Look up the meaning of “go South,” and you will get two completely different sets of definitions. The first:
Nourish beginnings, let us nourish beginnings. Not all things are blest, but the seeds of all things are blest. The blessing is in the seed. ~Muriel Rukeyser
Half the residency week has already flown here at SAFTA. Surrounded by green and no sounds but chirping, braying, crowing and wind, I have had plenty of headspace for words to roam around, and I am pleased and a bit surprised by the amount of new work that has made its way to the page so far this week. Some is detritus – practice lines, throat-clearing, pen on paper. Some has promise – some good language, the kernel of an idea that is not fully formed. And a few – yes, a few – are those rare things that surprise even the writer, that come with a force and an organic form that seems to need little meddling. I am very excited about all the draft work, but those few especially. After they are put away for a while, read aloud, fine-tuned, I will be proud to start putting them out into the world. (I’m coming for you, Don Share! I have made a vow to make it into Poetry before I turn 60 – I’ve only got six years left…)
But how does that relate to the Rukeyser quote, you ask? (You may not have asked at all. You probably didn’t notice. But I’m going to tell you anyway.) Somewhere between marching up the hill to water the chickens and baking the goat mineral cookies, I realized that the poems I had grouped to possibly become a third manuscript were not speaking to each other well. I realized that the fifty poems I had gathered needed to be winnowed down substantially and reorganized, realized that I need to write into these emerging themes even more. And so, after a sunset march up the ridge with my residency roommate, this evening I ripped apart what I thought was a staunch and strapping seedling, stripping away at least twenty poems from the stem. I am back to sowing. And that’s okay.
Early Sunday morning (really early), Kristin LaTour and I are taking our show on the road. Well, we don’t really have a show. Perhaps we should plan a dance routine or something. Jazz hands? Grapevines and do-si-dos? Maybe not. But we’re taking our poems on the road and heading south to Sundress Academy for the Arts for a week-long residency at the Knoxville farm as well as taking a side trip to Nashville for a reading at East Side Story bookstore in collaboration with The Porch Writing Collective. And, in addition to the writing time and two readings, there are other bonus elements to this trip. A baby shower! Mom time for me with my son in Nashville! Chickens and goats and Jayne the donkey!
We both have writing tasks that we want to complete over the course of the week, and we are good working partners, knowing how to give each other space and how to support when the going gets tough. And it will get tough. Drafting new poems and organizing manuscripts can be mentally taxing, taking you down roads that aren’t on your internal GPS, leading you to places that may seem a little scary until you get acclimated. And that’s okay. Because road trips always come with a sense of the unknown. Getting there is half the fun, and driving those roads, both rural and neural, with one of my best friends will certainly be worth the ride.
School was finally out Wednesday, and having looked forward to time to read and write for the last several weeks, I am now enjoying the quiet solitude of days where I don’t have to speak to anyone (except for the dogs). I started the summer with fiction, something I don’t usually read during the school year. Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a poignant character study, full of pathos and math, and the story of Peter Heller’s The Painter lived up to one of the best openings I’ve read in a long time:
“I never imagined I would shoot a man. Or be a father. Or live so far from the sea.
As a child, you imagine your life sometimes, how it will be.
I never thought I would be a painter. That I might make a world and walk into it and forget myself. That art would be something I would not have any way of not doing.”
That last line. This is how I feel when the writing is going well, that I am in a world where I forget myself. And how writing has become something I cannot imagine “not doing.”
I have been reading poetry as well, re-reading Octavio Paz’s Piedra Del Sol (Sunstone) as well as lots of issues of journals I bookmarked during the busy days of April and May. I have also been following Emari DiGiorgio‘s poem-a-day for Tupelo Press – every draft has been a winner. Read for yourself as she blogs about each day’s draft.
Drafting. Although I don’t know how well I would react to a public commitment to writing a poem a day, I have drafted a poem each day since Wednesday. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), two of the poems have been responses to current news, not something I normally do. Suffice it to say that the news has made me think a lot about safety and ignorance – the poems are trying to make sense of that. If anything can.
Which leads us to the title of this post. Good advice from Wordsworth:
With an eye made quiet by the power of harmony, and the deep power of joy, we see into the life of things ~William Wordsworth
Finally sun here in the Midwest – real sun, hot sun – and a slight breeze that made for perfect outside reading weather. My choice for the day was to begin The Redress of Poetry, a book of lectures by the late Seamus Heaney. Since this is a signed copy (a lovely Mother’s Day gift from my husband), I was taking notes as I read.
Although I only read the introduction today, there was much to consider. Heaney spoke of what he called the frontier of writing,
“a line that divides the actual conditions of our daily lives from the imaginative representation of those conditions in literature and divides also the world of poetic language.”
In this respect, each poet is a pioneer of sorts – I like the idea of blazing a new trail every time I write a poem.
Another idea that made me smile, since I rarely draft from any sort of intellectual part of my brain:
“drafting should move from delight to wisdom and never the other way,” that a poem should begin with some “felicity of a cadence, chain reaction of rhyme, or pleasure of any etymology…”
But one of my favorite discoveries from this introductory essay was a quote from Våclav Havel about hope. Heaney shares this quote as a parallel definition of poetry:
“…a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of a situation…it transcends the world that is immediately experienced and is anchored somewhere beyond its horizons.”
Something to write for. Something to hope for.
Like most writers, I am enamored with the look and feel of print – the paper, the cover art, the font choices, the design. I read as many print journals as I can, and although I can’t afford to subscribe to all of them, once in a while, one stands out as really special. I must admit that I had never heard of White Stag until a fellow poet placed a poem of hers in the journal, and I decided to check it out. I was rewarded with heavy, glossy paper, a clean design aesthetic, a cover that gave careful attention to the theme of the issue…in short, all of the things I love about print materials. Not to mention that the carefully curated writing also impressed. Soon after, I was honored to have been a part of their Ars Poetica issue and immediately began anticipating reading what would come next.
The latest issue of White Stag is not only visually beautiful, it is full of poems that surprise. The theme of the issue (as well as its title) is Psychologia. As the editors explain, the issue sought writing that explores that “vast realities of the human psyche through chemical, traumatic, and physical effects on the brain, and through the phenomena of clairvoyance and dreaming.” Thus the issue unfolds a little like a dream, covering topics as diverse as vertigo, monsters, anorexia, memory, time, illness, and past lives. It begins with the evocative cover art by Belgian artists Mothmeister. Part fairy tale, part nightmare, the image evokes this dream world perfectly. The title page includes the stag logo of the journal, and then the endpapers repeat the stag in a mirror image, letting the reader know that disorientation is to be expected.
The issue opens and closes with prose poems by Jeffrey H. Maclachlan – we start with “Vertigo,” which captures the lack of control and terror that comes with the condition: “Falling and your brain grips its skull like a subway bar. Falling and there are no stops.”The penultimate poem in the issue is also Maclachlan’s. Titled “Television Test Patterns,” it outlines the effect of chronic pain on sleep – “My dreams were finally getting into make-out sessions, touchdown receptions, piano recitals. Now I only hear trains stopping. If I clamp my eyes tight enough, I can hear strollers hitting platforms with plastic thuds and subway rats pin balling between tracks.”
There are many standouts for me in this issue, including the spare, disconnected poems of Kelly Corinna, all titled “Dear Samantha” followed by a phrase that places us in time (Happy Valentine’s Day, September, December). They chronicle loss – of safety, of closeness, of life – ending with the haunting lines – “I was/one hundred pounds/then/I am less/now/it is/a combination of/magic and/poverty/see you soon/I hope”
Other favorites include both poems by Emari DiGiorgio. The first “When They Say You Have An Old Soul,” addresses the old soul living inside the body: “Does the old soul know the joy in coaxing/the deepest moan from body’s rusted cage?–/how strike is so close to stroke–the open/mouth of pleasure, the I’s prickly bayonet.” The second poem is a brutal, honest and chilling examination of the school shooting in Sandy Hook: “I want/to have kept my daughter home, permitted her pecan ice cream,/waffles–if I knew that breakfast was to be her last. I wish/that as soon as the gun was visible, she thought of feeding geese,/and when it was pointed at her, the trigger pop sent her straight/into sleep.”
So many of these poems dwell in dark and unfinished places, but they all carry images and bits of refracted light that show us a path through their damage. Overall, the editors have curated a fascinating collection that is well worth a read AND well worth holding in your hands.
You can purchase this issue (and others) of White Stag here:
When I was first starting to publish my work, a small press editor named Kendall A. Bell not only published my work in the online journal Chantarelle’s Notebook, but also released my second chapbook Ordering the Hours. Since Kendall has a new chapbook in the world, I wanted to spend some time reading his work and introducing it to you.
Into the Undertow by Kendall A. Bell – Indigent Press, 2016
Starting with a “desk chair that/ leans on the precipice/of a tumble,” Into the Undertow immediately welcomes the reader into a world that seems at the same time familiar and unsettling. The latest chapbook from Kendall A. Bell, poet and editor of Maverick Duck Press, titles its poems with the names of songs from sludge metal band Jucifer, and it purveys a sense of grinding through daily moments, never quite bright or clear.
The pull of the undertow is strong in these poems, the speaker seeming to swirl in a haze of menace. In “Amplifier, we are told “All I hear now is feedback,/a sour note. I cannot mute a nightmare.” In “Dissolver,” the speaker refuses a companion’s play in the snow, choosing instead to “hide from anything that shines too brightly.” On a day when more sleep beckons, the speaker decides to “peer out the door and watch the town spill at the seams. It is not soft…” As we read through the collection, the speaker moves us toward dreams of drowning in the poem called “Undertow,” dreams where the mere act of waking is a panic: “ Waking is paralysis, is continuation. The hands always haul me back below.”
There are also images in the collection that give the reader new phrasings for ordinary experiences: eyes that “flutter a Morse code of illness” in “Little Fever;” the comfort of a fleece blanket “a warming bastard” in “Lazing.” With this, the poet slides us easily into the world of these poems, puts us behind the counter with the clerks rejoicing at the downfall of a former employee, at the gym with a self-absorbed “queen bee,” being disappointed by the mundane girl with the exotic name.
But these are also intimate poems, offering glimpses into the moments that shimmer in the undertow. “When She Goes Out” gives us a portrait of an unnamed she including details that only time and closeness could know, the she laboring “over how her shirt hugs/her waist, calls herself a sausage.” However, my favorite poem in the chapbook is the deceptively simple “Firefly,” both a nature poem and a meditation on living in the undertow, in a place where one feels anonymous and unsettled:
I flash in the blades of grass
on a low float above the green
in this ongoing quest to be
noticed – to get one answer.
There are hundreds of us here
who crawled out after the deep
sleep and dried our wings in
the stiff breezes. In the dark,
we are a quiet fireworks display.
We are hungry. We are restless.
If you like your poems served straight with a chaser of attitude and a splash of dark realism, then Into the Undertow may be just what you’ve been looking for. You can find it here: