Tag: poetry

The Dangers of Attachment

Weekend before last I received a rejection for a poetry submission I’d sent in less than two hours before. It burned me more than a little. The journal in question is not known for its quick turn-around and its speed made their reply feel definite – like cement. This was different than a rejection from a journal committed to fast replies. Quick rejections from journals known for quick judgments aren’t personal, even if they return in a day, or two, or less.

With those journals – the speedy ones – there is almost something gleeful about the rapid smack-down of artistic hopes. I’ve submitted to the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts twice now. Those editors get back to their supplicants – sorry, submitters – in three days, max. Maybe it helps that their truck and store is short poems – how long can it take to assess the quality of four or six lines? I’ve taken to sending them, almost masochistically, poems so compressed they could fit on a straw wrapper. On a straw wrapper, torn in half.

My little witticisms, which exist mostly as commentary on brunch, amuse the hell out of me. However, it’s hard to imagine anyone else would take them very seriously.

Brunch Poem

                                     for the bartender

The toast

is gross.

These I expect to be rejected.

Perhaps that begs the question – why submit them in the first place? Why submit at all?

Brunch Poem II

                        a response

Try

the brioche.

When I was studying poetry in undergrad, I had the unfortunate appearance of someone who shared her poetry to hear others say they liked it. This was because occasionally, (weekly,) I’d be struck by some rhythmic impulse and scrawl off a moderately-successful mostly-poem, and become smitten. So smitten, so enthused, I’d rush to share my latest, greatest invention, ready to read it out loud to any friend around who’d listen. I was often convinced the last thing I’d written was my best. Because I was enamored with each poem I then thrust upon my roommates, workshops, and professors, it seemed I shared for compliments. Because I was impressed with myself and my writing, it seemed I expected the same out of everyone I so enthusiastically subjected to my burgeoning verse. (It is very obvious when I am excited about something.)

The truth was that I wanted haters. In “On Writing,” Stephen King advises his Dear Readers to kill their darlings. He’s stolen this advice, he knows, but that doesn’t diminish its value. I knew that I was in love with each recent creation in part simply because it was new. As I wrote more, I began to suspect that affection. The more I loved a poem, the more I wanted someone to show me what was wrong with it. I knew my feelings blinded me to my flaws, and also that that awareness could not counter-weight my bias. I shared my best poems with those I admired because I wanted to tear each poem down, to make it better. I wanted to learn. It seemed clear that the way to do that was by reducing my work into rubble, learning its weak spots, and rebuilding.

Alas, I think I seemed insufferable. Unbridled enthusiasm has that effect. I didn’t realize how I came across.

Even today, in my dotage, I find deep and perverse pleasure in hearing those I admire rip apart nouns I previously cherished. I heartily encourage, and bask in, intellectual take-downs of books or movies I fear I like too much, without good reason – sometimes, with certain caustic, opinionated, sharp-tack friends, I straight-out solicit their arguments and anaylsis against whatever piece of entertainment I suspect I love without reason, or thought, or examination. I want to hear what is wrong with things. I distrust overt, unwarranted affection for TV series, or arguments, or poems. Call me an anti-fan girl. There’s a weird joy, with black wings and twisted fingers, that follows eager behind righteous snubbing of mass-market culture and media. I am better because I can articulate why Game of Thrones is trash. Hating Malcolm Gladwell means I exceed those would-be armchair pop-psychologists who’ve read and love “Blink.”

But what keeps the smug off, for the most part, I think, is how I seek to learn from those I regard. How I choose to turn the microscope, sometimes or even often, on objects whose dissection may cause me pain. I considered Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods” stellar literature for many years before I read a friend’s well-build wrecking machine of an opinion that really, nothing happens in the novel. Later I read “Neverwhere,” and its holes glared. It is easy to take down what you already hate. It is important to take down the rest.

When we discuss the things we love, instead of blindly loving them, we begin to be able to assess whether that love is merited. We learn how to discern between true artistry and cotton-candy fluff that looks good, tastes good for a moment, and has no lingering substance but sticky-fingered regret felt in our stomach and thighs. Don’t just kill your darlings. Autopsy them. Study their corpses.

A literary journal’s form rejection, whether within an hour or ten months, does not tell much. It is no blueprint to show where seams are weak and walls want insulation. As a dismissal, rejections are barely useful except as ego-check, and to remind us emotional attachment must be tempered with reason.

If you are never rejected, you never ask the right questions.

As creators it is impossible for us to know which of our beautiful, pale darlings holds the strength in its plum fists to beat upon the world. Our capricious attention dismisses what enthralls others. Devon taught me this: your opinion of your work does not matter, especially in regards to submission and rejection. What matters is the others.

At first this makes submission feel futile. But, in a calm gray twilight beyond the frustration of no good choice, this truth wedges open doors. When it doesn’t matter if you love a poem, you can send off any of them. You can keep dispassion in the thing. You can shrug, and beat yourself against the sill of the world until, during your incited unconsciousness, someone tiptoes around you to raise the sash. Do not love your poems, but push them off and fight to leave. Maybe, in time, some wild, dark, and iridescent creature will take pity on you, and let you them out.

“They Won’t Hurt You. They’ll Re-Structure Your Brain:” Sleeper Poems

In the entertainment industry, a “sleeper” hit is a movie which does not initially perform well, but accumulates crowds and interest as it continues to play in theaters. Presumably, no one in marketing anticipated the film in question to amaze. However, it impresses its initial viewers enough that their excitement or enjoyment of it creates a word-of-mouth, grassroots sort of encouragement to see the film. While in general the phrase refers to theatrical runs, it can apply to more expansive periods of time as well – though if the period is extended enough, the movie may be a “cult classic” instead of a “sleeper hit.” More broadly, the term can apply to any item or fad which was not initially hyped but became a surprise consumer success.

Today, I share three of my personal “sleeper” poems. Initially, I was not taken with any of the set. However, as time passed, I found myself returning to each poem, perhaps for a specific turn of phrase, or to read again how exact its imagery was, or to hear the poem come alive out loud and fully realize its rhythm. One, even, was a poem I lost and searched for over years until I found it again, a handwritten copy on small notebook paper, tucked in with a letter I never sent. I will let you guess which is that.

The first poem is one of the first poems with which I experienced the sleeper phenomenon. It’s really an excerpt from a very long poem called “The Desk,” by Marina Tsvetaeva. I first heard it while listening to a Poetry magazine podcast. I’d selected the podcast for its title, an excerpt from this portion of “The Desk”: “you with your olives, me with my rhyme.” The phrase piqued my interest immediately. But for whatever reason, the poem didn’t wow me at first. I suspect that only listening to, and not also reading, the poem, may have played a part – I tend to favor text over audio. I was disappointed the poem as a whole didn’t live up to the line that had grabbed me. However, as time passed, I found myself thinking of it again and again. I was haunted by “you with your olives, me with my rhyme.” I read (and re-read) the poem online, and listened to it on the podcast again as well. Meanwhile, my interest in Tsvetaeva grew and I began to explore her history and some of her other works. It dawned on me that I really enjoyed and admired the power of this excerpt of “The Desk.” I hope that you do, too – but if not at first, give it some time.

Much earlier in life, on a college midnight, I trawled the internet for poems. I don’t know if I was in search of anything more specific – perhaps I was researching multi-cultural poets – perhaps not. I stumbled across a lovely little poem by Adam Zagajewski, “For You,” and was captured by it. I liked it enough to hand-copy and hang on my wall. As I moved over the years, the poem moved with me. But small papers are wont to be lost or tossed when you move per annum, and thus, somehow, I lost the poem. I searched for it online to no result. Although I was fairly certain of the author (after a couple of clicks around Wikipedia to be sure) I couldn’t find anything under the title, or anything more than reminiscent of, “For You.” Every once in a while I would try to hunt it down and, after hours, fail. It turns out I was either on an extremely esoteric poetry website that night or the original post I saw was taken down. The poem had proven so obscenely elusive because it was barely extant online. Finally, one day, while rifling through some box I’d moved multiple times but not unpacked, I found a handwritten copy of “For You”. I was thrilled and this time, I copied it digitally, so as not to lose it again. As it is, the poem is posted on approximately two webpages (one of which is Pinterest). Here is a link to the other.

James Arlington Wright’s “Hook” closes out my sleeper selections. I was introduced to “Hook” in the most traditional way; a college poetry course. One of the painstakingly handsome, intellectual anti-Bukowski would-be-Bukowskis of the group read it out loud, I’m pretty sure. Although a pleasant enough memory, it’s “Hook”’s imagery that brings me back time and again. I find myself visualizing the narrator and young Sioux at their bus stop in the snow, the Sioux with his one hand and one silver hook. I have a clearer mental image of that scene than I often do while thigh-deep in the throngs of most novels’ descriptive passages. “Hook” speaks with an immense stillness, one which leaves an impression long after its reading is done.

It’s good to remember that poetry can surprise us. It’s nice to imagine that poems may even lure us in, slowly captivate their audience with well-tuned lines that linger in the brain, or play a long flirt with memorable rhythms and expressions that act like poetic hooks, earworms. It also strikes me that poetry, and poems, can be grown into. It may take time for us, or any reader, to fully appreciate the craft of a given poem, or to relate to the experience it exhibits. And it is fun to consider the opposite: what poems have you grown out of? What poems might find their way back to you?

Neither poetry nor life exists in stasis.

Poems As Invocation, Incantation, Spell

Since time immemorial, poems have been used to communicate with things and spirits of the beyond. Prayers and hymns have no other purpose, and can easily be considered a poetic sub-class, with their frequent uses of rhyme, regular meter, and supplication? There are much older incantations than the Lord’s prayer. And, if words and format help entreat the holy, it follows that such methods work with the infernal as well. It would not surprise me if incantations, invocations, and spells were among the first forms of poetry. They constitute a single class of variant methods to reach beyond our present and the tangible environment.

Typically, here I would rejoin with poems which I feel typify these forms. I would showcase, perhaps, a curse poem; an invocation of higher or lower power (perhaps the god of poetry or a lesser demon) recently published by a journal I admire; a poem whose intent was to work some kind of esoteric, small magic (beyond, of course, the magic of words).

But it is nearly Halloween. As such, it is time for the lighthearted, and the weird. As a result, I thought it would be fun to discuss horror movies that demonstrate the power and ubiquity of poems that act as magic. I also thought it would be fun to encourage you, O Best Beloved, to whip out pen and paper, or sit behind spooky, back-lit keyboards, and whip up your own wordy potions for dark, bat-wing nights.

Incantations may only present for a few seconds or minutes in these movies, but they dominate in their power to bring hell upon the poor souls to speak them. Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods” exemplifies the trope of a young fool or innocent who unwittingly speaks out loud a curse in a foreign or strange tongue that brings hell down upon the naïve youth and their party. In a different manner, the villain of the popular “Nightmare on Elm’s Street” movies, Freddy, has his own special theme poem: it begins “One, two, Freddy’s coming for you,” and features promptly in several movies of the series. And in the classic horror film “Rosemary’s Baby,” the coven led by the Castevets attempts to invoke the devil himself with a group chant.

Other magic poems abound. In “Hocus Pocus,” Bette Midler’s character and her two sisters join together for a short rhyming poem that successfully transforms another character into a chant. In the original “The Omen” (which I must heavily recommend over the re-make), an evil priest predicts that “When the Jews return to Zion/and a comet rips the sky,/and the Holy Roman Empire rises,/then you and I must die.” This is far from the only predictive poem featured in scary movies.

The truth is verse is everywhere, and versatile. I love exploring the more casual, ubiquitous uses of poetry in the modern world, and Halloween is a great time to focus on the esoteric styles of poetry that, frankly, have been with us for longer than written history – or so I posit. I recommend you check out some of these movies, or at least check in on Halloween, when I’ll post a recording of one of the most famous witchy poems of all: the Witches’ Chant from Macbeth.

Have a haunted evening.

October Audio Poem #1: The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe

The first time I heard this poem was in fourth grade. Of course, it was October, and the librarian at my elementary school was into October, Halloween, bats, cobwebs, the whole nine yards. This is entirely appropriate dressing for libraries. How many horror movies feature scenes in libraries – villains stalking victims through the stacks, the terror of any given corner? The potential for creepiness is great.

For me, with a birthday on Halloween, such features are only bonuses. In fact, the whole month of October is a bit of a bonus for me, as I can indulge in my naturally-somewhat-morbid proclivities and dial dark humor to the utmost. As a result, I thought it would be fun to celebrate with a very light-hearted month of blogging. There will probably be more posts than usual, on subjects such as “What literary character can I be for Halloween?” and “What are the best horror movies featuring poems?” I will be sharing more audio than usual as well – because what’s better than a scary poem or two, in the October night?

At any rate, I hope you enjoy. We have much to look forward to, you and I, before the end of the month, and for me another year.

Click through to listen, or click the image above.

The Examiner’s Conundrum

Literary analysis often provides a gratifying way to better appreciate an already-favored piece. That’s why I wrote a 25-page paper on Stephen King and horror tropes for my undergraduate senior research project. I also like to revisit favorite poems and break them down in different ways in an attempt to determine what makes them work so well, or at least so personally appealing.

However, two valid, almost-opposing obstructions arise when analysis and examination enter the picture. One can remove all joy from the pleasant, navel-gazing potential of analysis, while the other can strip confidence in one’s ability to “successfully” glean meaning from a work. The latter is often summed in a question many ask when first introduced to analysis: “How do I know I’m right?” or, with more pique, “Do authors really intend to put any of this additional, hidden meaning into their work? If they don’t, does that meaning exist?” then followed by “What about when authors vehemently deny analyzed ‘truths’ of their work?”

I suppose it’s possible that this wasn’t exactly what he was talking about, because sometimes Žižek can be hard to follow. But this was my takeaway, and my interpretation is valid, even if it’s wrong. Misinterpretations can still be accidentally true.*

I think the quote above well addresses such concerns. It’s accurate to observe that not all writers consciously inject their works with all the meaning that analysis uncovers. It’s probable that most don’t. Such deliberation would be harrowing on the part of the creator, and I imagine diminish the enjoyment and creativity of production. In addition, it’s not possible to anticipate all potential interpretations of a text, especially one’s own: the creator’s by necessity close relationship with their product logically prevents a disengaged view and the ability to interpret a product without bias. The emotional attachment of creation blinds one to certain subtleties. This also explains authors who, upon analysis, become upset or enraged at their interpreters’ conclusions. Of course those meanings may not have been meant. However, a lack of deliberation does not equate to a lack of result – how many times, for instance, have we hurt another’s feelings without intention? The result and impact remains. As a result, even unintentional interpretations possess validity.

Once the benefits of analysis are realized, a precocious reader runs the danger of falling in its other trap. Convinced of analysis’ value, the reader may become overly enthused. In advanced cases, subjects believe value cannot be gleaned from a work without its full review. Consequently, our dear reader will often endeavor to analyze everything. This scenario seems especially prevalent in poetry. The idea grows that one cannot truly understand or enjoy a poem without analyzing meter, rhyme, multiple schools of symbolism, temporal context and cultural movements, etc, to determine the given poem’s “message.” This idea insists all poems have messages, and that a failure to locate those messages is a failure on the part of the reader. This trap exhausts. It implies only the most mindful reading and review reveals a work’s value. I thought this way for a long time. I didn’t believe that reading poetry without further consideration could help me improve. I didn’t trust that I would learn a thing without conscious identification and articulation of a, any, every poem’s perceived strengths and flaws. The result? I read less and less. I tore my hair out over “Yes, but what does it mean?” One poem was a marathon. Six lines of surrealism would stymie me for weeks. What did it mean? I stopped enjoying poetry. I’d either feel guilty I wasn’t reading closely enough, or I’d struggle with minutiae, hyper-focussed to determine reasons for every detail in a verse. It is a misconception that one cannot learn from or like a poem based on its surface presentation. This is the unintentional lesson of high school lit classes in which poetry lessons are often compressed, toothless, and antiquated – boring – while ‘successful’ poetic analysis is a high-focus requisite. Unfortunately, this lesson sticks. I think it is one reason many people have difficulty approaching poetry today, in their extracurricular or non-academic lives.

I have learned that sometimes, appreciating a poem’s sound and rhythm is enough. While every fragment of a poem may possess hidden meaning, the identification of such should be a result of interest, not obligation. We can learn unconsciously as we read. When I want to understand a poem’s every nuance, or when I envy its success, then I analyze. Surrealist descriptions do not require me or you to determine what those images represent. Every poem does not need deep, philosophical hidden meaning. And you, beloved reader, need not torture interpretations out of beleaguered verse in order to like or even truly it.

Here is to the freedom of analysis – and the freedom of not having to always indulge in it.

*This quote is from the extremely entertaining article, “If Stalin Had A Ping-Pong Table,” about, of all things, Seinfeld, and published by – of all sources – Buzzfeed.

“The Conjugation of the Paramecium” – Audio Poem: August

Some poems are made. Some poems exist, wild in the world, waiting for the right person to find them and write them down.

Muriel Rukeyser’s “Conjugation of the Paramecium” is one of the latter. It’s one of my favorite types of poems – the factual kind, the one that relies on the beauty of real, even scientific facts in order to convey some sort of message, or at least a story, to its audience. I would hesitate, and shy away from, the idea that all poems must have messages. I’ll talk about that in a later post, but I believe the practice can drive one to frustration and oblivion.

Anyway, I was introduced to “Conjugation” in college. A girl in one of my poetry classes chose it for a memorization or presentation, and I remember moderately enjoying it. I wasn’t struck with it then, however. Then I “lost” the poem, forgetting it entirely until somehow, without conscious cause, it perked up into my mind and I re-found it, on my own. I ultimately chose to memorize it myself my final year of college. (It amazes me, by the way, how many poems I’ve supposedly memorized – many pieces of them have been lost.)

It is a long and narrow poem, free of ornamental language or ornate imagery, and I appreciate it for its directness and simplicity. I hope you enjoy it too.

Click through to listen.

Poetry’s For The Birds

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time. Almost as long as I’ve been writing for this blog, in fact. I have “bird poems” on blog-idea-lists from over a year ago. 

A while ago I’d noticed, you see, that poets seem to have this thing ­with birds. Birds show up all over poems. And what started to get to me was that almost every time a bird showed up in a poem, it was this transcendent, beautiful, flying, gorgeous fictionalized concoction of a creature. The bird was breathtaking. The bird was symbolic. The bird could not be killed, or evil would overtake your ship and crew and make you a social pariah, doomed to re-tell the terrible story for eternity. (Thanks, ht) Clearly, in the poetic canon, fowl were sacrosanct.

I love subversion. So I set my sights on birds.

You see, last August I sat through four hours of legal training. The training took place on the top floor of a building in which I don’t usually work – up on 14. I’m not good in meetings. Terrible attention span, me. So when a giant black bird with the widest trowel beak landed on the nearby roof and began flapping and grooming, I was fascinated. I was especially struck by the bird’s grotesque ugliness; the awkward way it hopped from tile to tile, how its feathers stuck out, odd and uneven. It struck me that the common representation of birds in poetry is idealistically inaccurate. Up close, most birds are anything but regal.

I think poets use birds to represent an ultimate grace or quality we cannot grasp. There’s something romantic about hollow bones. When in flight birds exude effervescence, embody liberty – but consider, also, how little there is to trip over, airborne. There is an unconsidered reality in poetry surrounding birds that I think should be explored with all the glee that comes with trope reversal.[1]

At any rate, I wanted to highlight three bird poems that break past their ubiquity. As usual I chose to eschew classics, in part for their role in creating the current feathery paradigms – but I provide links to some of what I consider essential bird poetry at close-of-post. Here, I’d like to discuss somewhat more current selections that fit my taste. Without further ado, I present three poems that feature those mortal winged creatures of air and light.

In Charlotte Boulay’s “Murmuration,” from her book “Foxes on Trampolines,” the potential to descend into romanticism is averted via concrete, stream-of-consciousness narration. Boulay’s narrator describes birds, yes, but instead of a single specimen the poem treats a flock of birds as the unit it becomes in air, as the group practices pinpoint swoops and signaling to perform as a functional whole. In ways, the flock’s movement recalls the inaccurate characterization of lemmings as pack creatures that follow so blindly as to run over cliffs – but precise unity is necessary to avoid midair collision. murmuration

Late Valentine

from the NPR interview with Dean Young here

We weren’t exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,
even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones,
ashy furrows like the folds in the brain
that signal the switchbacks and reversals
of our thought and just as brief. Your lips
were song, your hair everywhere.
Oh unknowable, fidgeting self, how little
bother you were then, no more
than a tangerine rind. Oh unknowable
other, how I loved your smell.
- Dean Young

Dean Young always reminds me of birds. As it turns there are fewer birds than I remember in his book, “Fall Higher,” but this poem contains an important one. “Young Valentine”‘s narrator’s lover is a bird embodied, first as she emotionally “lean[s]” to him, then physically: the “fidgeting self,” “no more than a tangerine rind” – light and flitful, a being full of “song.” As the poem progresses, the narrator’s regret becomes clear, and the depiction of his former lover as something so other than human, the epitome of uncatchable conveys his past love’s ephemeral nature well.

In “As Children Know,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, birds appear twice – first a blackbird as scene setting, then an atypical presentation of the narrator’s heart as bird, a metaphor whose strength deepens if one considers that a heart is housed within the cage of one’s ribs. Elegant indeed! The Red Bird is a wild counterpoint to the narrator’s orderly outer image, and the motif of birds as innately uncontainable repeats as the Red Bird “thrashes” against structure, longing after other personified elements of the earth and Native American mythology that appear within the poem. apache poet

Birds in poetry are deeply symbolic. Humans have long been fascinated with, and envious of, their ability to soar, dart, and dive far above us. Although we imitate flight, ours will never be as innate or seem as graceful. To us, birds represent, in many ways, the impossible. Is it any wonder we, especially writers, surround ourselves with them, putting them where we don’t even realize until after the fact?

Additional Reading

Bird-Named Literary Magazines
Birdfeast
Sixth Finch
Blackbird
Heavy Feather
Corvus (no longer operational, but check out back issues)  [2]
Barn Owl Review

Essential Bird Poems
Leda and the Swan – Yeats
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – Stevens
Linnets – Levis
To A Waterfowl – Hall  (Previously discussed here)
The Writer – Richard Wilbur (Listen to me read it here)
Save the Candor – Amit Majumudar  (Previously discussed here; listen to me read it here)

(Footnotes)

1: I experimented with bird poems for a while as a result of this. I am proud to say that “Birds Vol. 2″ will be published by Cider Press Review at a coming date.

2: Full disclosure, I have previously been published in Corvus and am sad to see they are defunct.

Read Out Loud: Matthew Zapruder

Hey!

One of the things I forgot to mention in last week’s anniversary post was a feature that I’m trying to bring back to this blog. Long-time readers may remember that for a while in mid-2013 I posted recordings of a few poemns that I’d read out loud. At first I was going to call it “Reading Wednesday” but I wasn’t able to maintain much regularity about what day of the week I was posting – and of course I don’t want to promise too much this go-round, either. But I have plans to put up an audio post onto this blog about once a month in this year’s worth of posts. I hope you enjoy them. I think it is a project that helps underline and stay true to some of the idea behind Kenning, that poems lose something when they are confined to the page. I certainly feel that there is much to be gained by reading a poem out loud.

Without any further ado, I’d like to present to you Part 5 of Matthew Zapruder’s very fine poem, “Come On All You Ghosts,” from the book of the same name. I hope that you enjoy.

Three Poems: Dead Doggerel

“All poems are about love or death.”

 

Sometimes I notice trends in poems, images that many, many poets seem to use: birds, or certain flowers opening in light, or water. Water, water, everywhere – that particular metaphor is almost impossible to escape, perhaps due in part to the nature of the English language. At any rate, an unusual trend caught my eye recently. Several friends and I were celebrating an unofficial poetry week, using Hubski to share and discuss poems. A plethora of dead dog poetry appeared.

What an interesting phenomenon! I thought. I knew cats were popular subjects in poetry – just ask T. S. Elliot – but dogs, and specifically, dead dogs? I decided to research the topic, pick out my favorite three dead dog poems, and share then here.

As it turns, I found more good dead dog poetry than I thought. I’ll talk about three specific ones below, but I’ve already linked to some of my favorite Hubski poems above, and I’ll throw some more links down at the bottom, too. Whatever you do, don’t miss Jimmy Stewart reading “Beau.”

I chose to start with Pablo Neruda’s “A Dog Has Died” which is a traditional sort of dog-death poem. It’s a little long but, as with all Neruda, worth it. This poem avoids sentimentality by refusing to wallow in emotion. The narrator is matter-of-fact about the dog’s flaws and death, even while maintaining a reverential tone.

Heather McHugh’s “Half Border, Half Lab” also details some of the deceased dog’s less endearing habits. I suspect this is a good way for the poem to maintain necessary distance. But then McHugh takes the poem and the dog even further, elevating the canine into stardom, comparing him to those celestial lights and – not to spoil anything – finding them wanting. McHugh presents a fiery defense of the canine’s life and passing.

I could not resist including Billy Collins’ “The Revenant.” This poem takes the traditional dead-dog poem, if I may, and flips it upside down. First, it’s from the point of view of the dog – quite unusual among the poems I’ve found. Moreover, it appears that the dog/owner relationship was somewhat contentious. It makes for a great riff on the trope and an enjoyable read.

The Dog - Fracisco Goya

If you liked these, or like dogs, or good poems, please also consider checking out:

Ars Poetic With A Dead Dog In It

Poetry Foundation’s List of Dog Poems

McSweeny’s How To Tell If Your Dog Is A Fatalist

Poems Are Easy Cuz They’re Short

Recently, I was at a book club meeting – yes – and one of the members made what was intended as a light, passing joke on dead dogs and poetry. (A future blog post.) “I have a theory,” she said, leaning towards some member of the audience more inclined to get the joke than I was, “that poetry is full of dead dogs because that’s all you can get out of a relationship with a dog -  a poem!”

The joke was that dog/owner relationships are shallow, I guess? And that poems, because of their brevity, are as well. My book club was quick to point out the plethora of literature associated with dogs and, often, their deaths: Old Yeller, the Call of the Wild, Shiloh, Where the Red Fern Grows, and White Fang, among others. I mentioned See Spot Run. (I may not have been entirely serious.)

But what bothered me about the joke was not the implication that dog/owner relationships are inch-thick, but that poems are. This person had made a Cardinal Sin that many authors have made, to be fair. I’ve even written about Neil Gaiman’s opinion in this blog post here. I suppose it is easy to dismiss poetry because it is not overwhelming in length. To be sure, poems are no Les Mis – just as, I’ve said before, a sprint is not a marathon.

I suppose that in a way our own educational system has raised us to believe that because something is short, it is easier. An exam may consist of many multiple-choice questions, or a select number of short-answer, or one long essay question. But this is as much in deference to the recipient – the teacher who must grade these answers – as in recognition that longer, free-form work takes more time to complete. We prefer tests of 10 questions to those of 100 – even though, statistically, we may be preferring the less-wise option. After all, it is easier to pass a test of 100 questions than 10. One can get 20 questions wrong on a 100-question test and still get a B. With ten questions, only two can be wrong in order to obtain the same grade.

It strikes me it is much the same with poetry. In novels and longer works, an author has the liberty to make more mis-steps with less notice. With a poem of ten lines it becomes glaringly obvious if a metaphor is out of place, and very difficult to hide even a single poorly chosen word. In a book of 100 pages, it is highly unlikely anyone, be it reader, author, or editor, will focus with that degree of detail on the diction. As a poet, when I am asked to review other people’s prose, I find myself nit-picking single word choices even if the overall statement the author makes still comes across relatively clearly. I obsess over small details. I recognize this and curtail it when my opinion is asked, because I know that’s not what someone wants when they’re writing an essay for a college course or something similar. However, it is a skill I have developed because I work in a craft where not a single syllable or metaphorical thread can be out-of-place without someone noticing.

Saying “poems are easy because they’re short” is like saying “short tests are easier because they’re short.” Sure, it is easier to take the test. It is easier to read a poem. But it is a lot harder to pass muster in both.

There’s Something To It, After All

Something that commonly appears in poetry workshops I’ve attended is specificity. Everyone loves specific poems, that describe the exact color of the sky or sound of a car engine, then go further: poems that name streets, towns, and places we’ve never been to, that talk about the cross-sections of certain cities with a certainty that defies the audience’s strangers. Of course this road intersects with that one. Haven’t you been there yourself? By speaking with authority, the poem becomes more real. Yet I’ve noticed something a bit strange about some strong poems I love.

Several of them begin with one of the vaguest possible words: they begin with something so undefined as, well…

something.

I’m being literal here. The word “something” crops up in surprising frequency in poems, often in titles, usually near the beginning of poems (W. S. Merwin, Thomas Hardy, and Paul Muldoon are all guilty of this, to name a few, not to mention Carmen Tafolla, Charles Bukowski, and Travis Nichols), although to be honest – who is counting? (Let’s not forget “something” in music – start with the Beatles and go from there.) Is it because the word is ubiquitous? Is it because we love untouchable generalities as much as specificity in poems? I am reminded of an earlier blog post about Ron Reikki’s poem “This Is The Poem That’s Going To Get Me Out Of The Mines.” The narrator is asking his friend Jonathan how to achieve success in poetry. Jonathan says: “that poets/love mist. They want so much mist in a poem that you can’t/see anything else other than mist .”

But surely every poem that begins or starts with “something” cannot be condemned. I must admit I noticed this poetic tendency when, well – writing poems that started with “something.” The beginning generality seemed to give the poem a kick, brought me in, entranced me. The poem often became about the “something,” slowly defining it through the course of the verse. As a result, for my own edification as much as for yours, O Dear Reader, I decided to study* this confusing trend. I chased down “something” poems. And, from that harvest, I culled three of my favorite “something” poems to share.

It is impossible to talk about poems that begin with “Something” without mentioning Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.” This classic poem often echoes in my head; it begins with “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” and ends as a study of neighbors. The poem moves from the general, undefined “something” – a sentience that works against boundaries and neat, straight lines – to a specific interaction between the narrator and his neighbor, as they work to undo what this “something” has wrecked, over the winter, on the stone partition between their properties. The poem is as strong as the rock construction the two characters rebuild within it.

This second poem is the one which brought my attention to “something.” It is one of Patrizia Cavalli’s, untitled except by its first line, and since it is not available in whole on the internet, I have copied it in its entirety below. On a side note, I find it interesting that my favorite Cavlli poem begins with another vague term: “someone.” Cavalli is a decorated Italian poet who is not read enough in America. This poem is from a collection of her works called “My Poems Won’t Change the World.”

Something that the object never can take in,

an empty bucket that won’t carry me.

I held the silent months in a wide weave

which was supposed to flash forth in full voice.

I tried to speak and it unraveled on my tongue.

It’s neither net nor coat, it’s only a screen;

I capture nothing and it won’t cover me

but separates one silence from the silence.

That other labyrinthine and interior sound

practiced alone as I walk along the street

or waking up, did not emerge,

held off from me.

 

 

As my final poem I have selected Michael Gizzi’s “Something About October.”  It strikes me that for all we wax poetic about specificity, this is a poem of theoreticals. It begins with and repeats “if” – if this is where we are, then. In that way it is almost like a hypothesis, generally made as “if…then” statements. A hypothesis of verse, if you will.

Up Next: Poems Are Easy Because They’re Short

 

*That is, I conducted a few Google searches. My Google-fu is strong.

An Interview With Kendall A. Bell

I first became acquainted with Kendall A. Bell when I was slogging through the submission process, early in my “career.” (It is still early in my “career.”) I found him, I think, via Duotrope or Poet’s Market, two infinitely useful resources any poet looking to get published should turn to. His was the first non-local journal to publish anything I had written. It was an amazing feeling.

Since then, I’ve also had the pleasure of traveling to New Jersey and visiting Kendall for a reading/open mic series he hosts. Through him, I’ve also gotten to know some other wonderful poets, like Valerie Loveland and Amber Decker (we attempted to do the April Poetry challenge, NaPoWriMo, together – you are supposed to write a poem a day for the month). He’s been a great source for me through the years I’ve known him. He’s also a passionate, talented writer who runs an online literary magazine as well as a print press. (See his bio at the bottom for details.) As a result, I thought he’d be a great person to interview for this blog – someone I know has a lot of dedication, who has a day job other than poetry, and who still pours so much energy into the craft. Plus, I knew he’d have some interesting thoughts on the modern state of poetry, as he essentially lives it. Hence, this interview. Without further ado, I present to you six questions with Kendall A. Bell:

(E. H. Brogan) I thought I’d start with a poem I’ve turned over on this blog before, and want to explore in detail as a long-term project. When does a poem become a poem?

(Kendall A. Bell) It is a poem from the start, it just needs some tough love. Perhaps a slap or two. For me, it’s a fully formed poem after I’ve pained over it for weeks and have properly edited and begun to almost hate it for not cooperating with me. OK, forget weeks. It could even be a year…or more. It’s a poem when I can finally leave it alone.

(EHB) I think you’re a person who’s pretty in-touch with non-academy poets and poets who aren’t part of the current “canon.” You seem to have your ear to the ground and an awareness of what could maybe be called the poetic counter-culture or anti-establishment dynamic. What are your poetic influences? Who are some under-read poets (poets who, in your opinion, should be read way more)?

(KAB) Well, my earliest influence was Poe, and it really showed in the newborn stages of my work. Later, I’d discover Nicole Blackman, and that was another influence. These days, it would be Tony Hoagland, Keetje Kuipers, Traci Brimhall, Alexandra Teague, Matthea Harvey, Sierra DeMulder. Under-read poets? I would find that most poets are under-read. A lot of people equate poetry with the likes of Frost, Poe, Whitman, Williams, Keats, Dickinson and that’s fine, but there’s a world of good poetry out there. Academia likes to work up people like Stephen Dunn and such, but I’ll take BJ Ward over him. Again, Sierra DeMulder is dynamite. I’m a big fan of Taylor Mali. Kuipers might be among the best poets out there right now. Dan Maguire is criminally under-read.

(EHB) I’ve noticed that you have a lot of passion for poetry. It practically seeps out of your pores! How do you balance poetry and work, life, etc? How do you find time to do both, with a job that doesn’t exactly inspire or encourage creativity?

(KAB) It isn’t always easy to find that balance. In jobs past, I would be able to stop what I’m doing and write something down if it sticks in my head. It’s harder to do that at my current place of paycheck retrieval. For me, poetry is my life, so it comes out when it does. It is an integral part of who I am and what I do. I try to take my down time to write, but it doesn’t always work that way. I don’t like to force anything so, oftentimes, I’ll read other people’s work instead and find inspiration there. Let’s just say that the woman of the house isn’t always thrilled with me in April. I take the poem a day challenge seriously. Last April, I doubled up, plus. I wrote 66.

(EHB) What’s the most important advice that’s stuck with you through your years of perseverance & dedication? What keeps you going despite how disheartening the poetic world can be at times? What keeps you from giving up?

(KAB) One of the most encouraging things said to me came from Dan Maguire. He simply told me, “You have a strong poetic voice. Keep pushing.” It’s important to have someone around who can find something in your work that others may not. It’s that voice that makes you push harder, work to be better. Dan has long been something of a mentor to me and without his encouragement, I might have not only given up on poetry, but existing, as well. Ultimately, you want to be a better poet and express what you have to say in the most profound way that you can. Yes, there’s a ton of poets out there. Yes, I am competing with poets coming out of college with MFAs, poets who have workshopped with established poets, poets who have been published in better, bigger publications. All I can do is evolve, connect, evoke. The idea of not having an outlet for my brain is a bit frightening, so I don’t think I could ever give up. I sometimes get some particularly nasty writer’s block, and sometimes I wonder, “Am I done?!”, but then…it awakens and there’s a sense of calm again. For a few minutes.

(EHB) Where would you like to see poetry go? What deserves more attention? What’s new and happening and interesting? What’s your niche or passion that isn’t in the limelight, but should be?

(KAB) I would love for more people to see poetry as an artform and not just something that anyone can just throw down on a piece of paper or online. I want to see it more in the mainstream consciousness. I want to see more readings and more people at them…more people standing up at open mic events and letting it fly. I want people to care about the written word as much as I do, and I don’t mean the junk that ends up on best seller lists. Poetry deserves to be respected and appreciated. I do find it exciting to see so many people performing poems on YouTube. Embracing other schools of poetry has opened my eyes to so many other poets that I might not have given the time of day before. There is no one way to write poetry. No one person, professor, poet has the right to claim that one way is the only way and I think we’re starting to see that in what has been coming out poetry-wise lately and that excites me. I think poetry deserves more funding, as well. I’ve long wanted to open a writer’s co-op locally to invite other poets and writers to a place where they can be free of stress and distractions to create and their art. I would offer workshops and readings there, as well. I am accepting donations. :)

(EHB) Finally, Kendall, what was your first experience with poetry? How did you get started going down this road?

My first experience was actually with haiku in high school. For an assignment, I had to take a picture and write a haiku based around it. I don’t think I still have it, but I remember getting a B, so it didn’t totally suck. That teacher, my English teacher, is the one who encouraged me to keep writing. Naturally, I wrote a lot of bad poetry as a teenager, but I do have her to thank for the encouragement.


Kendall A. Bell’s poetry has been widely published in print and online, most recently in Rose Red Review and work to a calm. He was nominated for Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net collection in 2007, 2009, 2011, 2012 and 2013. He is the author of fourteen chapbooks. His current chapbook is “Blair’s Echo”. He is the founder and co-editor of the online journal Chantarelle’s Notebook and the publisher/editor of Maverick Duck Press. His website is www.kendallabell.com and his chapbooks are available through www.maverickduckpress.com. He lives in Riverside, New Jersey.

 

 

 

 

 

Casey At The Bat

Hey guys! It’s time for Reading…well, Reading whatever-day-today is.

This time around I recorded “Casey at the Bat.” This poem is an enchanting classic about the most American of all sports, baseball, and a (fictional) titan of that profession.

More blog posts coming soon. An interview with Kendall Bell, who’s behind Chantarelle’s Notebook and Maverick Duck Press, and a Form Doesn’t Have To Mean Formal focus on pantoums. Besides that, I might talk about dead dogs in poems soon. It seems to be a popular topic. (Surprising, no?)

In the meantime, happy Valentine’s Day, guys. I hope you enjoy it.

An Interview With Rico Manalo

This post is much longer than usual. However, I hope you enjoy it. It’s an interview with my friend Rico Manalo, who has a BFA in Creative Writing. He has been published in Emerson Review and Stork.
You can find him online here.

I wanted to start by getting your general thoughts on poetry. A good place to start with, I think, is a phrase I’ve seen you use, that “poems are magic.” Can you talk about what you mean by that?

It’s no coincidence that parts of long poems are sometimes referred to as “cantos” and spells as “incantations.” That music and the human voice and therefore language are intertwined is no secret and should be no surprise. If we consider that language is the first layer of technology through which we experience our world, then it’s clear that every composition and utterance is a tool designed for a specific purpose. Even this is a machine I’m constructing to respond to the query conveyed by the machines of your questions.

One of the earliest song forms that we know of is the “call and response.” This form is often used while working, as in old slave songs, or songs sung by soldiers during training. Interestingly, this is also a form commonly found in religious services. These songs bind group members together, get them to recognize their existence as a unit, a people or a group. This changes the reality of the participant for at least the duration of the song. You could say these songs are spells of solidarity.

What I mean by “spell” is a specific utterance, an incantation that changes reality. When the human voice resonates, it does so by interacting with things that make up our universe. As everything in the universe is vibrating, adding the human voice to it is a conscious act of change and of participation with the universe. In a sense, this too is a call and response. That we use this method to communicate thoughts, feelings and ideas means that we are not only capable of creating utterances to suit our purposes, but makes it clear that there is skill involved in the construction of these machines.

Of course, this all presupposes that magic is real. Why wouldn’t it be? Magic is simply a term for the mysterious workings of natural phenomena. Whichever mother first sang her infant to sleep didn’t need to know that the particular overtone series she created was stimulating certain neural pathways, which helped lull her baby to sleep. All she needed to know was that she created something that had an effect and that would have that effect again under similar conditions. Magic and science are, of course, related. Science deals with what we know, what we can know and what we can learn about the unknown. Magic, on the other hand, deals mostly with creating a desired effect, whether or not one is fully aware of the exact mechanisms for creating the effect.

To put it another way, poems are not formulas. Poems are recipes (which are no doubt related to poems on the written side) and form is one of the ways that the recipe is influenced. An example of a recipe not being a formula, though coming very close to being one, would be sourdough bread baking. The element of sourdough leaves things open to the natural (non-human) world, relying on the serendipity of a particular culture attracting desirable strains of yeasts and microbes into the substrate of the dough. A poem relies on the writer’s individual essence to attract, generate or catch the particular words, phrases, and imagination that form the poem.

Poems are magic because they are spells designed to create a particular experience for a reader/listener. The writer crafts the poem with intention, but can only guess at what that experience will be: the consumer is not usually known to the writer. Magic is slippery stuff and relies heavily on the human touch to succeed, if at all.

With that in mind, how do you approach & break down a poem? How do you analyze it?

I try to approach poems as cleanly as possible. By this, I mean I try not to bring any preconceptions about what I will feel, so the poem has the most evocative power for me. This also means that when I read a poem for the first time, I try not to think too much.

As for breaking down a poem, that generally happens during the second read. I’m really conscious of line breaks and sound and most often treat “meaning” as secondary. I think that the writer’s subconscious makes its way into a given poem by nature of fitting words together and the shaping of the whole. I will also roll poems around in my mouth to see if that makes a difference in how my eyes perceive the lines. I look for what poems evoke much more than content or subject matter.

That said, I will take poems apart in an effort to see how they fit together to see if I can get a bead on how the writer’s conscious mind works.

In the end, I go with how poems make me feel about them.

What do you look for in a poem?

I absolutely love it when a poem takes everyday elements and creates a reality far different from the one the poem and I started out in. I love it when sound and wordplay and line breaks start to crack the state that I was in when I began to read the poem. I find it easier to talk about what I don’t look for in a poem, but if I did that, I think I would give the impression that I don’t like any poems! I guess this is why I try to give everything a chance, even if it sometimes makes me feel like pulling my fillings out. I guess you could say that I read more stuff that I don’t like than stuff that I do, which may be a failure on my part in knowing how to look for things that I like.

What are the elements required in order to be a successful reader, writer, creator? What do you need to bring to the table?

I don’t know that I’m qualified to answer this question. It’s a really hard question. I’m also only confident saying I’m a successful reader. So, I will answer as best I can.

To read successfully, a lot of what people bring with them needs to be thrown out. To use food as a metaphor again, before reading something for the first time, one should approach with a clean palate. The mental equivalent of lemon sorbet. I don’t know how other people achieve this, but anything I can do to not think about poetry or poetics works for me. If something is really shit, you know right away. No sense walking into a bar expecting to get into a fight, you know?

In order to be a successful writer, I think that writing needs to be taken seriously. Not “writing is a serious art and I have no sense of humor about it,” but “writing influences all things and for me, makes the world make sense, is how I relate to the world, and other people.” I don’t think I like the MFA culture of poetry. I have thought about getting an MFA in poetry, but the academic culture of poetry leaves me less than excited. Though all art is in some sense intellectual, poetry should be more about the animal, the reaction and pleasure more than the poetics and cultural/academic merit. There is a reason why poetry academics evoke images of joylessness. I fully understand and support the exploration of why things work in poetry, but if it doesn’t have balls and guts, then what’s the point?

As far as being a successful creator goes, I’m not sure. It’s one thing to be someone who successfully creates and something else to be someone who creates things many people enjoy and attribute success to. I am in the former category, perhaps just barely. I am often unsatisfied with my work. However, I think that’s a quality that drives one to excel and it’s a reason why I’m not so enamored of the academic side of things. Poetics seeks to explore why things work. My problem is that all poets write individually. Style and taste are as important as skill. How can generalized theories help us as individuals, except in introducing new ideas? And yet, I feel like a lot of people I encounter use these new ideas as guidelines, whether consciously or not. I think that’s a mistake.

To be a successful writer, one needs to bring endless curiosity to the table and a willingness to jump off of anything, sometimes in order to know what a mistake feels like. In this way, they will then have the kind of experience that enables them to stitch poems together from the fabric of their life in a way that is real and meaningful to a reader. I think that imagination is crucial, because empathy is crucial. How can one relate to other people, if one can’t imagine stealing, then walking several hundred miles in another’s shoes?

Who, in your opinion, is a poet that isn’t being read enough right now? What is the ONE book I should go out, buy and read right now (assuming I haven’t read it)?

I think that Alan Dugan isn’t read enough. That guy wrote about the everyday in an unapologetic and no-nonsense way that I admire. There is so much poetry that deals with the lofty, or the overly intellectual, or the vague and I have no idea why. But then, we all masturbate in more or less the same ways, dreaming that the differences are profound. Anyway, I think you should go out, buy and read right now Poems Seven: New and Complete Poetry by Alan Dugan.

How do you respond to the question, “What kind of poetry do you write?”

I respond in different ways. If someone is not familiar with surrealist poetry, but is passingly familiar with the term “surreal” I will say I write surreal poetry. If I am asked by a poetry person, then I will say that I don’t know. So to you, I say: I don’t know. I know that I most often write about things related to misunderstanding and make heavy use of wordplay, particularly on line breaks to create juxtapositions that I feel express my understanding of things, which is to say, very little. It amazes me that so much of what we say can mean wildly different things even with the most minute of shifts in context or tone. To say it succinctly, I write poetry that pleases me.

Why did you start writing poetry? When? What’s your background in the area? What’s your motivation? Who are your favorite poets?

I’ve written poetry for a long time. Honestly, I started doing it because a girl I liked told me she liked my poems and also, my classmates and teachers seemed to enjoy it. Later, I found that personal joy that comes with joining words and that’s what compelled me to get a BFA in creative writing. I would say that I have been writing poetry seriously for ten years and not so seriously for six years on top of that. Though, my output did seriously fall off when I lived abroad. I need to be surrounded by the language, I guess.

My favorite poets are Alan Dugan, Dean Young, James Tate and Kenneth Koch, in no particular order.

My motivation is to write the kind of poems that I would like to see. I mentioned that I don’t feel like I know how to seek out poems I would like and that extends to poets too. Thus, I try to be the kind of poet I would like to read if I weren’t me.

Usain Bolt Is A Poem

Recently I read an article quoting Neil Gaiman. The author, a master of dark arts and writing, had commented that “If you only write when you’re inspired, you might be a pretty good poet, but…”

I took umbrage at this.

Gaiman’s gist seems to be that, since poetry tends to be short, it is possible to succeed in the art on inspiration alone. He said that no novelist can only write when they’re inspired; that there are going to be scenes you have to write because they need to exist within the novel, even if you-as-author hate creating those scenes. An author may never want to write certain scenes, but in the end must. Otherwise, the novel isn’t complete.

While I believe it was unintentional, Gaiman’s statement seemed biased: that ‘poets don’t need to work every day to succeed’ or that poetry was in some way easier than writing novels, due to matters of sheer size. That poets could afford to rely on inspiration instead of discipline when practicing their art. That for poets, only writing when inspired was acceptable.

With this, with all of this, I disagree.

Neil Gaiman writes marathons. Usain Bolt, world-record-holding sprinter, runs in poetry. The amount of work both must pour into their exercise can neither be quantitatively compared nor dismissed as unsubstantial due to the length of the race. For every sub-10-second 100m race Bolt has run, he trained hours. Similar time drafting, writing, and revising goes into each brilliant sonnet. When training for a marathon, one must maximize miles. But when you sprint, the focus shifts: sprinters, and poets, must shave everything out. The type of practice Gaiman and I put it is different, but the weight of the work is the same.

And no one succeeds who does not work.

When we rely on fickle inspiration, an uncontrollable muse, to drive writing, we become lazy. We feebly practice ourselves into a corner. If you do not write on days you aren’t inspired, you lose the ability to write on command – or fail to cultivate it at all.

If you write solely for pleasure, this is fine. But if you ever plan on writing to a deadline, that lack of practice will cripple you. No professional musician walks into a concert without preparing. If you want to be a real, capital, bona-fide Neil Gaiman Writer – prose, or poetry – you can’t pick up the pen only when whimsy strikes.

Yes. You will know people who claim to write only when driven. With enough talent, that can work…at least a couple of times. We all get a few home-runs.

But unless you get out and bat every day, sometime, those lucky hits will stop coming.

Coming up next time: your typical three of something. Tune on in.

 

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