OPP #14: Sandy Longhorn

My first AWP in Chicago was an exciting one – it was my hometown, I was staying with my friend Rachel for her first AWP, and I had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Longhorn at the reading for the release of A Face to Meet the Faces. We had a great conversation while we waited for the reading to begin, and a virtual poetry friendship was born. I have been even luckier to be able to read Sandy’s work, which is full of landscape and lush language. This poem, originally appearing at Terrain, was one of the first poems by Sandy that I read:

Assets & Heirs

The map you left behind on your death
contains no borders and no names—

just topography that fades from dense
forest green to desert beige, the course

of rivers marked in thick, black lines
bending around the outcrops, the creeks

thin and faint. Loved ones gather
to annotate this web of mysteries.

Legendless and faced with unknown terrain,
they fumble figuring north from south.

Only the youngest knows where to draw
the skeletal tree to mark your grave,

where to dig for the singed remains
of the hummingbird moth you plucked

from the campfire flame, singing
Now, now, you’ve blazed enough for us

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I love the idea that you leave behind a map when you are gone, that only the most innocent realize that what’s important (the assets) are memories, especially the moments of wonder and wisdom that you shared. The sound echoes in the poem – dense/course, creeks/mysteries, terrain/grave/remains, plucked/us – give a sense of traditional couplets but break their two-line prisons without using exact rhymes. And the last line resonates beautifully with the theme of elegy and heirs.

Sandy’s newest book The Girlhood Book of Prairie Myths is on my must read attentively list for the first week out of school when I can give it the attention it deserves. (I have dipped in and out of it the past few weeks, and it is bursting with the mysteries and magic of the land.) She blogs at Myself the Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty.

If you want to write:

1. Use Sandy’s first line as a Mad Lib of sorts: ” The _________ you left behind on you death contains no ______________and no _________________.” Use that line as the first line of your poem.

2. Write about the things that only the youngest know.

OPP #13: Traci Brimhall

Traci Brimhall’s poems take the reader to places both jarring and comforting in their familiarity. Her books The Rookery and Our Lady of the Ruins are in heavy rotation in my re-read pile for their striking imagery, their haunting tone, and their proclamations of things I think I should have known long before I read her lines.

The Rookery holds a series of aubades, which I adore, so I will share one of them here.

Aubade with a Broken Neck

The first night you don’t come home
summer rains shake the clematis.
I bury the dead moth I found in our bed,
scratch up a rutabaga and eat it rough
with dirt. The dog finds me and presents
between his gentle teeth a twitching
nightjar. In her panic, she sings
in his mouth. He gives me her pain
like a gift, and I take it. I hear
the cries of her young, greedy with need,
expecting her return, but I don’t let her go
until I get into the house. I read
the auspices the way she flutters against
the wallpaper’s moldy roses means
all can be lost. How she skims the ceiling
means a storm approaches. You should see
her in the beginnings of her fear, rushing
at the starless window, her body a dart,
her body the arrow of longing, aimed,
as all desperate things are, to crash
not into the object of desire,
but into the darkness behind it.

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Oh, that ending. That the object of desire is not the object but the losing oneself. And the images that evoke the senses usually not addressed in a poem – the reader can taste the rutabaga still dusted with dirt, feel the still papery wings of the moth, the frightened trembling of the nightjar. I even love the choice of bird – nightjar – a thing that holds the dark.

Please do yourself a favor and read more of Traci’s work. You can find several links to online poems at her website.

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If you want to write:

1. Try writing an aubade or a serenade with a body part. An aubade is a morning love song, as opposed to a serenade, which is in the evening, or a song or poem about lovers separating at dawn.

2. Write a poem that contains two animals, a vegetable, and an insect.

OPP #12: Melissa Stein

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Melissa Stein’s Rough Honey is one of my favorite poetry books of the past few years. I re-read it often (including today during a gray, rainy morning), and I have written about her poems here before, using her poem “Robber girl” as a prompt. I am sharing another of my favorites here today.

Olives, Bread, Honey, and Salt

The lanes are littered with the bodies of bees.
A torrent took them, swarming in branches
just as the white buds loosened their hearts
of pale yellow powder. Each body is a lover:
the one with skin blank as pages; the one
so moved by the pulse ticking in your throat;
the one who took your lips in his teeth
and wouldn’t let go; the one who turned
from you and lay there like a carcass. If we were
made to be whole, we wouldn’t be so lost
to each offering of tenderness and a story.
Therefore our greatest longing is our home.
There is always the one bee that circles and circles,
twitching its sodden wings.

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I love this 14-line structure, the busted up sonnet. The repeated sounds that begin right out of the gate – lanes/littered, bodies/bees/branches, torrent/took, pale/powder. I could go on. And the list of lovers – so specific and bittersweet. And my favorite line? “If we were/made to be whole, we wouldn’t be so lost/to each offering of tenderness and a story.”

If you want to read more of Melissa’s work, visit her website here. And by all means, if you’re buying books this poetry month, pick up Rough Honey. You won’t be disappointed. (Powell’s Bookstore has a 15% discount on all poetry titles in April…)

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If you want to write:

1. Begin and end a poem with bees. Put at least one lover in between.

2. Choose one line of Melissa’s poem and write it down the left margin, one word at a time. Use those words as starting words for your own lines.

It’s the Big Poetry Giveaway – Again!

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It’s that time of year again! With April comes National Poetry Month and the Big Poetry Giveaway.

This tradition, now in its fifth year, encourages poets and readers in the blogosphere to share their own work and the work of other poets by allowing readers to sign up in the comment section throughout the month of April and randomly choosing a winner at the end of the month. Head over to Kelli Agodon’s blog for more info on how this great event got started (and to sign up for the chance to win her wonderful book The Hourglass Museum.)

Here at Put Words Together; Meaning, I will be giving away a copy of my book A House of Many Windows (2013, Sundress Publications). If you have ever lost faith in what you thought were certainties, if you have ever felt betrayed by your own body, and if you are a mother or have a mother, you may find yourself in this book. I am so proud of it.

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My second giveaway book will be a copy of Necropolis by Jill Alexander Essbaum, a remarkable book of elegy that uses Biblical epigraphs and beliefs to wrestle with the complexity of emotions that accompany death. download

 

I know, I know, they both sound heavy. But believe me – even the darkest of subjects can hold a lyrical beauty in its boundaries. So leave a comment below if you want to be entered for the drawing – I will number you in order of response – and click on the link to Kelli’s blog above if you are interested in participating. Happy Poetry Month!

OPP #11: Franki Elliot

Piano Rats Front Cover Curbside Splendor in Chicago makes lovely books – they look good and what’s inside is even better. At AWP this year, I picked up Franki Elliot’s collection Piano Rats. (Franki Elliot is the pen name of Chicago writer Sharyn Goldyn.) These poems are each their own small universe, populated with people and places that we all seem to know, yet are at the same time completely unique. The title poem in the collection is one of my favorites:

Piano Rats

Linguists have pointed out that the Hopi have no word, no

phonetic sound, no grammatical form whatsoever for what

we call Time.

And he told me rats live in the piano. I can’t think of

anything sadder than rats living in a piano.

And my grandfather, he used to garden, play drums,

smoke cigars, but now he can barely open a letter.

He sits quietly, hearing lost, so we can never be sure

what he’s really thinking.

And that violinist on the steps of the art museum said that

this all goes back to Constantine and the gypsies, they each

had one page of the bible that they hid in their chests.

And the other day a woman called and said, “I have to

cancel my appointment. My husband, he has cancer.”

And the Bubonic Plague, oddly enough, started with rodents,

and fleas. Something so small (something hidden in a rotting

piano) and suddenly, you’ve got 75 million people dead.

And every morning in the shower I say to myself, everything

is going to work out. It is because it has to.

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I’m a sucker for poems that make leaps I can follow, and a double sucker for poems that can do this with attention to detail. The leap from the call about cancer to the line “something so small (something hidden in a rotting/piano)” is heartbreaking. The poem, filled with the quirks and conspiracies of people who populate the speaker’s life, ends with an unexpected affirmation. Despite all of the differences, the sadnesses, the failures, and the conflicts, there is the morning shower. There is the faith that everything will work out. And isn’t that all most of us have?

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To read more: Kiss As Many Women As You Can – typewriter poems in perforated postcard format

Her Tumblr: http://frankielliottypewriter.tumblr.com/

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If you want to write:

1. Choose a small living thing and place it inside a musical instrument. See where it goes.

2. Choose two professions, a family member, and a person of indeterminate relationship (as in the linguist, the violinist, the grandfather, and the woman) and try to link things they told you.

OPP #10: Jake Adam York

There are some people you meet briefly that, if you had had the chance, you know you would have liked to know them better. Three years ago in Chicago, I had the pleasure of briefly meeting poet Jake Adam York after a panel at Chicago’s last AWP, and warmth seemed to radiate from him. It was a shock to hear not long afterwards that he had unexpectedly passed away at the age of 40. I know that he had many friends in the poetry community, but I know him only through his work. His newest collection Abide was one of the first purchases I made at AWP this year.

I share here his poem “Abide,” first published in Memorious:

Forgive me if I forget

with the birdsong and the day’s

last glow folding into the hands

of the trees, forgive me the few

syllables of the autumn crickets,

the year’s last firefly winking

like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds,

if I forget the hour, if I forget

the day as the evening star

pours out its whiskey over the gravel

and asphalt I’ve walked

for years alone, if I startle

when you put your hand in mine,

if I wonder how long your light

has taken to reach me here.

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Sigh. This poem is so tender, I actually sigh when I read it. What is most masterful about this piece is the way it uses its form (the extended sentence) to lead the reader to a revelation that seems perfectly genuine and natural, just like the voice of the speaker. The seemingly simple images are well-rendered – “winking like a penny in the shoulder’s weeds” and the evening “pouring out its whiskey over the gravel” – and every word bears weight.

This is no apology for eating plums from the icebox – this is an apology for being so lost in the temple of the world that not enough attention is paid to the miracle of being loved.

Please pick up any of Jake Adam York’s books:

Abide 

Persons Unknown

Murder Ballads

A Murmuration of Starlings

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If you want to write:

1. Write a one that is one long sentence that starts with a form of address (forgive me, excuse me, tell me) and doesn’t reveal who is being addressed and why until the last few lines.

2. Write a poem where you personify trees, crickets, fireflies, and the evening star.

Writing Process Blog Tour: In Which I Try to Explain the Inexplicable

I have been trying to post more often, but often don’t feel I have anything worth sharing. Then along comes Joseph Harker to tag me in this writing process blog tour wherein each tagged poet answers some questions about his/her writing process, and then tags two more. Joseph blogs at the link above, (where he writes complex and brain-twisting prompts in his “recursions” section) and he is starting a new journal, The CSHS Quarterly, that is currently readying its first issue. This blog tour links to several other poets – follow back through the links starting with Joseph’s above to read the answers of fine writers such as Lesley Wheeler, Jeannine Hall Gailey,Kelli Russell Agodon and Sandy Longhorn, to name a few. I still don’t know if any of my answers will be worthwhile, but they were interesting to consider and much harder to answer than I thought.

What am I working on? 

Way too many things. Seriously, I’m in over my head a little at the moment. I am addresing final revisions of a sixth chapbook manuscript based on the myths surrounding the Amazon pink dolphin, I have decided on an initial set of poems for a second manuscript (which needs quite a bit of work), and I am delving into drafts for two other sets of poems, one based on the names of monastic prayers and the other on items from The British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. I also am running a new feature on my blog once a week called OPP, which celebrates other people’s poetry, especially poets that I perhaps have missed or that others may not know much about. Oh, and I’m into the worst part of my teaching year with middle schoolers – two weeks before Spring Break.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

That is nearly an impossible question to answer. As a genre, poetry is so diverse in style and purpose that every poem is different from another poem. Even my own poems are different from year to year or series to series. I hope that my poems are well-crafted and well-realized enough to resonate with readers. I don’t tend to write one type of poem – some are narrative, some lyrics, some prosey, some even a little “experimental.” I would not label myself a political writer or a nature writer or a formal poet, but elements of all of these can show themselves in my work. If I had to pick one quality that is consistent in my work, it would probably be attention to sound-maybe that makes my work different from others? Hard to say.

Why do I write what I do?

In terms of genre, I am drawn to the compact and intense nature of poems, the fact that a poem is its own self-contained universe with galaxies in every line.  Although I have also written short stories, I have trouble maintaining interest in anything longer. If I consider why I write about the topics or issues I choose, I wish I knew. I’m sure I have been influenced by my reading, but there aren’t any particular influences I can point to. (I actually find it fascinating that two different people have referenced Millay when talking about my poems since, up until last year, I had very little exposure to her work other than the “The Harp Weaver” and whatever I read in college lit class.)

Many times, I become a little obsessed with an idea and write about one thing for a long time. (For instance, the chapbook manuscript about Amazon pink dolphins was sparked by viewing a Michael Palin travel special about Brazil, which reminded me that I had learned about the dolphins when visiting the Amazon thirteen years ago.) Sometimes it is simply a piece of language or an image that sticks in my head until I free write to develop a scenario or a speaker that intrigues me. Mostly, I write because I feel compelled to do so, to both wonder at and demystify the world around me and how humans navigate its strangeness.

How does your writing process work?

It depends. (I know, that’s a cheater answer, but it’s true.) I certainly don’t need a café, or cup of tea/coffee, or any type of particular setting. I actually don’t like to write in cafés or coffee shops – too distracting. I like natural light, but I also write at night. I can write just about anywhere, although I certainly prefer to be comfortable. Actually, now that I said that, I will clarify that I like to be comfortable to draft. I usually do my best revision work, however, at a table or a desk, somewhere that makes me sit up and pay attention.

I do usually write at night, especially during the school year. Since I’m up and out before 7 AM every day and usually home around 4:30, by the time I work out, have dinner and complete any chores or work tasks that need attention, any drafting time would be on the couch with my husband while we relax and watch TV. I have a skill that annoys my husband and son, which is to be in the room and seemingly present with them yet completely engaged in what I am doing to the point where I barely know they are there. When I am away at a conference or residency, I often write very late, into the wee hours of the morning when the mind is free. I don’t have the luxury of doing that ten months out of the year, however.

As I said above, I often free write based on an image or piece of language and see what happens. Sometimes I use source material (like the British Museum book mentioned above) as a way in, and sometimes I use prompts. However I begin, I am a fairly fast first drafter, not worrying too much about where things are headed. I just follow a train of thought and see where it goes. It is very rare that I sit down to specifically write a poem about a certain topic.

I usually put first drafts away for a day or two, and then I go back to mine anything that seems worth saving. I know that seems like a short time period compared to what other writers do. But I get too excited about a promising draft to let it linger for longer than that without a second look. It’s almost like, if I leave it sit too long, all the first-draft-magic will drain out, and it will become just another random bit of scribbling. And I have enough of those already, thank you.

Then the fun begins – I love to revise. Changing line breaks, experimenting with diction and sound, chopping out the throat-clearing and the extraneous adjectives – revision is my favorite part of writing. I try not to hyper-analyze a revision, though. When the poem has settled into a form and syntax that pleases me, I am willing to send it into the world and see what happens. I don’t seek perfection, because it doesn’t exist. At least, not out of my pen.

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Next week, watch for posts by these two talented poets as the Writing Process Blog Tour continues:

Ruth Foley lives in Massachusetts, where she teaches English for Wheaton College. Her recent work is appearing or forthcoming in Adanna, The Bellingham Review, Yemassee, and Weave, among others, and her chapbook Dear Turquoise was recently released from Dancing Girl Press. She serves as Managing Editor for Cider Press Review.

Carol Berg’s poems are forthcoming or in Pebble Lake ReviewFifth Wednesday JournalqarrtsiluniThe Bakery, Spillway, and in the anthology A Face To Meet the Faces. Her chapbook, Ophelia Unraveling is available from Dancing Girl Press, and two other chapbooks, The Ornithologist Poems (Dancing Girl Press) and Her Vena Amoris (Red Bird Chapbooks) are also available.