Thursday, December 31, 2009

Thinking about New Year’s Eve Poems….The classic “The Darkling Thrush” by Thomas Hardy and the not-so-classic “Ode to Waffle House” by Dave Smith

The Darkling Thrush by Thomas Hardy

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-gray,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

There’s a lot to admire with this poem written on the last day of the century in 1899, but one aspect that I appreciate is the complexity of nature. Nature is not simply one thing: neither innocent nor directive, neither pure nor spiritual, neither benevolent nor malevolent. The speaker notices natural details that his pessimistic mood assigns to gloomy descriptions such as the “specter-gray” frost and all that follows in the first two stanzas. But that does not mean that nature reflects his feelings or is one with man, not in the Wordsworthian sense. Instead, the speaker only notices the happy bird because it is so loud. It’s not that nature is teaching, but more a backdrop for the poet to teach himself. The poet corrects his own mistake in thinking that nature was reflecting his inner state.

And another poem that I came across in the latest issue of Five Points isn’t really about New Year’s Eve but that is where many of us have ended up on this night. It’s “Ode to Waffle House” by Dave Smith. Great idea for a poem and love the title, here is an excerpt of it:

This is the South, kingdom of interstates,
warehouses, guns, journeys, and the Waffle House,

so we get in our cars and our trucks,
we wave our hands this way,
vigorously as if to someone who is dead.
down here there is always one
fifteen miles or less
either way….

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Mega-List: My Favorite “Best of” Albums, Films, Books, TV, and Lies Lists

If there is a disorder that involves loving to write and read lists, then I have it. And this time of year is a double dose of joy for my lovely neurosis because we have the end-of- the-decade lists AND end-of-the-year lists. Can I girl get much happier? I’ve been reading way too many of these and thought I would write the mega list: my list of my favorite lists. And please feel free to add your thoughts on what’s not here. I'd love more suggestions of good art out there.

My Favorite Poetry Books from the Aughts (a reduction to ten is ridiculous)
The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
Time and Materials by Robert Hass
The Selected Levis by Larry Levis
My Vocabulary Did This to Me by Jack Spicer
Unmentionables by Beth Ann Fennelly
Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert (Although in all honesty, this book is on here because of how much I loved Gilbert’s Great Fires.)
Tomas Transtromer translated by Robin Fulton
You by Frank Stanford
Steal Away: New and Selected by C.D. Wright
Dark Things by Novica Tadic translated by Charles Simic

Blake Butler’s best 25 poetry books of the decade (It’s a wonderful list.)

The Best Books list from NPR
This one site has many wonderful categories for this year’s best books such as best debut fiction, best foreign books, best indie bookstore books, best book club books, etc.

The Onion’s Best TV Shows of the Decade,35256/1/
The Wire
Arrested Development
Freaks and Geeks
Mad Men
Breaking Bad
The Office (UK)
The Shield

The Onion’s Best Albums of 2009,35918/
Andrew Bird, Noble Beast
Brother Ali, Us
Converge, Ax to Fall
P.O.S., Never Better
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone
Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orea
Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer
Animal Collective, Merrweather Post Pavilion
Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest
Phonix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Metacritic's 35 Best Reviewed Artists of the Aughts
1 Spoon
2 Sigur Rós
3 Super Furry Animals
4 Sleater-Kinney
5 White Stripes
6 Animal Collective
7 Drive-By Truckers
8 Lightning Bolt
9 Iron & Wine
10 The Hold Steady
11 The New Pornographers
12 Portastatic
13 Elbow
14 Low
15 Bob Dylan
16 OutKast
17 TV On The Radio
18 Sufjan Stevens
19 Tom Waits
20 Four Tet
21 Dizzee Rascal
22 Richard Hawley
23 Okkervil River
24 Sam Phillips
25 Radiohead (A popular pick for band of the decade, but 2001’s Amnesiac is holding them back here)
26 Yeah Yeah Yeahs
27 Kanye West
28 Andrew Bird
29 The National
30 The Go-Betweens
31 Neko Case
32 Blood Brothers
33 The Clientele
34 Modest Mouse
35 Yo La Tengo

Best Movies of the Past Decade from Peter Traver, critic with Rolling Stone
1. There Will Be Blood
2. Children of Men
3. Mulholland Drive
4. A History of Violence
5. No Country for Old Men
6. The Incredibles
7. Brokeback Mountain
8. The Departed
9. Mystic River
10. Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Steve Sparks’s Best Movies of the Past Decade
1. No Country for Old Men
2. Mulholland Drive
3. City of God
4.The Eternal Sunshine...
5. The Incredibles
6. Oldboy
7. Punch-Drunk Love
8. A History of Violence
9.The Descent
10. Brokeback Mountain
Honorable Mention: The Departed, Eastern Promises, Audition, Memento, The Dark Knight and Kill Bill, Vol. 1.

And let’s not forget the Best Political Lies of the Year
Winner is Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels”
And here are the runners-up:

Oh--and the photo here is just one of my favorites from the past year.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Modern War

I read this past Saturday at an “art share” hosted by Meredith McCarroll and Jeff Christmas. The idea behind it was for North Knoxville artists—which included dancers, musicians, painters, and writers—to come together, meet each other, and perform our work as a way to see what we do in a broad sense of exchange between all arts. Not only should I thank Meredith and Jeff for such a great night, but they received a grant for this through the Tennessee Humanities. So, thanks goes out to them, too. (And the painting here is by Leslie Grossman who shared her work with us that night.)

Being the week that President Obama announced the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan, I decided to read an older poem that I wrote called “Modern War.” The poem does not talk about whether or not I think the choice for more troops is a good one. (After all, I wrote this during Bush’s term.) Instead, the poem discusses how I’m bothered by how these decisions remain intellectual for me. Political. Ideological. I don’t stop any bit of my daily routine. Granted, for those living in the countries where we are stationed and for the soldiers, it’s a different story all together, and that chasm disturbs me.

(Originally published in 2004 by The Seattle Review)

A war begins
and a chickadee cracks
a sunflower seed,
spitting the hull down
to the ground, the same
ground that somewhere trembles
underneath the weight of tanks.
The night glows red, white,
and green with artillery,
and the birds begin to sing
mistaking light for day.
They tug up worms
from the earth,
swallow them whole
with a flex of the throat.
No one around me
stops working
the day a war begins
anymore. Not the gardener
tending to the grounds,
the teacher leading a song
of ABCs. Not the bird,
the worm, and never
the earth, incapable
of memory.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

One of the First

Dorothy Allison recently read at University of Tennessee and then came over to my house for a little reception afterward. She is best known for her work Bastard out of Carolina, and in fact, that was one of those books that made me want to be a writer. Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons was another. The poems “Those Winters Sundays” by Robert Hayden, “Alone” by Jack Gilbert, and finally “Hook” by James Wright did me in. About five in all. What all of those works have in common is they opened up the possibility of what one could talk about in literature. That is something that we continue to do as writers: include what has been excluded. I think of the poem by Jack Gilbert called “Not in Literature” that speaks to this idea exactly and ends with “Linda rising from a chair.” We never quite stop that search. Anyway, here’s a link to a recent interview with Allison where she talks about her new novel.—-always-it

I’m curious about other writers out there. What were some of those first works that made you want to write…?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Calls for Submissions

I usually don’t do this on my blog, but I have two calls for submissions that might be helpful to a couple of you here. First, the journal that I edit, Grist, features a genre in each issue that is often overlooked. For the last issue, we published an excerpt of a graphic novel written by Adam Johnson, Tom Kealey, and the Stanford University Graphic Novel Project. And for issue three, we are looking for three ten-minute plays. (This is an opportunity for publication, not production.) So, pass the word on to dramatists. Submissions should be sent by December 15th to: George Pate, Special Genre Editor; Grist; University of Tennessee; 301 McClung Tower; Knoxville, TN 37996. We are also accepting fiction and poetry submissions for the third issue as well if these are received by December 15th. You may send those to Fiction Editor Adam Prince or Poetry Editor Joshua Robbins.

Also, the SAMLA conference (South Atlanta Modern Language Association) is seeking four graduate students to read their poetry at next year’s conference in fall of 2010. Please send five poems and a short bio for consideration to me at: I just read there a couple weeks ago, and it’s always an interesting time. SAMLA is trying to do more for creative writers. And they also have a couple of great panels on songs.

I would write more, but I am deep into putting the final touches on my first poetry manuscript. If anyone wants to sell me a title, I’m buying.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

What Pat Pattison Has To Say

Pat Pattison, songwriting professor at Berklee School of Music (who also teaches poetry there and has a background in literary criticism) just spoke in an interview about the differences between writing for the page versus writing for the ear. (He’s in my book and will be writing on all of this in more detail.) It’s a wonderful interview and hits upon craft and measure in ways most people understand but can’t articulate. Here’s just one small example of what he said, and if you like this, read the rest of this little gem at

“Since the end of a line in poetry is a visual cue, a poet can end a line, yet let the content continue on to the next line, creating tension, but not confusion:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods

Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground

Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Robert Frost –“Birches”

The tension between line 3’s ending and the idea continuing into the next line feels like the girls are actually tossing their hair…

The end of a lyric line has a sonic cue—the end of a melodic phrase. Because the song is aimed at the ear, when a lyricist tries to carry a thought into the next melodic phrase, it usually creates confusion, since there is a disconnect between the melodic roadmap and grammatical structure.”

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

One of my Favorite Poems for Fall

Here is a poem I wanted to share that I remember each fall. It’s a prose poem by Russell Edson.

The Fall by Russell Edson

There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding
them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said then go into the yard and do not grow in the living
room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.

I want to just give you the poem and step away, but I also would like to make one comment that follows up on a recent post about how each poet has to teach the reader how to read his poem. Edson’s poem is a great example of this “teaching the reader” idea. Prose poems in the U.S. used to be met with much more skepticism, even hostility, than they are now. For example, in 1978, two out of three on the Pulitzer committee wanted to give the award to Mark Strand for his book The Monument that featured prose poems, but one judge, Louis Simpson, opposed this choice seeing as how the book wasn’t “verse” as he put it—and refused him the prize. Since then, more and more poets wrote about the possibilities of the prose poem, essentially teaching the reader how to read them. (I think of Bly’s writing where he discusses how the prose poem describes objects or fables well.) Fittingly, in 1991, Charles Simic received the Pulitzer for his book The World Doesn’t End, which is a book of prose poems.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Something Old, But New for Me

I read this last Friday with a great group of poets and tried something new. I memorized a poem. Now, this is such a been-around-the-block idea that I’m surprised I haven’t tried it before, especially considering that some of my favorite readers have been Marilyn Kallet and Yusef Komunyakaa who both recite some of their work. And that’s partially what’s striking to me. Although I’ve been told for years that I should memorize at least one poem and love it when others do, I resisted. Some of my foot-dragging thoughts were: “I almost have them memorized anyway;” “I don’t have the time;” and the more honest one of “It might be a little better to have one memorized, but it could be a whole lot worse forgetting the thing.”

Well, I didn’t forget the lines, and what I found is it changed how I read all the poems that night, including the ones on the page in ways I don’t entirely understand. I focused on the delivery of all of my poems a bit more, seeing myself that night as more of a conduit between the poem and the audience rather than the writer of the work. Those weren’t my poems. They were poems I was sharing. And that’s an important distinction standing on a stage. My ego took a step back, and my focus shifted to how well I was communicating the poems rather than if the audience liked the poems.

The key for me was choosing a poem that didn’t require exact precision with the memorized lines. What I worked on memorizing was the turns in the poem and where I wanted my stressed beats. I also found that as I practiced, I improved the poem, cutting anything extraneous since I would have the added bonus of not having to memorize what I cut. Also, I practiced with a group first to perform a bit of exorcism on the nerves. To Kali Meister, our reading couch, many thanks for giving us your time. And to everyone who came, many thanks for letting us share our work with you.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Heart Abrams

This week I have been restructuring my first poetry manuscript. Or rather, I’ve taken a bomb to my manuscript and am seeing where the pieces fall. Sandy Longhorn’s blog recently turned me on to something that Victoria Chang posted on problems she sees as a contest judge for first books. This blog is worth a read to any one wondering how to organize their first books. You can check it out at:

It is number eight on Chang’s list that is the most interesting to me, and that is Chang’s point that sometimes writers don’t consider the reader. This phrase is often said to a lot of aggressive head-nods, and I would agree with those aggressive head-nods, but the issue is more complicated than what it might seem. Not considering the reader is actually part of what contemporary poetry does so well. I should back up a bit and explain myself.

If you have ever been unlucky enough to find me in a bar talking about poetry, I will invariably start yapping on about M.H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp. In short, Abrams claims that we have undergone about four major modes of examining poetry: mimetic, pragmatic, expressivist, and objective. It is the expressivist mode that is the one that most affects contemporary poetry. Essentially, this mode came about around the Romantic period and emphasizes a focus on expressing what is within oneself. If you happen to read any writers like Wordsworth talking about their writing, it’s brimming with these metaphors of something being contained and the poet unleashing it such as with that famous Wordsworthian line that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings...". Frankly, this mode has become so dominant a poet could not even understand the point of a poem if it’s not to express oneself. Mimetic, for instance, privileged the writer objectively describing the world (writer as mirror), and pragmatic privileged the writer viewing his work as a way to inspire a reader to act, feel, or think a certain way (writer as teacher).

With this expressivist mode, a few things happen. The author becomes central to his work since it is the author’s experiences, feelings, and thoughts that he wants to express. Also, sincerity becomes valued over truth. (Whatever is truth anyway?) A consequence of the writer becoming more important in his work is that the reader becomes less important—which leads to other effects. Readers may be confused since this type of writing is more about the writer. Also, more reader confusion leads to a greater reliance on criticism—written by the author or schools or critics—to explain what is being said. Any of this sound familiar? It’s contemporary poetry. Now, just to be clear before I’m called out on this: nothing with literature fits within these tidy boxes, and I can think of many exceptions. Still, the boxes are quite helpful in lugging around ideas I couldn’t hold otherwise.

So, while we often complain that some poems don’t consider the reader, that principle is engrained in our current principle of expressivism. That does not mean it is without problems, but it is intricately linked to what is good about poetry. What does have to happen is each writer has to teach the reader how to read the poem. And perhaps that is what we are saying when we say the writer doesn’t think about the reader: the writer isn’t teaching the reader how to understand a particular poem.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Good News

I have some good news to share. I heard over the weekend that the University Press of Mississippi received final approval to publish a book that I will edit on the poetics of song lyrics.  This has been a project in the making for a few years, and I can’t say how happy I am to see it come into being. As I had mentioned in an earlier blog, this book idea began when I started a literature class at Belmont University on song lyrics. Essentially, when Johnny Cash died, Tennessee’s Senator, Lamar Alexander, asked on the Senate floor why English departments didn’t study songwriters alongside poets—and I thought his question was a good one. “Why not?” for me turned into “We should.”  The question then became how to discuss song lyrics as literature which this collection of essays will address, directly and indirectly. The focus will be on discussing points of synthesis and separation between poetry and songs.  I’ve solicited essays from a range of folks—literary critics to music bizmen—and I’m excited about the essays we have in this collection. David Caplan will be talking about how rhyme has changed in the hands of hip-hop artists, Dave Marsh (Springsteen’s unofficial biographer) will be talking about how lit professors shouldn’t talk about songs without the music, Tony Tost will be talking about Cash’s persona, John Paul Hampstead will discuss connections between heroic poetry and gangsta rap, I’ll be talking about the sonnet structure within pop country songs, and so on. Other contributors will include the awesome Keith Flynn who has written his own book on songs and poems titled The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory, critic Ben Yagoda, Senator Lamar Alexander, Pulitzer winner Claudia Emerson, founder and director of WAMFEST (The Words and Music Festival) David Daniel, and many other great folks. Simply put, I’m thrilled.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Hearing Richard Buckner

Adam surprised me with a trip to Asheville this past weekend to hear singer-songwriter Richard Buckner. From his first album Bloomed to his latest one Meadow, his style has changed from alt-country to this more husky, slurred, indie-rock thing. The album The Hill, which is Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology set to music, is a pivotal album change for him. That album moved him from writing songs to writing songs with a lot more poem-like qualities such as doing away with choruses and de-emphasizing clarity.

One thing that struck me about his show was something that Adam said: “He’s just not going to give you what you want.”  True.  Buckner attempted no warm-n-fuzzy rapport. In fact, he didn’t say a single thing between songs, and at the end of the show we got a “thank you for coming,” and he up and left. Also, Buckner keeps reworking a lot of the old favorites so that if you happened to have loved a melody, too bad. And if you want that bit of clarity, you ain’t going to get it. All of this leads me to why I like—no—love him. I’ve often been struck with how not getting what I want has led to something better. 


Something happened right before we left for the show that reinforced this idea. We were eating dinner at my mother’s, and I notice on this side table full of framed photos some vaguely familiar color underneath two pictures as a way to raise them above the others. It’s my first book and the first journal that ever published me. (And, yes, those are her only copies.) Now, at one point in my life, I thought my writing would earn me my family’s respect. Once I started publishing, I was pissed at how little they seemed to care. Example: my books used as scaffolding devices. I later realized how it was actually a benefit that my family does not fawn over what I do one bit. That realization took away any sense of trying to accomplish something with my writing to impress them or prove myself. And that ended up taking some pressure off of writing and looking at the poem as simply what it is: a poem. And that’s the point with Buckner: it’s about the song and not what I want from it as a listener.  Now, I realize that saying “it’s about the song” is a bit idealistic and no guarantee that what follows is a good song. But the odds are in favor for it turning out that way.

Anyway, if you haven't heard him, here is a link to him singing "Blue and Wonder." It has some of my favorite lines of his: “What's that word? I forget sometimes. It's the one that means love has left your eyes....”


Saturday, September 26, 2009


I'm taking an exam all this weekend, one of three that I need for my Ph.D. program. The first exam covered the genre of poetry, and this one covers 19th century British literature. Two things should be apparent here. One: you will be having a much more relaxing weekend than I am. And two: these exams could be improved if we could trim the categories just a smidge.

I’m not sure how this one will go, but the first exam ended up being one of the most rewarding weekends.  Instead of fixating on what else I want to read or learn, it was a relief to spend an entire three days writing down what I already know. A right of passage in some way.

Since I’m yammering all weekend about poems and prose, I thought it might be healthy to simply post one of my favorite poems from the 19th century and not say another word about it. It's "The Darkling Thrush" by Thomas Hardy.

I leant upon a coppice gate      
When Frost was spectre-gray, 
And Winter's dregs made desolate      
The weakening eye of day. 
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky      
Like strings of broken lyres, 
And all mankind that haunted nigh      
Had sought their household fires.   

The land's sharp features seemed to be      
The Century's corpse outleant, 
His crypt the cloudy canopy,      
The wind his death-lament. 
The ancient pulse of germ and birth      
Was shrunken hard and dry, 
And every spirit upon earth      
Seemed fervourless as I.  

At once a voice arose among      
The bleak twigs overhead 
In a full-hearted evensong      
Of joy illimited; 
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,      
In blast-beruffled plume, 
Had chosen thus to fling his soul      
Upon the growing gloom.  

So little cause for carolings      
Of such ecstatic sound 
Was written on terrestrial things      
Afar or nigh around, 
That I could think there trembled through      
His happy good-night air 
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew      
And I was unaware.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Losing my Voice

Voice. I lost mine this week.

I loved losing it.

Granted, I felt drab since I had to nod and smile as if I possessed no thought other than agreement. My dog indulged her scatological cravings since I couldn’t yell for her to not eat whatever deadness she found in the yard. And the flu-snot that caused the voicelessness of course created a general feeling of grodiness.

But I liked the limitation of losing my voice. I liked how I had to respond to the world a bit differently: less interaction; more smiles; phone off.  Overall, a return to the internal.

I began rereading Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay”—that thirty-eight page poem that consumes the worlds of the Brontës, a breakup, depression, parent-child relationships—and then redelivers all these worlds as one.  How to keep a long poem hinged together and engaging is difficult—and Carson uses a few different techniques such as the triadic stanza and section breaks to do so. On this reading, I found the flat voice held it all together, too. I know some readers complain about this flatness in some of her lines—and the introduction of the book even addresses that issue by saying that she can seem “unpoetic.”  The flatness in this poem works because it lends a tonal quality of isolation and depression that reinforces the subject of the poem. And she often follows up the flatness with quick transitions to another space: be it the interior to the exterior or a physical space such as from the moors to the kitchen. What I mean by that is one result of flatness is clarity, so when a jolting transition happens, it's easy to follow. Here is a short example where the speaker is visiting her mother and her mother is prattling on.  The transitions are quick between what the mother is saying and what the speaker is thinking, but since Carson delivers all of this in such a clear, flat voice, we can follow it. And if you haven’t had a chance to read this entire poem, you can find it in Carson's book Glass, Irony, and God published by New Directions Books.

Excerpt from "The Glass Essay" by Anne Carson:

“Mice in the teatowel drawer again.

Little pellets. Chew off

The corners of the napkins, if they knew

What paper napkins cost nowadays.

Rain tonight.


Rain tomorrow.

That volcano in the Philippines at it again. What’s her name

Anderson died no not Shirley


The opera singer. Negress.


Not eating your garnish, you don’t like pimento?”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Workshops and Woodchucks

Classes have begun in full, and I’ve decided to audit one last poetry workshop. That word “workshop” has always tugged at me partly because of its similarity to “woodchucks.” Once I think about that, I start creating asinine substitutions to the woodchuck tongue twister such as: How much work would a workshop shop if a workshop could shop work? And then I wonder if that's such an asinine question. How much work should a workshop shop?

A few years ago I started writing that dreaded workshop poem—partly out of the pressure of a weekly due date. As I talked about in Town Creek Poetry Review: “I became quite skilled at writing that 12-18 line poem with a couple of arresting images to jump start it followed by dash of meaning (often about the impossibility of meaning) and eureka, poem.” I like how in this workshop our professor Art Smith requires that we bring in two poems every two weeks. This seems like a good strategy to counter the workshop poem as it will allow for more risk and experimentation since we won’t feel the need to impress with both. If one fails, great. There’s another.

But this issue of failure and the workshop is an important one. Richard Jackson wrote a great article called “Sketch for a New Poetry Workshop” where he talked about how workshops often miss the point.  “The last thing that often gets discussed is the art of the poem.  Or sometimes the opposite happens: the discussion plunges into talk about particular words, line breaks, images, or the like, with no sense of the poem as an artistic whole, a made thing.” I agree with Jackson and definitely want to hear my poem discussed as a whole as well as in the particular. To be more specific, I want to hear when others think my poem just needs to be chucked. I write enough so that admitting to a poem failing doesn’t bother me.  That just means I’ve written outside my comfort level, so the risk of failure might be a bit higher. There are problems with what I’m suggesting. Many writers could say that the poet is the one who needs to determine when to abandon a work. Also, if I assess in any honesty how bad my poems were when I started writing, I’d have to admit that every poem should have been abandoned. Somewhere in that process of polishing up the bad poems, I started to write some decent ones. Maybe what I’m saying is that now I would like to hear my poem as a whole discussed before issues of line breaks and clarity. 

I’m not sure what the ideal workshop would be because each writer in there would imagine a different ideal. And this ideal changes over time. I’ve thought that in a workshop I run, I would ask each poet to begin by posing the question he/she is wondering about with the poem. Still, despite all these questions of how to run a workshop, I keep coming back to the workshop itself—which says a lot. I’m looking forward to workshopping away with my fellow poets. It looks like we have a good crew with Darren Jackson, Kierstyn Lamour, Michael Hudson, Rebecca Warren, and some newcomers to the program whom I excited to get to know: Jaron Birkan, Sean McDougle, Christian Gerard and Birkin Gilmore. 

PS This picture is from the fiction workshop last fall.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

"Adultery" by James Dickey

Yesterday I worked on poem titles, and the only good ones I could come up with were those by other poets. Here’s one of my favorite titles and first line combinations: “Adultery” by James Dickey. “We have all been in rooms / We cannot die in.…”

How can a poet not be envious of that beginning? I admire a lot in this poem, but what I especially admire is the fallible speaker. This first person speaker not only admits to having an affair, but revels in the guilt, in fact ends with “guilt is magical,” and plans to cheat again: “My lover, my dear one, / I will see you next week / When I'm in town.” As I have mentioned in my “Back in Amurika” blog, I’ve grown tired and outright suspicious of the holier-than-others poet persona. This persona adopts a posture similar to Rodin’s The Thinker and sits about until he can deliver up a bite-sized dollop of epiphany. Where’s the unreliable narrator? The arse? Are poets always so good and wise? Naw. Fiction knows how to explore the unreliable narrator. And the following poem is a great example of being brave enough to do so.


by James Dickey

We have all been in rooms

We cannot die in, and they are odd places, and sad.

Often Indians are standing eagle-armed on hills


In the sunrise open wide to the Great Spirit

Or gliding in canoes or cattle are browsing on the walls

Far away gazing down with the eyes of our children


Not far away or there are men driving

The last railspike, which has turned

Gold in their hands. Gigantic forepleasure lives


Among such scenes, and we are alone with it

At last. There is always some weeping

Between us and someone is always checking


A wrist watch by the bed to see how much

Longer we have left. Nothing can come

Of this nothing can come


Of us: of me with my grim techniques

Or you who have sealed your womb

With a ring of convulsive rubber:


Although we come together,

Nothing will come of us. But we would not give

It up, for death is beaten


By praying Indians by distant cows historical

Hammers by hazardous meetings that bridge

A continent. One could never die here


Never die never die

While crying. My lover, my dear one

I will see you next week


When I'm in town. I will call you

If I can. Please get hold of Please don't

Oh God, Please don't any more I can't bear... Listen:


We have done it again we are

Still living. Sit up and smile,

God bless you. Guilt is magical.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Mail Call

What does three months of mail look like? Three bloated, rapacious, blobbish creatures—otherwise known as three brown shopping bags. Ugh. I didn’t start at the top and work my way down, but began by pawing through the bags for literary journals that had arrived over the summer. And I found a couple of surprises. One, I had three poems published in a journal who didn’t ask for permission, so, uh, surprise. I’m just happy they weren’t accepted elsewhere, so no harm done. But also I was sent a copy of The Journal. I’d never heard of this publication from the Ohio State Graduate Programs, and I’m not sure why it came to me, but I was impressed with the poetry there. One of many solid poems in it is “Taxonomy”  by Bob Hicok. This poem is that rare combination of rawness and exactitude. Little example: the speaker shows his mother how “… a knife / heated on the stove made something / of a cactus on the inside of my mouth. / There’s a moment when one animal / recognizes another as its kind.”  I was also happy to see three of my poems in Prairie Schooner and found myself immediately envying the other poems in this summer edition such as the ones by Jehanne Dubrow, Richard Jackson, and Alicia Ostriker.  So, while the bags are still bulging about my dining room, at least I have some good reading in there.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Back in Amurika

After about three months of traveling around, I’m back in the States—or Amurika as my Auntie A calls it. I’m slowly re-entering to this pace and first stayed a week with my boyfriend and his family out in California—in Orange County no less. And, yup, I’ve punched my Big Mac Card, strolled about Fashion Island, and indulged in the beach, feeling rather Americany. And here’s the thing: I love it. When I saw a pet stroller, poppy-pink, I found myself disgusted and intrigued all at once and thought of these lines from Tony Hoagland’s poem “America:”  “…Each day you watch rivers of bright merchandise run past you / And you are floating in your pleasure boat upon this river / Even while others are drowning underneath you….”  You can say what you want about Hoagland’s poems, and I might agree with you, but I admire how Hoagland is willing to go there, “there” being where most academic poets are too goody-two-shoes to go. In “America” for example, the speaker divulges that he thinks his student is full of crap, reveals a dream about stabbing his father, and admits his hand might play a part in the materialistic dribble that’s our culture. That beats describing suburbia from that distance that keeps one’s hands as clean as the sanitizer on them.  While I have enjoyed some of those type of poems, I’m now reading so many of them that they seem too stock, too safe—too pre-packaged and ready-made.  That is barely okay when it comes to lunch, but in poetry where one cannot sell out—why not take more risks?


Link to “America” by Tony Hoagland from his book What Narcissism Means to Me:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Is a Song a Poem?

Carrie Brownstein recently posted a music blog on NPR about how songs rarely translate well to paper.  In other words, she's saying words aren’t quite enough; a song, unlike a poem, needs the musical accompaniment and singers to fully deliver it. Undoubtedly. These discussions over whether or not songs can be considered poems seem a bit squishy to me.  I should backtrack here and explain that I created and taught a class at Belmont University in Nashville called The Poetics of Song Lyrics. In that class, one of the first questions we discussed was about this issue: Is a song a poem? While they are linked genres for sure, I definitely see them as two genres. Songs have different audience expectations that—in commercial pop and country music at least—value clarity over obscurity, received form over open form, collective experience over private. Also, the musical instruments—which include the singers' voices—add a layer of emotional and intellectual connection that make a poet’s option of black type on white paper seem gimpy. What I found my students were often trying to argue was that songs were a high art—or could be—in the way that most poetry is considered high art. (And by the way, whoever is strutting around classifying this stuff into high and low is not on my high list.) These music lovers didn’t care for how poets tend to be regarded as Artists while songwriters are too often regarded as dribble-making machines with great make-up artists.


What I do find more interesting, however, than these genre/territory debates is to compare and contrast how poems and songs use the same techniques—such as rhyme or ballad form. I’ve been working on a collection of essays that delve into this exact issue and soliciting English professors and music reviewers alike to weigh in. One contributor, David Caplan, has an interesting essay coming out in Antioch Review that analyzes the history of rhyme and the way it has morphed in the hands of hip-hop artists. That’s the type of stuff that reveals the art in popular songs. 

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"There's a Hole in the Bucket"

The other night, I began singing to Adam, “There’s a hole in the bucket, Dear Liza, Dear Liza...." (Full-force twang on bucket, of course.) We started scrambling to remember how the song went and eventually pieced it together. You need straw to plug the hole, an axe to cut the straw, a stone to sharpen the axe, water to wet the stone—and alas—a bucket to carry the water for the stone. In the end, Liza and Henry are the model of the dysfunctional couple and accomplish zilch-o. These types of songs, infinite-loop motifs, are fun, but there’s something beyond silliness to this song. Adam said what he loved about the song is how you know that Liza and Henry waste their days in this type of talk, that this infinite-loop is who they are. Adam being a fiction writer, it’s no surprise he would say that character development is what differs this song from such grand works of art as let’s say “99 Bottles of Beer.” But I think he’s right. The song is a great example of when “form follows content.” Liza and Henry are themselves loops that never go anywhere. Now, here’s what I was wondering. As I was poking around about this form, I found that songs, stories, and art all use it. (For art, it’s M.C Escher; for stories, it’s “It was a Dark and Stormy Night.) I can’t think of this form being used in a poem although I’m sure someone out there will offer up some example. Still, the point is that the infinite-loop form is not used in poetry as often as it is in other genres, and that makes me ask: why not? Is it contemporary poetry’s aversion to predictability? To fun? Its preference for private versus collective voice? Open form over received form? Whatever the reason, dear Liza and Henry are still water-less and work-less.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

"The Lesson of Plenty"

Being in Malaysia, I can’t help but sniff around for Malaysian poetry. I’ve always loved the Malaysian pantoum—that slippery, muscular, eel-in-the-hands form that is as much about repetition as resistance to the repetition. I mean, even when a line is repeated, it takes on a slightly different meaning because of what has come before it (if it’s done well).  Admittedly, I’m at a disadvantage trying to find the pulse of Malaysian poetry since I don’t know Malay or Chinese, but I’ve been enjoying some poets who write in English. One poet, fairly well known in the States, is Shirley Lim. She has won the National Book Award for her memoir Among the White Moon Faces and awards for her poetry as well. I love this line from “Eating Fruit in California” about a foreign speaker’s encounters with fruit from the U.S.: “Still, I do not know how to shop/ 
For two, for one, cannot learn the lesson/ 
Of plenty.”  Yes, learning “the lesson of plenty” is one that I keep learning—and traveling is great to remind me of how little I actually need. And I always vow to keep that philosophy of needing less once I return. But one thing the U.S. does very well is creating that link between what one owns and who one is: identity and ownership. Again and again, I learn the lesson of plenty. Anyway, here is a poem by Shirley Lim:


Going East, 1848-1948

California is an old place for Chinese. 

In 1848 Guangdong fathers

Were already walking, and walking away 

From young women’s beds and mothers’ kitchens 

Toward the Eastern rollers. Endless motion 

Glittering like silver pieces and demons.

The cutting smell of bilge and their own piss.

Rice boiled any old how. Salted black beans 

For sixty days of slurping ocean,

Before land fall in San Francisco, January, 

Having left after October harvest.

No one had told them snow would cover

The Sierras where they’d look for gold ore,

That it would take wars and a century

For Guangdong fathers to become American.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Ashram of the White Album

I’ve been in India for the past two weeks—hence the lack of any postings. I’m not going to try to describe the experience in such a short amount of space, but I’ll just say that I’ve never had all of my senses and all of my thoughts so barraged. (Tsk, tsk: smelled like an attempt.) My friend Tiggy and I kept seeking out some quiet, so we went to Rishikesh. This is a town known for its yoga and ashrams—and The Beatles. It was here they wrote the White Album in this ashram a five-minute walk from where we stayed. (Rumor is Ringo and wife left citing that they missed their kids—and meat and alcohol. Interesting trinity.) The ashram is now empty and crumbling, but in some way that seemed appropriate. All we saw there were some cows—and this one black bird. I was shocked that this hasn’t morphed into a Come-Here-And-Write-Like-the-Beatles profit machine. As writers, we know that trying to follow someone else’s process doesn’t work. I’ve borrowed bits from others, but trying to recreate my own experiences—much less someone else’s—results in only staler versions of the first version.  Here's a link to "Blackbird:"

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Attention K-Mart Shoppers: Way to Avoid Fate is Available

I’m not saying anything unusual when I say that as a poet I harbor an unhealthy relationship with my mailbox. Right after my first cup of tea, “it” begins, and I start peeping about for Karen (my mail carrier who manages to wear the shorts into November). Since I receive my mail around 3, sometimes around 3:45, and once at 5:04, I have plenty of time to reel through all the places that might reject me, should reject me, and maybe won’t reject me. And we all know what this build-up results in: let down. Just a KFC flyer, newspaper clipping from my mother, and party invite for my dog. I shouldn’t be disappointed because this happens almost every day. In fact, it’s some mathematical, world-truth equation that goes like this:

The Mailbox=Rejections>Acceptances.

Well, I've discovered a way to avoid the fate of the box. Since I’m out of the country for the summer, my mother is opening all the mail. And here’s the beauty of it: she’s only telling me about the acceptances. For any Killjoy out there: I know the pile is mounting. But hush. In this moment, I’m happy to pretend otherwise. And I’m also happy to say that the good news keeps coming. The North American Review just accepted a new poem of mine. This is especially good news, not only because I respect what this journal publishes, but because I’ve been trying some new angles with my work. And it seems these riskier poems that I assumed only I would like are doing okay out there. So far this year I have about 25 poems coming out, and in some of my favorite journals like Tar River, Prairie Schooner, Denver Quarterly, and now North American. As long as I avoid coming home, and stay away from said box, all is well.

Friday, June 12, 2009

After Reading Sex at Noon Taxes

Since I’m backpacking for three months, I hem-hawed for weeks over what books I could bring. Answer: four pounds of them, nothing more. In the end, I decided on Lonely Planet, Lolita (that I can trade for another novel at a book exchange), a Victorian anthology since I’m taking an exam on this subject in September, and two gloriously slender poetry books from first time poets whom I had never read. Risky. Well, I just finished one of them, and it was a great choice. The poetry collection is Sex at Noon Taxes by Sally Van Doren who won the Walt Whitman Award in 2007. Since I’m putting together my first collection of poems now, I admire how well this book coheres. Sex at Noon Taxes is far from a jumble of “my favorite poems I was thrilled to have published” first book. A look at a few titles gives a sense of the flow: “Proposition” to “Preposition” to “Conjunction” and then to  “Pronoun/Punctuation.”  Word play, evocative images, and imaginative scenarios give this collection a voice that I find refreshing—and inspiring. Overall, these are piston-firing poems that get their power by generating associations for the reader and by creating surprise with the language. Sometimes, those types of poems can vanish from my mind right after I read them, the sensations too nebulous to have any sticking power. Admittedly, a few poems in this collection didn't read as anything more than witty word exercises. What makes a poem memorable to me is a combination of that intellectual play with some sort of emotional stake. And most of the poems do just that. “To Become World” (which I placed below) is an example of a poem that combines intellect, imagination, and emotional resonance. The title alone is intriguing, and the surreal, yet identifiable situation in this poem is one of many reasons why I’d recommend Van Doren’s work.


by Sally Van Doren

In the beginning the girl

told her story, although

each time her words fell

through her legs, a stain


wet her underpants. It was

uncomfortable, this

intimacy between her two

mouths, breeding her tongue’s


distaste for common speech.

With a pair of tweezers, she

plucked out every public hair


and affixed them to her chin.

She stroked her beard

when she spoke and listened.



Thursday, June 4, 2009

First Blog

Ahh, my first blog. A lot of mental hoop-la went into thinking about doing this, and now posting, it’s much more akin to a whimper than a bang. I’m getting started here, so bear with me as I manage and mangle my way through all this.

This summer, I’m writing as I travel throughout Malaysia. Sometimes traveling can result in zilch for writing. So far, this hasn’t been the case. As my boyfriend and I find a spot where we’d like to stay, we do, and just take a week or two to focus on work before heading out for a new town. We’re in week three of this trip and have now been beached ourselves almost this whole time on Kecil Island in Pulau Perentians. Small island, no roads, electricity only at night, internet scanty at best, I’m finding this place ideal to write. Other travelers here have asked if I travel to get inspired, thinking it’s the beauty of this place that gets me going. In all honesty, if I needed this much beauty to get inspired I’d be a pretty sorry writer. And what would I write anyway? “Oh lovely palm, oh white damsel fishy….”  I travel because it’s fun. And staying away this long removes so much that chews away at time. No news, no television, no internet surfing, no hot water, no laundry, no cooking, no dishes, no cleaning, no house, no dog, no friends, no family, etc. So, I’ve been writing a poem a day and finishing up some older poems. Marilyn Kallet and Art Smith first got me hooked on writing a poem a day. I do this for about two weeks, and then spend the next few months revising the ones that interest me the most. When the stash gets low, I start the process again. So far, I think I have some potential pieces. We’ll see. And not a fish in the bunch.