I don't know which I like more - first drafts, endlessly tinkering through draft after draft, or the feeling when you know (or pretty much know) you can send a poem out into the world.
Let me share a little secret. "Despite Nagging Malfunctions," which goes live today at The Superstition Review, began in a little room called The Stellar's Jay Suite at the Kangaroo House Bed & Breakfast in East Sound, Washington. I was there as a resident for Artsmith last February, spending a fabulous week, mostly on a day bed with a notebook in my lap and a stack of books at my side, researching everything from typhus to Saturn (hmmm, why was I researching typhus? I can no longer recall, but there it is, scrawled in my notebook: "highly contagious caused by bacteria in lice. 10-40% chance of dying. Between 1918-1922, typhus killed three million").
But I digress.
To begin "Despite Nagging Malfunctions," I first had to find out that Voyager 2 , well, "despite nagging malfunctions"(according to an archived 1977 New York Times article), launched in September of 1977.
I also had to come up with a list of statements from various poems by Mary Reufle, including:
I was given [concrete gift] ...
I smelled ...
I discovered ...
I fell in love with ...
My mother ...
My father ...
I learned ...
One morning ...
I saw ... [image of animal]
State a piece of advice. Dismiss or muse on it. Ask a question.
Go back to talking about the same animal.
Don't be [animal].
In other words, I made myself a little poem draft road map.
It wouldn't be the first time someone worked from a blueprint, would it?
I hope you enjoy the completed version. It was a fun poem to write, especially gratifying to get Tycho Brahe's prosthetic nose into a poem, and some Emily Post wisdom.
During this season of giving consider giving poetry books purchased from local book sellers or directly from the presses who published them. 2013 was a banner year for poetry. Here are just a few of my favorite new releases:
The New York Times recently featured Kasey Jued's poem "To Swim" on their ArtsBeatpage, which is how I first found out about Kasey's work, along with her amazing new book, Keeper, winner of the 2012 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from University of Pittsburgh Press. Kasey's work appears to be autobiographical, that is, it shares images/memories from the speaker's childhood, but her work is also very much NOT about her own personal "abouts" - it's about the abouts of owls, dogs, bees, rain, and blackberries, which under her spell become somehow holy, become something equal to God. Two of my favorite poems in the book, "Race Track, Hialeah, FL" and "Skin," are about racehorses and sharks, respectively. I love how, in "Race Track, Hialeah, FL," we are given the metaphor of the track's green center "like a place on paper / where, years later, I'd set / my compass tip, careful / to make my circles concentric, / meaning they shared a heart." WOW! I also love, in "Skin," this conversation going on between two kids: "My friend / said even the skin of a shark / could cut you: under its silver / a million tiny blades." These are poems exquisitely calm and full of reverence for the natural world, brimming with creatures of the wild worth paying attention to. Puns be damned: this book is a definite keeper.
Stag's Leap: I was told it would be a good read, but I did not know it would be this good. In a long career with many, many excellent poems/accolades to her credit, Olds has written some of her best poems in this volume cataloging the unanticipated breakup from her husband of thirty years. The voice of these poems is by turns elegiac and angry, victorious and downtroddingly wrecked. There isn't a weak poem in the book, but the ones that stand out demand to be read again and again, like the one ("Tiny Siren") where she finds the photo (a year before he tells her he's leaving her) of her husband's future new wife in the Whirlpool, and the one ("Poem of Thanks") where she considers "the touch of the long view" as opposed to the one of someone who is "passing through," lovingly listing the many places where they "did it": "Colleague of sand / by moonlight -- and by the beach noonlight, once, / and of straw, salt bale in a barn, and mulch / inside a garden, between the rows ..." If you want a sneak preview, I highly urge you to listen to Olds read from Stag's Leap plus a few of her earlier books, here.
At long last Seattle poet Rebecca Hoogs has a full-length collection of poetry, Self-Storage! Her poems are smart, sharp, and sassy, with plenty of pleasing ear candy, as in (from "L'Oeuf"): "Love is a brunch and a racket. / I know it means nothing, / barely worth the oofing / before the offing, but still / I load up my basket / and watch them hatch: / chicklets of zip...". Who wouldn't want a book with a love song to the word suck and an accentual syllabic poem in the voice of Ariadne? Give this to someone who feels refreshed by poems that champion sound and rhyme and eschew all order of earnestness in the confessional mode.
In Bob Hicok's Elegy Owedthe speaker, as always, seems to be whispering into the reader's ear at a crowded party, sharing the most intimate and sorta creepy details of his past ("He was made to touch a corpse as a child" - from "Coming to life"), while also uttering the most utterly quirky and unexpected lines in all of contemporary poetry: "If lightning/ loved me, it would be sewn / with tongues, it would open / my mind to the sky / within the sky. " See what I mean? I'd love to meet Hicok's speaker at a holiday party as I'm deciding between the caviar with Triscuit and the guac and chips. Instead of reflecting on our teaching methods and catching each other up on our various athletic endeavors, he would turn to me and say "I've gone up the fire escape / in my brain, where everything / is a mist and a slow wet kiss ... " (from the title poem), and I would love him dearly for it.
Mary Szybist's Incarnadine won the 2013 National Book Award, and for good reason. Sample some of the poems from this gorgeous book here and here. I love her work - am smitten with it. Nuff said.
In order to be in the running for one of the two free copies, leave a comment to this here blog post - say hello and tell me you're "in," at the very least, but also feel free to share your favorite poetry book(s) of 2013, or your writing resolutions for 2014, or something on your wish list (experiences and actions preferred, but if you have a friend on Etsy.com who makes amazing jewelry, share away!).
Anyway, at the end of the week (on the "actual" Black Friday), I will number the comments one to whatever, then toss the numbers in a hat and have my daughter draw two of them. I will then contact the winners, get addresses, and send them their books completely postage free.
It's easy! You can't lose! It's fun! No fine print & no messy clean-up!
There I was ... doing a little research on Saint Francis of Assisi, working on a poem about toxic outgassing of ordinary household furniture, when the text came in:
We r on the huff post for the daily poet. Fuck yeah!!!
It was Kelli, of course.
My response was simple.
(So much for on-screen eloquence.)
But okay, what if they canned it? What if the reviewer went all snarky and wiseass about the prompts we worked so hard on these past five years, all those drives up and down I-5, all those ferry trips?
I clicked. I read. And no, they didn't can it.
Instead, reviewer Jeb Harrison makes the case that "in today's screen culture where the written word ... has become the prevalent mode of communication, people are starting to realize that those that can write well are more likely to be heard. Not just folks that make their living by the pen, but ostensibly everybody that communicates via the screen; smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, or smart TV--it makes no difference, we're all writers now."
Yep, we're all writers. And by that line of reasoning, "we need professional tools; we need 'prompts' to loosen up the gray matter. We need The Daily Poet by Kelli Russell Agodon and Martha Silano."
Did he really say that? Did he really suggest our book could be used to help people at a loss for words on a first, second, or third date? During uncomfy moments at the dinner table?
He suggested we should turn to our tablemates and ask: What do you hate? I'm not particularly fond of guavas ...
(which happens to be the prompt for June 29, the Hate Prompt!)
June 29 Hate What do you hate? I'm not particularly fond of guavas, synthetic fabrics, or costume jewelry. Fashion a poem from your list of things you'd rather not eat, drink, wear, hear, or see. For more inspiration, do a quick Internet search to find Charles Simic's poem "Our Salvation" to get your invective juices flowing.
Our time together begins on Friday afternoon with a fireside writing prompt and dessert. On Saturday, we'll spend the afternoon strolling/hiking, writing in and out of doors (weather permitting), followed by a lively evening repast at a local restaurant. Sunday morning brings another delicious breakfast at the B&B, then wrap things up with a guided writing exercise at nearby North Beach.
Like Anne Sexton, the business of words often keeps me awake. My favorite tulip? Queen of the Night. My poetry books are Blue Positive, What the Truth Tastes Like, and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, and (forthcoming) Reckless Lovely. I also wrote a book of 366 writing prompts, one for every day of the year, with Kelli Russell Agodon: The Daily Poet, curate Beacon Bards, a 2nd Wednesday of the month poetry reading series at The Station in Seattle's Beacon Hill neighborhood, and serve as poetry editor of Crab Creek Review.