecedarian in fifteen minutes; it must contain an angel or saint, a belly, a place name, and the speaker must be reincarnated into a horse. The last time we got together, Kelli whipped out a stack of 3x5 cards, and I knew right away it was going to be a fun/productive day. So, without further ado: The Perpetual Poetry Prompt, a 3x5 Card Extravaganza (patent pending): (1) After flipping through some of your favorite poetry books, choose twelve words and write them down on one side of a 3x5 card. (2) Flip the card over, and write down four specific instructions. Examples: (1) begin and end with an iamb; (2) include at least one foreign phrase; (3) interrupt yourself twice;... Continue reading
Posted May 1, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I found out about Luisia Igloria's plethora of writing exercise prompts on my Facebook newsfeed. Like many of you, I signed on to write a poem a day in April for National Poetry Month, so I was delighted when I saw that she was posting prompts as daily status updates. After I wrote a couple of successful drafts based on her exercises, I contacted her and asked if she would be willing to share about her "take" on the usefulness of writing prompts, along with a sample. Lucky for us, she obliged! Here's what she had to say: Photo Credit: John-Henry Doucette When I was a child, many of the stories mymother told me at bedtime were made up. Remembering this, I can see how her improvisations were important early lessons for the poet in me. I saw that "being stuck" could be perceived as a temporary condition; that anything on the road to a story (poem) was potential material; how the arrival at a conclusion or an ending did not necessarily mean finality or the last word. There was and could be infinite variation, a long corridor lined with doors to try and open; behind them was not necessarily death or dragons, but I knew that neither would there always be love or gardens. As a woman, and as a writer of color in the diaspora, this perspective is additionally relevant to me when I consider the ways in which histories are typically written by those who have access to the most power. To improvise—and thereafter to rewrite—is to re-imagine consequence; is to wage/engage in little revolutions, is to overturn the sense of given expectation. This kind of virtuosity and openness to risk can be a source of great creative and political power. More on Luisa on the power of improvisation here. Exclusive BAP-blog-only Poem Prompt: Write a poem that uses as its starting point some "enshrined" depiction (as in a museum or art gallery), myth, or widely held view of a specific historical or cultural artifact, narrative, event, group of people, or figure/character. Dramatically re-imagine/re-cast the original context or the event itself and its outcomes. Write a title for it that partly summarizes your poem's central engagement, beginning with When... (for example: "When Eve chose to eat a bitter melon instead of the apple" or "When Magellan came ashore and decided to go native" or "When the mail order bride applied for a spot in a Ph.D. program" ). So, why write a poem a day? Without initially intending to do so, I have ... become fully engaged in and by the daily practice of writing poems. Not only has “running with my muse” daily made me more limber and given me much valuable biofeedback about my writing; it has also taught me many lessons about fear and anxiety, my habits (both good and bad), the many little (and big) excuses that the self seems to conveniently find when confronted with things it is afraid of and/or that... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
I was lucky enough to spend some time chatting with David J. Daniels, winner of the Four Way Books Intro Poetry Prize, about his new book Clean (D.A. Powell, Judge). My questions primarily deal with the ways that writing in fixed forms--in David's case, rhymed and metered quatrains--can often assist poets in tackling painful subjects they might not otherwise venture to write about. We also discussed his infuences, religious upbringing, and Whitmanesque compassion. Here's how the conversation went: MS: Clean was a book I picked up late one night, and it kept me awake till I finished. I was tired, so that’s saying a lot. I was drawn in immediately by the opening poem, “Public Indecency.” Talk about not wasting time to shock the reader: to begin with a poem about a friend caught on camera exposing himself. It’s a bold move, not exactly standard subject matter—that the speaker is friends with a criminal. What I love about this poem is how the speaker’s reactions to this incident progress from “sure glad it wasn’t me” to “there but for the grace of God,” a kind of Whitmanian embrace and compassionate witness: Not that you were unstable / exactly; at least, I don’t think so, / and I say that, of course, as someone who / has extracted brief pleasure from strangers”. It’s straight out of Leaves of Grass,: “no two alike, and every one good”! I wondered if you could talk about how this poem evolved – the structure, the use of rhymed double-quatrain couplets, the progression from relief to, well, acceptance, and joy? DJD: Well, first, I’m delighted the book gripped you, and I’m touched that you’ve asked to interview me. Having that line appear first in the book – “Relieved, to be frank, it was you not me” – was D.A. Powell’s decision. He insisted on it because he thought the peculiar moral stance captured an essence of the collection, about looking and exposing and public risks and being found guilty for things. My looking and my exposing. "Public Indecency" was a tricky poem to write, emotionally, because I felt nervous about further humiliating my friend who'd already been fairly publicly shamed (ruined, really, in some ways) for what happened to him. Yet I also felt an immediate sort of kinship toward him – certainly, I didn’t judge him – because, yes, as I say in the poem, I've done similar things, and then some, in darkened parks. Many closeted men have (my friend, by the way, is straight), so I also felt some grand moral urge not just to 'out' those truths but to understand and accept them. To name those acts, to give them an identity apart from how our police force would name them. This is maybe the Whitmanesque quality you're sensing, and what I hope is one of the humane motives of the book, of not just telling 'the truth' (which is risky) but of truly empathizing and calling those truths, if not holy,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
Molly Tenenbaum (poet) & Ellen Ziegler (artist) have been working on a very cool project over the last several months. Here's an interview with Molly Tenenbaum that shares all about it. MS: What are you making? MT: Glad you asked! We’re making an artist’s book* that puts archival material together with Molly’s poems about her grandparents, who were ventriloquists on the vaudeville circuit. The “book” will be a 3-D object* that contains maps of their travels across the U.S. and images of their datebooks and pages where the poems and visuals interact. MS: Why an artist book for this collection of poems? MT: We’ve always wanted to work together. Ellen is a maker of artist books; she’s worked with poets Frances McCue and Patti Smith (the musician, who’s also a poet.) This collection calls out for imagery, especially since the poems refer to actual archival material. Ellen’s most recent book about her ballerina mother was a natural link to poems based on my own family history. MS: What is your process for working together? MT: We stare at images. We read poems aloud and talk about them while Ellen moves images around on the screen. MS: What are the thrills and advantages of joining poems and visuals? MT: See that image at the bottom? That's what it will look like. But in the actual book, the poems will be legible. So here is the poem: Waaah! Waaah! In the market in the square the child must be here they look and look dusk and time to go home the cry goes home with them and also stays faint in the air even after he’s seen the doll’s just a doll the policeman keeps checking all night is the baby under dropped rags behind those old boards under these thinnest of sticks An another: Breathe from Your Diaphragm, My Grandfather Said But I couldn’t find it, the belly supposed to round out as breath swelled in, press in as a breath rounded out. Mine hollowing in as breath inched in, and in till breath thinned out. The back of my tongue to send tone through my nose, my face to look one way while saying another. But first I must breathe from the belly, so never got to the tongue or the face, so he never said, Now, start talking. MS: This all sounds amazing; I can't wait to see the final product. Thanks so much for providing a window into how a poet might hook up with an artist to creat something beautiful on the page/screen. *“Artists’ books are books or book-like objects over the final appearance of which an artist has had a high degree of control; where the book is intended as a work of art in itself” ~ Stephen Bury The Collaborators: Molly Tenenbaum is the author of three poetry collections, The Cupboard Artist, Now, and By a Thread. Her work appears in many journals, including The Beloit Poetry Journal, Best American Poetry 1991, Black Warrior Review,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2014 at The Best American Poetry
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Apr 25, 2014